Victory Undercover Excerpt
The bullpen wore the kind of heavy silence common to testing halls and courtrooms. A foot scraped against the wood floor. The clock on the wall ticked. And half a dozen people breathed behind Holly as they concentrated on op reports and research. She normally wouldn’t even be out here, but Laramie was off today so his desk was empty, and she couldn’t handle being in the office she shared with Cade. Not that he was doing anything wrong. He just wasn’t doing anything, and he seethed with the impotence of it. It was enough to make her fidget. And everyone at Victory knew—Holly VanEvery did not fidget.
Max Landford came out of her office and scanned the bullpen, frowning until she spotted her. “VanEvery. Meeting. Op set. Downstairs.”
“Thank Christ,” she muttered, swiveling to grab her tablet and escape the tedium. But then her office door opened at the back of the room, and Max called, “Balassone” and repeated the order.
Of course, no one knew Cade was seething and brooding and a bunch of other annoying verbs, or that Holly was avoiding him. Though Max might suspect, from the way she was eyeballing Holly on her way by. But she would have appreciated a solo job to get her out of here and away from Grumpface.
She ducked into Max’s office to grab one of the tiny lollipops from the mug on her desk and unwrapped it as she headed for the stairs, joined not only by Cade but also her cousin, Kingston Dyer, and a fourth team leader, Lucas Fieldstone. Max must have buzzed them on the intercom.
Cream soda flavor coated her tongue, a comforting throwback to childhood. Which was an unusual feeling, actually. Not much about her childhood could be called comforting.
Cade matched her stride when they reached the main hallway in the basement. “Haven’t seen you yet this morning. Come in late?”
“No, I just saw the dark cloud roiling in our office and decided to skip it.”
He grunted but didn’t apologize or get angry. She sighed. “Sorry. I guess you haven’t reset yet, huh?” Another grunt was all she got. Not that she could blame him. Not really. His clairvoyance was never something to count on. He couldn’t control the little flashes, not when he got them or what they told him. And periodically, the ability stopped for a while before he “reset” and it came back in a flurry of short visions. But when it went out, it was usually only for a day or two. It had been a week since his last vision, and the effect, she suspected, was taking a physical toll as well as a mental one this time.
The four team leaders settled into chairs on one side of the conference table in the op set—or operational setup—room. Max joined Cassandra, who was already sitting on the other side, reading glasses on the end of her nose to help her study whatever she read on her laptop.
“Those’re new,” Holly said. When Cassandra, their boss and the majority owner of Victory, looked up, Holly pointed. “The glasses. They’re cute.”
“Yes, well, I appreciate you pointing them out,” Cass said wryly. She drew them off and let them dangle from her hand. “I’m not even forty-two. I shouldn’t need them.”
“It’s too much computer work. You need to get back in the field.” Max spread out a pile of red file folders. “You could take this one.”
Cassandra snorted and closed her laptop. “I don’t think so. You can, though.”
Max snorted back and shook her head. “No thanks. I’ll be working on finding a way to get you out of the damned office for an hour.”
“Find Raff. That’s what will get me out.”
An awkward silence struck the room. Holly spun the lollipop across her tongue and clacked it against her teeth, deliberately drawing Max’s glare and distracting Cassandra.
It had been a little over six weeks since Niall Raff almost succeeded in destroying Victory, the company Cass had owned with her mostly silent partner, Iain. It turned out Raff was Iain’s secret brother, completely unknown to anyone, and Iain was the man’s real target. They didn’t know why, but he seemed intent on taking away whatever Iain valued. To protect Victory—the company and the people working here—Iain had tried to distance himself by selling his shares to the team leaders, including Holly and Cade.
“Hopefully, that’s what this op will do.” Max slid the folders across the table to the four of them. “Remember Violet Nettleton?”
“British diplomat, mother of adorable Frankie Nettleton.” Cade flipped open the folder and scanned the contents. “The toddler we tried to protect last month.”
Yeah, that had sucked. Violet had been involved with Niall Raff for a while, and they had a kid, Frankie. Intel said she was a target of some disgruntled group while her mother was out of the country. General Tywether, a retired joint chief and the kid’s grandfather, had hired Victory to extract her. But it had been a trap, Raff targeting his father—the general—as well as his brother’s company, Victory.
Cassandra narrowly escaped. Max let herself get arrested, trying to protect their boss. Everything had worked out, but they were still rebuilding their reputation after that and all of the previous problems orchestrated by Raff.
It had been a bad couple months.
“Violet’s sister-in-law stayed for a while in a sustainable community. She isn’t there anymore, but right before she left, she thinks she found a tie to Niall Raff.”
“Wait.” Holly raised a hand, frowning. “Sister-in-law? I didn’t think Violet was married.”
Max shook her head. “Her brother’s widow. He was killed in action last year.”
“Oh, man.” Murmurs went around the table. The woman had lost her child’s father two years ago—or thought she did; no one knew how Raff had faked his death—and her brother? “That sucks,” Holly added.
After a few seconds of respectful silence, Kingston asked, “Raff has ties to a cult?” She, like Holly, had left her folder untouched on the table so she could listen to the briefing without distraction.
“It doesn’t appear to be a cult.” Max resumed her narrative. “They’ve been looked at but don’t have the typical traits. Amy—Violet’s sister-in-law—had no problem getting out when she wanted to. She said they’re not controlling, no focus on mind-altering substances, there’s no worshipped-leader type, and the person who started the whole thing isn’t even there anymore.”
“Do we think that’s Raff?” Holly asked. Her blood sizzled at the idea of getting close to the asshole who had manipulated Tori, their executive assistant, into helping him, locked Max and new-guy Bas in the vault, orchestrated the disaster that put a whole team—including her cousin—into the hospital, and forced Iain out of the company he’d helped to found.
“Undetermined,” Max answered. “Amy saw his name on legal papers in an office, but wasn’t able to get a close enough look to see what kind. She thinks the farm is a front for something but couldn’t tell us what. Plenty of people are there for legitimate reasons, which is a good cover for whatever they could be doing underneath.”
“Legit reasons, like what?” Lucas spoke up for the first time. “You said sustainable community. Like a commune?”
“There’s a brochure in the files.” Max waited while they all pulled it out and skimmed it.
Holly read the standard promo-speak, touting the healthy habits of the community as a foundation for cleansing the soul, finding inner peace, and—what?!
“No freaking way.” She slapped the brochure on the table. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cade smirk, hiding it behind the open brochure. “Marriage repair? That’s a primary focus?”
Max nodded, and she was clearly entertained by the assignment she was about to hand out. “Yep. We’re sending in the four of you as couples seeking to heal your relationships. It’s the fastest, easiest way to get you in.”
“Jobs,” Kingston suggested.
Max shook her head. “They’re not hiring.”
“Plumbing? Electrical?” But Cade was shaking his head, too, even as he said it. “Too limited. Can’t roam the place or have an excuse to talk to anyone. Can’t linger.”
“Right.” Max tapped the file. “You can stay as long as you need to, to find the connection or lack of one.”
Holly folded her arms and slumped in her chair. “I’m not marriage material. You and Bas do it.”
Kingston laughed. “Yeah, right. No one would ever believe they’re having problems.”
She was right. Bas—Sebastian Braga, formerly a troubleshooter working for Tywether—had been hired to investigate Victory’s employees because Cass and Iain had thought someone was trying to undermine them on behalf of a competitor. Bas had fallen for his main suspect, Max, and together they’d broken Niall Raff’s conspiracy. Even though both behaved with impeccable professionalism at work, their feelings for each other were intensely obvious.
“I don’t do field work, anyway,” Max tried to claim.
Holly scoffed. “Yet you always seem to be in the field.” She sighed and shoved the brochure back into the folder. “Fine. Cade and I—”
“No, you’re not partnering with Cade. You’ll be with Lucas.”
Cade shot up in his seat, then coughed and shuffled the two papers on the table in front of him. Holly frowned at him, but he didn’t look at her.
“Why?” Kingston asked. “I know partnerships aren’t fixed, but it seems best to keep me and Lucas and Holly and Cade as the couples.”
“Not when you think about the purpose of this group,” Max countered. “You’ve worked with Lucas more than you’ve worked with any of the other team leaders except Royce, and Cade and Holly have been together for even longer. It’s too seamless. They won’t buy tension and friction. So we’re mixing it up.”
The logic made sense, but Holly had an uncommon twist in her gut at the idea of watching Cade pretend to be married to someone else. She caught herself scowling under Max’s watchful, knowing eye and forced her expression to smooth out. Like Max thought she knew something about something.
Max continued. “Holly, you and King will still be cousins, the truth supporting your covers. King heard about the group’s success from a friend and convinced you to try it with them.”
“What are our problems supposed to be?” Holly asked.
“You can work that out with Lucas. You both have to be comfortable with it to sell it.”
Lucas raised his hand halfway. “I feel we’re not addressing a big flaw in this undercover plan.”
Cassandra tapped the corner of her glasses on the table. “You mean the fact that Raff is intimately familiar with everyone at Victory?”
“We decided to take the risk. The connection is remote. Amy was filling in for an office volunteer who was ill and saw some old papers while she was filing. His name was on them. She recognized it because of Violet, but no one she asked knew the name.”
“How long was she living there?” Cade asked.
“A little over six months, with no sign of him except that paperwork. So we think we’re safe to do a quick insertion and try to get whatever information we can about Raff before he can learn we’re there.” She smiled at them. “Just don’t blow your covers, and it will be fine.”
Without looking in his direction, Holly took in Cade’s reaction. He hadn’t said anything so far and pretended to be looking over the contents of the folder while the others debated mission prep. What was going through his mind? Was he worried he couldn’t do his job properly when he was frozen like this, or that if it continued and then broke while they were undercover, it could cause problems? She’d reassure him later. Maybe they could find a way to trigger the visions. Last time this had happened, he’d had a flurry of ten-second flashes about the members of the team he was leading. What had been going on then?
She wished she had Max’s eidetic memory. Asking her about the situation was out of the question, since Cade didn’t want anyone else to know. She was going to have to stop avoiding him and ask.