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Authors: K.A. Tucker

Becoming Rain

BOOK: Becoming Rain
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To P, for answering every last one of those texts.
All 752 of them.

Such a precious sun it is, the one that shines after a cold, harsh rain.

Prologue

■ ■ ■

CLARA

It's a modest Seattle suburban home, with two stories, steep gables, and cream-colored siding. A row of artless bushes lines the walkway, courtesy of the builder's unimaginative landscaping. It looks exactly like the house to its left and too similar to the house to its right.

And yet the number above the garage marks this house as altogether unique.

I hunch down in the passenger seat of the cruiser, just enough to spy the glow from the second floor through the cold drizzle. A bay window frames the blond woman swaying, the little boy curled within her arms, his cheek resting against her shoulder in a way that suggests he's asleep.

“Where are they going to go?” I ask, eyeing the large “For Sale” sign staked into the front lawn. Just another thing for the neighborhood to look at as they throw sympathetic glances on their way by.

“She can't make the mortgage,” Officer Burk confirms through a casual sip of coffee, its pungent aroma filling the car's interior. “Her parents have a farm outside the city. Sounds like that's where they're heading.”

“He had
no
life insurance?
Nothing?

“She had to take a loan out on the house just to pay for the funeral.”

A dull pang throbs in my chest as I watch Betty-Jo Billings drift over to the window, listless eyes resting on the driveway below, where puddles of water pool in the indents formed by the tires that used to sit there. The exact place where her husband waved to her for the last time before climbing into the passenger side of his cherry-­red Ford F-250. The truck he had advertised for sale on Craigslist. The truck he was allowing a prospective buyer to test drive.

Seattle police found Wayne Billings's body fourteen days later in a city dump. The truck hasn't turned up and it probably never will. No witnesses to interrogate, except for Wayne's wife, and all they could get from her was that the driver wore a baseball hat and he was dropped off by someone in a dark sedan. She hadn't been paying any real attention and I understand why. With a two-year-old hanging off her leg and a three-week-old baby in her arms, the poor woman was asleep on her feet, exhausted. When Wayne left, all she was probably thinking about was the family-friendly minivan they would buy with the cash from the truck.

The wipers swish back and forth in a monotonous song and heat blasts out from the dashboard to counter the chill in the damp spring air. I arrived on the West Coast one week ago and, though locals swear it's not usually this bad, it hasn't stopped raining.

I don't mind it at all. I find it soothing, actually.

“It's a real shame. Everyone says he was a decent guy. His kids will never get to find out,” Burk murmurs in that wearied voice that tells me that this is just another case to him. He has succumbed to the job. It's not his fault; it's how many cops learn to deal with the kinds of things we see every day.

Detachment.

The case sits open, but the local police force has pretty much written it off. I knew that the second I made the request for the files. Under a generic guise of a Washington, D.C., cop researching similar cases on the East Coast, of course. None of these guys knows why I'm really here.

I peer up at the little boy's angelic face again
.

And make a silent promise that Rust Markov—and anyone tied to him—will pay.

Chapter 1

■ ■ ■

LUKE

I drop my glass onto the table with a heavy thud. “Miller can go. I'm ready to run the shop on my own.”

Uncle Rust's eyes wander over an attractive woman passing by, on her way to the restrooms of The Cellar, her hips swaying in rhythm with the throbbing bass. “I'll tell you when you're ready.”

The mouthful of vodka barely quells the bitterness ready to leap from my tongue. “Seriously? What else do I need to do? ­Haven't I proven myself yet?” I stare hard at him as he rolls his drink around inside his cheeks. Rust has always shown patience with me, but that's a sign that his tolerance with my drunken persistence is running thin.

“All good things come to those who wait.”

“I
have
waited. Hell, I've done more than wait. I've done everything you've asked me to do! Do you think I enjoyed changing tires and going home every night stinking of motor oil?”

He drops a hand down on my shoulder, slightly too hard. “All part of the plan, Luke.”

The plan. Rust starting singing “the plan” song to me when I was thirteen. He pulled into our driveway one day, in his latest ride—a silver Cadillac—and dressed in a sharp-looking suit, and I told him I wanted to be just like him. I still remember his words. “Listen to me, kid, and I'll set you up for life.”

Eleven years later, I'm beginning to wonder if he really meant it.

“Yeah, well, maybe you can enlighten me on this master plan of yours so I have a better handle on it. Like, why I'm looking at Miller's ugly face across a desk and taking his bullshit. You said the garage would be mine by now.” Facing off against the current manager of Rust's Garage—an overweight, under-groomed jerk who barks orders at me like I'm his personal bitch—every day for the past two months since Rust moved me from the mechanics bays to the office as “associate manager” is wearing on my nerves. Miller's no idiot. He expects that at some point his fat ass will be evicted from that squeaky office chair to make room for me, and he's been making me suffer for it since the day my feet hit that dirty concrete floor.

“I need Miller there.”

“Until when?”

“Until I say so.”

“And then what?” Rust keeps telling me I'm smart, I'm going to go far. I assume “going far” means more than the glory of filing paperwork, ordering parts, and being called “Nurse Boone” by a bunch of greasy mechanics for the rest of my life.

The revenue from the garage isn't bankrolling Rust's high-end lifestyle; that much I know. Neither does RTM International, the online vehicles sales company he co-owns, though that company puts him on the map as a legitimate global businessman.

I have a pretty good idea where his money comes from by now.

But he has yet to admit anything to me and, until he does, I'm nothing more than an errand boy. He can be such a secretive son of a bitch, even when it comes to family.

“I just . . .” I try to bite my tongue, but the dam breaks anyway. “Stop dangling this big plan in front of me like a diamond-­encrusted carrot.”

I get a sour smirk in response. “How about you stop whining like a pissy brat and spend all this energy establishing yourself as a leader. Run the garage as well as Miller does.
Better
than Miller. Learn how to deal with people. You'll meet all kinds when you're in charge and you've got to be personable and keep them all happy, kid. I didn't build up that place so you can drive it into the ground with your smart mouth.”

Same old spiel. “It's hard to believe that's really so important, considering you've got King Kong Grouch dealing with the customers right now.” Rust knows he doesn't have to worry about my personality. I'm Prince Charming, for fuck's sake. Just, maybe not after this much vodka . . .

“The customers come back. Plus, he has the guys' respect.”

“That's not respect. That's working for a paycheck under constant threat. The dickhead told me he'd cut an hour from my pay today for being late. To my own fucking shop!”

“It's still
my
fucking shop,” Rust throws back, his tone warning.

I hold my hands up in surrender. “Fine. But I need to start making real money, Rust.
My
own money.”

“You aren't exactly suffering. I've taken good care of you.” His manicured fingertip taps the face of my gold Rolex—a hand-me-down from him when he upgraded last year. It's part of the long list of gifts and cash that he's easily doled out and I've gratefully accepted, just as easily as a son would accept something from his father. Because that's the role Rust has played since I was six years old, ever since my dad skipped out on my mom, little sister, and me.

I lean back against my bench, trying to decide if this argument is worth it. I know I can't win. Rust's an unmovable bastard when he wants to be. “I'm just tired of Miller's crap,” is all I say. I'm tired of punching in and out every day, of working Saturdays. It's a sucker's life and it's not one I have any interest in living. It's the one Rust promised me I wouldn't have to live.

A harsh chuckle escapes Rust. “You're only twenty-four years old. You've got too many years to go to be tired of people's crap already. Go on . . .” He waves a lazy hand back toward the common area of the club—we're sitting in the VIP section, as usual. It's packed with bodies and thrumming with deep-bass trance music. “It's a busy night here. Why don't you cheer yourself up with a
bliad
.”

I roll my eyes.
Go find a whore and get laid
. Classic Rust advice when he's trying to blow me off. Sometimes I listen. It's never hard to find one. Not in this place, not looking the way I do. Like money. That's what these kinds of girls like. And I've never minded playing the part of a guy who has it if the night ends with one of them naked and on her back in front of me.

I down the rest of my drink and flick the empty glass across the table. “I'm going home.”

“Probably a good idea. You're obnoxious tonight. Doubt you'd impress anyone in your state.”

I have no interest in impressing anyone tonight. Not even Priscilla—a bartender and a sure thing, if she hasn't already dug her claws into a true high roller for the night. “When you hear that I've beaten Miller to death with that fucking stapler of his, don't say I didn't warn you.” I slide out of our booth to the sound of Rust's booming laughter. Pushing my way through the crowd, I keep my head down to avoid all conversation.

A sudden splash of cold liquid hits my chest, doing nothing to cool my simmering rage.

Chapter 2

■ ■ ■

CLARA

“I'm
so
sorry!” I peer up through the dim club lighting to take in his face. It's angular and masculine. He's far prettier than the pictures do justice. And, by the deep furrow and the clenched teeth, he's also oh so pissed.

He's too busy glaring at the tumbler's worth of Coke that I just dumped all over his steel-blue shirt to even bother a glance up at me. “Fucking perfect,” I hear him mumble.

“Let me get that dry cleaned for you. Please,” I offer, my voice a seductive purr, hoping the view down the front of this slutty overpriced dress will finally grab his attention. I place my hand flat against his stomach as I step into his personal space. Physical contact usually works.

Instead, he shoulders past me, pushing through the crowded bar and toward the exit.

Shit.
I didn't nurse a drink on this bar stool for the past two hours with the better part of my breasts on display so this asshole could ignore me.

Again.

Tossing a twenty on the counter, which will more than cover my bill, I weave through the other patrons, trying not to be too obvious as I chase after him. He's at least two hundred pounds of muscle and he's carrying himself well, but I watched him chug six glasses of vodka. He's got to be drunk.

By the time I get up the narrow stairs of the underground club to the side street, Luke Boone is in the back of a cab and speeding off, leaving me staring at the taillights as they disappear around a corner, my ever-growing frustration weighing down on my shoulders.

“Strike five for
Rain Martines
,” I mutter, picking my way along the sidewalk in my painful stilettos to where my white Audi sits. “ ‘It'll be easy,' they said . . .” I slam the door shut behind me. “ ‘He'll be all over you.' ” I start the engine and lean back against the headrest. And sigh. “This isn't going to work.”

My phone rings in response.

“Who told you this would be easy?” Warner's heavy Boston accent fills the car's speakers as it kicks into Bluetooth mode. “Don't give up just yet, Clara. What happened tonight?”

I fumble with the gold dragonfly pendant around my neck until I feel the minuscule switch on the back. I flick it, deactivating the listening device. “You heard what happened.”

“Walk me through it. Step by step.”

I pull out of the parking lot and make the five-minute drive home, filling my handler in on the night's events: how I watched my target stride to the booth—the same booth in the VIP section that he always sits at—as if he were on a mission, pour glass after glass of vodka from the bottle and toss it back, get into what looked like a heated conversation with his uncle, and then suddenly stand up and storm through the crowd.

How I did the first thing I could think of to stop him. “He didn't even look at me,” I admit and, after a long pause, add, “I'm not his type, Warner.” Despite the posh outfit and the top-to-bottom grooming I've undergone to transform into the prototype of what Luke Boone typically brings home, I have yet to earn so much as a sideways glance from him.

“Yeah, you are. He just hasn't laid eyes on you yet.”

“And probably never will, at this rate.”

“Impossible.”

I shake my head, though he can't see it. “How many nights can I hang around that club, dressed like an escort, before you guys realize that you've got the wrong undercover on this?” It pains me to admit that.

“Fifteen minutes. Your place.” The phone line cuts out, leaving me to brood over my impending failure alone.

Weeks of case preparation, down the drain. I don't know what I was thinking. When my boss called me in to his corner office and introduced me to the man in the suit filling the spare chair, my life changed. Assistant Director Josh Sinclair wanted me. Or, more appropriately, the FBI wanted me—twenty-six-year-old Officer Clara Bertelli from the Washington, D.C., Major Crime Unit. They had a big case, one that stretched internationally, one they've been working for eighteen months.

After two failed attempts to infiltrate the group, they were trying a new strategy and it required a very specific profile. One that they failed to find in their database of FBI agents, so they were reaching beyond their organization, as they sometimes do. They had been searching for a suitable undercover for weeks, and then my file hit their radar and winning bells went off.

My youthful look, my cool demeanor, my impeccable arrest record, my compelling court testimonials, even my diligent case notes . . . Sinclair said I was exactly what they were looking for. Then he asked me if I was interested in being a part of what could be one of the biggest car theft ring busts in U.S. history.

My own set of winning bells went off.

I didn't give it a moment's thought before I answered with an exuberant “Hell, yeah.”

But maybe I should have considered it a bit more. Maybe I shouldn't have assumed it'd be as easy as a hooker sweep or busting some idiot john. All I thought about was what this could mean to my career if I succeeded—ideally a job in the Bureau, exactly where I want to be. A bit of my own digging uncovered that Assistant Director Sinclair is the kind of guy that can make that happen.

Maybe I should have considered what it would mean if I failed, where I could land if I don't pull this off. A very likely possibility, if the past few weeks have been any indication.

I park my Audi in my private garage, appreciating the luxury car's handling ease. Part of my undercover persona and definitely one of the perks, as is everything else that now surrounds me. Back home, my real life consists of a drafty one-bedroom apartment with cracked tiles and a squeaky fridge, a '95 Jeep Wrangler with more miles on it than a retired cargo plane, and chain store clothing bought at 50 percent off. Sixty grand a year with student loan debt hardly buys me more. I'm not complaining—I've always loved my job and my life.

But then I take a smooth ride in this mirrored elevator that will lead me to the top floor with the slip of a key and step into “my” loft-style designer condo—with the computerized control panel for the lighting and sound system to my left, floor-to-ceiling windows to my right, and everything from Miele kitchen appliances to Brazilian walnut floors and travertine tile in between—and I get to experience how the other side lives. A lifestyle I will never afford to have on a regular cop salary.

I have to admit, it'll be hard to leave some of this behind.

Kicking off my shoes, I head over to the wall of windows and take a peek out around the shades that are always drawn. A few condos in the twin boutique loft building next to mine are still lit, but most sit in darkness. There's only one I really care about, though.

The one with my target in it.

Maybe the Feds thought this would be a cute, kismet story for Rust Markov's nephew and me to giggle over when I finally succeeded in winning his attention—the fact that we have a perfect view into each other's lavish homes. I certainly do, anyway. Luke doesn't seem to believe in drawing window covers, regardless of time or state of dress. I haven't yet figured out whether it's due to ignorance or arrogance.

Flashes of light from the TV on the wall fill his living room, each burst highlighting his body, now clad in nothing but boxer briefs and a T-shirt. As with every other night for the past few weeks, I watch him drop down to the white shag rug and begin the nightly regime of crunches and push-ups that give him those hardened muscles. Without fail, drunk or not, he will go through this routine, his bulldog stretched out next to his head, tongue lolling. I've caught my own tongue lolling once or twice, when I had a brief lapse in memory and forgot what Luke Boone really is. For all else that he may be, he has a body and face for magazine covers.

Too bad he's a budding criminal.

At least, that's the assumption. That's why I'm here.

I wonder if the women he brings home know. Or care. I'm guessing not. They're not the type to care about much except what he can buy them. From what I've seen in the reports, the joke's on them because this guy doesn't wine and dine anyone. He's after only one thing and he gets it. Thankfully, on the few nights I've witnessed a “guest” trail him through the door, the women had enough modesty to draw the blinds in his bedroom.

With a heavy sigh of frustration, I head to the pretty watercolor painting that hides my safe. I pull the case files for 12—our code name for Luke Boone—out, dropping them on the coffee table, one hand on my zipper as I head to the bedroom to peel off this uncomfortable dress and change into sweats.

I come back to find a six-foot shadow at my window, stealing the same glance across the way at our target that I had not five minutes ago. “Would you stop using your key? I could have been naked.”

“I was hoping,” Warner throws back over his shoulder.

I offer up a bottle of Chianti. He waves it away, instead helping himself to a can of Harpoon—a Boston I.P.A. beer that he insists on stocking in my fridge—before dropping his big body into my white leather sectional.

I flop into the couch next to him. “I just don't know . . .”

“What don't you know, Bertelli?” Warner stretches long legs out over my coffee table, fanning the thick folder of surveillance notes that I just set down over the glass. “That you're a smart cop? That you were handpicked by the F.B.I. for a reason?”

I smile, giving his knee a friendly pat. “I can always count on you for a motivational pep talk.”

“We all knew this wouldn't be a cakewalk.”

“No, I know. I just . . .” I yawn, the adrenaline that kept me wired through the night finally seeping from my body, leaving me weary. “We've been pinning all our plans on the expectation that 12's going to fall to his knees at the sight of me. Dog me around and tell me whatever I want to know. That's
clearly
not the case.” I won't lie; privately, it's a hit to my ego. I've never had a hard time attracting a target's attention. With my long, wavy chestnut hair, olive skin, and light blue eyes, we all assumed I was Luke Boone's type. On paper, I am. But either something else is at play or I just don't quite fit into the lineup of gold-digging beauties.

Warner sucks back a mouthful of beer, his face pensive. “You said he was fighting with 24 tonight?” The Feds are so clever with their code names.

“Looked that way.”

Warner shrugs. “Drunk . . . arguing with the uncle . . . last thing he's in the mood for is putting any work into a woman.”

“I guess . . . But what about last time?” He hadn't noticed me last week either, and I had made sure my steps were as slow and purposeful as a peacock's as I strutted past his table on my way to the restroom, my provocative dress clinging to my ass.

“He took the bartender home.” Warner stares at me like that answer says it all. Finally, my blank look compels him to elaborate. “Guaranteed lay with no effort and no hassle. He obviously wanted something easy that night.”

I roll my eyes. “He definitely had that.” And I got an eyeful, making it home just in time to see her do a Full Monty sashay to the bedroom blinds to draw them. Months' worth of surveillance—pictures, written reports, videos—mark Priscilla Grishin as Boone's “go-to girl.” Nothing more, nothing less. They're certainly not exclusive. “I'm just not sure this is going to work. I mean . . . these women . . .” I let my words drift off. These women, they're not common prostitutes working to pay their rent, like the ones I normally deal with. Like the ones I've learned to emulate. These ones stalk through life with their stunning faces and perfect figures—either naturally granted or acquired with the help of a plastic surgeon—with the single goal of climbing the boyfriend ladder until they reach the top and become the wife of a rich husband who will cater to their every high-maintenance need.

They're vapid.

Insecure.

Unkind.

I can't stand their type. And I can't stand the kind of guys who are attracted to them.

“These women ain't got nothin' on you, kid.” His eyes dip down to survey my body, which, while well cut from a strict gym regime, can't possibly look appealing right now.

I smack his stomach, a smile creeping out from behind my frustrations. At thirty, FBI Special Agent Warner Briggs is what a lot of women look for in their ideal man. Tall, athletic build, dark hair, square jaw. As charming as a southern boy, though he grew up in South Boston. Extremely successful. The first day he was introduced to me as my handler and lead cover on this case, I'll admit I took a second glance. He certainly did the same of me.

But I won't let my career or my goals get derailed by flings with coworkers and I have no interest in dating another cop. That just has disaster written all over it. Female officers already have it hard enough, without adding on opportunities to be accused of sleeping our way to the top. Besides, Warner has quickly become a friend and sounding board. Something I need far more desperately than a good lay.

“Come on, Warner. Honestly, between you and me . . . what did they think was going to happen if I actually managed to grab 12's attention? Look at his file!” I gesture at it. Three months of gathering intel on Luke Boone. Five one-night stands. Three overnight visits with his bartender. “The guy's not looking for a wife. He's not looking for romance, or even great conversation. He's bringing them home for the one thing
I
won't give him! They would have been better off with an informant for this. At least they're not bound by the same rules.”

Warner barks out a laugh. “Come on, Clara! Sinclair's not gonna use an informant for a role like this. They're too unreliable. Winning this case will move him up in rank, and Sinclair's all about rank.” He stretches an arm over the back of the couch in a playful way. “Don't worry, you've got this. All you have to do is string twelve along. Let him think that he's got a shot at you. That you're special.”

BOOK: Becoming Rain
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