From her crouched position filling the copy machine drawer, Isabelle spied her cousin Kendrick in the doorway and knew the next few minutes would be worse than a bad case of chicken pox. Irritating as hell and no scratching allowed. Already he blocked her only exit from the cramped room—that was no accident. She drew a searing breath and straightened to her full height, determined to confront him.
Kendrick wore black chinos and a white Oxford shirt, but the preppy clothes couldn’t hide the predator. With a shudder, she remembered everything about him she would rather forget. Despite her resolve, the small room pressed in, and she backed away.
His leer forced her to dig her heels into the floor and a relentless gnawing tore at her stomach.
Lawyer mode. Now.
“Kendrick, it’s been a while.”
Three years, two months and thirteen days.
“I’m here to see my father,” he said. “I saw you in here. Thought I’d say hello.”
She leaned against the copy machine, folded her arms and squeezed until her fingernails bit into her biceps. After years spent grappling to rise above her brokenness, something in his tone—that confident, you’ll-never-get-me attitude—shattered her. “Well, I’m sure your father is waiting for you.”
“I’m a few minutes early.”
“Your father prides himself on the comfortable waiting area. Maybe you can find something to read while you wait.”
Kendrick ignored her suggestion and moved into the compact room. She remained still, but tracked him with her eyes, watching him until he halted a foot from her.Too close.
A quick glance across his shoulder revealed the safety of the outer corridor where two associates spoke in hushed voices. Assistance was nearby if needed, but screaming for help against the boss’s son? How humiliating. Not to mention having to explain it. “I have a client in my office.”
He inched closer, and Isabelle held up a hand to stop him. Silly her for believing he would let her leave. She had to get away.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
Okay. Deep breath. She concentrated on diffusing the internal bedlam this man caused. Get a grip. Don’t give him the control. Don’t look at him.
After a few seconds, her thundering pulse settled to its normal rhythm. She could do this.
“I’m in the middle of a client meeting.” She turned, made the copy she’d come in for, grabbed her papers and attempted to push by him.
Kendrick sidestepped to block her exit. Unbelievable. She was trapped in here with him. Close enough to feel his breath on her skin.
“I only need a couple of minutes, Isabelle.”
Never. He didn’t deserve it. Not after what he’d taken from her already.
She met his gaze straight on, their eyes locking for an instant. “I don’t have time, Kendrick.”
“I have an offer for you.”
Any offer from him could result in her losing a slice of her soul. Her answer would certainly be no. She found triumph in that. Telling him no. Definitively.
She’d let him say what he needed to, indulge in saying no and then boot him out. “Two minutes.”
“Oh, Isabelle. You do amuse me.”
She made a show of checking her watch. “Now it’s one minute.”
“You know I’ve bought property in Ohio, correct?”
Oh, she knew. She was thankful every day that the state of Pennsylvania normally provided a barrier between them. Living on the Jersey Shore rewarded her with a sense of ease, and Kendrick being in the area chipped that comfort. “If you need legal advice, talk to someone else. I won’t be objective.”
He laughed, his big white teeth flashing. Isabelle ground the heel of her black pump into the floor. Her leg ached from the pressure, but the pain would keep her focused.
“Anyway,” he said. “I’d like to have you visit. Take a look at the place. Maybe stay in one of the bungalows. It’s a wonderful piece of property.”
He held up his hands again. “I know you’re still angry over the misunderstanding, but let’s put it behind us. We’re family. I know my father would appreciate you letting go of the hostility. Come see the compound. Stay awhile. You’ll be taken care of. Any need or want you have will be fulfilled by one of the staff members.”
What was all this babbling about his compound?
She narrowed her eyes and let his comment about his father—her boss—roll off her. Convincing herself to accept a job from Kendrick’s father hadn’t been easy, but working at one of New Jersey’s top criminal defense firms would catapult her career. Her cousin’s goading wouldn’t jeopardize that. “I need to get back to work.”
“Not staff, really,” he continued. “Tenants, I guess. Fifty of us live on the property. Some in the main house and some in bungalows scattered throughout the hundred acres. You’d have your own place, of course.”
A flicker of perverse excitement twinkled in his blue-green eyes, and sickness swirled in her stomach. She needed to get him out of there before the toxic waste he spewed consumed her.
“I’m not interested.”
Kendrick reached down and tugged at the sleeves of his shirt, but made no move to leave. Idiot.
And yet, she remained wedged in the room. With a client waiting in her office. The brutal pressure of these few minutes finally overtook her, and a chill penetrated her bones, puckering her skin.
Don’t let him win.
He tried the slick smile that always worked on the little girl she’d once been, and she imagined him bursting into flames.
“I need you, Isabelle. There are…things happening and I could use your legal expertise. I promise I’ll take good care of you.” He dragged his gaze over her body. “I always did.”
Sick, sick, sick.
She fisted her free hand until her knuckles popped. Her only other choice would be to pummel him. Probably not a good idea in his father’s building.
A knock on the doorframe brought deflating relief to her tense body. Her assistant stood there, her eyes shifting to Kendrick and back. “Mr. Parker is looking for you. I would have made the copies.”
“You were away from your desk. Besides, we’re done.”
“I’ll give you time to think about it,” Kendrick said.
“Don’t bother. My answer will still be no.”
No. No. No.
After her meeting with Mr. Parker concluded, Isabelle dialed a familiar cell phone number. Vic Andrews, a longtime family friend, lived in Chicago, but he’d come through for her. He answered on the second ring.
“Ah, the lovely Isabelle DeRosa.”
She sat back in her desk chair. The late afternoon sun blanketed her arm, and she shifted toward the window for the full effect. Between the sun and Vic’s Southern charm, a comforting feeling enveloped her.
A long, piercing car horn sounded and Vic let out a stream of creative swearing. All righty, then.
“What’s going on?” Vic asked after his verbal tirade ended.
“Where are you?”
“I’m attempting to pick up Lily from day camp. I gotta tell ya, Cambodian jungles are easier to get through than this line. I should put some of these moms on my staff. They’d be world-class operators.”
Isabelle snorted. A former special ops guy, he’d seen a lot of action in his lifetime.
“What’s up?” he asked.
She swallowed hard and fiddled with her pen. Vic was one of the few people outside the family that knew her secret. “Kendrick is back.”
“Son of a bitch. Is it a permanent thing?”
“No. He wants me to visit him in Ohio.”
Silence. She knew how he felt. Helpless and stunned.
Vic finally spoke. “What the fuck?”
“Exactly. He’s as nuts as ever. He cornered me in the copy room at the office.”
“Did you beat the crap out of him?”
“I wanted to,” Isabelle said.
“What can I do?”
Kill him. Heaven help her. That would be all she needed. Thinking back on the years she’d lost and what Kendrick did to her, she probably did have that much anger. Scary.
She tossed her pen on the desk and picked a piece of lint from her slacks. “I need a security system on my house.”
“Done,” Vic said. “I’d rather hit him with a double pop between the eyes, but if you want a security system, it’s yours. I’ve been telling you that.”
“Nag, nag, nag.”
“You know it, darlin’. I’ve got a guy out there on vacation in Nosrum. I’ll get him over to your place ASAP.”
She had no doubt she could defend herself, but the alarm would be added protection. She knew damn well Kendrick wouldn’t go away so easily.
Peter stormed through the gates of his parents’ estate with the roar of the Challenger’s four hundred twenty-five horsepower engine sounding like heaven. He imagined the look on his mother’s face and grinned. She despised loud cars. Particularly those driven by one of her sons. Another thing they didn’t agree on. The cars he’d collected over the years were part of the draw of coming home to Jersey where he kept them stored in a climate-controlled garage built on his parents’ property.
He pulled up the drive, but his mother’s Cadillac was nowhere to be seen. He needed to stop and get his surfboard from the upstairs bedroom closet so at least he could say he’d been there. It would save him the lambasting she’d give him for not coming around enough. His father would be at work this time of day, and he made a mental note to call him. Dad at least gave him a break from the constant verbal pounding about living up to the Jessup name.
Peter stepped from the car, shielded his eyes against the blistering August sun, and scanned the three-story brick house—mansion really—he’d grown up in. Red, yellow and pink flowers dotted the front garden. He’d never once spied a weed on this property. His mother ran a tight ship.
He glanced at a four-foot potted tree to the right of the stone stairs, and a clanging erupted in his ears. Had the tree been there when he drove by yesterday? Definitely not. He’d have noticed it.
Possible hiding places no longer got by him. Not anymore. His blood pumped and his brain snapped until his nerves flew into overdrive. He fired a sideways kick at the tree and—bang—sent it barreling to its side.
He leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees. Now he was seeing terrorists behind greenery? Vic was right. He was losing his mind.
Springsteen’s “Born to Run” erupted from the pocket of his cargo shorts. He dug his phone out and checked the ID. Vic. The guy must be a mind reader.
“What’s up?” Peter said, still eyeballing the toppled plant.
“You sound pissy. You got a bug up your ass?”
“Yeah. A six-foot-five one. Calling to check on my mental status?”
“Monk, don’t be an asshole. Mike agreed with me. Most people would love their boss to give them an extended vacation.”
Well, Peter—Monk, as the guys called him—wasn’t most people. As a former Navy SEAL, he needed some kind of action at all times. When he walked into a room, everyone knew he was the alpha dog. The alpha dog didn’t like being told he was on the verge of a breakdown. He considered it an insult.
Then again, he’d just kicked over a plant.
“This is a social call then? I’m fine, thanks, gotta go.” He hung up, slid the phone back in his pocket and squatted to reset the plant.
The phone rang again, and he straightened to answer it.
Vic laughed in his ear. “Dickhead.”
Peter grunted. Vic bullied his way around every damn thing. They’d worked together for three years now, since Peter joined Taylor Security after leaving the navy. The Chicago-based company handled residential and corporate security, and Vic’s team did government contract work. When the government needed plausible deniability, they called Taylor Security. Everything from protection details for overseas diplomats to badass counter terrorism assignments—leveling chemical plants, destroying enemy caves, snatching a bad guy—that Peter thrived on. His last two assignments were the reason for this extended vacation.
Peter pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t need this. “Can I call you back when I don’t want to tear your head off and shove it up your ass?”
“I need a favor.”
A favor? The guy had stones the size of Texas.
“You’re kidding, right? Three days ago you called me into your office and told me to hand over my weapon and enjoy my family for a few extra weeks after my brother’s wedding. It’s gonna take me longer than three days to work that off. Call me back in a week. Maybe then I’ll do your favor.”
“I saved your life last summer,” Vic shot back.
Dammit. Peter threw his head back and closed his eyes. “You only get to play that card once. Make it good.”