Colters Gift eBook: Page2

Maya Banks (2013)

Page 2

 

  The men retreated, climbing back into the SUV. Noah propped his elbow against the window and frowned. Then he glanced in Liam’s direction.

  “Do you think she was straight with us? With her brother?”

  Liam’s brow creased and he turned, angling his body so he leaned against the driver’s side door. “You think she lied? You saw her, Noah. She sure as hell didn’t make that shit up. ”

  Noah held up his hand. “Don’t get all pissed off. I know she didn’t lie about what the bastard did to her. ”

  “Then what the hell do you think she lied about?”

  Noah hesitated. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think we got the full story. This guy is a ghost. No one knows a damn thing about him. No prints in the system, and I doubt Lauren was the first woman he beat up. Assholes like him usually have a few run-ins with the law. ”

  “You think she’s protecting him?” Liam asked incredulously.

  There was a hint of anger to his voice and his scowl deepened.

  “No,” Noah said quietly. “I think she’s scared out of her mind. ”

  Liam’s expression darkened even further and he gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. “I want that bastard. ”

  Noah nodded because he felt the same way. When they’d taken the job from Max Wilder, they’d expected a stereotypical rich-girl scenario. An overprotective brother who wanted a babysitter for the sister he didn’t have time for.

  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

  Lauren Wilder was a shy, sweet woman who’d been badly abused by a man she’d trusted. From the moment Noah had laid eyes on her, he’d ached to hold her. To wipe away all the hurt and show her that all men weren’t abusive assholes.

  Liam had reacted even more strongly than Noah had. He’d taken one look at Lauren and had been so furious that he’d ended up scaring the holy hell out of her.

  The two men had worked together for a hell of a long time. They’d seen and done it all. But they’d never fallen for the same woman, and Noah still wasn’t sure what the hell they were supposed to do about it.

  For now, they existed in denial, and they only discussed her in a professional context. Anytime it started to get personal, Liam clammed up and got that look in his eyes that meant the subject was closed.

  Noah sighed. “I want him too, but I’m starting to think we’re barking up the wrong tree. ”

  Liam’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell does that mean?”

  Suddenly Noah straightened, his gaze fixed on a tall blond woman walking down the sidewalk.

  “I think that’s her,” he said.

  Liam’s hand went to the door handle, but he waited, tense and silent.

  Both men watched as she turned up the walkway to the apartment. A moment later, she took her keys out and unlocked the door.

  “Let’s go,” Noah said.

  He and Liam got out of the car and hurried up the walkway just as the woman swung open the door and stepped inside the foyer.

  “Ms. Jennings?” Noah called.

  The woman whirled around, fear immediate in her eyes.

  Noah held out a placating hand. “My apologies for startling you. My name is Noah Sullivan and this is my partner, Liam Prescott. I was hoping for a moment of your time. We’re looking for someone, and it’s very important that we find him. We’d just like to ask you a few questions if that’s all right. ”

  She stared suspiciously at them, her hand still gripping the edge of the door.

  “Are you cops?”

  Noah shook his head. “No, ma’am. We’re not cops. I guess you could say we’re investigators of sorts. ”

  “Like a P. I. ? I always thought those weren’t real. Just stuff you see on cop shows and in the movies. ”

  “We’re not private investigators,” Liam said gruffly. “We were employed to keep a woman safe from the jerk who beat on her. We want to find this asshole so we can put him away. We need your help to do that. ”

  She blinked at Liam’s bluntness but her stance relaxed and she was clearly conflicted about whether to allow them into her building. Finally she took a step back, opening the door wider.

  “Come in,” she murmured. “My name is Susan, but my friends call me Suki. Long story, but you can call me Suki. ”

  Noah could tell the woman was as nervous as a cat backed into an alley. He didn’t want to frighten her, but he had Liam with him and Liam was . . . Well, he was Liam. Blunt. Overwhelming. And growly.

  Especially when it came to Lauren.

  Once they walked up to her second floor apartment and were seated in the living room, Noah pulled out a photo of Lauren and slid it across the coffee table toward Suki.

  “Can you tell me if you’ve ever seen this woman?”

  Suki went completely still. Noah wasn’t even sure she was breathing. Her hands shook as she reached for the photo and fear crowded her eyes.

  Then she turned with a fake, too-bright smile and said, “No, sorry I haven’t. Did something happen to her? Is she . . . dead?”

  The last was asked fearfully and Liam frowned, leaning forward.

  “Now why would you assume she’s dead or that something’s happened to her?”

  Panic flared on her face. “I just assumed. I mean something had to have happened to her if you’re looking for her, right?”

  “We aren’t looking for her,” Noah said calmly. “We just asked if you’ve ever seen her. ”

  Suki shook her head. “No. Sorry. Don’t know her. ”

  “Why are you lying?” Liam asked bluntly.

  The woman vibrated with fear. Most people would have been pissed at blatantly being called a liar. Not this woman. She looked like she was going to be ill.

  “Let’s try another question,” Noah said. “Do you know who this woman was seeing? Know his name? What he looks like?”

  “I wish I could help you,” she croaked. “But he’d kill me. ”

  Liam and Noah exchanged quick glances. Noah’s pulse sped up and he leaned forward, scooting to the edge of his seat in anticipation. Finally, they were getting somewhere.

  “Who, Suki? Who would kill you?”

  When she looked up, tears shone in her eyes. “He hurt her. We all knew it. He always kept her on a very short leash. He told her how to dress, how to act, where to be and if she didn’t fall into step accordingly, she always wore bruises the next day. ”

  A low growl emanated from Liam’s throat. Noah shot him a warning look. The last thing they needed was to terrify Suki further and have her shut down and refuse to talk.

  “Who did this to her?” Noah asked softly. “I need your help, Suki. I want to nail his ass to the wall and make damn sure he never does this to another woman. ”

  “Just give us his name,” Liam urged. “You don’t have to tell us anything else. Just give us enough to find him. ”

  She laughed, a raw, hysterical sound that was abrasive to Noah’s ears.

  “You can’t stop him. He has cops on his payroll. He won’t ever be punished. ”

  “There are other ways of getting justice that don’t necessarily involve cops,” Liam bit out.

  At that she went quiet and stared intently back at Liam. For a long moment she looked between the two men as if grappling with her decision to confide in them.

  Finally she drew in a deep breath. “His name is Joel Knight. It’s all I’ll say, and I won’t testify. I won’t give a statement. I’ll deny ever seeing you, talking to you or even that I know who the hell you are. ”

  Liam’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Joel Knight? Are you sure?”

  Noah shook his head. He’d known that Lauren was holding out on them. What he hadn’t realized was that she’d blatantly lied. She’d made up some other name of some fictitious guy and they’d spent the last four months wasting their fucking time searching out nonexistent leads.

  “Of course I’m sure,” Suki said, an edge to her voice. “I?
??m one of his girls. ”

  Noah lifted an eyebrow. “What does that mean exactly?”

  She pressed her lips together. “It’s time for you to go. I have an appointment in an hour and I have to get ready. I’d like you to leave. I’ve said all I’m going to say. ”

  Liam opened his mouth to argue, but she’d already risen, her agitation evident as she stalked to the door to open it. Her hand gripped the edge of the door, and she was pale as they walked past. She looked like she was going to be ill at any moment.

  As soon as they were over the threshold, the door slammed behind them. Noah winced. “Damn, you get the idea we aren’t welcome any longer?”

  Liam made a noise that sounded like a snort, and the two men returned to the parked SUV.

  It was quiet in the vehicle as Liam drove away. Noah wasn’t entirely certain where he was going. He hadn’t gone back in the direction of their offices.

  After a moment, Noah pulled out his cell and started to put in a call to his buddy who worked for the NYPD. He hesitated, Suki’s words floating back to his mind. Then he cursed and put the phone back.

  She was making him paranoid. For all he knew she was talking out her ass.

  “Problem?” Liam asked.

  “I was going to call Johnny. See what he could dig up on this Joel Knight dude. ”

  “And? Why didn’t you?”

  Noah grimaced, already feeling a little stupid. “Because Suki said he had cops on his payroll. ”

  He thought Liam would tell him what an idiot he was being. Out of the hundreds of cops in the city, what were the odds that it would involve their contact?

  But Liam merely nodded. “Better to be safe. We can do some digging on our own, but I’d rather go straight to the source. ”

  Noah’s brows drew together. Liam pulled into a parking place that was half a block down from a pub they frequented.

  “What do you mean by that?” Noah asked.

  “I’ll tell you over a drink,” Liam said.

  If Liam was actually going to hit a pub so they could sit and talk, this had to be serious. Liam was more of an act-now-think-later kind of guy. Elaborate planning wasn’t one of his stronger points. That was Noah’s job. Noah thought out issues. Liam carried out the plan. It was a combination that had worked well for them over the years.

  They ambled in and instead of sitting at the bar, they took a seat at one of the tables in the far corner, and Liam held up two fingers to the waitress.

  Nodding, she offered a hello in greeting and then hurried off to get their order. They were here regularly enough that the staff was well acquainted with their preferences.

  “So what’s going on in that head of yours?” Noah pressed.

  “I think we should go see Lauren,” Liam said in a low voice.

  Noah frowned. “That’s not what we were hired to do. ”

  “Fuck what we were hired for. We can’t do the job unless we have all the information from Lauren. And we don’t have it. We’ve been chasing our tails because Lauren was too afraid to tell us or her brother the truth about who abused her. If we confront her, we’re less likely to get the brush-off. If we call her up, she’s not going to just offer us this information over the phone. ”

  Noah sighed because . . . shit. This was going to open a whole damn can of worms.

  “You know this isn’t a good idea,” Noah said bluntly. “We both obviously have feelings for her. We can’t do our job if we’re too busy fighting over who gets the girl. ”

  The waitress appeared, and Liam clammed up while she plopped the cold bottles down on the table. Once she left, Liam took a sip before carefully setting it back down. Noah waited. There was definitely something on Liam’s mind.

  Liam stared directly at Noah, his gaze intent, jaw tight. “You ever wonder why I just let Lauren go so easily?”

  Noah’s brow crinkled. “Max came to get her and brought her home with him. What could you have possibly done?”

  Liam simmered with impatience. “Come on, Noah. Are you telling me you didn’t care when she left? That it didn’t bother you that we had to trust in the fact that her brother could keep her safe? That you didn’t want to tell him he was making a huge fucking mistake so that we could keep her close to us at all times so we’d make sure no one ever hurt her again? Quit pretending you don’t care. This is me you’re talking to. I know better. ”

  “So what?” Noah snapped. “What the fuck was I supposed to do? I couldn’t damn well make a move on her. Not after that shithead did what he did to her. We were strangers to her, and we scared her shitless. ”

  “It brings me back to my original question. ”

  “No, I don’t damn well know why you let her go so easily,” Noah said impatiently. “Do enlighten me. ”

  “The few times we got her to actually talk to us, she spoke about the family her brother married into. That her sister-in-law had three fathers—all married to the same woman—and that her brothers were also hooked up with the same woman. ”