“If you’re done chatting with your boyfriend, it’s showtime.”
Rafe pocketed his phone and rolled his eyes at his sometimes partner, Oskar Mueller, from Blake Security.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart, you don’t want me having anyone else to talk to? It’s okay to be jealous, you know. You just have to tell me and you can have all my attention.” Rafe blew the German a kiss.
It was sure to piss the guy off, but Oskar’s anger was better than his asking questions Rafe wasn’t ready to answer. The phone calls that wouldn’t stop needed to remain his secret for now.
Oskar bared his teeth and flipped the safety off on his weapon. The two had a slightly contentious relationship, but Rafe was certain the German would come around eventually. Rafe had once tried to kill him, sure, but how long could anyone really stay mad about that?
“Whatever. Let’s do this. I don’t want this asshole getting away again.”
Rafe nodded briskly. No one was getting away on his watch. Oskar headed north and Rafe went east, as they’d planned. The company tech guru, Matthias, had already given them the route Douchebag would be taking.
Douchebag’s real name was Nathan Miller. Normally Blake Security would let the cops deal with a drug dealer, but Nathan had an interesting forced-recruitment scenario going on. He also had a history of pulling women into his schemes, women that he abused and kept against their will. That ticked off every single member of the team, so Rafe and Oskar had been sent to deliver a cease and desist letter of sorts.
Rafe stepped out from the alley just as Nathan rounded the corner.
Douchebag sneered even though Rafe had a good two inches on him. “Watch where you’re walking, asshole.”
Rafe cracked his neck even as a shot of adrenaline flooded his veins. He would never admit it out loud, but he fucking lived for this shit. “You know what? I don’t think I will.”
His first jab sent the guy’s head snapping back.
“What the fu—”
Poor Nathan didn’t get another word in because he was tasting Rafe’s knuckles again. “Now, Nathan… you, me and my associate, if he ever gets here, are going to have a heart-to-heart about your business practices. And the way you treat women.”
At his words, a small blond head peeked out from behind Nathan. In one smooth motion, Rafe shoved Nathan to the side and stepped in front of the girl.
“Hi, Callie. Your brother sent us.”
Her eyes immediately filled with tears, but she nodded frantically.
“I don’t think you know who the fuck you’re dealing with,” Nathan growled from behind him.
Before Nathan was even done with the sentence, Rafe had his gun in the guy’s face. That shut him up pretty quickly.
“Callie, I need you to wait for us beside that Dumpster. And close your eyes. Okay?” He didn’t take his eyes off Nathan, but he listened to the soft fall of Callie’s footsteps as she obeyed.
Nathan glared at him even as Oskar strolled down the opposing alleyway. When he saw Rafe’s gun out, he looked pissed.
“Oh hell, you got started without me?”
“Next time don’t bother to pretty yourself up for me. It’s no use really. Your face is your face. And you can relax. I left plenty of ass kicking for you.”
Oskar just grinned. “You’re so good to me,” he said as he unsheathed his knives. As his partner moved forward, Rafe walked to Callie and held out a hand to her. He led her around the corner so she wouldn’t have to see what came next.
Callie flinched and peered up at Rafe from tired eyes. Her makeup had run, so there were dark smudges on her cheeks. It was a look he’d seen many times before, the universal expression of defeat. That was what it looked like when good people gave up hope.
“What happens now? Nathan will never let me go.”
Rafe wasn’t good at this part. The comforting, the drying of the tears. Years ago he had been. He’d been the person who held his baby sister when she cried and told her that everything would be okay. Then he’d had to leave her, and all that emotion ceased to exist.
But this was supposed to be a new beginning, wasn’t it? Going forward, he could decide what kind of man he would be.
“He will let you go. I’m going to make sure of it.” Rafe didn’t touch her, wasn’t sure if it would frighten her, but he did gesture the other direction to let her know that it was safe to walk that way. They didn’t need to stay; Oskar had things well in hand.
As Rafe turned to walk behind her, his skin prickled. He paused, then glanced over his shoulder. Oskar already had Nathan on the ground and was securing him with zip ties. Rafe’s eyes scanned over the alley and then up to the roof of the buildings above. It was dark, and only a few of the windows in the building were lit up. Most people were asleep right now, completely unaware of the things happening floors below. People in this neighborhood didn’t want to be aware of what was happening outside. The less you knew, the safer you were.
Rafe knew all about that.
Nathan was on the ground, no longer struggling. In about an hour, he’d be found by the police with a kilo of cocaine strapped to him and a weapon that had been used in a murder a year ago.
The gun was actually Nathan’s; they hadn’t manufactured that. He’d wiped it down and asked one of his runners to dispose of it. That same runner had come to Blake Security for help getting his sister away from Nathan.
“All good?” Oskar appeared at his elbow, his eyes narrowing as Rafe continued to peer at the buildings around them.
“Yeah. Just had a feeling…”
Oskar snorted. “Your Spidey sense was tingling?”
Rafe scowled. “You can never be too careful.”
“You don’t need to be so jumpy. You’re not a narc anymore, remember? We’re the good guys.”
“I was never a narc,” Rafe responded automatically. But as they led Callie back to the SUV they’d parked a few streets over, the other man’s words rolled around in his mind.
The good guys.
What did that even mean? Fucking guys up in dark alleys, planting evidence? Not so different from his past. Except now he was the one making the decisions.
For years he’d been a member of ORUS, an elite shadow organization supporting the US government. Now he was his own man, no longer a weapon to be used for unknown agendas. He could decide what was right and what was wrong. After what they’d done, Callie would be going home and sleeping in her own bed, safe and sound. The streets of New York would have one less asshole peddling poison to those too vulnerable to protect themselves.
Messy, yes. But it was the best result they could have asked for. Rafe had learned over the years that he couldn’t always make things right, but he could try to make them better.
Maybe better was enough. For now.
She had no idea what he was doing.
Diana Vandergraff squinted and then blinked as if her eyes were deliberately deceiving her. She watched in disbelief as her target walked away from the drug dealer, instead approaching the woman behind him. Even from a distance and through binoculars, she could see that his movements were gentle. Reassuring.
He was reassuring her? Nothing about this made sense.
Then again, nothing about Rafael DeMarco made sense. And she would know. She’d been watching him for ages now.
Stalking. You’ve been stalking him.
Diana smiled in satisfaction. Yes, she’d been keeping tabs on DeMarco for almost a year. It was fitting, really. The hunter becoming the prey. After all the people DeMarco had tormented, now he was the one who was looking over his shoulder.
At first she’d only tailed him to and from his apartment. Ideally, she’d have loved to get in there and look around right away, but the place was like a fortress. While posing as a pizza delivery girl coming to the wrong door, she’d noticed the steel contacts around the doorframe. Definitely not your average security system. Besides that, DeMarco rarely left the place except to go to a modified warehouse in Manhattan. The building had been demolished and rebuilt in the early 90s. The first five floors were still warehouse spaces, but a commercial building had been constructed on top of that, boasting some twenty floors. And at the very top sat a penthouse… home of Blake Security.
So far she hadn’t been able to determine exactly what he did there. Either way, she wouldn’t give up until she’d peeled back every layer DeMarco had. It didn’t matter how long it took or that she was currently cold, cramped, and uncomfortable while spying on him from a rooftop.
It had been too long, and she’d come too far to give up now.
Movement below caught her eye, and she swung the binoculars toward the blond giant Rafe had met up with earlier.
Oskar Mueller. German. Employed by Blake Security for five years. Master’s degrees in finance and economics. Employment history blank for years until he started working for Blake Security.
Her mind ran through all the available data she’d uncovered on Mueller. Information was hard to come by on everyone employed by Blake Security. Something she was sure was deliberate. But she’d been able to find out the basics from a routine background check.
Mueller was currently roughing up the drug dealer and finally dropped him with one punch to the face. Diana winced. Not that she felt any sympathy. The guy was clearly not a Cub Scout leader. Everything she’d uncovered led her to believe the firm had a great reputation.
Which didn’t explain why the hell they’d employ a known killer like DeMarco.
Her fingers tightened around the binoculars. Hatred was a powerful drug, and for years she’d been fueled on a steady diet of it for the man who’d killed her father. He was her personal bogeyman and the personification of everything evil in this world. Rafael DeMarco was the very thing that tormented her dreams.
“Deep breaths, Diana. Deep breaths,” she whispered to herself, closing her eyes briefly to bring her emotional reaction under control. Emotions weren’t something she allowed herself to indulge anymore. They only got in the way. The last person she’d loved, truly loved, had been murdered right in front of her, and she’d been haunted by the loss ever since. There was room in her life now for only one thing, and it wasn’t love.
It was vengeance.
Her eyes popped open at the sounds below. Mueller had finished with the now-unconscious man in the alley, and DeMarco was still talking to the woman. Part of her wanted to stand up and scream, warning the other woman.
Don’t trust him.
He’s not as he appears.
DeMarco had taken away the last person who loved her, and for what? Money? Diana ached at the thought that her father had suffered because he was trying to protect her legacy. The Jewel of the Sea had been the only thing left of her mother, and it had been willed to Diana. No doubt her father had received many offers to buy it after her mother’s death, but he’d always told her that he would protect it for her until she grew up.
He’d never had the chance to keep that promise.
Diana adjusted slightly, moving her leg to stop it from cramping. The wind blew a harsh caress against her exposed cheek, and she tugged the black knit cap covering her hair lower. DeMarco was still talking to the woman. What could he be saying that would take this long? But there was no denying the difference in his body language when talking to the woman versus the guy in the alley or Mueller.
Diana smiled as ideas sprang to her mind. For the past year, she’d laid the groundwork to take DeMarco down to the best of her ability, even establishing a fake lease and utilities under an alias. All it had taken was paying the right people at the right times. But none of it meant anything if she couldn’t get close to him.
But it appeared that big, bad DeMarco had a weakness.
“So you have a knight-in-shining-armor complex, huh? I can use that.”
Just then DeMarco paused and glanced up and over his shoulder. It shouldn’t have caused any reaction after all this time, but she thought again how wrong it was that he would be handsome. But wasn’t that always the way of things? From this distance, she couldn’t make out the expression on his face, but Diana got a quick impression of impatience and suspicion before she ducked down behind the brick barrier of the roof.
There was no way he could have seen her from such a distance, right? Despite all the reports she’d read to the contrary, Rafael DeMarco wasn’t superhuman. He was fallible just like all of them. Blood and bone. He would bleed red just like anyone else.
And just like any other man, he couldn’t resist a damsel in distress.
Diana stood slowly and then peered over the ledge again. The alley below was empty save for the still body of the drug dealer. She needed to get out of here. Even in this neighborhood, a body drew heat. Attention she couldn’t afford right now.
After all, she had a plan to execute. She smiled to herself before gathering her equipment.
“One damsel, coming right up.”