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By Kate SeRine
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Kate SeRine
All rights reserved.
Jack Grayson took a sip of his beer and covertly adjusted the earpiece he wore, trying to ignore the bead of sweat trickling down his back. A childhood spent in London had hardly prepared him for tropical climates.
He spared a glance toward the third-story window of the building across the street and saw a glint of light, reassuring himself that Luke Rogan, the Alliance's deadliest sniper and one of the few men he knew he could trust unequivocally, was still in place in case they needed cover.
"Where the hell is Ralston?" Luke murmured over the comm, his deep voice gruffer than usual. "This op's been pissing me off from the start."
Jack could relate. He'd spent the last eight months gathering intel on a man named Eric Evans who'd been hired to take out Luke and the woman who was now Luke's fiancée, in the hopes that the trail would lead them to Jacob Stone — the traitorous son of a bitch who'd been behind it all.
The trail had taken Jack from Luke and Sarah's home in Wyoming to a rogue assassin's villa in Cuba to a drug runner's warehouse in Miami and now to this shitty hotel in Mexico City, where someone working on Jacob's behalf had made contact with the local drug cartel, presumably setting up a deal to help fund Stone's operations now that his political career was over and he'd been burned by every reputable agency and organization in the United States. The man they'd once trusted as a friend — a brother — had been blacklisted by those eager to distance themselves from his fall from grace. At least, that was how it appeared on the surface. But Jack knew that, in reality, there were most likely many still clamoring for Stone's favor, clinging to his coattails in hopes of still furthering their own ambitions.
Unfortunately, Jack had no idea where the hell Stone himself had holed up when his bid to steal the Templar treasure was thwarted. But as soon as Stone's lackey returned, Jack sure as hell intended to find out.
He took another sip of his beer, surreptitiously taking in his surroundings at a glance. The slowly whirling ceiling fans attached to the vine-covered pergola did little more than stir up the oppressive, moist air that hung about the incongruously heavy European tables packed in among the potted palm trees and suffocating heat of the hotel's outdoor café.
Most of the other patrons were obviously tourists, laughing and talking too loudly as their margaritas took effect. To his experienced eye, the only one who didn't seem to fit was a lone man tucked in the corner who looked like he was heading out on safari, his khaki pants and cotton shirt a little too turista to be legitimate. He was also trying far too hard to blend in with the crowd, standing out more conspicuously for the effort and setting off Jack's finely tuned internal shit-storm alarm.
"Look alive, ladies and gentlemen," Jack announced, experiencing a familiar heaviness in the air that was independent of the intense tropical heat as his muscles tensed, preparing for action. "Looks like we have company. Three o'clock. Safari hat."
"Got him in my sights," Luke confirmed.
"Don't take a shot unless I give the word, even if he moves in on Ralston," Jack ordered calmly. "Let's just see how Dr. Livingstone here plays into our little drama, shall we?"
At the sound of Ian Cooper's Texas drawl over the comm, Jack glanced toward where the man lounged on a bench across from the café, pretending to read the local newspaper. The former U.S. Marshal was one of their own, having been recruited to the Alliance several years earlier. He'd proven to be a tremendous asset in the field and a shrewd negotiator in the boardroom when acting for their front company, Temple Knight & Associates. But there were days he seemed seriously damned young. Of course, the older Jack got, the younger and younger all the newer recruits seemed ...
"Livingstone," Jack said. "The nineteenth-century explorer who went missing in Africa? 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'" When he was met by only silence, Jack added, "You've seriously never heard of him?"
"Sorry, brother, not ringing any bells," Ian told him.
"So, Jack, you think this 'Livingstone' guy's cartel?" Luke interrupted.
Jack's gaze flicked toward the subject of their conversation, taking another look. "If so, he's not local. Regardless, we're clearly not the only ones who'd like to chat with Ralston. Ian, can you get a facial rec on our friend?"
Ian casually rose from the bench and strolled into the café with his cell phone to his ear. He lingered near the bar as if waiting for a seat and pulled his phone away from his ear, fiddling with it as if texting, but Jack knew he was snapping a photo of the man in the safari hat to send back to their tech team at headquarters. "Sending it through now," Ian murmured. "Stand by."
"Watch your back," Jack murmured, scanning the patrons in the café once again. There were some new faces among the crowd — and they didn't look like they were there to tie one on. "Two spooks three o'clock."
"Copy that," Ian affirmed.
Jack allowed his gaze to casually drift back toward the hotel. "Maddie? What's your twenty? Do you need backup?"
Maddie Blake, the only female member of the team, heaved a sigh over the comm. "I'm in position. And, no, I don't need any backup, Jack."
"Is there a problem?" he asked, slightly taken aback by her obvious offense at his question.
"Yeah, there's a problem," she snapped. "I may be new to the Alliance, but I'm a big girl, Jack. I don't need you to babysit me."
Her no-nonsense attitude was one of the things that had first drawn him to her all those years ago, and he'd fallen in love with her before he'd even realized it. Unfortunately, he'd had to walk away from her without a word of explanation, thinking he'd been protecting her when really he'd been too much of a fucking coward to explain the truth. And now he was paying for that with the daily torture of having her within arm's length since she'd joined the Alliance, yet forever out of his reach.
He ran a hand through his hair and took a moment to consider his response. The last damned thing he wanted to do was hash out their issues in front of the others. There was little that was private in the Alliance, but what he'd once shared with Maddie was too precious to him to open it up for discussion. "I'm not babysitting, Maddie. I'm just ensuring that a member of my team is safe."
There was a long, tense pause over the comm, neither of the others apparently wanting to be the first to break the silence. Finally, there was a quiet cough and Ian asked, "So, how's the housekeeping uniform workin' out? Anyone give you a second glance?"
Maddie grunted. "Only because the shirt is about two sizes too small. One false move and the girls are gonna burst out. And these shorts are ridiculous."
"Sorry 'bout that," Ian admitted. "Didn't get much notice you'd be joining us on this little excursion. I had to guess at your size. But I'm happy to gather that intel first-hand next time, Maddie, if you're up for it."
"Lock that shit down, Cooper," Luke growled, "and show some fucking respect."
But Maddie just scoffed at Ian's insinuation. "Gee, I don't know, Ian ... From what I hear from the other guys, your hand is probably otherwise engaged ..."
Ian chuckled. "Ah, honey, don't you listen to their jaw jackin'. They're just jealous 'cause they're all hat and no horse —"
"Stay on task," Jack cut in, his British accent, normally just a hint of what it had once been after so many years of living in the U.S., growing thicker in his irritation.
The thought of Maddie being with another man made him want to put his fist through a wall. But as Maddie had reminded him not too long ago, he'd given up the right to an opinion where she was concerned. He'd been the one who'd walked away all those years ago.
Jack inhaled deeply, sucking in the damp, heated air that was the calling card for Mexico at this time of year, then rubbed the back of his neck beneath the dark waves of hair clinging to his nape, in an attempt to remove the thick paste of perspiration and grime that had gathered there. The pungent odor of his own sweat assaulted his senses, pissing him off even more.
God, I hate the tropics.
And the heat didn't help his already low tolerance for bullshit. Normally, he didn't mind a little trash talk among his team in the Alliance when they were on a mission. He knew when it came down to it, he could count on them. But he didn't have the patience for it today. If they fucked up this mission, his months of tracking Jacob Stone would be for nothing.
And the trail ran out here, with one Tad Ralston. If Jack didn't get anything out of the congressional aide, then he had nothing more to go on, thereby bringing an end to their attempt to link Jacob Stone to the Illuminati and finally convince the Grand Council that their old enemies were a threat once more. Without Stone, the Alliance lacked the proof that the Illuminati had not been eliminated as they'd thought, and were in fact growing in strength, preparing to make their next move.
"Any progress on that facial rec, Ian?" Jack demanded, his tone harsher than he'd intended.
"Nothing yet." Ian sauntered over to a vacant bar stool and flashed a wide grin to a gorgeous brunette and her friends. Livingstone's gaze drifted away, apparently satisfied that Ian wasn't a threat.
"Heads up," Luke announced, his voice carrying that no-bullshit, steely edge Jack relied on. "Ralston's moving your way."
Jack glanced up and down the street, studying the sun-bronzed faces of the locals who scurried about, tending to their shops and barking sales pitches at sunburned tourists who weren't discerning enough not to buy the cheap, brightly painted souvenirs that were actually made in China. A few minutes later, he saw a man fitting Ralston's description hurrying toward the hotel, his gaze darting about nervously, his shoulders hunched a little as if expecting to be jumped at any moment.
He knows he's being followed ...
There was no way he was on to Jack's team. They were far too experienced in surveillance, too accomplished at hiding in plain sight — it was the reason the Templars had survived after the order was dissolved in the Middle Ages and the Alliance had been formed to continue their mission to guide and protect.
No, Mr. Ralston was afraid of someone else.
Rising to his feet, Jack dropped a handful of pesos on the table for the waitress. "Here we go, folks. Maddie, love, you're on."
Jack didn't miss the way Livingstone's body stiffened with sudden interest the moment Ralston came into view. As the guy lurched to his feet, his gaze trained on the congressional aide, Jack picked up the pace, quickly darting through the network of café tables to intercept him.
"Livingstone's on the move," Jack barked, not bothering to keep his voice low.
He glanced back and forth between Ralston and Livingstone and saw Ralston's horrified expression of recognition before he sprinted toward the hotel's front door.
"Shit," Jack spat, bumping into one of the waitresses and sending her tray of drinks flying. He muttered a quick apology as he grabbed her shoulders and moved her out of his way. "Ralston's running."
Finally clear of the tangle of café patrons, Jack double-timed it to the hotel entrance, reaching the door just as Livingstone's hand grabbed the brass handle.
The guy's eyes narrowed menacingly. "Out of my way, asshole."
Livingstone was one hell of a lot bigger than he'd appeared from across the café. He towered over Jack's six feet and had at least fifty pounds of muscle on him. But even more interesting was his thick accent; Russian if Jack had to hazard a guess.
Jack gave him a guileless grin. "Why must we resort to name-calling? You just met me."
Without warning, the guy grabbed Jack by the front of his shirt and lifted him off his feet, sending him flying backward with ease before taking off around the side of the hotel. Jack grunted with the impact as he ass-planted in the hotel's flower beds — but not before catching a glimpse of the tattoo of a pyramid surrounded by a stylized starburst and the all-seeing eye on the man's forearm.
Jack hissed a curse as he scrambled to his feet and ran in the same direction the other man had gone, drawing his weapon from where it'd been hidden at the small of his back. He was just turning the corner when a bullet zinged past his head, narrowly missing him as it hit the bricks of a neighboring building.
He darted behind a trash Dumpster, taking cover. "Change of plans, Maddie. Get Ralston the hell out of here." He peeked out from behind the Dumpster and fired off two rapid shots before pulling back as bullets zinged off the metal Dumpster, sending up sparks. "And take care, love. Livingstone's Illuminati. His friends are probably already heading your way."
"More bad news, Jack," Luke cut in. "About half a dozen dudes carrying big fucking guns and not giving a damn who knows it just showed up. And they look seriously pissed off ..."
* * *
Fear shot icy-hot through Maddie's veins when she heard more gunshots over the comm. She instinctively felt for the small Templar-cross pendant she normally wore around her neck, which was now tucked into the pocket of her shorts. Finding it still safely where she'd hidden it while changing into the uniform, she felt her fear subside ever so slightly.
But then another burst of gunfire erupted. Then silence. Complete silence.
Her fear for Jack's safety rushing to the surface once more, she grabbed her Glock from beneath the stack of towels where it was hidden on the housekeeping cart and quickened her pace toward Ralston's hotel room. "Jack? Do you copy?"
"Anybody have eyes on Jack?" she called out.
"Negative," Ian replied. "He's not in the alley. Stand by." Maddie squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and blew out a harsh sigh, struggling to tamp down her dread and keep her attention focused on apprehending Ralston.
She tried to tell herself that she'd be just as worried about any of the other guys in the Alliance if they weren't responding, but she knew it was a lie. Jack was far more than just a colleague and friend — at least, he'd been far more to her for a time.
She gave herself a quick mental shake and forced her thoughts to focus on her redefined objective — apprehending Tad Ralston and bringing him in for questioning. After all, hadn't she just jumped Jack's case about him being overprotective of her? He'd been doing this one hell of a lot longer than she had. He would be okay. He had to be.
Maddie left her supply cart parked a few doors down and crept toward Ralston's room, her weapon held down at her side near her thigh, keeping it hidden from sight as much as possible in case anyone was to suddenly step into the hallway.
Another wave of dread washed over her when she reached Ralston's door, which stood slightly ajar. She darted past the opening to the other side of the doorway and peered into the room, taking in what she could in a glance. Not seeing anyone, she pressed her palm against the wood and slowly swung the door open, her gun raised as she swept inside, quickly clearing the room of any threats.
The place had been tossed, Ralston's clothes scattered on the bed and floor. The drawers to the dresser and nightstand stood open, their contents emptied in a hurry. She made her way through the debris toward the bathroom, careful not to step on anything and disturb the scene — habit from her days in the FBI.
When she entered the small bathroom she encountered more of the same — toiletry items scattered and broken, the overwhelming odor of spilled aftershave burning her nose. But there was no sign of Ralston or whoever it was who'd torn his room apart.
She cursed under her breath and wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the heel of her palm. The heat in the tiny bathroom was stifling, and the stench of Ralston's aftershave was making her stomach roll.
"Ralston's not here," she whispered as she came back into the bedroom. "I'm just going to —"
Her words died on a gasp as a figure in rumpled khakis and a sweat-soaked button-down suddenly appeared in the open doorway. She brought her gun up and the man's eyes went wide with fear behind his round spectacles before he bolted.
"Stop!" she barked, racing after him. "Ralston!"
Excerpted from Concealed by Kate SeRine. Copyright © 2017 Kate SeRine. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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