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Former major Griffin Wicklow had heard countless tales about Ranger Security and their often bizarre assignmentsensuring the safe passage of fertility statues, finding lost Confederate treasure, recovering Truffles, the dognapped millionairebut this.
This had to take the top spot for the Strangest Assignment Ever.
He stared at each of the founding members of Ranger Security in turn. Brian Payne, the Specialist, whose cool demeanor and keen attention to detail was legendary. Jamie Flanagan, a proper genius who'd been a notorious player until he met and married Colonel Carl Garrett's granddaughter, and Guy McCann, the Maverick, whose ability to skate the thin edge between recklessness and brilliance was still locker-room lore.
When their expressions didn't change and he was sure that this wasn't some sort ofjoke, he looked at the photograph once more and struggled to find the appropriate response. One that wouldn't make him appear ungrateful for the job, because nothing could be further from the truth.
He cleared his throat. "I'm escorting a bra from West Virginia to New York and back again?"
"Not just any bra," Payne corrected levelly. He hooked a leg over his knee and leaned farther back into the comfortable leather chair he currently occupied. Downtown Atlanta was framed in the window behind him, glittering with glass and steel. "That's a Rossi creation, designed exclusively for the Clandestine Lingerie Company."
Though Griff had never had any reason to purchase anything from the iconic lingerie company, he could certainly remember thumbing through the catalogs in his teens. His lips twitched. They'd been a source of inspiration, for lack of a better term, and were more easily procured than the traditional skin magazines.
"And that bra, in particular, is worth two and a half million dollars," Jamie Flanagan added. "Naturally, Montwheeler is keen to protect its investment."
A tremor of shock rippled through him. Griff felt his eyes widen and he whistled low. "Two and a half million? For a bra?"
Guy shrugged. "It's good advertising for the Mont-wheeler Diamond Company, for Clandestine Lingerie and the jewelerin this case, Frank Rossiwho was tapped to create the design. Ultimately, Montwheeler gets the jewels back. They'll put the bra up at auction. If it doesn't sell, they haven't lost anythingthey still have the stones, after all, and it's Clandestine who covers the cost of the designer. As far as PR goes, it's brilliant."
He supposed. Still It was hard to believe that people actually spent this much time and money on something so unimportant, frivolous even. Given what he'd seen over the past several years in service to Uncle Samthe death and destruction, the horror, the povertyit was hard to reconcile this new assignment to those he'd had in the past. He swallowed.
But that's exactly what they werein the past.
Thanks to some misguided sense of duty and honorto the very person who'd inadvertently wrecked his family and prematurely propelled him into adulthood, no lesshe'd decided a career change was in order. Could he have continued in the military with one kidney? Probably. But given the prep, surgery and post-op care, not to mention his mother's and sister's continued come-home pleas, he'd ultimately decided that Providence was trying to tell him something. Once he was certain of the job at Ranger Security, he'd initiated the necessary paperwork.
And the rest, as they say, was history.
Whether or not this new life was going to be an improvement over the old one remained to be seen. He certainly couldn't find fault with the benefits package, that was for sure. In addition to a very healthy salary and a fully stocked, furnished apartment, a company car had been waiting on him when he'd arrived this morning. He'd been given a laptop, a cell phone, a new Glock with permission to carry concealed and a sincere slap on the back that had welcomed him into the fold.
For whatever reason, that slap had been more appreciated than anything else. He'd instantly liked all three men, felt an immediate kinship. As former rangers themselves, they got him. Honor, duty, service. They were more than words; they'd been a way of life. His new employers knew the decision to leave hadn't been made lightly, knew that coming to terms with this career change was a struggle. Because it wasn't just the careerit was a different world, one he knew his place in.
And here? Well, that still remained to be seen.
"We've been hired by Montwheeler to ensure the safety of the bra," Payne continued. "You're to pick it up at Rossi's in Shadow's Gap, West Virginia, at three tomorrow afternoona representative of Rossi's will accompany youand take it to New York, safeguard it throughout the show, then return it to Rossi. Rossi will make any necessary repairs before Montwheeler takes possession once again."
All things considered, it shouldn't be too difficult.
He nodded. "All right."
Guy's lips twitched with humor. "There are worse things in life than going to a lingerie show," he added. "Leggy, half-naked models parading about and all. Consider it a perk."
Griff grinned. There was that. He hadn't been with a woman, naked or otherwise, in months. No time. Between deployment, surgery and recovery, he'd had very little opportunity to find comfort in the softer sex. While he'd been recuperating at his mother's, one of Glory's friends had visited frequently and had less than subtly let him know that she was available, but Griff knew the minute he showed the least little bit of interest, his mother and sister would have him married off before he could say "I don't."
In fact, the settle-down-and-find-a-nice-girl refrain had been coming off his mother's lips a little too frequently for comfort, particularly considering he had no plansimmediate or otherwiseto marry. He carried the Wicklow gene, Griff thought darkly, and, based on family history, Wicklows were incapable of being faithful.
It wasn't a theory he was willing to test.
Thankfully, he'd never met a girl who'd made him want to risk it.
Besides, he already had a family to take care of, the one he'd had since he was almost thirteen years oldhis mother and sister.
"Do you have any questions?" Payne asked.
Griff shook his head, tuned back in to the present conversation. "None that I can think of at the moment."
"All right, then." Payne stood, signaling the end of the briefing. "I think that about covers it. You know where to find us if you need anything."
Griff and the others found their feet, as well. He shook Payne's outstretched hand. "I don't anticipate any problems."
Payne merely smiled, but didn't comment.
Griff had almost reached the door when a thought struck. He stopped short and turned around. "The Rossi representative? They're aware that I'm in charge, right?" Considering their company had designed the bra, he could see where they might feel a certain ownership. He didn't want to waste precious time and energy on a power struggle.
Something flitted across Payne's facehumor, maybe?so fast Griff was inclined to believe he'd imagined it. Jamie suddenly developed a keen fascination with the toe of his shoe and McCann turned a small chuckle into a pitiful replica of a cough.
A finger of unease nudged Griff's spine.
"The Rossis are aware that you were hired by Montwheeler and that, as such, you're the ultimate authority on how to protect the piece."
Good, Griff thought, still puzzled over their odd behavior. He was accustomed to giving orders and having them followed without question. That this Rossi person had been made aware of the status quo should make his job easier. He could always pull rank, of course, but it was better if he didn't have to.
Determined to get started, he nodded and made his exit. He'd just walked into reception when Juan Carlos, their office manager, halted him with an urgent psst.
Griff frowned and walked over to the thin Latino man's desk. Juan Carlos wore a perpetually long-suffering look and the latest in men's fashion, and sorted his ink pens by color. "Yes?"
Juan Carlos slid a picture across his desk. "Does this woman look familiar?"
Griff picked up the photo and studied it. One look had confirmed that he didn't know who the woman was, but he was curiously struck by her nonetheless. Inexplicably, his stomach tightened and a tingling sensation flitted through his chest. He told himself it was indigestion and batted the curious sensation away.
Long, wavy dark brown hair framed a face that was heart-shaped but lean, emphasizing her high cheekbones and lush mouth. Her skin was luminous, practically glowing with good health and vitality. It looked soft, touchable. Her eyes were large, an unusual misty gray and surrounded by thick, sooty lashes. Hidden humor lurked in that gaze, as though she was privy to some private joke. She was smiling, almost shyly, and there was something about that hint of vulnerability that made her especially attractive. She wasn't merely beautiful or pretty, though those words certainly fit. She was lovely.
Oddly shaken, Griff handed the photo back to the office manager and shook his head. "She doesn't look familiar, sorry."
Juan Carlos swore hotly under his breath. "Damn them. This isn't funny anymore. They can't keep playing the same joke on every new agent. It's not professional."
Joke? What joke? Confused, Griff frowned. "Come again?"
Juan Carlos straightened, then seemed to give himself a little shake. "No worries, Major Wicklow, you'll recognize her soon enough," the little man said grimly. He gathered up a sheaf of papers from his desk, then stood and swiftly retreated before Griff could press him for further clarification.
Rather than dwell on the bizarre exchange, Griff shook it off. After all, he had a strategy to plan and a very expensive bra to protect.
Payne waited until he was certain Griff was out of earshot and then turned to face the other two. He arched a questioning brow. "First impressions?"
"I don't think we could have matched him up to a better first assignment," Guy said, dropping back into his chair. "If anyone needs to be able to find the humor in a situation, it's him."
Jamie nodded thoughtfully. "I agree. Granted, he hasn't had a lot to laugh about of late, but by all accounts he's always been rather serious."
Thanks to Charlie, their female hacker extraordinaire, they knew more about Griff than he'd no doubt be comfortable with. School records showed a well-rounded, bright, promising athlete until the seventh grade. Beyond that, various counselors and teachers had noted a distinct withdrawal from social clubs, sports and the like. By all accounts, Griffin had abandoned normal school-age pursuits and started working various odd jobs. He cut grass, hauled hay, raked leaves, bagged groceries, walked dogs, anything that would net him a cash return for his services. And the impetus that had caused this change?
His father had left.
As the only "man" left in the house, amateur analysis suggested that he'd prematurely stepped up to try to fill his father's role and had developed an early sense of obligation and duty. No doubt that's what had appealed to him about the military, where the lines were clearly drawn and order was law. He'd earned an ROTC scholarship, graduated at the top of his class and quickly moved onto Ranger School. He'd excelled in the military, had been routinely given difficult assignments because he'd proven time and time again that he could see them through and, as a result, had been given the nickname "the Closer."
A quick glance at his financials had revealed that, in addition to buying the house his mother and sister currently lived in, regular monthly transfers had been deposited into his mother's account. Both his mother and sister had obtained their nursing licenses and worked for a small home-health company in Chapel Crossing, just outside the city. Payne would be willing to bet that Griff had paid for that, as well.
"He seems to have recovered well from the surgery," Guy remarked.
"He does," Payne agreed. "Dr. Jackson cleared him for work without any restrictions, so I think the physical toll is past him." In addition to Griff's own doctor, Payne had insisted that theirs take a look at him, as well. Better safe than sorry, right?
Jamie shot him a look. "What about his emotional health? You think his head is on straight?"
Payne hesitated. "I think it's on straight enough to do the job. I think he's struggling with the sudden, unwanted relationship with his half brother."
Guy grunted knowingly and his eyes widened. "That had to have raked up some shit. Go seventeen years without hearing a peep from his father and then a phone call out of the blue from the man, asking him to give up a kidney for the son he actually raised?" He grimaced significantly. "That would screw with any guy's head."
"Yeah, but it wasn't the kid's fault, was it?" Jamie added. "Griff's dad was the bastard, not the boy."
"And the kid was dying," Guy said. "It wasn't like Griff had a choice."
True enough, Payne supposed, but it couldn't have made the ordeal any less difficult.
And no doubt figuring out where to go from here was going to take serious thought and consideration. Even from the outside looking in, the family dynamics were a nightmare. Even if Griff decided that he wanted to get to know his little brother, how would his mother and sister feel about it? Would they approve? Or would it be too painful for them? He didn't envy Griff, that was for damn sure.
"Are we certain Jessalyn Rossi is going with him?" Jamie asked.
"Last I heard," Payne told him. "She wasn't thrilled with the idea, but I gather her father is a bit of a recluse and her siblings no longer have anything to do with the family business. It's her or no one and, evidently, letting someone else accompany the bra isn't an option either."
"What do we know about her?"
Payne chuckled. "She's hell on wheels. Literally. She works for the company and by all accounts is a top-notch jeweler." He hesitated. "In addition to that job, she moonlights as a mechanic and dabbles in amateur stock-car racing. She's doing quite well this season," he added mildly.
Both Guy and Jamie swiveled to look at him, their faces identical masks of shock.
"Seriously?" they echoed.
Payne nodded, enjoying their expressions.
"Well, that should certainly make things interesting," Guy remarked.
"Something needs to," Jamie remarked, tossing a jelly bean into his mouth. "This case seems pretty cut-and-dried." He shot them a sardonic smile. "In other words, boring."
Payne smiled but wasn't convinced. He had an odd feeling about this assignmenta premonition of something he couldn't seem to shakeand intuition told him there was more to this mission than met the eye.
He just hoped Griffin Wicklow was ready for it.