The beautiful room was in contrast to the snake smiling at her. White walls with golden accents and cream velvet couches did nothing to calm her nerves. While pristine the pale tones gave the impression of a plush penitentiary.
Kevin pointed at the seat across from his mahogany desk. “Sit down, Anna. I have a job for you.”
Anna sat stiffly in the seat. “Do you have news on Katerina?”
Kevin’s lip twitched. “Camilla and I have had a... falling out. I have no information on Katerina’s whereabouts. That does not change the fact that I paid for your services.”
Anna looked around at the pale decor that furnished Kevin’s private office. The Kallan facilities were always elegant, but Anna was raised with monsters. She understood better than most what pretty wrapping paper could hide. “The jobs I have done for you, have more than compensated for your acquisition fee.”
Kevin looked her over. No emotion showed on his face. It rarely did. “That is true.”
His response surprised her. She thought him just as likely to kill her on the spot as acknowledge she had never failed to complete an assignment. “What do you want, Kevin, and what’s in it for me?”
Kevin smiled, though it held no warmth. “I have a new assignment for you. If you complete it, I will consider your... obligation to me, and the Kallan Corporation complete.”
Anna’s heart thumped as she leaned forward. “You will let me go?”
Kevin folded his fingers over one another. “If you complete the mission, yes.”
Anna squinted, trying to discern if he was lying. He never went back on his word, but there was always a catch. “Why?”
Kevin shrugged. “The item I need is in a very difficult location. You are the only person with a chance of retrieving it.”
Anna sat back. “It’s at Camilla and Jordan’s facility. That’s why you gave me the information on the compound.”
He cleared his throat. “The device is not on a Cortez owned facility, but she will send her own agents to retrieve it. None of them have your skills, however.”
Trust was an illusion she had never believed in. Katerina had been the only exception. “How do I know you won’t go back on your word?”
Kevin’s stoic demeanor slipped. “I never go back on my word!”
Anna nodded slowly. So, you could rile a viper. “I apologize. You have always kept your promises to your clients. You understand, since I was never a client, I needed to be sure.”
Kevin held out his hand. “I understand. This is a business deal. Retrieve what I need and you are free to go.”
Anna took his hand. Sweat slicked his fingers as she shook it. The smile on his face was barely perceptible, but she felt her stomach knot. She had dealt with monsters her entire life. This one could set her free. Why did her soul feel like she had betrayed it? “What is the job?”
Kevin sat back. “Retrieve an item from the Cascade stronghold. It is well protected and it must be quick. It is only a matter of time before Camilla realizes the information we need is in danger of being lost.”
Anna frowned. “I thought Selina was blocking the information flow between Jordan and the Cascades.”
Kevin looked away. “Selina is an excellent hacker, but she is not my son. Jordan is exceptional. He will figure out what Selina did soon enough.”
Anna wondered at the pride in Kevin’s voice. He’d had no time for his bastard son when Gerald was alive. She didn’t have time for the Kallans family dynamics. Stealing was what she excelled at. Lived for. There was a moment of regret when she was forced to steal from good people. Her usual jobs were drug dealers and other criminals Kevin wanted something from. Sometimes art and rare jewels if the payday was high enough. Whatever she was stealing was priceless if Kevin was willing to give up a top asset.
“I have never pulled a job on the shifters before. It will take some planning and access to the labs.”
“You will have whatever you need, but you only have two days to prepare. Time has run out. I need the device retrieved.”
“A device?” Camilla and Kevin were in a war over the shifters. The winner had the right to use them, exploit them, and kill them. Despite her repugnance for the fate bestowed on the shifters, she felt the familiar feeling of excitement surge through her blood. The thrill of a new job, the planning, and the execution. This was what she lived for.
* * *
Liam approached the building they had once called the freezer but had relegated into the lab. He heard the laughter before he opened the door and was run over.
He caught Carla before she could fall to the ground, but her momentum made him stagger back. “Honey, you have to be more careful.” He kissed her forehead as she smiled up at him.
“Sorry, Judd said he would race me. Garrett promised to officiate. I am looking forward to beating him.”
Liam laughed. “Judd is the future leader of his den. Are you sure you want to humiliate him? He doesn’t realize how fast you are.”
Carla smiled. “The bears know I can’t shift yet. They think they are racing a human. I can’t wait for...”
Garrett exited the lab. “What happened to the sweet girl who hugs and kisses all the bears when they come to visit?”
Carla put her hands on her hips. “She is still here, but she is getting her memory back and remembers all the trouble she used to get into. I missed a lot during the last ten years. I’m working on my mojo.”
Liam covered his mouth with a stunted cough. “Lord, help us.”
Carla squinted at him. “What does that mean?”
Garrett put his arm around Carla, shooting Liam a dirty look. “Nothing honey, we should...”
Carla grabbed her phone from her pocket when it chimed. “Hello Stud.” She put her hand over her phone. “It’s Ari.”
Liam and Garrett exchanged an uncomfortable glance as Carla listened to the international assassin. Carla’s cavalier attitude and camaraderie with Kevin’s top assassin was proof her mind had not recovered from her injuries.
Carla frowned. “How is my cat? If anything happens to her, I will kick your ass.” Her face went serious. “Are you sure? Why would you call me?... What promise?” She ended the call before rubbing her forehead.
Liam touched her shoulder. “Carla, honey. What did Ari want?”
“He said that Kevin is sending someone to infiltrate the lair.”
Liam sucked in a breath. “When?”
“In the next day or two.”
“Does Ari know how?”
Carla shook her head. “He says the thief is exceptional. That she has never failed an acquisition. Kevin has a device on our property, and she is being sent to retrieve it. If we don’t stop her the information on that device could get me... us killed.”
Garrett growled. “What information. Where is it?”
Carla shrugged. “Ari doesn’t know the specifics. Camilla tipped him off. She would never do that if she could get the information first.”
Garrett nodded. “What was the promise he made you?”
Carla’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.
Garrett hugged her. “It’s okay. You will in time.”
She glanced toward the forest. “I guess this means we postpone the race.”
Liam took out his phone. “I want Judd and his brothers to help with perimeter security. How fast can you get to the den? I don’t want to discuss this over the phone.”
Carla took off running without another word.
Garrett pulled off his shirt. “Dammit, Liam. You know better than to challenge her like that. I can barely keep up to her as it is.” He shifted out of his jeans and bounded after Carla.
Liam hit Talen’s contact number.
His brother picked up on the first ring. “What’s up?”
“We need to talk. Where are you?”
“At the house. The babies are kicking the crap out of my mate. I’m running her a bath.”
Liam let the fur race over his arm. His cat growled in his ear, warning him what would happen to the thief if anything happened to Lucy and her unborn children. “We have a problem. I will be right over.”
* * *
Anna crouched on the floor of the plane. The dull hum echoed in her ears and vibrated through her fingers. While she could scale the tallest building or zip-line from an adjacent one. Para-sailing or parachuting to her destination was always a favorite.
She slid her fingers over her black neoprene suit, checking that the straps on her pack were tight before adjusting her goggles. She glanced at her watch, counting down in her head as her exit point approached.
Excitement burst through her chest as she jumped from the plane. Wind pummeled her skin into a macabre mask as she hurtled toward the ground. Her decent was quiet and efficient. Her night vision goggles allowed her to pinpoint the spot she would release her shoot, so she angled her body, diving toward the cluster of trees. She was a half mile from her destination, but her shoot would do the rest. She jerked upward as the black sail above her head bloomed like a mushroom cloud in the sky.
At midnight, even the nocturnal animals wouldn’t look up. She glided above the trees, guiding her shoot to the flat roof in the forest. Her destination. Her last assignment. Excitement wouldn’t serve to her advantage, so she pushed the emotion away and focused on the job at hand.
She touched down silently. Pulling her shoot in and packing it away. She stuffed it into one of the silver vents that protruded from the roof. Anna hated it when she had to leave her equipment behind, but this time, she couldn’t help it. The bulky shoot would hinder her exit strategy.
Anna flipped open the face of her watch and pulled up the digital schematic of the building below before making her way to the access vent she had targeted. Her electric screwdriver was silent, and she had the vent cover removed in seconds. She squirmed into the small ventilation shaft to the sound of crickets and a hooting owl. Midnight was her mistress, and she had learned to worship the darkness.
She had accepted a long time ago that she would never live in the light. They reserved that for girls who grew up with pink beds and frilly dresses. Deception was her master. Lies her armor. Skill her lifeblood. She navigated the small vent with precision and grace, sliding along the thin aluminum with ease.
Kevin had said she possessed the agility of a cat. That even her eyes had a feline quality. She used her small lithe frame to navigate the ninety-degree angles that were part of the building’s construction. The slide of her body over the aluminum made a whisper of sound, though she kept her thin body weight even as she traversed the vent.
She pulled up the vent cover that led to the lab below, flipping her body like a trapeze artist, before dropping to the floor. Her night vision goggles spied the Faraday cage instantly. She pulled off her glasses as the light from the cold storage fridge distorted her view. She was careful to stay to the shadows as she made her way to a corner office, and knelt in front of the door.
Anna had heard rumors about Garrett and how intelligent he was, but he had made a mistake. He had assumed someone needed inside the cage. She touched the door but didn’t try the knob. Her fingers skimmed over the metal plate that looked like a reinforcement. She pulled the specialized chisel from her bag. The handle was short, but the blade was thin and wedged under the metal plate. She pried the metal from the door enough to get her hand inside, reaching for the hidden device in seconds.
She packed the device in her pack and returned the plate to its original position. The Cascades would not know she robbed them. There was a rare moment of regret. These people were not her usual clients, and she hoped whatever she was stealing wouldn’t cost them. Anna shook off the feeling of dread as she took a dose of the scent blocker. It was likely she had condemned the shifters, but choice was a luxury she couldn’t afford.
Anna made her way to the door, donning her night vision goggles as she checked the exit. She slipped through the door, making a silent dash for the trees. She had planned her exit in advance. Every step burned in her memory. The digital map reflected against the lenses she wore, tracking her movements. She never saw a thing or heard a sound. One moment she was running, the next she was on the ground with the wind knocked out of her. She rolled to her back as the cougar growled into her face.
Its fiery breath feathered her cheek as the memories of the last time she was in this position seized her mind. She turned away, exposing her throat, and prayed for a quick death.
* * *
Anna braced for the attack. She expected pain, not the nudge against her head. The cat sniffing her seemed curious more than angry. She tried to avoid the shifters and knew firsthand how dangerous they could be. The massive feline, rubbing his head along her shoulder, felt anything but. Fear was an excellent motivator, and she wasn’t about to miss out on a chance to escape.
She rolled onto her stomach, pulling her legs under her. Her fingers dug into the moss-laden earth. The woodsy smell infiltrated her nose, reminding her of her wild surroundings. The cat rubbed against her side, spiking her adrenaline. She launched forward with agility that matched the animal beside her.
Anna sprinted through the forest. She couldn’t hear the cougar running behind her, but she felt him as she ran through the trees with blinding speed. Branches swayed and whipped past her in a flurry of black and green. She had a shred of hope, a belief that she could somehow outrun the ferocious creature hunting her, but a thick branch whipped back, slicing her neck. The momentum sent her off balance. She hit the dirt with a thud, sliding across the moss and fallen branches, sending her goggles flying into the brush.
She kept her head down, surprised when powerful hands grasped her arms and pulled her to her feet. He turned her around to quickly; the action made her stomach roll and her hands latch onto the muscled chest before her. She was greeted by the most amazing blue eyes she had ever seen. They were wild, angry and beautiful.
He pulled her against his hard body. “Whatever Kevin sent you to steal, wasn’t worth your life.”
Anna looked into the feral eyes of Liam Cascade. She had researched every member of the lair and knew each by name. “Actually, it was.”
His eyes flashed amber. “Why?”
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. I will give you the device and tell you what I know if you make me one promise.”
Liam huffed. “You are not in a position to negotiate.”
Anna instilled a firmness in her voice she didn’t feel. One last negotiation before her world went up in flames. She could do this. She had to. “I’m not asking you to spare my life. I’m only asking you to notify Camilla Cortez you caught me... killed me.”
He growled low, sending a rush of excitement through her body. Was that fear? Attraction? Was she so messed up from her past, that her first experience of arousal would be with a man about to kill her?
Liam turned her head to the side, glancing at her wound. “That branch scratched you. We need to get that dressed. What’s your name?”
She stumbled beside him as he turned her toward the direction they had come. She tried to keep her eyes averted, but it was hard not to notice the flex of his thigh muscles as he led her naked through the forest. “It’s Anna.”
“I want that device, Anna.”
“Will you notify Camilla you...”
His eyes flashed yellow, burning away the night away. The animal beneath the man, making its presence known. “No one will hurt you, Anna.”
“Are you going to let me go?” she asked. They couldn’t understand the repercussions of such an action. They had to kill her.
She took a long breath. “A prisoner then.” This was an outcome she hadn’t considered. The people she stole from would have killed her if caught. He stopped as two other men, wearing only jeans, met them at the ridge of the trees. She recognized Garrett from her research, but not the large man beside him.
Garrett held out his hand. “Give me what you stole.”
She unzipped the thin vest she wore over her neoprene suit, taking the small device out and handed it to Garrett. “I don’t know what’s on it.”
Garrett turned it over in his hands. “I will find out. Where was this located? How did you get inside the Faraday cage?”
“I didn’t. Your dad built the lab and the cage, but you called an electrician to do some electrical work after construction. He installed the device inside the door. I popped off the panel to retrieve it.”
Garrett shook his head. “Kallan seems to be able to bribe everyone.”
“He doesn’t bribe them. He threatens them and their family.”
Garrett nodded. “Judd, do you want to escort our thief to the freezer? Luca wants Liam to check in with Talen.”
Liam growled. “I will escort Anna.”
Judd and Garrett exchanged a look before the large man rubbed his chin. “I will stop by and talk to Talen. I wanted to check on Marie before I head home, anyway.”
She felt the tension in the air. Could almost smell it.
Liam nodded to Judd. “You’re a good man. Mom always enjoys your visits.”
Judd looked her over. While they trained her to interpret people’s emotions and actions, there was something in the way he looked at her that made her swallow hard. “You okay here, Liam?”
Liam nodded. “I will take care of Anna.”
Judd left without another word as they followed Garrett back to the lab.
Garrett went to the door outside the Faraday cage. His fingers traced the slight scratch her chisel had left. “I was so focused on the cage, I never considered a recorder inside the construction. It’s ingenious, but it can’t transmit. It had to be retrieved. Kallan must have figured he could get it.”
Liam huffed. “I can’t smell her and even knowing she was coming we almost missed her. She would have gotten it if we hadn’t been tipped off.”
She sucked in a breath. “Someone tipped you off?”
Liam’s face went hard. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised someone betrayed you. What do you expect when you resort to a life of crime?”
She let the rebuke roll off her. “I wasn’t betrayed, Kevin was, and that is surprising. Most people fear him, and for good reason.”
Garrett plugged the device into a computer on the table. “It’s encrypted.”
Liam turned to her with glowing eyes. “Do you know the password?”
She felt like she was falling into his crystal gaze. Her body swayed before she blinked rapidly. “No.”
He frowned. “Is my family in danger?”
She shook her head, confused by his words. “I’m a thief, not a killer.”
“Did Kevin send anyone else?”
She wet her dry lips, trying to fight the fuzziness in her head. “Not yet, but he will when he finds out I failed.”
Liam huffed. “You’re a criminal.”
She wanted to nod her head, but the room was losing focus. “Yes.”
Another man entered the room. He was looking down at her before she recognized who he was. Talen Cascade. Leader of the lair. “What’s your full name?”
“Anna Smith,” she whispered.
Liam shook her arm. The slight action made the room spin. “You’re real name, Anna?”
She looked down because she no longer had the strength to meet his gaze. Her neck throbbed and she could feel warm liquid running down her chest, inside her suit.
Talen glanced at the computer. “Lock her up until we figure out what is on that device.”
Liam growled. “No.”
Talen’s eyes flared. “Are you kidding me? I know she is a woman. We won’t hurt her, but she is a fucking Kallan spy.”
Liam nods. “I know what she is, but I will take her to my house. I take full responsibility for her.”
Talen rubbed his forehead. “Why would you take that chance?”
“Because, the thief is my mate.”