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Chapter 1

I shiver in the dark, empty room. I’ve been camped out in the half-complete construction space for a little more than an hour. The space is going to be a luxury hotel room when complete, but for now, it’s just concrete floors, exposed wires, and framed in walls. 

From this window I have the best view. The best shot. 

Torin Stevanto is expected to arrive any minute. I’ve done my due diligence, calculating wind speed, velocities, distances and angles. Three hundred yards. Not my longest shot, not my shortest. 

I’d only accepted this job - once again promised my last job- because Uncle J consented to letting me do it my way.

My bluetooth announces an incoming call, and I tap the earbud to accept the call. I don’t recognize the number, but that’s the way these things work.

I don’t even speak after I answer. I just wait. 

“There’s traffic on Hollister Street.” 

I recognize the voice as one of Uncle J’s better lieutenants, Shane. It’s code for the direction they’ll be coming from.  

“That’s too bad. Dinner’s getting cold. Should I put it in the oven?” I ask. 

“No sweetheart. I’ll be there in less than five minutes.” 

“Ok. Honey Pie. See you in a bit.” I tap my ear bud to disconnect the call. 

Five minutes. I blow out a breath and sit forward to look through my scope. Everything’s perfect. 

Except for the fucking jitters in my stomach. Every. God. Damn. Time.

I close my eyes and count to ten, consoling myself. You're ok, Kere. You got this. 

You are a trained killer. You have five successful hits under your belt. 

You are trained. You are successful. 

You are ok. 

He’s a bad man.

A handsome bad man. 

Fuck! No. I can’t think about how he looks or how young he is.

I pop my scope-eye open and focus.  My world narrows down to what I can see through the little circle in front of me.   

I’ve got the front door of the restaurant in my crosshairs. A bit of a risk to off him right in the street, but Torin is uber careful and rarely steps outside for long periods of time. 

Stupidest fucking idea ever. But the only other option puts me way too damn close to Stevanto. 

Way too damn close to getting caught. Poison. 

Too many damn chances of a screwup. 

No matter how skilled I am at hitting my targets and evading capture, I’ll never be great at subterfuge. To get close enough to Stevanto, I’d have to disguise myself as someone he’d regularly come in contact with, or a waitress and deliver a pill or a liquid in a drink - which on the surface seems easy enough - but just the thought of it sours my stomach. 

Too damn cowardly, and an ugly fucking way to die to boot. 

No, this is much quicker. A chest shot, a head shot, then I’m out. 

And so is Torin Stevanto. 

When his dark SUV pulls to a stop in front of the restaurant doors, my index finger is primed on the trigger. 

He steps out. Too fucking good looking. What a fucking waste. 

Turns back to talk to the driver. 

Don’t do it, Kere. 

Every time it comes down to this. The choice. To end a man’s life or not. 

This is it. 

I contract my index finger muscle the tiniest bit. 

And two things happen simultaneously at once. 

The gun goes off, while the eyepiece I’m looking through disappears from in front of my face. 

I don’t understand until the next second when an arm locks around my neck, pulling me backwards, over the back of the metal folding chair I’d been in. 

It's fight on then. 

My right hand drops, swinging backward and smashing a closed fist into the guy’s junk. He twists and I graze the goods, connecting more solidly with the inside of a meaty thigh. He lets go with a whoosh of breath and pain. I spin on the ball of my foot, confronting the attack head on. 

The man straightens, and everything in my brain…pauses. Just stops. 

In the dark half-light of the space, what I’m confronted with is a very handsome man. Blonde hair, styled like fingertips just ran through it, chiseled jawline highlighted by gold day-old stubble, and pout-filled lips lifting into a sardonic smile.

I kick out quick, reflexively, hitting him mid-thigh, going in close and dodging his arm when he retaliates with a straight arm punch. I spin, my elbow connecting with his ribs, and there is a foot of space between us. 

In fights like these - where my opponent is far stronger and just as skilled - there are only two things on my side: surprise and speed.

I drop into a crouch, grabbing up the blade that’s in the top of my boot. Spinning back up and out, his arm catches my own at the wrist when I strike, and the pain that reverberates up my arm at the collision is jarring. I don’t drop the knife though, staying fluid enough to spring back for a second attack. Or so I try. 

But this man is fast. Snagging my wrist and halting my retreat by pulling me fully against his body in an immobilization tactic, banding his other arm around my side and holding my other hand down by my side.

He has the advantage of upper body strength, I’ll never match it. 

Still, I pull against his hold, the knife still clutched in my fist between our bodies. Our eyes meet, in a suspended moment of recognition, killer to killer. 

I see it in him the same as I see it in myself when I look in the mirror.  

There’s no way I can win this fight. I’m in the clutches of death now. It’s not fear that skitters up my spine then. Later I’ll wonder at this moment, wonder what’s broken inside me that I don’t have any fear, any survivor’s instinct.

No, what I feel…it's freedom. A joyous bubble of elation in my stomach. 

I switch from pulling against, to leaning into his body, and find my lips mashed against the soft, yet hard, heat of his.

The surprise of it accomplishes what my strength could not, and he reflexively pushes me away.  

The second he releases me is the second he realizes his mistake, and he flies back at me, the two of us colliding. The knife in my hand comes up, a protective move, but in a blink, he seizes the fist holding the blade and turns it back on me.

Sharp, painful, soul-stealing. I can’t think. I can’t breathe. I can’t…

I look down to my side. In the right of my abdomen, above my hip bone, the handle of the blade juts out of my body. The surrealness of the moment freezes time itself. 

“Do you yield?” He is holding me up by the elbows, fingers digging hard into my muscles there. 

Without an acknowledgement from me, he tows me towards the stairwell. I can’t move the right side of my body, and darkness is encroaching on my vision, only the pull of my muscles sends a lightning strike of pain through me, keeping me conscious.

I can’t let this man take me. It’s the first time two simultaneous thoughts enter my brain: Who is this? And how did he know I was here?

There are only two answers. Two possibilities. And both burn my heart with disgust and betrayal. Uncle J set me up or he has a rat in his midst. 

And the list of possible rats is very small. Dru or Shane. 

My leg crumples beneath me, and my captor’s arms are the only thing that keep me from completely pancaking on the floor. 

“For fuck’s sake.” He yanks hard on my arms to hold me up, but I’m full dead weight. He has to reposition or drop me. He moves to reposition. 

I strike my palm out, uppercut style, catching his nose and hearing the satisfying crunch of a break. I don’t pause to see his reaction. I limp-run to the stairwell, falling down the stairs more than running down them. The next floor down is the eighth. This is the wrong exit point.

I enter the eighth floor, the construction mess here a lot more cluttered. I make for the rear bank of windows, on the opposite side of the building I was shooting from, panting hard. I chose the ninth floor because the windows aren’t in yet. I could’ve lept out of them, down to the canopy below without injury. But now, I’m going to have to…

I find what I need in my pocket, my car keys, which includes a diamond tip window breaker. 

He is behind me, his breath loud in my ears. How close? 

I run full out to the windows, right fist clutching my car keys with tool sticking out of my closed fist. There isn’t a second to question it, but the tinkle and crash of glass, followed by being greeted with nothing but air does drop my stomach into my feet. 

Finally, the fucking adrenaline, the swoop of panic, the fight or flight instinct hits me. 

The canopy for the second floor restaurant overlooking the pool isn’t a soft landing to say the least, but it does hold. 

I open my eyes and roll to my stomach, favoring my right side as I drop down from the canopy to the little palazzo. 

Slowing down is not an option, and I run to the edge of the palazzo and lift my leg up over the railing to drop to the ground. I am bracing myself to hear the sound of his body hitting the canopy behind me. 

Time for me now is marked by sounds of pursuit. 

From the railing I dangle to the ground, letting go more of an accident than a controlled drop. Pain in my ankle, but the car is parked just steps away. 

Somewhere I find the grit to slow-jog to it, pulling open the door and pausing. If he didn’t jump down after me, how far behind is my pursuer?

I turn to the building I just made my escape from, looking up.

There in the broken window the man stands, and while I’m too far away to read his facial expression, I read his body language.  He wipes the back of his hand under his bleeding nose in a slow, almost negligent glide, the direction of his stare never wavering from me. 

I’m coming for you.  

I pull open the car door and drop heavily into the seat, a painful calmness coming over me. My heart feels sluggish, the adrenaline drop or the mortal wound?  

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