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Aaron McBain stood in the only doorway without mistletoe taped to the beam and checked his watch for the tenth time. The schedule ticked along with precision. No surprises. No problems.
He knew that was a bad sign.
No holiday party ever ran on time or as planned. Actually, no party, meeting or anything sponsored by Craft Industries sailed along without an issue. But a half hour before the official kickoff, a steady line of sullen office workers dressed in gray suits filed in and now hovered in groups around tables and near the Christmas tree set up on the small stage at the far end of the room.
Absent was the usual happy holiday chatter found at similar events for other companies, likely because the boss declared attendance mandatory for this after-hours, nowhere-near-the-office party. Amazing how requiring people to have fun guaranteed they didn't.
Neither did the thirty-mile drive from their northern Virginia office building in McLean to the Elan Conference Center at the edge of the metro area's wine country in Loudoun County. Lowell Craft, the company's president and owner, lived out there and didn't care what kind of traffic disaster the Washington, D.C., rush hour imposed on everyone else.
Aaron wasn't exactly on fire for the party, either, and the drive was only one frustration. For the past three months, since he and his team had been hired by Lowell to provide him with extra security, he'd been handling everything from drunken rages in the office hallways by dismissed employees to outright threats against Lowell. And since Lowell spouted some controversial business theories, including one about how what motivated the staff was a series of unexpected firings on Fridays, it was amazing the guy wasn't attacked in the office parking lot every afternoon.
But there was a viable threat today, had been for months since Lowell got the first note promising a painful death if he didn't step down as head of the company by Christmas. Which was why Aaron stood three feet away from where Lowell inspected the buffet table, wearing his usual frown. He apparently didn't approve of the festive atmosphere the center had provided. Not a surprise to Aaron since as far as he could tell Lowell didn't like anything.
Aaron blew out a long breath as he listened to his assistant, Royal Jenkins, whistle an annoying tune into the open-ear mic. When the frustrated exhale didn't drive the point home, Aaron tried an across-the-room scowl at the man who was younger, fitter and less disciplined but possessed sniper-level shooting skills thanks to his short army stint.
Finally Aaron went for the direct approach with Royal. "Any chance you could stop that?"
"You want to request a different song?" Royal smiled as he nodded a welcome to Angie Troutman, the woman who by day ran the Craft human resources department and by night serviced Lowell. Their evening activities were a constant source of office gossip.
"Let's start with a moment of silence and then go from there," Aaron said.
Royal walked across the room and two seconds later stood next to Aaron. "You notice something missing at this party?"
Aaron watched the employees crowd together at a point in the room farthest away from their boss. "People who actually want to be here?"
"There is that, but no."
"Is it the lack of anything resembling holiday cheer or happiness?"
"Ah, yes. Lowell sent around a memo prohibiting music in the workplace." Aaron eyed the business dictator in question as he moved around the serving platters the catering staff had just carefully arranged on the buffet. When the man snapped his fingers at one of the servers to get his attention, Aaron looked away. "Lowell said something about the Christmas carols distracting the employees from their work."
"But we're not at the office."
"I'm not sure Lowell sees a distinction. All fun is bad."
"With his lack of holiday spirit, why bother throwing the party at all? Unless he's charging them to attend." Royal's gaze shot to Aaron. "Oh, man. He's not, is he?"
"Worse, I heard the party is in place of yearend bonuses and cost-of-living adjustments for the next year."
Despite his distaste for Lowell, Aaron had to watch over the guy. Aaron had enough troubles without blowing this assignment. Unlike Craft's, Aaron's staff got bonuses and had time off and were even allowed to get sick now and then. All of that required money. Lowell did pay his bills, which allowed Aaron to keep paying his. A timely check was just about the only positive aspect of Lowell's personality Aaron could find.
Not that Lowell was making the current job easy. At the beginning of the assignment, he'd had a habit of disappearing during the middle of the day and then wandering back in with a stupid grin a few hours after lunch. He did that until Aaron started shadowing the older man's every step.
Slim and tall with brown hair peppered with gray, Lowell had the kind of power and money many women found attractive, though Aaron had no idea why. The guy reeked of the same smarminess usually reserved for career politicians. He possessed all the people skills of a serial killer. He never offered his age, but people who knew him back when pegged it in the mid-fifties. He had a wife and a twenty-three-year-old son, and just like the people who worked for him, neither family member could stand him.
Then there was the other side of Lowell's life. The man pretended to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type, but Aaron knew better. You couldn't dig into every aspect of a man's existence without having to brush off some dirt. And this Craft guy slid around in mud every single day.
Aaron glanced over at the thirty-something brunette with the long legs and short attention span sitting at the table all alone, sipping on a glass of something clear. "Rumor is Angie requested the party because morale is so low and even in a rough economy she's worried about a mass employee exodus."
"And Lowell sure listens to Angie." Royal half laughed, half coughed. "Speaking of which, it's nice of Lowell to invite the wife and the mistress to the same party."
"Alleged mistress." Aaron said the words as an afterthought as he scanned the room for Mrs. Craft and came up empty. He was just about to send Royal looking for her when the two men waiting by the elevator grabbed his attention.
They had matching military haircuts and dark suits, and neither spent a second checking out the party. They didn't work at Craft. Aaron would put money on that. After the second death threat, he'd run a security check on all employees, past and present. He'd checked out the Elan staff, as well. Either these two slipped through the screening without Aaron noticingand since one of the guys had shoulders wider than the elevator doors, Aaron doubted itor they were uninvited. Neither option made Aaron happy.
He elbowed Royal. "Who are those two?"
Royal's gaze followed Aaron's nod. "Waitstaff?"
"Not anyone I checked in."
"And not wearing the right uniform." Royal's gaze narrowed. "Why are they headed for the elevators when the food is in here?"
Royal's shifting to attack mode was all the confirmation Aaron needed of impending trouble. The guy had pitch-perfect instincts thanks to years in and around the mountains of Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
Aaron barked out orders to the rest of the team listening in on the earpieces. "We need help up here. Palmer?"
When Lowell's head of security, Palmer Trask, didn't check in, the emergency signal in Aaron's brain flashed even brighter.
"The lack of a response can't be good," Royal said under his breath.
"We also need to find Craft's wife."
Royal whipped around, his gaze scanning the room. "She was just here."
"Not now." With her model-perfect figure and straight-out-of-a-magazine outfit, the woman stuck out in a crowd even while she hugged the corner of the room. But now Aaron had bigger problems. "I need two people in here. Report to Royal in the dining room. The rest hold the perimeter."
"Do we need to shut the place down?"
Aaron turned to Royal. "Not yet. You stick to Lowell. He doesn't breathe without falling over you."
"I'll take the stairs. Let me know where the elevator stops." Aaron did one last visual sweep of the room, looking for other people who failed to trip his memory bank.
"Remember you have two guys to handle when you get up there," Royal said.
Aaron sure as hell hoped the number was only two. "My worry is they are part of a bigger scheme."
"If they are?"
Aaron patted his hip in a weapons check. "I'll handle it."
"Nothing new there."
Risa Peters clutched her portfolio to her chest and leaned back against the elevator wall. This was the first time she'd chosen a holiday party venue based on a throw-away recommendation during a dinner date with the lawyer she'd seen exactly twice. The same dinner date who failed to call after their last meal together. Since it was already Thursday, she figured the man was on the run, which was a shame because the chocolate-brown hair, blue-green eyes, all-American handsome type appealed to her.
So did the Elan Conference Center. She was only able to book it for an afternoon during the busy season because the place wasn't truly open to the public yet. The center was in the middle of something called a soft opening. The official ribbon cutting would come in mid-January, after the holiday rush subsided. For a discounted fee and an agreement to forgo some party extravagances, Elan agreed to host the party on very little notice.
Risa doubted the office budget at Buchanan Engineering would support the place next year when the amenities hit their stride, but she could enjoy it now. The miles of rolling hills and the long winding drive up to the place sparkled even more in real life than they did on the website. So did the sprawling five-story building with the stone facade and the huge double-door, double-height entry.
It would all work so long as the weather held out. One flake of snow and next week's party would turn into a driving hazard.
Not that any of thisthe late planning, the distance or the weatherqualified as being her fault. Oh, no. She'd been the office manager at the engineering firm all of three weeks when she realized the woman who used to have the job, and now held the title of fired former office manager, failed to reserve a place for the annual holiday get-together. Since the engineers liked to party, the oversight bordered on catastrophic. So Risa was here today to scout the center out, see the party room on the fourth floor, then sign the agreement and hand over a check.
If she survived this mess-up, pulled the party off and got all the engineers home without a drunken episode, she'd still have a job next week. And she sure needed the job. Without it she'd never pull herself out of the economic tailspin Paul had thrown her into.
When the elevator doors opened, she almost stepped out of the car. A quick glance at the glowing green number on the panel told her she'd only made it to the third floor. One more to go.
She stepped back just as a beefy hand reached into the open space and jammed the doors before they could close. Two guys with black jackets and broad shoulders slid inside the car. They hugged the front of the elevator, but the walls still closed in on her.
She knew the lights didn't dim at their entry, but everything seemed darker, felt colder, than it had a second before. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the car as they'd moved in.
They didn't look at her. Didn't speak. But the way their combined bodies blocked any chance she might need of a quick exit had her nerves jumping around in her stomach.
She counted the seconds until the car moved again and stopped on the fourth floor. In her head she reached a thousand, but she guessed that was some sort of sick mind trick. Still, when the bell dinged, she shot between them, her hands shoving them apart.
"Excuse me," she said over their surprised grunts.
Then she walked as fast as she could without breaking into an all-out run. A few fast steps and she turned the corner. With her back pressed against the wall, she listened for the two hulks to make sure they didn't follow.
When silence echoed back at her, she inhaled. The sharp smell of paint assailed her nose. A quick glance told her she was alone on a newly constructed floor. Protective paper and painter's tape still covered some of the doors.
"Great." She sucked in as much of the tainted air as she could take in an effort to slow her hammering heart.
Only then did she feel the tiny jabs against her skin. She opened her palms, peeling her fingers away from the tight clench on the leather binder between her shaking hands.
She wasn't the spook-easy type, having learned long ago that some of the most dangerous men in the world didn't lead with their hands or fit into the Neanderthal body type. But she wasn't stupid. Any smart woman would experience a choke of vulnerable panic being trapped alone with those two bruisers on an enclosed elevator.
She walked toward the restroom sign but stopped when she saw the note on the door. Out of Order. Use 5th Floor.
Her residual panic skittered away. Frustration took its place, shaking through her with the force of a runaway truck. It was bad enough the conference manager got stuck on a call and sent her up ahead. Now she had to wander around looking for a restroom.
She glanced at the elevator, then at the emergency stairwell to the left of the bathroom. She'd take her chances on the stairs this time. With terror fueling her steps and wearing a pantsuit and low heels, she could run if she had to. In an elevator, she'd have nowhere to go.
She hit the stairwell and let her pumps click against the cement steps as she traveled up a floor. A quick peek through the small slit where she opened the door showed nothing but a carpeted hallway with an abandoned industrial carpet shampooer against the wall. Most of the doors weren't even on their hinges yet on this floor.
She waited for any sign of life, any noise. When the floor remained quiet, she snuck into the ladies' rest-room and let the door softly shut behind her on a swish.
With her palms flat against the fancy quartz sink, she stood still and let her breathing and heart rate dip back into normal range. As she pivoted for the stalls, the main door flew open. A blur dressed in black raced toward her. Before she could scream, hands clamped down on her arms and the figure shoved her hard against a stall door and back into the enclosed area. She only stopped when the back of her legs hit the toilet.