Read No Rules Online

Authors: Starr Ambrose

Tags: #No Rules, #Romantic Suspense, #danger, #Egypt, #Mystery & Suspense, #entangled, #guns, #Romance, #Edge, #Suspense, #Adventure, #pyramids, #action, #Starr Ambrose, #archaeology, #Literature & Fiction

No Rules (7 page)

BOOK: No Rules
7.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

There was the problem. The team’s expectations were getting in the way of reality. Taking a deep breath, she leaned toward Evan, doing her best to be sincere. “Look, I explained to Donovan that my father seemed to be living in the past. He couldn’t seem to grasp that things had changed. I’m sorry, I know he was your friend, but I suspect he had some form of dementia.”

She wouldn’t have been surprised if he was offended. Even angry. What she didn’t expect was the thoughtful look that settled over him. “Son of a bitch. This one’s going to be hard. That man was always more clever than me when it came to codes and symbols.”

She’d be better off beating her head against the wall.

“Let’s get through this at least once,” Donovan said. Jess sighed heavily, feeling any chance of sleep slip farther away. “Wally talked about taking you on a picnic. What did he say after that?”

She hesitated, remembering all too well what her father had brought up next, but reluctant to tell them. She was tempted to skip over it entirely, but thoughts of the two hostages forced her to be honest. She’d simply leave out the details. “He mentioned the day my mother and I moved out.” Seeing Donovan’s eyebrow rise, she forestalled his question. “It wasn’t anything important, just that he was sorry it happened. It’s not important.”

“Let us decide that.”

She narrowed her eyes. “It’s personal. Trust me, there was no hidden message, no sneezes or dropped napkins, just an apology for the way things worked out.”

From the corner of her eye, she noted a flicker of interest from Avery. Now
for sure
she couldn’t talk about it.

Donovan’s gaze was intent enough to make her insides squirm, and it had nothing to do with his menacing appearance. In fact, the feeling was opposite enough to be worthy of a sneeze. Great—she had a sexual response to a man who intimidated her. She tried to forget about all the sessions she was going to need with Dr. Epstein and concentrate on what Donovan was saying.

“Jess, your mother left because Wally had started the Omega Group. If he talked about that, it pertains directly to us. It might even be the information we’re looking for.”

She set her jaw stubbornly. “It wasn’t about you; it was about me.”

She could tell he struggled to hold back his exasperation. “He apologized to you for starting the Omega Group?”


“For what, then?”

“None of your business.”


“You don’t need to know.
shouldn’t have known. It’s confidential, and he shouldn’t have been able to access the files. It thought there were laws about that.”

“Confidential files?” He jumped on it. “What files? Do you have a juvenile record or something?”


“Because I don’t give a shit about some prank you pulled in high school, or if you had your license suspended.”

“I didn’t. For your information, I have never been in trouble with the law. Some of us have no trouble obeying laws and following rules.” It sounded so snooty she had to remind herself that following the rules was a good thing.

“Then what’s the big deal? What else is confidential?”

Thankfully he thought like someone in law enforcement—if someone had something to hide, it had to be illegal. Unfortunately, Avery’s thinking was less linear. She stopped swinging her leg as the answer occurred to her. “Medical records.”

“You have a medical problem?” He still didn’t get it. “I promise it won’t leave this room, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Jess glared and said nothing. A knowing smile snaked across Avery’s mouth as she elaborated for him. “Psychiatric records.”


Avery finally seemed to be enjoying the conversation. “Your little friend has issues, Tyler. Something she doesn’t want to share with the group.”

Jess felt a flush spread up her neck to her cheeks. She ground her teeth, refusing to acknowledge what Avery had guessed, even though one look at her face must have revealed the truth.

Donovan studied her. She tried not to flinch, certain she felt his mind probing for facts inside her own. Learning the embarrassing truth. Holding it up for everyone to see and laugh at.

Without looking directly at them, she knew Mitch and Kyle sat up straighter, suddenly interested in the drama.

Avery obliged them by continuing her guessing game. “Wally’s daughter must have been in therapy.”

It was nothing to be ashamed of, Jess lectured herself. But damn it, it was supposed to be private. How had her father known?

Sensing success, Avery tilted her head, assessing Jess on some scale only she could read. “Maybe she was even hospitalized. Psych ward.”

Wrong. Jess wanted to scream her denial, but the truth was more embarrassing, so she held the words back, trembling with the effort.

“Shut up, Avery.” Donovan’s voice was soft but carried an ominous note. Jess silently thanked him for the unexpected help.

Avery wasn’t listening. “Maybe she even attempted suicide.”

Unable to let that one go by, Jess blurted, “I did not.”


Too late, Jess saw her mistake. She shouldn’t have said anything. By denying that outrageous accusation, Avery’s innocent response challenged her to correct it. To tell the real reason for her years of therapy. Tell them, or leave the horrible allegation of attempted suicide hanging over her head.

Anger, hot and jagged, ripped through her. They had no right to put her in this position, to question her about the most embarrassing and private parts of her life.

“That’s enough,” Donovan ordered. Surprised and relieved, she gave him a grateful look.

“I agree.” Evan’s low voice carried authority. Avery closed her mouth over what she’d been about to say, but it didn’t wipe away her satisfaction.

The director’s eyes were kind. “Wally felt he’d been the cause of your—problems, didn’t he?”

She gave him a tight nod, hoping he hadn’t guessed the extent of it. It was so simple, so Freudian, she hated it.

She risked a glance at Donovan, a man so confident and secure in his identity he couldn’t possibly understand her problem, knowing she’d crumple into a tiny ball if she saw pity in his eyes. She didn’t. He stared with open curiosity as if he had a dozen follow-up questions. Questions that would expose every humiliating detail of her personal life and prove she had no right being attracted to a man like him. Questions he might put off for now, but would not forget to ask later.

If he had any respect for her at all, it was about to disappear forever.

Chapter Five

Donovan flipped to a new page in his notebook, as if the topic of her therapy might require extensive note-taking. He could just forget it.

Jess tensed, prepared to smack down his inappropriate, obtrusive questions, but he merely said, “Skip the details for now. Just summarize. Did he ask how you were doing now? What did he want to know?”

That was it? When he didn’t blink at her suspicious look, she took a few deep breaths to steady herself. “He apologized for his part in it, that’s all.”

And thank God for that. If her father had asked if therapy had helped her problem, she’d have died on the spot.

“Okay,” Donovan said. He made a note on the tablet.

She sat up a little straighter, straining to read his writing upside down. He’d written one word:

She didn’t like that question mark. If he didn’t get the information they needed, she knew he’d come back to that, wanting details, and she had no intention of discussing it with him. Not with
, but especially not with the man whose arrogant manner and barely civilized appearance stirred something primitive inside her. Primitive and loaded with alarm bells. Exactly the kind of man who should never know the reason for her therapy.


It took her a moment to realize he was asking what Wally had talked about next. She shrugged. “His story idea again, and my early ones that he’d contributed to. He acted like he’d be absolutely tickled to see his idea made into a book.”

?” Donovan winced at the word.

“Yes. He laughed.”

It was such a simple thing. But for a moment it had twisted her heart, taking her back to the days they’d spent at the small kitchen table, her father inventing a character and Jess drawing it, bringing it to life. Both of them giggling with delight. It was a memory as warm as sunshine, overflowing with affection and happiness.

The next moment the bubble had burst, revealing the man she’d spent fifteen years hating, the one who had broken his promise to always be there for her. The man who returned as the stranger who sat across the table spinning stupid stories about a rabbit and a wolf. A man whose once razor-sharp mind was now excited about a simple story idea.

“Could the story itself mean something?” Donovan mused aloud. “He kept going back to it.”

Avery gave a derisive huff. “A story about a rabbit and a wolf going to a housewarming party? Even our code phrases don’t involve animals or fairy tales. For something this important, you’d think he’d use a code we know. Or just say it in plain English, for God’s sake.”

Jess had to agree with her there. The story seemed to have no significance except what Donovan had first suggested, as a ruse to get her there. Mitch and Kyle added their nods.

Evan seemed to give it serious consideration, finally looking disappointed. “I’m afraid Wally was simply reminiscing. He loved Jessie, and he knew he was seeing her for the last time.” His gaze touched hers, apologetic and sad. “I remember him talking about those stories you wrote just before your mom left and took you with her. They were good memories for him.”

Great, she’d been ridiculing their friend’s fondest memories. Jess sank back in her chair, saying nothing and wishing this would just be over.

“Can we please move on?” Avery complained. Jess would have seconded it, except that Avery’s annoyed glare was aimed directly at her. “This Mossy Log crap is about to put me to sleep.”

Jess bristled. She’d admit to having more fears and insecurities than the average person, but she was on firm ground when it came to her knowledge of children’s literature; no one got to make fun of her books. “Sorry to be so dull,” she said, smothering it in sarcasm.

Avery’s flat stare was cool. “I’m sure you can’t help it.”

Bitch. The word banged against her skull, wanting out. She heard a muttered curse from Donovan, but ignored him as she narrowed her focus on Avery. “I didn’t realize you had difficulties with comprehension. Should I use simpler words?”

For a brief moment a static-charged stillness hung between them before Evan shot to his feet. “We’re done for tonight.” His stern look hit Avery first, then touched each of the others. “Be back here at seven tomorrow morning.”

Mitch got to his feet, throwing Avery a grin as he left. “Appreciate the entertainment.”

Avery looked away, avoiding eye contact as she stalked out of the room. In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Kyle trailed her out, pausing by Donovan. “We’ll figure it out,” he said, and left.

Evan turned to Jess. “I’m sorry, we’re all a little short of patience right now. We’ll start fresh tomorrow. Your bags are in a bedroom upstairs. Donovan will show you the way. Good night.”

She rose as he left, suddenly feeling out of place and lost. For once, Donovan waited patiently, not trying to hustle her along. It was the first time she’d seen him looking drained of energy and tired. Less dangerous. It gave her enough courage to take a jab at his team member. “What’s her problem?”

He glanced at Avery’s empty chair, his expression growing closed and defensive. “Leave it alone, Jess.”

She should have known better—they were a unit. No one would take her side here.

“Come on, let me show you to your room.”

Resigned, she followed him back toward the living room with the distinct feeling that she was an unwanted burden. “Why am I staying in this house?”

“It’s the only place you’ll be safe.”

“Do you all live here?”

“No. But we stay here during times like this, when we’re getting a team ready to go and need to work on it together.” He led the way upstairs to a branching hallway and turned left. Just inside the second doorway she saw her three suitcases in a neat line. “This is Wally’s old room,” he said. “The one he used when he stayed here. I imagine any personal items in here are yours now.”

She made a slow circuit of the room, ending at a small writing desk. It would have been perfect for a laptop computer, and she guessed he would have brought one with him. Only two items occupied the space now. She ran her fingers over a stone replica of Anubis, the jackal-headed ancient Egyptian god of the dead, then picked up a double picture frame with two portraits. She sucked in a sharp breath as she recognized her high school graduation photo, but didn’t have time to wonder how her father had obtained a copy. The other photo was even more shocking—an unposed, candid shot from her college graduation, taken on the lawn outside the auditorium as she laughed with her friends. It would have required a telephoto lens. She stared for several seconds before she was able to speak around the lump in her throat. “He…he was there?”

“Looks like.” Donovan slid open a drawer and pulled out a stack of letters. “You might be interested in these, too.”

The top one was addressed to her, with a red stamp slanting over one side:
return to sender
. It was too much, too fast. She didn’t want to look, yet couldn’t stop herself from sliding one shaking finger over the pile, exposing the next two envelopes. Both bore the same red postal stamp, with dates several months apart.

Donovan had been right; her father hadn’t rejected her. Unbidden, love welled up and filled her chest to bursting, along with an unreasonable anger at the situation and a deep regret that nearly broke her heart. Emotions bubbled like a volcano, threatening to spill over. If only she’d known…

She was torn between thanking Donovan for letting her know and hating him for hitting her with the agonizing knowledge of what she’d missed and the knowledge that he’d been the one to fill the void she’d left in her father’s life.

She was tired and too emotionally drained to look at the letters now. Placing them back on the stack, she noticed the lavender edge of the fourth envelope in the stack. The familiar color sent a cold shock through her and she fought a light-headed feeling as she picked it up. Her mother’s handwriting was unmistakable. She held the envelope as if it might burn her; if Donovan was right, it held the final betrayal by her mother, the one that had kept her father out of her life for fifteen years. The one that had severed the emotional attachment to her father that she was still trying to repair with her therapist.

She dropped the envelope and put her hand to her mouth. Without turning, she choked out, “Please go away.”

He did, without comment. She waited until he’d closed the door behind him to let the first whimpering sound escape her throat. More crowded behind it, but she refused to release them. She couldn’t do this now. Couldn’t face another trauma after the horrifying, exhausting day she’d had. Turning abruptly, she opened a suitcase and pawed through the contents, pulling out what she needed. Five minutes later she walked out of the bathroom, teeth brushed and ready for bed. She’d just pulled the covers back when a knock sounded at the door.


As if it were an invitation, the door opened and Donovan stuck his head inside. His gaze flicked over her pajamas, summery but decent nylon shorts and top, then settled without expression on her face. “Forgot to tell you—be downstairs at seven.”

Evan had said it, too, but this time it registered. She glanced at the clock by the bed that read three minutes past two. “Seven?” she repeated incredulously.

“The sooner we figure out what Wally wanted us to know, the sooner we can get those hostages out. Once we have them, you’ll be safe, too. Then you can leave.” His gaze dropped to her body once more before he ducked out and closed the door.

She blinked at the door, feeling defeated and a little like a hostage herself. Deliberately ignoring the pile of letters on the desk, she got ready for bed and slipped beneath the covers. Reaching for the lamp beside the bed, her gaze was drawn to the letters again. How could she sleep not knowing?
Damn it.
In one quick motion she jumped out of bed, grabbed the lavender envelope, and slid back under the covers.

The letter was short and to the point.


Please stop writing to Jessie. It is upsetting for her and only makes this time in her life more difficult. She does not wish to ever talk to you again, and I will not force her to answer your letters.


“Oh, Mom.” Jess breathed the words over a sob, then unable to prevent it, let the rest of the tears come. They were ripped from someplace deep inside, a backlog of anguish she couldn’t have stopped if she’d wanted to, and she used the pillow and downy comforter to muffle the noise. Ten minutes later she fell into an exhausted sleep.

Donovan left her as fast as he could, trying to escape the images in his head. He’d been doing a good job of treating her as a source, as the daughter of his friend and mentor, until he’d seen her standing there in her skimpy nightclothes. He would have expected something practical from Jess, like flannel, forgetting that a woman from the Deep South probably didn’t own flannel. What he hadn’t expected was clingy baby-blue nylon that revealed the pert buds of nipples and far more of her long, shapely legs than he’d been able to admire in a skirt. Inappropriate images slammed into his brain and wouldn’t leave.

Normally, he’d enjoy the fantasy. Any healthy heterosexual male would, especially one with his lifestyle of exhausting training missions and sudden overseas trips that left his sex life pitifully deprived. The past year had been especially hectic, with little time to even think about women. Jess Maulier would be a perfect fantasy in any circumstances, so being attracted to her was understandable. But every time he envisioned those shapely legs in high heels, or her feminine curves rocking some skimpy lingerie, he also flashed on Wally’s face scowling at him in disapproval. Jess was his friend’s
, and Donovan was exactly the kind of man Wally had wanted to shield her from—a man who attracted danger and courted death on a regular basis. If any woman was off-limits for Donovan, it was Jess.

Besides, he had a bigger concern than his out-of-bounds sexual fantasies, one that hadn’t been addressed yet. One that could kill them as surely as it had killed Wally.

Backtracking through the house, he wasn’t surprised to find Evan sitting in his office, kicked back in his chair and staring at the wall. He wondered if the director was mulling over the same problem that concerned Donovan. Falling into the chair across the desk from him, he waited for Evan to focus on him before asking, “How was Wally’s cover blown?”

Troubled lines creased Evan’s forehead. “I don’t know.”

It wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear. “What did Maya say?” Their informant in Egypt was the last Omega employee Wally had contacted before leaving the country, a move that indicated he knew his communications might not be secure.

“Not much. He stopped by her office at the Cairo museum and left an envelope in her drawer, the usual form of communication when he thought he might be watched. He didn’t say anything specific, so we know he was worried about implicating her if the message was intercepted. That alone says a lot.”

Donovan nodded, imagining Wally’s state of mind. Dread for himself and the hostages. Worry over getting a final message through without implicating anyone else. “What did the message say?”

“It was the usual bland letter thanking her for her help. The essence of it was that his research was complete and had already provided academic recognition.”

BOOK: No Rules
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