Gunning for the Groom by Debra Webb and Regan Black
USA TODAY bestselling authors Debra Webb and Regan Black spin off the unforgettable Colby Agency series!
As a former Interpol agent, private detective Aidan Abbot knows his way around covert operations at the highest levels. But nothing could have prepared him for his latest mission: infilitrating family dynamics. His new client, Francesca “Frankie” Leone, believes her late father, a US Army general, was framed for treason and has heartbreaking reason to suspect her own mother was behind it.
Suddenly, Aidan is deep undercover as Frankie’s fiancé, investigating his “future MIL” with unusual dinner-table access. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more Aidan wants to protect the woman he was never supposed to really fall for.
4 stars from RT Book Reviews! “…a tense and emotional nail-biter.”
Chicago, Illinois Wednesday, April 6, 5:30p.m.
Victoria Colby-Camp rose from her desk and turned to her beloved window. She watched the gentle spring rain falling upon the city she would always call home. Evening lights twinkled, reminding her that it was time to go home. Home. A smile tugged at her lips. How had she considered for even a moment that any other city on earth could take the place of Chicago?
The most wonderful years of her life, as well as the most painful ones, had played out here. Her son was here, as were her beautiful grandchildren. No matter how warm it was or how much sun south Texas had to offer, it would never be the Windy City.
Sensing Lucas’s presence, she turned, her smile widening automatically. She had loved this man for so very long. Even when her first husband, James Colby, was alive, Lucas Camp had been her dearest friend. The two of them waited many years before allowing that lifelong bond to bloom into a more intimate relationship. Their wedding day had been one of the happiest of her life—in part because that momentous occasion came almost at the same time that her son found his way back to her. Jim Colby had been missing for twenty years when he came back into her life. So many miracles had happened that year.
Victoria’s life had come full circle now. Her family was safe and happy and she was back in the city she loved.
“You’re ready to go?” she asked, when Lucas remained in the doorway.
“No hurry. I could stand here forever just looking at you.”
“Lucas, you’re too kind.” Even after all these years as man and wife, she could feel her pulse react to his voice, as well as the compliment. “I’m ready.”
Tomorrow was another day at the Colby Agency offices and she couldn’t wait to see what it held.
* * *
Savannah, Georgia Thursday, April 7, 8:05 a.m.
Francesca Leone, Frankie to everyone who knew her longer than a few minutes, smiled on her way to the office she shared with two other people. It wasn’t much more than a converted storage space, but she didn’t mind. She’d worked in tighter quarters during her time with the navy. Life in Georgia had been good to her. Landing this job as an analyst with the Savannah Police Department gave her a healthy, long overdue sense of renewed purpose.
The past eighteen months had been an arduous journey personally and professionally. An act of terrorism and the resulting injury had ended the navy career she’d loved. For too many months, her life had narrowed to a pinpoint focus on surviving the physical trials, only to be assaulted by the emotional upheaval that followed. She hadn’t realized how much of her identity had been tied to her military service until it was gone. But here she’d found a fresh start and was building a strong new foundation, far from the looming shadow of her father’s name and the constant worried gaze of her mother.
Feeling her back aching a bit from yesterday’s extended run, she eased into the desk chair, setting her mug of tea to the left of her computer monitor and locking her purse in the bottom drawer. When her computer booted up, she wasted no time getting to work. A string of recent robberies crossed several precincts, and it was her job to find any connections to help the detectives create a list of suspect traits.
Although the work didn’t rank as high in the elements of danger and thrill as her former SEAL team missions, she found tremendous fulfillment when her contributions helped close cases.
She was making notes on the similarities between thefts when her desk phone rang, and she picked it up. “Leone.”
She didn’t recognize the quiet male voice on the other end of the line. “Yes.” Pausing to glance around when someone called her by her proper name was a purely instinctive reaction. “How can I help you?”
“I worked with your dad on several operations,” the man explained.
Her heart stuttered in her chest. It never seemed to beat properly when the topic of her dad came up. She bit her lip, refusing to deliver the coarse response on the tip of her tongue.
“I considered him a friend,” the caller said into the prolonged silence.
And yet she noticed he didn’t offer her a name. She wasn’t an idiot. Since her father, General Frank Leone, had been accused and convicted of treason, no one claimed any kind of link to him. This couldn’t be an old friend who’d lost touch or wanted to leave the general’s daughter with a memorable photo.
Smelling a setup, she decided the caller must be a reporter sniffing out a new story angle. Unfortunately for him, there weren’t any. It had been over a year since the verdict, and her review of every available shred of information had yet to yield any solid intel that could remove the terrible stain on her dad’s career. “What do you want?”
“First, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Her hand fisted around the receiver, but she didn’t take the bait. Her father had killed himself ten months ago, shortly after the verdict came down. While she wasn’t over it, she never let that weakness show—to strangers or friends.
“I just need a few minutes of your time,” the caller said. “Your father trusted me with something you should have.”
Curious now, she checked the urge to slam down the phone. “All right.” A face-to-face chat was the fastest way to determine if there was anything legitimate about this guy. “And your name?”
“When we meet,” he replied.
She’d anticipated that response. Odds were he wouldn’t have given her a real name, anyway. “How will I know you?”
“I’ll know you!”
Of course he would. Growing up on various army bases around the world with two parents who rated the highest possible security clearances, Frankie valued caution and understood paranoia. “Fine. Meet me at Bess’s Diner in the historic district in an hour.” That would give her plenty of time to drive by and get her head on straight.
Fifty minutes later she sat in her car, studying a man leaning against a bike rack in front of the diner across the street. Short, graying brown hair; late forties, early fifties maybe. Assuming he was the caller, she was pleased he didn’t give off the hum of urgency she’d learned to expect from reporters. While nothing about him struck her as familiar, in her experience the best covert agents were comfortable hiding in plain sight. As she climbed out of her car, she inconspicuously snapped a couple of pictures with her phone. If the man really knew her dad, he’d know about her mother’s work, and her own abbreviated career, as well.
Or maybe this wasn’t the guy at all, she thought when he didn’t react as she crossed to his side of the street. She didn’t acknowledge him as she aimed for the diner door.
“Miss Leone.” His voice proved she had a few instincts left. “Thanks for following through.”
“Sure.” She stopped, kept her stance easy and her hands loose at her sides while she waited for him to make the next move.
“Name’s John,” he said, extending a hand. “Your father was a good friend of mine.”
John. She nearly asked if the last name was Smith or Doe. Not that it mattered. Anyone openly admitting to being General Leone’s friend had bigger secrets than a name. She suddenly wished she had something more to go on than his pictures in case she needed to track him down after this meeting. His was one of those nondescript faces that would be hard to remember. This close, she could see that his eyes were brown, as well.
Straight nose. No scars. The kind of face that would blend in with the crowd.
They walked into the diner and found a booth. She noticed he took the side facing the door. If this guy didn’t have covert operations training, he’d read all the right books. When the waitress approached, John ordered coffee and Frankie ordered hot tea with honey. She wasn’t in the mood for anything, just wanted something to keep her hands busy while she listened to whatever John had to say.
“Your dad and I go way back,” he said. “I count Frank and Sophia as my closest friends.”
Frankie couldn’t hide the unpleasant chill she felt at the mention of her mother’s name. She hadn’t spoken to the woman since her father’s funeral. The once proud and strong Leone family had been fractured beyond any hope of reconciliation.
“You still on the outs with her?”
“Why does it matter?” Keeping things compartmentalized was practically a Leone genetic trait. Frankie’s personal life didn’t intersect with her professional life. She never discussed her parents with anyone. Clearly, this man knew the family dynamic, though the situation was fairly obvious. Her mother lived and worked in Seattle, while Frankie lived and worked here, as far away as possible. She still periodically checked for jobs in Key West, Florida. There were questions she knew she’d never get answered, so Frankie clung to the simple truth that distance preserved the peace.
“It doesn’t.” John leaned back as the coffee and tea arrived. When the waitress walked away, he continued. “Look, I know you were close to him and I know he was proud of your career.”
“Thanks?” His well-informed statements didn’t put her at ease. They only made her more uncomfortable. She stirred a spoonful of honey into her tea and went on the offensive, eager to hurry this along. “Any decent search of the internet could give you that much,” she said. “When I was first attached to the SEAL team, they did a write-up in the local paper, got a glowing quote from him.” She set the spoon aside. “Tell me why we’re here.”
The man’s brown eyes were sharp as he studied her. “Because your father was a hero and someone turned him into a scapegoat.”
Whatever his real name, she agreed with John on that much. Her biggest regret was that she hadn’t been there for her dad during the ordeal. Injured or not, she resented that she’d never had a chance to tell him she believed he was innocent, or that she loved him despite the stones thrown from all sides. There hadn’t been any tender farewell phone call or last words in a note. When her father made a decision, he followed through. He’d killed himself shortly after the guilty verdict, before she’d regained her ability to walk unassisted.
The memories of hearing the news swamped her and she raised her tea to her lips, the cup shaking slightly. Sophia, with no trace of emotion, had explained her husband’s suicide and told Frankie what would come next regarding services, the will and estate, and the rest of it. In the days immediately following the tragedy, Frankie had tried to talk to her, hoping to make sense of the senseless. Her mother had been too wrapped up in the legalities and had quickly moved on as though a lifetime of marriage and family had meant nothing.
“He’d be happy to see you strong and healthy again.”
John’s quiet voice brought Frankie back to the present with an unpleasant jolt.
“I like to think so.” She carefully placed the cup in the saucer.
“You’ve done well reestablishing yourself.”
“Uh-huh.” She toyed with the handle of her cup. “You said you had something for me?” She didn’t want to talk about her father or her new life. Not with a therapist, not with a friend, and definitely not with a stranger.
“Yes.” He reached into the pocket inside his sport coat and fished out a small gray envelope. “This matches a safe-deposit box in Tucson,” he explained, his voice no more than a whisper. With one finger he pushed the envelope, which presumably held a key, halfway across the table. “No one mattered to your dad as much as you did. He can’t tell you in his own words, but the answers you’re after are there.”
Answers. Frankie blinked away the rush of tears blurring her vision. She’d expected dog tags, or maybe her dad’s class ring from West Point. Answers were a thousand times better. She hadn’t been prepared for someone who believed her father had been railroaded, and wanted to help her ferret out the truth. She caught her trembling lower lip between her teeth and fought valiantly for composure. There would be time for emotions later. “How do you know what answers I’m after?” she asked, using his phrase. “Dad’s case is closed.” It was hard to believe this could be the break she needed to clear her father’s name.
John left the envelope on the table, pulling his fingers back and drumming them on the rim of his coffee cup, watching her closely. “The case is officially closed, but it’s nowhere near done for you. You take that and you’ll have a chance to right a wrong.”
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from that slim gray envelope. “Why don’t you do what’s necessary with the information?”
He shook his head. “This is for family. I’m just the messenger.”
Frankie sucked in a breath. He couldn’t mean what those words implied. She’d learned that her mother’s testimony had come into play during her father’s trial, though Frankie had never understood why it hadn’t helped. Sophia refused to discuss the matter, which left Frankie with more questions than answers at every turn.
“From where I’m sitting I’d say you got that stubbornness and tenacity from your dad,” John said, urging her on in his quiet way.
Frankie covered the envelope with her hand, pulling it closer to her side of the table. Either she hadn’t been as discreet as she should have been or John had the depth of access that went with the cloak-and-dagger routine. She thought of the inquiries she’d made after her father’s funeral. All of them had turned into frustrating dead ends. Hope surged through her that this key would unlock the secrets about General Leone’s final missions overseas.
She peered into the envelope before tucking it into her pocket. Taking it didn’t mean she had to do anything about it. She studied John’s inscrutable face. “How can I reach you?”
“You can’t.” His gaze moved systematically around the coffee shop. “My being here, even for a few hours, puts you in jeopardy. This has to be our only communication.”
She gave a short nod as her mind reeled. This man was the first person who showed any sign of agreeing with her about her father’s innocence.
John pulled out his wallet and tossed a ten-dollar bill onto the table. “You don’t have to go and you don’t have to be in a hurry,” he said. “In fact, I recommend you take some time and think it through. What’s inside the box isn’t going anywhere.”
She knew she had to go. She couldn’t ignore this opportunity. A flight to Arizona was nothing in the bigger picture. Her family had imploded under the treason accusation. Knowing her father had died disgraced and alone, Frankie still felt an ache in her heart. If there was any information that would cast a light of truth into those dark final days and clear his name, she meant to find it. “I’ll go.” As soon as she could arrange a few days off work.
Getting to Tucson was the easy part of the equation. There was no way to tell what would come next until she’d seen the contents of the box for herself. After the last lead dried up a few months ago, she’d been less aggressive in her private inquiry, resigned that she might never learn who’d set up her dad. Cautiously pushing hope aside, she considered that this meeting and the trip to open a safe-deposit box could be nothing more than an elaborate ruse or distraction, though she didn’t know who would gain by such a tactic.
“What you discover could make things worse,” John warned.
“Thanks,” she whispered, stunned by the dramatic shift her morning had taken. The key in its envelope felt like a stick of old dynamite in her pocket, shaky, volatile and ready to blow her life apart without any notice. “Unless you have more insight, I guess I’ll figure that out when I get there.”
“Whatever you decide, be careful.” He slid to the edge of the booth. “The people who took down your dad have a long reach and violent habits.”