Reluctant Hero by Debra Webb and Regan Black
Available November 2017
The news they’re after isn’t fake—it’s deadly
For top security expert Parker Lawton, the anonymous threat is explosive. Return the gold stolen during his intelligence unit’s last Iraq mission—or they’ll each be hunted down. And when one of his men is killed just before meeting investigative reporter Rebecca Wallace, he must take her under his “protection.” But her persistence in getting the real story is even more dangerous—and irresistible.
For a dashing war hero, Parker is the most guilty-acting innocent man Becca has ever seen. Still, working with him is the only way to stay ahead of a ruthless enemy. And as her instincts and Parker’s skills hone in on the truth, trusting the desire simmering between them could be their only chance—or the last move they’ll ever make.
Five Spoons from Books and Spoons: “Glamour and charm, back-alley murders, kidnappings, constant danger and fear for their lives, this fast-paced action thriller with its splendid characters held my attention. I finally get to use the word: unputdownable! Made me want to read the rest of the series, as well.” ~ Read the full review here.
Thursday, October 14, 6:20 p.m.
Rebecca Wallace had an itch between her shoulder blades, warning her it was well past time to get out of the office. She’d turned off the three monitors on the wall, all of them muted, that were tuned to the television network she worked for and their top two competitors. She scrolled her mouse over to power down her computer when a new email icon popped up on her monitor.
She should ignore it. Needed to ignore it. She had a date tonight—the first in months—and she already knew she was going to be late. Late wasn’t a behavior she tolerated in others, so she did her best to be prompt as often as possible. Her career as a producer for an acclaimed investigative journalism show frequently put her at odds with her aim to be on time.
While the weekly show was scheduled down to the second, when important stories broke, she felt an obligation to be available to support the stable of reporters the network had in the field.
Knowing the news cycle had wound down for the day, she exercised self-discipline and shut down the computer. She would read the email on her phone during the commute home and then delegate any response if necessary. With a longing glance at her laptop, she left it behind as well. Carving out a personal life had been one of her primary intentions for this year. Considering this was only her tenth date for the year and it was October, she scolded herself for letting an important goal slide.
Deciding the email would wait until the morning, she set her phone to vibrate and dropped it into her purse. Her team had the next big story in the works already. Last week, she and her lead journalist, Bill Gatlin, had started digging into an anonymous tip that alleged an elite team of US Army soldiers serving in Iraq had stolen a fortune in gold.
She would have blown off the mysterious lead if not for the list of six names and the date of the purported theft. Having been in that same area of Iraq at the time on a humanitarian story, she and Bill were each making discreet inquiries about the men implicated and she had tech support looking for a lead on the sender. Although she didn’t care for anonymous tips, no matter how often they panned out, she knew people enjoyed the drama and adventure of being a faceless, nameless source blowing the whistle on some unpleasant situation.
What she’d die for about now was a tip for a juicy exposé on local spas. Surely she could find a way to pitch that idea. She’d happily volunteer as the guinea pig for any “undercover” research too. She could already hear the laughter from her team if she made such a suggestion. Her entire MO was leaving the fluff pieces and the half-baked ratings bait to the other guys. The guys who weren’t winning awards the way her team did year after year.
She reminded herself that she had left Hollywood for many reasons, not the least of which was to find a place where substance mattered more than the smoke and innuendo of the next dramatic scandal.
By the time she slid into the backseat of the commuter car waiting for her at the curb, her phone had vibrated with another three alerts. Her determination to remain accessible to her team often conflicted with her goal of developing a worthwhile personal life. With a sigh, she retrieved her phone from her purse and checked the various alerts of email and two voice mail messages forwarded from the office.
In the first voice mail, she was pleasantly surprised to hear her father’s voice. She’d called him days ago hoping he had a name or some insight on getting around the army bureaucracy she’d slammed up against as she tried to find confirmation on the names listed. Her dad, a legend in Hollywood, had produced and directed movies ranging from highbrow documentaries to summer blockbusters and seemed to have friends and contacts around the world in all branches of business. According to his brief message, he wasn’t ready to call in a favor for her. His best advice was to work the story from the ground up.
As if she hadn’t been doing that. Well, calling him had been a long shot.
The next voice message was from Parker Lawton, making yet another terse request to meet. She deleted it and shoved the phone back in her purse. Lawton was the last name on the list, and she wanted some solid facts and a better overall picture of the situation and the men involved before they had a conversation. She didn’t want a possible thief skewing the perspective on the story.
It infuriated her when the subjects of budding stories learned her team was poking around. Most likely the anonymous tipster had let something slip, unable to keep from making a not-so-veiled threat or suggestion. As a producer, she had to assess the value and impact of a story before they had the facts. After several years on the job, her instincts were spot-on, and the repeated messages from Lawton confirmed her hunch that he had either something to confess or something to hide.
She and Bill had divided the list of names and created a cover story about soldiers returning to civilian life to explain their interest in the six men named by the source. Cautiously checking into Lawton’s current situation had been Bill’s job. So why was Lawton fixating on her? Her mind stirred it around and around, refusing to let go of work, even as she paid the car service and entered her apartment building in the heart of Russian Hill.
Inside, she locked the door behind her. She kicked off her work heels and dropped her purse on the nearest chair, fishing out her phone and taking it with her to the bedroom. Using the voice commands, she called Bill while she changed clothes for the evening. Her date was taking her to some elite awards gala. He’d been dropping the names of San Francisco’s wealthiest and brightest innovators all week, to make sure she didn’t back out. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she’d already met the business rock stars on his list at one event or another.
“What are you doing calling me? You’re supposed to be off the clock,” Bill said in lieu of anything as mundane as hello. “You told me you were going on the date.”
Reporters, she’d learned from day one, were a habitually nosy lot. “I’m dressing while we speak.”
A low wolf whistle carried through the room. “Now, that’s an image.”
She laughed. He’d seen her at her best, her average and even her worst more than once when they traveled to remote locations in search of the story. Through it all, Bill had become a hybrid of friend and mentor with a side of big brother tossed in for good measure.
“You don’t scare me.” She laughed, knowing Bill was far more likely to be picturing her date. “What kind of dirt are you finding on Parker Lawton?”
“Why?” Bill asked, in a whisper. “What did he say?”
Interesting. Bill was a legend in the industry for maintaining his cool in every circumstance. Why was he nervous? “Nothing. The man has left messages for me all day that don’t say anything other than he wants to meet in person. His emails are the same. Shouldn’t he be calling you instead of me?”
Bill’s sigh filtered through the speaker.
“His assistant was a brick wall when I reached out as myself,” he said. “So I tried Lawton’s personal number. I left him a message as your assistant, saying we wanted to interview him for his perspective on the sudden rise of homegrown terrorism.”
Her hand stilled on the hanger supporting the little black dress she’d been pulling out of her closet. “That wasn’t the story we agreed to.”
“I know.” He sounded miserable. “Since he’s in the security business, it seemed more likely to get a response.”
Though she might not care for the changeup, she couldn’t fault his logic. “What else is going wrong with this story, Bill?” Warning bells were ringing in her mind, and that twitch between her shoulder blades was back. “I’m thinking we need to back off and reassess.”
“Not yet. I know we’re onto something important.”
“Where are you right now?” She swiveled around and checked the clock by her bed. Maybe they could meet and tweak the plan before her date arrived.
“Some hole-in-the-wall diner off Pier 80 waiting on Theo Manning.”
Pier 80 meant there was no chance she could get there and back, or convince her date to go by the area before the gala. “We confirmed he was the commanding officer of the team at the time, right?”
“Yes,” Bill answered.
“And he’s late?” Her intuition was humming. “That doesn’t fit my image of a CO.”
“He’s a civilian now,” Bill pointed out. “A crane operator. Late doesn’t mean he’s changed his mind about talking with me. A thousand things could have happened on the job.”
“True.” Propping her phone on the bathroom counter, she wriggled into the dress. “Tell me what you’ve found on Lawton while we wait.” Bill might be a capable grown man, but she wasn’t going to leave him sitting alone in a diner in a rough part of town until she absolutely had to end the call.
“Lawton’s finances and net worth were a big surprise.”
She unzipped her makeup bag and started adding shadow and eyeliner to go from office to gala-ready. “Is he destitute or filthy rich?”
“The latter,” Bill said. “If your definition includes newly minted billionaires,” he added in a low murmur.
Becca bobbled her mascara tube and it fell to the floor. “What?” Scrambling, she fished it out from under the counter with her toe as she kept talking. “Why did you hold on to that detail? Is private security that lucrative? Are the others rich too?”
“I didn’t lead with that tidbit because I hadn’t finished my due diligence. Security might be that lucrative. His client list is privileged.”
She snorted. “Not legally.”
“Possibly legally. At any rate, I’m still trying to find out where and when he made his fortune.”
Selling or hoarding Iraqi gold would certainly boost anyone’s bottom line, though a net worth of billions seemed unlikely when the gold had been split between six thieves. Or so the source said. Huh. Maybe the source wasn’t the victim as they’d inferred from the tip. Maybe their source was bitter about being cut out or shorted of his part of the fortune. “Send me what you have on Lawton right now and I’ll help you sort it out.”
“Your date won’t appreciate you canceling at the last minute,” he said.
“I’m not canceling,” she promised.
“Oh?” Bill chuckled. “Even better. He’ll love watching you google another man between bites of hors d’oeuvres.”
She laughed with him. Better that than letting him know how close to the mark his teasing struck. “A personal life is essential to true happiness,” she said. She’d written the reminder on a sticky note and kept it on her mirror where she could see it every morning. “Send it. I’ll sort it out after my date. We can go over everything in the morning.”
“Fine. I’ll give Mr. Former CO another fifteen minutes and then I’m bailing. I’d rather give the Lawton tree another shake anyway. Maybe money will fall on my head.”
“If he tries to bribe you, you’d better share.”
Bill laughed again. “Not a chance,” he said, and ended the call.
Bill was as effective and persistent as a bloodhound when he caught the scent of a story. Producing for him had taught her a great deal about how to piece together clues, unravel a background and identify the essential nature of what wasn’t said in an interview. She liked to believe he’d benefitted from working with her as well. She enjoyed making sure her reporters came across with compassion as well as reliable authority for the audience. Unlike many of their competitors, they never broadcast a story until they knew they had the facts, and she used her specific skills to create a show that kept viewers coming back week after week.
They were definitely onto something with this gold theft story. She added highlighter strategically around her eyes and swept a shimmery powder just above her neckline while her mind sifted through the public records and recent articles on Lawton and his business.
They’d started the research file with the obvious and easily accessible details on each of the names listed by the source. Last known addresses, employers, positive or negative publicity, etc. Returning to civilian life as a security expert wasn’t a big stretch for Lawton, who’d served in the army for twelve years. A stash of stolen gold in his pocket would have made it easier to set up shop in the Bay Area, to be sure.
She poked through her makeup bag, seeking the perfect lipstick for the evening. Finding a tube of her favorite soft peach color, she slowly dragged it over her lips. Her mind drifted to Parker Lawton’s publicity shot. His thick brown hair had plenty of waves, despite the short cut. The photographer had captured a savvy glint in those serious dark brown eyes. Considering his chiseled jawline, she figured if the man hadn’t stolen any gold, he’d definitely stolen more than one heart along the way in his thirty-two years.
Her front door buzzer sounded and she capped the tube of lipstick, dropping it into her evening clutch. Time to make another attempt at refining the rather abstract concept of her personal life. Whether or not the evening went well, it was a plus to have a hot date to an A-list party. She’d even convinced herself she wasn’t offended that her date had probably only asked her out in hopes that he’d get an inside track to her well-known father.
She opened the door without looking through the peephole and found herself face-to-face with the man she’d been daydreaming about—Parker Lawton, accused thief. For a moment she gawked at him. She decided the photographer had been a hack to only catch the glint in his eyes. The man’s allure drew her in despite his casual khaki work pants, faded blue zippered sweatshirt and black ivy cap. In her heels, she was nearly eye level with him, and the intensity in his dark chocolate gaze muddled her thoughts.
She pushed the door closed on his greeting and he stopped her, wedging his booted foot into the space. “You’re not welcome here.” She gritted her teeth and put all her weight into the effort of squishing his foot.
“Steel-toed,” he said calmly. “Can’t even feel it. I just want to talk.”
“Not tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Pardon my skepticism. You haven’t returned any of my calls or emails. Can I have five minutes?”
“No.” She shoved at the door again. “I’m on my way out.”
“With this guy?”
He stuck a cell phone through the space and showed her a picture of her date at the elevator downstairs.
“What did you do?”
“Bought myself five minutes.”
The stunt only confirmed that he was willing to fight dirty. “You have no right to be here.” She leaned into the door again, despite the lack of progress. “How did you find me?” She had an unlisted number and the apartment was rented under the network’s corporate account.
“It’s what I do,” he replied. “Look, I’ve heard someone is trying to cause trouble for me and some friends. Can you just confirm if you’re working up a story on me and the men I served with in Iraq?”
Working up a story? Her temper caught like a match to paper. They dealt with facts, not fiction. “I’m a producer, not a reporter,” she replied with the last thread of professionalism.
“Not buying the obtuse routine, red.”
Red, ha. As if he was the first to try and get away with that nickname. She was far more than the hair and freckles, and many a man had learned that the hard way. “I’ll be smarter tomorrow. At the office,” she added, clipping each syllable.
He leaned into the door, making it clear he could force his way in at any moment. “Tell me who told you to look into my team.”
“Never,” she vowed. “That’s Journalism 101, Mr. Lawton. I will not reveal a source.”
“You’re a producer, not a reporter.”
The elevator at the end of the hall chimed an arrival on her floor. “Guess your time’s up, Mr. Lawton.”
His boot was gone and without it the door snapped shut before she finished the sentence. She opened it again to find the hallway empty except for her date, striding forward with an eager smile.
Clutching her evening bag, Becca did her best to match his pleasant expression while she willed the heat of temper to fade from her cheeks. Her date chattered aimlessly as she locked her door and they walked down the hall. She slid her hand into his at the elevator, knowing Lawton had to be close. Telling herself it wasn’t misplaced paranoia didn’t change the sensation that the man was watching her. He knew where she lived and she didn’t trust him not to try something else.
She clung to the fact that soon she’d be out of his view and his reach. No sane man would dare make a move while she was with her date and surrounded by people at the awards gala. And afterward? The idea of coming home alone sent a little shiver of trepidation down her spine.
Well, she’d cross that bridge when she reached it. For now, she would focus on her personal life. Beaming a high-wattage smile at her date, she set out to enjoy the evening.
Oh, that smile on her face irked Parker. He hadn’t found anything during his recon of Rebecca Wallace, award-winning producer, that indicated a romantic attachment worthy of that heart-stopping dress and killer heels.
He waited until they were gone to move out of the alcove near the stairwell. He was an idiot for confronting her at her door. But he was getting desperate. The bizarre blackmail note had arrived yesterday, claiming media outlets had been notified last week, and granting him five days to make restitution for the gold he and his team stole from an Iraqi family or the men listed at the bottom of the single page would be killed one by one.
Theo Manning, Jeff Bruce, Franklin Toomey, Matt Donaldson and Ray Peters were more than soldiers. They were friends. The six of them shared a bond forged on several challenging assignments during Parker’s last deployment. Together they’d handled a sensitive intel-gathering mission near the Iranian border. While it might have been easy to learn they’d all served in Iraq, it shouldn’t have been as easy to connect them as part of the same team on that operation.
While they’d been deployed nearby and, through the course of the mission, had contact with the family listed as the victim, Parker and his team were innocent. None of them were thieves and he in particular had no cause to steal anything, not even back then.
He’d been ready to write off the note as a sick joke until a reporter called the office, asking for his opinion on soldiers successfully returning to civilian life. His assistant handled those comments on his behalf, as she usually did. While he was debating how to investigate the origin of the blackmail note, he’d received a call on his personal line about his opinion on locally grown terrorists. The timing was too close to be a coincidence. Someone had started snooping, and Parker needed to know who’d set them on this wild-goose chase.
Working the situation as he might do for a client, Parker scrambled to carefully reconnect with the men named in the blackmail note. He’d debated the wisdom of warning them about the note and the possibility of reporters and instead had suggested a guys’ weekend. He hadn’t seen the point in dredging up uncomfortable memories or causing worry over something that probably wouldn’t amount to anything.
Then Theo had called back, saying he’d agreed to meet with Bill Gatlin, anchor reporter for one of the top special report shows. It was the red flag Parker couldn’t ignore. He’d spent the day hustling up information on Gatlin, Wallace and the network. If other shows had the blackmailer’s tip, it seemed Wallace’s team had been the first to bite. And Theo’s name had been the first on the list.
Parker had been given five days—four now—to return gold valued at over a million dollars. No exchange details or contact information had been provided, only an assurance that Parker would know where to bring either the gold or the equivalent in US currency when it was time. Logic and history said making the payoff was a tactical error, yet Parker planned to do whatever was necessary to keep those men alive.
Having been stonewalled by Wallace’s gatekeepers at the network, he’d given up trying the polite approach. While he appreciated that they hadn’t run the story on speculation and zero evidence, he didn’t have time to play ethics games. He needed the name of the source or some clue he could follow so he could peel back the layers of anonymity and handle the jerk tossing around these outrageous, damaging allegations.
Parker lingered in the hallway, recalling his cursory searches of Rebecca Wallace and her reporter Bill Gatlin. At first glance, they were both workaholics and married to their jobs. He didn’t know where the reporter was tonight, but he knew where Wallace was not.
He’d had his boot in her doorway long enough to learn her apartment security amounted to two dead bolts and a chain. Far easier for him to bypass the locks here than get past the systems protecting her office at the network building. He strolled up to her door, pulled his lock-picking kit from the thigh pocket of his work pants and was inside in less than a minute.
A quick survey of the space told him she was tidy, she spent little time here or she had an excellent cleaning service. He roamed around, appreciating the decor and furnishings. She went for classy and practical, not overdone or overpriced. As a business owner and a building owner, he knew the going rate for a two-bedroom apartment in this area and decided producing for a popular network show must pay well.
The master bedroom felt more lived-in. Though the bed was neatly made and the closet well organized, the various notes she’d left for herself here and there, along with the overflowing laundry hamper, gave him a sense of her as a more accessible person. He couldn’t blame her for coming off as a prim snob during their tussle at the door.
The second bedroom she clearly used as a home office and guest room. He searched the desk, found an invitation to a gala that explained the little black dress, but no sign of the lead he needed. If she’d ever brought information on the bogus theft home, it wasn’t here now. Leaving the room as he’d found it, he checked the more common and uncommon places people stashed important information. Nothing. She didn’t even have a briefcase or a laptop here tonight.
On a sigh, he mentally adjusted his evening plans, knowing the next stop would need to be her office at the network. With his hands fisted in his jacket pockets, he was aimed for the front door when another idea struck. Returning to her bedroom, he found a tablet as well as an e-reader. “Yes!” he cheered softly when he opened the tablet and found her email applications were still open.
He searched through her inbox and the main folders, grumbling when he found all of his email messages moved to the trash folder. Were the days of professional courtesy gone? At least his assistant had handled the initial inquiry professionally while he was still waiting for Wallace to return his calls.
Continuing his search, he learned how she organized her files. He couldn’t find a way to access any progress they were making on the story about him and his team, but he could tell it had nothing to do with soldiers returning to civilian life.
Sitting on the blue suede bench at the end of her bed, he searched through her email folders until he found an email from the previous week with Soldiers Steal Gold in the subject line. Bingo. The email was written in a similar tone to the blackmail note Parker received. While the author of the email didn’t threaten anyone on the show, the names of those involved were the same, and listed in the same order as the note he had tucked into his wallet.
The allegations in the email were ghastly, making Parker’s skin crawl. His team had worked their mission and followed orders. The implications—with no evidence to back them up—that he and the others were corrupt, brutal thieves infuriated him. The last few lines and the unique closing really caught his attention. The writer, pleading to maintain anonymity, thanked Rebecca and Bill for their kindness and integrity during their visit to the Iraqi village where the theft allegedly occurred. He—Parker was certain the writer was a man—gave the producer’s ego another stroke by claiming Rebecca was the only person who could be trusted to handle this the right way.
The original email was bad enough, but the instructions she added when she forwarded the email to her reporter hit him like a sucker punch.
Bill, reach out to the family. Verify their safety and if/when the gold was stolen. If this is from Fadi, why would he insist on anonymity?
Parker swore. Fadi was a common name. In context with the other details laid out in the email, he couldn’t dismiss the possibility that she was referring to the same young man they’d employed as a translator when they were in that area.
Did Rebecca know who’d sent the tip raising questions and spreading rumors about his team? The way he read and reread the email, she sure suspected the tip on the theft had come from the oldest son of the victimized family. No wonder she’d avoided Parker and refused to give up her source. Hell. He wouldn’t get anywhere with her if she felt some misplaced obligation to cooperate with the person trying to discredit his team.
Well, he wasn’t leaving empty-handed. He had a better idea of where the tip originated from, which gave him a better starting point than he’d had an hour ago. After his service in Iraq, he had people he could reach out to as well. He set her tablet back to the home screen and wiped off his fingerprints before slipping it back into the bedside drawer.
After locking her front door, he let himself out of her apartment through the fire escape and headed home to work the new lead. He needed to find the show with their report from that trip to Iraq and start fitting the pieces together. When he went to her office in the morning, he would insist on hearing everything about her trip to Iraq and why she was so eager to believe the worst of him and his team.
He stalked down the street, needing to walk off the anger simmering in his system. It wouldn’t be smart to call for a car or catch a bus so close to her apartment. From his pocket, his phone rang. Seeing Theo’s name and face on the screen, he picked up immediately.
“How did things go?” he asked. There was a long pause on the other end of the line and he heard several voices in the background. “Theo?”
Parker froze. This wasn’t Theo. “Yes?”
“My apologies, sir. This is Detective Calvin Baird of the SFPD. I’m calling from Theo Manning’s phone, as we’ve just opened an investigation.”
A detective’s involvement could mean any number of new problems and most likely the work of a busy blackmailer. “What kind of investigation?” He put his back to the wall of the nearest building and studied the action around him on the street.
The detective ignored the question. “According to his phone log, you spoke with him recently.”
“That’s true.” Parker’s stomach clutched and his pulse kicked into fight mode. “Where is Theo? Can I talk to him?”
“I’m sorry to say it, but he’s dead,” Baird replied.
No. Parker couldn’t catch his breath. His hand gripped the phone hard and he slid down to land on his backside as the grief stunned him. He was on the phone with a homicide detective. What had happened to the five days the blackmailer had given him?
“Yeah.” He swallowed the emotion choking him. “I’m here. What do you know? Where is he?” Was. Theo was gone. Parker cleared his throat. “How did it happen?”
“Nine-one-one received a call about shots fired about forty minutes ago. By the time the responding officers and paramedics arrived, it was too late. I am sorry for your loss.”
“Was I the last to call him?”
“According to his phone log, you were one of two people trying to reach him.”
“Who was the other?”
“I’m not ready to comment on that yet,” Baird said. “I just arrived on the scene and we have very little to go on right now. Do you have time to come by the Bayview Police Station tomorrow morning? I should have more details for you by then.”
Bayview? That hardly narrowed it down. The large district covered the port where Theo worked along with the southeastern part of the city. “Yes, of course.” Parker knew the drill. If he wasn’t a suspect, he was a person of interest. Unfortunately, his alibi was best not confirmed, since it involved his harassing a woman followed by breaking and entering.
“Hang on a second,” Parker interrupted. “You mentioned gunshots. How did Theo die?”
“It’s too soon for the coroner’s report,” the detective hedged.
Parker stood up, pulled himself together and applied the tone he’d once used to lead others in and out of harrowing conflicts. “He was my CO and a friend. What appears to be the cause of death, in your opinion?”
“Unofficially, sir, I’d blame the two bullets in the back of his head.”
Parker’s vision hazed red. Assassination less than twenty-four hours after he’d reached out to Theo. If the blackmailer thought this would motivate him to cooperate, to pay a debt he didn’t owe, he was mistaken.
“Officers are canvassing the area for witnesses,” Baird continued. “I’m hoping for a better picture of what happened by morning.”
“No signs of a struggle?”
“Not at first glance, but we are in an alley.”
Parker cringed at the image. “Thank you, Detective. I’ll come by your office first thing in the morning.” Tonight he had more work to do. He took another minute after the call ended to say a prayer for Theo. Real grieving required time he didn’t have right now.
The blackmail note taunted him. Why ransom his team for gold they’d never stolen and then ignore the timeline? Something was off, and he intended to figure it out before anyone else on that list got hurt.