Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman
Nick Donovan lay back on the lounge chair and tried to ignore the vacationing beachgoers around him. He should be relaxing, dammit. He’d earned this. Hell, he’d almost died getting here.
He glanced at his flat belly and rubbed his aching shoulder. Both places had had multiple stitches removed yesterday. His doctor would pitch a fit if he knew his patient had boarded a plane and flown six hours after the appointment, but Nick was sitting on the beach and couldn’t have cared less. He’d been stuck at home for weeks.
Two days ago he was so bored, he’d been reduced to going through a box of old papers in the bottom of his closet—documents from his parents’ estate and his father’s law firm he hadn’t touched in ten years, other than to move them from place to place. After that depressingly low point, he’d gone online and bought a ticket to the islands. Following the surgeon’s appointment, he’d boarded a plane last night for the Caribbean. His one concession to his recovery was that he was sitting under an umbrella instead of in the full sun.
He could have argued with the doctor that watching waves crash endlessly against the shore was good for his soul. That is, if he still had one. The work Nick had done for the government didn’t allow you to retain your scruples or your conscience. Still, the Caymans were gorgeous as always with taut, tanned, uncovered bodies as far as the eye could see and water so blue it would make your head hurt—if it wasn’t aching already from viewing those taut, tanned bodies.
But Nick didn’t see any of that. His mind’s eye was playing an endless video loop of a small room filled with leaping flames. The noises became louder with each repeated playback, and the flames grew hotter, but he wasn’t bothered by nightmares over the incident. You didn’t do the kind of work he had done and not give up some parts of yourself, the parts you could afford to lose—or chose to. He’d grown used to his own cold-bloodedness and lack of empathy that were both necessary for his job. Nick was ancient compared to other thirty-three-year-olds.
It was the unanswered question about what had gone wrong that disturbed him. How had Cesar known where to find him? What had really happened inside that clinic?
And it was what had come later that was making this all so damn hard to turn off—what Cesar Vega had whispered as he lay dying. Nick didn’t even have to close his eyes anymore to see Cesar’s blood-stained lips moving.
They’re coming after yours, and you can’t stop them.
As it was, those words had galvanized Nick to crawl out of the clinic and drag himself to safety before the place was blown to hell, along with a man who was on the DEA’s “most wanted” list. People living in that poor Mexican neighborhood had found Nick in the rubble. He’d almost bled to death before they’d gotten him to a hospital, but his boss had shown up and saved his ass.
So here he sat on vacation until his doctor said he could go back to work and back to his family, what there was of it. His brother Drew was out of town, thank God, on a three-week cruise in the Mediterranean with his wife Angela and their preschool-aged children. Nick had had to do some fast-talking, but he’d convinced Drew to take everyone and just go. They’d discussed this possibility once before: half in jest, half in dead seriousness. Nick’s work for the government made his brother’s family vulnerable.
That had been the larger part of Nick’s reservations about taking the CIA’s National Clandestine Service position: his family’s exposure and the nature of what he was going to be doing himself—paramilitary operations, the ultimate in black ops.
The work had been extraordinarily exciting and soul-sucking at the same time. While the adrenaline was amazing, the things he’d had to do—the methods required, the lives affected—had ultimately driven Nick to quit.
Still, someone had to do the job. He knew men who loved the business and who thrived on it. Nick had not been one of those men, even though he was seemingly the perfect candidate: single, SEAL-trained, parents deceased, with only a brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew to know he existed.
He’d struggled with that because, yes, the world was a precarious place, and the work was necessary. But the job, the lifestyle, had changed him dramatically on the inside and not for the better.
He’d become hardened to others’ feelings—hardened to their pain, to their happiness, and to their fears. It had been necessary for his work to be an iceman, but with his family, he didn’t want that.
Sitting with his brother and the kids on a rare visit home last year, he’d realized how bad it was when his niece fell out of a tree and broke her arm. It had been chaotic—as that kind of scene usually is—with a hysterical child in pain and hysterical parents in panic mode, but Nick had felt nothing. The lack of emotion he’d experienced had frightened him more than anything had in a while because he no longer recognized himself.
Realizing he was on the verge of a serious burnout, he’d quit and gone to work at a specialized security agency for Gavin Bartholomew. He and Gavin had worked together on a corruption case several years before, when Gavin had still been with the DEA. Nick had taken the job with AEGIS, Armored Extraction Guards and Investigative Security, because he was so damn tired of that desolation inside: of not feeling anything anymore, of constantly looking over his shoulder, of terminating targets he wasn’t sure deserved it.
The relief of quitting the NCS had been surprisingly underwhelming. He’d expected to feel better, to feel . . . something. But he hadn’t. That desolate emptiness continued, and—if anything—it had grown deeper.
Nick still worried about Drew, Angela, and the kids being at risk because of choices he’d made. That thought kept him up nights, as much as questioning if he was like his father and capable of living the lie Reese Donovan had.
Just before he’d quit working for the government, Nick had started wondering if someone would put a bullet in the back of his head while he was out for a morning run or having a cup of coffee in a café. By the end of his tenure with the CIA, that possibility hadn’t bothered him nearly as much as it should have.
Working for AEGIS was better for him, even if he’d had no idea when he took the job that it would be a threat to his family as well. But for now, Nick’s family was safe. He was safe, and he’d join them soon for Christmas in Venice.
The Vegas and Riveras wouldn’t be able to do anything to them on a Mediterranean cruise line, not on this short notice. Ernesto or Tomas would have to find them first. Nick lay back and gazed out across the tanned bodies once more. Things could be looking up.
“Mr. Taylor?” A waiter stood over him, his face shadowed by the sun. “This was left for you at the front desk with instructions that it be delivered immediately.” He handed Nick a manila envelope with the words For Nick Donovan written in block letters on the front.
Nick felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he took the envelope. No one here was supposed to know his real name. He was registered at the resort as “Matthew Taylor.” He never left the country as Nick Donovan anymore. Old habits died hard.
The waiter continued to hover. “May I get you anything, sir?”
“Did you see who delivered this?” Nick heard the intensity in his own voice and knew the package held bad news. The envelope was plain enough, but he found himself loath to open it.
“No, sir. Clarissa at the front desk brought it to me to be delivered. I can ask her. Is everything all right, sir?” The waiter was beginning to look concerned.
Nick forced a nonchalant grin. “Everything is fine, thank you. But I would like to speak to Clarissa. Where can I find her?” He smiled again. “I’d really like a refill on my scotch, too.”
The waiter smiled back, no longer alarmed and confident he knew how to soothe this ruffled guest. “Yes, sir. I’ll have her come out right away.”
Nick waited until the man was walking away before he opened the envelope. It held two items: a piece of stationery and an 8x10 photograph.
The note consisted of four words: Payback is always personal.
The picture was of a shirtless, platinum blonde woman seated in front of his brother’s Christmas tree. His niece’s and nephew’s Christmas stockings were behind her on the mantel, and a Dallas Morning News paper was propped in her lap.
He studied the woman in the photo. The hair color was right and her face shape, but Angela wasn’t as slim. Nick was fairly certain his sister-in-law didn’t have a tattoo on the inside of her right breast peeking out from her pushup bra, either, or she’d really taken a walk on the wild side. His ultraconservative brother had become more broad-minded, as well. He peered closer at the photo and felt the oxygen clog in his lungs.
Holy shit. Was that a unicorn?
He swallowed hard as recognition hit him upside the head like a two-by-four. He’d seen that delicate tattoo before. At one time he’d been intimately acquainted, so to speak.
Jennifer Grayson. Jenny.
How was this possible?
Nick studied the photo again and noted the date on the newspaper—this morning’s headlines, last night’s Mavs game, a standard “proof of life.” Not bothering to glance at the ocean again, he rose from the lounge chair and stalked to the lobby, the sunbathers and scotch refill forgotten.
The ship-to-shore phones lived up to their notoriously bad service, and it took Nick forty-five minutes to reach his brother on the Norwegian Dream in the middle of the Mediterranean. By that time he was packed and ready to leave for the airport.
“Drew, is everyone okay?”
“Absolutely. We’re terrific and having the time of our lives, just leaving port. When are you meeting us?”
“Not sure, something’s come up. Tell me. Is anyone staying at your house while you’re gone?” Nick looked out the sliding glass door toward the beach and the beautiful water. It was difficult to believe something so bad could be happening when the scenery was so stunning.
“No, we didn’t do that this time. You told us not to. Is everything alright?” asked Drew.
“I don’t know. You’re sure about no one staying there? Ask Angela. There’s no one who has a key who might have needed a place to crash?”
“Hang on a sec.” There was silence, and Nick could hear his brother and sister-in-law talking. “Jenn what? Yesterday? Why didn’t you—Oh?”
Nick’s heart sank. He’d been hoping he was wrong on the visual ID, but he wasn’t. It was Jennifer Grayson in the photo, Angela’s best friend.
Drew came back on the line. “I take that back. There is someone at the house. Jennifer Grayson, you remember? Jenn? We all hung out that summer after Mom and Dad’s accident . . .” Drew’s voice drifted off. “She’s Dr. Grayson now.”
Oh yeah, Nick remembered all right.
The summer my life imploded.
Drew’s voice pulled him back to the conversation at hand. “Jenn was coming by to get the mail, feed the cat and guinea pig, and generally look after things. She called Angela yesterday while we were shopping in port. The bottom of her water heater had fallen out, and her house flooded. She needed a place to stay until everything dried out and was repaired. Angela told her to stay at our house. It never occurred to her that might be a problem. Is Jenn alright?”
“I don’t know yet.” Nick explained the package he’d received on the beach. “I’m emailing a photo to your cell. You should be able to get it if you’re just leaving shore. Tell me if you recognize the woman. And Drew, don’t let Angela see it.”
Nick put the picture through his portable scanner and waited. He could hear his brother’s breathing over the phone. When he was agitated, Drew’s asthma made him sound like he was climbing stairs, even if he was sitting still.
Nick could hear Stephanie and Jeff playing in the background, the sound of his niece’s and nephew’s high squeals as they laughed and giggled with their mom made his chest hurt. God, he wished he was there and away from this mess. He loved his family, but separating himself from them sometimes seemed the kindest thing he could do.
“It’s coming through,” said Drew. There was a beat of silence. “Shit. That’s her. She did something to her hair. God.” His breathing sounded worse.
“I need you to erase the email now.”
“Good. Take a deep breath,” said Nick.
“Yeah. Thanks. Aw, Christ. Angela’s going to go crazy when she hears this."
“Don’t tell Angela ’cause we don’t know anything yet. I need Jennifer’s cell number.”
“Sure. Just a minute, I have it in my contacts list.” Drew rattled it off and Nick copied it down, though he didn’t hold out much hope that Jennifer would be answering her phone.
“I’m catching the first flight to Dallas, and then I’ll let you know what I find. Keep Angela and the kids close. And don’t tell anyone about this.”
“Be careful, Nick. Find Jenn.”
“I will.” He hung up and dialed Jennifer’s number on the very off chance this was all some sick joke.
He got a recording. Jenny’s voice was like he remembered. Soft, low. He asked her to call him as soon as she got the message.
Next he called Marissa, his boss and the co-owner of AEGIS, to explain the situation. Again, he wasn’t holding out hope that he’d get the answer he was looking for. Two hours later he was on a redeye flight bound for Dallas.
His vacation was over and he was back to work, whether his doctor liked it or not.
Fifteen hours later Nick sifted through the rubble of Drew's living room in North Dallas. The Christmas tree was tumbled on its side, decorations and lights tangled. The stockings had been slashed with malicious abandon, the sofas overturned, knickknacks toppled to the floor.
Every surface in the house was swept clean or scattered with pieces of something that had been destroyed. The one surprising thing Nick found intact was a handbag sitting in a puddle of red wine at the back door. He assumed it was Jennifer’s. He reached inside and found car keys, a makeup bag, and a wallet with an ID.
He wasn’t positive it was Jennifer’s bag till he opened the wallet and saw her driver’s license. This was the Jenny he remembered: dark blonde hair, big green eyes, dewy skin, generous smile. Even in a DMV picture, she was beautiful. She’d obviously dropped her bag on the way into the house, along with the bag of groceries and bottle of cab. He set the bag aside to return to her, when he got her home.
Somehow the kids’ guinea pig was still in its cage, even though the enclosure had been knocked to the floor. Nick righted the cage, cleaned it out, and gave the animal some water along with an extra-large portion of food before hunting down the family cat in the laundry room. He fed her as well, dumping what he estimated would be a week’s worth of kibble in her dish.
The normalcy of those actions kept his fury at a slow boil, but when he was done with the simple chores, his anger roared to the surface again. Still, he knew fury was better than the naked fear that lay under that anger. He ignored the white-knuckle terror as he continued searching, hoping to find some scrap of evidence that would give him a clue to Jennifer’s whereabouts. He already had a fair guess as to who’d taken her. Most likely it was Cesar’s brother, Ernesto Vega.
Amid the debris he spied the ladder-back chair from the photograph he’d received. The chair was upright in front of the fireplace with a manila envelope on the seat, just like the one he’d received in Grand Cayman. His name was printed on the outside. Inside was a piece of stationery, and another photo.
He took a gulp of air before studying the picture. Jennifer was lying on a bed—asleep or dead, he couldn’t be sure. He prayed she was merely sleeping. She wore a blouse and a trim tailored skirt, but her shirt was torn and simply knotted at her waist. She looked extraordinarily vulnerable: hands tied behind her back, eyes closed.
If you want to see your sister-in-law alive again, come to the Gaylord. Suite 345, Saturday at noon. She’ll remain drugged until then. Remember, it’s always personal.
Damn. Nick wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or terrified at the confirmation. They thought Jennifer was Angela. How could they have made that mistake?
The two women didn’t look at all alike. Then he remembered the platinum blonde hair in the photo, and it was easy to understand how the error had occurred.
God. It was what he’d always been most afraid of and what he’d worked so hard to prevent—his work putting the people he cared for at risk. Still, he was grateful that Ernesto didn’t know as much about him and his past as he’d originally feared. Except by now, of course, they might have figured things out.
He reread the note. He had to focus. Saturday at noon. That was in two hours.
He recalled Jenny’s affinity for health food and her aversion to even taking aspirin from that summer they’d spent so much time together. A future doctoral candidate, she’d already been a natural teacher. Late at night, lying side by side in his bed, she had made the history of dinosaurs come alive, a topic that hadn’t interested him since he was a child.
She’d understood him in ways no one had, before or since. In the weeks after his parents’ accident, as his father’s reputation was destroyed posthumously in the press, Jenny had been the person he could count on when it felt like everyone else had turned their back.
Her support had enabled him to sort through the horrific media storm surrounding his father’s alleged embezzlement and the subsequent dismantling of the Donovan law firm. That summer had led Nick to re-evaluate everything in his life, and he’d chosen to join the Navy instead of attending law school. He’d never told Jennifer how much she’d influenced that decision, or that she’d held him together when he’d felt like his world was falling apart.
They’d stayed in touch, for a few months at least. Even when she’d quit returning his calls and emails with no explanation, he’d kept up with her through Angela. Had he really thought Jenny’d wait for him?
Why had she quit returning his calls in the first place?
God, he was tired, as evidenced by the fact that he was revisiting past history and particularly that question.
The reason she’d quit calling didn’t matter anymore.
He took another steadying breath to pull himself back from memories that would do him no good right now. Exhaling, he smoothed his clenched fist along his jean-clad thigh. He had to file those thoughts away.
Someplace where it wouldn’t be personal. Someplace where he could
stay cold and untouchable.
Copyright © 2014 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Want another peek of PERSONAL TARGET?
for Chapter Three - click here
for Chapter Four - click here
for a “steamy” sneak peek - click here
for Prologue - click here
for Chapter One - click here