A SLOW BURN NOVEL, BOOK #3
They say young love doesn’t last, but a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with unique abilities and the hometown golden boy were determined to defy the odds. For Zack Covington, Anna-Grace—his “Gracie”—was the one. But one night forever altered the course of their future; when a devastated Gracie disappeared without a trace, Zack was left to agonize over what happened to the girl he loved. As the years passed, his desperate efforts to find her uncovered nothing.
Now working for Devereaux Security, he stumbles across a painting featuring a special place only he and Gracie would know. The image is too perfectly rendered for it to be coincidence. His Gracie must be alive. When he comes face to face with her, he is shocked—and heartbroken—to discover the wounded shell of the girl he once knew and still loves. Her psychic gifts are gone, and worse, she believes he betrayed her all those years ago.
Zack has enemies, and once his weakness is discovered, Gracie becomes a target for revenge. He’ll have to save her before he can earn her trust and her love. And he vows they’ll never be torn apart again.
Zack Covington simmered with impatience as he waited for the go signal from his teammates. He didn’t exactly know what was going on in the basement of the McMansion—one not unlike he’d once dreamed of building for the girl he’d planned to spend forever with—but knew it wasn’t good. Sometimes bad lurked in seemingly benign locations. People existed in denial it could happen in their little corner of the earth. How very wrong they were.
It was a lesson he’d learned the learned the hard way. Coming from a small town nestled against the shores of Kentucky Lake, he’d thought—just as most of its citizens, likely—that they were impervious to bad. And Zack? He was more confident than most, because his father was the chief of police, and he’d grown up knowing his father’s job was to ensure the safety of the town, regardless of size.
But he’d damn sure failed when it came to Gracie. Everyone had failed her and Zack had lead the pack. His father’s refusal to use county resources on someone who didn’t belong anyway had caused a rift between him and his father that to this day hadn’t been mended.
It never would be.
Zack sighed as he contemplated the stately homes, the expensive cars, swimming pools behind high privacy fences and the immaculately landscaped yards. The white collar families who resided in the gated community that boasted top notch security would be horrified to know that evil lurked in their midst. The irony of it all, was that the affluent neighborhood had recently been voted the safest and most desirable communities to live in the greater Houston area. Hell, it had scored in the top five in the entire state of Texas and in the top twenty for the whole country. So yeah, these people were utterly convinced that they were safe.
But he knew better. Inside was a child. Just a baby. Well, not so much a baby as she was only two years younger than his Gracie. Goddamn it. Not here. Not now. It was no time for the past to intrude. Besides Gracie was hardly the beautiful, innocent sixteen year old girl he’d loved over a decade ago. She’d be twenty-eight now.
If she was even alive.
And she wasn’t “his” Gracie anymore. She wasn’t his anything.
Maybe he hadn’t been able to save Gracie. Maybe he’d failed her. But over his dead body was he going to fail this young girl whose dreams were as big as the sun. Not when the two most important people in her life—or at least should have been the most important—had failed her in every possible way.
Alyssa Delacroix had been a very promising ballerina at a very early age, a fact her mother had taken pride in when she’d participated in kindergarten recitals, received high praise and glowing local and state accolades. Later, when the demands of her training had encroached on both mother and father’s social lives, Alyssa had fallen far down the list of their priorities.
Until the father had received pointed threats, aimed at Alyssa.
The Delacroix’s had five children with Alyssa being the middle child, with two older brothers and two younger sisters. When Howard Delacroix had called in DSS, it had disgusted Zack that the man seemed irritated, not that his daughter was being threatened, but that he wasn’t the subject of the threat. It was a blow to his ego that evidently he was not as important as his daughter.
Pompous, arrogant pig who had no business having children. His wife was no better. Zack could only dream of the life they had—a life he once thought he would have—a houseful of children. Happy. And yet the couple was more concerned with their social standing than the care of their children.
They’d hired a nanny and it was the nanny who attended all sports events, dance recitals and provided the love and support the parents should have. And now she was dead, shot when trying to protect one of the younger Delacroix children when masked men had burst into the auditorium where the dance recital was being held, cut the lights, causing instant chaos when gunfire erupted.
The father? Had dropped like a fucking coward, hiding behind his wife, while the nanny had saved his son. Zack would like to put a bullet right between the asshole’s eyes for that alone.
The only reason Howard and Felicity Delacroix had even been there hadn’t been to see their daughter shine. They’d attended solely because the CEO of another oil company also had a daughter performing and Howard was in negotiations to merge the two companies because the competitor was looking to retire and Howard wanted to take over both companies and expand his “empire.” Hell, he and his wife hadn’t even sat with their children, leaving the nanny to tend to them while they sat a row back talking business while their daughters’ performed.
The target had been Alyssa. And Alyssa had been Zack’s responsibility. Hell, she was all of DSS’s responsibility, but Zack had been the closest, and in the clusterfuck that had ensued, a hysterical woman had blocked his pathway to Alyssa, a mere foot away, getting shot in the process and Alyssa had been abducted in a professionally executed hit.
This was no amateur operation, and Zack had to wonder why someone would go to such lengths to kidnap the child of a high profile oil mogul when the man took absolutely no security precautions, and if any research on Delacroix had been done at all and ransom had been the aim, he would have been the obvious choice.
He’d give up a hell of a lot of money for his own life. But for his children? Even Zack knew the answer to that, and he’d only briefly made the man’s acquaintance. He’d despised him on site because he grudgingly had to part with some of his precious money to protect his daughter for “appearance’s sake.” After all, it wouldn’t do for it to get out that a father had ignored threats to his child, and above all else, Howard Delacroix had an ego the size of the state he resided in.
When the silence through his earpiece continued—and he’d already waited an interminable amount of time—Zack lost what was left of his patience. Fuck it. He was going in. The Delacroix’s may not give two fucks about their daughter, but Zack did, and he wasn’t about to sit on his hands when each passing second could mean the difference between life and death.
Stealthily, he crept toward the window of the guest room. DSS had pulled the floor plans of the housing developments—they were cookie cutter houses after all—and quietly inserted his knife around the edges and bottom of the window to loosen the panes. Only when he was able to slide the window upward, did he whisper into the com, “I’m in.”
He ignored the curses of Dane, heard an “about time” muttered by Eliza, while Capshaw and Renfro said nothing at all.
Zack slid into the bedroom with ease and quickly drew his gun with silencer attached with one hand and reached for a flash bang grenade with the other. He knew the layout by heart having studied it until it was ingrained in his mind.
The house was eerily dark when he slipped from the bedroom, but in the distance, the sound of a television could be heard. His partners could cover the front. His aim was the lower level and he honed in on his target with absolute focus.
A shadow appeared in his periphery and he immediately flattened himself against the wall just as a man rounded the corner, heading directly toward Zack. A quick assessment told him this wasn’t a resident of the house. He was dressed in fatigues and a black shirt, a shoulder harness holding a pistol and several Kevlar knives secured to his waist. What the fuck did these jokers want with a fourteen-year-old girl? Were they running some sort of human trafficking ring? And if so, why the one girl? There had been over two dozen girls between the ages of eight and eighteen at the recital. In the utter chaos that had ensued, they could have grabbed several others.
Zack yanked his gun up just as the other man spotted him and did the same. But Zack had the element of surprise and only the thud of a dead body falling broke the quiet.
“One down,” Zack said quietly into the comm. “And these guys are trained. Watch your sixes.”
“Goddamn it, Zack,” Beau hissed. “Wait for back-up.”
“Alyssa may not have time for back-up,” Zack bit back, moving toward the stairway at the end of the hall.
He paused at the top and peered downward, his ears straining for any sound to indicate movement up the stairs. What he heard froze him to the core.
Soft weeping. The sound of pain and despair. And it broke his heart.
Resisting the urge to rush recklessly the rest of the way down the stairs, he forced himself to take it step by step, making sure he made no sound as he descended when his every instinct was to charge in and take out the fuckers who’d taken and hurt an innocent child.
He paused at the bottom because there was only a small area between the bottom of the stairwell and the wall. He would have to round the corner to enter the larger area of the room. Where Alyssa was being held. Where soft weeping could still be heard.
He couldn’t lob the flash bang grenade, because it would be devastating to Alyssa, and she could be executed in a split second once her kidnappers were aware they’d been found. As schooled as Zack believed them to be, they’d likely been exposed to them before—and trained to withstand the effects while adequately defending themselves. Or taking out the enemy.
Inhaling a quiet breath, he gripped his knife in his left hand and curled his fingers on his right hand around the stock of the pistol, just brushing the trigger. The sight that greeted him would live with him until his dying breath.
Alyssa, bloodied, bruised, pale with shock, eyes glazed with pain and the sheen of tears was manacled to the brick chimney base. It was like something out of a medieval horror movie.
But worse was seeing who her tormentor was.
Zack didn’t move. Didn’t so much as breathe, praying the girl holding a knife to Alyssa’s neck wouldn’t be alerted to his presence and slice through the delicate skin.
“Why are you doing this to me, Lana?” Alyssa whispered, choking on her tears as she stared dully at her tormentor. “I thought we were friends!”
“Because with you out of the picture, I’ll be the best. Not you,” the teenage girl hissed. “It’s always been about you. I’m sick of hearing about how great Alyssa is. How talented. How you’re destined for stardom. What does anyone say about me? Runner up. To you. Always second place. Now I’ll be the star and no one will even remember your name.”
Jesus. Zack recognized the girl. She’d performed just before Alyssa, and obviously displayed talent, but from the moment Alyssa had taken the stage, it had been equally evident that Alyssa had clearly outshone the other girl.
The sheer hatred for Alyssa was obvious in her rival’s voice. The malicious triumph in her voice sickened Zack. A thin rivulet of blood slipped down Alyssa’s neck and she gave a small cry, more of distress and fear than of pain.
What was more horrifying was that there was no way this girl could have pulled off a plan so flawlessly. Nor would she have knowledge of such men capable of executing a professional hit. Which meant her parents not only knew what was happening in the basement of their home but had likely masterminded the entire event.
Zack had to act fast. He was very good at reading people and he didn’t doubt for a second that the jealous teenage girl would kill Alyssa if he didn’t step in now. In no way did he want to kill a teenage girl, just a child—but no, this was no child. She was a cold-blooded psychopath who thought nothing of removing someone she perceived as competition.
And then the decision was ripped from him when Alyssa glanced past her captor and betrayed his presence by widening her eyes in alarm. Thankfully, the girl lowered the knife and turned, perhaps thinking he was one of the men who’d abducted Alyssa. But when her gaze settled on him, she raised the
hand holding the knife, her expression so vicious it gave him chills. Then she turned, clearly directing the knife toward Alyssa’s chest.
It all happened in a split second, and yet it was as though everything was in slow motion.
Alyssa screamed, straining sideways to avoid the wicked edge of the knife. Zack fired, his aim precise, penetrating Lana’s arm just above the wrist, causing the knife to drop. Lana’s scream mimicked Alyssa’s own and yet the obvious pain the bullet wound must have caused didn’t deter her from her determined vendetta.
She lunged at Alyssa, scratching furiously at Alyssa’s face while her other hand hung uselessly at her side.
Zack hurled himself forward, grabbing a fistful of the hell cat’s hair and yanked her back. In his ear, two voices were demanding a status report. He ignored both, more worried about defending Alyssa from further harm if someone not on his team came down the stairs.
“I’ll kill you!” Lana screamed, turning her fury on Zack.
And just as suddenly, her anger turned to triumph as she turned a spiteful look in Alyssa’s direction.
“You’re too late anyway,” she said smugly.
Zack didn’t pause to consider what the crazy ass girl meant. He shoved her down into a nearby chair and handcuffed her uninjured wrist to the arm. This time it was she who gave away the presence of another. Relief flared in her eyes and Zack immediately dropped and rolled toward Alyssa, placing his body between her and any possible threat.
His gun was up and he didn’t hesitate when he saw a man who was similarly attired as the one Zack had already taken down on the upper level. He didn’t have time to go for the kill shot but put a bullet in the assailant’s upper leg. Judging by the blood pumping from the wound as the man went down, it was likely Zack had hit his femoral artery. If that was the case, the man was finished and would bleed out in a matter of seconds.
Still, not one to assume anything, he took aim and put a second bullet through the downed man’s neck.
“Goddamn it, where the fuck is everyone?” Zack demanded, addressing his teammates for the first time. “Alyssa’s in the basement and two of the kidnappers are dead. Anyone care to offer some back up here?”
“Well, if you’d been a little more patient, you’d have gotten your back up,” Dane said dryly.
“If I’d waited any longer, Alyssa would be dead right now,” Zack snapped.
“We’ve cleared the main level,” Eliza broke in. “On our way now. And Zack, this is some fucked up shit we’re dealing with.”
“You don’t even know the half of it,” Zack said grimly.
Satisfied that he’d encounter no further nasty surprises, Zack picked himself up and quickly freed Alyssa’s wrists, using the key lying on a table just a few feet away. As soon as she was free, she threw her arms around him and sobbed into his neck. He closed his eyes, cupping the back of her head as he gently stroked her hair.
“It’s all right now, sweetheart. You’re safe now.”
“No it’s not,” she said with gulping sobs. “It’ll never be all right again.”
She clung tightly to him her grief causing a knot to form in Zack’s throat. The world was filled with all kinds of sick, twisted fucks, but even this had the power to surprise him. That someone so young was so evil and…sick. He didn’t have words.”
“Can you get up or do you need me to carry you?” Zack said, using a soothing, calming voice. “How badly are you hurt?”
At his question, she completely fell apart, her cries so hopeless that it enraged him that such innocence had been destroyed. But even then, he wasn’t prepared for her answer.
“She broke my knees,” Alyssa sobbed. “She made it so I’ll never dance again. Dancing was all I had and now it’sgone. She was supposed to be my friend. We were going to room together, go to the same performing arts academy. Oh God. What if I never walk again?”
Zack went utterly still with shock. As gently as he could, considering he was shaking with rage, he pulled her away, just enough that he could evaluate her legs. He hadn’t seen them before. He’d been too focused on Lana and the knife she’d held and the fear in Alyssa’s eyes.
And what he saw horrified him.
The leotards she’d worn in her recital were torn and bloodied, impossibly stretched by massive swelling caused by trauma to the kneecaps. He’d never felt so sick in his life. Not since the day…
He shook his head, refusing to go back to that time in his life. There was a young girl who needed him right now. He was all that had stood between her and death. And to her, such a devastating injury was tantamount to death.
He very carefully slid one arm underneath her thighs, above the backs of her knees and below her behind and the secured his other arm around her upper body, hooking it underneath her armpit.
“This will hurt, honey, but I have to get you out of here and to a hospital where it’s safe. Perhaps your injuries aren’t as severe as you fear.”
Devastation and doubt were clear in her tear-swollen eyes, but she clamped her lips shut and leaned into him, not uttering a single sound as he lifted her and carried her past Lana who was still handcuffed to the chair.
“What about me?” Lana shrieked. “You shot me!”
Zack turned his cold gaze on her, ensuring Alyssa’s head was tucked firmly beneath his chin, her face buried against his neck so she would no longer have to lay eyes on her torturer.
“Sue me,” he growled.
KEEP ME SAFE
IN HIS KEEPING
Arial knows the rules that keep her safe. She’s been following them since she was a little girl: Do not tell. Do not show. But in a moment of terror, facing an attacker intent on taking more than just her life, she has no choice but to unleash the psychic powers she’s been hiding since childhood.
Maya Banks a #1 USA Today and New York Times bestselling author whose chart toppers have included erotic romance, romantic suspense, contemporary romance, Scottish historical romances. She is the author of the Breathless Trilogy, the KGI novels, the Sweet series, and the Colters Legacy novels. She lives in the South with her husband and three children and other assorted babies, such as her two Bengal kitties and a Calico who’s been with her as long as her youngest child. She’s an avid reader of romance and loves to dish books with her fans and anyone else who’ll listen! She very much enjoys interacting with her readers on Facebook and Twitter as well as in her Yahoo! Group.