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Eyes of Jade

Eyes of Jade -- Available Now
Undercover Intrigue Series -- Book Two

America’s Sweetheart, Eve Knight, has decided to retire from acting at the age of twenty-nine. After more than twenty years in the public eye, a heart-breaking divorce, and rehab, she plans to start a new life.

When FBI Agent Jake Dane arrives to question Eve about a suspicious fire, they instantly become targets of an assassin. Someone is trying to kill Eve by reenacting scenes from her action-adventure movies. Jake swore off love after his engagement ended in tragedy, but as he and Eve fight to stay alive, she charms him and awakens his soul.

Realizing she’s falling for Jake, Eve worries she’s fabricated a connection because of their intense situation. The FBI convinces her to bait a trap, but will putting on the performance of her life be enough to save her?

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excerpt

Chapter One

 

Jake jolted awake in a cold sweat, his pulse pounding in his ears. The beeping of his cell phone finally registered. He pressed his face into the pillow and concentrated on inhaling deep breaths. Five years and he still couldn’t escape the nightmare: the images of her bruised, beaten body, the metallic coppery scent of blood, and the terror that squeezed his heart like a tourniquet.

His phone beeped again. He rolled over and grabbed it off the nightstand. “Jake Dane.”

“I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.”

The first gray haze of morning filtered through the blinds. “I’m on vacation.”

“Not anymore.” The line clicked dead.

With a glance at the empty space beside him, a familiar twinge tightened his chest. No time to dwell. He rolled out of bed and headed for the shower.

Ten minutes later, hair still wet, he slid into the passenger side of the unmarked Mercury Sable. “This better be good.”

His partner, Stewart Rainey, hit the gas and raced down the street. Jake waved to his neighbor who was still in his robe and slippers, dragging a trash can to the curb. Dark rain clouds dipped low in the sky, a promising relief from the stifling Houston heat.

“No coffee?” Jake grumbled.

“We’ll stop on the way. Nothing with a smell is tolerated at my house. Peg’s so fucking miserable and still claims it’s my fault.”

“You did get her pregnant.”

 “Vasectomies are supposed to work.”

Jake grinned. “Maybe you should’ve gotten that last checkup.”

“I did, we just hadn’t gotten the results. It’s a crime when a man can’t make love to his wife without using a damn condom.” Stewart shook his head. “But I don’t remember her morning sickness being this bad with the other two.”

Traffic crawled bumper to bumper in the heart of the city, even at six-thirty in the morning. Jake’s phone vibrated, and he fished it out of his pocket. Sam, his ex-partner, no doubt worried Jake was spending the day alone. Jake didn’t answer, but texted him instead. <Sorry, couldn’t answer. Working today.>

And before she called, he texted his mother. <Vacation cancelled. I’m at work.> She’d be relieved he wasn’t at the beach house watching waves crash to the shore. Taking vacation on this day each year and spending it at the beach had become a ritual for him.

Stewart exited the highway and hung a right at the first corner. The road transformed into a quiet street lined by massive oaks and dense foliage. Houston was a paradox—the way the city easily mixed with the country. A quarter mile down the road, a metal gate stood open with police officers and vehicles surrounding the entrance. Squad cars’ red lights flashed in the morning gloom.

Stewart rolled down his window and presented his badge to the officers, then pulled up the asphalt drive only to be blocked by fire engines and more police cars. On the other side of the vehicles smoldered the rubble of a warehouse. Portions of the gray building stood two to three feet high around the ruins. Everything else was charred in black soot. By the overgrown grass and weeds, he guessed the place hadn’t been used in years.

Firefighters lingered around the perimeter of the property, their coats open, some still in black helmets. A few folded hoses onto the trucks.

A dark haired man in a blue pinstriped suit strode from the back of the property. Kirk McDermott, with his side-parted brown hair and spit-shined loafers, was as straight-laced an agent the FBI had to offer. McDermott shook hands with Stewart, then Jake. “I’m the case agent.”

“Why are we here?” Jake asked.

McDermott reached inside his coat and pulled out a small clear plastic evidence bag. Inside was a soup can size spool with a hook on the top.

Stewart whistled. “That’s a triggered spark gap.”

Innocent enough when used to ignite electrical shock waves to break up kidney stones, the device could also detonate a nuclear bomb.

“It was left on the front steps.” McDermott frowned. “With a note.” He held out another baggie which had a small piece of paper with one word written on it. BOOM.

“Why is this familiar?” Stewart asked softly, mostly to himself.

Nothing about this was familiar to Jake. He slipped his camera from his pocket and took pictures of the device and note.

“The warehouse was intentionally torched, but we don’t know if it’s a random act, or deliberate against the owner.” McDermott hesitated. “There’s more.” His lips formed a straight line. “Last week a non-profit organization purchased the place. The only executive on the organization’s records is Eve Knight.”

Stewart stiffened. “The Eve Knight?”

“One and the same.”

Stewart’s eyes lit up. His wife loved Hollywood gossip.

Jake cringed. That’s all he needed—a spoiled-ass actress with an attitude. “Has anyone contacted Miss Knight or is she in this debris?”

“She cancelled a private flight to Bush Intercontinental last night, but caught the earliest commercial flight from LA this morning. She’s due in Houston in an hour.” McDermott’s dark brown eyes were hard, like he’d seen everything in life and nothing surprised him anymore.

“Would she have done this for the insurance money?” Jake asked.

“Records show she paid in cash and insured it for the exact amount of the purchase, so it’s doubtful.” McDermott put the triggered spark gap and note back in his pocket. “You need to intercept Miss Knight. Inform her about the warehouse and bring her in for questioning. And that won’t be easy since she’s on a commercial flight.”

Jake didn’t follow Hollywood, but no one missed Eve Knight’s face on the cover of magazines in every grocery store, or her movie trailers and the ridiculous stories about her on TV and the news. Not to mention reruns of the sitcom Raising Trudy. She’d starred on the show as a young girl.

“We better go,” Jake said.

On the way to the airport, Stewart chatted like a schoolgirl, “I’ve read quite a bit about Eve. They say she’s a nice person. And her fans love her.”

“You can’t believe everything you read.”

Stewart ignored Jake’s remark and slapped the steering wheel. “Wait until I tell Peg. She won’t believe Eve Knight is in Houston.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “Will she be as excited as you?”

“What’s up your ass?” Stewart asked, a smile still cracking his face.

“I’m supposed to be on vacation, away from this shit.”

“The real reason.”

One thing about partners, they sensed things others couldn’t.

“If this was a random arson, why would someone leave a triggered spark gap and a note?”

~

“Oh my God, it’s Eve Knight.”

Eve flinched as she grabbed her phone and thought about ignoring the lady, but didn’t want to appear rude. Because she wasn’t rude, no matter what the Hollywood rags wrote about her. Why had the flight attendant asked her to wait for an escort? The last time she’d flown commercial, she’d been instructed to get off the plane first.

Giving into the inevitable, she slipped her phone into her purse, not having turned it on yet. With the flick of her hand, the scarf fell from around her hair to her neck, and she took off her sunglasses. She stood and faced the passengers exiting the plane. On this huge a plane, the door was behind the seats in first class, so she hoped to avoid the passengers since they wouldn’t pass in the aisle. No such luck.

A red-haired woman gasped and slapped the arm of the man beside her. “I told you.” Her smile was huge and toothy. “Eve, I’m your biggest fan. I can’t believe we rode on the same plane. Are you in Houston for long?”

The woman’s enthusiasm made Eve smile. “I’m not sure. It’s nice to meet you.”

Others on the plane bobbed their heads and craned their necks to get a glimpse of her. The woman squealed. “Oh, Eve, can I get a picture with you?”

Eve nodded and smiled, which led to at least ten other pictures with people she’d never met and would never meet again.

How many of these people believed what the press reported and wrote about her? Did they trust the media’s version of her life—which had little to do with her real life?

As a child, her stepfather sheltered her from the vultures. But in her late teens, her emotions see-sawed with every piece of gossip she heard and read. Finally, in her twenties, after her divorce and rehab, she realized nothing written or said in the media meant a damn. It didn’t define her. The made-up gossip usually held a kernel of truth, but weren’t based on truth, but shock quality.

With the passengers gone, Eve gathered her purse and computer bag. Two men rushed onto the plane. They were a bit out of breath when they approached and flashed their badges. She recognized them as FBI. She’d played an FBI agent in one of her movies and worked with actual agents to make her character more realistic. 

“Hello, Miss Knight. My name is Stewart Rainey and this is Jake Dane. We’re from the local FBI office. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Stewart Rainey. Jake Dane. Eve looked at each man and repeated the names five times in her head. A trick her agent taught her as a child, it had come in useful her whole life. She rarely forgot a name.

The men were of a similar build, both around six feet, but their likeness ended there. The one who spoke, Stewart Rainey, had happy blue eyes—his blond hair in a flat-top. Jake Dane had solemn green eyes and a deep tan—his brown hair much longer than his partners’. And while Agent Rainey dressed in slacks with a blazer, his partner wore well-fitted jeans and a polo with a white t-shirt underneath—his sports jacket straining over his broad shoulders.

“Can you tell me what this is about?” she asked.

Agent Rainey gestured to her computer bag and held out his hand. “There’s been an incident at the property you bought here in Houston.”

She passed him the bag. “An incident? At the warehouse?”

“We’ll explain on the way to the property.”

“Thank you.” If she’d arrived last evening, a limo would have been waiting in a private hanger, but this morning she’d expected to hail a taxi. The car she’d bought last week was at the apartment she’d rented.

She followed in Agent Rainey’s wake, hoping to get through the airport without too much interference.

Agent Dane, who stayed at her side, scowled. He stepped between her and the crowd when eager fans ran up. “Please, let us through. Miss Knight is late for an appointment.”

While she smiled and waved, she whispered under her breath, “It’s easier if I acknowledge them.” She looked at him. “Trust me. I’ve dealt with this my whole life.” With a smile, she faced the crowd. Camera bulbs flickered like strobe lights in the darkened terminal. Even though it was eight in the morning, the dismal weather outside cast an ominous drape over the day.

As she took a step to skirt the agent and reached for an outstretched pen, she felt her upper arm being grasped. Again, Agent Dane positioned his body between her and the crowd. “Sorry, folks. Miss Knight is late.”

She waved as he rushed her away from the fans, his grip not crushing, but firm—very firm. Why was he in such a rush? Her name rang out often, but the agents hurried her through the corridors of the airport.

She’d been in the limelight since the age of six, and although a nuisance, she had a certain responsibility to the fans. They were the ones who bought the tickets, the ones who—in essence—paid her salary. She respected that and respected them. Now the people she’d just dissed might call her a snob, or claim she was too good to give them the time of day. “You didn’t do me any favors back there.”

“I’m not here to do favors.” Agent Dane’s voice sounded like a growl.

She stopped and twisted from his hold, fed up with his cloak and dagger routine. “Why are you here?”

The agents each reached for her arms.

“Don’t you dare. You won’t drag me out of here like I’ve done something wrong.”

“We can’t discuss this here.” Rainey glanced about. “Will you please come with us?” He smiled and held out his arm. At least he was giving her a choice. She took the proffered arm and let him guide her. Outside the automatic glass doors, a sedan waited. Dane opened the car door and she slid inside. He followed right behind her, his big body crowding hers. Rainey hopped into the driver’s seat.

Before they left the covered parking garage, she asked, “What’s this about my warehouse?”

Dane’s eyes reminded her of uncut pieces of jade, the color brilliant, yet flat—lifeless. “Why didn’t you make your chartered flight last night?” he asked.

A stab of sadness pierced her heart—her loss still new. “Something came up.”

“What?”

It wasn’t any of his business. “I don’t see why you’re ask—”

 “We need to know.”

Heat boiled through her. After the night she’d suffered through and how she’d cooperated with these agents, his tone and interruption angered her. “You’re the rudest person I’ve ever—”

“Answer the question.”

She folded her arms over her chest, having no intention of telling the ill-mannered agent anything.

“A fire destroyed your warehouse.”

Nausea shot through her and she jolted forward.

From the front seat, Rainey shook his head. “Shit, Jake, you didn’t have to blurt it out.”

“Yes, I did. She’s pissed we wouldn’t let her greet her adoring fans. We don’t have time for her to play America’s sweetheart.”

She’d never wanted to be America’s sweetheart. But the warehouse? How long would it take to rebuild?

Dane rubbed his forehead. “Someone deliberately set the fire. We’re trying to figure out if someone is trying to send you a message or hurt you.”

Shock vibrated through her. “I thought all of this was behind me. I never believed I could live anonymously here in Houston, but I hoped to escape the crazy stalkers.” Her life had been threatened many times, but nothing ever developed beyond threats.

Until now.

An eerie shiver jangled through her. “You can’t be sure someone is after me. The warehouse needed drastic repairs. Maybe the gas line exploded when the utility company turned it on.” Another curiosity set in. “Why is the fire a Bureau issue?”

Dane pulled a camera from his front pocket and showed her a picture. “Our team found this at the warehouse.”

Eve gasped. “That’s a triggered spark gap.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“One was used as part of the script on a film I made.”

Rainey looked at her through the rearview mirror. “That’s what was familiar. In Till We Meet Again, you were the FBI agent in charge of protecting it.”

How sweet, Rainey is a fan.

She met Dane’s annoyed gaze. He, clearly, was not a fan.

Rainey continued. “They left a note with boom written on it also.”

“You’re kidding?” Who would do this? “Surely my warehouse wasn’t blown up with a nuclear bomb.”

“No.” Dane turned off the camera. “But this is why we were assigned to the case.”

She studied his chiseled features. “What if I want my own bodyguards?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Rainey said. “We’re going to take you to the property, then to the office to answer questions.”

She reached inside her purse. “I need to call my dad.”

Rainey’s deep voice came from the front seat. “We’ll have to rule him out as a suspect first.”

Appalled, she blew out a breath. “My dad would never do this.”

“Until we are satisfied he didn’t do it, you’re not to contact him,” Dane said.

Now they were trying to provoke her. Her heartbeat picked up speed. “You can’t forbid me to speak to my father.”

“Yes, we can.” Dane glared out the rear window.

“You’re being unreasonable.” She laughed with a disgusted sigh, but nagging fear gripped her. Who set fire to her warehouse? And why leave a triggered spark gap and note like in one of her movies?

Keeping her demeanor calm was almost impossible with her heart pounding so fast. But she’d acted most of her life. She could do it. A twinge of pain twitched in her head. Oh damn, all I need is a headache.

~

Eve was too calm. Spooky calm. Any other woman would be freaking out. But not Eve Knight, she was laughing.

Her attitude pissed Jake off. She needed to be on guard. More aware of the potential danger she might face.

Ready to lecture her, Jake studied her first. Her hands were clutched together in her lap, knuckles white. On closer inspection, her body was shaking. And now that he thought about it, her laugh had sounded a bit hysterical. First impression aside, now he could tell she was terrified.

Although Eve had been a cute kid on Raising Trudy, cute no longer described her. When he was young and watched her on TV, she had a way of making everyone fall in love with her. As she grew up and he saw her in a couple of her early movies, he wasn’t immune to her girl-next-door-you’d-like-to-jump looks. And now, well, she glowed with simple beauty, from her shiny dark brown hair to her flawless, radiant skin. She didn’t flaunt her petite body—right now she wore jeans and a button down top—but it was hard to miss her delicate, perfect curves.

Her eyes were what undid him though. So dark, so outwardly innocent. One glimpse into those brown depths and her soul seemed to be laid out before him.

She was out of her ever-loving beautiful mind if she believed moving to Houston would help her escape fans and the paparazzi.

His hardened attitude softened a bit, like he’d released a held breath. He wanted to place a hand over hers to give her encouragement, but he wasn’t sure she’d accept it. They hadn’t gotten off on the best foot. He’d expected her to protest and fight him and Stewart. And he’d been more insistent than necessary making sure she understood who was in charge.

But after seeing her this scared, he regretted his hard-ass attitude. “Sorry about what happened at the airport. We got caught in traffic or we would have gotten you off the flight first.”

She didn’t respond.

Was she even listening? “Can you tell us why you missed the flight last night?”

“Something important came up.” Her voice quivered.

He slid his arm behind her on the car seat, trying to lend her strength without touching her. With no family or friends, she might need a lot more than strength before this case was over. But for now, this would have to do.

He cleared his throat. “We need a list of everyone who knew you purchased the warehouse and that you were coming to Houston last night?”

“My family and Paige.”

“Paige?”

“My agent, Paige Delano.” She blinked and her lips made a straight line. “I’m sure no one else expected me to arrive until Friday for the benefit.”

“What benefit?”

“A benefit for my charity Dancing Souls is arranged for this weekend.”

One thing at a time, the benefit would have to wait. “When you say your family, who are you talking about?” Jake asked.

“My father, sister, and brother.”

“You mean your stepfather and stepbrother, right?” Jake held onto the handle of the door when Stewart turned a sharp left.

“They’re my family.” By her tone, she didn’t consider them step anything.

“Do any of them know you didn’t make your flight last night?”

Her eyes filled with tears. “No. I was at the hospital until this morning, I’m sure they think I flew out last night.” As she said the words, they drove up to the warehouse. “Oh my God,” she whispered.

Jake sat quietly beside her while she stared at the rubble.

“It’s destroyed,” her voice choked.

Stewart put the car in park. “Eve, whoever did this couldn’t be a fan. You said you only told your family and agent about the purchase.”

A stubborn expression crossed her face. “My family wouldn’t do anything like this.”

“Families have done much worse,” Jake said.

“Not my family.”

“Perhaps it’s your agent.”

She shook her head. “I consider Paige family too. She’s been my agent since I started acting.”

Stewart put the car in reverse. “The key is why someone would set fire to the warehouse.”

Eve pulled a small box out of her purse and grabbed a little red pill. “I need to go by my apartment.”

Both men shook their heads.

“My things were packed at my LA home a few days ago and sent to my apartment here in Houston. I didn’t bother bringing a suitcase since my stuff had been shipped already. And I need my headache medicine.” She held up the pill. “I only have one left in my purse.”

“We can pick up your medicine another time,” Jake said.

“You don’t understand.” Frustration edged her voice. “A pharmacy compounds it to my doctor’s specifications. My headaches often turn into migraines and sometimes only a shot from a doctor will get rid of them. The medicine will help if I take it early enough. You want me at the local hospital when I can’t stand it any longer?” She popped the pill into her mouth and swallowed without a drink.

Jake found himself swallowing just watching her. “We’ll have an agent get your prescription.” He punched a few numbers on his phone.

“He’ll never get in my apartment,” Eve whispered.

Minutes later, frustrated and ready to throttle her apartment manager, Jake punched the off button on his phone. He turned to Eve. “Without a court order we can’t enter your apartment.”

“I tried to warn you. Those apartments are like Fort Knox. That’s one reason I decided to live there.”

On their way to her place, the storm blew in. The constant beat of the rain on the windshield comforted Jake. He welcomed the crash of thunder, the sparks of light, the violence of Mother Nature at her worst. Storms made sense, had plausible reasons for their course, not that they always stayed on course, but at least they could be predicted. His life, on the other hand, couldn’t be explained or understood.

As Stewart drove, Jake phoned McDermott who insisted on sending two cars to help.  Once at the apartment complex, Stewart pulled up behind the cars. Agent Ramirez, who looked young enough to still be in high school, ran over and handed Stewart a two-way radio. “We’ve done a preliminary sweep. Perimeter’s clear.”

“Why didn’t you get closer?” Stewart asked. On the road they were a good twenty-five yards from the front of the building. The brick sidewalk was to the left of the building, then took a ninety degree turn to the front center doors.

“Only residents can park on the lot.” Ramirez frowned.

Eve motioned to the parking lot. “Oh good, my car looks untouched.”

Jake followed to where she pointed and noted a Mercedes parked next to the only walkway positioned on the right side of the building.

Ramirez opened the back door of the car.

“Call the bomb squad to check Eve’s car.” Jake pointed at the Mercedes.

The young agent nodded and handed him an umbrella. Jake held it over them as he and Eve rushed into the building—their bodies bumping every so often. Stewart’s boots thudded behind them. The morning air was blessedly cool with the storm. The apartment building, bordering the Memorial district, was as high class as Houston had to offer. The marble tile floors and ornate furnishings looked Italian. Huge arrangements of fresh flowers bloomed in every nook and cranny, giving off a sweet rose scent.

“Miss Knight, so nice to see you.” A tall, balding man with a British accent met them in the lobby.

Eve smiled. “You too, Mr. Westin.”

“I’ve been hounded by FBI agents wanting to get into your apartment, but I insisted they needed a court order.”

She nodded. “I am sorry about that. I was told my belongings have been delivered.”

“Indeed, Miss Knight. Yesterday. And your trim work was finished yesterday also.”

“Thank you.” Jake and Stewart followed her to the elevator.

Once on her floor, dim lighting lit the wide hallway. Stewart stayed at the elevator.

Eve fumbled in her purse and finally pulled out her keys. Her hands still shaking, the keys clinked together. Bringing her to the warehouse might not have been a good idea.

Without a word, Jake gently took the keys, wanting to look inside first to make sure everything was clear, but with the security here, it probably wasn’t necessary. He unlocked the door and twisted the knob.

A door in the hallway slammed closed. Then almost immediately a clatter rattled behind him.

“Oh hell.” Eve had dropped her purse, the items scattering everywhere.

He looked around, but nothing was out of order and no tenants were in the hallway. When he glanced toward the elevator, Stewart shrugged. Jake let go of the door and knelt beside Eve to help gather her things.

She brushed back a lock of hair from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually this much of a—”

Deafening gunfire drowned out her apology.