Authors: Lena Diaz
Thank you, Chelsey Emmelhainz,
for loving my “it’s not a proposal.”
Thank you, Nalini Akolekar,
for keeping everyone else from knowing how crazy
I can get (wait, did I say that out loud?).
This book is dedicated to all of my
for your love and support. But thank you especially to
Sarah Andre, Carey Baldwin, and Gwen Hernandez,
who read this story at various stages and
offered tremendous insight and suggestions.
And finally, to my hero, George.
I love you.
Day One—11:00 p.m.
abrina crept into her moonlit living room and grabbed the arm of the couch for support. Her right hand, slippery with blood, slid across the cloth and she fell to her knees on the hardwood floor. A gasp of pain escaped between her clenched teeth before she could stop it.
She froze, searching the dark recesses of the room, squinting to try to bring everything into focus. If the intruder was within ten feet of her, no problem, she could make out every little detail. But any farther than that and he might as well be a fuzzy blob on the wallpaper.
Had he heard her? She listened intently for the echo of footsteps in the hall outside, or the squeak of a shoe, the rasp of cloth against cloth. But all she heard was silence. In a fair world, that might mean the stranger had given up and left the house. But in
world, especially the nightmarish last six months, it probably meant he was lying in wait around the next corner, ready to attack.
The throbbing burn in her right biceps had her angling her arm toward the moonlight filtering through the plantation shutters to see if the damage was as bad as it felt
Nope. It was
. Blood ran down her arm from a jagged, two-inch gash and dripped to the floor.
She clasped her left hand over the cut, applying pressure and clenching her mouth shut to keep from hissing at the white-hot flash of pain. She had to stop the bleeding. But there wasn’t any point in looking for something here in the living room to bind the wound. Only the couch and a wing chair remained of the antiques that she’d brought with her halfway across the country from Boulder, Colorado, to Asheville, North Carolina. She’d sold the other furniture, and even some of her sketches, to pay the exorbitant fees of the private investigators searching for her grandfather and the even more exorbitant fees of the lawyers.
She supposed the Carolina Panthers nightshirt that she was wearing might be useful as a tourniquet. But she didn’t relish the possibility of facing an intruder in nothing but her panties. The nightshirt was definitely staying on.
If only she still had a shotgun. Even half blind, she was bound to at least wing her target with the spray of pellets. But convicted felons couldn’t own guns. And thanks to her
cousin’s schemes, that’s exactly what she was—a felon who’d brought shame to the great Hightower legacy. A felon who’d been forced through her plea bargain agreement to sell the gun collection that she and her grandfather had worked years to build.
Sabrina squinted again. She should have grabbed her glasses before fleeing her bedroom. But she’d been startled from sleep by a sound downstairs and had flailed blindly in the dark, knocking everything off the bedside table: her glasses, her cell phone, and the lamp. It had broken into pieces and one of the shards had ricocheted off the floor, cutting her arm—probably the lamp’s way of getting back at her for breaking it.
Still, she’d managed to make it downstairs without being caught, by sneaking down the front staircase while he went up the back stairs. But she hadn’t even made it to the foyer before she’d heard him in the dark, and knew he was on the first floor again. So far she’d won the deadly game of cat and mouse. But she was running out of places to hide. It was time to make a run for it.
Easing to the doorway, she peered down the long hall. Was that dark shape against the wall just a decorative table? Or a man, hunched down, waiting? When no one pounced at her, she decided to chance it and took off, running on the balls of her feet to make as little noise as possible. The dark opening to the foyer beckoned on her right. She dashed around the corner and pressed against the wall, her pulse slamming so hard it buzzed in her ears.
Had he seen her? Where was he? In one of the guest rooms? The study? Keeping her left hand clamped over her wound, she hurried down the marble-tiled foyer.
The useless security panel mocked her as she passed it. For what she’d paid for the thing, it should have come with armed guards. But it hadn’t gone off tonight, not even when she’d slammed her hand on the panic button in her bedroom.
A dull thump from somewhere around the corner had her stomach clenching with dread.
When had he gotten so close?
She hurried to the door, flipped the dead bolt, and yanked the doorknob. The door didn’t budge! She pulled harder.
She looked over her shoulder before double-checking the lock and trying again. The front door was stuck, jammed, as if nailed shut from the outside. A moan of frustration and fear bubbled up inside her but she ruthlessly tamped it down.
Think, Sabrina. Think.
She could run to the kitchen. It wasn’t far, just on the other side of the foyer wall. There was a butcher block of knives on the marble-topped island. But the man she’d glimpsed from the upstairs railing when she ran out of her bedroom was built like one of those bodyguards her alarm system should have come with. What chance did she have against him in hand-to-hand combat? Especially with the cut on her arm? He’d probably end up turning the knife on her. The thought of being stabbed had bile rising in her throat. No thank you. Scratch the kitchen off her list.
The garage. Her Mercedes was inside. But her keys were in her purse. Could she sneak upstairs, get her keys, and make it all the way back to the garage without him hearing or seeing her? Even if she could, the garage door was slow and noisy—one of those irritating things she’d discovered shortly after moving in. Cross the garage off the list too. That was a small list. What other choices did she have?
She ran to the other end of the foyer and stood looking across the hall to the dining room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows.
windows that would be hard to raise even when she wasn’t hurt. Her shoulders slumped as she accepted what she hadn’t wanted to admit—the only way out was through a door, and the only other door was in the family room, which meant going
that thump she’d heard moments ago.
Before she could think too hard and become frozen by fear, she took off down the long hallway toward the back of the house and didn’t slow down until she reached the family room. She felt the rush of warm air a moment before she saw the broken pane in the French door. That must have been the sound that had awakened her. Glass littered the floor in a wide arc like a lethal moat. But if getting cut again was the price of escape, so be it.
Bracing herself against the imminent pain, she raised her foot.
Strong arms clamped around her waist, jerking her into the air. She let out a startled yelp, kicking and flailing her arms. “Put me down! Let me go!”
Ignoring her struggles, the stranger effortlessly tossed her onto his shoulder in a fireman’s hold, his forearm clamped over her thighs like a band of steel. Good grief, he was strong.
Clasping her nightshirt with her good hand to keep it from falling down over her head, she tried to beat his back with her other hand. But with it throbbing and weak, her efforts were puny and laughable at best. Using the only other weapon she had, she bit him, right through his shirt. Or tried to. The cloth was thin, but he was wearing a thicker material beneath it. Kevlar. She blinked in surprise. Growing up with a team of armed guards as reluctant babysitters had taught her exactly what he was wearing beneath his shirt, even if it was thinner than what her guards had worn. Why was this man wearing a bulletproof vest?
Sabrina twisted sideways to see what he was doing. “What do you want?”
“I want you to be quiet.” The slight Southern drawl in his deep voice did nothing to dull its edge of authority, as if he was used to giving orders, and used to having them followed.
He crunched through the broken glass to the door and reached up with his free hand. A wood shim was wedged between it and the frame. Was that why the front door hadn’t opened either? Had he wedged both doors shut? What was going on?
The wood shim creaked as he worked it loose.
, let me go.” She was shamelessly considering offering
if he’d just set her down. But the shim popped free and he yanked the door open. Her breath left her with a whoosh as he jogged down the brick steps with her bouncing against his shoulder. He skirted the long, rectangular pool, then sprinted across the lawn toward the woods that bordered her yard and led into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
She clutched his shirt during the wild dash to keep her jaw from snapping against his spine. Every jarring step shoved his shoulder against her belly, forcing the air out of her lungs. Just breathing was a challenge. She couldn’t have screamed if her life depended on it, and it probably did.
Her shirt slipped down farther to expose her thong underwear to the humid air. Her face flooded with heat as she realized her nearly naked bottom was bouncing on his shoulder just inches from his face. Tears of humiliation stung her eyes.
She blinked them back, refusing to let them fall. If she acted liked a victim, she would become a victim. No matter how much she was shaking on the inside, she couldn’t let him see her as weak.
When they entered the woods, he didn’t slow down. She expected the low-hanging pine tree branches to scrape against her exposed skin. But somehow, nothing did. When he finally stopped in a clearing, they were deeper in the woods than she’d ever been. She wasn’t even sure whether they were still on her property or if they’d crossed into the nature preserve behind her rental. And now that she could finally draw a deep breath, there was no point in screaming for help. They were too far away for any of her neighbors to hear her.
Suddenly he stood her up and let her go. The blood that had rushed to her head while she’d dangled over his back now rushed to her feet, making everything spin around her. She staggered like a drunk. He grabbed her hips in a firm but surprisingly gentle grip, steadying her.
The feel of this stranger’s hands on her bare skin sent a jolt of panic through her. Sabrina shoved him away, wobbling backward. A warm breeze against her belly had her sucking in a startled breath and looking down to see her nightshirt bunched around her waist. She jerked it down to hang mid-thigh and cast an anxious glance up at him. Thankfully he didn’t seem interested in her state of undress. He was too busy checking what appeared to be a rather large watch on his wrist.
He towered over her. But then again, most people did. Dressed in black pants and a black T-shirt—like any good burglar or kidnapper should be—he had a solid, muscular frame she’d become intimately familiar with while plastered against him. His dark hair hung like a ragged mane to his shoulders and framed an angular jaw and cheekbones a camera would love. He’d probably look quite handsome in his mug shot. And thanks to the sometimes curse–sometimes gift of a photographic memory, she’d be able to pick him out of a future lineup without any trouble at all. She would even be able to draw his likeness to almost perfectly match the picture in her head. Her artistic skills were rusty, but she’d be happy to polish them up if it meant putting this man in jail.
That was the moniker that immediately popped into her mind to describe him. It fit perfectly, especially considering the bulky pistol holstered at his waist—a Glock 22, from the looks of it. She was a Sig Sauer girl herself, preferring the solid feel of steel over the “combat Tupperware” of a mostly plastic Glock. Just one more thing to hold against her kidnapper—his lousy taste in firearms.
“You’re bleeding,” he announced, snapping her attention back to his face.
He reached for her but she quickly stepped back and clamped her hand over her cut again. “Don’t touch me,” she ordered, trying to sound brave and unafraid in spite of the hysteria bubbling up inside her. If she was going to survive, she had to keep her wits about her.
Impatience etched itself on his forehead but he didn’t move toward her. Instead, he checked his watch again, his mouth twisting with displeasure. “We need to get moving. We’re behind schedule. If they suspect the mission has been compromised, they’ll send someone else to kill you.”
The blood drained from her face, leaving her cold.
Mission? Kill her?
Wait, he’d said “they” and “someone else.” And he’d seemed concerned, if only for a moment, about her cut. Did that mean that he
here to hurt her? Then he was, what, protecting her?
A shaky breath escaped between her clenched teeth as hope flared inside her. If this man wasn’t the real threat, then who was? The only person that she knew of who hated her was her cousin, Brian. But kill her? No. That would only delay him from getting what he really wanted—their grandfather’s money.
What then? Was Brian planning a worse stunt than his last one? Now
she could believe. Had her sister-in-law, Angela, found out that Brian was up to something and sent this man to warn her? Had this stranger misunderstood and thought she was in
danger, and completely overreacted?
“You said ‘they.’ Who are
?” she asked, trying to fit the puzzle pieces together.
He shrugged. Either he didn’t know, or he didn’t want to waste his precious time explaining.
“Did Angela send you? To warn me about Brian?” She gave a nervous laugh. “He’d love for me to stop fighting him in court, but
me?” She shook her head. “You’ve got this all wrong. He doesn’t want me dead. That would just complicate things.”
She couldn’t help the bitterness and hurt that had crept into her tone. All her life she’d thought Brian loved their grandfather as much as she did. But instead of helping her find Grampy after he went missing, Brian was fighting to have him declared dead so he could cash in on the estate.
“I don’t know any Brian or Angela. But someone is definitely after you.” Tall-Dark-and-Deadly closed the distance between them and leaned down as if to pick her up again.