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"Gage Darnell, you...you low-down liar. If you don't come home today, don't bother!"
Glad that he wasn't standing face to face with his wife, Gage clenched his large hand around the telephone receiver. But he had no trouble picturing the anger flashing in Lily's beautiful green eyes. Or her blond hair swirling in a golden cloud as she shook her head. She probably had a pot of chili on the stove. And crisp clean sheets on the king-size bed, since this would have been the first time in weeks that they'd seen each other.
He'd been aching to make love with her, then eat the wonderful meal she'd prepared while they caught up on the details of each other's lives. And he'd hoped he could still make it home—at least for one night before he had to go back to work.
That was before two of his security men had called in sick, and he'd decided he had to stay on the Eastern Shore. He hadn't felt comfortable dumping the total responsibility for the Cranesbrook detail on Brayden Sloane. Not when his partner was already jumpy and out of sorts.
So Gage was still two hours away from home, where Lily was expecting him to walk in the door any minute. He'd figured they could talk about Five Star's problems after dinner. Now he was trapped in a no-win situation, caught between his wife and his partner.
He owed them both his loyalty, but his relationship with Bray went all the way back to when they'd been in Special Forces training together. Then, in Afghanistan, when they'd saved each other's lives, the bond had grown even stronger.
He gulped and said, "Something's come up, and I can't leave Cranesbrook."
"I arranged to take off work this weekend. I thought you did, too. What's going on now?"
While he tried to frame an answer, she plowed ahead. "You're saying Cranesbrook Associates is more important that our marriage?"
He recognized the calm, deliberate tone. It was a dangerous sign.
"Sweetheart, I'm under contract to protect this place." The rest of it was too complicated to explain in a five-minute phone conversation, so he fell back on one of his tried-and-true arguments. "And you know we need the money."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized he'd made a big mistake.
Her voice turned cold and hard as she answered. "Gage, we don't need the money. We both have good jobs. Our finances are just fine. Or they would be—if you didn't buy all that electronics equipment every time you got some spare cash."
"It's all stuff I need for my—"
"Experiments," she finished for him. "If you're not at Cranesbrook, you're in your garage workshop. Or your home gym pumping iron."
As he realized how far off track they'd gotten in a few short minutes, he winced. He didn't bother to defend his need to keep in shape. But he couldn't stop himself from saying, "I'm on the edge of a breakthrough with the miniature advance warning system."
"How many times have I heard that?"
He'd been on the defensive. Now he was starting to get pissed off.
"If I can perfect the electronics, we never have to worry about money again."
"Gage, don't you understand..."
Before she could finish the sentence, alarm bells began to clang in the security station and somewhere else on the Cranesbrook campus. His gaze shot to the monitoring panel he'd installed in the lounge area. Either they had a false alarm—or an emergency in Lab 7.
Lily obviously heard the noise. "Good God. What was that?"
"Don't know. Gotta go."
On alert, yet relieved to end the conversation, he slammed the receiver into the cradle and ran into the hall, where he almost collided with Bray, who was ushering office workers toward the exit.
On the second day of their deployment to Afghanistan, Bray had saved Gage's life by yanking him in back of a cement wall just as a sniper had opened fire on their patrol. And he'd done the same favor a few months later for Bray, pulling him out of a burning truck that was about to explode.
They had both come home with all their body parts intact, thanks in part to their good working relationship. Until lately the only problem was Bray's tendency to go by the book while Gage was more impulsive. That had led to more than a few arguments about how to run Five Star Security.
The security work had been pretty routine up till now. Suddenly this was like being back in a war zone, with crazed civilians getting in the way of split-second decisions.
"It's Lab 7," Gage shouted to Bray as he helped a panicked-looking secretary into the grassy area in front of the administration building.
When she grabbed his arm, he gently detached himself. "You'll be fine, ma'am."
Turning to his partner, Gage asked, "Was there an intrusion at the gatehouse?"
"Not according to the sensors."
As they exchanged information, they moved away from the crowd of administrative staff and lab workers who were already milling around in the park along the shore of the small, artificial lake. Too bad the alarm hadn't gone off forty minutes later when most of the civilians would have been gone for the day.
Evan Buckley and Pete Westerly, the two other men on guard duty that afternoon, were also outside in the fall sunshine, herding people toward the parking lot. Buckley looked around and saw Gage, then turned quickly back to his duties. The two of them weren't on the best of terms, but at the moment the guy looked as though he was doing his job.
Like Gage and Bray, the other security men were clad in khaki uniforms that set them apart from the lab staff and the office workers.
"Put the vehicles between the people and the buildings," Gage shouted as he headed toward the laboratory.
"But don't let anyone leave until we check this out."
As he closed in on the main operations building, Gage unholstered his weapon.
"What do you think? Malfunction or an intruder?" Bray asked.
"I hope it's a malfunction."
When they saw Sid Edmonston charging toward them, they exchanged a quick look.
Just what they needed. Cranesbrook had facilities up and down the East Coast, principally in New Jersey. Usually the company president wasn't on site down here, but he'd arrived a couple of days ago for some meetings with both his lab and office staff.
Under the best of conditions, the tall, lanky executive was a pain in the ass. In an emergency, he was going to be impossible. According to rumors, this division of the business still wasn't paying its way, and Edmonston had made it clear that he was going to close the labs down if he didn't start seeing results.
"What happened?" he demanded, shouting over the sound of the clanging bell. A thin layer of perspiration glistened on the bald dome of his large head. And from the way his narrow-eyed stare focused on his security guards, it looked as if he was holding them personally responsible for the emergency.
"We're about to find out," Gage answered, keeping his voice even.
"This is a security violation," the president barked, confirming Gage's assessment that the man was looking for someone to blame.
He bit back a sharp retort, but Bray wasn't able to keep his annoyance to himself. "How the hell do you know what happened?" he demanded. "It could just be someone setting off the alarm by accident."
Yeah, and carpets can fly, Gage thought, but he didn't bother to correct his partner, not when he knew Bray was likely to get into a shouting match with the company president.
Edmonston glared at them. "Get in there and find out what's going on."
"We're on it, if you'll allow us to proceed," Gage said, making an effort to keep his voice mild as he walked to the keypad in the entryway and punched in this week's number code.
To his relief, the earsplitting alarm stopped. At least the system wasn't shorted out.
Before they could get inside, Nelson Ulrich came pounding toward them. Apparently he'd been with the other employees in the parking lot, but he'd no doubt shoved his way through the crowd and come charging back to make sure his precious lab wasn't in danger. He might be the Director of Research, but Gage had seen him working late at night and assumed he was deep into some kind of experiment of his own.
If Edmonston was a pain in the ass, Ulrich was worse. Whatever he was working on, he'd been acting as if it was his last chance for greatness. Gage and Bray had been making bets on whether the research genius would have a heart attack or a stroke before he brought the project in. "Make sure nobody's gotten to my computer or my notes," he shouted.
"You got it," Bray agreed.
Ulrich looked as if he was going to follow them into the lab.
"Step back," Gage ordered. To his relief, the two men moved away from the doorway. "And don't come in until we give you the all clear." That last part should have been unnecessary, but he knew that both these guys needed the reminder.
As Bray opened the door, he and Gage slipped back into combat mode. Instead of automatic rifles they held side arms as they entered the small foyer, which had been designed to impress the casual visitor. The floor was quarry tile, the walls were rich cherrywood, and the doors leading into the individual labs were stainless steel. They'd both wondered if some of this money might not have been better spent on an increased security force and some better equipment.
This afternoon, the opulence was marred by the sight of a man's body sprawled near the entrance to one of the labs.
Blood had poured from a wound on the back of his dark head and dripped onto the tile floor. But head wounds always made an impressive mess, even when they were superficial.
Because Gage was closer to the guy, he hurried to the man's side and turned him over. It was Dr. Martin Kelso, one of the company managers. His eyes were closed, his rounded face was pale, and he lay absolutely still.
"Martin?" Gage asked.
He didn't answer, didn't move. "What's he doing here?" Bray asked, echoing Gage's own thought.
"Hell if I know." He felt the man's neck and was relieved to find his skin warm and his pulse beating steadily. "You get him out. I'll check the labs," Gage told his partner.
"Right." Bray was already pulling out his cell phone to call for medical assistance.
Gage stood and caught a flash of movement to his left. Whirling with his gun pointed toward the intruder, he saw his own reflection in one of the polished metal doors that lined the room.
He looked tall and lean—and grim-faced. A man with a military-short haircut and an automatic weapon in his hand. Lucky he hadn't put a couple of slugs into the metal panel. Edmonston would probably have charged him for the damage.
Alert for trouble, he pulled open the door to his left, then stepped cautiously into Lab 7, his gaze sweeping the twenty-foot-long room. The lab rats in their cages were squeaking and running around, probably set in motion by the alarm bell. But they still hadn't quieted down now that the noise had stopped. Probably the monkeys down the hall were even more alarmed.
Gage saw no intruders, but his view was blocked by the long lab tables, granite-topped with cabinets below.
Most of the work area was tidy, but the light was on in one of the wall-mounted hoods designed to protect lab personnel from dangerous chemicals. Either someone had been interrupted in the middle of a procedure or an intruder had been messing with an experiment in progress.
As Gage crossed the room, he spotted a pair of trouser-clad legs on the floor, sticking out from behind the lab table closest to the hood.
Whoever was there lay deadly still. Was he hurt? Or was this an elaborate setup for an ambush?
Gage crept cautiously toward the lab table, then rounded the corner in one smooth motion, gun pointed at the man on the tile floor. This time he didn't have to roll the victim over. The guy lay on his back, and Gage saw it was Wes Vanderhoven, one of the lab technicians.