The Philanthropist, Book 1
Ex-military operative Lottie Nightshade is enjoying civilian life helping her widowed sister raise three teenagers. When a last-minute job interview turns out to be blackmail, her peaceful days are over. Lottie is given two choices, and the least deplorable of them is doing wetwork for an eccentric millionaire.
Philanthropist Dane Harrington has no option but to blackmail Lottie Nightshade. Dane was contracted to terminate a bomber who threatened to level a new arena in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stakes are too high to trust the time-critical mission to anyone but a skilled operative, and Dane knows Ms. Nightshade will not do the job willingly.
When the bomber realizes he’s been targeted for extermination, the hired killer is already closing in on him. The only way he’ll live to trigger the arena’s destruction is by stopping Lottie Nightshade.
Lottie feels the bomber’s cold stare watching her every move as the timer ticks closer to detonation. When he sets off a series of explosions and people begin to die, Lottie realizes she may need to give up her own life to end the bomber’s.
“I want to start by letting you know, Ms. Nightshade, the singular reason we are here today is so I may blackmail you.” Attos, the older man facing Lottie across the coffee table, leaned forward in his wingback chair.
His British accent distracted her for a moment. Had she heard him correctly? Was he insane? Why had she agreed to this job interview, alone in a penthouse? Should she run?
Lottie glanced to her left at the tall, brown-skinned man wearing a black suit standing in front of the hotel suite’s door. The man fit the generic bodyguard description, with a scar on his chin, a gash showing through his short, black hair, and the bulge of a pistol under his left arm. She’d never make it past him.
His blue eyes stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows, as if the penthouse’s view of St. Paul, Minnesota afforded the most fascinating cityscape he’d ever observed.
Attos picked up a thick file folder from a box beside him and dropped it on the coffee table between them.
The slap of paper on wood jerked Lottie out of disbelief.
She sat up straighter, swinging her gaze back to Attos. Mercifully, the seams of the gray suit she’d borrowed from her petite sister held tight. “I believe you must be mistaking me for someone else, Mr. Attos. This job interview is for a personal assistant.” Had he confused her for some billionaire? Not likely, considering her clothing and lack of jewelry, manicure, and makeup. A few swipes of a mascara brush had been all she’d managed in her race to arrive on time.
“The interview request…was merely a pretense to bring you here. Blackmail is the only job on the agenda today.” He spoke the words as if he’d memorized them, as if this was some kind of hokey one-act play.
That was all she needed to hear. Lottie reached down and grabbed her fake-leather Walmart purse as anger and frustration stirred. “I’m leaving.” The words came out too loud as she stood. “This is some kind of sick fun for you, right?” She looked from Attos to the bodyguard and back: the rich freak and his junkyard dog. “You can’t fuck with people’s lives like this.” She calculated the odds of striking Attos before the bodyguard could reach her.
The man in black moved in quickly, standing next to Attos.
From his chair, Attos raised a hand and the bodyguard stepped back a foot, keeping his gaze fixed on her.
Attos’s eyes narrowed, a snake about to strike. “This is not a game. I am deadly serious.” He gestured to the chair behind her. “Sit and listen to what I have to say, Ms. Nightshade. I assure you, if you walk out now, it will adversely affect you…and those you love.”
It took a long moment for the words to sink in. The snake was threatening her family? A chill ripped through her. Lottie dropped her purse and fisted her hands.
A quick look at the bodyguard showed his gaze drop to her fists then back to her face as he balanced on the balls of his feet. She’d never imagined it’d be necessary to bring a weapon to a job interview.
No. She needed control now. Cold and calculating, not fiery and foolish. She lowered herself into the chair, her hands flat on her thighs, taking slow breaths. This was a situation she couldn’t fight her way out of. Not without a gun of her own. She’d need to talk herself out of this. Whatever this was. “Listen. I have nothing. Nothing that you could want.”
The military pay she’d saved over the twelve years she’d been Army had dwindled quickly during the past two years of civilian life. The car she drove would barely sell for a thousand dollars.
“And yet, here we are.” Attos sat back in his chair, adjusting the cuffs of his meticulously ironed blue shirt. As he crossed his legs, his pant cuff rode up, revealing a polka-dot sock and a tasseled brown shoe. Lacing his fingers together, he curved his lips up into a humorless smile. “And you do indeed have something I need.”
His word games annoyed the fuck out of her. Lottie gripped the arms of her chair to stop herself from lunging at him and wrapping her hands around his neck. “I live in the basement of my sister’s house. I make fancy coffee at a drive-through for people who tip me in loose change.” Her gaze slid up to his short, curly gray hair. “I make less in a day than you pay for a haircut.”
His left eyebrow lifted.
She stared at him, willing herself not to look at the file. “What do I have that you need to blackmail me to get?”
“You have a particular skill that I require the use of.” He gestured to the file folder on the table. “And here I have the proof that you are able to use that skill in a most efficient and covert way.”
Proof? What had he learned about her that could be blackmail fodder? Her chest tightened and her breathing grew shallow. She knew the answer, but there should be no way he knew it.
“Ms. Nightshade.” His gray eyebrows rose as his black eyes widened. “You have a clever, tactical, and conniving mind. Your research for the military into target acquisition and engagement was decades ahead of other intelligence work.”
Lottie froze. Her work was classified. How could he know about it? He’d mentioned her research, but was he aware of her missions, too? She’d done things for the government, covert assignments, operations that there would be no recorded history of.
With a quick nod toward the file on the table, he sucked in a slow breath. “And you’re not afraid to kill those who deserve to die.”
Lottie’s heart thudded as she collapsed back into the chair. The pins she’d used to snug her red hair into a tight bun caught on the expensive upholstery and gouged into her scalp. The pain cut through her numbness. They knew about her assignments?
She’d have to play innocent. There were no records. No way for them to have the big, thick pile of proof that was sitting on the table in front of her. “I have no idea what you mean.” Her voice came out quavery, weak, sounding like one of her nieces when they’d been caught misbehaving.
Attos glanced at the man next to him. “Harrington. Would you please?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Attos.” The first words she’d heard him speak rolled low and with a hint of an accent. Stepping forward, he locked his dark blue gaze with hers. The scent of his woody cologne drifted over her, nauseating her. “Two years, five months, and seventeen days ago, you handled the problem of your abusive brother-in-law. Permanently.”
Rafe? Her lungs stopped working. Shit. How did they know about Rafe? How could anyone have figured it out? After two-and-a-half years, she’d thought she was in the clear. Maybe they were bluffing?
Lottie mastered her panic, sucked in a breath, then shook her head. “You’re mistaken. No, you’re crazy. I was questioned by the police. They determined I was at Fort Benning when my brother-in-law died.” She looked at Attos. “Without leave.”
The tall man, Harrington, reached down and flipped open the file she’d been avoiding. Papers fastened to both sides of the folder showed black lines of type. A loose picture of Rafe’s contorted body bleeding out onto the snowy railroad tracks slid onto the table.
Closing her eyes, she turned her head as her stomach threatened to upend itself. How had she done what she’d done without giving it a second thought? He wasn’t one of her tactical targets, he’d been family. A cruel husband and father, but shouldn’t she have at least tried to help him overcome his abusive tendencies?
She glared at Attos, faking bravado to deflect from her guilt. “Where did you get this? Are you just sadistic, or is there a reason you’re throwing this in front of me?”
The man didn’t speak.
Harrington stood over her and crossed his arms. His short-cropped dark hair looked almost military, but the trimmed scruff on his face didn’t. “We know about Samantha Peterson.”
Lottie couldn’t swallow the quick inhale she took, the one that clearly announced her guilt. But she’d deny it forever. She had no choice. “Sam and I were stationed together at Benning. What about her?”
A woman in a butler’s uniform, including a bowtie, announced her presence by clearing her throat as she entered the room with a tray.
Attos moved the open file to cover the gruesome photo. “Right here please, Anna. Thank you.”
The woman set the tray of porcelain cups and a steaming pot on the low table in front of Attos. “Shall I pour, sir?”
“Thank you, no. That will be all.” He behaved as if having a butler and a security guard was status quo for him. Between the call this morning from the employment agency to arrange this “urgent” interview, and the rush to get here on time for it, she hadn’t had the chance to research Attos Services, Inc. Now, as she felt her life slipping out of her control, she realized she should have passed on the goddamn interview. “Ms. Nightshade? Coffee?”
The scent of the dark, full roast reached her, and she breathed deep of the familiar scent, willing it to calm her, bring back control over her emotions.
Lottie shook her head, not trusting her voice. She stared at the name on the file tab. Raphael Martin. Rafe had been a bastard, but did that give her the right to end his life? Visions of that snowy night flooded back, his high-pitched scream as he fell from the bridge. Maybe she could have just frightened him into being a good husband and father?
But when her sister had called her, sobbing, and said Rafe had nearly killed her, and threatened to finish the job if she told anyone…
“Ahhh. Forgive my thoughtlessness.” Attos looked at the pot. “Perhaps coffee no longer appeals to you? Is there something else I can have Anna bring for you? Tea, perhaps?”
She swallowed back a burst of hysterical laughter. If it wasn’t for the guillotine suspended over her head at that very moment, this whole scene could be a comedy skit. “No. Please. Just finish telling me why you have me here and then…” What? What was his plan? He’d have her arrested? No, he’d mentioned blackmail. What the fuck did he want from her?
Harrington shifted. “The left side of the file, Ms. Nightshade. That’s the official police report. Autopsy and forensic determination of accidental death.”
She stared at the file, the words on the first page blurred as her blood pressure rose.
Attos poured himself a cup of midnight-black coffee and sat back in his chair, sipping loudly.
“On the right…” Harrington dropped his hands to his sides. “This is the information you’ll find relevant.”
Lottie waited but when no one spoke, she gave in and pulled the file closer. The first page was the airline manifest showing Samantha Peterson’s flight from Columbus, Georgia to Minneapolis with a layover in Atlanta. On the same day Rafe died. The second page showed the return red-eye flight the next morning, Minneapolis to Atlanta to Columbus. A total of twelve hours from wheels up in Georgia to wheels down again in the Peach State.
“This doesn’t prove anything.” She turned toward the windows, looking out at the Mississippi River glistening in the hot afternoon sun. Docked on the south shore, the riverboats that cruised tourists up and down the waterway sat motionless. August in Minnesota could be pleasant, or it could be hell-hot. Today was hellacious and humid as a sauna. Despite the air conditioning in the upscale hotel suite, a trickle of sweat rolled down her spine. They had evidence connecting Sam to the crime. She couldn’t let them drag her into this.
“There’s more, if you care to look.” Harrington’s voice was the dark chocolate of a seducer, and she briefly wondered if that was part of Attos’s plan. Bring in his most charming eye candy to draw her mind off what was really happening here.
“No. Just tell me.” She jutted her chin upward. The innocent Joan of Arc facing the inquisition.
After a pause, Harrington picked up the file, leaving the death photo on the table. “Samantha Peterson, red hair, five-foot ten-inches, thirty-seven years old, hazel eyes.”
“Does that sound familiar, Ms. Nightshade?” Attos’s voice held a sing-song tone. “Familiar…like a mirror image?”
“Yes, Mr. Attos.” She shifted her gaze to his black eyes. “Samantha Peterson and I were often confused for one another.”
The man smiled and gestured to his bodyguard.
“Ms. Peterson…” Harrington flipped papers. “She had a three-day pass but took only two of those days. At the exact same time you, Ms. Nightshade, contracted a virulent case of food poisoning which kept you in bed for…hmmm. Twenty-four hours.”
With a dismissive glower at the bodyguard, she turned toward Attos. “Coincidence.”
Attos shook his head. “Look deeper into the file. We have photos of you at each of the airports, at the car rental counter, at a dozen other places along the route. There is no coincidence.” He set down his cup with a bang, sloshing dark liquid onto the table. “What we have here is more than enough to prove you were physically in Minnesota the day your brother-in-law slipped and fell off that bridge.”
Harrington handed her the folder. He’d flipped pages open to a montage of photos of her face. Definitely not Sam’s face with her delicate nose and big eyes. This was plain-faced Lottie with her lips tightly pressed together in covert-mission mode.
Her lungs stopped; waves of disbelief washed over her. She wanted to collapse but had to fight back.
“Why don’t the police have these?” She set down the folder and let the pages flap back into place. “Why am I not being arrested and charged?”
“Technically, they do have all this.” Attos spoke as Harrington assumed his place by the door. “We have someone…on the inside who is helping us.”
“Helping you…what? How does this involve me?” She wanted this over and done, she wanted to feel the sticky outside air, the relentless sun beating down on her, see the faces of her nieces and nephew again before this malicious rich bastard had her locked up for life.
“Your brother-in-law is not the only bad person who should not be roaming free on this earth.” Attos tipped his head and watched her.
It didn’t take long for his meaning to clarify in her brain. The flush overheating her body turned to cold chills as she looked into his expressionless eyes.
Attos wanted her to kill for him.
A cough of laughter escaped her throat, followed by gasps for breath. This was not some spy movie starring Tom Cruise. This was her life. The life she loved, now that she was no longer a deadly pawn working for the government. All she wanted to be was plain old Lottie Nightshade, honorably discharged Army Veteran, good sister, loving aunt, barista mediocre.
This could not be happening.
“No.” She stood and buttoned the tight jacket at her belly. “I won’t do what you’re asking. Use the evidence to convict me. I deserve it.” Even though she tried not to feel guilt for Rafe’s death. Not after the vile way he’d treated her sister and the kids.
“We will do that, Ms. Nightshade. Have. No. Doubt.” Attos accented the last three words by pointing at her face. He reached to the side of his chair and pulled out another file, this one not as thick. “We will also provide the authorities with the evidence of your sister, Maggie Martin’s collusion in the murder. This includes her call to you three days before your trip to Minnesota, along with her impromptu vacation with her offspring on the church bus heading for a winter retreat at St. John’s University.”
Lottie’s knees buckled and she plopped down onto the chair. The button on her coat popped off, skittering across the coffee table and onto the floor at Attos’s feet. At Attos’s feet – which felt exactly like where she was right now. Like his favorite hound, waiting to do his bidding. She couldn’t risk implicating Maggie in Rafe’s death. What would happen to the kids?
Lottie glared back at him. “You have nothing on Maggie. Completely circumstantial.” She almost smiled at the certainty she’d forced into her voice.
“Don’t be so sure.” Attos tossed the folder onto the coffee table and reached back to haul another file from his mystical stash of evidence. “But what you can be sure of…and this is as sure as death…we have your accomplice at Fort Benning, Samantha Peterson, sewn up tight for a long holiday in Leavenworth.”
She couldn’t send Sam to prison. Even if her friend didn’t serve time for her part in the switch, it would ruin her carefully planned Army career. All because Sam’s offer of help came as Lottie frantically prepared to go AWOL to kill her brother-in-law before Rafe could kill her sister.
Sam had been aware of the risks when she’d talked Lottie into a scheme that would have – should have – been iron-clad. And it had been, for two years, five months, and seventeen days. Burning behind her eyes warned her of impending tears. Weakness? No. Show no weakness.
“All right, Attos. What do you expect from me? You said there are others out there who don’t deserve to be alive.” The ferocity of the words coming from her mouth surprised her, but she covered her confusion with a glare that should’ve had the man quaking.
He sat peacefully, the leg he’d crossed over the other one swinging like a pendulum.
Lottie’s jaw tightened at his silence. “Are you going to make me kill your business competition?” A memory of shooting the Iranian agent at very close range, a flash of the Russian government official’s face as she realized Lottie had poisoned her, the sound of the explosive device she’d set to disband the South African trafficking consortium…a man shoved off a bridge, his body landing in a heap, spreading red onto the pure white snow. It made her nauseous. She wanted that part of her life to stay locked in the past.
“Of course not, Ms. Nightshade.” Attos reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a business card. “We have selected only the most vile scum of the earth for you to eliminate.” He took a pen from his pants pocket and clicked it. “But first, let’s discuss our terms.”