Safe at Last eBook: Page1
Maya Banks (2015)
ZACK Covington simmered with impatience as he waited for the go signal from his team leader. He didn’t know exactly what was going on in the basement of the McMansion—not unlike the house he’d once dreamed of building for the girl he’d planned to spend forever with—but he knew it wasn’t good. Sometimes bad lurked in seemingly benign locations. People existed in denial that it could happen in their little corner of the world. How very wrong they were.
It was a lesson he’d 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 had thought—that they were impervious to bad. And Zack? He was more confident about that 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 led the pack. His father’s refusal to use county resources on someone who didn’t belong anyway had caused a rift between Zack 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, the swimming pools behind high privacy fences, 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 community 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, since 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 more than 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 would he 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 the two who should have been the most important—had failed her in every possible way.
Alyssa Lofton had been a very promising ballerina at an early age, a fact her mother had taken pride in when she’d participated in kindergarten recitals and received high praise and glowing accolades both locally and across the state. Later, when the demands of her training had encroached on her mother and father’s social life, Alyssa had fallen far down the list of their priorities.
Until the father had received pointed threats, aimed at Alyssa.
The Loftons had five children, with Alyssa being the middle child, between two older brothers and two younger sisters. When Howard Lofton had called in Devereaux Security Services, 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.
A 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—with 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 and 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 Lofton children after masked men had burst into the auditorium where the dance recital was being held and cut the lights, causing instant chaos as 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.
Howard and Felicity Lofton hadn’t even been there so they could 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. They’d left the nanny to tend to the kids while they sat a row back talking business and 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 Howard Lofton had been done at all and ransom had been the aim, he would have been the obvious choice.
Lofton would 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 Lofton on sight 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 Lofton 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 Loftons might 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 comm, “I’m in.”
He ignored the curses of Dane, heard Eliza mutter an “about time,” while Capshaw and Renfro said nothing at all.
Zack slid into the bedroom with ease and quickly drew his gun and attached silencer 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 homed 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, with 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 more than 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. ??
“Goddamn it, Zack,” Beau hissed. “Wait for backup.”
“Alyssa may not have time for backup,” 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 that 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 were 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 backup here?”
“Well, if you’d been a little more patient, you’d have gotten your backup,” 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’s gone. 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.
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 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.
ZACK shifted position on an uncomfortable stool in a bar better described as a dive, several blocks from his apartment. It was a place he used as an escape, because no one knew him here. Despite his regularity, he kept to himself, never talking to others and definitely not using it as a place to pick up women for one-night stands. It was simply a place to blow off steam after a particularly bad assignment or the times when his past came back to haunt him despite his best efforts to move beyond it.
In this case, it was a double whammy.
Because the job from hell—literally—had brought back painful memories that he’d been able to keep at bay for a period of time he was proud of. He’d even thought he was beyond the worst. Moving on. Finally letting go and accepting. Accepting that the life he’d planned—the life he’d dreamed of—was never going to be a reality, and that it was time to focus on a new dream. A new vision. Or sacrifice forever any semblance of happiness and a satisfying, fulfilling life.
Yeah, when put like that, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he’d been a prisoner of things he had no control of, for far, far too long. It was time to get the fuck over it and pull his head out of his ass.
“Hey.” A soft voice interrupted his litany of self-castigation.
He turned gratefully, relieved to have a reprieve from his current train of thought even if he preferred not to be disturbed when he was here, a place he could usually count on being left alone because everyone kept to themselves and minded their business.
He smiled when he saw Tonya, a nurse at the hospital where Alyssa had been taken earlier in the evening. She worked in the ER, which was how Zack, as well as other members of DSS, had become acquainted with her. It certainly wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for DSS to be in and out of the ER on a regular basis, whether it was an injury to one of their team members or someone they brought in as the result of a job. Like Alyssa.
“Rough night, huh,” Tonya said quietly, her gaze flitting over Zack’s features as if his inner torment were a flashing neon sign.
Zack sighed and took another long swig of his beer, setting the now-empty bottle back on the bar and motioning to the bartender for another.
“Yeah. It sucked. You want a drink?”
Tonya slid onto the stool beside him, hauling her purse into her lap between the edge of the bar and her midsection. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
Zack lifted his hand to gain the attention of the bartender and held up two fingers.
“The girl wasn’t my patient, but the entire ER was talking about it,” Tonya said, a grimace twisting her pretty features. “If you can’t talk about it, fine, but is it true that her friend did that to her because Alyssa was the better dancer?”
Zack made an indistinct garbled choking sound. “Some friend, huh.”
“Jesus. So it’s true. What the fuck kind of maniac teenagers are parents raising these days?”
“I think the problem is they aren’t being raised at all,” Zack said in disgust. “Rather, the parents are being managed and manipulated by their spoiled brats who have gross senses of entitlement. Whatever happened to pouting or throwing tantrums over not getting their favorite toys, for fuck’s sake? Apparently taking out a hit on your competition is the new norm.”
Tonya snagged one of the beers the bartender set in front of them and then clinked her bottle against Zack’s before taking a long swallow.
“Sure makes you think twice about procreating.”
Zack nodded, even if a large family had been exactly what he’d always wanted. If things had gone as he’d planned . . . He closed his eyes, but not before the unfinished mental statement drifted through his mind as a fully formed thought. If things had gone as planned, he would be retired from the pros and have his second, possibly even third child by now instead of taking a bad hit as a quarterback in his second year and opting not to go back.
“Hey, you okay?” Tonya asked.
He glanced her way to see concern in her eyes. He didn’t attempt to lie, because she saw this kind of shit on a daily basis, and she wasn’t any more immune to the effects than he was.
“Yeah. Just another bad day at the office.”
She laughed and held her bottle to his again. “I’ll drink to that. But then isn’t every day a bad one when you have jobs like ours? Makes you wonder if we have rocks in our heads.”
Zack knew why he hadn’t gone back to the pros. Why he’d pursued a career in law enforcement. Some would say he was just following in his old man’s footsteps, even if that was the very last thing he’d ever do. And he also knew why he’d ended up taking a job with DSS at an important crossroads in his life when he was being recruited by a government agency.
But he liked DSS and the people he worked with. And he liked the fact that certain gifts that most people viewed with skepticism or outright derision were not only accepted but witnessed through the extraordinary powers that both Caleb’s and Beau’s wives possessed.