Book 4 in the Games People Play Series
Salvation, Pennsylvania. The commune located in the small town was advertised as a modern Utopia: a place to live, share, and learn with other like-minded young people. Cate Pendleton’s sister was one of them. Now she’s dead—and Cate won’t rest until she finds out who killed her. Stonewalled at every turn, she approaches a DC Fixer for help and ends up with Damon Knox, a mysterious man with a secretive past. But Cate soon discovers that she not only needs Damon, she wants him, which isn’t good—for the attraction brewing between them will only lead to complications that can turn into danger . . .
Damon has tried to erase the hellish memories and the evil that happened in Salvation ever since he left a long time ago. Still, he can’t turn his back on Cate. As Damon works with Cate to uncover her sister’s killer, he finds himself drawn to her more and more. But how will she feel about him when she learns about his connection to the place?
Joining forces to uncover the truth, they must stay one step ahead of a cunning killer who’s bent on not being exposed.
Book 4 in the Games People Play Series
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Cate Pendleton dumped her grocery bags on the kitchen counter and glanced around the living room area of her small one-bedroom condo. Flattened pillows. Magazines spread across the coffee table. A blanket in a ball on the floor from where it slipped off her last night while she watched television. The remote stuffed between cushions.
Everything was exactly where she left it when she took off on her store run an hour ago. But something struck her as off. She felt it rather than saw it. A violation of her scared space. A lingering menace. The sensation of unknown hands skimming over her things. A shiver skated through her at the thought.
With her keys sticking between her fingers like a weapon, she walked around the condo, peeking in the closet and looking inside the bedroom. The journey ended back here she started. She approached the couch nice and slow. She listened for footsteps, but the only sound came from the hiss of her clunky, usually-malfunctioning icemaker.
She leaned toward the cushions, just a bit, and sniffed. There it was. Aftershave. Faint, but present. Since a man hadn’t been in the condo for weeks the smell was out of place. And this was not the first time this had happened. She came home two days ago to the same scent. A mix of musk and orange. The last time it happened in the evening. This time in the morning.
On that first day, she found her patio door unlocked. Living in a city, she didn’t take her personal safety for granted. Being two floors up, tucked behind rows of government buildings and a few blocks back from the National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C., she kept her guard up. The neighborhood served as home to many congressional staffers. Traffic, both human and the car variety, moved in a steady beat. But she knew better than to assume everything was fine. She locked her doors. All of them and all the time, but someone got in.
A punch of awareness moved though her as she brushed her fingertips over the arm of the chair. The idea of someone snooping through her stuff, standing in her space, made her gag. Last time nothing was stolen, so she skipped calling the police with that fear. Wrote the whole thing off as faulty memory. She knew something strange had happened, but she blocked it and pretended otherwise. But this was different. From the first whiff of that cologne, the trembling started deep down in her stomach, spun up to her head and would not stop.
She forced her mind to focus. Someone kept getting in without leave much of a trail. They didn’t stick around, and for that she was grateful. Nothing stolen. Not obviously, anyway.
Her sister. That’s what this had to be about. Cate thought back to the last six weeks and all the ground she’d covered. She poked around, asked uncomfortable questions and clearly upset someone. She got too close, which was exactly her plan. Maybe she uncovered some piece of information she hadn’t realized yet. But she would.
If someone broke in thinking they’d figure out her strategy or grab every lead she’d collected, they miscalculated. No way would she make it that easy for anyone to destroy her work or derail her.
After the first time this happened, she called the police but that led nowhere. A second call likely would end the same way. They would ignore her, write her off as the crazy one with the dead sister. Add to that her complaint wouldn’t pinpoint any clear evidence. This was about a sense of a presence, of being spooked, and she would become the new lunchtime story for the officers.
But she knew. He had been there. He or she. The person knew how to get in and was playing with her. The next time she might come home too soon.
Despite her worries and the downsides, she picked up the phone and dialed the one person who might be able to help her, the mysterious D.C. fixer. The guy no one ever saw who went by one name – Wren.
“What are you doing here?” Damon Knox stepped up to the foul line in his slouchy navy blue sweats and took a shot. The ball bounced off the rim and close enough for him to run it down again.
“Waiting in the middle of a YMCA gym, watching one of my closest friends drown in self-pity,” Wren said from his seat on the bottom row of the bleachers.
Damon refused to fight with Wren because Wren was not a man who lost very often, if ever. Known by different names to different people, he’d always be Levi Wren to Damon.
They came from different places and met in their twenties when they both believed they were out of options – him on the run and Wren looking for revenge. They’d been taken in by Quint, a former undercover operative, a man who trained them and three others. Coached them on how to shoot, how to set fires and not get caught, how to hide, and then he taught them that all of those skills, while helpful, ended in jail or a death sentence. He encouraged them to funnel their anger into legal pursuits. To learn other skills. Wren did and was now the elusive, mostly anonymous fixer that every rich person and government turned to for help.
But Damon wasn’t in the mood for a walk down Memory Lane. He didn’t want to talk about any subject, really. Just wanted to shoot some hoops in peace. “If you’re here and not at your desk it must be a slow day for trouble in D.C.”
“There’s no such thing.” Wren leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees. “I had to wander outside because you’ve been ignoring me.”
“Apparently not hard enough.” The basketball bouncing off the rim echoed the sentiment. Hell, he could not even hit a foul shot these days. When everything went wrong, it went really wrong.
Wren blew out an exaggerated breath. One that said he was already bored the conversation wasn’t going his way. “As if I’d take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“I believe my exact response to your summons was ‘kiss my ass’ but the result is the same.” Damon took a good look at his friend. So much had changed in the guy’s life over the past year, but he still managed to be the most well-dressed, put-together person in the room. “Nice suit, by the way.”
“Grown-ups wear them.” Wren groaned as he got up but since he had just turned thirty-five, the noise likely meant he was annoyed.
“Interesting life advice. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“We need to talk about–”
“Nope.” Damon slammed the ball against the court as hard as he could. The loud thud before it soared into the air filled him with an odd satisfaction.
Wren caught it and threw it back to Damon. “What kind of answer is that?”
“The same one I gave on the phone.”
“You do realize I’m standing right here.” Wren held his arms out to his sides, showing off that expensive black suit.
“Tough to miss you with that fancy green tie.” But Damon noticed something else – the file in Wren’s hand.
“Then you also know that I’ll keep hunting you down until we have a civilized conversation.”
Damon balanced the ball under his arm and studied one of the handful of people he trusted in the world. “Let’s do the abbreviated version. You want me to work for you again and the answer is no.”
“This is your mess.”
“Hardly.” A door opened behind them, grabbing both of their attention, then closed again without anyone stepping inside. “Speaking of hunting, how did you find me? Please say you haven’t put a tracker on me.”
Wren snorted. “Come on. I stopped using trackers on my friends two years ago. Now I serve you irradiated liquor when you come to my house and keep tabs on you that way.”
Damon looked for signs of amusement but didn’t really see any. “From anyone else I’d think that was a joke. From D.C.’s mysterious big-time, powerful fixer? Who the hell knows.”
“You’re trying flattery to throw me off topic?”
“Is it working?”
“Never.” Wren took the opportunity to reach in and steal the ball.
Damon didn’t fight him, because why bother. “Tell me why Emery stays with you.”
Emery Finn, the woman who had Wren turned around and thinking about walking down the aisle. She’d chased her own demons, and dealt with a huge load of family dysfunction, but she calmed Wren. Made him happy, and that’s all that mattered to Damon.
Wren smiled. “I have no idea but I’m not questioning my luck.”
The no-shit expression on Wren’s face made Damon laugh. “One of these days you’ll be smart enough to ask her to marry you.”
“It’s amazing to me that all of you guys, my supposed friends, think I haven’t tried to nail marriage down. Last time I mentioned the possibility she held up her hand and said, ‘we’ll see’ and then gave me a lecture about how I needed to be less controlling.”
Damon could almost hear her voice. “I love her.”
“That makes two of us.” Wren set the ball on the floor and held it there with his foot. “And nice try at re-directing the conversation.”
“It was worth a shot.” Damon knew it wouldn’t work. Not with Wren. He was not a man who ever got knocked off stride.
Wren glanced at the basket. “Better than your foul shots.”
“You try, old man.”
“We’re basically the same age.” Wren swore under his breath when Damon continued to stand there, not saying a word, then he picked up the basketball again. “Fine.”
Stepping up to the line, Wren aimed and sank the shot. Despite the suit jacket and no warm-up, he sank it. It never touched the rim. Figured. There was little this guy couldn’t do.
Damon watched the ball bounce until it rolled to a stop against the wall. “Impressive.”
“I have many skills.”
“I know. We spent years training together, remember?”
“Damon, we can go round and round here but the result will be the same. You can’t outrun this.” Wren picked the file off the court and held it out to Damon. “Take it.”
Nothing piqued Damon’s interest like a mystery that needed solving, but he held firm. “You underestimate me, my friend.”
Wren hummed. “This is about Sullivan.”
The mention of The Sullivan School sent Damon’s heartrate speeding off at a gallop. His past tied him to the people and the land…and the horror he barely escaped. But if he jumped even a little Wren would be all over him, so Damon forced his voice to remain flat and he did not reach for the folder. “Not interested.”
“They’re coming after her.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about and I’m not asking for details. I don’t want to know anything.” And that was an understatement. If the thought caught hold in his mind, if he read and wanted to read more, he was a goner. He’d step in, and that could not happen.
Wren had tried to lay out some of the facts in his call. One mention of the school and Damon’s mind had blanked. This strange echoing started in his ears, blocking out all sound. Now he knew one more fact. A woman needed help. Wren knew just the right thing to say to entice him.
Wren shook his head. “They will not let this drop.”
“Of course not. That’s what they do. Intimidate people into bolting…or worse.”
“You’re going to let an innocent woman get trapped by those monsters?” Wren asked, pushing that guilt button a second time.
That time the punch hit hitter. “Don’t do that.”
Damon had to clamp down on the need to ask questions, to want to run in and help. The idea of anyone being hunted, man or woman, started a ball of anxiety spinning in his stomach. Something about a woman thrown into the role of survivor due to the school kicked up his protective instincts. And Wren knew him well enough to know that.
“I can give you details,” Wren said.
“I’m not listening.” But he was. Damon’s mind already started setting out a plan to get back in and help this woman – whoever she was – out again. At least that’s what he assumed the problem was. Another person who thought the School sounded good, got sucked in and trapped. The pattern had repeated itself so many times over the years, despite all the news coverage from thirteen years ago.
“You are and you know I’m right.” Wren continued to hold out the file with a steady hand.
“I’m not taking it. Shred it for all I care.”
“Cate Pendleton,” Wren said, rattling off facts.
Damon wouldn’t forget her name now, which he guessed was the point. He’d have to beat back the urge to do a simple internet search for more information. “You’re not going to stop with this, are you?”
“What do you think?”
The guy was relentless. Damon grabbed the file but didn’t open it. “What did she do to piss someone off?”
“She went to Salvation, Pennsylvania. Your hometown.”
Damn. “Most inappropriately named place ever.”
“She’s looking for her sister’s killer.”