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Selena McCaffrey Stood at the living room window cradling a fat black cat in her arms, her attention on the street outside. Everything was quiet. The retired couple down the block was gone in their RV, as usual. The doctor across from them never got home before six, and her lawyer-husband rarely made it before seven. Selena's own house next door was also empty. Since getting out of the hospital a month before, she'd been staying here with Tony.
His shift had ended more than an hour ago, which meant he should be home any moment. A homicide detective with the Tulsa Police Department, he still put in far more than forty hours a week, but he did much of the overtime from home these days, where he could keep an eye on her.
Her ribs twinged as the cat shifted its weight against her, reminding her that after surviving three attempts on her life in the same night, she could use an extra trained eye. Her injuries from that night had healed, or nearly so. She couldn't say the same with certainty about her relationship with Tony.
The cat stiffened an instant before a white Impala made the turn into Princeton Court. The pleasure building inside was still new enough to catch Selena's attention. When had she ever antic.i.p.ated someone coming home to her? Easy answer: never.
But then, there had never been anyone like Tony Ceola in her life before.
As he turned into the driveway, she left the window for the entry hall. She punched in the code for the alarm system, opened the door, and stepped outside. The September day was hot, making the concrete beneath her bare feet toasty. The grass offered different textures but the same heat as she strolled out to meet Tony.
He was a creature of habit. His suit coat was tossed over one arm, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his tie loosened. A black attache case, stuffed until its sides bulged, hung from one shoulder as he headed toward the mailbox at the end of the drive.
"One of these days, I'm going to get the mail before you come home," she said, digging her toes into a particularly lush patch of grass.
"And throw off my whole routine?" He glanced through the envelopes, then stuffed them inside a catalog. He'd taken a few steps toward her before changing direction. "You've got a package."
She gianced at her house and saw that there was, indeed, a box sitting on the stoop. She wasn't expecting anything, which didn't mean that Asha, who was running the art gallery during Selena's absence from Key West, hadn't sent something. "Just set it inside the door."
"Not even curious?" he asked with a grin as he climbed the steps and unlocked the door.
"Not even aa"" As he opened the door, the cat leaped from her arms, landing in the grass some ten feet away, then streaking toward the house. "Kitty!" she called, but he'd already passed Tony, b.u.mping against the box as he dashed into the house.
"d.a.m.n," Tony muttered. He left the box and ran after the cat.
The explosion shattered the afternoon, the ground shuddering, the very air vibrating with the blast. The concussion pushed against Selena, throwing her to the ground, her eyes closed, her head down against the cloud of debris following in its wake.
The tremors were dying away when she struggled to her feet, coughing, eyes watering. Most of the front central part of the house had been blown away, from the stoop all the way to the roof peak. Glass, bricks, and chunks of wood littered her driveway and yard.
"TonyaTony!" The first came out a stunned whisper, the second a terrified scream. Ignoring the pain in her ribs, and the glass that bit into the soles of her feet, she raced across the yard. "Dear God, pleasea"
"Selena!" Tony's urgent cry echoed from the patio at the rear of the house. As he emerged around the side, Selena could see that a heavy layer of dust coated his hair and face and had turned the bright white of his shirt grimy. But he looked blissfully intact, as did the startled feline in his grip. "Holy shit," he muttered. "This d.a.m.n cat almost got me killed."
For a moment she stared at him, then she stepped forward, cupped his face in her palms, and gave him a hard kiss. "That d.a.m.n cat saved your life." She turned to look at the house. Flames were licking through the entry, dancing along the banister to the second floor and down the hall to the kitchen, sending wisps of smoke into the still-thick air. Upstairs her bedroom was tilted crazily, with much of the floor support blasted away.
Tony began brushing away the dust and a fine sprinkling of glass shards from his hair and shoulders. He handed the cat to Selena, pulled his cell phone from his belt, tried it, then tossed it aside and took out his radio. While he called in for both police and fire department assistance, one thought kept repeating in her head: Not this. Not again.
In her game, the rules are simple: Kill or be killed.
Find out how it all started.
Don't miss Selena McCaffrey's explosive debut in The assassin.
by Rachel Butler.
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The attack came from behind, a muscular forearm across her throat, diminishing the oxygen supply to her lungs. Before Selena McCaffrey could react, she was lifted from her feet, then slammed to the ground. What little air she'd had left rushed out in a grunt as pain vibrated through her midsection. She pushed it out of her mind, though, and let instinct take over. As her attacker's weight came down on her, she slashed at his face with her nails and was rewarded with a sound that was half groan, half growl. He eased his hold for one instant, all she needed to arch her back and throw him off balance. With another heave, she was free of him.
As she scrambled to her feet, his fingers wrapped around her right ankle in a grip so brutal her vision turned shadowy. Clamping her jaw tight, she shifted her weight and kicked him with her left foot, a sharp jab to the ribs. He swore, yanked her leg out from under her, then rolled on top of her the instant she landed.
His face inches from hers, he laughed. "What are you gonna do, sweet pea? Huh? I'm on top. I can do whatever I want, and there's nothing you can do to stop me. You're all out of tricks, aren't you?"
Adrenaline pumped through her, along with fear and excitement. Her chest heaving, she stared at him, locking gazes. As the muscles in her right arm flexed, she eased her left hand toward the waistband of her shorts, her fingers closing around the handle of the knife tucked there. Without breaking eye contact, she raised her right hand as if to claw at his face. Laughing, he caught her wrist and forced it to the ground at her side. But before he could get out the first word about such a predictable response, she whipped the knife up in her free hand and pressed the razor-sharp blade to his throat.
He froze. Barely breathing, he murmured, "f.u.c.k me."
"Get off me."
He hesitated. She pressed just hard enough to pierce his skin with the knife point, bringing a drop of crimson blood to the surface. His curse was vicious, but he backed away carefully.
Once he was out of her s.p.a.ce, she easily got to her feet, folded the knife, and returned it to her waistband.
Jimmy Montoya clamped his fingers to his throat, then stared at the blood smeared across them. "You could have hurt me!"
"I could have killed you."
"Loser." She removed the band that held back her haira" at least, what hadn't fallen loose in their strugglea"then gathered the long, thick curls and corralled them with the elastic once more.
"Weapons aren't fair."
"You weigh fifty pounds more than me. I'm just evening the odds."
"What would you have done without the knife?"
She picked up a water bottle from the nearby patio table and took a long drink. "I wouldn't be without it."
"Humor me. assume you were. What would you have done in that situation if you hadn't had the knife?"
Gazing out over the ocean, she considered it a moment before replying. "I suppose I would have broken your neck."
He grinned, but the amus.e.m.e.nt didn't reach his eyes. He didn't know whether she was teasingaor meant every word.
Fair enough. Neither did she.
"See you next time."
Leaning one hip against the table, Selena watched as Montoya walked inside. Through tall arched windows, she saw him stop to correct a student's posture in the ongoing yoga class, then offer encouragement to another struggling on a weight bench.
For two years she'd been coming to his gym. The word hardly did justice to the structure, or to the elaborate grounds surrounding it. Self-defense, yoga, and tai chi were taught on the lush lawn, and a jogging trail wound along the perimeter of the property. She ran five miles there every day, lifted weights three times a week, and took tae kwon do, kickboxing, and aikido classes regularly. She held a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do and could break any bone in the human body with one kick. She could have broken Montoya's ribs, and if he were an attacker, she would have.
And if that failed to get her out of the jam, well, there was always the knife.
Her own ribs ached when she pushed away from the table. She would be bruised and stiff the next day, but she'd suffered worse and survived. She was tough. She would always survive.
Instead of showering in the locker room, she grabbed her backpack and started walking the three blocks home. She should have been gone hours ago, but she'd needed one last workout with Montoya for good luckaor was it confidence?
The June sun was warm, the air heavy with the scents of the sea and the flowers that bloomed in profusion along the sidewalka"bougainvillea, jasmine, plumeria. Selena made a conscious effort not to think as she walkeda"to simply breathe and relax while remaining aware of her surroundings. It didn't pay to let your guard downa"ever. That had been a painful lesson to learn.
Her house was on the ocean side of the street, though she lacked Montoya's gorgeous view except from the second floor. The structure was more than a hundred years old and had survived tropical storms, hurricane-force winds, and decades of neglect. The white paint on the boards and the dark green on the shutters had been her spring project. The new shingles on the roof, completed over the winter. The small green lawn, bordered on all sides by a cutting garden gone wild, cultivated over the past eighteen months. The picket fence that circled the lot, repaired and whitewashed last summer. The handpainted sign swinging from a post near the gate, last week's accomplishment. Island Dreams Art Gallery.
She had moved into the house the day she'd signed the papers, and she loved everything about it. The high ceilings, tall windows, and oversized rooms. The wide veranda wrapping around three sides, the stairs climbing straight and true to the second floor, the butler's pantry, the louvered shutters, and the dusty chandeliers. The cypress floors, the porcelain sinks, the claw-foot tub, the marble fireplaces. The age. The history. The welcome. The security.
And the fact that it was hers. The only home she'd ever had. The only thing of value she'd ever possessed. One of only two things she could not afford to lose. Her home. Her freedom. Everything she was, everything she might ever be, depended on those two things. Protecting them protected her.
An older couple, white-haired and tanned, was coming down the steps as she approached. She greeted them, then opened the screen door with a creak. What had originally been the formal living and dining rooms was now home to her gallery. The library had become the gallery office, leaving only the kitchen and pantry to their original purposes. A mere half dozen of her own paintings were currently exhibited, along with bins of signed and numbered prints. Of all the artists represented in Island Dreams, her own work was most popular with her clientele. But that stood to reason. If they didn't like Selena McCaffrey's paintings, they wouldn't shop at Selena McCaffrey's gallery.
Asha Beauregard, her only employee, was chatting with another customer. She gave Selena a wave behind the man's back. Asha liked to say that she couldn't draw a straight line to save her life, but she knew talent when she saw it. The gallery was in good hands.
Selena detoured through the kitchen to get another bottle of water, then took the back stairs to her bedroom. Originally there had been four rooms and a bath upstairs. Now there were twoa"a large living room at the front of the house, with enough s.p.a.ce for a workout when Montoya's seemed too far to go, and an airy bed/bath combination. She'd lived too much of her life in cramped, dark places. Now she liked large s.p.a.ces, lots of glass, a sense of openness.
After showering, she dressed in a silk outfit, the top crimson and fitted, the color repeated in the tropical print of the skirt. The hem fluttered around her ankles except on the left side, where it was slit halfway up her thigh. Her suitcases were already packed, with just one bag left. She laid it open on the plantation-style bed, unlocked the small safe in the back of the closet, then began transferring the necessary items.
A Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol, illegally modified to fully automatic.
A compact Beretta .22 automatic, small enough to fit in her pocket or her smallest handbag.
A dagger, sheathed to protect the double-edged blade. The switchblade she carried had been chosen as much for concealability as function. The dagger had been chosen strictly for function.
She added extra clips for each of the guns, a change of IDs, and a stash of cash. It wasn't a lot, but in an emergency, she didn't need a lot.
Not that she was planning on having any emergencies.
She closed and locked the bag, then slid it inside the suitcase she'd left half empty for just that purpose. After securing the key on the chain around her neck so that it rested out of sight between her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, she picked up the suitcases and started for the stairs. She probably looked like any young woman setting off on vacation.
In fact, she was going to kill a man.