A big, burly man with a bald head and skull earring hanging off of one ear finally answers our knock and shares a head nod with Finn before opening the door wider and letting us in.
“Miss Carlysle, it’s good to see you again,” the man says, his voice pleasant and soft and the complete opposite of his appearance.
“Thank you, Bones. It’s good to see you too. Is the band already here?” I ask as we step through the door and follow him down a long, dark hallway.
“Yep, already setting up on stage. Some dude who said he was with security just got here a few minutes ago too. Name’s Brady. He’s on the list your mom gave me so I let him in already. He’s sitting in the back row.”
I thank Bones and Finn shares a handshake with him after he escorts us to the back stage area where I can already hear my bass player running through the scales and my drummer warming up with basic rudiments.
“Oh goody, Brady’s here!” I exclaim to Finn with fake enthusiasm.
“Don’t even try to pretend like the idea of him sitting there in the dark, in the very back row, with his face all broody and stubbly doesn’t get your panties all in a bunch.”
Finn gets a punch in the arm for that comment and my middle finger in his face before I walk away from him and up the stairs leading to the stage to warm up my voice and try NOT to think about the man at the back of the auditorium, watching my every move, and wondering if he’s the enemy.
Like nails on a fucking chalkboard.
This music is going to drive me right back to drinking, I swear to Christ. All of this techno-electric shit is giving me a headache. Whatever happened to just sitting down at a microphone with an acoustic and a kick ass drummer?
Even though my ears are bleeding with all the synthesizing going on and the top forty, cheesy lyrics, I can’t help but notice how amazing Layla looks on stage. She lights up the whole damn place as she rocks her hips to the beat and struts back and forth from one end of the stage to the other, making sure to use up all available space so the audience who will see her tonight will get their money’s worth. Her choreographed moves are sensual without being over the top and fun without being too campy. I can tell they’ll be just enough to get the younger members of the audience excited and have them jumping in unison with her while the older male members, probably forced to bring their daughters to the concert, wish they knew what she looked like naked. She’s the perfect blend of entertaining and hot on stage.
Too bad she doesn’t look like she’s enjoying one minute of it. The band has just finished their eighth song in the set, and even sitting in the very last row in the twenty-thousand-seat arena so I can observe unnoticed, I can tell she dislikes every minute.
Why the hell is she doing it then?
Pulling out my cell phone, I send a text to Gwen asking her to look into every record she can find, public or private, about Layla Carlysle and her entourage, specifically Finn Michaelson and her mother. I want to see if any of them have a history of making up stories or hey, even stalking. I don’t care if Finn pestered his sixth grade girlfriend with love notes; I want to know about it. I’m still not sure I completely believe that Layla has any kind of a deranged person after her since she’s only received a few notes so far and no real threats have been made, but it’s better to be safe than story. More often than not though, these rich assholes feel the need to invent drama when there isn't any, just to put the spotlight back on them. With the amount of enthusiasm I’ve seen on Layla’s face today, I’m going to guess the little princess is just board as fuck and needs some excitement in her life.
I’m still getting paid, so it’s no skin off my back, but she damn well better not be wasting my time just to give herself a little thrill. There are plenty of other ways I could give that blonde beauty a thrill, and it would involve less time researching and more time with her skirt up around her hips and moans floating past those full lips of hers.
Focus, Brady. Jesus, it’s like you’ve never seen a hot chick before.
I really need to get laid. I need a mindless fuck to get this thing, whatever it is, out of my system. I don't need any type of distraction on a job, even if it is a pointless waste of my time. Distractions only get the people around you killed.
“I need an ETA on SEAL team four. They were supposed to touch base at twenty-one hundred. I’ve had nothing but radio silence from them, over,” I spoke softly into my earpiece as I rounded the corner of one of the villas, my gun drawn.
Garrett couldn’t find Parker and his worry and anger about that situation had transferred to me. I shouldn’t have left them with Milo. Even though I called it in, and was assured they had cover, I still had an uneasy feeling when I walked away from the three of them. Parker could be anywhere right now having God knows what done to her. I knew she was a pretty bad ass CIA agent, but anyone can be broken.
I switched channels on my wireless mic and tried contacting the back-up SEAL team again. Earlier, distracted by what was going on with Parker, I had rattled off coordinates to the south side of the resort for Captain Risner to give them so they could touch down and start their own clearing of the area to eliminate any threats. I didn’t have time to clear the area ahead of time, but I figured it didn’t matter in a resort this size; they’d be okay no matter where they landed. They were SEALS for Christ’s sakes. They knew how to do their job without me babysitting them.
“Dragon, King, Maxwell. One of you assholes come in, over.”
I moved beyond the last villa in the row and headed towards an outcropping of palm trees and other exotic foliage that made up a good couple of acres of ground cover—the perfect place for someone to hide.
Ignoring the silence in my ear, I bent down to a crouch and slowly inched my way into the tropical forest, using the small tactical flashlight on the barrel of the gun to light my way, moving it from left to right as I checked for threats.
A few feet into the brush, my foot smacked against something on the ground. I whipped my gun and flashlight down and my eyes landed on a boot. A Navy SEAL issued, black, hot weather jungle boot.
“Oh Jesus. Fuck! God dammit, Garrett! Why the fuck did you come out here alone?” I moaned to myself in horror as my flashlight and gun slowly made its way up the woodland-camouflaged pant leg and across the torso bearing the same patterned T-shirt. Then I reached the face.
King, not Garrett.
It was King’s pale face and lifeless eyes that stared up at the Dominican night sky. It was King’s forehead that bore a bloody hole—a kill shot that took his life the instant it was fired. Jared King: a thirty-year-old husband and father who made us all laugh constantly back at the academy with his actor impersonations and shitty karaoke skills.
A pain shot through my chest when I realized the main emotion I felt right now was relief that it wasn’t Garrett on the ground, and I instantly felt guilty. King was a friend. A good friend. One with a new baby at home that he showed everyone pictures of before they even asked.
I pushed aside every emotion inside of me, erecting a wall to block them out, and continued with the job. It was only one person. He knew the risks when he signed on to be a SEAL. There were still two more men on his team that I needed to find and get them the fuck out of this ambush.
Stepping over the body, I continued on, pushing palm leaves and wildlife out of my way. Just three meters later, the wall came crashing down when I found Dragon and Maxwell in almost the exact same positions as King: unmoving eyes, chests still from taking their last breaths, and a gunshot wound blossoming from between their eyes.
I should have researched the location better before I gave them the coordinates. I should have made sure the area was clear before I dropped them down right in the middle of a trap. They trusted me to lead them into a safe area, and I led them right into hell. I was going to have to tell their wives, girlfriends, and mothers it was my rash decision to get them here as soon as possible for back-up, so Garrett and I could find Parker, that got them killed. They would never celebrate another anniversary with the women they loved, never hug their mother on her birthday, never watch their children grow up.
I knew better than that. I knew not to let anything distract me from a mission.
I blink a few times and shake the dark memory from my mind, forcing myself to remember that I'm not in the tropical landscape of the Dominican anymore. The sudden quiet from the stage brings me back to reality, and I watch as Layla, with her back to the seats, speaks softly to her band members. After a few minutes, she turns and makes her way back up to center stage, pushing the microphone she’s been holding into the mic stand. The drummer counts off with a few smacks of his drum sticks together, and the lead guitarist jumps in with a slow, soulful sound. This isn’t the music I’ve been listening to for the last hour. This song isn’t something made just to shake your ass to. It’s heartfelt and gentle. I watch as Layla stands with one arm behind her back and the other gripping the microphone on the stand tightly. Her eyes close as she starts to sing the first verse. Her voice still has the typical pop music feel that the rest of her songs do, but there is a little more added in—a little more feeling, a little more belief in what she’s singing about: a love gone wrong, regrets, and mistakes. It’s a good song as far as this kind of music goes. It’s not something I would blast in my car, but I wouldn’t make the effort to change the channel if it happened to come on.
Halfway through the chorus, the sound of high heels echo through the arena as Eve marches from the right side of the stage. The floor microphones pick up each click and clack as she walks with purpose directly up to Layla. The band tapers off when they see their boss in front of them, but Layla, with her eyes closed, continues to belt out a few more lyrics until she finally realizes the band isn’t backing her up anymore. The two women stare at each other for several minutes before I hear Eve ask the band to give them a few moments. Without hesitation, everyone puts their instruments down and hustle off stage left.
I lean forward in my seat, resting my elbows on my knees so I can concentrate on what’s going to happen next. I’m sure it’s going to be your typical manager/client pep talk or some shit, but I’m still on the clock and might as well watch the two women and how they interact so I can get a better feel for them.
Eve glances around the stage and arena, making sure everyone is gone, before she starts to speak. Thank God I’m far away and hidden in the dark seats where they haven’t turned the lights on yet.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Eve asks Layla angrily.
“I’m warming up, just like you told me to,” Layla replies in a monotone voice, her face blank, not giving away any emotions.
“That song is not on the set list and you know it.”
Eve crosses her arms in front of her and takes on look of authority. Layla finally removes her hand from the mic, dropping both of her arms down to her sides, and I can hear her deep, frustrated sigh through the sound system.
“I know it’s not on the list, but it’s a song from the new album, and I think the fans will want to hear it,” she explains softly.
“I don’t give a shit what you think. You don’t get any thoughts when it comes to this. You sing the fun, upbeat songs you’re supposed to and that’s it. The only reason that song even made it to the album is because Sam wrote it and he demanded credit for it.”
I can practically see the smoke coming out of Layla’s ears when Eve tells her that last part. I have to admit, now I’m invested in this conversation, and I can’t pull myself away even if the building goes up in flames.
“He wrote that song? Tell me you’re kidding. You told me you hired a songwriter to give me a song with a different kind of vibe to switch things up a bit,” Layla states with barely concealed fury, a quiver in her voice giving her away.
“It doesn’t matter what I told you. I don’t need to explain myself to anyone, especially you. What I do is no concern of yours. You screwed everything up when you left Sam. You owed him a little something, even if it was just singing one of his songs on the album,” Eve tells her, pointing her finger in Layla’s face to make her point known.
“I don’t owe him ANYTHING and you know it. You let me give him everything, and it was all just a joke,” Layla fires back.
“Oh, don’t kid yourself.” Eve laughs cruelly. “You didn’t give him anything. You have nothing to give anyone. I should have known better than to try and do something nice for you. You have absolutely no redeeming qualities to make ANY man happy. God knows you’ve done nothing but make my life miserable for twenty-four years.”
Jesus Christ. This woman makes Joan Crawford look like a fucking saint.
“Keep your trivial opinions to yourself and do as your fucking told. Sing the set list I gave you.”
Layla doesn’t have any more fiery comebacks for her mother after her last parting remark as she stands with her shoulders drooped and watches Eve turn and walk away with her head held high.
If that bitch was my mother I would tell her exactly where to go and even buy her a fucking express ticket to get her there faster.
“What in the hell was that?” I mutter to myself as I continue to stare at Layla down on stage. She looks nothing like the diva with an attitude I witnessed earlier and everything like a puppy that was just kicked in the teeth.
“Shocking, isn’t it?”
The quiet voice directly behind me has me tensing my shoulders and spinning around in a protective stance with my fists clenched at my side calculating the threat and waiting to strike.
“Whoa, easy there, rough rider. It’s just me,” Finn says with a smile, his hands held up in the air like I have a gun pointed at him. He’s lucky it’s down in my ankle holster or I would have already had it pressed underneath his chin, threatening his pretty face.