Chapter 09: The Code

It didn’t take long to reach the safe house. At least, according to the clock on the dashboard. A mere twelve minutes, which felt more like an hour. The adrenaline rushing through her had slowed, but her mind just kept turning in circles.

Why would anyone want to kill me? I’m nobody!

The black Jeep exited the highway, slipping through the dark fall night, and eventually passing through the seedier part of town. Lila watched the wide streets turn to a narrow winding road, occupied on both sides by aging, mid-century homes that grew smaller in size. The road dead-ended ahead – the locked gates of what looked to be an industrial plant of some kind looming tall on the horizon.

The Jeep slowed, stopping before it reached the plant and turned left at a smaller set of locked gates near the bottom of the hill. Shane rolled his window down and keyed in a long code. There was a short pause, and then the gates slid open. Shane put the Jeep in gear and drove through. The gates slowly closed behind them.

Perhaps the dilapidated state of the other homes so nearby was why the house situated high above them at the top of the long, private drive struck Lila as so extraordinary. Built in the low-slung sprawling look of the late sixties, it commanded a view of rolling acres, fortified behind a solid fence, and with a million dollar view of the Missouri river. Here on the hill, separated by a thick forest of trees from the string of simpler homes below, the views were extraordinary. They turned the corner and the garage door rumbled upwards. Shane eased the Jeep inside, his free hand still resting on the delicate bones of her hand. She hadn’t stopped trembling once during the twenty-minute journey.

He pressed a button and the garage door closed, sealing them inside. A light on the door mechanism above shed a weak yellow light over the garage. It was spotless and uncluttered. When Lila didn’t move, Shane reached over her, unlatching the door, savoring the feel of her body against his. He paused, his face inches from hers, and saw her pupils expand. Was she afraid? Turned on? Fight or flight response did odd things to a person and after the experience they had both shared, the answer was probably yes to both questions. He stared at her and strongly considering kissing her. It wouldn’t stop there, though, and he knew it.

What in the hell am I doing? She’s a client.

It wasn’t just him. Not that it made it any better, not that it made it right, but he could feel her body respond. The way she held her breath, bit her lip, tightened her fingers against his hand. He forced himself to break eye contact and pull away, to stop his lips from claiming hers and taking what he wanted.

Wordlessly, she exited the vehicle, her stockinged feet soundless on the cold cement floor. She stood there for a moment, the Jeep door open, staring at him as if unsure what would happen next. He shook off the vision of her spread against the warm hood gasping in pleasure and tilted his head towards the door.

“This way, let’s get you warmed up.”

Hours before he had logged in to the safe house via the secure link on his phone and set the thermostat to seventy-two degrees. With a few more swipes and push of the button, he had also ignited the gas log in the fireplace. He was glad he did. They were greeted with warmth and comfort and an orange glow emanated from the sunken living room at the end of the hall.

Inside the house, the floors were lined with plush wall-to-wall carpet. Shane led the way down a short hallway, past a luxurious half bath that screamed: “I’m from the seventies and proud of it!” It was paneled with a heavy, dark wood on the lower half of the walls and a dark red velvet flocked wallpaper on the upper half.

Shane paused briefly in the front entry, removed his shoes and placed them neatly by the door before stepping down into the sunken living room and disappearing around the corner. Lila paused to take in the view of rough-hewn beams of the ceiling high above and a wide spiral iron and wood staircase that led to the floor above. A large wrought-iron chandelier also hung from the ceiling above. It was lined with at least thirty, dim candelabra bulbs set in wide, faux pillar candles. Their combined glow, however, was bright.

Lila heard the clink of glass, ice, and the low, slow gurgle of liquid. By the time she turned she stepped down into the living room and turned the corner he was handing her a heavy glass of cut crystal, filled with ice cubes and an amber liquid.

“Here, you look like you need this.”

Lila took the glass, her hands brushing his, hers still trembling. She lifted the glass to her lips, took a sip. The alcohol burned her throat, clawing its way down, deep inside her, and warming her belly. She didn’t look at him, but she could feel his gaze just as she had felt his hands glide over her in the stairwell, checking for injuries, for bullet holes. This chain of thought led to the image of the two men, crumpled on the ground, blood blooming from their chests.

Dead, Shane had said, dead after trying to kill me.

Shane watched her as she took a second sip, then a third, the trembling slowly fading as liquid courage took its place. He wanted to fuck her. And he struggled with it. This woman, she was doing something to him. He didn’t know how or why – she wasn’t his type. He loved the loud, brassy women with big tits and asses that could hold up a shelf.

He’d said it to his buddies in the Navy, “More cushion for pushing, man, who wants a scrawny chick when you can go the mile with a real woman?”

But looking at her, he didn’t see scrawny, he saw tight. He saw an athletic ride you all night kind of woman. He threaded his fingers through his hair and looked away. He had to get his mind off of fucking her.

She’s a client, you asshole.

He stepped away, crossing to the other side of the room, the entrance to the kitchen.

“You need something to eat, and we need to discuss what comes next.”

He said it over his shoulder, walking away. She would follow, and she would listen to him now. They all did once the bullets started flying. He crossed the kitchen to the refrigerator and pulled out a package of cheese, some salami, and reached for the crackers in the cabinet next to the fridge.

“There’s some fruit there on the table, and some grapes here in the fridge.” He reached in and pulled them out.

He arranged it all on a plate, complete with a sharp knife, and then he carried the foods over to the table, holding out a chair. She had followed him into the kitchen, her drink empty save for the half-melted ice cubes. He didn’t ask, simply filled the glass with more amber liquid from an expensive cut glass crystal carafe on the table.

“We are safe here, that’s the biggest thing to remember.” His eyes were dark, fierce, and quite intense.

Lila looked away, first staring at her plate, then out at the lights of the towns across the river. She could see the steady blinking lights of the planes flying in and out of an airport.

He continued, “I expect my clients to abide by The Code while they are under my protection. It’s simple, and it will keep you alive.”

He ticked off the items one by one on his fingers, watching her as he did.

“Number One, absolutely no contact with the outside. Not your friends, your family, your boss, no one.”

He paused, momentarily distracted by the bruises on her throat.

I would happily kill the sonuvabitch who touched her.

“Number Two, do not leave the safe house without me by your side.”

She met his eyes and he was struck by the unusual shade of green. Not unlike jade, but with flecks of brown. He couldn’t help wondering what her face would look like mid-orgasm, tilted back, eyes closed, gasping for air as he…

“Shane?” Her voice interrupted his fantasy. He realized he had been silent, for far too long. She blinked at him, her mouth a moue of concern.

“Number Three, no unsecured phone calls or internet access. And, most important of all, Number Four, don’t withhold information.”

Lila stood up and looked away from him out the sliding glass doors to the river and the lights of a town in the distance. Miles away, they could see the planes circling in the sky, descending and ascending, their running lights slowly blinking in a steady, reassuring pattern. She stared out into the distance and drained her glass, nibbling at the tidbits of food on her plate. He refilled her glass.

“Do you have any questions?” His words hung in the air, the alcohol burned in her belly, and Lila shook her head silently. Several moments passed.

“Is this your house?”

“No, it belongs to Benton Security Services, well, to the owner Jack. The original owner was a judge who had the place custom-built back in 1970.”

“It’s huge,” she said, her eyes finally moving from staring into the dark night sky, back to meet his. They were such a striking green. Her mouth, a tiny expanse of delicate pink lips, opened enough for the tip of her tongue to moisten them, before darting back to safety.

What he wanted to do to that mouth.

Shane ran his hand through his short cropped hair. He had to stop thinking about her like that.

He stood up abruptly and turned away. “I’ll show you where you will be sleeping.” He left the room without a backward glance.

Lila watched him go. A small surge of resentment ran through her. She wasn’t used to obedience being something that was expected or taken for granted.

What kind of sexy, pecan pie, sweet molasses misogynist is he, anyway?

Conflicting emotions warred within her. Part of her wanted to stay here, stare at the amazing view, and watch the planes continue to dance in the sky. Another part of her wanted him to walk back into the room, pull her against him and kiss her ruthlessly.

She’d seen the desire in his eyes, he wanted her as much as she wanted him.

I shouldn’t follow him like some obedient dog. That will only encourage him to be more of a chauvinistic pig.

For a moment she hesitated and then she couldn’t help but wonder.

What does it look like upstairs?

Curiosity won over making a stand. She rose from the table and followed anyway.

The thick pile of the carpet muffled all sound and gave off a feeling of sinking, similar to a sandy beach, with every step. It was everywhere, and Lila followed Shane up wide circular stairs to the landing above. The wood was heavy and there were large beams of dark, rough-hewn timbers and heavy wrought iron. Shane waited for her to reach him, then turned and opened a door, bowing slightly and motioning for her to precede him. The door led to a short hallway that opened into a large room with a vaulted ceiling. The dark heavy wood pillars were covered with ironwork and it reminded Lila of the inside of a church.

A fireplace with a gas log glowed warmly against the far wall. There was a dim lamp in one corner next to a massive four-poster bed. And around another corner a large, pleasantly appointed bathroom complete with a large claw foot bathtub. This seemed at odds with the 70s hunting lodge look, but Lila wasn’t going to complain – she loved long soaks in a hot bath.

Lila’s initial nervousness around Shane had been cured by the liquid courage she had tossed back with the light dinner. The drinks had lit a fire in her belly and loosened her tight, aching muscles. She was no longer shaking, no longer afraid. Instead, she could feel all of the experiences of the past few hours turning from terror into an intense, hot need.

She stared at the fire, her mind firmly on the man standing behind her.

Southern drawl, pecan pie, whatever…

She couldn’t help but picture him without his clothes. She would nibble that tattoo, lick her way down his chest, and explore the treasure hidden behind that jean zipper.

Mm…

His voice brought her back to herself with a start, “I should let you have some time to settle in, update my boss on what happened tonight, and all that.”

She turned to face him. He was standing close, too close, and she could feel the heat of his body hanging in the air, warming the layer, an almost visible current of it forming between them. His eyes moved over her, and she caught herself wondering what it would be like to have his hands moving there instead. She felt her breaths coming closer together, heavy, deep, and she took a step closer.

Shane could feel the pull of attraction between them. He stared in her eyes. The alcohol had calmed her, he could see it in the way she held herself – less stiff and afraid, more languorous, sexy. All it would take was a touch. His hand sliding up her arm, his mouth on hers. He just had to reach out and…

Shane matched her step forward with his own step back, and then another, retreating towards the door. “If you need anything, I’m on the other side of the house, down the hall. In the morning we need to talk.”

He put a hand on her uninjured shoulder, keeping her at arm’s length. “Someone wants you dead. And we need to figure out why. Otherwise, they will never stop.”

Lila blinked, the spell broken. Fear flooded her again.

Who was trying to kill her? And why?

“It has to be a mistake,” she said, “I’m no one.”

He smiled, white teeth flashing and she melted all over again. “Everyone is someone, Lila.” He squeezed her shoulder gently. “Take a bath, get some sleep. Help yourself to whatever clothing you can find in the closet. We will figure this out in the morning.”

He turned away from her, walked down the short hall, and closed the door to the suite behind him. His thoughts were whirling in his head, the imperative to call his boss and report the situation warring with an overwhelming impulse to turn around, walk back through that door, and…

Fight or flight. She’s reacting to everything that just happened to her. And no, it doesn’t help that she is smoking hot.

He had never slept with a client. Never even come close. Of course it probably helped that most of his clients were pasty-faced white men who owned hedge funds or had seen something they shouldn’t. Hell, most of them had done something they shouldn’t, and were now running for their lives.

There had been the pair of girls, hollow-eyed, scared. They had also been traumatized, malnourished, and sporting bruises on their arms, necks and faces. He had looked at them and felt a murderous rage towards whoever had mistreated them. Even when the youngest, a girl of seventeen, had tried to climb into his bed one night, he hadn’t been the least interested. The girl needed counseling, patience, and safety – not another man taking advantage of her. He had gently led her back to her room, and the poor kid had looked confused, yet relieved. He had also made sure to lock his door for the next two nights until they were out of his care.

Shane shook his head, realized he had been standing, lost in thought at the top of the stairs, and quickly made his way down and then across to the west wing of the house.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket as it vibrated. “Hey Boss, sorry I didn’t call sooner. The scene was hot, I had to get her out of there before anyone else showed up.”

Jack didn’t waste words, “Tell me everything.”

Shane was just as precise and he quickly described the shootout and the dead guard.

“She’s not much help. She doesn’t seem to know why anyone would want to hurt her. My gut says she’s telling the truth.”

Two hit men?” Jack’s voice betrayed his surprise, “What the hell has this girl gotten herself into?”

“She’s pretty shaken up. I’ll take her life apart piece by piece tomorrow and see if I can get some clarity.”

“Yeah, do that. I’ll talk to Azule, see if I can get her to dig into Tor further and find out who is sending these guys. Also, Teeny says the police scanner is reporting cops are already on scene. Someone called in hearing gunshots.”

“Mine,” Shane replied, “Those two men had silencers on their Sig Sauers.”

There was a pause and slow exhale on the other end. “Sig Sauers?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit. That means…”

“I know.”

“Update me in the morning Ellis.”

“Will do.”

Shane’s finger was hovering over the End Call button when Jack added, “And Shane?”

“Yeah, Boss?”

“Keep it professional.”

“Always, Sir.” A dial tone sounded in his ear.

I’m always professional. Except for that asshole kiddie porn shithead I decked. But he had it coming.

Shane stared at his phone, the screen dark and blank. Jack had gotten a look at Lila’s file. He was well aware of how smoking hot she was. He sucked in a breath and tried not to think about those stockings and garters peeking out of her rumpled skirt.

No wonder Jack’s warning me off her.

Shane tossed the phone onto the nightstand and stripped off his clothes before lying down on top of the covers. He stared at the dark ceiling, brooding until sleep claimed him.