An EXIT Inc. Romantic Thriller (Book#2)
Lena Diaz returns to the thrilling world of EXIT Inc., with two enemies who become unlikely allies—and discover that only through love can they save each other.
As an agent of the Equalizers, Jace Atwell will risk everything to destroy EXIT Inc., the corrupt antiterrorist group, before more innocent lives are lost. The only way to infiltrate EXIT is by getting close to the CEO's beautiful daughter, but when they get a little too close, Jace finds himself falling for the woman he is duty-bound to deceive.
Whatever clandestine activities EXIT is involved in, Melissa Cardenas refuses to believe that her father is responsible and is determined to prove it. So when sexy, smooth-talking Jace comes clean about his motives, Melissa drops a bombshell of her own: she's been investigating too—and she wants to help him find the truth.
The chemistry between Melissa and Jace is undeniable, but their opposing views of justice make teamwork tricky. With their lives on the line—and the truth something neither of them expected—the only way to survive will be to trust their hearts and each other . . . if they can.
Read Reviews | Read Excerpt
"The battle continues between EXIT, Inc. and their former enforcers, keeping up the intensity level and intrigue from previous installments. Finding love amongst the chaos is the real miracle. . . . There is betrayal all around the couple, and their lives are ultimately saved by their trust in each other.” – Jacqui McGugins, RT Book Reviews
"This is my first book by Diaz and wow I really enjoyed every minute of it! It was fast paced and filled with non stop action that I honestly didn't want to end. Since I didn't read the first book I was a little lost on the whole history of exit but I'm so glad Diaz took the time to explain it over again for first time readers of this series.” . . . "If you're looking for a good suspense to get your heart rate going I definitely suggest reading this book!” – Danielle on Goodreads
Jace Atwell’s Navy SEAL training hadn’t included a course on how to be a successful stalker, but he was learning fast.
He tapped his brakes, allowing another car length to open up between him and the sleek silver Jaguar he was tailing. Following a woman on a nearly deserted two-lane road through the Colorado Rockies, without making her think he was purposely following her, was proving to be uniquely challenging.
Soon he would run out of road and out of daylight. They’d leave this snowy mountain and be back in civilization. Which meant other cars. And witnesses. He checked his watch. If Ramsey didn’t show up soon, Jace would have to call it a night and figure out another approach tomorrow.
As if on cue, the roar of an engine announced the arrival of a white panel van, coming up fast behind him. Finally. It whipped around, but instead of weaving like a drunken driver per the plan and intimidating Melissa Cardenas into pulling over, it cut in front of the Jag, then braked, hard.
Damn it, Ramsey!
The Jaguar skidded sideways as its driver fought to avoid a collision. Jace wrestled his car to the shoulder on his right. But unlike his road-hugging classic Grand National, the sporty little Jaguar didn’t stop. It must have hit a patch of black ice because it kept sliding toward the steep drop-off just past him.
Jace’s stomach sank. Let up on the gas. Steer into the skid!
The car’s two right wheels slipped over the edge of the road. Jace winced as the Jag slammed sideways into the ditch. Dirty snow and pine needles sprayed up in the air, and the windshield exploded in hundreds of tiny pieces.
Melissa punched at the air bag that had deployed, trying to move it out of her way, and Jace let out a relieved breath. He couldn’t tell for sure that she was unhurt from his vantage point above her, twenty feet back. But at least she was conscious and moving around. He looked toward the van, expecting it to take off. But instead, it had stopped in the middle of the road, parallel to the wrecked car.
What are you doing, Ramsey? Get out of here.
If the goal had been to run the Jag off the road, Jace could have done that without Ramsey’s help. But that wasn’t the goal. The plan had been for Ramsey to force Melissa to stop on the shoulder. Then he’d take off, leaving Jace to play rescuer.
It seemed a rather ridiculous way to meet someone, but Melissa was rarely ever alone. A workaholic, she was usually with her father at his company. So, after months of surveillance and trying to figure out a way to get into EXIT Inc.’s inner circle, Jace’s team had settled on this idea. If the mission was successful, he would use the “chance” meeting to garner Melissa’s trust. Then he could build on the fledgling relationship over the course of a few days or weeks until he finagled a way to gain entrée into the company’s top levels, preferably in a role that would give him access to the executive floor, where Cyprian’s offices were located. But if Ramsey didn’t back off, he’d ruin everything.
On days like today, Jace missed being a Navy SEAL, where he could count on his team to back each other up and stick to mission plans.
He popped open his driver’s door. But he hesitated when the van’s side door slammed back on its rails. Ramsey appeared in the opening, dressed in the disguise they’d agreed upon—all black, including his bulky coat, and a ski mask to conceal his features just in case Melissa glimpsed him through the van’s windows. She’d met Ramsey before, when he’d worked for her father’s company as a tour guide—or at least that’s what she’d thought he was doing there. But Ramsey’s hopping out of the van was definitely not part of the plan. And neither was his pointing a pistol down toward Melissa Cardenas.
WTF? Had Ramsey lost it? Had he decided that kidnapping Melissa would be the better way to get to their true target—her father? After weeks of arguing with his teammates, Jace had grudgingly agreed to use Melissa to get into the company she ran with her father. But kidnapping her and aiming a gun at her when she wasn’t the one responsible for the deaths her father’s clandestine activities had caused wasn’t what he’d signed up for.
She franticly tugged at her seat belt, her wide eyes watching the gunman—which only ratcheted up Jace’s guilt. A far-too-recent memory flashed through his mind.
A different place.
A different time.
A different woman.
Patricia Stanton’s broken, battered body lying at the bottom of a crystal-clear pool, her sightless eyes staring up at him accusingly. Twenty feet away, the man who’d vowed to love her and cherish her until death did they part had also stared at Jace. But his eyes were gloating, the look on his face triumphant as the police handcuffed him and led him away. He’d won. Jace had lost. And his client had paid the ultimate price for his failure to keep her safe.
That wasn’t going to happen again. Not today. Not on his watch. And it sure as hell wasn’t going to happen because one of his men was taking his role as a bad guy far too seriously.
He jerked his gaze back to Ramsey, who was still standing in the road with his pistol, as if debating his next step. They might have started this morning as allies, working together to bring down a dangerous, corrupt antiterrorist organization pretending to be nothing more than a tour company. But the moment Ramsey had aimed a gun at a woman who might very well be innocent, he’d become Jace’s enemy.
He popped open the glove box and grabbed his SIG Sauer 9 millimeter, a gun he hadn’t even considered that he’d need today. Instead of getting out the driver’s side, where he had no cover, he maneuvered his long legs over the gearshift in the middle console and slid out the passenger side. Ducking to keep the engine block between him and Ramsey, he scrambled to the front bumper. He fired two quick warning shots up in the air. Ramsey’s dark ski mask swiveled toward him.
“Drop your weapon.” Jace straightened, keeping his gun trained slightly to the left of Ramsey’s body, hoping the other man would come to his senses and stop this madness.
Without lowering his gun, Ramsey looked back toward Melissa.
“Drop your weapon.” This time Jace aimed his SIG dead center at the other man’s chest.
Ramsey suddenly swung his pistol lightning fast toward him. Jace swore and dove beside his car. A deep-throated boom echoed through the trees. Metal pinged against the hood scoop, and a small hole opened up in the right fender.
Son of a bitch!
Another round plowed into the asphalt inches from where Jace had been standing. He glanced at Melissa in the ditch about twenty feet away. Her face was ghost white, and even from this distance, he could tell she was shaking. He crept toward the front bumper, staying low as he peered around his car back toward the center of the road.
Ramsey was gone. The van’s side door slammed closed. Jace ran out onto the road just as the engine cranked to life. Seconds later, the tires squealed, and the van took off.
Jace debated shooting out the tires to give his associate a taste of what he’d just dished out to Melissa Cardenas. But no matter how pissed off Jace was, he didn’t want to risk killing the man just because he’d made a stupid decision.. He’d save his anger for later, when he confronted Ramsey over what had just happened. Instead, he fired several rounds harmlessly over the top of the vehicle into the pine trees in case Melissa was watching. The van raced around a curve and disappeared.
He uttered a few choice words about Ramsey’s parentage and turned to check on Melissa. But the sound of another engine had him whirling around. A black limo was barreling down on him. He cursed and dove out of the way, the limo’s wheels narrowly missing him as it screeched to a halt, rocking on its springs.
Jace groaned. He knew every line on that car, every shiny piece of chrome, even the small ding on the front passenger door. That limo was in EXIT’s parking lot every day, the same parking lot where he’d spent countless hours watching Melissa coming and going. And he knew exactly why the driver had just tried to run him down—because the passenger in the back of that car wouldn’t tolerate a man standing in the middle of the road with a gun when his daughter’s car was in a ditch just a few feet away. That limo belonged to Melissa’s father, the CEO of EXIT—Cyprian Cardenas.
Daddy dearest had just unwittingly come to his daughter’s rescue—which meant Jace’s plan to act as her white knight was nixed, pretty much guaranteeing this already-screwed-up mission would end in complete failure. Jace needed time with Melissa, alone, to gain her trust, to manipulate her into offering him the type of job that would give him the access he needed. Without that time, without that trust, he had no leverage.
And Cyprian’s hyper suspicious nature, especially knowing that several of his enforcers had recently gone rogue, turning against their former employer, was already on high alert around strangers. Which doubly applied to someone like Jace—a former Navy SEAL who’d spent the past few years in the civilian sector as a bodyguard.
Yeah, he was pretty much screwed.
He did the only thing he could at this point: he stayed in character, determined to follow the fake scenario through and see if he could pull out a miracle. He jumped to his feet and positioned himself in front of the wrecked Jag as if to protect the driver from this newest threat—pretending that he didn’t know that Cyprian and Melissa were related.
The rear doors on the limo flew open. Two ridiculously large, muscle-bound men in black suits got out, aiming equally large guns at him.
“Drop your weapon!” one of them yelled.
Jace weighed the odds. These guys were probably used to intimidating people with their size alone. They wouldn’t expect him to put up any resistance. He could drop to the ground and probably shoot both of them before they fired a single round. No. Scratch that. He couldn’t risk a firefight with a maybe innocent woman in the kill zone. He reluctantly pitched his SIG onto the road.
The men headed toward him while their boss stepped out of the car. And behind him, his two assistants got out, Sebastian and Tarek. Great. It was a highway reunion of everyone Jace had been investigating as part of figuring out how to manipulate his way into EXIT. This was bound to go well.
The assistants didn’t bother to join the fray, choosing instead to remain by the car. Their boss pulled a black trench coat over his gray suit and surveyed the situation like a king overseeing his domain. His brow furrowed when he looked toward the Jaguar in the ditch.
“Wait, stop!” a feminine voice cried out.
Jace was stunned to see Melissa Cardenas standing on the edge of the highway. Her royal blue dress had a deliberate, sexy slit up one side. But the slit on her right shoulder wasn’t a fashion statement. She’d torn it, probably while climbing out of her car and out of the ditch. Thankfully, there wasn’t any blood or visible injuries. She seemed okay. Wavy, dark brown hair flowed out behind her as she hurried toward him, her heels clicking across the pavement.
Worried Cyprian’s guards might hurt her in their zeal to defend their employer, who was now striding toward Melissa, Jace held out his hands to stop her. “Stay back.”
One of the gunmen chose that moment to lunge at him, slamming a fist into the side of his jaw. The sucker punch whirled Jace around and knocked him to the ground.
Swearing like the sailor he used to be, Jace waggled his throbbing jaw. Luckily for the man who’d decked him, it wasn’t broken.
“You get that one for free,” he growled at his opponent. “The next one will cost you.”
“Stop it.” Melissa sounded furious. “Why did you hit him? He was protecting me.”
The guard crouched over Jace and hauled back his fist to deliver another blow. Jace rocked back on his hips and delivered a brutal kick to the other man’s knee. A crunching pop accompanied an agonized scream as the man dropped to the road, clutching his ruined leg.
Jace jumped to his feet and moved protectively in front of Melissa again to confront the second guard, who proceeded to shove a .357 Magnum in his face.
This was not going well.
“Enough.” Unbelievably, the stubborn woman stepped around Jace again and stalked to her father, who’d stopped just short of the fray, watching the events with a dispassionate expression.
“Call off your thugs,” she demanded. “That man was protecting me. A van ran me off the road, and the driver had a gun.” She waved toward Jace. “He risked his life to scare the other guy away. He deserves our thanks, not a fist, or someone pointing a gun at him.”
Cyprian’s eyes widened as if only just then realizing how much danger his daughter had been in. He pulled her against him in a fierce hug.
The injured man groaned in agony, rolling around on the asphalt. Jace couldn’t help being impressed with the clever epithets the man was hurling at him. He thought he knew every curse word imaginable. Now he had a few more to add to his arsenal.
“You heard Melissa.” Cyprian set his daughter away from him, smiling at her reassuringly before letting her go. “Put your weapons away and wait at the limo with the others.”
.357’s mouth tightened with obvious disappointment. But he did as his boss ordered, aiming a warning glare at Jace before helping his partner hop-skip to the car.
The salt and pepper in Cyprian’s hair marked him as past middle age. But his eyes were sharp and clear as they seemed to take in every detail around him—the Jag in the ditch, Jace’s gun lying on the ground, the formerly pristine black coupe now sporting both an entrance and exit hole from the round that Ramsey had fired—although from this angle Cyprian probably couldn’t see those bullet holes.
“You saved my daughter’s life?”
Jace didn’t respond to Cyprian’s question. The man was used to people kowtowing to him and would expect it of someone trying to trick their way into EXIT. So, as if he didn’t care what Cyprian thought—which, on many levels, he didn’t—Jace took the opportunity to study Melissa up close for the first time in over two months of surveillance.
She was even more beautiful in person than through the lens of his long-range camera.
The Spanish influence from her father’s side was evident in her dark brown eyes and nearly black hair. But her pale, silky-looking skin must have come from her mother. Her long legs were paired with curves that begged for a man’s hand, his kiss. And Jace certainly wasn’t immune to her appeal. But it was the deep intelligence staring back at him from her almond-shaped eyes that was sexy as hell and had him wishing, not for the first time, that she wasn’t his enemy’s daughter.
She shivered in the cold breeze that blew across the road, whipping her dress against her thighs.
By the time Cyprian thought to shrug out of his trench coat, Jace was already settling his own jacket around Melissa’s shoulders.
“Thank you.” She looked surprised but grateful as she snuggled into the jacket’s warmth.
“Young man.” Cyprian sounded annoyed. “I asked you a question.”
He reluctantly dragged his gaze from the enchanting daughter to her far-from-enchanting father. “I don’t know if I saved her or not. The van ran us both off the road. When he waved a pistol, I evened the odds. He decided not to stick around.”
“Why did you have a weapon in the first place?”
Jace cocked a brow and motioned toward the limo. The injured man was inside, but his assistants were watching them, and .357 stood in the open doorway, looking like he couldn’t wait for an excuse to charge at Jace. “I imagine I keep a gun in my car for the same reason that your men carry them. For protection. Not that it’s any of your business.”
The subtle tightening of the lines around Cyprian’s mouth told Jace he didn’t appreciate his lack of respect.
“You handled my men like a pro.”
The accusation in the older man’s voice was clear. He was just as wary as Jace’s teammates had expected him to be, which was why they’d decided to approach him through his daughter—using Jace, who had no prior ties to EXIT. But Cyprian’s suspicion-laced question was one that Jace was prepared for. And he didn’t even have to lie.
“I spent most of my career as a Navy SEAL. But more recently, I was a bodyguard.”
Patricia’s lifeless, broken body wavered in his mind’s eye, as it often did in his nightmares. He forced the image away. “My last mission didn’t go as I’d hoped.” He couldn’t help wincing at that understatement. He’d quit his bodyguard job and had wallowed in his misery, and the bottle, for far too long. He might still be in that dark place if a mutual friend hadn’t introduced him to Devlin Buchanan, who’d then introduced him to Mason Hunt. They’d recruited him into the Equalizers—a secret organization whose sole goal was to take down EXIT—and gave him hope again.
Joining them had been his salvation, another chance to prove he could be better than his one, horrible mistake and protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. Or so he’d thought. Now, after Ramsey’s foolishness, he wasn’t as convinced that he’d made the right decision.
“Where did you say you’re from?” Cyprian asked.
“I didn’t. But I’m from Savannah, Georgia. Moved to Boulder a few months ago.”
Something dark passed in the depths of Cyprian’s eyes. Savannah didn’t have pleasant memories for either of them, and Jace figured the older man was weighing the odds, making connections, perhaps wondering if Jace knew any former enforcers who’d been based out of Savannah—like Devlin. Cyprian hadn’t survived this long in his line of work without being careful. But then again, neither had Jace.
“Who did you work for there?” Cyprian asked.
Melissa gave her father a reproachful look. “Stop badgering him. We haven’t even introduced ourselves.”
Taking her cue, Jace said, “I’m Jace Atwell. And in answer to your question, I was with Dawson’s Personal Security Services. I was one of fifteen bodyguards working for the owner, Luke.” He gestured toward Cyprian’s car again. “Looks to me like you could use an upgrade in the bodyguard department. I could give you Luke’s number.”
Melissa put her hand on her father’s shoulder as if to hold him back and frowned at Jace.
Cyprian surprised him with a rueful grin and offered his hand. “You might have a point there. Cyprian Cardenas. Pleased to meet you.”
Jace forced a polite smile and reluctantly shook Cyprian’s hand. What he really wanted to do was retch as soon as he touched him—or put a bullet in Cyprian’s brain to make the world a safer, better place. Men like Cardenas were the reason Jace had joined the Navy right out of college. They were why he’d later become a bodyguard, and why he’d recently joined the Equalizers.
Thanks to Devlin and Mason, the coleaders of the Equalizers, Jace knew all about EXIT and the infamous CEO before him. EXtreme International Tours described the Fortune 500 company’s public mission. But it was far more appropriate to its true purpose, its clandestine side. EXIT Inc. was a front for a brutal organization of professional killers who were supposed to protect innocent people by taking out bad guys. But the abuses of power within the organization meant that all too often, EXIT’s enforcers ended up killing the very people they were supposed to protect.
The Council that served as liaison between the company and the government had determined just last year that EXIT was manufacturing fake evidence to trick some of the enforcers into killing innocents while believing them to be criminals. And they’d put Cyprian on notice that the enforcement side of EXIT could easily be taken away from him if he didn’t follow their rules. The Equalizers were therefore understandably sworn enemies of the man standing in front of Jace, the man who’d once been their boss. And they had no faith that Cyprian would abide by the Council’s dictates.
“And this is my daughter, Melissa,” Cyprian announced.
She smiled and held out her hand. This time, Jace didn’t hesitate. Based on the reports that he’d read, and his own in-depth investigation, he was inclined to believe that she probably knew nothing about EXIT’s secret charter and the double life her father led. He fervently hoped that was true. He couldn’t imagine that the kind woman that he knew so well, on paper at least, would have anything to do with the evil that her father perpetuated.
His observations had also convinced him that she loved her father deeply. Which meant that when Jace and his teammates brought EXIT down and exposed Cyprian for what he was, she’d be hurt. And if Jace was able to manipulate her into offering him a job, thus getting him into EXIT’s headquarters, Melissa would blame herself for what happened to her father.
For that reason, he’d argued against this mission. He’d spent hundreds of hours working up alternatives, trying to figure out a better way to infiltrate the top levels of the company that wouldn’t take a ridiculous amount of time and had a chance of fooling Cyprian. But none of the other plans seemed viable. And the longer they waited, the more likely it was that innocent people were still being killed. So he’d finally caved.
The only stipulation he’d insisted on was that he would only “use” Melissa in her professional capacity as an officer of the company. He refused to try to develop a romantic relationship with her for the purpose of manipulating her. That was a personal line he would not cross, no matter how incredibly appealing she was.
He reluctantly let her hand go. “Miss Cardenas.”
“You saved my life. You’ve earned the right to call me Melissa.” She smiled again. “I’m the president of EXIT Incorporated. My father is the CEO. Dad, can you give him a business card? My purse is in my car.”
Her father took a card from his suit jacket pocket and handed it to Jace. “We’re both in your debt, Mr. Atwell. If there’s ever anything that I can do for you, name it.”
Jace studied the white card with elaborate gold letters and a green logo on top showing smiling tourists in a raft. “EXtreme International Tours, huh? I think I’ve heard of that. You take tourists white-water rafting up and down the Colorado River.”
Cyprian’s eyelids drooped as if he were insulted by Jace’s simplistic description. “Quite a bit more than that actually. Although we’re primarily headquartered here in Boulder, we have satellite locations all over the world, and a fairly new, secondary headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina. The trips we offer are unlike anything you’d ever experience from a traditional tour company. I’d be happy to give you a premium vacation package, on the house.”
Jace shook his head. “Thanks, but I don’t have much leisure time these days. Since leaving Savannah, I’ve been living off my savings, which are getting pretty slim. If I don’t find a job soon, I’ll be living on the street. Which is why I’m on my way to an interview right now. Or, I was.” He checked his watch. “Not sure they’ll still give me a chance since there’s no way I can make it on time now. I assume you’re going to call the police to file a report. But I’d rather not wait around. Can I give you my cell-phone number and have you explain to the cops why I had to leave? I’ll head straight to the police station after my interview and answer any questions they have.”
Cyprian’s eyes narrowed. With suspicion? Or something else?
Melissa shot her father an odd look, then stepped forward, putting her soft, warm hand on Jace’s forearm. “Mr. Atwell, youdon’t have to run off to an interview.”
He frowned, not at all pleased at his body’s overeager response to the simple act of her touching him through his shirtsleeve. Thankfully, she seemed oblivious to the way his pulse was crashing through his veins.
“I’m sure that in a corporation as large as ours, we have something that will fit your skills and experience,” she continued. “Several of our guides are former military. And if you prefer an office job, we could arrange something along those lines as well.”
Her offer genuinely surprised him. Somehow, in spite of the fiasco that Ramsey had made of this mission, Jace was still getting exactly what he’d set out to get—a way into EXIT Inc.
Operation Trojan Horse had begun.