BY: MONA KAREL
Lana Greene doesn’t care that most of the world sees her as avaricious and amoral. All the better for her to stand as a shield against those who would exploit the weaker. Until the day she comes up against a situation too difficult for her to handle on her own, and she has to reach out to her ex-husband, Ty Randolph, owner of Stormhaven Ranch.
Adam Roberts dedicated himself to keeping the world safe—until his efforts took part of a leg and much of his self-worth. Recuperating at Stormhaven—a remote ranch, where the main concern is helping out vets—he jumps at the chance to assist his new friends when Ty asks him to take on an escort mission.
But there is far more at stake than anyone realizes—including a number of innocent lives. And Lana is in way over her head. Now she and Adam must learn to trust themselves—and each other—fast, if they are to have any chance of protecting those innocent lives.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In A Question of Trust by Mona Karel, Lana Greene is working undercover to help girls caught in sex trafficking, but she sees something she shouldn’t and now she is in over her head. With no one to trust and no one to help, she calls the only one she knows who will help her without hesitation—her ex-husband, Tyler Randolph. He sends an ex-special forces friend to bring Lana to New Mexico and his ranch, Stormhaven, but Adam Roberts has no idea what he is getting into when he agrees to this “simple” escort job. All of his skills and smarts will be needed to get them out of this mess, but will that be enough?
Karel has a real talent for creating spicy romantic thrillers that keep you on the edge of your seat, and this is no exception. Very well done.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: A Question of Trust by Mona Karel is the story of a woman with a shadowed past who is determined to help the weak among us who are being preyed upon by evil men. When Lana Greene sees a murder of a young woman in Las Vegas and can’t get the police to pay any attention to her, she calls the only person she knows who will help her without reservation—Tyler Randolph, her ex-husband and owner of Stormhaven Ranch in New Mexico. Ty sends former special forces operative Adam Roberts to bring Lana from Las Vegas to new Mexico, but what Adam thinks is a simple escort mission turns out to be a fight for their lives.
The third book in her Stormhaven Love Story series, A Question of Trust is every bit as spicy and exciting as the other two. With a solid and timely plot, marvelous characters that you can’t help but root for, and plenty of spicy sex scenes, this is one you won’t want to miss.
Lana Greene took one final, deep breath of relatively clean air before shouldering the door open into the high-priced suite at the top of the luxury hotel. Smoke assaulted her nostrils as she entered the room. Exotic, pungent, and difficult to identify—most likely from foreign, possibly illegal sources—the smoke mixed with lust, avarice, and gut-wrenching fear to form a miasma forcing her into taking short, shallow breaths. Preferably through her mouth. The cleaning staff was going to have a rough time making this room habitable again.
She did not allow revulsion to touch her face, though it was difficult to maintain the slightly ditzy sex kitten expression when she wanted more than anything to turn on her narrow heel and escape.
The drapes were closed against the early morning light, shutting off one of the truly lovely views in Las Vegas: the rising sun backlighting mountains with red and orange and gold. It would be another brutally hot summer day.
Too bad no one was taking advantage of the view, nor of the brief, clear cool air. She thought longingly of high mountains and clean air then slipped into the room as gracefully as possible.
“Lana, sweetie, there you are!” The slurred voice called from across the room, grating against her ears and her soul. She turned in the direction, making sure her lips continued the sincere if slight smile.
“Mr. Hoffman, what can I do for you?”
“Ralph. How many times do I have to tell you?” His voice was a drunken slur, but she could hear anger building. Hoffman drunk was even less in control than Hoffman sober.
From the trash and detritus she saw strewn across the room, she had no doubt there was more than high-proof expensive alcohol influencing him and his equally incapacitated friends—if you could call associates in his sort of business friends. Maybe friendly enemies. Maybe even not so friendly, given Hoffman’s business practices, which were anything to show a healthy profit—legal, moral, helpful, or not.
“Do you need a meal served, or would you like to have housekeeping come through and pick up for you?”
“We don’t want anyone in here. Tony B should have made that clear when he hired you. If you want to show off your Suzie Homemaker skills, go right ahead and straighten up a bit.”
His suggestion warranted a baleful glance, complete with raised brows, but she didn’t deign a reply. Instead, she turned away, surveying the room.
The men sprawled across fine leather sofas, heels scraping the tops of low inlaid tables, in some instances shifting the delicate inlay. Her ever busy mind automatically totaled the cost to refurbish, and she wondered if she would be able to convince her client to pay up.
“Mr. Bonavides is not my employer. The contract between Make it Work and your group was signed solely by myself. I suggest you reference your copy concerning damages to the property.”
Hoffman turned away with a scowl when she made her voice and attitude intentionally mercenary. No matter what the signed contract might say, some people seemed to believe they were far above any consequences of their actions. She ignored the sprawled bodies, the expensive crystal glasses dropped to the thick carpet while full, if the spreading stains were any evidence. The lovely table cover, decorated with handmade lace, was nowhere in sight. Plates of dried leftover food overflowed side tables and piled on the floor, along with discarded bits of clothing. A dark stain smeared across one sharp corner of the table. Bright clothing, what looked like delicate expensive material, trailed along the stained carpet. Not something any of these men would be wearing.
A pile of cream cloth drew her eye to a corner behind one of the couches. Ah, the table cover, no doubt totally ruined. Plus what seemed to be more bits of that bright material along with…a bare foot? Was she seeing a dainty toenail with innocent pink polish? She avoided allowing the frown to form across her forehead while she headed in that direction, buried instincts overcoming her usual control. Until a deep voice, roughened by foreign tones, warned her just before she felt a large hand take hold of her upper arm.
“Ralph might be able to live on vodka and tobacco, but the rest of us need breakfast. Have a meal sent up right away. If you can get it here in ten minutes, there’s an extra hundred in it for you.”
Lana welcomed the excuse to escape from the fetid room, though she worried about abandoning what looked too much like the form of a girl under that casually discarded cloth—along with a stain trailing along the thick carpet.
Lana avoided looking directly at that sad pile of cloth. Instead, she nodded once, planting a smile on her mouth. She could do nothing for this girl, and if they ever suspected her actions, she would not be able to help any others.
Fresh baked scones and yeasty donut smells enlivened Lana’s nose. Nothing was quite as enticing as a small bakery in the early morning. Especially after the day and night she’d had. Soon her teeth would be biting into a flaky pastry, maybe one with a raspberry filling she could cherish on her tongue before swallowing. She’d learned long ago about the value of little things in her life. A good pastry or two would go a long way toward helping her ignore the bruises and scrapes all over her body, clamoring for her to notice them.
A television screen, discreetly tucked into a niche above the counter, caught her eye, then her whole attention. She turned in that direction instead of leaning over the glass display case. A photo of a delicately lovely young woman—high cheekbones and a exotic slant to her eyes augmenting her beauty—was inset against a dumpster in an alley, with a sheet draped over a sadly diminished body. The sound was turned too low for her to hear the talking head but a text block to the side provided information about “another” tragic death of an unknown female. Except the woman in that picture looked depressingly familiar.
Then the camera showed another picture, another sheet draped body. This time a large man with an angry expression. Then a picture of a hairy arm with a tattoo of a tiger from wrist to elbow.
She’d seen that tattoo, recently, on an arm reaching for her as she rushed down concrete steps in her ridiculous shoes.
Pastry forgotten, she edged out of the shop and around the corner to an empty seating area with umbrellas opened against the soon to invade bright sun. She automatically looked around while fussing with her hair, her collar, and remembered she’d changed to casual clothes, slim jeans and a loose shirt, and tied a scarf over her head to complete the non-party girl persona.
She dug deep into her old leather backpack and pulled out a phone she hadn’t used in a long time. Very little battery showed, but a stashed power cord and an outside plug soon helped her hunt up a number she never thought she’d call again. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and she had not been this desperate for a long time.
The phone rang several times, reaching out across the miles to safety. Until:
“Stormhaven. How can I help you?”
Captain Adam Roberts (retired) was as certain as he could be that no one else watched the blonde in the tiny mom-in-law house tucked into a corner of the large, tree-infested back yard of the monstrous, overgrown, pretentious, fake mansion now standing empty, no doubt due to the fact that no one could afford the electric bill to cool or heat it.
No one else was driving past, or watching from a driveway down the street, or even peering through a long range scope at Sydney Starke’s damned-near gorgeous sister. The pictures he’d been given had all been of the made-up-perfectly, not-a-single-hair-out-of-place sort of woman who left him cold. This woman, who’d come out of the secluded house when the sun had barely eased through the trees to water a profusion of plants and put out food for the local population of feral cats and gossiping birds, was in full dress-down mode, wearing what looked like thrift-store finds—loose jeans and baggy shirts, with her hair pulled back impatiently into a skewed pony tail.
This woman could make his heart beat in syncopated time, if he cared about gorgeous women. Wasn’t it lucky he knew that gorgeous women were always trouble?
He lifted his phone, snapping a picture of her as she came out to tend the cats, then sent the picture out with ??? in the message.
Within less than a minute the answer came back. As far as I can tell. You’re no Ansel Adams.
He stifled his snicker in a cough. Working with the group at Stormhaven was more fun than he’d had in a long time. He contemplated sending back something crude but reminded himself he was a professional and this was a job. Plus, he really did like the people he was working with. Most of the time.
So he texted, Going in, let her know.
When the blonde tilted her head then dug into a deep pocket and lifted the phone to her ear, he eased himself out of the not-big-enough-even-for-his-frame rental car. Keeping to the available cover as much as possible in the early morning desert hush, he slid along the side of the large front house.
“Ma’am? Ms. Randolph? I’m here from your ex-husband.”
Lana fell against the side of the tiny adobe casita where she’d been hiding out. Her heart stuttered almost to a stop before she grabbed enough breath to call out. “Whoever you are, come out where I can see you.”
She expected someone built along the lines of her ex-husband and his partner. Big, obviously suited for the work, either as a soldier or a cowboy. When a moderate-sized man slipped out from the shadow of the behemoth wanna-be castle, turning and pulling off his cap so the early light revealed close-cut dark hair and a lean face, she felt her heart jump into flight reaction.
“I have no idea who you are so I suggest you stop right there.”
“No problem, ma’am. If you want to snap my picture and send it off to your sister, we can get out of sight all the faster.”
Huh? Send his picture to Sydney? Clever.
She followed his advice, lifting the cheap phone, thumbing the camera function. One, two, three clicks. She chose the best of the three to send off to New Mexico and got an immediate answer.
Yes. Now get back in the house.
Always bossy, her sister. Lana backed into the house, followed by the man, who continued to keep a space between them. She realized it wasn’t only to be polite, he was also keeping himself a safe distance away from her. He lifted his much fancier phone for a couple of quick shots and copied her sending. Then he nodded.
“Looks like Syd has given both of us an okay. You don’t look much like the pictures she has of you, so I needed to check.”
“What pictures did she have?”
“Formal types mostly. Wedding, that sort of thing.” He looked her over and took a breath, as if bracing himself for her reaction. “I think I like this look better.”
“I think I agree with you, but there wasn’t much choice either way. These were on the mark-down rack at Goodwill, and I only had the cash in my pockets when I got out of there.”
“Out of there…” His unusually light-green eyes in a rough-hewn face studied her, then he glanced around the room, no doubt evaluating where she’d been staying.
The whole cottage was small. Cute when you visited for a few hours but restrictive when you had to be here for too long. Lana had already been here long enough.
The quiet, tough man looked as though he was waiting for an answer. What was the question? Oh. “Out of the penthouse suite where I heard—I saw—” The memories moved in on her, and she felt the darkness try to take over.
“Easy.” He was suddenly closer, taking hold of her arm, his grip impersonal.
Even so, the touch of this man’s hand, the strength in his fingers, jolted her. She straightened, started to pull away, then realized he was only supporting her, not trying to move her around, his grip not closing enough to affect the existing bruises. Once she edged away and took a deep breath, he released her and stepped back—giving her space as if he realized she was not comfortable around men who, no doubt, carried weapons and knew how to use them. She wasn’t. She hadn’t been for a long time. “What’s the plan?”
“Getting you out of here first. Getting you someplace safe so you can let people know what it was you heard or saw. Not now.” He raised one large hand, palm out. “Right now we need to concentrate on removal. Do you have anything you need to take with you?”
She lifted her heavy tote onto her shoulder then reached for the grip of a soft sided case. He nodded as if approving her ability to travel light. Condescending jerk.
“What about the cats? Will anyone notice they need feeding? Or the plants haven’t been watered?”
“The cats are a neighborhood project, greedy little beggars. And the plants pretty much take care of themselves. A caretaker comes by about once a week. I was planning to be gone before he arrived.”
“Good. You have wheels?”
She shuddered, remembering her precipitous flight from the high rise and the subsequent escape through the city.
His brows met in a quick frown, then he nodded. “Back exit?”
“Yes, through the palm trees. There’s a break in the wall, opening onto a small alley.”
“I think I saw that road. Can you be there in five minutes?”
She nodded once, her heart racing. He slid out of the house and up the driveway the same silent way he’d shown up.
She’d asked for help and gotten it in spades. But what had asking her ex-husband gotten her into?
“Just a quick trip,” they’d told him. “Out to Nevada and back. Fly into a small airport, drive about an hour, pick up Ty’s ex-wife, fly back. Piece of cake.”
Yeah, piece of cake. Except Ty’s ex-wife was nothing like her sister, Sydney. For one, Lana was several inches taller, and all those inches were in the right place. Even dressed down, with no obvious makeup enhancing her thick-lashed chocolate-brown eyes, light hair shining bright in that gloomy room, she had a gloss he bet Syd never had, a way of carrying herself that spoke of fancy restaurants on the arm of rich men, instead of field stripping a weapon while under fire. Sydney Starke was real, solid. Her sister was—
He looked over at the passenger seat. Her sister was sitting very still, staring at his profile. Something she’d been doing a lot of since easing herself into the car. She’d shifted once or twice as though trying, and failing, to find a more comfortable position on the seat.
“Ma’am, are you okay? You weren’t hurt when you left that last location were you?”
“Ma’am,” she muttered with a small laugh. “No, I wasn’t hurt. I’m just not accustomed to running down many flights of stairs or sleeping on a short couch. I need to get out and move around some is all.”
“You should be able to do that at the ranch without worrying about who might be watching you.”
“Yes, it seemed like a safe place to be. Where are we going and why exactly are you here? Not that I don’t appreciate the help.”
“We’re going to a ranch with a small private airport not too near Vegas. Your—Mr. Randolph’s—neighbor offered to give us a lift while he was at a meeting.”
“Ah, yes. Kyle Jorden, Ty’s obscenely rich neighbor.”
“That’s the one. Not that many people have their own fleet of planes.”
“And he apparently keeps them all busy.”
Adam looked in the mirrors, checking constantly for any vehicle that might be following. He kept the window down in spite of the heat. A bit of sweat was a small price to pay for vigilance. Because of this, he heard the distinctive beat of helicopter blades, several times, as if someone was trying to pinpoint a location.
“Ma’am, do you have anything on you from before?”
“What do you mean? I got new clothes, such as they were.”
“Another thrift-store find.”
“Shoes, jewelry, watch…”
She slapped her hand over her wrist and looked over at him, guilt in those big brown eyes. Then reluctantly, she unclasped the dainty watch and handed it over. “Do you think—”
“I don’t know. But it’s kind of odd to have a chopper fly over us twice in five minutes. Hold on.”
Adam wrenched the wheel, heading off the road toward a gas station with the questionable promise of “fresh food and cold beer.”
“You need to use the bathroom,” he stated, not phrasing it as a question.
She grimaced, obviously not thinking good thoughts about the bathrooms in a place that looked so run down.
“We don’t need much gas,” he continued. “And I doubt either one of us is willing to risk that food. We need a reason to stop for more than a few minutes.”
She nodded, and when the car eased up next to the pump, reached for the door handle.
“Hold on.” He scanned the parking lot then tilted his head to check overhead. “We might have to ditch the watch here, but I’d rather it kept moving a different direction from where we’re headed. Don’t be surprised if you see me doing something a little…”
“Illegal? Trust me, there’s not much you can do I haven’t seen.”
With that, she opened the door and swiveled to move her legs out of the car. She stood with the care of someone who’d been sitting too long, and whose body didn’t appreciate what it had gone through the last few days.
The interior of the service station lived up to the promise of the exterior, complete with flies, the smell of old grease, and a bored cashier, who nodded without much expression to the back of the building when Lana inquired about a ladies room. Then she straightened, checking out the new man when Adam came in.
Lana raised her brows while surveying the facilities. At least there was toilet paper and paper towels, though it didn’t look like much attention was given to bathroom inspections. She spent what seemed an appropriate amount of time in the room before flushing the toilet then running the water long enough to wash her hands. Adam was at the register, paying for some bottles of cold water while complaining about the “hinky” gas gauge on their rental.
“I swear I’m going to turn that pile of crap rental in if we’re here much longer, babe.”
“Whatever you think best, hun.”
That almost got a reaction from him, but only a quirk at one side of his mouth. An elderly man had come in while she’d been in the back, along with a couple of rowdy teens.
“Y’all can’t be buyin’ beer here, you know,” the cashier called out. “And you can’t get anyone to buy it for you, either.”
“Yeah, yeah, we know.” They went from the large chilled beer displays to the smaller glass fronted water and soda coolers.
Adam gave Lana a minute nod as they navigated past the noisy young men, who smelled like their vehicle air conditioning was on the fritz. It almost hid the dubious perfume of stale cigarette smoke.
Two more vehicles were in the lot, a well maintained older truck, and a newer, large, dusty, dually beyond that. Adam rested his hand in the middle of her back, guiding her away from the building and pointing off toward the smudge on the horizon that was Vegas.
“See what happens when too many people get themselves all squished together? It’s no wonder they’re always arguin’.”
“Not everyone can be as enlightened as your family,” she said in as conciliatory tone as she could manage.
This time she got an almost smile and thought she might have heard something along the lines of “cute,” under his breath. While they discussed the view, Adam’s hand flicked once, and she saw her pretty watch go flying into the over-packed second seat of the truck. She sighed.
“I had to save up a long time to afford that watch, even at a pawn shop.”
“You shoulda said something. We could always dig it out of their empty chip bags if it means that much to you.”
“Staying alive means just a bit more.”
He looked at her over the top of the compact car before sliding behind the wheel.
“Something really spooked you.”
“Something would have had to spook me, to get me to call my ex-husband for help.”
She eased into her seat, bracing herself for the stab of pain. She sensed him looking at her, but after a few deep breaths, he put the vehicle in gear and pulled out.
What seemed like an eternity of silent driving, punctuated only by the mystery man’s deep breaths, was probably only fifteen minutes. His large hands stayed steady on the wheel—no casual one-finger hold for this soldier. In spite of the lack of uniform, she knew he was every inch, every ounce, a soldier. Those lessons she learned early in life tended to stick with her.
She shifted in her seat, looking for that one perfect angle that didn’t hurt quite as much—there. At least briefly, the cessation of pain was like a balm. She let herself relax into the back of the seat and managed to draw a deep breath.
“You ready to tell me how bad you’re hurt?”
“I told you, I’m just a little sore from running down a ridiculous number of steps instead of using the elevator. The choice of sleeping on that tiny couch or on the floor didn’t do much to help. Not to mention no hot water for the shower.”
“All that’s inconvenient, but you’re in pain, not just inconvenienced.”
Dammit. She would have to be rescued by the only perceptive man in three states. She didn’t realize she’d muttered this out loud instead of in her head until she heard his quiet chuckle.
“Not quite. A team leader who can’t tell when one of his people is hurting can get the whole team killed. You think they can keep up, and you end up hauling their sorry asses out of the field. No need to apologize,” he added as if he knew what she was going to say next. “Just be straight with me. How many flights of stairs?”
“Twenty? Twenty-three including the sub basements.”
“Then they managed to make my car crash, so I got knocked around some. I got lucky there, since the cops had a speed trap set up and were on site immediately.”
“Medics show up?”
Not EMTs, or paramedics. Yep, soldier man. Smart soldier man. She wasn’t sure he was totally buying the edited version of what had happened. “Pretty fast. They didn’t see anything overt—no blood, no broken bones. And they had a real MVA right down the street—bus and bicycle. So I was able to talk them out of taking me in, and I slipped away. Grabbed a cab then a bus then walked to that lovely tribute to bad taste.”
“You left the vehicle?”
She shrugged and winced. “Friend’s car, kinda old. He’s been storing it at the hotel in my extra spot while he’s out of town. I grabbed the bag from my car but took his car, hoping to fool anyone following me.”
He waited for more information then continued, “How far did you walk?”
“Couple miles? I hit the thrift store first. The emergency bag I kept in my car wasn’t enough for more than a couple of days.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me, Ms. Randolph.”
“I go by my mother’s name, or at least her last husband’s name. Greene. But I would much prefer you call me Lana.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His total lack of inflection said more than most men’s long speeches. So Adam Roberts didn’t think she should have dropped Ty Randolph’s last name. Maybe he’d think differently if he knew how little she deserved to carry that name.
The silence extended long enough for her to relax as much as possible into the seat, the empty desert lulling her nearly to sleep. A roar of many engines came up from behind them. She recognized the sound from her years on the road around Vegas.
“Bikers,” she said into the silence. “Back a couple of turns.”
He nodded and took a quick right off the highway onto a road leading to one of the saddest old buildings she’d ever seen. He guided the car to ease behind the dilapidated structure, risking nail punctures but hiding completely from anyone on the road.
“A lot of the so-called biker gangs around here are pretty innocuous. Once in a while, I have a chance to go out with them. Some are retirees living out their teenage dreams, but instead of riding hogs, they’re on shiny purple bikes with big storage sections and sometimes even side cars. I’ve even seen—”
His upraised hand cut off her forced light-hearted babble. He eased out of the car, edging around the building until he could see the oncoming group of growling motorcycles.
They came in a cloud of dust and noise. Some were definitely purple and oversized, a last-chance dream of freedom. But intermingled were some bad-ass powerful bikes with riders in concealing outfits. All dark. Nothing strange about being covered from head to toe in leather when you’re on a motorcycle with nothing else to protect your teeth from bugs, but they sure didn’t blend in.
The group swept past, with no obvious demarcation between the retirees and the younger riders. By the time he could figure out if the dark clads on their speed bikes were innocuous or dangerous, he and Ms. Rand—no, Ms. Greene, could be in serious trouble. He slipped back to the car, feeling all sorts of grim.
She had not come out of her seat, not done any of the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding stupid things too many amateurs did when their lives were in danger. In fact, since he’d taken her out of that house, she’d acted completely contrary to what he’d expected. He filed that away to think about later. Right now they needed to look at some sort of change in plans.
He arranged himself behind the wheel of the getting-smaller-all-the-time car, not yet reaching for the ignition key. She still didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask any inane questions like “Who was that?” or even “What’s next?” She pretty much just sat there in her own little bubble of coping, trying to hide her wince whenever she moved too fast.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “They’re going to figure out we either turned off or hid somewhere, and it’s not like there’s a lot of turn-off-or-hide on this road.”
“How did they—”
“That chopper was following a small beige sedan. When the tracker moved a different direction, they probably figured out the kid’s truck would only be valid if you were in it. There are all sorts of reasons why you would have moved into the truck. No doubt, they either did a drive by or just stopped those kids somewhere. You weren’t in it, and the kids didn’t know anything about you. So now they’re looking around for this car. Dammit.”
“You think some of those motorcycles were not retirees living the dream?”
“Hate to say it, but, yeah, I do.” He reached for the small phone stashed in the console.
© 2018 by Mona Karel