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Former soldier Will Forrester pushed through the double doors of the sleek Atlanta high-rise that housed Ranger Security and prepared to meet his new destiny.
For the first time in his adult life, as a civilian.
His fingers involuntarily twitched at his sides, betraying the slightest hint of unease. Though he had always thought highly of the gentlemen who'd started this company—finding better soldiers than Brian Payne, Jamie Flanagan and Guy McCann would be damned near impossible—Will had nevertheless never imagined that he'd be working for them.
In fact, if anyone had told him three months ago that he would be anything other than in service to Uncle Sam, he would have asked them to hand over their crack pipe and would personally have escorted them to rehab.
But that was before the…incident.
Will determinedly closed the door on that line of thinking before any of the horrific images could form. One, in particular, haunted him.
Knobby knees, thin limbs, a bloodied, tattered teddy bear…
He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and swore under his breath. Dammit, he had to get a grip. He couldn't afford to blow this. He had been especially grateful to Colonel Carl Garrett for mak ing the recommendation for this new career. Frankly, when he'd decided he had to get out—that he no longer had the stomach for war—Will hadn't given much thought to where he would go or what he would do. He just knew that he couldn't do his job anymore, that he'd never be able to do it again.
As for the men who were with him that fate ful day, Chase Harrison and Tanner Crawford, who knew what they were going to do? Chase seemed to be dealing with the tragedy much better then he or Tanner had, so Will figured he would ul timately continue in service. Tanner, however, was more than likely on his way out. He sincerely hoped Garrett would extend the same recommenda tion for Tanner that he had for him. Tanner deserved it.
On some level Will had imagined that he'd go home to Mockingbird, Mississippi, a quaint little town nestled in the heart of the Delta. His grandmother was still there, after all. Gardening, quilt ing and sipping iced tea. Having lost his parents and little brother in a car accident when he was ten, Will had been raised by his paternal grandparents.
His grandmother had kept him well loved and well fed and his grandfather, who'd passed five years ago, had taught him the benefit of fewer words and more action, the advantage of hard work and patience and, of course, how to treat a lady. The thought made Will smile. God knows John Forrester had loved his "Miss Molly" and had treated her accordingly. He missed him, Will thought now, and knew his grandmother did, as well.
It felt like a lifetime ago that he'd been home, that he'd put his feet under her table and enjoyed a home-cooked meal and good company. He actually should have gone to see her before coming here, but Garrett had insisted that he was needed now.
Besides, his grandmother would ask probing questions—ones he didn't want to answer at present—so this was truly for the best. He'd go and see her as soon as he got this new job in order—first things first always—and he'd make sure to call more often in the interim.
"Will Forrester?" a slim, no-nonsense gentleman asked from behind a remarkably tidy desk.
Will nodded, startled back into the present.
"I'm Juan-Carlos," he said briskly, extending his hand. "The Triumvirate are expecting you. Follow me, please."
The Triumvirate? Will thought, feeling his lips automatically slide into a half smile. That was definitely a unique way to describe the owners of the elite security company. And the hint of droll humor he'd heard behind the description was especially puzzling.
Juan-Carlos led him down a carpeted hall, past several offices into a large lounge area that looked more like a man cave than any sort of business room. A flat-screen television was anchored to the wall—currently tuned to a Braves baseball game—and a well-used pool table overlooked downtown proper. A stainless-steel refrigerator—no doubt stocked with the drinks and snacks the three of them were currently enjoying—stood against another wall. Various bits of technology—laptops, cell phones, MP3 players and the like—lay scattered over the battered coffee table, along with their feet.
Seated on dark leather furniture, the three men stood when he entered. Brian Payne was easily recognizable with his blond hair and penetrating ice-blue eyes. Nicknamed the Specialist, Payne was notorious for his ability to always do things right the first time. Much like failure, half-assed wasn't an option.
Equally impressive with his supposed genius-level IQ, Jamie Flanagan had dark curls that gave him a boyish quality, but the set of his shoulders and the line of his jaw let a man know that the Irish-American former soldier was a force to be reckoned with.
Guy McCann rounded out the rest of the Triumvirate, with a reputation of recklessness and luck that bordered on the providential. McCann's smile was a little irreverent, but the shrewd green gaze currently sizing him up felt anything but flippant.
It was Payne who spoke first. "Forrester," he said, striding forward to shake Will's hand. "Welcome to Ranger Security."
Flanagan grinned, plopped back onto the couch and shoved a potato chip into his mouth. "The perks kick ass."
"Ignore him," McCann piped up, snatching the remote control out of Jamie's reach. "We do actually work," he drawled.
"On occasion" came the long-suffering voice of Juan-Carlos as he quietly shut the door.
Guy glared at Payne. "He's getting a little too mouthy for a secretary."
"He's an office manager," Payne corrected. "And he's indispensable. Which he knows."
"If he continues to smirk at me, what's not going to be indispensable are his teeth," Guy threatened. "He's a subordinate. He should act like it."
Will wondered if they knew he referred to the three of them as the Triumvirate, but decided not to mention it. He didn't want Juan-Carlos to lose any of those pricey porcelain veneers on his account.
"Can I get you something to drink?" Payne offered, jerking a thumb toward the refrigerator.
Will shook his head. "I'm good, thanks."
"Have a seat," Jamie told him, gesturing toward one of the empty chairs. "We're pretty informal around here."
He actually liked that, Will thought. These guys were obviously just as comfortable in their own skin as they were with one another. It was the sort of familiarity that took countless hours and inherent trust and he instinctively found himself want ing to be a part of it. To share in the easy camaraderie. Though he'd been happy about the job—about having an alternative at all to the military career he'd envisioned—for the first time since he'd officially walked off base, Will instinctively knew he'd found where he belonged.
This was going to work. He felt it.
"How's my grandfather-in-law?" Flanagan wanted to know.
Will smiled and tried to frame a diplomatic response. Colonel Carl Garrett was an old warhorse with a piss-and-gravel voice that had been honed on the battlefield and fired in the boardroom. Will had a lot of respect for the man, but he'd ruffled more than a few feathers through the years. Of course, no one could be in the colonel's position without pissing off a lot of other people. It was the nature of the career.
"Well," Will finally managed. He waited a beat. "The same as always."
"So he's still an interfering, egotistical old bastard on a power trip, then?" McCann said. He snorted. "Figures."
Payne laughed. "Careful, Guy. That interfering, egotistical old bastard is responsible for some of our best help—" his cool gaze slid to Will "—and our newest recruit." He lifted a brow. "You've reviewed the employment package?"
He had and was still astonished. "It's generous."
And that was putting it lightly. In addition to the salary, the benefits were beyond amazing. Preferring that specialists lived in close proximity, Payne had purchased the entire building and renovated the upper floors into apartments. Though Jamie and Guy lived in Atlanta only part-time, Payne was in residence at all times in the penthouse suite. Considering he'd been in the service since college, Will had little in the way of personal belongings and even less in the home furnishing department. That he would be able to move right into an outfitted apartment was a perk he could genuinely appreciate.
"You'll earn it," Payne assured him. He handed him a laptop, a cell phone and a Glock 9 mm. "Tools of the trade. All of the software you'll need to interface with our programs here at the office have already been loaded onto the computer. Numbers are programmed into the phone and your permit to carry concealed is in the laptop bag." He shrugged. "Doubt you'll need a weapon for this first case, but better armed than not, in my opinion."
He wouldn't need a weapon for his first case? What exactly did that mean? Will wondered.
"Do you need a car?" Payne asked. "I've got a couple in the garage."
Will shook his head. He'd actually just traded in his old Jeep Wrangler for a new Black Rubicon.
"Here are the keys to your apartment," Payne said, tossing them lightly to him. He released a small breath. "That covers everything but the briefing on your first assignment."
McCann slid a folder across the coffee table to him. "It's a bit unusual," he said, and the small smile playing over his lips did little to inspire confidence.
Will flipped open the file and quickly scanned the first page. Theodore Watson, seventy-six, missing from his home for the past few days. He read on and immediately understood McCann's grin.
"A treasure hunt? " he asked dubiously, glancing up at Payne.
Jamie chuckled. "In a manner of speaking. Mr. Watson is looking for his great-great-grandfather's treasure. According to his family history, this particular grandfather had amassed quite a fortune in jewels. Afraid that the Union troops were going to seize his possessions, like many other people who lived in the South who had any wealth, he hid them. Unfortunately, he died before he recovered them from his hiding place and hadn't shared their whereabouts with anyone else."
"Or he could have, and that lucky soul kept it for himself," McCann pointed out. "The Watsons are practically royalty in the small burg of Begonia, Georgia. They're old money. Lots of land."
Will frowned. "So it's his family who've hired us? Is Mr. Watson a danger to himself? Got any health issues that make his disappearance particularly disturbing?" Granted the man wasn't exactly a spring chicken, but from the looks of this file he lived by himself, which would indicate that he was relatively healthy, at any rate.
Payne, McCann and Flanagan shared a look. "Tad Watson, Theo's son, is more concerned with keeping up appearances than his father's actual safety," McCann explained with a twisted smile. "From what we've been able to discern, Theo has been looking for this treasure for more than sixty years, and is a bit on the eccentric side. Tad doesn't approve."
"He's an embarrassment," Jamie said, pulling a shrug. "Tad wants him found so that he can do damage control."
"He's throwing around words like senile and dementia and diminished capacity," Payne said. "Laying the groundwork to have him committed, or at the very least put into an assisted-living facility."
Though he'd never met Theodore Watson in his life, Will found himself inexplicably annoyed on his behalf. What the hell was wrong with people? he wondered. Whatever happened to respecting your elders? Furthermore, this was the South. Eccentricities were typically celebrated. Crazy, so long as it wasn't harmful, was charming down here.