Family is everything.
No one knows that better than Carson, Matt and Nathalie. Through trials, and hardships, unwavering love and devotion, they’ve built a solid family unit. But Matt longs for a reunion with his estranged family.
A family in need.
In spite of the pain his sister put him through, Matt agrees to help his sister with a potentially ugly custody battle. Meanwhile Carson struggles to keep both Matt and Nathalie safe from Black Hemlock and anew more potential dangerous foe.
With every family there are secrets and hidden truths and buried lies. And lies, even those of omission, can destroy.
Contains strong language, violence, and explicit descriptions of sex. Contains BDSM elements. Also contains sensitive material which may trigger some readers.
Family is everything. Nathalie Varner worried her lower lip as she stared at the dark, muted oil painting depicting a multigenerational family around a long wooden dining table. She shrugged and carefully draped a padded blanket over the somber scene.
“Not exactly something you hang over the fireplace,” she stated in a faint French accent.
“My client is very interested in acquiring a home for it,” the sallow-complexed man explained. “I understand you can facilitate this.”
Nathalie pursed her lips.
“You’ll facilitate him and his client’s occupation of a prison cell,” a chipper baritone quipped.
“And what would be your client’s rate of acquisition?” Nathalie responded.
“Her accent makes me hard,” smooth velvet whispered in her ear. “Do that voice when we do our next scene.”
“Une moment s’il vous plait.” Nathalie picked up the cell phone from the desk. “I just need to verify the amount my client has authorized.” If she couldn’t speak, she could at least text them her answer.
‘Knock it off, you pervs.”
“My client wants ten million euros for this project.”
Nathalie lifted a brow.
“Mais oui,” she said. “My client is agreeable to your price.”
The man removed a slip of paper from his pocket and slid it across the desk.
“Please transfer the funds into that account. Once I have confirmation, I will leave the painting and the office.”
She nodded and lifted the paper.
“I gotcha, baby girl,” velvet smoke said. The earlier jocularity was gone and the voices in her ear were all business.
“Sterling is waiting in the office. Cops will apprehend our friend once he leaves.”
Nathalie picked up her phone and typed. “You should receive notification any moment.”
“Ten million euros from the bank of bullshit,” velvet smoke said. “Hitting the account now.”
As he said the last word, a muted ding filled the silence.
The man extracted his phone. With a smile he stood and offered his hand. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
Nathalie stood and clasped his hand. He jerked her forward as he whipped out a gun and placed it to her temple.
“I’m revising the terms of our agreement. I’m leaving with the painting.”
“Merde,” she swore.
“Do you understand?”
Slowly, she nodded. “Oui. You take the painting and the money, and you won’t shoot me.” She held his gaze. “And what should I tell my client about his ten million euros?”
“That’s your problem. Now don’t move.”
Nathalie tensed, waiting for the right moment. As soon as he released her hand, and shifted to grab the painting, she sprang into action.
She knocked his gun arm away as she grabbed his tie and jerked him face forward into the desk.
The gun went off so close to her face, heat singed her cheek and she was momentarily deafened by the blast. Still holding his wrist, she brought his hand down hard on the corner of the desk. He howled in pain and released the gun.
When he lifted his face, she jabbed him. His eyes rolled in the back of his head, and he sank to the floor like wet clothes.
Police, led by Sterling True, rushed in with guns drawn. Sterling stepped toward her. She shook her head, and pointed to the heap on the floor. She waved them aside, picked up the painting and walked out.
Ears ringing, she walked down the hall, entered a stairwell and walked down two flights. Voices buzzed in her head, but they were distant and indistinct. She exited the stairwell on the ground floor, walked to the end of the wide corridor. Once there, she entered the offices of True Detective Agency.
Two men, one with close cropped hair and a scowl, the other with shoulder-length dreads and dimples, surged toward her. She held up a hand to keep them in place.
“I got the painting,” she said, placing the blanket-wrapped portrait on the desk. She looked from one to the other. “You’re lucky I can read lips, cause my ears are still ringing from the gunshot.”
Mattia Bianchi was the first to reach her. “Are you okay?” His eyes, an intense blue, were clouded with concern. He looked over his shoulder. “We shouldn’t have let her go in alone. Didn’t I tell you one of us should’ve been there?”
Carson, the other man, slowly stood. He too wore concern. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head. “Ears are ringing.” Even to her, her voice sounded overly loud.
Matt held her chin and tilted her face from one side to the other. “She’s flash burned.”
She’d have pulled away from him, but he tightened his hold. “My ears hurt more than my face,” she stated.
“Stop yelling,” Carson told her, opening a first-aid kit.
She removed the earbud from her ear; yawning to clear some of the fog. It helped. At least now she could hear, even if the voices seemed faraway.
Matt continued to examine her even as Carson applied a soothing salve to her cheek.
“The comm helped protect some of your hearing,” he explained. “Let us know if your ears are still ringing later.”
She’d have rolled her eyes at their overprotectiveness, but she understood. Neither man was at 100 percent, which was why they were in the office monitoring her on comms. Instead, she gripped one of their hands in each of hers.
“I’m okay.” She looked from one to the other, holding their gazes for a beat. “He may have surprised me, but he won’t forget me anytime soon.”
“What happened in there?” Carson demanded, speaking a little louder.
“We shook on it, and he drew a gun. When he thought he had me cowled, I snatched him by the tie and his face met the desk. Then I punched him in the face.”
“You managed to break his wrist too,” Sterling put in as he entered the office.
She shrugged. “As he tried to shoot me, I figure we’re even.”
Sterling chuckled. “And how are you, my dear?”
“My hearing is returning to normal,” she said truthfully. “Let our client know we’ve retrieved their painting.”
Sterling frowned, “I will certainly let them know. I’m surprised the outcome occurred the way it did.”
Nathalie narrowed her eyes. “Are you saying the idiot only tried a double-cross because I’m female?”
“I would never suggest such a thing,” Sterling answered, unperturbed. “But I believe that’s what he thought.”
Nathalie nodded as Carson and Matt coughed behind her. “Right,” she drawled. “What’s next?”
“We have a few things to choose from.” Sterling accepted the painting Carson handed him and he carried it into his office. He took a moment to nudge a chair aside with his hip, tapped a hidden button, and waited while a door slid open. Once open, he spun the combination on the safe and offered his eyes for a scan before the safe door clicked. He pulled open the heavy door and set the painting inside. He closed everything and replaced the chair. Rounding his desk, he sat in the leather executive chair. He waved a hand for the three to sit.
Apprehension gnawed at Nathalie’s stomach. She and Sterling hadn’t been able to contain this issue and now it was time to bring Matt and Carson up to speed.
“I believe we’ve finally got to the bottom of the hacking issue from the last case,” Sterling began.
Carson gave him a curt nod. “That won’t be happening again.”
“Yes, well.” Sterling straightened a stack of folders on his desk. “Resuming banking and utility accounts were easy.”
Matt and Carson exchanged looks. “Did something else happen to which we are not aware?” Matt demanded.
Sterling glanced at Nathalie before the focus shifted to her. She released a weary sigh. “It’s okay, Sterling. I'll tell them.”
Sterling stood, skirted the desk and left the office, closing the door.
There was no easy way to say what needed to be said. Once she told them, everything would change. They would change. She would change. And that was the last thing she wanted. She closed her eyes, angry when tears burned behind her lids.
She breathed in and out. The faint tick of the clock permeated the silence. Muffled voices and faded footsteps added their quiet intrusion.
When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t bring her gaze to meet theirs. Instead she stared at her trembling fingers. Faded thin lines of scars creased the backs of hands and palms. Yet another physical reminder of what had been done. She twisted the rings Matt and Carson had placed on her finger so many years ago.
The yellow and white diamonds sparkled in the light. Seven stones made up the rings. She always thought of them as two engagements rings surrounding a simple wedding band. And now she had to tell the two men she loved most in the world her greatest fear.
“Judith Murphy was released from prison.”
No one spoke. No one breathed. Nothing moved, not even sounds beyond the office walls. The entire world seemed to have stopped with her admission.
“What do you need from us?” This was from Matt, his voice calm and entreating.
Nathalie loosed the breath she’d been holding and had to swallow the sob that followed. Finally. she looked at them. Concern flitted across their features. not that she would break or fall apart, but allowing her to see they would help as little or as much as she permitted.
“How long have you known she was out?” Carson wanted to know.
She winced. “Our last case.”
Carson opened his mouth and Matt cut him off with a look. Carson seemed to visibly force the words he’d been about to say back in his mouth. “Okay,” he drawled the word out. “What can we do?”
Matt glared at him again. This time Nathalie laughed. No matter how he tried to soften his voice, the hard edge of protectiveness would not go away.
“Are you hysterical?” Carson demanded. “This is serious and you’re laughing.”
She wiped at her eyes. “I’m not hysterical.” She suppressed a giggle. “You’re trying very hard to stay calm, but it’s not working. You still come off as badass, overprotective.”
“As long as you know I’m trying.”
She nodded. “I do. And it is very much appreciated. From both of you.”
Matt held her gaze. “So what would you like us to do?”
“It would be really nice if she could just disappear from the face of the Earth.”
“That can be arranged,” Carson stated.
She surged forward, surprising both men as she wrapped an arm around each. They held her. She knew they would make Jude a memory if that was indeed what she wanted.
“I’m scared,” she admitted in a whisper. “It took so long for me to find my way again and I can’t go through that again.”
“We will find you if you lose your way, Nathalie,” Carson murmured near her ear. “We will always find you.”
“Always,” Matt reiterated.