Not that undercover cop Luke Mars believed in fate. Especially when "fate" was supposedly a gorgeous goddess named Aurora, who claimed to be his guardian assigned from birth to watch over him.
But there was no denying Luke was shot. Dead. And he's on borrowed time, a fact Aurora knows all too well. Her job is to protect her mortal charges, not fall in love with them. With Luke not believing who she is and time ticking away for his demise, Aurora has but a day to see if love really can alter fate.
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A harsh sound vibrated through Luke's consciousness. It shook him out of whatever spell he was under. Suddenly he could feel the soft pillows and covers of his own bed. He opened his eyes and looked around. Pitch-blackit was the dead of night.
The three women were gone, though he could still feel his own arousal.
That honey smell heavenly
Beside him on the night table, his phone was buzzing and vibrating like an angry bee.
He grabbed for it. "Mars," he growled into it.
"It's going down," he heard a familiar voice whisper on the other end. "They're unloading a shipment. Pier 94, right now."
"Wait " Luke started, but the caller had hung up. His confidential informant, a longshoreman at the port. Luke felt adrenaline spike through his body, a thrill of excitement and anticipation. As a detective with the San Francisco Police Department, he was assigned to the special task force on piracy. He'd been working this case for six months and it was the first real break in the case; they'd been waiting for an actual shipment to arrive.
Luke threw back the bedclothes and stood, then grabbed the phone again and speed-dialed his partner while he scrounged for the clothes he'd discarded last night. Dark onesthey had to be dark.
The phone clicked over to a voice-mail message, and he waited impatiently for it to end so he could speak. "Pepper, it's Mars. Meet me on Cesar Chavez, above Pier 94. Just got tipped off that there's a shipment coming in."
He made the same call to his lieutenant and again got voice mail, so he left the same message.
He pulled black jeans and a T-shirt on over his intricate tattoos: the stylized sun on his biceps, the coiled dragons on his back. Viking symbols, which he supposed would have made his grandmother happy if she'd known about them. She loved to see him embracing anything Old Worldanything that referenced his Scandinavian blood.
As he dressed he could almost smell the honey-sweetness of the middle, red-haired woman again, and the dream flickered back into his consciousness.
He remembered it now: three women standing around his bed: blond, dark, and red.
He could feel a tingling that was more than just the lingering eroticism of the dream women, a tingling that always signaled a significant moment.
It was a dream, that's all.
The trouble was, he'd been having it since he was a child. And he didn't like the feeling in his gut.
Was it a good omen? Or a warning?
The dream of the three women had sometimes meant powerful good luck: like the day he learned he'd won a football scholarship to Stanford and the day he'd gotten his detective's shield. But at other times the dream had meant the most powerful bad luck, like when he'd been sidelined junior year by a knee injury and had basically lost out on a pro career. Not to mention he'd had the dream the night before he'd lost his parents in a car accident when he was seven
After a minute he stepped over to his closet and looked in at the bulletproof vest that hung on a hook just inside.
Although he hated driving in it, he snatched up the vest and shrugged it on over his T-shirt, grimacing at the bulk. But no use in ignoring signs. Call it instinct, call it premonition, call it the dream, but he didn't feel like taking chances tonight.
He pulled a dark windbreaker on over the vest as he exited his second-floor flat and pounded down the narrow stairs of the Victorian across from Golden Gate Park. Outside the night was eerie with drifting fog.
He hit the sidewalk and sprinted across the narrow strip of park, under the shadows of eucalyptus trees toward the garage that housed his car, and decided to call the dream a good omen. After all, he'd met possibly the most gorgeous woman in San Francisco the night before: Valentina, she'd said in the bar. On a scale of ten, she was a solid twelve. Come to think of it, a little like the dark one in the dream. They'd hit it off, attraction sizzling in the air like lightning, and she'd said she'd be calling him. He knew she would. She was just what he needed: a woman who could match him in curiosity and adventurousness, and who had no expectation of anything like forever. Luke Mars didn't do "forever." He was on the fast track; he needed to be able to disappear anytime he needed to for a case, needed to be able to pack up and go to another city if the mission or his restless spirit called for it. He never lied to anyone that he was anything but what he was: independent, free and definitely unattached.
Suddenly, inexplicably, Luke remembered the middle woman from the dream, the redhead, with that fiery red-gold mane cascading down over her shoulders, those sky-blue eyes and the way she had looked at him as if he were everything everything he actually wanted to be in his life. She'd said something to him. I'll take care of you.
He felt an unexpected pang quickly forgotten as he recalled the dark one's assets. Luke was, above all, a practical man.
Well, all right, practical didn't exactly describe his '99 Chevy Cavalier, souped up with a 350 horsepower engine, but there were limits to practicality.
Luke gunned the car out of the rented garage (no way would he trust this baby to the streets of San Francisco), and raced up Ashbury, enjoying the car's effortless climb on the nearly vertical hill and the power of the machine, like a fine horse underneath him.
He'd bought the car just for nights like these, when the city was asleep and he could have the streets almost to himself, racing the wind. He sped up over the crest of the hill and started the steep descent down toward the bay.
The buildings around him were enveloped in fog, fog and more fog; Luke could barely see through the windshield. It rolled away from the car as the high beams cut through the murk. The tops of the tallest buildings looked like UFOs, floating disembodied above the streets.
The dream faded away as he focused on the murky road and the task at hand.
The word pirates always seemed like a throwback, strangely stirring Luke's Viking blood. But in fact, piracy was a burgeoning modern crime. Shipping container theft was rampant on the high seasa low-risk, high-reward business that criminal elements from every country in the world seemed to be determined to get in on. Anything that could be stolenelectronics, appliances, softwarewas fair game. And the Port of San Francisco was a natural target.
In the past six months four major shipping lines had had container ships boarded and pillaged en route to the port. Luke's strongest lead was that the stolen containers were somehow being unloaded and processed at the port as legitimate cargo and immediately scattered to the four winds, shipped out via trucks all over the country. He just had to find out how.
He had a feeling that he was about to crack the case wide open and that it was his ticket to a lot. His personal plan was to nail the piracy ring to the wall and write that ticket: lieutenant, task force chief. It was time for him to be moving upward and onward; his superiors knew it and he knew it. It was just this propensity he had for.
Not trouble, no, not that.
Recklessnessno, he wouldn't say that, either.
He just never had seen the point in not charging ahead, when he had his facts straight and his suspects lined up. His grandmother had had a quaint saying to explain the trouble Luke got into: You have a bad Norn. The Scandinavian equivalent of saying he had a wayward guardian angel. How many times had he heard it growing up?
Luke frowned, surprised at his own train of thought. Now where on earth did that come from?
He had enough to concentrate on without getting distracted by a fairy tale.
He shifted gears to head down the next hill, then reached for the phone and autodialed his lieutenant again. Still just voice mail. Luke shook his head and called dispatch. "This is Detective Mars. I need to reach Lieutenant Duncan, it's urgent."
He disconnected as the dispatcher assured him he'd find Duncan, and tried Pepper. Nothing there, either.
Luke punched the phone off and drove.
There were ninety-six piers along the western edge of the bay, circling the city from the anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge, along the Marina district, around the north and east shores of the city and southward to the city line just beyond Candlestick Park. Eight miles of waterfront lands, commercial real estate and maritime piers, some of them world-famous landmarks like Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39. The active commercial piers, like Pier 94 on the southern waterfront, were leased out to companies throughout the world that needed to load or unload cargo.
Luke looked down from the top of the hill where he'd stopped the car a good distance from the pier's entrance; this late at night the sound of the motor would tip off anyone just inside the gates. He'd have to work his way down on foot.
The fog was thick and enveloping, which was great camouflage; it not only gave him cover but it also muted his footsteps in that way fog had of swallowing all sound. The guard booth at the entrance to the pier was empty; that was the first bad sign.
The good news was, it meant Luke's longshoreman was right; the empty booth was a clear sign something was going down. The bad news was, so far Luke was completely alone. There was no sign of any movement below at all, actually. No ship berthed, no cranes moving, no trucks, no workers. And yet everything in Luke said there was something going on down there.
He could feel the tingling again, a senseno, a certaintythat something major was about to transpire.
He drew his Glock and felt its comforting weight. I'll just have a look, he decided, and moved forward in the darkness.
Although the chain was on the gate, the gate wasn't locked, another sign of something hinky. Luke carefully eased the chain out of the fence and slipped through the gate, repositioning the chain to look as if it was locked.
The pier was a labyrinth of towering shipping containers, stacked two and three and even five high on the dock, like a child giant's building blocks in their bright colorsoranges and yellows and purplesnow muted by the dimness of night. And the whole yard was dead quiet: no lights, no activity. If there was something going down, it would have to be in what the dockworkers called "the shed" but which was really a two-hundred-thousand-plus square-foot warehouse.
And as Luke thought it, he heard the muffled rumble of a truck starting up inside the warehouse.
"Shit," he mumbled.
He ran into an aisle of containers, hugging the sides; it was like moving through a maze, and he had the unnerving feeling that he was being watched, like a mouse in a laboratory, a sense of being tracked from above.
He turned abruptly, and got a glimpse of a figure between stacks of crates, pale skin, red hair
A woman? What the hell?
He ran forward to the gap in containers, stared down the aisle.
Empty. Nothing. No one. Just the fog
Great. Seeing things now.
He turned back toward the warehouse.
As he started toward it in the dark, the woman stepped out of the shadows, watching him.
Approaching the warehouse, Luke could see light under the closed roll-up doors. Oh, yeah, there were people in there. And still no backup in sight.
Luke felt a surge of frustrationand recklessness. He wasn't planning on bursting in and arresting the whole lotthe only thing that would get him was killed. But it was an incredible opportunity to find out about the operation.
He tensed as he heard another engine start up inside the warehouse, and he made a quick decision. He hopped up on a nearby steel drum and then scaled up one of the tall containers, where he dropped down flat on his stomach so he'd have a bird's-eye view.
He eased his phone out of a pocket and turned on the camera. Anything he shot would be inadmissible as evidence, but this kind of thing could come in handy for identification.
There was a mechanical clunking behind him and he belly-crawled across the top of the container to watch as the metal warehouse door started rolling itself up.
His pulse began to race even harder at what he saw when he looked below.
There were a lot of guns down there. Four men on guard that he could see, each one with an automatic rifle, standing like soldiers as a tall, muscular man with white-blond hair signaled behind him and a container truck drove out of the warehouse, with no headlights on.
Not many legitimate shipments that need an armed guard, Luke thought to himself grimly.
But the next thing he saw was even more unnerving.
There were the sounds of some kind of struggle from the next aisle of containers, and another armed man came forward into the square light of the warehouse door, shoving a ragged man before him.
The tall blond man stepped forward tensely as the new man pushed his hostage down onto his knees. "What the hell is this?"
"He was sleeping back there." The guard jerked his head back toward the container maze and shoved the barrel of his rifle into the man's neck. The man whimpered.
"He stinks," said another one.
"Didn't see nothing, didn't see nothing," the ragged man stammered out, his voice shaky with fear. "Just trying to crash " Luke could see his fingers were covered with torn gloves and his hands and feet were as filthy as his clothes. One of the city's ubiquitous homeless, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Probably not just poor but mentally ill, as so many of them were.
"Waste him," the blond man said. "Dump him in the bay."
Above them, Luke was stiff with tension. He was badly outnumbered but he couldn't allow what was clearly going to happen. He had to make a move.
He edged his way back to the other side of the container and lowered himself onto the steel drum he'd used as a stepladder, then dropped silently onto the ground.
He tucked his Glock in his belt and quietly lifted the drumempty, thank Godand carried it carefully to the edge of the container.
Then he tipped the drum over and kicked it so that it rattled metallically down the concrete of the dark aisle, a startling, crashing noise. As the men spun toward the sound, he dodged back into the darkness, shouting out, "San Francisco PD. Drop your weapons. You're under arrest."
The homeless man bolted to life, leaping up and running, veering into an aisle of containers.
Good man, Luke thought. Survival instinct intact. He pressed himself against the container wall. "Drop your weapons," he growled again.