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Breaking Free (Steele Ridge Book 5) by Adrienne Giordano (1)

1

Some days life just sucked. And there wasn’t much Micki Steele could do about it.

She sat at her desk in the bland, white-walled, just short of rundown and extremely un-Vegas-like offices of Phil Flynn and Associates staring at Tomas—aka Tommy, T-Man, Tomster, or whatever other nickname she could think of to annoy him.

For the past forty minutes he’d had his feet propped on his desk, one earbud in, listening to an illegally recorded conversation while Micki cruised the local cable company’s network.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This life. She peeped through the window blinds to the street where morning traffic whipped by. With the Strip just blocks away, even on Thanksgiving morning they tended to get high traffic and on days like today, she wouldn’t mind throwing herself in front of a truck or some other large vehicle that could free her from boredom. But in an effort to find the positive in any situation, she reminded herself that in a few hours Phil would be back from Mexico and she and Tommy would be sitting at his dining room table stuffing themselves with a feast fit for royalty. One thing about Phil, he didn’t skimp on special occasions.

She gave up on the blinds and looked back at Tomster. “Anything?”

He shook his head and Micki managed to stifle her sigh.

Sure as hell burned hot, if they didn’t get some kind of valuable information their boss could blackmail a judge with, Phil would not be happy.

A familiar sickness roiled inside. If Phil was here, he’d look at her with those hyper-focused eyes that screamed of death one minute and the next could soften like a baby’s rear. All of it made her skin itch. Ten years she’d been playing this game with him. The anxiety, the drama, the aggravation. The special meals at his house, the latest-greatest electronics for her to play with, the birthday parties in her honor. It all added up to one monster game of love-hate she couldn’t do a thing about.

This life.

Well, sitting around feeling sorry for herself wouldn’t stave off Phil’s pissiness.

She swiveled back to her laptop and sent her fingers flying across her keyboard. “I’ll check his bank records again. Phil thinks this guy is taking payoffs and he’s usually right about that stuff. There has to be something there.”

“Go ahead. I’ll be here. Listening to this douche have phone sex with his twenty-year-old assistant while he jerks off.”

Micki made an ick face. “Ew. I’m glad it’s you listening and not me.”

Tommy propped his hands behind his head. “According to the shorty, he’s being a very bad boy.”

Then he flashed the smile that had opened all sorts of doors—and windows—for him.

At thirty-two, Tommy had reached that age where boyish good looks collided with maturity. His Hispanic heritage had blessed him with olive skin, inky black hair, and soft brown eyes that could turn hard in seconds.

Over the past ten years, he’d become her adopted brother and she’d seen women swoon over him thousands of times. Women were drawn to Tommy and he made it work for him. Personally and professionally.

His cell phone rang and he leaned in to check the screen, rolling his bottom lip out. At the second ring, he yanked his earbud free, replacing it with his phone.

“Hello?”

Whatever it was, it was important enough for him to dump the judge. Micki went back to her laptop, where their target’s deposits for the past twelve months appeared in front of her.

“What?”

A sudden sheen of sweat pebbled his perfect forehead.

With the tasks they performed, Tommy suddenly looking like a crack addict in need of his next fix didn’t happen a lot, and the buhm, buhm, buhm of her heartbeat echoed in her head.

Tommy flipped a page on his notepad, scrawling notes as he bit down on his lip. The lips were always the tell. Not much rattled Tommy, but when it did, his lips got active.

Buhm, buhm, buhm.

To alleviate the pressure, she stuck her fingers in her ears, pressed, and let go. Press. Let go. Press. Let go.

“Three o’clock?” Tommy checked his watch. “I can do that.” He punched off the call and met Micki’s gaze. “Big problem.”

“What happened?”

Tomas smacked his desk drawer open, grabbed his keys and wallet, and hopped up. “Phil got pinched in Mexico.”

What?

Phil. In his five-thousand-dollar Brioni suit, sitting in a filthy, rat-infested Mexican prison. Crazy.

On Thanksgiving. If ever there was a sign…

This is it.

She shook that off. Couldn’t think about it now. Phil was in jail. They’d have to get him out.

“The goddamned passports,” Tommy said.

The fake ones. The ones Phil was hand-delivering to their client, an insanely wealthy network executive about to permanently relocate overseas to avoid a financial fraud charge.

“He got caught with them?”

Phil in a Mexican prison shocked her, but the thing that sent her mind zipping was the idea that Mr. Meticulous, Mr. Let’s Stay Under the Radar, Mr. Anticipate Every Problem had actually gotten busted carrying forged government documents.

This is it.

Tomas made his way to the door, but detoured to Micki, holding his hand palm up. She smacked it and they did a quick fist bump, their usual hello-good-bye just for the heck of it sign of affection.

“I’m going down there,” he said. “I’ll call the lawyer on the way to the airport. See what you can do from here. I’ll call his wife and make our apologies about today. Happy freaking Thanksgiving.”

Micki watched him open the door, watched his habitual pat of his pockets before he left. For the first time in months, years maybe, she’d be completely alone in the office.

This is it.

All the planning and dashed hopes, the endless nights of imagining her hometown—her family—flashed in her mind.

Could she do it?

No. Too late now. Her life was here. In Vegas. With Phil and Tomas.

“Micki?”

She blinked twice, met Tomas’s eyes and shook her head. “Sorry. I was…thinking. I’ll see what I can do. I might be able to hack into the Policía Federal’s system. I tried that a few months ago when the pop star got pinched on that nudity charge.”

“Jesus, that kid. Unbelievable. At least you’ve done this before. Anything you can do.” He gripped the edge of the open door, his long fingers wrapping around it. He’d chewed his nails to the quick again, but she’d given up nagging him about it three years ago. He took a step out the door, then glanced at the empty desk where their receptionist normally sat. Not on a holiday.

It had finally hit him: When he left, she’d be alone. He brought the full weight of his focused attention to her. “Will you be all right?”

Really, what he wanted to know was could he trust her to stay alone. After all these years, Tommy, of all people, knew she longed for…something.

Something other than helping crappy people slither their way out of the even crappier situations they themselves created.

This is it.

“I’ll be fine. Go help Phil.”

He swung his head to the outer door, then back to her, obviously questioning his next move.

“Phil needs you,” she said.

The ace in the hole, the thing that motivated them, always, was pleasing Phil. Their boss. Their pseudo stand-in parent. The one who made not only their health insurance payments but covered their medical bills and cell phones and cars. Phil took care of it all. To keep them happy.

Tommy jerked his head. “I’ll call you later. Keep your phone close.”

“I will.” As he moved into the hallway, she added, “Tommy?”

He popped back in. “Micki, I have to go.”

“I know. Just…” What? Have a nice life? I’ll miss you? Her one chance and she was being stupid. “Don’t forget your passport.”

Now he cocked his head. “Are you sure you’ll be okay? Don’t make me worry about you. Not now.”

She responded with a smile that was at best lazy and at worst halfhearted. “I’ll be fine. Go.”

The second Tommy was gone, Micki jumped from her chair and scanned the office.

What the hell am I doing?

She knew.

Sure did.

Ten years she’d been here, in this craptastic forty-year-old building waiting for this, anticipating the moment when she’d finally have the grand combination of nerve and opportunity. And here it was. The best she’d get, anyway.

She hustled to the rear window, peeped out the blinds, and watched the taillights of Tomas’s Mercedes swing out of the tiny lot behind the squat brick building. Phil liked the finer things, but when it came to the office, he stuck with low-grade.

Nondescript, he called it. Whatever.

Don’t. Thinking about Phil would kill the adrenaline buzz. She needed that buzz to push her out the door.

She ran back to her desk, slid the bottom drawer open, and grabbed her messenger bag, the expensive leather one with the hand-stitched skull on the corner. Phil had given it to her for Christmas the year before and she loved it. Used it every day, in fact. She ran her thumb over the worn edge and the rough surface dragged against her skin. Should she leave the bag? Make it a symbol of her final good-bye?

Oh, the drama. What a jerk I am.

Dammit. Go.

She shoved her phone and laptop—also from Phil—into the bag along with her wallet and slung it crossways across her body. At the door, she double-checked the lock.

Not knowing how long it would take to get Phil released, she didn’t want the office sitting open. The hallway was empty, eerily quiet, and more than a little unnerving. Or maybe that was just her being creeped out by the lack of activity from the only other unit in the building. The mailbox said it was a lawyer’s office, but she barely ever saw the guy and figured it was a front for something.

Like everything else under that roof.

She shook her head and inhaled the killer combo of stale, closed-in air and floral freshener. God, that smell always made her head spin.

Time to go.

Twenty feet away, the outer door beckoned. All she’d have to do was walk through it. Like she’d done every night for ten years. Just. Walk. Through.

“This is it,” she said.

She pushed open the door, let the late November sun wash over her. Parked in the space next to the one Tomas had just vacated was her compact. The one Phil constantly wanted to upgrade, but she’d had it for five years and had barely put thirty thousand miles on it. Where did she ever go? Half the time, she was too afraid to move, much less take a road trip.

Phil, as he’d often said, could always find her. Including now, if she took her car. Knowing him, he had a GPS tracker on it somewhere.

The bus station was only two blocks over. She’d walk it, hop on the first bus heading to the airport, and wing it from there. Popping the trunk, she found her black gym bag with the Canyon Ridge High School logo.

Her go-bag.

The day she’d bought this car she’d put that bag, packed and ready for action, in her trunk. She thought about it every day, but somehow couldn’t summon the nerve to actually go.

For years, her excuse for the go-bag was that she'd always have a change of clothes on hand. You know, just in case she got lucky one night, wink-wink. Whether Phil or Tomas believed that, she didn't know. Aside from some teasing, they'd never questioned the go-bag.

If she picked up that bag, after today, there’d be no more teasing. No more family dinners, no Thanksgivings with Phil’s family.

Assuming he got out of Mexico.

And what about Tommy?

Her friend. Her confidant. He’d never forgive her.

If she ever saw him again. Because if she went, she’d have to disappear. Forever.

But she’d be free.

Her phone rang.

Dammit. The phone. Another thing Phil owned and could track. Leave it. But if it was Tomas, he’d wonder where she was and he couldn’t be that far away yet. What if he’d forgotten something? He’d still have time to swing back to the office.

She dug the phone out. Mom. A squeak sounded in Micki’s throat and panic, mixed with heartbreak, stormed her system, made her vision blur as she stared at the screen.

Mom.

Her second sign of the day. But there was no way she’d pick up that call now. Phil seeing an extended conversation with her mother right before Micki skipped on him would send him straight to her hometown.

No. She’d get another phone and download her contacts from her laptop. She tossed the phone in the trunk and before she thought too hard about it, grabbed her go-bag and slammed the lid shut.

She moved to the driver's side, popped the lock open, and dropped into the seat, closing the door behind her. She snagged a thumb drive from the inside pocket of her messenger bag, felt around the side of the seat for the port, and—come on, where are you? There. She rested her head back, anticipated the burst, slid the thumb drive in and waited one, two, three. Poof. The airbag from the side of her seat blew.

Please, please, please. She shoved open the door, checked the pocket attached to the back of the airbag—yes—for the fake driver's license and passport she’d obtained years ago. The sad part about grabbing someone’s identity, other than living with the fact that she’d done it, was how easy it was to pull off. A simple online search of death notices to find someone about her age and a few days later, voilá, Micki Steele had become Stephanie Gimble. After that, all she’d needed was a safe, easy-access place to hide Stephanie’s credentials. Enter Josh, the car/engineering whiz she’d met at the electronics show who’d helped her rig this little secret compartment. Thank you, Josh.

Exiting the car, she glanced back at the faded brick of the office and the torn awning that had once been a vibrant red, but which years of harsh Vegas sun had withered to a pale maroon.

At least ten times she’d e-mailed the landlord asking him to change it. Such a small request never granted. Add it to the list.

Today, she’d leave it all behind.

Finally.

“This time, I’m going.”

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