Scandal never sleeps, p.18
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       Scandal Never Sleeps, p.18

         Part #1 of The Perfect Gentlemen series by Shayla Black
 

  She had to stop because what she read didn’t make a lick of sense. “No. He was looking for me. Why would he ask for me by name before we’d ever met? He gave the headhunter all my personal information—no idea where he got that—and said to hire me, regardless of my demands. I should have asked for more money.”

  Gabriel stood and walked around the desk to peer over her shoulder. When he leaned in, Everly felt the heat of his body. “Open the attachment Mad sent.”

  She clicked and got another shock. “It’s a complete file on me. My driver’s license, social security number, school records. What the hell is going on?”

  “I’m not sure, but he was definitely interested in you.” He moved away, pacing across the floor. “None of the e-mails spell out why Mad wanted to hire you?”

  She skimmed the rest of the messages. “No. Maddox simply told him to get it done and that there was a bonus if he could get me on board within six weeks.”

  “But he only wanted to be your friend,” Gabriel said, his disbelief evident. “Who the hell are you, Everly Parker?”

  “No one,” she whispered back. “I was raised in the middle of nowhere by a cop. I went to a state college and worked almost full-time to put myself through. I got a decent job when I graduated but it’s not as if I know any classified secrets.”

  “Maybe not but you know how to hack a system.”

  “Anyone in my business can hack a system.” Though secretly, Everly suspected she was a bit better than most. Lots of practice had ensured that.

  “Have you hacked any systems you shouldn’t have? Besides ones involving Peter Jackson trailers.”

  “Not in years. I will admit I’ve hacked into some places that could get me in trouble, but that was in college. Why would Maddox care now? I never did it to hurt anyone, merely to prove to myself that I could.”

  “Maybe you saw something you don’t realize is important.”

  Maybe she had, but she didn’t see how any of this helped them figure out who had killed Maddox and why. If someone who worked at Crawford felt slighted that they hadn’t been promoted when her predecessor retired, sure, they could have killed him in rage. But it made far more sense for the disgruntled employee to off her and hope that Mad chose him or her to backfill the position. Besides, she’d come here with Gabriel to get some answers—and he’d begun asking all the questions. She was a little sick of feeling interrogated.

  “I don’t think so,” she told him. “Let’s come back to that later. Tell me what you didn’t tell the police.”

  He stopped pacing, and his face went stony and blank. “I told the police everything relevant.”

  “So that’s how this is going to go?” She sighed in exasperation. “You only brought me here to figure out my role in all this. You had no intention of sharing what you know.”

  “I don’t know anything.”

  She stood and headed for the stairs. Destination: front door. “Then I don’t think we have anything else to say to one other. I’ll take my chances with the press.”

  Everly didn’t care that there were reporters in front of her building. She would find a hotel. Or better yet, she would take a few days off and get out of the city. She had college friends scattered a few hours away. Her father’s sister lived in Connecticut. She could visit her father’s grave and figure out where to go while she decided what the hell to do with her life now.

  Gabriel wrapped his arm around her middle, hauling her back against his steely body.

  “Don’t go,” he whispered against her ear.

  With those two low words, he transported her back to the intimacy of their weekend together. She remembered how it felt to be under him, his body working to bring them both to climax. She also remembered how safe she’d felt in his arms. When he’d held her, he’d surrounded her, kept her breathless.

  Why couldn’t she stop thinking about that? Damn him.

  “Don’t touch me like this,” she insisted. “You’re my boss now. That’s it.”

  He wrapped both arms around her, holding her tight. “When I hold you, it’s like a balm. You’re the first person to make me feel good in so fucking long. Don’t make me stop.”

  It felt good to her, too. But she knew this heady sense of intimacy only lasted as long as the arousal. Later, he would push her away again, and she would be devastated. No matter how much she loved being with him, the pain wasn’t worth the momentary pleasure. She’d let him talk her into coming here because he’d promised to be honest with her.

  “You have to. I’m not going through this with you again, Gabriel. If you can’t trust me, then it’s time to walk away.”

  “I was at the airport that day.”

  She stilled in his arms. No wonder he’d been reluctant to spill that. “You’re telling me you were at the airport when Maddox flew off?”

  “Yes.” His gruff breath ruffled her hair.

  “Why?”

  “I had to talk to him again. I went there to try. I’d walked through the park for hours. Once I’d cooled down, I knew I couldn’t leave things the way they were between us. We’d been friends for most of our lives. I realized I had to salvage what I could and hope he would eventually seek some kind of relationship with his child.” He sighed behind her, the action pressing them closer together. “Mad would have been the first of us to be a father. That day, I couldn’t imagine him not knowing his own kid. We . . . how do I put this without sounding like a poor little rich boy?”

  “I know your parents weren’t around much.” Everly couldn’t help but empathize. Even before her mother had left she’d always felt distanced from the woman and it had hurt. So even if it made her stupid, she also responded to Gabriel’s sadness. Something inside her wanted to comfort him.

  She clasped his arms, which he still had wrapped around her, and allowed him to draw her closer.

  “Creighton Academy was my parent most of the time. That’s where I met all my friends. Sometimes I think I spent my childhood alone until I met Mad. A lot of who I am today is because of him and his constant friendship.”

  Gabriel seriously mourned Maddox. The grief hollowing his tone tore at her heart. In some ways, he hadn’t simply lost a friend, but a man he considered a brother. And he’d lost Maddox on the ugliest of terms.

  “Gabriel . . .”

  “Let me get this out.” The way he grabbed onto her told Everly that only sheer will kept him going. “That day I sat in the park after I’d threatened to kill him, I thought about what it meant to have kids. These five men were so instrumental in shaping my life. I couldn’t imagine a world where our families didn’t know each other. I couldn’t imagine all of us not getting together with our kids to relax, laugh, drink, and yell at them, the way our parents hadn’t yelled at us. We were supposed to be better, damn it. Our children were supposed to have a real childhood.”

  Everly nudged at Gabriel. He sighed reluctantly, then eased his grip. But she didn’t leave his embrace. Instead, she turned into him, without bothering to remind herself this was a bad idea. That didn’t matter now; only the desolation in his voice did. It took her right back to the time they’d spent together at The Plaza before names and reputations had come into play. Whether it was smart or not, she cared about this man, and he was hurting. She wrapped her arms around him. He hesitated for a moment, then brought her against him tightly. They shared a silent moment of succor. Gabriel seemed to draw strength from her.

  Finally, he rested his chin on her head. “I thought you were going to push me away.”

  “I should.” But she could feel him bringing her closer, as if he’d never let her go. In the moment, she wanted to believe whatever they had together could work.

  “Don’t. Please let me have this moment.” He raised his hand to her face, cradling her cheek. The gesture bespoke affection more than sex, and felt so achingly tender. If he had dragged her to the desk and started tearing at her clothes, she would have been able to resist him. Maybe. But the sweetness of his touch utterly
disarmed her. The need to protect herself crumbled under her need to comfort him.

  “It’s all right, Gabriel.”

  “It isn’t. I don’t know if anything will ever be right again. I only know that, for all his faults, I miss Mad. I also know that I want you. You think we can go back to something professional, but I can’t. Because I can’t stop thinking about you. I haven’t gone five minutes without thinking of you since the moment we met.”

  She hadn’t, either. Every second of her life seemed to be consumed by thoughts of Gabriel. “I think about you, too.”

  He pulled away just enough to stare down at her. “We’re in this together, you know. I’ve felt guilty about dragging you into a mess, even though the rumors about your relationship with Mad would have surfaced eventually. But I’m glad you’re here. I’m not sure you could have handled the press on your own.”

  That was true. She could handle a lot by herself. She was very competent. Her father had taught her self-defense and how to use a gun. She felt comfortable making the decision about when to flee or fight. But she had no idea how to handle a mob of insistent journalists. If she’d been left to her own devices, she would have headed home, never realizing there was trouble until it was too late. “This is your world. I don’t really understand it.”

  His eyes turned serious. “I’ll take care of you, Everly. I’ll keep the press off you. Hopefully, once we figure out what happened with Mad, they’ll stop writing about you and move on to the next juicy story. Then you can get back to your life. Will you trust me?” He slid his hands up to frame her face. His thumb traced her lower lip. “Can you stand beside me and try to solve this crazy puzzle?”

  Could she stay with him for days yet still hold herself apart? Everly couldn’t imagine how. Even now, she stood in his arms, barely two hours after she’d vowed to keep things professional between them. She’d be lying to herself if she denied the fact that she felt connected to him. Still, she had to try to resist the temptation of him. Nothing lay down this path except great sex—and heartbreak. But she was a big girl. She could handle it.

  “If you’re honest with me, then yes.” Everly eased away from him, leaving the comfortable circle of his arms.

  Guilt nagged at her. She was asking for honesty, but she wasn’t ready to tell him about the texts or the pictures yet. She needed time to be sure that what she’d received was actually relevant. Now that she was involved, all her investigative instincts were kicking in. She had a part to play in this and she got the feeling that, if Gabriel really understood, he would stand in her way. Whether he would do it to hide something or to protect the “little woman,” she wasn’t sure, but she knew he would try.

  He sighed. She got the feeling that he was only giving her a bit of space for now and would be more persuasive later. “All right. I’ve told you my secrets. You know enough to go straight to the police and give them cause to arrest me.”

  She wasn’t going to do that. Maybe she was an idiot and her hormones were affecting her judgment but she believed that he hadn’t gone to the airport that day with any ill intent. “Why haven’t they seen you on the surveillance footage? Surely they have cameras at the airport.”

  “It’s a small, fairly exclusive airport. They’re also very private. It’s one reason we fly in and out of airports like that. There are cameras but the security is not as tight or in-your-face as a public airport. Maybe none of the surveillance caught me. I don’t know. It was certainly the last thing on my mind that day. But eventually, the police will run the toll tags on my car and figure out where I went. The logic that if I’d planned to kill my friend, I would have covered my tracks better, will be lost on them.”

  Most likely. “Then you’ll have a hard time explaining why you lied during your interrogation.”

  “But if I’d told Detective Johnson, he would have arrested me on the spot. I had to buy time to see if I could figure this out. I know Dax or Connor could have done the same, but they didn’t know Mad as well as I did. If someone killed him in such a premeditated fashion, they had a motive and I need to find it. It also had to be someone with the means, who knew about bombs and knew that Mad intended to fly to DC that night.” He crossed back over to the desk. “I thought I would find something in here. His desk is a mess. Mad never was very organized. It will take me most of the night to go through the rest of this stuff. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. I wish he’d kept a damn diary.”

  “He wasn’t a teenage girl,” she returned. “I think we need to figure out why Maddox wanted a meeting with the president. I doubt he was going there for a beer. Who did he ask you about in that video? He mentioned a name when you were talking to him at lunch.”

  “Sergei. It’s Russian. He didn’t mention a last name. That would have been helpful. I don’t know a Sergei. Never met one. And merely because the name is Russian doesn’t mean the person who uses it actually is. He could be as American as apple pie.”

  “If Maddox was going to the president, maybe Sergei was someone the president knew.”

  “It’s possible. Since Zack’s father was an ambassador to Russia for years, he spent a lot of time there,” Gabriel mused. “His parents sent him back here to attend some boarding school. He started Creighton in the seventh grade. When he went to visit his father in Moscow, I know he was very sheltered from that world, but it’s worth a shot. I’ll talk to Roman tomorrow and see if we can arrange a call or something. Until then, I’ll keep looking.”

  He sat back down at the desk, his shoulders slumped as he looked across the mountain of paperwork.

  She couldn’t help but watch him. “You know, I think Maddox was worried something bad would happen to him. He wasn’t just sad the last few weeks, but anxious. Maybe that’s why he broke up with your sister.”

  He looked down with a shrug. “If he’d been worried, he should have come to me. He should have done anything but crush and humiliate her. Mad and I have been through a lot together. Hell, the six of us made promises. I know they were made when we were children, but we’ve stood by them for decades. So don’t try to justify anything he did to Sara again.”

  A chill seemed to settle over him, and Everly knew now wasn’t the time to reach him. Despite their intimacy a few moments ago, he was right back to looking at her like he had in the office. She had to remember that his resentment of her relationship with Mad was always there, always bubbling with suspicion under his gorgeous surface. “I’m going to go and see if there’s anything I can make for dinner.”

  “I would appreciate that.”

  She looked at Gabriel for a moment, but all of his attention was now on the haphazard slips of paper littering the massive, masculine desk in front of him. He’d closed her off, and that was probably for the best. The more distance they maintained between them, the more they could concentrate on what was really important. She turned and walked out, leaving him to his thoughts.

  As she did, her cell pinged, signaling she had a text. She pulled it out of her pocket and glanced down.

  Don’t get caught in Bond’s web. Meet me tomorrow instead. 3PM. Parking garage. I’ll answer your questions.

  Everly stared at the screen, her heart racing. He was moving the date of their meeting forward. Meeting this person alone in a parking garage was undoubtedly dangerous. But what if he knew something about Maddox’s murder that might solve the mystery and exonerate Gabriel? Something that could help her get her life back?

  Tomorrow. She had until then to find everything she could about Maddox’s death and decide what she would do next.

  • • •

  Two hours later, Gabe sat back and wondered why he’d gotten so wound up. Between the food Everly had put on his plate and the half a bottle of Mad’s ridiculously good Pinot Noir he’d consumed, he didn’t want to remember why the world was a shitty place. Their fare—chicken, potatoes, and frozen peas she’d somehow made amazing—had been simple, entirely tasty, and all the better because Everly had made it with her own t
wo hands.

  After they’d consumed the food and drink, the evening hush turned to a still night. Darkness fell over the room, and Mad’s desk light did little to illuminate the space between them. The air quietly hummed with tension. She looked so lovely, so close. Gabe didn’t want to go back to Mad’s desk and try to unravel a murder. He wanted to forget it all and spend the evening inside her.

  “I should clean up.” She started to gather the dishes.

  “Stay.”

  If she went back up to the main floor, he wouldn’t likely see her until morning. Perhaps a wise thing since he had pressing problems and he still wasn’t sure what her role in Mad’s life had been. It probably didn’t matter now, but Gabe couldn’t stop wondering why Mad had handpicked her to head up Crawford’s cybersecurity. Or why his old friend had given her his time and attention if he wasn’t sleeping with her. Everly could absolutely be lying about that, but Gabe wasn’t sure it mattered now. He wanted her too much to care.

  The question was, how to get her to trust him enough to go to bed with him again? With most women, he could whisper a few pretty words or offer her some baubles. Or he could simply explain that no one would believe they weren’t sleeping together, so they might as well. He was pretty sure none of those tactics would get him anywhere with Everly.

  So he needed to find another reason for her to stay close to him. “Why don’t you help me look through some of Mad’s notes?”

  “I’ve been thinking . . . what if he left something important in his office at the Crawford building?”

  Gabriel shook his head. “After a corporate espionage case about a decade ago, Mad stopped storing anything relevant there except a box of condoms and some lube.”

  Now that he thought about it, he really wished his pal had used those freaking condoms a few months back.

 
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