A week after his eighteenth birthday, Stevie legally changed his last name to Radcliffe and left the Kentucky backwater town, never looking back. With the stash of money he’d earned from the few folks around town who would even hire a Radgetz to do their odd jobs, Steven Radcliffe made his way to California. A high-priced set of forged high-school transcripts and an honest college entrance exam score had enabled him to enroll at the University of California at Berkeley. Part-time jobs, a few of them unsavory, supported him in the lifestyle he’d dreamed of having. While the federal government funded his education with loans and grants, the college housed him first in a dorm and then in a frat house. He’d despised most of his frat brothers, with their spoiled ways and overindulgent parents. He wasn’t stupid, however, and kept his disdain to himself while making the necessary contacts he knew he’d one day need to get his foot in the door of the life he so desperately craved. A life filled with wealth, position, and above all, respect.
His plan had been so simple, and was executed with ease. Any and all traces of dirty little Stevie Radgetz no longer existed. He’d gotten his first step in politics thanks to the father of one of his frat brothers, who’d introduced him to an up-and-coming politician. Steve made a name for himself in the political arena, but he never did have the desire to run for office himself. He was better suited behind the scenes, where the deal-making took place, where the real power lay. Which was why one of the most revered senators on the hill, Senator Martin Phipps, an arrogant, pompous bastard, came to him to replace his former aide, the late Roland Santiago. And why Steve was immediately called upon to clean up a very ugly mess.
The senator would trample his own grandmother if it meant getting ahead, and that suited Steve just fine. Hell, he’d even provide the running shoes, for the simple fact that when Phipps rose in power, Steve’s own power and value increased. He liked that. A lot.
Quietly closing the door to his elegantly appointed office, he headed down the silent corridor to Phipps’s office. Steve had news to impart, but he’d wisely waited until the offices were deserted, lest anyone overhear what he had to say.
The door stood ajar. Steve knocked once, stepped inside without waiting for an invitation and closed the door behind him. Phipps unnecessarily waved him in, said goodbye to his current mistress and hung up the phone.
“Rumor has it the president is going to announce the first appointment Monday morning,” Steve said without preamble. Phipps liked getting straight to the point, while Steve always preferred a subtle approach. Shifting gears was as easy as playing to the senator’s arrogance. Steve excelled in both.
Phipps stood and crossed the lush, jewel-toned Oriental rug to the carved armoire on the opposite end of the office. Keeping his back to Steve, he poured himself a Scotch, neat. “How much truth do you believe is behind the rumor?”
Steve carefully sat in the leather wing chair. “My source in the White House is extremely reliable.”
“Good,” Phipps said with a nod. He turned and smoothed his salt-and-pepper hair with his free hand, then grinned like the Cheshire cat. “I’ve been invited to Justice Elliot’s farewell dinner. Beautifully ironic, wouldn’t you say?”
“Only if the president appoints Galloway and Boswell to the bench once Middleton steps down,” Steve reminded him. He felt confident the president would appoint the two federal appellate court judges to the bench of the United States Supreme Court. He also knew Phipps believed he held in his hands the power that would enable him to convince his fellow senators on the judiciary committee to vote in favor of the appointments. The truth was much more complicated.
“He will,” Phipps answered arrogantly. “First Galloway, and then Boswell in a few months, once Middleton announces his retirement.”
“If Middleton announces his retirement before the end of the session,” Steve corrected.
Phipps ignored that comment. He moved from the armoire and propped his hip on the corner of his large oak desk. At sixty-two, Phipps was still athletically built and kept his body in shape. He worked out daily and was still as fit as he’d been during his years as the star quarterback at Texas A&M, followed by a brief stint in the pros.
Phipps’s vibrant blue eyes filled with confident arrogance. “They not only share the same party affiliation, but they openly supported the president’s platform during the last election. With everyone focusing on the abortion issue again, they’re the perfect choice.”
“You’re very certain of this.”
“I’d bet your career on it, Radcliffe.”
No doubt he would, Steve thought. Phipps never had any trouble getting what he wanted. Steve saw to it.
Phipps took a drink of the Scotch, then asked, “What else is on your mind, Radcliffe?”
Steve leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. “We’ve had a breach,” he said, watching Phipps’s expression intently. Confidence fled from the older man’s eyes, replaced by a flash of fear, followed by anger.
“When?” the senator demanded.
“About a month ago.”
“A month?” he roared.
“And why am I only just hearing of it?” Phipps lowered his voice.
“I only learned of it myself. I had a dinner meeting tonight with—”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass who you broke bread with,” Phipps snapped. “What went wrong that we weren’t notified immediately?”
Steve straightened. He’d expected the senator to be angry, but the fear in his eyes had taken him off guard. But then, when someone was trying to upset the balance of the Supreme Court, he suspected a little fear should be involved. The senator had a lot to lose. So did Steve, which was why he’d make sure the truth would never be leaked.
“Whoever did it was good,” he told the senator. “We think it was a professional. He knew where to look and how to cover his tracks.”
Phipps rose and started to pace. “Do you think it was him?”
“It’s entirely possible, but I have my doubts.”
“He would’ve made a move by now if it’d been him.”
Phipps let out a sigh. “We need to move first, before he does. Bring him out in the open, Radcliffe. You know what you need to do. It’s time.”
“Yes, Senator. I’ll handle it.” Steve stood and immediately headed for the door. He didn’t have time to waste. He had another life to destroy.
TAKING THE HARD VINYL chair Jared indicated, Peyton sat at the round table in the far corner of the motel room and quickly surveyed her surroundings, surreptitiously searching for a means of escape. Her only hope was the bathroom, but from the brief glimpse she’d had when Jared flipped on the lights, she couldn’t be sure if it even had a window. There had to be, she thought. Considering Jared had to have made getting out of places in a hurry his number one priority, she couldn’t imagine him holing up without an alternate means of escape.
At least the place was clean, if a strong disinfectant smell was any indication. Although dull from years of wear and tear, the multicolored shag carpet was well maintained. Thankfully, she hadn’t noticed a single critter scurrying from the light, either. Not that she cared one way or another, because she had no intention of staying.
The fact that he’d kidnapped her by disposable lighter, rather than gunpoint, reassured her to some small degree that regardless of all the tough talk, he didn’t plan to hurt her. Still, a part of her wasn’t quite so confident. In the hard man currently holding her captive, she barely recognized the Jared she’d known. Gone was the smooth, polished federal agent with a promising career ahead of him. A fugitive she barely recognized remained, one accused of a brutal double murder.
Only memories existed now. Memories better left alone if she planned to maintain emotional distance.
She watched him as he secured the door, then peered through a crack in the draperies to the parking lot they’d left only moments ago.
“So what do you plan on doing with me now that you’ve got me here?” She touched the tabletop with the tips of her fingers. When they didn’t stick to the surface, she crossed her arms and leaned against the imitation wood grain. “If it’s ransom money you’re looking for, forget it. I’m practically broke.”
He made a noise that could have been a grunt of disagreement. As if the security bar and dead bolt weren’t enough, he slid one of the vinyl chairs beneath the knob and wedged it against the door.
“Jared? Are you going to tell me what’s going on? I’d like to be home before midnight, if you don’t mind.”
He turned to face her. In the soft buttery glow of the lamplight, she finally saw him clearly. Unable to help herself, she stared in utter fascination. His dark mink-colored hair, always kept short, now brushed his collar, the perfect accompaniment to the faded jeans and worn denim shirt that stretched across his broad shoulders. There was that slight graying at his temples that conflicted with the rebel look, adding a distinguished quality that most men wouldn’t see until their mid-forties or later. He was about twenty pounds thinner than she remembered, but from the way the jeans and shirt clung to his body, she suspected he was no less muscular. Maybe even more so.
Much to her surprise, she realized she longed to see the hint of mischief that had once filled his green eyes, along with the lopsided grin she could never resist. If she could catch just a trace of the old Jared, then maybe the past three years would all seem like a bad dream.
She gave herself a hard mental shake. The past could not be changed. Hadn’t she learned that lesson time and again throughout her life? Reality stood before her, changed and unfamiliar. She might not like what he’d become, but the hardness she sensed had always lurked beneath the surface was now more apparent than ever before. He’d been an FBI agent, one of the best. An agent didn’t regularly handle Black Ops or deep-cover assignments by not residing at the top of the pyramid. So what if his eyes looked her up and down now with glacial hardness? It made no difference to her whatsoever, even if it did make him even more handsome than she remembered. They were no longer simpatico. The part of her that had clung to the dream of happily-ever-after had died the day he turned his back on everything good and right.
Too bad none of her arguments could change one little fact of life—Jared Romine would always be able to turn her head.
As if he hadn’t heard her questions or demands, he left his post by the door and crossed the room toward her.
“Jared. I want to go home,” she repeated when he pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and tossed it on the nightstand along with her keys.
He looked at her over his shoulder. “Sweetheart, you can’t go home. It’s too dangerous.”