For Best Romance Action-Adventure/Romantic Suspense
Finding Grace - Chapter 1
“Someone’s going to die.”
Dagger was already late. He didn’t have time for this shit. Especially not this pint-sized, purple-haired shit. The voice was surprisingly rough coming from the small frame, and the way the kid moved didn’t quite…well, there were a lot of those in the catering business. Thank God he’d finished getting dressed.
He’d thought the employee coat room would be a safe place to make a quick change, what with the party being well underway and all. Why would a server be in here now? They should all be busy.
Wait, that raw voice had been responsible for some damn creative cussing he’d heard a minute ago through the not-so-thin door. If he’d heard it, everyone else in the place must have, too. It had followed the loud crash that could have only meant the brutal end of a lot of glass. Someone had barked something after that, but the only word that made it through the door to Dagger’s ears was "fired."
Okay. So, not just short and queer in at least one way, but foul-mouthed and currently unemployed, too. Dagger shook his head.
"What do you mean, ‘someone’s going to die’? Is that supposed to be a threat?” Not that Dagger could blame the kid. He took a step closer anyway. "And why tell me?"
The little purple head cocked to the side. “You might be able to stop it. You're security, right?"
If Dagger had been expecting an answer, that wasn’t it.
“Actually, I'm a guest," he said through gritted teeth.
He and his partner had been invited to the charity ball by a prospective client. The CEO was only in town for the night. He’d refused to give Blackridge his business until he'd met both of them. So here was Dagger, squeezed into the biggest tux the rental place had buried in the back, making his best attempt to be presentable so they could land the account. The kid wasn’t buying it and he doubted anyone else would, either. He knew who he was, or who he’d been, anyway. The way he looked on the outside wasn’t the half of it.
The kid thrust up his chin about a foot and half below Dagger’s and glared at him through large, dark-tinted glasses. Brave little shit, anyway.
"Yeah, right. And I'm Paul-fucking-Bunyan. You fit in with these mothball penguins like Babe The Blue Ox in a goddamn china shop. I just don't want anyone to get hurt, okay? Look for a green van. I gotta go." He pulled a wool cap over his ears, shrugged on an over-sized ratty jacket and ducked past Dagger’s grab, fast. Damned fast.
Dagger hesitated a moment before following. Yes, he was late. But no, he really didn’t want to be here. And what if the tip was solid and he ignored it? There was that, after all.
When he stepped out the back door, he could see the kid stomping sneakered feet under the streetlight at the bus stop in the falling snow. That thin jacket didn't look like it was going to make it through the winter and now the kid was out of a job. The pang of empathy he felt caught him off guard. It had been a long time, but he still remembered what it felt like to be cold and broke, if not queer and undersized.
A green van rounded the corner just as he was about to step back inside and face the party. When he looked back at the streetlight, the kid was disappearing into a bus.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath and stepped into the shadows, watching while it pulled into the parking lot and cruised slowly through.
His eyes roamed the rows of late-model, high-priced German cars and a few even pricier imports, then back to the green panel van. That didn’t mean the piece-of-shit on wheels didn’t stick out here as bad as he did, tux or no.
The van moved back onto the street and Dagger turned to go back to the party again, fighting his disappointment at the loss of a reprieve. Then he stopped. It wouldn’t hurt to wait five more minutes, just to make sure the van didn’t come back. He really kind of had to, didn’t he? Just in case the kid wasn’t some whack job trying to get someone in trouble or something. He moved inside the door, leaving it open a crack, and checked his watch.
Five minutes and there it was again, cruising even slower this time, positively skulking. He pulled out his phone and called Farley, his next-in-command at Blackridge, told him to bring whoever was in town and available ASAP.
By the time he’d clicked off, the van had driven out of the lot and was sitting at the stoplight. The back plate was visible, but the number was obscured. It could have been due to the gray slush spattering up from the street, but Dagger didn’t think so.
He waited and watched through the slit in the door until his men pulled up. He filled them in, deployed them to observation points and checked his watch again.
And grimaced. Paul wasn’t going to like this, not at all.
Paul had brought Katherine to the ball, probably hoping his wife’s beauty and sophistication would counter Dagger’s utter lack of both. In crowds where respect came from fear, being the ugliest, most dangerous-looking man in the room was an asset. At a fancy ball? Not so much.
Dagger spotted his partner holding his wife's elegant hand, talking to the CEO and some hangers-on. He was making a good impression on the man, Dagger could tell—even though his friend wasn't much better suited to this kind of party than he was. Paul Weston had been a sniper in special ops with the Marines before starting Blackridge Security with Dagger a couple of years ago. No amount of fancy clothes or a classy wife could completely civilize a man like that. And a man like Dagger—well, he couldn’t even fool a queer kid with purple hair.
He tried a smile on his face and let it slide off, the unused muscles making him more uncomfortable than the way the other guests were staring at him. With practiced indifference, he watched the polished businessman recoil at first glance, then eye him with wary tenseness when Paul introduced him.
“A pleasure to meet you, sir. Please forgive my tardiness. Be assured that it’s no reflection on your importance to Blackridge.” Dagger tilted his body in a short bow, extended his hand and reminded himself not to squeeze too hard before turning to Paul’s wife. "You look lovely this evening, Katherine. That dress is stunning on you. Would you be so kind as to entertain this esteemed gentleman while I have a word with Paul?"
The man let go of a breath he'd been holding when Dagger released his hand and walked away. He couldn’t tell if the guy was happier to be rid of him or to discover that he could talk like a civilized human being.
He walked Paul to a quiet corner.
"Jesus, you laid that on thick,” Paul grumbled. “What's up? Tell me it's more important than this account. You know this is our only chance to talk to the guy here in Seattle. And I don't like the way he looks at Katherine."
Paul hadn’t taken his eyes off the man talking to his wife.
"You don't like the way any man looks at her. She's got you wrapped around her pretty little finger and tied up in fancy knots." Dagger managed to chuckle without really smiling.
“You know, Dagger, it could happen to you."
“Yeah, right,” he grunted. "Look at me, Paul. Never gonna happen. Sweet and pretty don't do me and I'm sure not falling for the ones that will. Look, I know this isn't our gig tonight, but we’ve got trouble anyway."
Paul glanced quickly around the room and Dagger knew he was taking in the high-end guests and low-rent security before he said, "What kind of trouble? Plenty of pretty baubles and cash, that's for sure, but I can’t see a full-on robbery.”
“I dunno, Paul. I got a tip and a bad feeling along with it. Besides, I wouldn’t trust these rent-a-cops to stop rain with an umbrella.”
Paul scanned the room again and smirked. “Got that right. You call for reinforcements?”
"Already here. That’s where I’ve been.”
“You mean I’ve been standing around all this time schmoozing while you’ve been off enjoying yourself? I’m going to get you for this, Dagger.” Paul sighed. “Yeah, so, what are we looking at?”
Dagger explained his strange encounter with the purple-haired kid and the green van.
It felt good to know his partner trusted him, trusted his instincts. But he felt even better when Paul pulled out his phone and Dagger heard who he was calling.
"Lieutenant Rigby still in? Yes, please...Paul Weston. Thank you, I'll hold. Luke? Paul. Say, I’m at The Plaza for the Tierney Foundation charity ball… client…Yes, I am. It is not funny. Katherine said I look handsome, never mentioned anything about a monkey. Say, Luke, I've got reason to believe there's going to be some kind of trouble down here. Could you spare a couple of squads?...Yeah, a few of our own are already here, but it's not our show...Huh?...Katherine had lunch with her last week…How the hell should I know how she looked?…I don't want to hear anything about it, Luke. Just call the woman, send flowers, whatever. Can I count on those squads?...Thanks."
He put his phone back in his jacket pocket and looked at Dagger. "Love is a goddamn disease."
"Good thing I'm too ugly to catch it, then." Dagger's lips curled briefly. “Look, Paul, let me handle whatever this is—or isn’t. You handle the business, as usual. If it turns out to be nothing, you can smooth over my absence. We have a better chance of landing the account this way, in any case. Did you see how he looked at me?”
Paul just shrugged. “I’m more concerned about how he’s looking at my wife right now. Text me with any news.” Paul strode purposefully back into the crowd.
Dagger communicated with silent motions to his watchers and pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Just some guy who’d slipped out for a smoke, right? The green van had tightened its circle from around the block to around the parking lot. He was glad they’d waited to do that until after his men were in position. He didn’t just want to prevent a crime, he wanted to bust the assholes trying to pull it.
A young woman wearing a gown that probably cost as much as one of Blackridge’s Escalades stepped out the door and almost turned around when she saw him. He butted out his cigarette and said, “You’d think it was illegal, the way we have to sneak around,” as reassuringly as possible before going back inside.
Torn between protecting the girl and hoping she was the bait they needed, he put in his earpiece and waited. They were good men and Dagger trusted them.
He didn’t have to wait long. There was a muffled squawk over the comm link he’d stuck over the door outside. He slammed through it just in time to snatch the girl and shove her behind him. He faced two guns. The men holding them looked confused by his broad and genuine smile until they were on their knees with matching broken wrists, Farley behind them, a twisted arm in each hand. He was smiling too.
“Geez, Dagger, why do you always have take the fun out of everything? Now how I am supposed to impress this gorgeous woman with my manliness?” He flashed a bigger smile at the girl.
Two squads pulled up just then, lights flashing, sirens off. Lieutenant Rigby got out and gave Dagger a humorless half smile. Dagger turned and nodded to his men. They slipped back into the night, all except that smooth bastard Farley who was already holding the girl’s hand and whispering sweet nothings in her ear. Dagger slipped back into the ballroom. He shrugged. Better to leave the princess to a man who could comfort her and make her feel safe. Hell, she’d looked at him like he was more of a monster than the creeps who’d tried to snatch her.
Standing in the ballroom a few minutes later, Dagger reflected on how fast it had all happened. It was always like that, a few slow-motion moments that stretched out in memory but were over in a blink. Like little waves passing briefly over a pond while the rock that made them was already sitting at the bottom.
The general population, schmoozing, drinking and dancing, never even felt a ripple. Lieutenant Rigby looked like a cop boss—big, balding, aged before his time and carrying a few too many pounds—but even though he wasn’t wearing a tux, he wasn’t in uniform either. No one in the crowd took notice of him when he walked through the ballroom.
Paul shook the lieutenant’s hand and introduced him to the CEO. He had obviously seen Dagger’s text and intended to make the most of it. He’d succeed, too. That was one of the reasons he handled the clients and Dagger was more than happy to let him.
Another was driven home for the second—make that hundredth—time that evening when, even as he told the story and gave Dagger high praise, the lieutenant managed to avoid really looking at him, while the CEO just kept trying not to stare.
The lieutenant smiled warmly at Katherine and asked her to go chat with the Tierney princess, who, Dagger wasn’t at all surprised to discover, was part of Katherine’s social circle. Then he went on to explain that, from the evidence his men had found in the green van, it was obvious they'd planned to kill her once they had the ransom.
There weren't even any masks or ropes. Just a small digital recorder. They’d already admitted they were “just” going to record her voice begging for her life. But it would have been enough to get them whatever it was they wanted. Old man Tierney’s love for his granddaughter was damn near legendary. She probably wouldn’t have made it out of the parking lot alive.
Dagger considered what greedy sons of bitches they were; there had been only two of them. Any idiot knew that an extraction—er, kidnapping—took more than two people.
What he couldn’t figure out–Paul and the lieutenant, either—was what the purple-haired kid had to do with it.
But, what the hell. The CEO had been so impressed that he'd hired them on the spot and introduced Paul to some of his friends and business associates attending the ball. Tierney wanted them on the payroll, too.
Blackridge was going to get more than one account out of this. So why did Dagger feel the prick of guilt at being hailed a hero?
Thorne sat in the gloom of the bus, lost in a maze of thoughts and feelings she didn’t have a schematic for. The vision she’d experienced, even though it was just a glimpse this time, wasn’t the problem. Sometimes she just knew things, dark things. It had been that way ever since—
Stop. Not going there. The nightmares would take her to that black pit of hell before the sun came up, anyway; they had every night for the last five years.
She’d seen the green van right there in the ballroom. That terrible choking, sinking feeling, as if she were being sucked under, had followed in its wake. Of course, she had to have been holding an entire tray of champagne glasses at the time. Fucking Murphy and his damn law. But that wasn’t the source of confusion, or even the reason she’d taken the risk.
No, that would be the man who’d been standing in the coatroom, and the undeniable fact that she’d instantly been aware of him as a man. She still felt the vestiges of that awareness in places it shouldn’t be, had no business being, had never been.
Thorne had learned early that boys didn’t like smart girls and she’d been smart enough to understand there was no point in wasting energy and focus on unrequited attraction. Of course, it hadn’t been an issue at all since—
Stop. Not going there. Again. It was just another road back to hell.
The bus lurched. Thorne saw him again in her mind’s eye. God, he was big. Big enough to carry all of those ghosts. Men he’d slain. So many.
But the dark eyes looking out of his rough-hewn face didn’t belong to a killer. They held honor and horror; they belonged to a warrior who’d done his duty and believed he’d lost his soul doing it. The nose below those suffering eyes had been broken more than once, long ago. No doubt before he was fully grown and had gotten all those muscles his rented tux hadn’t been able to accommodate. With his shaved head, the short beard and mustache did nothing to soften his appearance. She knew the snake’s head tat on the big paw she’d seen emerging from his sleeve was one of many she hadn’t seen. No, the only thing soft about the man had been his barely-detectable southern accent, spoken with a deep voice that had vibrated in such an oddly pleasant way inside her.
These things she knew. But they didn’t tell her why she’d trusted him, or why she felt like her life had changed just as irrevocably as it had that night on her birthday five years ago.
With a final lurch and a tortured groan, the bus came to a stop and Thorne stepped off. She looked warily around her. Low rent neighborhoods had their advantages. There was—well, the low rent—and the anonymity too. They were worth the disadvantages one had to keep an eye out for.
Thorne wondered if she’d get any real work done tonight.
Check out the great reviews:
4.5/5 Frogs "In a Nutshell: One of the most unique heroines I’ve read in romance and an utterly compelling plot made this a novel I couldn’t put down." J9--TheBookVixen.com
5/5 rating: "Finding Grace is a wonderful and heartfelt story. Laughing and crying, I did not want to put this book down! Ms. Rhodan brings true emotion to the surface through her flowing words and bold characters…" --Star, The Bibliophilic Book Blog
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