Read an Excerpt
"I'm not sure if we can reach a deal or not, Mr. Brandt. The current owner of the resort has no interest in selling."
Michael Brandt opened his briefcase and pushed aside a 9 mm pistol, a vial of holy water, a wooden stake sharpened to a deadly point and an antique knife with a silver filigreed handle. He took out a legal pad, plucked a pen from the pocket of his jacket and wrote a number on the pad. As he turned the pad around and pushed it toward the man seated on the other side of the conference table, he said, "I'm sure you'll pass along my offer to him anyway, as you're duty-bound to do as his attorney."
Long years as the lead partner in a high-powered practice should have given the lawyer the ability to conceal his emotions, but when he saw the figure Michael had scrawled on the pad, his eyebrows went up in surprise. "That's very generous," he said. "I certainly will pass it along."
Michael turned the pad around again, signed his name under the number and tore off the sheet. "I'll leave that with you to prove to your client that I'm serious about this matter." He tossed the pad back into the briefcase on top of the weapons. He had been careful to keep the case turned so that the lawyer couldn't see its contents.
Both men stood up and shook hands. "I'll be in touch," the lawyer promised.
"You've got my number," Michael said. He nodded and left the office.
He didn't like these places, all stuffy and reeking of wealth and power. But dealing with lawyers, stockbrokers, financial analysts and the like was a necessary part of his business. An occupational hazard, so to speak. And although these meetings weresometimes boring, they weren't likely to kill him.
Unlike some of the other occupational hazards he faced.
As he got into the express elevator alone on the thirty-third floor of the high-rise and watched the doors slide shut, he stiffened as warning bells went off in his brain. The doors were closed and the elevator had already started to sink, not to stop again until it reached the lobby. It was too late to get out.
The hatch cover in the top of the car was torn off with a sudden wrench. Michael twisted to the side as a black-clad figure dropped toward him. He brought the briefcase up and around. Metal rang against metal as a knife blade ripped through the leather exterior of the case and was stopped by the steel underneath. Michael rammed the case against the knife-wielder, knocking the man back against the wall of the elevator. He followed that with a knee to the groin, the attack almost too swift for the eye to follow. The black-clad man sagged in pain, but he wasn't out of the fight yet. He got a hand on Michael's face and clawed for his eyes.
Michael pulled back and swung the case again. It slammed against his attacker's head with a hollow thunk. This time the man fell to the floor of the elevator, out cold.
No, he was more than unconscious, Michael saw. The caved-in side of his head was mute testament to a fractured skull. Michael bent over and checked for a pulse, finding none. In the heat of fighting for his life, he had struck harder than he intended.
But he recognized the man now, images and information from a computerlike mental database popping up in his keen memory. Carl Williams. Human. Professional killer. Suspected in at least seven murders. Often employed by Michael's enemies to take care of problems that required a more mundane solution.
The elevator car still descended slowly toward the lobby. Michael figured he had another minute or so, tops.
He took a coil of slender but very strong nylon rope from the briefcase, looped it under the dead man's arms, then jumped and caught the edge of the hatch with one hand. He pulled himself up through it and then used the rope to haul the corpse through the hatch, as well. Then he lugged Carl Williams over to the edge of the moving car and looked down. There was enough room.
Michael rolled the body off the top of the car. It plummeted to the bottom of the elevator shaft, where it wouldn't be discovered for a while. Long enough, anyway.
Michael wasn't going to lose any sleep over Williams's death. The man was a cold-blooded murderer and didn't deserve any mourning.
As he hung one-handed from the hatch opening again, Michael grasped the cover with his other hand and pulled it over. He popped it back into place as he dropped lightly to the floor of the car again. He stowed the rope in the briefcase, looked at the rip in the leather and shook his head. Now that he regretted.
The fight for his life and then the exertion of disposing the hit man's body had made him breathe hard, but that had settled down by the time the elevator eased to a stop and the door opened. Michael stepped out into the lobby.
And was immediately assaulted again. Not by a killer this time, but by an attractive and determined-looking young woman. Almost as tall as him, she had smooth skin that held a faint shade of copper, dark, intense eyes that caught his and didn't seem to let go and long, straight, midnight-black hair that hung halfway down her back. Her long-sleeved silk blouse was a deep forest-green. Stylish jeans hugged her hips and long legs, legs that Michael couldn't help noticing as she blocked his path.
She held a small digital recorder in her hand and said, "Mr. Brandt, if I could have just a few minutes of your time. My name is Jessie Morgan. I'm a journalist and I have some questions."
Under other circumstances, talking to this woman might have been quite a pleasant experience, Michael thought, but not now. He had a great deal on his mind— the mission that had brought him here, for one thing, and the fact that mere moments earlier he had been fighting for his life, a sure sign that his enemies knew he was in town. He shook his head, brushed past her and strode toward the huge glass front doors of the office building, saying over his shoulder, "Sorry, I don't have any time right now."
As he left the place, he didn't look back.
It never occurred to him that she wouldn't take no for an answer.
Hating Michael Brandt would have been very easy if he hadn't been so ruggedly handsome, Jessie thought as she hurried to catch up to him on the sidewalk outside the building. Tall and obviously muscular under his casual but expensive clothes, he moved with an elegant, tautly controlled grace that reminded her of a stalking cougar. Intense blue eyes gazed out from a compelling, rough-hewn face. His sandy hair was cut short but was still long enough to tousle a little in the front. Some instinct must have warned him that she was coming up behind him, because he looked back sharply over his shoulder at her, his muscles tensing as if he thought he might be under attack.
He relaxed as he recognized her, but he didn't slow down. "I'm sorry, Ms. Morgan," he said as he strode along the sidewalk among towering skyscrapers. "I told you I can't give you an interview right now."
Even though she was almost as tall as him, Jessie had to hurry to keep up. Michael Brandt was the sort of man who didn't look as if he were moving very fast until you realized how much ground he covered.
"Just a few minutes of your time, Mr. Brandt," Jessie said again as she clutched the little recorder. "I'm sure my readers would like to know—"
Brandt stopped short but was able to make it seem graceful rather than abrupt. "What paper do you work for?" he asked.
"I'm a freelancer," she said, "but I'm on assignment right now for Supernova."
"The tabloid?" His voice was flat.
"It's a weekly newsmagazine."
"The tabloid," Brandt said again. He resumed walking, and this time he didn't apologize for refusing to talk to her.
With an angry toss of her head that threw her long hair back, Jessie started after him as he headed for a limo parked up the street. She wanted to get in at least a question or two before he reached the car.
"Is there any truth to the rumor that you're dating Angelica Boudreau?" she called after him.
At first she thought he was going to ignore her, but then he stopped and looked at her again. "I've never even met the lady."
Jessie suppressed the impulse to grin in triumph. All they had to do was answer one question and she was halfway to victory. Once she got even the most reluctant interview subject talking, she could keep them going.
"But what about the reports linking her separation from her husband to her involvement with you?"
Brandt shook his head. "They're false. Like I told you, I don't know her."
"Then who are you dating?"
He smiled. "I can't imagine why my love life would be interesting to anybody."
"You're a celebrity. People like to know what celebrities are doing… especially who they're doing."
For a second she thought Brandt was going to laugh. A good-humored twinkle appeared in his eyes, making him even more attractive. But then, in a flash, it disappeared. He gave a shake of his head and started walking toward the limo again. "Call me old-fashioned, but I don't talk about such things. Besides, I'm not a celebrity."
"No? You've driven race cars in Europe, flown a hot-air balloon around the world—"
"Most of the way around the world. I still haven't quite managed a complete circumnavigation."
"And you're worth umpteen jillion dollars," Jessie went on as if he hadn't interrupted. "That right there is enough to make you count as a celebrity."
"I try to keep a low profile on my financial dealings."
"Easy to do when you can distract the press by dating some of the most beautiful women in the world. You need a private jet just to keep up with all the ladies you've got on the string."
Brandt looked over at her as they walked. "You're a determined one, aren't you?"
"Always have been."
"What if I said this entire conversation was off-the-record?"
"Too late. You can't go back and put conditions on things like that."
"What if I sue your paper?"
Jessie had to laugh at that one. "More publicity for Supernova. The publisher would love it. He has an entire army of lawyers on retainer, and they've never lost a case."
"Not even when the paper printed a story about how the First Lady is actually a space alien?"
"Nobody's ever been able to prove otherwise, now have they?"
Brandt shook his head, probably not in denial of what she had said but more likely in amazement at her audacity.
They had almost reached the long black limo. Jessie knew she was running out of time. She wanted to get in one more question. "What do you have to say to those who claim you obtained your fortune through unethical or perhaps even illegal means?"
He opened the rear door of the limo—the driver didn't get out to do it for him, Jessie noticed—but paused to look at her before he got in. His steely eyes flashed as if he were angry at her, and she suddenly worried that she might have pushed him too far. Something about this man told her she didn't want him angry at her.
But then he seemed to relax, although it took a visible effort for him to do so. "Nobody's ever been able to prove it, now have they?" he asked, paraphrasing what she had just said to him.
With the slam of the door and a purring surge of the limo's expertly tuned engine, he was gone, leaving Jessie to stare after the departing vehicle.
Michael settled back against the luxuriously upholstered rear seat. The vehicle's smooth acceleration as it pulled away from the curb testified to the driver's skill. He looked at Michael in the rearview mirror and asked without the deference usually associated with a chauffeur, "Who was that?"
"The woman? Just another reporter."
"I saw the way she was chasing you along the sidewalk." The big blond man chuckled. "I thought I might have to get out and help you, but then I figured you could take care of her yourself."
Michael frowned. "What do you mean by that, Max?"
"Well, she was pretty good-looking, in a persistent sort of way."
"I didn't notice," Michael lied.
The truth was, he had noticed how attractive Jessie Morgan was… more than he wanted to. With everything else going on in his life right now, he didn't need any distractions—especially from a nosy reporter, no matter what she looked like. The resort deal was a delicate and important one, and the attack on him in the elevator proved that he couldn't let his guard down even for an instant. Not that he would have, even if Carl Williams hadn't tried to kill him. Years of living with violence and danger had ingrained caution in him. No one got too close to him except the handful of people in the worldhe trusted… and sometimes he kept his distance even from them.
He wished he had kept his distance from Charlotte. He wished that every day of his life.
"How did the meeting go?" Max asked, and Michael was grateful for the question since it got his mind off those painful memories.
"All right. The lawyer said his client wasn't interested in selling, but we all know what that means."
Max grunted. "Everybody's got their price. You just have to find it."
"Exactly." Michael paused, then went on. "Something interesting did happen on my way out of the building."
"Besides having a hot lady reporter chasing you, you mean?"
Michael tried to ignore the reference to how hot Jessie Morgan was, even though images filled his mind. Her long legs in those sleek-fitting jeans. Her breasts in that silk shirt. Her dark, intriguing eyes… especially those eyes. He forced the images away.
"Carl Williams tried to kill me."
"Son of a—" The limo lurched a little as Max instinctively hit the brakes. "Williams? He's in town?"