by Rosie Miles
Copyright © 2015 by Rosie Miles. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Fortitude Valley, Queensland, Australia
Hell’s frozen over. Meet me tonight. 9:00. De’lisle’s.
Quinn scanned Maggie’s text message for the twentieth time then slammed his phone shut and shoved it into his pocket.
He flicked back his cuff and checked his watch. Ten o’clock. He scoured the room. Where is she?
Edgy, he turned back to the bar, lifted his glass, and downed the neat bourbon. All around him, patrons laughed and talked, confident of anonymity in the muted lighting of the exclusive club. Young waitresses threaded their way between plush, crescent-shaped booths surrounding low, circular tables.
The barman slid a bowl of salted nuts in front of Quinn. “Another drink, sir?”
Quinn nodded then resumed scrutinizing the room. Not for the first time, his eyes were drawn to the back, where through a partly opened door he could see a spiral stairway disappearing upward. Two burly security guards paced back and forth in front of it.
Quinn’s eyes narrowed when a girl in a skimpy, red dress sashayed toward the door. She looked barely fifteen, yet the bouncers made no move to stop her from climbing the stairs.
At the sound of a glass hitting the bar, he spun back around. A fresh drink sat in front of him. Quinn tossed down a twenty. Leaning against the black marble bar, he touched the chilly stone. He hated the feel of the stuff. Cold. Lifeless. Like mortuary slabs. Not a good thought.
He checked his watch. Again. Fifteen after ten and still no sign of her. He clenched his jaw, levering himself away from the bar. He would not be played for a fool.
He’d finish his drink then leave.
Before he even lifted the glass, the pianist wound up his number with a flourish and, through a smattering of polite appreciation, announced, “Ladies and Gentleman, for your enjoyment this evening, the management of De’lisle’s presents Miss Cassie Lee Wynters!”
Enthusiastic applause broke out as the spotlight swung to the back of the room. Quinn’s heartbeat kicked harder when a shadow stepped forward and materialized into a tall, willowy woman who moved with easy grace, despite four-inch stilettos.
He couldn’t drag his gaze away.
His fists clenched.
Twelve damned months of silence. He’d become convinced she was dead and then prayed he was wrong.
He sucked in a deep breath. Every moment of that year, she’d haunted his thoughts, his dreams, and as hard as he’d tried, exorcising any part of her had proved impossible. It had almost cost him his career.
Quinn’s fingers found the glass. He tossed back the contents, the bourbon burning all the way down. With concentrated effort, he placed the empty tumbler down on the hard, cold marble rather than hurl it into a wall, his gaze fixed on her the whole time.
Twelve months ago, she’d flung his concern back in his face and stormed out, her final words—I’ll need you when hell freezes over—seared into his memory. He thought he’d never hear from her again. What had rocked her first major undercover assignment that she’d contacted him? His pathetic, sentimental heart beat a little harder. What do I care? Whatever it is, it’s not my concern. Let vice handle it.
He’d wait around just long enough to tell her that to her face.
Cassie Lee Wynters fixed a smile to her lips as she wove between the tables making for the stage. Beneath the fake name, fake smile, and stage makeup, Detective Maggie Sinclair hid worry. She was in trouble. Big trouble.
Had she done the right thing? Had she ruined her career? She didn’t know. She wanted to get the hell out of here and help those young girls get back to their families. Sucking in a deep breath, bogus smile firmly in place, Maggie acknowledged the pianist as she stepped onto the dais and turned to face the audience.
Under the full house lights she quickly scanned the room, looking for Quinn. She wouldn’t blame him if he’d just laughed and thought told you so, when he got her text. That last fight… She briefly shut her eyes.
Don’t go there.
She stepped toward the microphone, searching the room one last, desperate time. No sign of Quinn, but in the front row Conrad Adams, owner of the club, sat deep in conversation with his head of security, Paul Benson. Maggie’s lips parted in a small gasp. But he’s supposed to be away ’til the end of the week. I’m going to heave. Her heart pounded so hard breathing hurt.
He knows. They’re probably plotting my death. Perspiration beaded between her breasts. She gripped the microphone so tightly her knuckles ached. I can’t do this.
Shut up, Maggie. And breathe. You have no choice! Her grip relaxed, and she straightened her spine. You’re a professional, remember?
That thought came to her from a recess deep in her soul. Soothing. The notes of her first number silenced the room, and the rhythm eased her frantic heart. She met Conrad’s obsidian gaze and managed a bright, professional smile as the lights dimmed. The words of the song fell from her lips, and she was grateful. Until she’d seen Conrad, her biggest fear had been that, with all the crazy thoughts rampaging through her head, she wouldn’t be able to perform.
The music stopped, and Maggie bowed, searching beyond the blinding glare of the spotlight, still hoping to see Quinn’s familiar face. But it was impossible to distinguish features.
Apprehension coiled around her like a cold, nasty serpent. Why hadn’t Inspector Roberts shown up at the safe house? The message she’d left on the secure line was clear. Now, because he’d let her down, she’d had to arrange a meeting with Quinn to beg his help. In her heart she’d believed he would come. Perhaps he had come but not waited.
After another bow, the spotlight dimmed, and the house lights came up. A last frantic scan of the audience proved fruitless. Maggie’s breath stalled in her lungs. Conrad waited for her at the bottom of the dais. Panic nipped at her. Does he know about the girls? Damn it, damn it. Be calm. You will handle it. Just breathe.
With her smile stretched to cracking, she faced the owner of the De’lisle, who reached for her hand and pulled her snug against him. Maggie steeled herself not to recoil from the feel of his body against hers.
“You were wonderful.” Conrad pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Join me at my table. There’s someone I want you to meet.” His hand at her elbow did not offer a choice.
Maggie balked, staring into his face. A flash of something ugly, deep in his soulless eyes, crimped her spine. “Conrad. I need a costume change. Give me fifteen minutes.” Her voice was soft, her smile persuasive.
His grip tightened. Displeasure laced his tone. “Fifteen minutes. Don’t keep me waiting.”
Maggie’s hand cupped his jaw. “Thank you.” She turned and walked on dangerously wobbly legs toward her dressing room. That earlier nip of panic now burst into a fully fledged bite ripping into her nerves.
Within the sanctuary of her room, she slumped heavily against the door and looked at her terrified reflection in the mirror across the room. “You are so screwed,” she whispered. For a long moment she just stared before hauling in a lungful of air. Suck it up, Maggie girl. You’ve got a job to finish.
She crossed the room to stand in front of the well-lit makeup mirror. She dipped a sponge into powder to dab the shine off her nose then hesitated. A prickling on her nape, a sensation of being observed, filled her with sick apprehension.
Her gaze slipped around the room searching for a concealed camera. The same old movie posters gave color to an otherwise-drab paint job. Nothing in the room had changed. Was she paranoid?
Maggie strode to the wardrobe, grabbed a black-sequined sheath, and slipped behind the Japanese screen. If there was a camera, she wouldn’t give a peep show.
She gathered her wits as she dressed. You don’t know why he’s back. It could be anything. But she knew. She’d been made. You’re imagining it. Making assumptions. That look in Conrad’s eyes. She shivered. She had to get out. Fast.
Someone knocked at the door. Maggie swallowed the nervous lump in her throat and scoured the room, looking for something she could use as a weapon. Nothing. Damn. Smoothing the sheath down over her body, she stepped around the screen and gave the mirror another glance. She pinched her cheeks to chase away a chalky pallor and bit her lips for color.
Another knock. Harder this time. Squaring her shoulders and denying the frantic urge to run, Maggie crossed the room determined to tell whoever it was to get lost. She yanked the door open and froze.
“Hello, Maggie.” The deep, rugged tone was a soothing balm to her grazed heart.
With curls. She’d only known him with his head shaved. He looked so…different. Lord, those eyes, molten gold. Fire and heat. Watching her. What did they see?
A failure? A woman who’d chosen her career over him then stuffed it up? Get a grip, girl.
He’d come, and he’d stayed, and she was grateful. Her first instinct was to grab him and drag him into the privacy of her room. Then reality set in. If she was being watched and her room was bugged, she couldn’t talk to him there. Or in the doorway, either. She gnawed on her bottom lip, searching for an alternative.
Quinn leaned on the wall opposite her door and crossed his arms over his massive chest. Sweet Mary, he’d bulked up. His crisp, white business shirt stretched taut across broad shoulders. Even better, his sheer bulk effectively blocked the entrance to the hallway, which meant no one in the club could see her talking to him. She stepped into the hall and pulled the door shut. If her hunch was right, she had a few minutes before someone came looking for her.
“I can’t talk to you, not here.” She curled her fist against her side to stop herself from touching him.
“So why ask me to come?”
“It was stupid. I…” She looked deep into his eyes and gulped. Her insides knotted. With excitement? Fear? Desire? It was stupid. No, stupid was too tame a word. Insane was more like it. She hadn’t thought his closeness would affect her after twelve months apart.
Had he missed her? She had hoped he’d contact her somehow, but he hadn’t. After their last fiery argument, she didn’t blame him. Pushing those thoughts aside, she dragged in a calming breath and stared into his strong, welcomed face.
“I really need your help, Quinn. Please.” She held his gaze for a heartbeat before scrutinizing the limited area. The feeling that someone was about to pounce on her made breathing an effort. “Will you meet me later?” Her voice barely rose above a whisper.
“I can’t give you a time. But I promise I’ll—”
“Is everything all right, Cassie?” a too-smooth, too-cultured voice asked.
Maggie squeezed her eyes shut for an instant, hiding her fear from Quinn’s sharp gaze. With her shoulders back and chin up, she eased past his strong body to the owner of the voice behind him.
“Yes, Conrad. Mr…?” She turned back to Quinn. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” she said, her voice a notch higher.
Maggie’s lips curved. “Mr. Keller was telling me how much he enjoyed my show.”
Conrad smiled, revealing faultless teeth. “I’m afraid this area is private. No guests allowed.” Quinn met Conrad’s hooded gaze. “It’s almost time for your next bracket, Cassie. Let’s go.”
Maggie held out her hand to Quinn, and he reacted instantly, swamping it in his fist. “Thank you,” she said. “I hope you’ll come watch my show again. Good-bye.” She turned back to Conrad and entwined her arm with his. “So, who’s this person you so want me to meet?”
“A business associate who’s very interested in you.”
She leaned against him as they walked. “Then as soon as I’ve finished my next bracket, introduce me.”
Quinn walked beside them into the cabaret room. Maggie turned to Quinn, smiled, and said, “Please stay and enjoy the rest of the show.” She turned and stepped up to the dais and watched as Conrad’s head of security, Paulie, escorted Quinn to his seat at the bar.
Three hours later, back in her apartment, an exhausted-but-pumped Maggie carefully applied her disguise in front of the large mirror. Long, flowing strokes of kohl, combined with navy eye shadow, altered the shape of her eyes. Mascara darkened thick, false lashes to black. A pale complexion was emphasized with an even lighter foundation, and deep-red lipstick colored the generous pout of her mouth. She flicked a brush through a short, copper-tinted wig then picked up a fine, gold chain and fastened it around her neck so the ankh nestled between her breasts.
Be careful, the voice in her head whispered persistently while she dressed. Her gaze skated around the room. Have they bugged the apartment? Was there a camera? Were they watching? She shook her head. No. There was no prickling on her nape, no sense of sick apprehension. Still she couldn’t quiet her thoughts. They know. They’re watching. A stranger stared back at her from the mirror. She looked as conspicuous as a nun in a brothel, which was good, because no one would see her. They would look at her, desire her, but they wouldn’t see her. Feeling slightly more confident, Maggie picked up her coat, slipped her keys into the pocket, and hit the streets.
Cool breezes fanned her face and helped soothe her nerves as she strutted along the footpath toward Maxi’s. It had taken thirty minutes, but she was sure she’d escaped the apartment without being seen, or recognized, to be more precise. She continued walking, ignoring blunt male stares.
A car pulled alongside her, the passenger hanging out the window. “Hey, baby, how much for all of us?”
She stopped and turned her head. Three men—no, boys really, no more that seventeen or eighteen—all leering at her. Maggie sighed. Just kids who should be with their girlfriends in the backseat trying to get for nothing what they wanted to buy from her.
“Five thousand.” Her smile widened as the sultry tone purred from her.
“Scrag. Bet you’re not that good.” The car screamed off leaving burning rubber and obscenities thick in the air.
Another dozen steps. Nerves trampled Maggie’s insides like stampeding elephants. Almost there, where Quinn would be waiting. How was he going to react to her handling of the investigation? What if he didn’t believe her? And what about… Don’t go there. She bent her head and kept walking.
She rounded the corner, and Maxi’s sign blinked in welcome. In one of the oldest parts of Brisbane, Maxi’s still flourished amongst dark, shadowy alleys and even darker buildings.
Maggie stopped, heart leaping into her throat. Silhouetted by the blinking light, he sat on the bench outside, head bowed, hands hanging loosely between his knees. Relaxed? No, primed to explode, more likely. Anxiety gnawed at her insides. Had she thought of everything? So much rested on her shoulders, but there was too much at stake for all the victims for her to pull out now. She moved slowly toward Quinn, more nervous than when she’d faced Conrad earlier, because far too late, it occurred to her she wasn’t exactly sure how Quinn would react to her predicament.
Deep breaths, Maggie. Deep breaths.