Excerpt: Driftwood Cove

CHAPTER 1

There’d been no foreboding signs to alert Shay Angel to the danger, no warning that this was the day her past caught up with her and her life might be on the line.

Her morning had started off the same as usual. The alarm on her bedside table went off at seven, and she hit the snooze button three times at ten-minute intervals just like she always did. She didn’t fall out of bed or trip over her boots on the way to the shower. Her one-bedroom apartment was sparsely furnished, and her boots were right where she’d left them—directly at the end of her bed, toes pointed toward the door in case she needed to make a quick exit.

Even the unreliable showerhead had cooperated today. Her five-minute shower had been exactly the way she liked it, hot and strong. Just like her coffee, which she drank from an oversized travel mug that read “Do I look like I ‘Rise & Shine’?” Her assistant at the security company she worked for had a sense of humor. Shay didn’t.

Nor, for the most part, did she do friends, which her assistant was desperately trying to change. Lately—okay, so in the past ten years—Shay didn’t do boyfriends either. Something else her assistant was desperately trying to change by signing Shay up on every matchmaking app known to mankind. Without Shay’s permission, of course.

Just one more reason Shay had been lulled into thinking the day, for the most part, would be pretty good. She’d had forty-five minutes of peace and quiet before she’d left for work. No pings or beeps and bells and whistles from texts or emails from the apps she was signed up for alerting her to a new and perfect match.

She’d met her match a long time ago. Only he turned out to be perfectly imperfect. And he was calling her at a perfectly imperfect time. She reached for the vibrating cell phone on her desk and hit Decline. She’d stopped taking his calls ten months before but couldn’t quite make it official by blocking him completely. He was one of the reasons she’d accepted the job in Vegas. The move put twenty-three hundred miles between her and her past, in which Michael Gallagher had played a starring role.

But she didn’t have time to think about him now, or ever, really. She had bigger worries to contend with. Like the cop who sat on the other side of Shay’s desk with a familiar, suspicious look in her eyes.

“In less than three months, four of the homes your company installed security for have been robbed of more than a million dollars in diamonds. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that your clients are the ones being targeted, Ms. Angel.” Detective Sims slapped a file onto Shay’s desk.

Working to keep any sign of worry from showing on her face, Shay drew the manila folder toward her. There was no way she’d give Detective Sims the satisfaction of seeing her sweat. Shay’s petty criminal parents had imprinted her DNA with a deep dislike and distrust of law enforcement, but she didn’t have to like or trust Sims to know the woman wasn’t making up the evidence in the file.

Over the past five days, Shay had been trying to convince herself that no one at Sterling Security was involved in the break-ins. Then yesterday she’d overheard a conversation between her boss and an installer and could no longer deny the likelihood that they were in this up to their ears.

Which totally blew, because her suspicions put her bright and shiny dream for her future at risk. She’d left her job in New York to work for Ray Sterling, a man who was renowned in the security business. She’d planned to learn all that she could from him and then branch out on her own. Now . . .

She closed the file and looked at the woman sitting on the other side of her desk without saying a word.

Shay’s uncle Charlie had taken up where her parents left off. He’d taught her how to not only run a con and make a cop with a single glance, but how to allude and confuse them too. Other than the summer she’d turned nineteen, his lessons had served her well.

Sim’s dark eyes narrowed beneath her frosted blonde fringe.

Leaning back in the chair, Shay crossed her arms as she waited for the detective to show her hand. It didn’t take long.

“Do not try to intimidate me. I’ve heard all about your Superwoman act. How you saved your assistant and got Ace Rodriguez and his gang of thugs out of your neighborhood. But you don’t scare nor impress me like you do the beat cops. I know who and what you really are.” Sims leaned forward and tapped the file with a hot pink fingernail. “You were put away for grand theft auto at nineteen. Not much of a leap between stealing cars and stealing diamonds, now is there? So tell me, Angel, where were you on the nights in question?”

Charlie and her parents had been good teachers, but it was prison that had taught Shay the most valuable lessons of all. Number one, how to stay alive. And two, that she’d do whatever it took to ensure she was never put away again. Even if it meant turning on the man who held the key to making her dreams come true.

First though, she needed more proof to support her suspicions that her boss’s son was behind the break-ins. If he was, it meant Ray had found the perfect fall guy, or girl in this case. He’d correctly predicted that Detective Sims would focus on Shay. It wasn’t like he had to be especially smart or a mind reader to guess that she’d draw the detective’s interest. Everyone and their mother knew that in law enforcements’ eyes—once a con, always a con.

In the five years since she’d walked out of the prison’s gates, Shay had been on the receiving end of the expression. If it wasn’t said to her face, it was whispered behind her back or delivered with raised eyebrows and knowing smirks.

Another cliché she knew to be true: It takes a thief to catch one. And that’s exactly what she planned to do. Once she got rid of Sims.

Given her own concerns over the robberies, Shay had been prepared for a visit from the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. Still, it ticked her off that she was on the top of Sim’s suspect list, the emotion evident in her voice when she said, “I was working the crisis hotline the night of the first robbery, and I had a one-on-one MMA session that clears me of the third break-in.”

“You don’t expect me to take your word for it, do you? And what the hell is a private MMA session anyway? Do I even want to know?”

“Mixed martial arts. I’m an instructor at Elite Gym,” Shay responded through clenched teeth, reaching for the kitschy holder on her otherwise empty desk. Her assistant, Cherry, a former stripper who was into all things crafty, had made the card holder for Shay as an early Valentine’s Day gift. Which meant it was pink and sparkly and covered in hearts. And smelled like Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Cherry must have given it a fresh spritz that morning.

Supposedly it was imbued with the power to bring out Shay’s inner girly girl and break her dating dry spell before the most romantic day of the year. Despite wanting to hurl at the task before her, a smile tugged on Shay’s lips as she withdrew a business card from the holder. The reluctant smile fading as she turned the card over to write the names and numbers of the people who would provide her alibis.

She’d have to talk to them. Let them know the police would be calling to verify her whereabouts for the nights in question. Instead of throwing the card at Sims like she wanted to, Shay flicked it across the desk with the end of her pen.

After glancing at the names, Sims raised an eyebrow. “Judge Watkins. I’m surprised he didn’t ask for another instructor when he found out you were an ex-con. He’s a hardass. You would’ve served ten years instead of five if he’d presided over your case.”

Other than Ray, and obviously Sims, no one in Vegas knew that Shay had done time. Any chances of keeping her record private were gone now. Sims would see to that. Shay had met her type before.

“I have an appointment in twenty minutes, Detective. If there’s nothing else . . .”

“You’re not off the hook yet, Angel. You’re missing alibies for two of the break-ins.”

“You know as well as I do that one person is responsible for all four robberies, and it’s not me.”

“And how exactly did you come to that conclusion?”

“How do you think? I’ve spoken to my clients and read the reports.” There was something off about Sim’s reaction, her tone of voice, and it gave Shay pause. What if there was more to this than she knew? She came up with a question that might immediately rid her of the worrisome suspicion now niggling at her brain. “If you’re planning on questioning Ray and his son, you might want to get on that. They’re leaving today for the security conference in New York.”

“Why would I want to question the Sterlings? They’re one of the richest families in the state. It’s not like they need the money nor would they benefit from the negative publicity. Ray’s well respected and—”

“Let me guess, a generous benefactor to the mayor’s last campaign.” It was like history was repeating itself. If it came to down to her word against the Sterlings, Shay didn’t trust the law to be on her side. She’d learned the hard way that the same rules didn’t apply to the rich and connected.

It’s why she’d accepted Ray’s offer last March—to earn the respect and power that went with having a fortune. She’d wanted to learn from the best, and once she had, she planned to develop a concept she could franchise. The security industry was a 350-billion-dollar business, and she wanted big piece of it. But she had a long way to go before she earned the kind of coin that guaranteed her a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“Watch your step, Angel,” Sims said as she came to her feet. “And don’t leave town.”

“I’m curious, just how well do you know Ray?” Shay said to the woman’s back.

Her hand on the knob of the office door, the detective hesitated before turning to face her.

A faint, knowing smile tugged at Shay’s lips. She’d been bluffing, but from the slight flush of color on Sim’s cheeks and her initial hesitation, Shay had obviously hit a nerve. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The detective was the four-times divorced Ray’s type.

It also explained why Sims had ended up here today, targeting her. Shay nosing into the investigation had made her boss nervous, and he knew the perfect way to shut her down and protect his son. She’d made the mistake of confiding in him a few months back, sharing her greatest fear.

“What are you insinuating?”

A younger version of herself would have told Sims exactly what she was suggesting, but Shay liked to think she’d become smarter, more strategic. Self-preservation won out over righteous indignation and revenge every single time. “Nothing, but now that you mention it, you’re awfully defensive. Can’t say I blame you though. Connected as he is, Ray probably has your boss on speed-dial, doesn’t he? Don’t worry. I won’t tell him you’re harassing me. I know you’re just doing your job.”

Sims looked like she was trying to decide whether she’d just been threatened or Shay was clueless.

“I am just doing my job. It has nothing to do with office politics or my relationship with the Sterlings.”

So, clueless it was. Except Sims mention of her relationship with the Sterlings was either a Freudian slip or strategic. If it was strategic, the woman had correctly surmised that Shay wouldn’t let up on the investigation and somewhere there was evidence of her relationship with Ray. Which would also mean Sims knew Shay was playing her.

“Relax, I believe you. Now I really do need to head out for my appointment or I’ll be late, and that would make my boss an unhappy man.” Shay had every intention of making Ray Sterling a very unhappy man before he left for NYC. She refused to have the threat of prison hanging over her any longer than she had to.

* * *

Sitting in a black Challenger outside of Ray Junior’s apartment building, Shay hacked into the security system and remotely took control. She kept an eye on the front of the building while angling the exterior cameras so that one captured the entrance to the casino across the road and the other one focused on the parking garage.

There was no time to celebrate her success. Shay might get in the building undetected, but she still had to deal with the cameras in the elevators and on Junior’s floor. And then there was the matter of searching his apartment in under an hour in order to confront her boss before he left town.

As she leaned over to grab her knapsack off the floor, the passenger side door opened and a blonde bombshell slipped in. A decade older than Shay, her thirty-nine-year-old assistant wore a hot pink leather jacket, matching mini skirt, and thigh high white shiny boots.

“What are you doing here, Cherry? I need you back at the office.” If things went south, Shay didn’t want the Sterlings looking at her assistant. Cherry needed this job even more than Shay did. “Wait a minute, how did you even know where I was?”

Cherry made a limp wrist hand drop, the stacks of rings on each finger no doubt weighing down her hand. “How many times do I have to tell you? If you don’t want anyone to know where you are, stop driving Hell Baby.”

A powerful muscle car, the sleek black hellcat with its yellow rims was Shay’s pride and joy. “Okay, you found me, so what do you want?”

Glancing from the building back to Shay, Cherry blinked eyes framed with long blue lashes that sort of matched her eyes. “I know you’re desperate for a man, but Ray J, Shaybae? Do you seriously not look in a mirror?” She tugged on Shay’s ponytail that stuck through the hole at the back of her ball cap. “You have this lush black mane that you never let down to play, stunning gray eyes, and pillow lips. Like it or not, girlfriend, you’re a ten even sans makeup and with the goth uniform. And poor Ray J, he’s a two on a fab hair day, and that’s me being kind.”

About a fifth of what Cherry said actually registered with Shay. The part where her assistant thought she was desperate, and worse, the part where she knew that this was Junior’s apartment building. That was the thing about Cherry, with her blonde bombshell looks, people underestimated her.

Including Shay, it seemed. “I’m not desperate. What I am is busy. I have to drop off an estimate for Junior. He messed up his numbers again, and I fixed the quote as a favor. Don’t let him or his father know I said—”

Cherry’s cell phone rang, and she held up a finger. “I routed the office calls to my phone. Sterling Security, how may I be of service?” She made a face and then smiled like the person on the other end of the line was standing in front of her. “An adorable pink heart that was attached to your purse? Umm, right, you didn’t say adorable. But you have such a fashionable flare, Detective Sims, that I just knew it must be.”

“Seriously?” Shay muttered, flicking the adorable pink heart hanging from Cherry’s bag.

Cherry pointedly ignored her and continued. “Don’t you worry, I’ll find it if it’s here. All right, you have yourself a good day.” She disconnected and held up her hands, her rings catching the sunlight and making a rainbow in the car. “What? She made me nervous, and you know what happens when I’m nervous or upset.”

“Yeah, you steal things, and one day it’s going to get you in trouble that even I can’t get you out of. You need to see a shrink.”

“We both might need one when I tell you why she makes me nervous.”

“She’s a cop. Of course she makes you nervous.” It’s something they had in common.

Cherry flapped her hands. “O. M. G, I don’t know how to tell you this.”

“Just spit it out. I have to—”

“You know those robberies? It’s Ray J. He got mixed up with some bad dudes, and he’s feeding them the inside scoop on our clients.”

“Are you sure? Does Ray Senior know?”

“I’m not sure if he knows. But I saw Ray J at the Purple Peacock with the scary dudes. I know, I know. It was just that one time. But hey, it’s a good thing I went. Harry, the bartender, he’s an old friend of mine. He gave me the scoop.” She wrung her hands. “I know how much you admire Ray Senior, and I’d rather remove my implants than hurt you, Shaybae, but you need to know. He’s setting you up to take the fall.”

“I figured that out when Sims was questioning me. Last night I overheard Ray talking to one of the installers. Junior is no longer allowed on the jobs.”

“Okay, so what are we going to do?”

“I need hard evidence against Junior. Evidence that I can blackmail his father with. Either he calls off Sims or I take what we know to the . . . D.A,” she said, thinking about Michael’s earlier call.

He was an assistant district attorney in Boston. If worse came to worse, she’d ask for his help. He, out of anyone, would know someone here that she could trust. Her hands perspired at the thought. She didn’t like depending on anyone. It’s why she fought her battles alone. This time though, she couldn’t afford to take the risk. She’d do whatever it took to protect herself. And Cherry.

“You need to go back to the office and forget everything you just told me. That way, when this is over, you’ll still have a job.”

Cherry sniffed and flicked her over-processed hair. It might have made for a dramatic performance if her rings hadn’t gotten caught in her teased blond locks. Her words made up for it though. “I meant what I told you the night you saved me in the alley. I’m your slave for life, Shaybae. You got me the job at Sterling, and I’m not staying there without you. I won’t work for a man who rewards all the overtime you put in by throwing you under the bus. Where you go, I go.” She tilted her head. “Just for curiosity’s sake, do you know where we’re going? Don’t worry if you haven’t thought that far ahead, I’ll do a tea reading. That way we can be assured of ending up in the perfect place. How does Greece sound? I hear Greek men like blondes.” She twisted a lock of hair around her finger and then glanced at Shay. “Not on your bucket list?”

“Let’s deal with one thing at a time, okay?” she said, a little panicked and slightly claustrophobic at the idea of not only being jobless but being responsible for Cherry too. Right now though, she had more important things to worry about. She glanced at her phone. “We have half an hour to get in and out of Junior’s apartment without getting caught.”

Cherry fluffed her hair and stuck out her impressive triple D’s. “Don’t you worry, I haven’t met a man I can’t distract.”

Her assistant was nothing if not confident, Shay thought as they walked to the front doors of the building. Stepping behind the potted palm at the entrance, she remotely changed the angles of the cameras in the lobby and outside the elevator doors. Once Cherry began singing Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” off key and strutting her stuff, Shay took one last look around before heading for the door to the left of the elevators. Cherry would hang out in the lobby, not only to distract security but to keep an eye on who came in the building.

Shay hip-checked open the door to the stairs while digging in her knapsack for her lock kit. If she’d had more time, she would’ve lifted Junior’s keys and made a copy for herself. She reached the twelfth floor in record time and eased open the door to look down the deserted hallway, noting the locations of the cameras as she did.

Once she shut them down, she’d have just under seven minutes to break into Junior’s apartment before the security guards rebooted the system and got the cameras back online. Shay leaned against the door, doing a trial run in her head. Confident she had everything planned out to the last second, she set the alarm on her phone for four minutes, and then raced down the blue paisley carpeted hall to the door at the far end.

It took her twenty seconds. Less than four minutes later, she opened the door to Junior’s apartment and disabled his alarm. She was just about to close the door when the bell on the elevator dinged and the doors slid open to reveal a stressed-out Cherry on the phone.

“Yes, yes, I see her. She’s okay. She picked the lock, and she’s inside his apartment to get the evidence now.”

Shay had to practically lift her jaw off the floor to speak. “Have you lost your mind? Who are you talking to?”

“The Sterlings are on their way up,” Cherry said in a frantic whisper, shoving the phone at Shay. “Talk to him.”

Like she had time to talk to anyone with the Sterlings headed their way. She glanced at the second elevator; it was on the third floor. Jerking Junior’s apartment door closed, she grabbed Cherry by the arm and raced back down the hall to the stairway.

“Slow down, I’m in heels, and you’re in motorcycle boots,” Cherry complained as if that were the only reason she couldn’t keep up. The woman considered shopping an exercise.

Shay put a finger to her lips, dragging her assistant behind the door just as the elevator dinged. Shay peeked around the edge of the blue steel door to see the Sterlings step off the elevator. Someone calling her name drew her up short. She glanced at the phone. It couldn’t be. She let the door close and leaned against it. Holding up the phone, she stared at Cherry.

“It’s Special Agent Gallagher. He called to speak to you, and I thought we could use the help when I saw the Sterlings getting out of their car. He says he’s a friend of yours. Talk to him. Let him help.”

The voice sounded like Michael’s, but it couldn’t be. He was an assistant district attorney, not a special agent. Maybe it was his cousin Aidan, who was a DEA agent. Shay had done some undercover work for him two years before. The reasoning made sense, and her racing heart slowed.

Hefting her knapsack over her shoulder, she nudged Cherry to get her moving down the stairs and put the phone to her ear. “Aidan?”

“Aidan? No, it’s Michael. What’s going on, Shay? Are you okay? Are you safe?”

It was Michael. She’d recognize his deep, sexy-as-sin voice anywhere. Even with a note of concern giving it a rougher edge, it affected her the same as it always had. Like he’d reached through the line and stroked her with his strong and elegant fingers. A door slamming on the floor they’d just left drew her attention. She cocked her head, waiting for the Sterlings to start yelling, to come running their way. There was nothing but the crinkle of leather and the click of Cherry’s heels on the concrete stairs.

“Shay?”

“Sorry. Yeah, I’m good. We’re okay.”

“Sure you are. You just have someone trying to frame you. For once can you be straight with me and admit you need help?” She heard the emotion in his voice, and it reminded her of the night she’d ended up in his arms, and eventually in his bed. The night she’d tangled her fingers in hair as black as a starless winter’s night, gazed into eyes as blue and as warm as the Atlantic Ocean on a summer’s day, and trailed kisses along a jaw as chiseled as the rocks that lined the harbor.

There’d been a time when she’d loved him beyond reason. Sometimes she was afraid that she still did. It’s why she’d stopped taking his calls. She gave her assistant the evil eye. It didn’t do her much good. Sprawled over the handrail trying to catch her breath, Cherry sounded like she needed oxygen.

Shay nudged her to keep her moving while defending herself to Michael, “I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t break any laws.”

“So you’re telling me that you didn’t enter the apartment after picking the lock?”

She heard a hint of amusement in his voice. “They’re setting me up, Michael. I won’t go down for something I didn’t do. I won’t.”

“Trust me, they won’t get away with it. I won’t let them. Just . . . Hang on a minute.”

She wanted to believe him, but she’d lost her innocence a long time ago. There’d been a time when she’d trusted him though. When she’d believed it didn’t matter that they came from two different worlds. She’d thought a love like theirs could survive anything and anyone.

She frowned at the thought, unable to believe that she’d ever been that naïve. She supposed it was possible. But the sentiment seemed more like something Michael would have believed. He’d been an idealist and an optimist. He’d also been incredibly persuasive. So different from her in so many ways.

All things considered, it wasn’t really surprising that she’d been the one who’d paid the price the summer their worlds collided. Her life had ended up in tatters. Michael’s, as far as she knew, had remained as privileged as ever.

There were muffled voices in the background and then Michael came back on the line. “All right, in the next couple of minutes an agent will call you on this number. He’ll arrange a meet. His name is Tom Bryant. You can trust him, Shay. I promise, everything will be okay.”

A lump formed in her throat, surprising her. She would have expected relief, not this odd sense of loss for what might have been. “Thanks. I appreciate your help.”

“Yet if it was up to you, I wouldn’t have had the chance to give it to you, would I? The only reason you’re talking to me right now is because your friend—”

“Wait. Why did you call? And why did you lie to Cherry and say you’re with the FBI? Did you think I—”

“I didn’t lie to your friend. I am with the FBI, and you would’ve known that if you hadn’t cut me out of your life, Shay. As to why I was calling, it’ll keep. We’ll talk after you’ve met with Tom and gotten the situation there under control.”

A door slammed several flights below, immediately followed by the sound of booted feet running up the stairs. Crap. She yanked Cherry upright and practically carried her back to the floor they’d just passed. “Your friend Bryant? You better send him here, like now, Michael. Our situation has. . .” A bullet shattered the concrete an inch from her head.