“You can’t be serious.”
Well played, Eliot thought, recognizing Quinn’s voice immediately. After their fight, he was better Parker would figure out a way to bring Nate in to talk him off this particular ledge. Quinn, though – Quinn was almost a better choice. Not to mention Nate and Sophie are in Capri this month, he remembered at last.
His fellow hitter moved into his field of view. “Eliot. Have you lost what’s left of your mind?”
Determined not to be distracted from his task, Eliot continued locking the different pieces of the sniper rifle into place. “I’m going to assume that’s a rhetorical question,” he said, still unwilling to risk looking up and meeting Quinn’s eyes. “You can go back and tell her…” He sighed, the weight of too many emotions crowding in on what he was getting ready to do. “You know what?” Now he did look up at the other man, letting Quinn see just how serious he was. “Tell her whatever you want, because this is happening.”
Before he could resume his work, Quinn dropped into a crouch and covered Eliot’s hand with his own. “Just stop for a second. Talk to me.”
Tension rippled across Eliot’s shoulders, and for a brief moment it was all he could do not to shove Quinn back and off him. “She show you the pictures?” Surveillance shots, taken in places a stranger never should have been able to access, texted to a number no one outside the family should have known existed. Instructions had followed – date, time, location, target, and a promise of what would happen to Parker if Eliot failed to follow everything to the letter.
Quinn’s hand falling away was all the answer Eliot needed. “And you’re taking her side?” Pivoting, he swung the rifle into position and checked his distance to target through the scope. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes until Bernard Jackson, witness for the prosecution in the matter of the State of Oregon vs. Stancorp Financial Group, stepped out of the courthouse surrounded by every bit of protection the state attorney could bring to bear.
It wouldn’t be enough, but there was no way they could know that.
“She doesn’t want you to do this.”
Memory of the look in Parker’s eyes as they’d argued flashed through Eliot’s thoughts, and he almost laughed. “I know. Trust me – she made that abundantly clear.”
Hand on his shoulder then, squeezing until he turned to look at Quinn again. “So let me.”
He did it. Oh God, what do I do now? “Are you sure it’s the guy?” Parker asked Hardison, who had just delivered the horrifying news. She shook her head then, immediately ashamed of herself for doubting the hacker. “Never mind. You wouldn’t have said anything if you weren’t sure.”
There was no judgment in Hardison’s eyes, only sympathy – which was almost worse. “I need to call Nate,” she said, her brain grasping for anything that could steady the situation. Making it not have happened at all would have been her preference, but that ship had clearly sailed.
“And say what? Parker…” Reaching out, Hardison grabbed her wrist. “You already sent Quinn after him – we need to give that time to play out.”
“You’re on his side.” Tears blurred Parker’s vision as the truth of everything rose in her throat. “You’re okay with what he did.”
To his credit, Hardison didn’t shy away from her accusation. “I’m not okay with any of us needin’ to kill, but I’m a lot less okay with some psychopath threatening to take you out while you’re asleep.” He released her then, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m not going to apologize for feeling that way either.”
Having people that cared this much about her hurt on levels Parker hadn’t even known she could feel pain. “Have you made any progress on figuring out who’s behind this?”
Whoever had targeted them had left Hardison with no time and limited resources to dig up his identity before the job they’d tasked Eliot to do needed to take place. As far as Parker was concerned, all that meant was that retaliation for the insult done to them would take a little longer to bring to fruition.
“I’ve got a couple of solid leads,” he admitted. “Once you’re ready we can…”
The sound of the back door to the office opening drew both of their gazes. Eliot stalked into view a moment later, followed closely by Quinn. “What happened?” Parker asked immediately, looking from one hitter to the other – willing to take her answers from whoever was willing to give them.
Quinn hung back, but Eliot continued forward until he was invading her personal space. Cupping her face between his palms, he pulled Parker up against his body and kissed her as deeply and thoroughly as she had ever been kissed. The thief tensed for a brief moment, her need for answers almost overriding her desire to know that Eliot was okay, that whatever happened hadn’t broken them.
After a long moment he pulled back, looking deep into her eyes. “You’re safe,” he said gently. “We’ve got time now for Hardison to track these bastards and Quinn and me take them out of play.”
Parker had her mouth open to protest being excluded from his planned revenge fest, but before she could lay into him, he kissed her on the forehead then let her go – walking past her, past Hardison, and disappearing in the direction of the kitchen.
“Don’t,” Quinn said, when she would have followed him. Parker rounded on the other hitter, but once again she was struck speechless by the look on his face. “He needs some space to cool off.”
“Why couldn’t you stop him?” she asked as the tears she’d been trying so hard not to cry began to overwhelm her. “I trusted you to stop him!”
Quinn appeared entirely unaffected by her emotional state. “Who says I didn’t?”
Lunch rush hadn’t started yet, and the kitchen staff had seen enough of Eliot’s moods that they immediately reorganized their work away from the corner of Bridgeport’s kitchen he’d claimed for his own. Working on raw instinct now, the hitter barely noticed the ingredients he was grabbing from the kitchen, trusting that whatever he was setting in front of himself he would be able to blend it all into something that somebody would eat.
”I don’t care how they portray it in the movies.” Memory of Quinn urging him to set the rifle down rose up in his thoughts again. ”Killing to protect someone you love isn’t anything but messy.”
Extra virgin olive oil…medium heat…diced onions and garlic… Eliot tried to find his rhythm, let the familiar work ease how sick he felt. ”I can’t risk anything happening to her, Quinn. I won’t survive it.” It was the first time he’d admitted to anyone outside the family how deep his feelings really went, and now that admission was forever tied to the idea that Parker was an exploitable weakness in his life.
It was obscene.
“You could have told me yourself.”
Closing his eyes, Eliot braced himself against the edge of the counter and counted to ten before turning to look at Parker. “You knew it was likely to turn out that way when you called him. He as much as said so.”
Parker pulled up short at his observation, almost immediately on the defensive. “We needed an out – something to buy us time. Quinn gave us that.”
The last thing Eliot wanted to do was fight with her, but it was his job to keep everybody safe, and that meant seeing all the angles that Parker either couldn’t or wouldn’t. “Did you even stop to think that maybe me doing the job was more important than it getting done?”
He could tell immediately by the shift in her expression that she hadn’t, but Parker was never one to back down when she had a point to make. “You must have thought it was an acceptable risk, or you wouldn’t have let him take the shot.”
And suddenly Eliot was glad they paid Bridgeport’s employees very well.
“Nothing about this is acceptable,” he said finally, pulling Parker into an embrace with a sigh. “We’ll figure out a way to make it all right.”
The thief let him hold her for several moments, but then he heard her sniff loudly and felt her go up on her toes to look over his shoulder at what he was cooking.
“I’m not eating that.”