Cherry Adair has garnered numerous awards for her innovative action-adventure novels, which include White Heat, Hot Ice, On Thin Ice, Out of Sight, In Too Deep, Hide and Seek, and Kiss and Tell, as well as her thrilling Edge trilogy: Edge of Danger, Edge of Fear, and Edge of Darkness, and her bestselling Lodestone series. A favorite of reviewers and fans alike, she lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Afterglowby Cherry Adair
New York Times bestselling author Cherry Adair delivers the next book in her latest paranormal romance series following Hush.
New York Times bestselling author Cherry Adair is back with the next book in her latest paranormal romance series featuring the men and women of Lodestone. They can retrieve anything, anyone,/i>/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
New York Times bestselling author Cherry Adair delivers the next book in her latest paranormal romance series following Hush.
New York Times bestselling author Cherry Adair is back with the next book in her latest paranormal romance series featuring the men and women of Lodestone. They can retrieve anything, anyone, anywhere....
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Rand Maguire could just see the headline now: XXX WEDDING HOLLYWOOD STARS BARE ALL!
One leak, one Tweet, one goddamned Facebook picture, and a hundred lives would be affected in ways no one could predict. The wedding had been, literally, a clusterfuck of gigantic proportions.
As security specialist to the stars, Rand’s job was to protect the celebrity guests from danger while they attended the destination nuptials of Tinseltown’s hottest young couple.
Possible hazards? Paparazzi, stalkers, ex-lovers, kidnappers. Hell, possibilities were varied and endless.
Not on the damned list of potential threats?
It was barely six the morning following the reception, and forty-plus of the major players—bride, groom, immediate family—gathered in the Presidential Suite of the Monte Carlo hotel, looking to Rand for answers. Why the hell wouldn’t they? However one looked at it, Maguire Security was responsible for the debacle. It was Rand’s ass on the line.
The only thing he and his men had figured out in the hours since the reception was that the drug had been added to the toasting champagne. Which meant all the guests had drunk at least a few sips. Within minutes all hell broke loose as everyone lost their inhibitions in a spectacular display of unbridled lust.
Clothes were ripped open or completely off as couples screwed where they stood, lay, or sprawled on a table or chair. The sophisticated formal wedding became a sexual free-for-all. A porn-movie orgy come to life.
Rand hadn’t had enough manpower to pull everyone, humping like dogs in heat, apart. Even when his crew tried, they were fought off as if the participants had to fuck or die. Whatever the hell the drug was, he’d never seen anything like it.
It had been a hellacious and exhausting couple of hours before he and his men managed to wrangle the hundred guests to their suites and lock them in for their own safety.
It was fortunate the wedding and reception took place on this floor for security reasons. Damned fortunate that it had been contained and not in the gardens as the bride had wanted.
Working with hotel management, he had the outside phone lines blocked, called in a team of doctors to minister to the guests, and started a full-scale investigation into the why and how of it. The local authorities were going to have to be called in, he knew. But for now, he had a couple of hours, tops, to figure this out.
He paused beside one of the ornate stone pillars, his back to the breathtaking, million-dollar view of the Mediterranean beyond the closed French doors. All the better to survey the bickering mass of celebrities and elite as they debated whether to lynch him now or save the ass kicking for later when the rest of the wedding guests showed up.
“… absolutely couldn’t control myself …”
“Favorite dress …”
The guests, gathered in small, feral knots, looked no further for a scapegoat than the man paid to protect them.
Glamorous actresses had skipped hair and makeup to put in their two cents before the other guests woke up and demanded his attention. Most, still feeling the sting of embarrassment, wouldn’t meet his eyes, and those who did make eye contact didn’t hold back the anger. Or fear.
The simmering tones in the suite threatened to boil over as Rand waited for everyone to find a seat. He’d better resolve this clusterfuck fast. If it became known that Maguire Security allowed something like this to take place on its watch, he’d lose every top-tier client he’d spent years cultivating.
He prowled the edges of the spacious suite, its Louis XIV furniture and 18-karat gilding gleaming in the sunlight streaming through the windows. He felt the weight and heat of a dozen pairs of eyes tracking his progress. Like a shark, he kept moving, eavesdropping on the conversations around him as he spoke quietly into his lip mic as his teams reported in.
“Anything?” he asked Walters, who was situated in the hotel security room. Like the rest of them, he and his splinter team had been at it all night, going through the hotel security videos from the previous evening. None of them had taken a break, let alone slept.
“Nothing solid yet,” Walters admitted, sounding as frustrated as Rand felt.
“Stratham and Rebik are following a lead—one of the waiters who, some-fucking-how, managed to get out before we locked everyone in,” Rand informed him as he prowled. “So far, that’s our best bet. Let’s hope to hell that pans out. Everyone else is accounted for.”
He headed for the buffet. The private chef had loaded the table with fruit, pastries, juices, and large pots of coffee. Clean. A day late and a dollar short, but Rand checked anyway. Not that it mattered now. The damage was done.
The cold clench in his gut had been there all night. Disaster brewing, escalating tempers threatening to erupt, and still no goddamned answers. “The natives are getting restless,” he said quietly into the mic as he scanned the restless group. “Find me something before it gets any uglier.”
“Will do, boss.”
Rand poured hot, fragrant coffee from a giant silver urn into a fragile-looking cup that barely held two swallows. He drank and filled it again, observing the milling guests behind him in the mirror over the buffet. Exhausted. Embarrassed. Pissed.
How in the hell had anyone gotten past his men to compromise security in such a spectacular way? Jesus. Compromised was an understatement. In this case, that was just a fucking euphemism for catastrophe.
Rand had achieved a certain amount of fame for his stunt work in the film industry before branching out into the security business four years ago. More balls than brains, some said. But they were wrong. He was always three steps ahead of the stunt. Yeah, he’d taken some ballsy risks, par for the course, but they were calculated risks. Back then he placed his own life on the line daily with barely a qualm. Now he was responsible for the security and well-being of clients who paid him shitloads of money to make sure they remained safe.
He’d fucked up.
He’d landed this job because his security company was one of the best. He knew the business, and he knew the players. He understood the need for safety, combined with the desire for privacy, important to celebrities, and difficult to provide. He knew how they ticked. And the current situation was a public relations nightmare for any actor, other than a porn star.
He had a lid on outside contact, so the press hadn’t got wind of what happened. Yet.
Early-morning sunlight spilled across the creamy marble floors and glinted off gilded picture frames, ancient tapestries, and plush, stylish furniture. The smell of stale perfume mixed with the heavy scent of hundreds of white hothouse roses in three-foot-high Carrara marble urns was stifling even with the air-conditioning on.
Rand was sorely tempted to fling open the doors and windows, just to get some decent air. Not that he would. All this situation needed was someone with a zoom lens or a directional mic. He had to keep a lid on Pandora’s box for as long as possible.
Walters’s voice buzzed in his ear. “Still nothing. Tover wants to know if they should come back to the hotel and help herd cats.”
“No.” Rand kept his voice low, his gaze moving around the room so he could keep track of all the players. “Cole should be back from the airport anytime now. Keep looking. One of those damn devices must’ve caught something.” He put the empty cup on one of the small tables, hoping his personal assistant was bringing more than reinforcements—what he needed was a fucking miracle.
Damn it to hell. His men were well trained and hypervigilant. How had they missed this? How had no one seen a damn thing until it was too late?
Walters rang off just as Ligg, another member of Rand’s security team, beeped in on the other line. Every team, every fifteen minutes. For all the good it was doing. Ron Ligg, with his four, had taken point on the audiovisual in Rand’s suite down the hall, a few doors away from the Presidential Suite where the reception had been held.
Armed with high-speed computers, they were going through all the data from every phone, camera, and video device confiscated from the guests the night before.
All of whom had meltdowns when told to give up their phones. His men had ultimately convinced them all that it was the only way to keep the all-too-damning evidence off the Web. Rand prayed he’d been in time. A picture was worth a thousand lawsuits… .
And just might offer a clue. “Anything useful?”
Ligg’s team was looking at every bit of footage, every image, taken between six yesterday evening, when the wedding ceremony started, and about eight, which was when all hell started breaking loose at the reception. Anything captured after the toasts at about eight fifteen would be completely useless.
Unless, Rand thought grimly, it had been filmed with blackmail in mind. Then someone was sitting on a gold mine.
“Keep looking. Record what we need and be sure you wipe the devices. Everyone gets their gear back clean.” Gut tight, Rand disconnected. He wasn’t taking any chances. He caught a brief glimpse of long red hair among the blondes and brunettes across the crowded room and felt a visceral, unwelcome clutch in his chest.
A moment later the illusion was gone, and he breathed more easily. It had been a trick of the light, a figment of his overtired imagination. He thought he’d gotten over reacting that way every time he saw a woman with that distinctive shade of red hair—but apparently not. He had more serious issues than revisiting a ghost from his past.
A dozen conversations were going on around him as he circled the room to gain a vantage point, preferably far from sharp objects and projectiles. As he moved, he felt the weight of collective gazes on his back, as if the guests were sighting collectively down a rifle scope.
“… but God help me, I was willing. More than willing!”
The back of his neck prickled—a sure sign of danger—as he passed the bride and groom sitting together on a sofa. The only danger left in this room was the fallout and repercussions from what transpired the night before. But he trusted that itch.
The danger was real and present, and while maintaining a calm faÇade, inside Rand was coiled and braced for the attack.
He saw his assistant, Cole Phelps, by the suite door. Ex-military, Phelps had ears that stuck out from his short sandy-blond hair, typical jarhead style. His square jaw and even brown eyes tended to project reliability—exactly what Maguire Security needed. At a fairly tame five eight, athletic rather than bulky, his physique wasn’t what made him a good security specialist. The man had a head for details—facts, plans, organization. He was Rand’s right-hand man.
Cole was caught in conversation with the redhead. Rand was certain there hadn’t been a ginger at the wedding. He’d remember. He had a strong aversion to them. The woman’s back was to him, yet every hair follicle on his body felt electrified, even though he knew she wasn’t who his body thought she was.
“Mortified!” He identified that shrill voice as belonging to one of the blond, heroin-chic bridesmaids. The well-preserved middle-aged woman she was talking to was related to the groom. Aunt, Rand remembered. She agreed wholeheartedly, “Outraged!”
The room was large enough to hold a hundred wedding guests, but with everyone agitated, vocal, and moving about, it seemed overly crowded with less than half that number this morning. Cole and the redhead wove their way through the masses, making their way along the back wall out of the traffic flow. It took willpower for Rand to pull his gaze from the unidentified woman.
Hotel security? Another doctor coming to check on the wedding party? He had no idea who she was, other than a distraction he couldn’t afford. It wouldn’t be so distracting if he could get a glimpse of the woman’s face to assure himself she wasn’t who he thought she was.
“My mother …”
“Not my fault, baby, I swear. Your sister …”
“… get tested, what if someone had …”
Rand lifted his head, his gaze skimming over the complainants and, like a filing to a magnet, back to the redhead just as she turned.
Ice-green eyes met his straight on.
Dr. Dakota North.
Impossible. Improbable. Incontrovertible.
It was that coppery hair that attracted him three years ago. But it was those pale eyes that had drawn an unsuspecting man like a moth to a flame. Windows to her soul, he’d thought back then. Cool, clear, and as refreshing as looking into a quiet pond. He remembered thinking her skin appeared luminous as if backlit. Glowing and silky smooth—
Seeing her here made something inside him go still—the quiet before the storm. Then he felt the impact of those familiar peridot-colored eyes like a physical blow to his solar plexus. A bomb of suppressed emotions exploded in his chest and splintered through him like shrapnel.
Bitch had cojones, showing up here. Now.
Rand kept his expression impassive, keeping a tight rein on his self-control so he didn’t betray even a flicker of what he was feeling. Too bad that self-control didn’t extend to his thoughts. He maintained eye contact for several more beats, giving her a cold look of inquiry.
Her chin lifted a fuck-you-right-back fraction of an inch.
Looking effortlessly hip in a simple white T-shirt tucked into dark jeans, completed with a black blazer fitted to her narrow waist, Dakota was thinner than the last time he’d seen her, her cheeks a little more refined.
Still so beautiful she made his mouth go dry.
He cleared his throat, tightening his resolve along with his jaw. He had no idea what the hell she was doing here or where she’d come from, but she could crawl right back.
She’d tied a mile of glossy red hair up in a just-got-out-of-bed untidy ponytail that hung over one shoulder and curled around her left breast before spilling like magma halfway to her waist. It was much longer than when he … they … than when he’d seen her last, but the color was seared into his memory. Fragrant living fire. Cool and impossibly silky to the touch.
In spite of, or hell, because of the situation, Rand instantly imagined all that wild red hair spread over her creamy naked body. Spread over his naked body. Even though he hadn’t drunk the mickeyed champagne, watching nothing but sex for hours straight left an imprint on his brain.
His body remembered hers. The taste. The texture. The heat. It all came rushing back in an unwelcome surge of muscle memory. His skin felt too tight, and he was annoyed to find his heartbeat doing calisthenics.
What kind of sick joke had put Dr. Dakota North and an aphrodisiac in the same geographical location? Someone up there must be laughing his ass off.
Rand glanced away. What was she doing here, halfway across the world from Seattle, anyway? Because having Dakota just show up out of the fucking blue was not only annoying as hell, it was a stretch.
Cole had gone to the airport to pick up Zak Stark’s handpicked Lodestone agent, and this was who he’d brought back? Even though Dakota was a chemist and could probably give him some insight as to what the drug might’ve been, she was a problem Rand didn’t want. They were done. Had been for two years. He wanted nothing to do with her. Not then, not now, not fucking ever again. She’d destroyed his family.
And nearly destroyed what was left of him.
He met his assistant’s gaze, telegraphing his feelings without a filter. Cole’s ass was grass for bringing her here.
He must’ve bumped into her at the airport, or—hell, Rand had no idea why she was standing there as if she had a gold-plated fucking invitation to stay.
Where was the Lodestone agent? Zak had assured him he was sending his best man for the job. Rand needed the guy now. Judging by the raised voices around him, he couldn’t wait any longer. They were edging toward hysteria, and it was time to take control.
Dakota’s shoulders stiffened as she started picking up and comprehending snippets of conversation.
“… make the Kardashian tapes look tame.”
They each had an embarrassing story, each more horrific and humiliating than the last, and everyone in the room started talking louder, determined to be heard. It was definitely time.
“Quiet!” Yelling “cut” might be more effective. Still, the decibel level dropped as Rand snagged their attention. “Take a seat and calm down. You all had a bad experience, but trying to top one another is counterproductive.” He paused. “Yes. You’ll be getting your phones and cameras back. I’d like to remind you that you all signed nondisclosure agreements, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep this situation out of the press. Let’s see what we know and go from there. One at a time.”
Everyone talked at once.
“Enough!” His volume barely changed, but this time the group shut the hell up as everyone swiveled to face him. Their expressions ranged from fury to humiliation to fear. If looks could kill, he’d be stone dead.
And this was eleven hours after the incident.
“Arguing and pointing fingers isn’t going to help us find the culprit.” Rand kept his voice low and even. “My team has already spoken with each of you once, and we’re going to go through it again now, one story at a time. You might not realize that you saw something that might help us with the investigation. Please be patient and wait for my assistant, Cole, over there.”
Cole raised his hand.
“He’ll come to you. Refreshments have been set up to make the wait easier. Thank you for your patience and assistance.
“And no, Creed,” he added as the award-winning director and godfather to the bride opened his mouth to speak, “we still don’t know if a wedding guest was responsible.” Rand’s people had grilled all of them like cheese sandwiches. And since no one had been allowed to leave the floor, the culprit was still there. They just had to figure out who that was, and/or wait for a blackmail demand.
“Then obviously it was one of the hires.” Seth Creed’s voice was tight and level. Rand started out as a stuntman, working his way up to stunt coordinator for the director. Creed was a lifelong friend of Rand’s father. Rand was pretty sure they weren’t gay, but they had an interesting relationship that was hard to define. One thing for sure, Rand liked Seth Creed a hell of a lot more than he did his father.
The director had guided his career from the start. Rand owed him a lot. Seth’s stamp of approval on his security company had garnered clients before Rand earned them on his own. It pissed him off that this was the way he was repaying his friend for standing by him for years.
He’d always admired the director’s even temperament. Creed didn’t get flustered, never yelled or threw temper tantrums. His calm tones tended to keep people on his sets on an even keel, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t pissed as hell right now. His fair skin was flushed all the way to his receding hairline. His narrowed eyes warned that when he lost it, it was going to be extremely unpleasant for everyone.
“One of your security people—” Rand raised a brow, and the director subsided on the brocade settee, his expression grim, his eyes telegraphing his frustration. Unlike the others, he’d obviously taken the time to shower, and was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved, crisply starched blue cotton shirt, buttoned to the throat. “Or one of the waitstaff,” Creed finished. “You haven’t found anything new?”
“I would have told you.”
“It bears repeating,” Brett Sing, royal pain in the ass and stepfather of the groom, stated flatly as he joined them, his voice rising as he cast an unfocused look around the room. He smelled strongly of sweat and booze. He was still wearing his tux pants and jacket, but somewhere along the way had lost his shirt. “Maguire’s shecurity screwed up. Bottom line—he’sh responsible for this deviant getting in here in the first fucking plashe!” Again—or still—inebriated, he shot out a hand to brace himself as he listed to one side, sending a plate of croissants to the floor.
Rand bet the man would drink until he drowned out the memory of fucking his stepson’s best man on the dais in full view of his family. “And I’m not saying any different,” Rand said, keeping his fingers in the front pockets of his black dress pants in a deceptively calm posture. “Despite the fact that everyone here was run through a background check—twice—I take full responsibility for what happened.” His gaze flickered to Dakota in the back of the room.
Her eyes narrowed as she too studied the room’s occupants. He wondered what she was making of it all, then reminded himself he’d stopped giving a shit what she thought two years ago.
It wasn’t nearly long enough.
With her expertise, she’d probably be of some assistance, he acknowledged. But given her track record, he didn’t trust her. When the chips were down, self-preservation was the name of her game. He looked away and returned to the matter at hand. He and his people had done an exemplary job checking every aspect of the security for this gig. Including, Rand thought as he stared at Creed and the others, the entire guest list, the waitstaff, and his own security people. None of them had been exempt from intense scrutiny. The only person he trusted one hundred percent was himself. Everyone else was subject to suspicion.
Some, he thought darkly, not glancing at Dakota, more than others. “We have a strong lead,” he briskly told the group. “We’re going over every dotted i and crossed t. Again. I assure you, we will find the person or persons responsible and they’ll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Before they were all blackmailed into bankruptcy, he hoped. And he lost his ass.
He walked over to what should have been the happy couple seated together on one of the ornate sofas strategically positioned to take in the view. Amanda Bennett, the petite, ethereal-looking bride, was one of Hollywood’s new romantic-comedy superstars.
Judging by her wet hair, she’d showered before changing from her wedding dress into jeans and a baby-blue T-shirt; her feet were bare. She looked about thirteen. She blushed crimson as she burrowed under her new husband’s beefy, protective arm. Her big blue eyes filled with tears. Not the tears that had won her three Oscars, a Tony, and several Golden Globes. These were the real deal. “My mother …”
“The doctor’s seen her three times,” Rand assured Amanda gently. Sara Tucker, a successful character actress, was too humiliated to leave her room. None of these people were at fault. Whatever the drug was, it was so powerful no one had been able to resist. It was doubtful if any of the wedding guests had even noticed when Tucker tried to rip the clothes off the nearest waiter and, when he fled, capped her bare breasts with the remnants of the wedding cake as she impaled herself on the groom’s twenty-year-old brother.
Some people should never be seen naked.
One aspect of this job that he and his people handled extremely well, thank God, was that not a whiff of the wedding had leaked to the press. That in itself was a fucking minor miracle with two such high-profile stars. Coupled with the nondisclosure agreements that all of the guests signed before attending the wedding, it meant there was still a chance to keep a tight lid on the situation. Everyone was humiliated by what happened. They weren’t going to say a damn word when they returned home. Even if someone wanted the publicity and was willing to go public about the incident, he or she would be ostracized by half of Hollywood for doing so, and it wasn’t worth the risk. Salacious was one thing, but the events at the reception had guaranteed that nobody came out smelling like a rose.
Ligg and his team had better find something on the images. Walters would spot the bad guy on the hotel video. Or Stratham and Rebik would find the missing waiter… . They just needed a place to start.
“Your mother’s fine now, sweetheart.” Jason Dunham, groom and action superstar, rubbed his chin on the crown of Amanda’s head as he met Rand’s eyes. Like many of the people in the room, Rand considered Jason a friend. He’d doubled for him in a handful of successful movies in his time, and they’d remained friends even after Rand branched off into his security business.
“I have faith Rand. His guys will find the person responsible and bring them to justice. And yeah, it was all as embarrassing as shit, but nobody died. We’ll all go home, go about our business, and never mention it again.”
Amanda nodded from the safety of his embrace. He tightened his arm around his bride as he addressed the room at large. “Nobody can say we didn’t create the most memorable wedding.” He smiled his number-one box office, top-grossing actor smile, but Rand saw the strain around the new groom’s eyes. “And thanks to Rand and his team, we’ve managed to pull it off without the paparazzi getting wind. Of any of it.”
A soft chorus of voices rose in sour counterpoint to his little speech.
“I’ll never be able to face my friends again.”
“No way to keep this quiet once we all go home.”
“Monica will talk first.”
The bridesmaid who’d gotten up close and personal with the priest’s genitals bristled at the accusation. “I will not, you skanky bitch!”
“Nobody talks.” Seth Creed’s voice carried clearly as he rose from the sofa and faced the crowd. “Not only will I sue anyone’s ass who’s stupid enough to want to get a little publicity for themselves, I’ll see that you never work again. This was no one’s fault—we’re all victims, even Maguire Security, so shut the fuck up and listen to Rand.”
Rand tuned them out as his Bluetooth headset beeped in his ear. Give me a clue. Just one small fucking thing to go on so I can get this unraveled. “Talk.”
Oddly, with the one, curt word addressed to his caller, the room dropped once again into a thick silence. The tension was palpable, all eyes fixed on him. Unconsciously, Rand’s attention snagged on Dakota. While he knew it was only skin-deep, her beauty made his teeth ache. Her vibrancy assaulted his senses. She’d always been Technicolor to everyone else’s black-and-white. He scowled and turned away, pacing across the room to stare blindly out at the sparkling Mediterranean through the closed French doors.
“Found our missing waiter,” his section leader, Mark Stratham, informed him, crisp and to the point. “Dead. Hotel room’s been wiped. Ready for the address?”
“Go.” Rand listened, committing the unfamiliar street address to memory. “Stay put. I’ll be there ASAP.” He disconnected as he turned to address the room at large. “We have a lead. Everyone chill. Don’t leave this floor. And do not, I repeat, do not leave the hotel under any circumstances. And, yes, Mike, the no-outside-calls rule is still in effect.” The teenage brother of the bride had been bugging to get his phone back for hours. Teenage angst was the least of Rand’s problems.
He cut off the kid. “I don’t care who anyone wants to talk to stateside. If the paparazzi get even a hint of this, everyone is screwed. We don’t know if this was an act of terror, or if there was a specific target or agenda. This floor is secured tighter than Fort Knox. You’re self-sufficient up here with your own chef and staff, and members of my security team are stationed outside everyone’s doors. Nobody in or out until I get back with answers.”
He scanned the room, seeing the challenge in Creed’s eyes. “All the answers.”
The director gave an imperceptible nod; his eyes said, Don’t fuck this up, your ass is on the line.
Rand addressed Cole. “Make sure everyone has what they need. You.” He pointed at Dakota, who’d pushed away from the wall when he took his call. “Come with me,” he ordered in a flat, measured voice that brooked no argument.
Copyright © 2012 by Cherry Adair
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