The Only Exception by A.L. Davis by A.L. Davis - Read Online

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Summary

“Everyone I’ve ever loved has been taken from me and I can’t take the heartache anymore. It’s time to build that wall around my heart and let no one in, no exceptions.”

Ellie never did know her mother; before she turned twenty she lost her father in the line of duty; a freak accident stole her fiancé from her before they had a chance to start their life together. She wants answers, but now that she’s living in a new town and trying to start over, she’s finding that it’s not that easy. Maybe new surroundings are what she needs to make it easier to move on and forget all about her old life. It could have been…until he showed up.

“Having the sort of job that is as dangerous as what I do doesn’t allow for a personal life, no exceptions.”

Jack and his team of military misfits have seen their fair share of war zones and violent criminals. Skilled in precision rescue operations, they’ve traveled into some of the most terrifying countries and stood up to intimidating adversaries, but when a mentor of Jack’s calls them in for a favor that he is unable to turn down, he finds himself up against his most challenging fear of all…his heart. There is a fine line between getting close enough to do your job and getting so close that you get attached. That line used to be obvious, but now that he’s met her, things have blurred and priorities have shifted. Can he keep his feelings in check and still protect Ellie from an adversary more dangerous and twisted than she could ever imagine?

Published: A.L. Davis on
ISBN: 9781500810207
List price: $2.99
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The Only Exception - A.L. Davis

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Page 1 of 1

done.

CHAPTER 1

Second Chances

Ellie

Waking up in a panic, my arm instinctively swept across the right side of the mattress where I used to find solace. The side of the bed that used to smile warmly at me in the morning, greeting me with tender kisses and gentle touches that made any bad dream or bad thought I could possibly have had a faded memory.

Like it was yesterday, I could still feel his tender caresses; his light touch tracing up my arms, down my back. I could feel him graze over my bare hips, his hand coming around, his fingers finding that I was just as wanting as he was. His lips would meet mine as my hands wandered over his creamy skin and well-defined muscles until we couldn’t help ourselves, and he’d roll on top of me and enter with ease.

Now, instead, cold sheets stung my fingertips and my arm recoiled back. The grogginess of sleep was harshly sobered by the reality that was my life now. Alone. Unsure. Unable to let myself get attached anymore. The damn nightmares haunted me, making me remember every detail of why I couldn’t have my old life back.

I lifted my head slightly, peering through the strands of my matted brown hair to see that my alarm was five minutes away from buzzing. I groaned at my impeccable timing, reaching over and turning the damn thing off. What was the point of staying in bed? Might as well get up and get the day started. I was set to wrap up on a story that was ending with a press conference at the county courthouse this morning.

And I get to break in a new cameraman. Lucky me. This had to be the sixth or seventh guy Lou had tried to pair with me in the last six months alone. Not exactly a day I was looking forward to. Let’s see if I could break a new record and have him fired by lunch. No, better yet, I bet I'd have him on the next flight out of here before the conference at the courthouse this morning at ten.

My stomach fluttered. The conference. This was the day I’d been waiting for since Lou put me on his team and I got this story. I’d brought the story to Lou after reading about this guy’s capture in the paper a couple mornings after I’d moved in. I watched this one closely. Why not report on it, as well? Lou was leery of me taking on a story like this, seeing as how my father died by the hands of someone as cold and heartless as this killer they had in custody.

Today was sentencing day. If I had my way, today would be the day he’d be lynched right in the middle of the courtyard for all to see, instead of having a press conference. After what he did to all the families’ lives that he’d wrecked, it was enough for me to want him to feel the same pain. He killed undercover cops. I knew what it felt like to go through that loss.

Forcing myself to sit up, I dangled my bare feet over the side of the bed and stretched my arms overhead, yawning before rubbing the sleep from my eyes. The early morning sun brightened the room just enough to remind me where I was. Or maybe it was more of a reminder of where I wasn’t. The stupid, barren, flat-white paint on the walls was so depressing. Nothing like the warm beige that adorned the walls of our old bedroom, with the burnt red that accented the wall our headboard leaned up against.

I smirked at the sting of the memory.

One of these days, maybe I’d buy some art to cover up the plain walls. Or maybe I’d be brave enough to throw around some brightly-colored paint, like yellow or fuchsia or fire engine red.

Or maybe not. Confrontation with the landlord over paint color just didn’t seem worth it. I’d just get Lou in trouble if I did. He paid for this place. They’d come after him for reimbursement of anything I did that they didn’t approve first.

It really didn’t matter. I didn’t plan on staying long enough to bother with it. This was going to be the last story I was going to do for Lou. He didn’t quite know it yet, though. As much as I appreciated everything he’d done for me, I needed to get back to California. I was tired of the phone calls that were never returned, and the unanswered questions. Once I was face-to-face with the investigators, they’d have to tell me of their progress in both cases...the one on my dad, and the one on the accident that led me here.

Knowing what an incessant chatterbox my phone could be in the middle of the night, I always turned the volume down. I sighed at the green flashing notification light confirming that it had been busy yet again while the sun was down.

It was only after I showered and had my first cup of coffee in hand that I allowed myself to check my messages. The emails were mostly junk – always were. I hardly ever got anything worth reading. A single text message was from my neighbor, Lucy, wanting me to get together with her for another one of her debaucherous girl’s nights, which usually involved being hit on by drunken cowboys, enduring hours of girl talk, dodging questions about why I wouldn’t go home and have sex with said drunken cowboys, and making sure Lucy made it into her apartment before she fell to the floor.

It looked like I also had three missed calls with voicemails to match. I put my phone on speaker and set it on the counter in the kitchen while I pulled out whatever sounded semi-appetizing to throw together for breakfast.

"You have three unheard messages, the voice prompt started after I entered my password. First unheard message..."

Yo, El, baby doll. I grimaced at the voice from my not-so-distant past. Suddenly, I lost my appetite.

His transfer back to New York almost made me dance for joy when I’d heard. Out of all of them, he was the worst. I thought I was finally rid of him. I could almost still taste the overpowering stench of his cologne that I could never seem to get off my clothes and hair for days after we worked together. He was a cameraman Lou had paired me with when I’d first arrived. He was an annoying son-of-a-bitch who assumed that every time we were on a story together, it was actually a date.

You miss me, hon? he continued and I cringed. Come on. His New York accent elongated the word on and it sounded like nails to a chalkboard. I know you do. I groaned, saying no out loud. He laughed as if he’d heard me before continuing, I, uh...I was hoping that since I don’t work there no more, maybe you’d like to catch a movie or check out that new restaurant that opened up downtown. Yeah, I’ve been keeping tabs on that old DT. I’m actually gonna be coming through town next month or so, which is why I’m callin’. Call me back.

Fuck you. The words came out before I could stop them and, even though I was alone, I covered my mouth in embarrassment and pressed the button to delete the message before it even asked me to.

"Message deleted. Next unheard message..."

Eleanor, dear, Lou’s gravelly, low voice boomed from the phone, making me smile. Just calling to ask you to please remember to meet with Jack in the morning before you take off. You remember Jack? He’s the guy I introduced you to last week. You know, your new cameraman. Yes, you need a cameraman. I know you’re shaking your head at me now. I stopped shaking my head and glared at the phone. How did he do that? What good are you if I can’t get any pictures to go with the stories? Lou paused and muttered, Sometimes you act like such a child. I don’t think he meant for me to hear that. Listen, you need a cameraman. I love you to death, but I’m running out of options..., he paused and sighed, ...and favors. Call me back when you get this.

I remembered Jack with his cocky attitude and flirtatious smile. His dark hair was always disheveled, like he'd just gotten out of bed. His eyes, a bright shade of light brown I'd never seen before, were mesmerizing and captivating, holding my attention for longer than I liked. His glances made me uneasy, and he had an arrogant smirk every time he’d look my way. When I’d managed to pry my eyes from him, the break in our gaze was tangible. I craved it again as soon as I looked down. I tried not to look back toward him, afraid I wouldn’t be able to look away again. The pull for my eyes to fall upon him again was hard to stop. I couldn’t help but notice him staring at me from my peripheral.

When he entered the room, I had become suddenly flushed, and my heart had started pounding. My skin was tingly from what could only be described as electricity that had developed in the air around me. I’d become fidgety, switching my weight from one foot to the next, hands in the pockets of my jeans, fingers running through my hair, arms across my chest, and back to my hands in my pockets. I couldn’t understand my over-heightened senses and my need for fresh air. I’d left hastily without so much as a good-bye.

I shook my head, trying to erase the images like an Etch-a-sketch.

I heard the worry in Lou’s voice. I never set out to disappoint him in any way, but the cameramen he set me up with were such half-witted idiots, for lack of a better term. They didn’t take me or their job seriously. I didn’t know if Lou knew how they acted or not. I’m sure if he did, he wouldn’t have paired me up with them. Although it wasn’t all Lou’s fault. Cutbacks had gotten even tougher in the last year, and quality talent wasn’t cheap, which made me believe it was all the more reason to let me go on my own.

Sure, Lou, I said sarcastically as I deleted his message. I’ll behave.

"Message deleted. Next unheard message..."

Never mind, Ellie. It was Lou again. I just called Jack and gave him the address for the courthouse. He’ll meet you there. Oh, and Ellie... He paused, humming into the phone, trying to word it just right. Just... Can you call me or come by the office sometime soon? I don’t see you nearly as often as I’d like. Miss you. We should grab lunch or something.

I huffed, pressing seven to delete the message. Or should I call it a guilt trip? Did Lou have absolutely no faith in me? Did he honestly think I would skip out and purposely not meet this Jack person before heading out to wrap up my story? I smiled. Well, okay, I’ll admit that I probably would just because this was my story. I started this project by myself and I didn’t need anyone tagging along to take credit for something they didn’t deserve.

"The following message will be deleted from your archive. The voice prompt caught me by surprise. It seemed like just yesterday that I’d saved it away. Your message from nine, zero, nine... My heart skipped a beat as I listened to the phone number. Those digits would be forever ingrained into my memory. Sent Thursday, July tenth, two thousand two at four forty-five a.m. First skipped message..."

Hey, Pumpkin. My dad’s voice filled the kitchen and I froze. The butter knife filled with cream cheese that I held in my hand froze halfway to the bagel. I swallowed down the lump in my throat. Hearing it never seemed to get easier. A bittersweet smile flickered across my face, warm tears quickly filled my eyes.

I just wanted to call and wish my angel a happy birthday. Sorry I didn’t catch you and actually get to talk to you. He paused and sighed as guilt ripped at my chest. I miss you, you know. Hearing the disappointment and longing in his voice, I closed my eyes as a tear escaped down my cheek. I hated the memory of why I didn’t answer.

Good news is, I should be home soon. I could hear the smile in his voice. I can’t wait to take you to that restaurant you’re always talking about. My treat for your birthday. You, uh...you can’t call me back, obviously. You know that. Hopefully, Lou will bring your birthday present by today. I really hope you like it. There was commotion in the background and Dad rushed his goodbye in a whisper, Listen, I have to go. I’ll see you soon. Love you, Pumpkin.

I saved it back to the archives.

Love you, too, Dad, I whispered and sighed, disconnecting the phone call, wiping my cheek dry.

I grabbed the toasted bagel smeared with cream cheese, which I really didn’t want anymore, and headed out the door.

CHAPTER 2

Blind Deal

Jack

I’m not doing this, Lou. I shook my head as I spoke, recalling the standoffish greeting I’d gotten from Ellie in Lou’s office the other day. I don’t babysit, I don’t do charity work, and I sure as hell don’t try and help people that don’t want to be helped. She doesn’t want me here!

Jack, you have to stop thinking of this as babysitting, Lou countered from behind his desk, shuffling paperwork around. And you could hardly call it charity when I have every intention of paying you, so don’t even go there. It’s me asking you for a favor...sort of. You know, you should be a little more appreciative of my offer after what I heard happened in Flagstaff and then in Vancouver. People are starting to think you’re a loose cannon. Some are thinking it’s not worth the risk you’re becoming.

His warning didn’t fall on deaf ears. I know I took risks. I know I took chances. Not everyone liked it, but I had to. As long as I had all the information I needed, the outcome always outweighed the risks.

I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. It’s probably a good thing they think that way. You don’t like how I get things done, don’t call me. Maybe then I’ll only get calls for real work. A legitimate job where I get details, Lou. You know how this works. I need to know where they came from, who they work for, why they’re here, why I’m needed, where they need to go, and then I decide if I even want the job. This tells me nothing, I argued, clutching an envelope full of useless information. I narrowed my eyes at him.

The only crap in the stupid envelope was a name, birth date, hair color, eye color. It wasn’t anything that you couldn’t find by doing a basic search on the internet or, hell, that you couldn’t see standing in front of the damn person! Besides, I already knew all this. I wanted to know more.

You’re hiding something and that makes me nervous. When I get nervous, people die, Lou.

Lou’s chest bounced slightly as he chuckled. Stop being so dramatic, Jack.

Was I being dramatic? No. I was being cautious because, apparently, everything in this envelope was also something I couldn’t seem to get out of my head. I knew who Ellie was. She just didn’t know me. I suppose one of the things that drove me to come was the chance to put a face to the voice I already knew. And now that I’d seen her, I had everything about her burned into memory.

Maybe that’s what had me so jittery about taking this job. Facial memorization was a force of habit, I suppose. I couldn’t help it. It was part of the job. I always knew my marks by heart, but this...this was different. General Monroe had no idea the situation he was putting me in by contacting me for this job. Lou hadn’t a clue, either. I hadn’t understood the draw I’d felt then, and I still didn’t quite understand the fascination now. I was starting to wonder why I agreed to come here in the first place.

All these years later, and after only hearing it the one time, I still remembered the sweet sound of her voice. I could still recall every word she’d said, every question she’d asked. I still recalled the frustration in her tone because I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, and she had no idea how badly I wanted to give in. And now, ever since that short meeting in Lou’s office when I had the chance to see her face-to-face and look into those large, bright hazel eyes that sparkled with curiosity, I was struck by a need to see this through. She looked at me so intently the day we’d met and it left me needing to know more. Now that I’d seen her brunette hair that hung just below her shoulders shimmer in the sun with natural highlights any girl would die for, my eyes wanted nothing more than to simply look at her again and again. My fantasies were nothing compared to her reality.

It was idiotic and foolish of me to be thinking about her so much. And it was a damn good reason not to take this job.

You don’t need to know more than what I’ve given you so far. Jack... Lou paused, taking a deep breath. I... he started and sighed, looking from me to his fidgeting hands. You just... You need to trust me. I can’t give you any details until I know you’re in.

Lou got up from his chair and walked around to lean up against the edge of the desk, standing by me. He was shorter than I, yet his stocky presence spoke volumes. He’d served this country, seeing things that I didn’t dare imagine. He was the only survivor to come back from his mission, all of his men being picked off one by one when they’d been forced into an abandoned building as they awaited backup. When the helicopter did arrive, the rescuers were surprised to find they didn’t have any enemies with which to deal. Lou had, single-handedly, dealt with them all. Amazingly, he’d only suffered a wound to his leg from a grazing bullet, and they gave him a purple heart for his service to his country. His only regret was that he couldn’t help his fallen brothers. It cut him so deep that he never went back overseas.

It wasn’t like Lou to be at a loss for words. I looked into his aged icy-blue eyes and saw a desperation I’d never seen before. Look, Jack. Lou’s voice was slightly hushed with a sudden air of seriousness. This is a delicate situation, and I’m not forcing you. You can walk away right now and I won’t hold it against you. But I will say this. I. Need. You. I don’t trust anyone else to do what I need of you. I need your team. Something is wrong and I need you to help her, to help me, try and find out what it is.

Why not just get her a dog or something? Isn’t that what you’re pretty much asking me to do, Lou? You want me to be a guard dog? Was I being irrational? I couldn’t help but try to get out of this. I didn’t like the way I wanted this job. It didn’t feel right and that could be dangerous for all involved. How do I even know what I’m up against, Lou? How do I know what to protect her from? What am I supposed to be looking for? I’m good, but I’m no fucking psychic.

Believe me, I’ve considered every angle. Yes, even a damn dog! His bushy eyebrows narrowed at me and then softened. But a dog isn’t the same as you, although a dog might be a little better behaved. I started to interject when he continued, Look, Jack, I am asking you because you’re the best and I trust you. You can improvise if something comes up. Remember Cairo? Remember how you rescued that girl? You practically walked her right over the border without a single look from their government. Who does that? I could hear the pride in his voice and I couldn’t help but stand a little straighter. "My hope is that as long as you are with her, no one is going to bother her. Your appearance alone should keep them at bay for the moment. But when, or if, whomever is out there does come out of hiding, I want you there. If things change, I’ll fill you in. But for now, she doesn’t need a guard dog. She needs a friend."

A dry, humorless laugh escaped my throat. "A friend? Seriously, Lou? You do realize what I do for a living, right? The people I deal with? Do you understand the lengths to which I go to accomplish my missions? Look, I get the job done, guaranteed. I don’t need any more complications than the job already has. Friends are the last thing I need or even want. There’s a reason I don’t have friends, Lou. A friend is a target. A friend is a vulnerability. A friend is a liability."

He was trying hard to talk me into this and I hadn’t a clue why. Why was she so important to him? He didn’t have a single picture adorning his desk. In all the years I’ve known him, he’d never talked about her before. His walls were bare, except for the one painting hanging on the north wall. Even the bookshelf held no clue as to why this girl meant so much to him. Who was she to him?

What about your crew? Lou brazenly asked, flashing a slight smile that wrinkled the corners of his eyes. What about me?

My arms were crossed over my chest and bounced slightly as I listened to his questions. Leave it to Lou to go there. Did he not know me at all?

What about my crew?! I asked, a little incensed. They’re exactly that...my crew, my brothers-in-arms. I depend on them, they depend on me and, together, we get the job done! I know I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them. They’ve saved my ass more times than I care to count! My voice dropped back down to normal. And that goes for you, too, Lou. Besides, it’s not like I go around town admitting I know your sorry ass.

Lou paused for a moment, looking at me pensively before responding softly, "I don’t doubt for a second that they have been there for you. But I bet if you asked any one of your crew, they’d consider you a friend. That’s why they fight so hard for you. Sometimes having someone involved that you care about makes you fight harder."

Or sometimes that makes for a bigger chance to screw up. I don’t need to care about anyone to make sure I complete a mission. That’s what I’m paid to do. I don’t care what my crew thinks as long as they do their job. I may have said that a little harsher than I intended, but what did he know about me and my crew? He wasn’t there when the shit hit the fan. He didn’t know what we went through to come back successful. And this..., I tossed the manila envelope back to the desk, "...is not a job. It’s a death sentence. My death sentence. I’m walking in blind. I mean, how do I know she’s not running from the law?"

Lou shook his head, his mouth contorting into a tight frown, and answered matter-of-factly, She’s not. And why would that stop you?

"How do I know for sure? How do you know for sure?" I challenged, making him smile. Somehow, that irritated me even more. He was hiding something.

Because I know, he answered, lips pursed, eyes narrowing at me. He didn’t look away and neither did I. I wanted to know what he was thinking. What was he hiding? Unfortunately, he was going to make it difficult to find out.

I sighed, knowing that was the only answer I was going to get. Is she hiding from her husband or boyfriend or something?

Most definitely not, he answered with a heavy sigh, sadness flicking across his face.

This piqued my interest. And why was a small part of me so damn happy with that answer?

Did she kill someone? I figured I already knew the answer to this one, but I had to ask.

He chuckled. Absolutely not.

What if she’s got the mob after her? Did she piss off a terrorist group?

So what if they are? So what if she did? You’ve been wrapped up in worse and handled it, he answered quickly. Stop with the stalling already, Jack. I need to know. Are. You. In.

Lou, I don’t help people against their will because if they won’t listen and do what I tell them to do, bad things happen. She doesn’t want me anywhere near her. She won’t even look at me, let alone talk to me. Ellie dodges me all day long. I tried to just talk to her like you asked me, but she avoids me like the plague and scurries off in the other direction. She looks at me like...like...

Like the frightened child she is, Lou interrupted sighing. He placed a hand on my shoulder. She’s digging around, son. What scares me is that I don’t exactly know what it is she’s asking or who it is she’s talking to, except that it has something to do with the events in California. She’s trying really hard to hide it from me. I have my suspicions, but I can’t go to her because every time I bring it up, it seems to push her away. And you’re right. It’s not a job that I’m offering you. It’s more like a favor I am asking. I need someone who can fight for me. I’m getting too old to do this shit on my own anymore.

Why do you care so much about her? I asked, stupidly curious. Who is she to you? I didn’t think you had any family you were talking to anymore.

She had to be family. What else would explain his need for her safety, his concern?

Lou’s hand left my shoulder and went up to run through what was left of his closely cut gray hair. His eyes closed for a second before opening. He let out a deep breath. She is family, though not blood-related. Her father, Michael, and I were best friends a long time ago. Lou’s gaze looked off into the distance as if he was being thrust back in time. We were like brothers. He paused, seeming to be lost in thought for a moment. If I blinked, I never would have seen the quick smile that flashed over his face before creasing into a deep frown.

A few years ago, Michael got in deeper on an undercover operation than he intended, Lou continued, snapping back to reality. It consumed him. It ruled his life. It ended up...very badly. Ellie took it to heart and has been following in daddy’s footsteps ever since, trying to right every wrong she encounters in the hope that it will make what happened to her father worth it. Lou’s voice was thick with emotion. Jack, I think she is in trouble. She was everything to Michael. I promised Michael that I’d make sure that if anything happened to him, I’d do everything in my power to make sure she’d be protected. Ellie needs us right now. If she is doing what I think she is doing, she has no idea what she’s getting herself into. And that’s really all I can tell you. He patted my shoulder. This is personal, Jack. Whatever the cost, I don’t care. She is in need of us...of you. You’re the best. That’s why I called you. It made perfect sense to me.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I blew out a puff of air and clenched my jaw at how frustrating this all was because Lou and I had history, too. He was like family to me, the father figure I’d never had. I left home when I was fifteen because I was a stupid, stubborn teenager who butted heads with my dad who thought leaving was best. Having a father who thought he could raise you like one of his recruits made for a difficult childhood. Lou was there for me through a lot of bullshit. The first day I met him, I was standing in the doorway of the recruiting office. He talked me through that door and into CIA boot camp. But it didn’t stop there. He continued to push and coach me every step of the way. Lou thought the training did him some good when he was young. Maybe it would serve me right.

I’d told Lou about my family life, about my parents’ divorce, and he patiently listened to every word. Somehow, a few months after we'd met, he’d talked me into mending the relationship with my dad. While we didn’t get together for holidays, we were on speaking terms, and it was all because of Lou.

Little did Lou know that we’d sent in some operatives and placed them here to look after Ellie and feel out the extent of the situation. He had no idea I got reconnected with him because of General Monroe’s interest in Ellie. I understood the general’s role. What I didn’t expect was to hear was Lou’s investment and concern for Ellie.

Lou had stuck by me through all my bad decisions and misdirections, until I finally got it right and built my crew. I know I wouldn’t have made it through the past ten years if weren’t for him. I’d do just about anything for that man.

Just about anything. Who knew what this girl’s real trouble was? That was the detail that had been left out. I don’t go into a job blind. Details were key to completing a mission. Without details, there was no plan. No details and no plan always equaled disaster. It wasn’t about the who I was up against. Lou was right. I could deal with anyone at any time, but I always knew the objective. I always knew what the outcome should be. I always had a plan. There was focus. There was purpose. There was a clear-cut ending.

There was no timeline indicating when it would be over. There wasn’t a strategy as to how to handle the situation. This looked like fucked-up chaos at its finest.

Besides, I had no idea how to interact with this woman. She wanted nothing to do with me and, for some reason that irritated the shit out of me. Interaction with my marks usually didn’t bother me much because it was scarce, if at all. Communication wasn’t necessary most of the time, but when it was, it consisted of Don’t worry. We’re here to help or Don’t shoot. We’re the good guys and that was it. No small talk, no How was your day? or What do you think of this heat wave? How did I begin to communicate with someone who couldn’t even look me in the eyes and always walked away?

Lou. I could feel his gaze weighing heavy upon me. You know the only reason I’m still here thinking about this at all is because it’s you asking. You know that, right? Anyone else, I would have been out that door as soon as you handed me the envelope no matter how much cash you put in my face.

He smiled at me as I ran my fingers through my hair, gripping a fist full of it in displeasure. I couldn’t turn him down. Because it was for something that was so personal to him, something close to his heart, he knew I wouldn’t say no.

Name your price, Jack, Lou coaxed. I’ll give you half up front, right now.

I glanced at him, bringing my hand to the back of my neck and squeezing. He was serious. So serious that he walked back around to pull out a briefcase he had stashed under his desk. Slowly, he sat it down on top of all the papers and files spread out on the desktop, opening it and turning it toward me. It was filled with short stacks of hundred dollar bills. I looked up from the cash to see desperation in his eyes. He was going to stop at nothing for this girl. If I didn’t take this job, he’d find someone else, someone who was probably less capable, and someone who would probably get them all killed.

I shook my head. I couldn’t let that happen.

Besides, this whole situation had