Red Delilah's Biker Bar
Mac was drunk.
If the sight of the nearly empty bottle of Lagavulin sitting on the bar in front of him wasn't proof positive, then the feel of his eyelids scraping across his eyeballs like thirty-grit sandpaper was.
Getting soused hadn't been his intention when he casually tailed Dagan Zoelner into their local watering hole. He'd simply been curious why Zoelner had run like a scalded dog out of the raucous barbeque that had been in full swing back at the shop. And he figured a couple of cold ones might loosen the guy's tongue.
But it wasn't a bottle of Budweiser Zoelner ordered after plunking himself down on a stool at the long mahogany bar, hooking the heels of his biker boots over the brass foot rail. It was scotch. An entire bottle.
And Mac hadn't been able to sit by nursing a beer while Zoelner proceeded to get piss drunk. For one thing, sitting by and watching a friend and trusted teammate get piss drunk, well, it was just...sad. And for another thing, he knew when men like them set about getting piss drunk, it was usually because something had triggered past demons to come out and play. Past demons in the form of dark memories of good men now dead, of missions or assignments or cases gone horribly wrong, or of bad calls that drove a guy crazy asking himself the sonofabitching question of what if.
What if I'd done things differently?
What if I'd moved just a little faster?
What if I'd taken a second look at that last bit of Intel?
It was a useless endeavor...asking what if. But that didn't mean all the operators at the privately run covert government defense firm known as Black Knights Inc. didn't indulge in it occasionally. Hell, more than occasionally. Asking what if seemed to come part and parcel with the job. And tonight it appeared Zoelner was doing just that...asking what if with gusto and single-minded determination all washed down with a healthy portion of twenty-year-old scotch-hiccup. And Mac, sympathetic fool that he was, had voluntarily joined in for the ride.
The good Lord knew he'd pay for it tomorrow with a headache big enough to drop a mule, followed by eight to ten hours of straight mainlining coffee in an attempt to combat the effects. But for right now, he felt pretty good. Except for the gritty eyes, his body was numb and tingly. His tongue particularly so. Which was why when he finally turned to Zoelner, breaking the we're-men-so-we-drink-in-silence thing they had going, and asked, "So, you gonna tell me why we're sitting here gettin' drunker than a betsy bug on a Tuesday night?" the second to the last word came out sounding more like Tushday.
Zoelner, usually known for his smooth movements and strange bouts of statue-like stillness, turned unsteadily toward him. His slate gray irises were nearly obscured by the heavy lids hanging over them. The left lid appeared to have suffered the influence of the scotch more than the right because it drooped just a fraction lower.
"First of all," Zoelner said, "has anyone ever told you the big-hat-and-no-cattle Texan comes out in you when you're tipsy?" He grinned lopsidedly. "And secondly," his expression turned serious, "don't go getting mushy on me."
"I'll have you know I grew up with a hat and cattle." Mac frowned. "And I'm not gettin' mushy on you. I just thought, you know, you might want to talk about," he made a rolling motion with his hand, "whatever."
Zoelner glanced around the bar, squinting at the red vinyl booths, the burly clientele, and the roaring jukebox like he'd never seen the place before. "Where am I?" He blinked owlishly. "I could've sworn I sat down in a badass biker bar, but at some point I must've been transported into the middle of a chick flick."
When he turned back, Mac made sure his expression was bland.
"Okay." Zoelner rolled his eyes. "So, let's talk. Let's delve into the depths of my emotions, of how I'm feeling. Then, after we're done doing that," he batted his lashes like he was trying out for a Revlon commercial or something, "we can ask the bartender to exchange our scotch for herbal tea and go find some Indigo Girls on the jukebox."
Mac snorted. His nose filled with the smells of stale beer, crushed peanut shells, and cowhide from the overabundance of leather being sported around the place. Except for the peanut shells, the scents reminded him of home, of The Lazy M ranch where he'd been born and raised.
All hat and no cattle, my ass.
"All right, shitheel," he grumbled. "So maybe you're not too keen on hashing out what's jerked a knot in your tail tonight." Zoelner's wide grin returned, and Mac realized with that last turn of phrase he'd proved the guy's point about the Texan coming out in him after he'd had a few. But he couldn't help it. Nor, come to think of it, would he want to. Because like most Texans, he was good-and-goddamned proud to say he hailed from the Lone Star State. Yeehaw! And pray the creek don't rise! "But I just gotta know...this doesn't have anything to do with Agent Winterfield, does it?"
Luke Winterfield was a rogue CIA agent who leaked information about the number and location of the U.S. government's black sites to the press. Some called Winterfield a whistleblower. Mac called him a traitor. And just this morning, splashed across the headlines, was news that the bastard had found a country to grant him asylum. It had to be a major blow for every CIA agent out there-even an exCIA agent like Zoelner.
"Pssshht." Zoelner made a face. "I stopped caring about The Company and its shenanigans years ago. As for Winterfield, I never met the ashhole." Zoelner frowned and rolled in his lips before trying again. "Asshole."
"Then what on God's green earth is tonight all about?" Mac demanded. "Because I gotta be honest. This whole sittin'-here-in-silence-while-we-drink-ourselves-good-lookin' thing has just about run its course with me."
Zoelner tipped his glass of scotch toward the opposite end of the bar. "I don't want to talk about it," he said. "Actually, I don't want to talk about anything other than that brunette over there, and the fact that she's been eyeing the two of us like we're tall drinks of water and she's been lost in the desert for days."
Mac glanced down the polished length of mahogany and...sure enough. There was a bird in a tight top and buttery-soft biker jacket sitting near the end. She looked like she might've stepped off the cover of a motorcycle magazine-having that whole sexy-without-being-overly-pretty thing going. And when she caught him staring, she licked her ruby-red lips and seductively lowered her thick, sooty lashes.
Can you say invitation, ladies and gents? Even in his scotch-addled state, Mac recognized the blatant come-and-get-me-big-boy look in her eyes.
Sorry, darlin'. But you're barkin' up the wrong tree.
"No, thanks," he told Zoelner, sitting back and lifting his glass of scotch to his lips. "She's not my type."
Zoelner hooted with laughter, slamming down his empty tumbler. "Type? Dear God, it's not like you're looking for a blood donor or anything. Type hasn't got a damned thing to do with it. She's hot. She's obviously horny. And one of us should do something about that."
"Be my guest."
Zoelner cocked his head. "You remind me of a giant black hole, sucking all the light and fun out of the evening."
"Me?" Mac turned on the man incredulously. "I'm not the one who decided to spend the night sitting at this...this sausage-factory of a bar, quietly getting stone-cold shit-faced."
"Hmm." Zoelner narrowed his eyes. "Sausage-factory of a bar, eh? Meaning there are too many swinging dicks and not enough soft and sexies around tonight? Do I detect a hint of melancholy?"
"That's a big word for a drunk man." Mac chuckled.
"I'm not that drunk," Zoelner insisted, and Mac grabbed his stomach, laughing out loud. "Okay, so maybe I am that drunk," Zoelner admitted, "but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. My point is, I think you're not interested in the brown-haired Betty over there because you're pining away... Is that how you Texans would put it? Pining? For a certain redhead who's suspiciously absent from the bar tonight."
And that strangled Mac's laughter into a cough. He lifted his glass to suck down a drop of scotch. Carefully placing the tumbler back on the bar, he ran his tongue over his teeth and said, "I don't know what you're talkin' about."
"The hell you don't." Zoelner snorted. "Anyone with eyes in their head knows you're hot-to-trot for our usual bartendress. And if all her come-ons are anything to go by, she's hot-to-trot for you, too. Which begs the question...what are you waiting on? Why haven't you hit that, like, a thousand times by now?"
"Hit that?" Mac pulled a face. "What are we? Fifteen?"
"Dodging the question?" Zoelner countered, and Mac didn't know whether to applaud the man's astuteness or strangle him right where he sat.
Deciding neither scenario would be all that satisfying, he shrugged his shoulders in what he hoped was a gesture of supreme unconcern. "That Woman,"-Mac always thought of Delilah Fairchild, proprietress and namesake of the bar they were currently sitting in, that way, in capital letters-"isn't my type either. And you know why."
Just the one word. Spoken with complete conviction.
Mac gifted Zoelner with a dirty look and reached for the bottle of Lagavulin. Upending it, he poured the last few drops into his glass, then slowly lifted the tumbler, taking a leisurely sip.
"You know what I think of that whole thing, right?" Zoelner asked. Mac ignored him, wishing like hell he'd never opened his big mouth after that goddamned mission in Somalia. But sitting in a bar in South Africa, basking in the glow of a successful operation-and after having downed a half dozen beers-the whole sorry story had come tumbling out. "Oh, and what? Now you're a mute?" Zoelner inquired after it became apparent Mac wasn't going to rise to his bait.
But what could Mac say? The truth was, he did know what Zoelner thought. The guy had flat-out told him he was an idiot to compare one woman to another. Horseshit was the word Zoelner used if Mac remembered right. But the guy just didn't understand. He didn't know what-
"Fine," Zoelner spat, shaking his head. "So, we'll pretend Delilah Fairchild isn't your type either."
And, yeah. It would be pretending. Because, in all honesty, they both knew That Woman was every man's type. Not only was she a perfect ten on the curve-o-meter, but her heart-shaped face, with her clear green eyes and pouty Kewpie-bow lips, belonged on primetime television. And, as if all that wasn't enough, her pale, creamy skin had to go and be all flawless and shit. Seriously, no matter how closely Mac looked, he couldn't find a single pore to mar her porcelain complexion. To put it quite simply, from the top of her head to the ends of her red-tipped toes, Delilah Fairchild was one hundred percent pure woman. And one hundred percent, no-holds-barred beautiful. Beautiful and vivacious and used to commanding the attention of every man in the room. And that last bit made her all too familiar.
Too familiar and too...dangerous. And honestly? His life-the one where he masqueraded as a motorcycle mechanic when in fact he was part of a clandestine government defense group that operated as the very tip of Uncle Sam's sword-was dangerous enough already, thank you very much.
And speaking of familiar...
Without warning, the unwelcome image of Jolene flashed behind his gritty eyes. Hair as black as a raven's wing. Eyes the color of Texas bluebonnets. Skin like buttermilk. And a heart as fickle and capricious as a Texas spring...
He shook his head and blinked away the disturbing vision in time to see Zoelner raise a hand and call out to the bald, goateed man behind the bar. "Hey, Brendan! Where's the lovely lady of the house this evening? Not that my rather large, rather slow-talking friend here," Zoelner hooked a thumb in Mac's direction, "is wearing the sulky look of a eunuch in a whorehouse because he's missing her gorgeous face or anything. Because she's absolutely not his type."
Right then, Mac made the supremely wise and incredibly mature decision to kick the former CIA agent's booted ankle. Zoelner turned to lift a dubious brow before he hauled off and kicked Mac right back. Which, of course, left Mac with no recourse but to respond with an even harder kick and soon they were scuffling like a couple of rowdy college frat boys instead of two highly trained operators. Then again, they were highly tipsy as well. So maybe that explained it.
"Delilah's down south," Brendan said, coming to stand in front of them while continuing to wipe wet pint glasses with a dish towel. Short and squatty, Brendan had the physique of a wrestler and the face of a boxer-the bridge of his nose and his cheekbones looked like they'd been flattened more than a time or two by heavy fists. What he lacked in height, he obviously made up for in sheer scrappiness.
"Where?" Zoelner asked, adjusting his leather jacket and shooting Mac a narrowed-eyed glare before turning his attention back to Brendan.
"Southern Illinois," the bartender said, and Mac thought, Southern Illinois? What the hell is she doin' down there?
"What the hell is she doing down there?"
He blinked, startled. Had he asked the question aloud? Just how much scotch had he had?
But no. It was Zoelner Brendan turned to to answer. Of course, Mac was forced to wonder again just how much scotch he'd had when, before any words had a chance to form on Brendan's tongue, the thought don't let her be down there visiting a lover whispered through the back of his brain.
Whoa. What? Where the hell had that come from? He didn't give two shits what or...or...who she was doing down in southern Illinois.
He couldn't help but notice his question was answered with resounding, cricket-chirping silence.
Well, hell. That's just the booze talkin'. Because anything else was too disconcerting to contemplate.
"Between you and me," Brendan said, leaning in conspiratorially, "I think she's trying to avoid the bar."
"What? Why?" Zoelner asked.
Mac glared at the mind-reading man. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Carnac the Magnificent or somethin'?"
"Huh?" Zoelner frowned at him in narrow-eyed affront. "Why are you scowling at me like that? Stop it, or that brown-haired Betty over there is going to think you just broke up with me."
As a group, Mac, Zoelner, and Brendan all turned to smile at the woman in question. Zoelner raised his glass and wiggled his eyebrows, which elicited a seductive lowering of the Betty's lashes and a subtle quirk of one corner of her lacquered lips.
"So why is Delilah avoiding the bar?" he asked, finding his way back on track more quickly than Mac. Of course, the instant That Woman's name was mentioned, every single thought in Mac's head focused on her like a blue-tick healer pointing out a covey of quail.
Shit, shit, shit.
"After Buzzard's murder," Brendan began, and oh, great. Just what Mac didn't need to be reminded of right now-the all-out gun battle Delilah had found herself involved in a few months ago, the one where her most loyal patron died. Because that had been the night he almost threw caution to the wind and went against all his better judgment to take her up on one of her offers. She'd been so vulnerable and sad. And he'd wanted to comfort her so badly. "She's been jumping at every chance she gets to hightail it out of here. I think this place holds too many bad memories now."
The three of them fell quiet for one moment. Then two.
"But anyway." Brendan brushed a hand through the air, as if he could wave off the cloud of discomfort hanging over them. "She's on a road trip with her uncle. Something about a visit to an old friend of his, and-"
"Oh, I figured she was down there working her woo-woo magic on the budget of some two-bit municipality," Zoelner said.
Her woo-woo magic...
Zoelner wasn't talking about Delilah's ability to hypnotize a man with her cat-eyed stare or the bewitching way her hips swayed when she walked across the room. He wasn't referring to her talent for whipping up an alcoholic concoction that could taste sweet as candy one minute and knock a man flat on his ass the next or how she could cast a spell over the entire bar simply by tossing her head back and letting loose with that low, throaty laugh of hers. Huh-uh. The guy wasn't talking about any of that, though it could all certainly count as woo-woo magic, witchcraft, or, in Mac's not-so-humble opinion, straight-up voodoo sorceress shit. What Zoelner was referring to was the fact that Delilah Fairchild, the sex-pot owner of a down-and-dirty biker bar, happened to spend her free time working as a...wait for it...freakin' forensic accountant.
Sweet Lord almighty, sometimes Mac still had trouble believing it.
Though, truth be told, he had no trouble whatsoever imagining it. He'd spent more than an hour or two daydreaming about her sitting at a desk somewhere, hair twisted up in a bun, reading glasses perched on the tip of her prim nose. In fact, for the last six months-ever since he'd learned what her second gig was-it'd been his favorite go-to fantasy. Something like the tried-and-true naughty librarian dream set on overdrive, because, you know, that whole one-part-proper-lady-and-two-parts-sex-goddess shtick had been a male spanktrovision standard since the beginning of time and-
The front door burst open, slamming against the inside wall. Mac turned to see who was in such an all-fire hurry to get inside the bar. One look had his lungs playing the part of Michael Jordan. They attempted to leap right out of his throat.
Speak of the devil...
Even if he hadn't recognized the long auburn hair cascading from beneath a motorcycle helmet and tumbling around a set of leather-clad shoulders, the shouts of gleeful greeting and the lifted mugs of beer would've told him the woman of the hour had made her way home.
See... Beautiful and vivacious and able to command the attention of every man in the room...
He swiveled back toward the bar, but the hairs on the back of his neck almost instantly alerted him to the fact that That Woman had marched up behind him.
Slowly, with what he hoped wasn't a patently false look of unconcern, he turned around. But before he could open his mouth, she whipped off her helmet and shook out her hair. He was accosted by the spicy-sweet scent of her perfume and the earthier aroma of the open road. Inexplicably, and to his utter horror, Little Mac, the idiot in his pants, defied all convention-not to mention the amount of liquor he'd imbibed-and lifted to half-mast.
Well, for God's sake, he thought with disgust, mentally calling himself and Little Mac ten kinds of fool just as Delilah blurted, "Thank goodness you're here."
"Huh?" Okay, and even in his scotch-muddled state, he recognized his response for the gleaming bit of witticism it was not.
Delilah frowned. "Are you drunk?" She placed her hands on her hips. Her round, curvy, delicious hips. Her lovely hips that just begged for a man's hands and-
"Maybe," he told her, holding his forefinger and thumb an inch apart. "Just a little."
"Goddamnit!" she growled, then immediately yelled for Brendan to bring over two cups of coffee.
"Hey, now. Don't do that," Zoelner objected. "I've been working all evening on this buzz and I-"
"Can it," Delilah cut him off. Mac lifted his eyebrows in surprise. Not that Delilah wasn't a speak-her-mind, in-your-face kind of broad, because she was. But this was something different. The tone she'd taken with Zoelner bordered on rude.
"I need you." She pointed a red-tipped finger at Zoelner's nose, causing the man to go cross-eyed when he attempted to focus on it. Whoa. What? She needed...Zoelner? Then she turned to include him in that stomach-churning statement. "I need both of you."
Zoelner's face pulled down in a considering frown. "Just to be clear, I'm not usually the kind of man who likes to share his pleasures." Okay, and just the thought had a lurid emotion-not jealousy, definitely not jealousy-buzzing at the back of Mac's head like a swarm of angry Texas yellow jackets. "But if you've a mind to-"
"Not like that," Delilah hissed, color climbing in her already flushed cheeks.
All right. Something...Mac tilted his head, blinking...isn't right here. Unfortunately, the discombobulating combination of scotch and Delilah's nearness ensured he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Then she saved him the trouble of trying to figure it out when she blurted, "My uncle is missing. And I need you guys to help me find him."