One Wrong Moveby Shannon Mckenna
Edgy, erotic, and breathtaking. -- Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author
Secrets Never Die
Alex Aaro has spent most of his life on the run from his ruthless, toxic family. But when he learns that crazy Aunt Tonya, the only relative who ever gave a damn about him, is dying, he risks returning home to say goodbye. He's prepared for/b>/i>… See more details below
Edgy, erotic, and breathtaking. -- Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author
Secrets Never Die
Alex Aaro has spent most of his life on the run from his ruthless, toxic family. But when he learns that crazy Aunt Tonya, the only relative who ever gave a damn about him, is dying, he risks returning home to say goodbye. He's prepared for anything except the call from his friend, Bruno Ranieri, that sends him on a wild and dangerous ride with a mysterious woman who holds a deadly secret and a white hot passion that binds them together.
Social worker Nina Christie has no idea how much trouble she's in when her Aunt Helga shows up bleeding at her shelter, babbling in Ukrainian--and with one inexplicable act thrusts Nina into the heart of a nightmare. Now a ruthless crime syndicate will stop at nothing to make Nina disappear, and only Alex Aaro, that inscrutable six-foot-four rock hard slab of lean muscle, stands between her and certain death. Now Nina and Alex are in a race against time, death, and their desire for one another. . .
Praise for the Novels of Shannon McKenna. . .
"McKenna blasts readers with a highly charged, action-adventure romance." --Booklist
"An erotic romance in a suspense vehicle on overdrive. . .sizzles!" --Romantic Times
"McKenna expertly stokes the fires of romantic tension." --Publishers Weekly
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One Wrong Move
By SHANNON McKENNA
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Shannon McKenna
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NYC 5:41 A.M. Thursday morning
Nina looked back. Her heart jolted up into her throat. That car was following her. It wasn't nerves, or paranoia. She'd slipped into the all-night supermarket for a few minutes to talk herself down, sip some weak coffee from the deli counter, get over the crawling sense of being stalked. It didn't seem possible. It was so very obvious that she had nothing worthwhile to steal. She made a point of that. She dressed down to the point of vanishing. She'd made it into a high art.
And yet, that car had parked somewhere and waited for her while she dawdled in the supermarket. And now, it was crawling steadily along behind her once again. A Lincoln Town Car, nondescript beige color. She noted the plate number as her nervous, fast walk quickened into a trot. She wished she hadn't drunk the nasty coffee. It roiled in her chilled guts like acid slush. She punched 911 into her cell with the useless, scolding rant blaring through her head, how she should have trusted her instincts, stayed in the store, called the police from there, yada yada. No running back to the supermarket now. The car was between her and it, and all the businesses on the street were deserted this early in the morning. Across the street were apartment complexes, lots of shadowy lawn and shrubbery to sprint through. She'd never get anyone's attention in time. She couldn't have picked a worse spot to be at this hour if she tried. Shit. Brain-dead idiot, thinking she could walk to work at this hour. Idiot, for agreeing to man the hotline this early in the morning, for not getting the car fixed in time, for not calling a cab.
The engine revved. The car was gaining on her. A squirt of raw panic jolted her even faster, rubber-soled sandaled feet thudding as the 911 operator squawked into her ear. "I'm being followed by a beige Lincoln Town Car," she panted back into the phone, and gabbled out the plate number. "I'm on Lamson, just turned off Avenue Y—"
The car screeched to a stop right behind her, and a door popped open. "Nina? Nina!"
What the hell? It was a woman's voice, thin and shaking. Nina teetered as she twisted to look. Her breath rasped in her chest. She thumbed the speakerphone button on. As if that could help.
A wraith stumbled out of the backseat and onto the sidewalk. A woman, older, graying. Skeletal. Bloodshot eyes, sunken into sallow, shadowy pits. Blood dripped from her nose, and from a cut lip. Her clothes hung on her, and her hair was a snarled black-and-gray mess.
The woman lurched closer. "Nina?" Her voice sounded beseeching.
Nina skittered back, her hackles rising. A feeling was growing, almost like recognition, but not quite. More like dread.
"Excuse me?" she asked cautiously. "Do I know you?"
Tears streamed down over the woman's sallow, caved-in cheeks. Words burst out of her, in a language Nina did not recognize. And she was coming forward way too fast.
Nina backed up. "How do you know my name?"
Another impassioned outburst, and Nina did not understand a goddamn word of it. She continued backing up. "Look, I don't know who you are or what you want, but stay away from me," she said. "Just keep your distance."
Thud. Her back hit the newsstand. The woman came on with unnerving swiftness. Her gibberish had a pleading tone. She grabbed Nina's phone out of her hand, and clicked at it, still babbling.
"Hey! Give me that!" Nina lunged to get her phone back. The phone dropped to the ground, spinning, as the woman grabbed her arm, snake-fast. Nina twisted, squirming to get free, but the woman's icy hand was horribly strong. Her other hand flashed out.
Nina screamed as a hypodermic needle stabbed into her forearm. It burned like a wasp's sting.
The woman let go. The syringe dropped, rolled into the gutter.
Nina's back hit the newsstand again, with a jarring thud. She stared into the other woman's haggard face. Gasping for air, but she had no place to put it. Her lungs were clenched in a huge, cold fist.
Recognition finally kicked in, with a shuddering prickle over her entire body. "Helga," she croaked. "Oh, God. Helga?"
The woman raised her hands, flapping them in mute apology. She bent down, and scooped up Nina's phone.
"What was—wha—why did you do that?" Nina's voice no longer felt like it came from her own body. It floated, small and tinny and disembodied. "Wha—what the fuck was in that needle?" She tried to sound tough. Hard to do while sliding down a wall, flat onto one's ass.
Helga's face hung over her, grotesque with its mask of smeared and dripping blood. She was still talking desperately. A man's face joined her. Chubby, stubbled, anxious, smelling of cigarettes and beer. The driver of the car. Nina did not recognize him. He was yelling at Helga, in that same unknown language. His raspy voice shook, like he was afraid. Helga was weeping, yelling. Tears mixed with blood.
They slapped her face, yelled her name, but she no longer felt particularly attached to her face, or her name.
Her limp body twisted, flopped. She was being hoisted, dragged. Bundled into the car. Shoved over the slippery leather seat. She smelled cigarettes. Helga slid in beside her, babbling. Still clutching her phone.
Helga hung over her, pleading. She could not hear, did not care.
She just kept falling.
Alex Aaro strode through the churning mass of humanity on the JFK concourse. Everyone in his path who glimpsed his face scuttled out of his way. The end result was like the parting of the Red Sea.
"No, I don't have time. No, it's not convenient," Aaro growled into his cell phone. "I can't do what you're asking of me. I'm busy."
"What would it cost you?" Bruno's voice had lost its coaxing tone a while back, and had moved on to righteously pissed-off. "You're in New York already. The plane has landed. You're right there. What's so hard about a short delay in your personal agenda for the day? Just translate that recording from Nina's phone. They think it's in Ukrainian, but nobody there has gotten around to translating it yet. So you're up, dude. You're the one."
Aaro ground his teeth. "I can't do it now."
"I'm looking at a Google map right now. Twenty-five minutes gets you to the hospital. You translate the recording of whatever the needle-stabbing hag said, hang out with Lily's bestest bud for an hour or so, just keep her company until we can get a guy we trust in place to watch her. When the new guard takes over, you're out of there. Piece of cake."
Cake, his hairy ass. Any sort of involvement in the affairs of the McClouds or their associates inevitably turned into a monster goatfuck. It never failed. He'd experienced the phenomenon on several occasions in the past. Davy McCloud had roped him into helping out some years ago, on the basis of their old Army Ranger connection. That crazy adventure had involved a ring of ruthless organ pirates.
And it had been straight downhill from there. One of the latest episodes had resulted in the total firebombed destruction of Aaro's residence, and all of his motor vehicles. But the worst one had happened about six months before. Bruno was jerking him around because he could. All because of Aaro's massive fuckup, the one that had practically cost Bruno's and Lily's lives. Bruno was flailing him with the lash of guilt. Whoosh, smack.
It worked, too. Aaro hated guilt. It made his guts twitch. And even so, he couldn't comply, not this time. "I'm busy," Aaro muttered.
"Busy with what? With fucking work, Aaro? Haven't scored enough cash yet with your cyber-counterattack service? Miles told me you guys were raking it in. Push the lunch meeting with the fat cats up a couple hours! You can stop at the goddamn hospital to help out Lily's friend! Your balls are big enough, man. You have the clout."
"I'm not having lunch. I'm—"
"I don't care, Aaro. Seriously, Nina's terrified. She got zapped by a drug that knocked her out, and the crazy bitch that did it is in a coma now, so nobody can say what the junk is. She's scared. She needs support. Preferably armed support. It would make us all feel better."
"You think someone might attack her?"
"Who knows? We don't know what that woman said to her! This situation needs you, Alex Aaro, personally and specifically! Come on, Lily's beside herself. It's not good for her to be upset right now."
"Don't start," Aaro snarled. "I wasn't the one who got your lady friend pregnant. Her delicate hormonal condition is not my problem."
"Dude. You're biting my ass. With big yellow fangs."
"I'm not good at holding hands, Bruno. This is me. You know me. This chick needs a trauma therapist, or a social worker, or—"
"Nina is a social worker, bonehead!"
Aaro winced. Worse and worse. Social worker. Christ on a crutch.
"Look at it this way." Bruno's voice was a nail gun, punching the words in deep. "It's a babysitting job. You don't have to be sensitive or touchy-feely. You don't even have to be polite. Be your own assholic self. Grunt, fart, scratch your balls, I don't care. Just translate the recording, and stay in the same room with her. Davy's got a guy in Philly who's on his way. Old army buddy. An hour and twenty, and you're free. Last favor I'll ever ask of you, I swear to God."
Aaro hesitated. I'm racing to the Mercer Street Hospice to say goodbye before my dying aunt croaks.
Nope. He couldn't say it, even though it was true. Playing the pity card just wasn't his style. "No," he said. "Can't."
"You asshole. What the hell is so important ..."
Aaro turned the squawking down to white noise and focused on keeping the guilt-twitches to a minimum. Deep breathing. Clenched belly. Helped a little. He picked up speed as he neared the baggage claim, anxious to have his bag in his possession. He hated checking weapons into cargo. Being separated from his guns made him more than usually bad-tempered. Knowing that Aunt Tonya was lingering at death's door made him feel sick. And the thought of facing his family of origin ratcheted his stress level up to the stratosphere.
Fielding Bruno and Lily's batshit request was the final ass-kick.
"Aaro, it's not that big of a deal." Bruno's voice came back into focus. He'd stopped bellowing, was trying sweet reason again. The guy was like a pit bull.
"There are tens of thousands of people in New York City who could translate that recording for her," Aaro said. "Find one."
"They're not six foot four and armed to the teeth and meaner than a rattlesnake with PMS. Yeah, Lil, that's right. He's too busy." Bruno's voice was muffled now, directed toward his soon-to-be wife, Lily, who was evidently in the room with him. There was a shrill response. "Lily wants to talk to you now." Bruno's voice took on a sly edge. "Soon as she's off the phone with Nina. Brace yourself, man."
"Do not put me on the phone with her," Aaro said curtly.
"I swear, I will," Bruno threatened. "Nina needs somebody there. She hasn't got family, and there's no husband or boyfriend to—"
"Are you trying to fix me up?" The irritated nerve from Aaro's teeth-grinding problem throbbed, nastily. "Don't even think about it, man."
"No way," Bruno assured him hastily. "We wouldn't wish you on our worst enemy. Just translate the recording, then stand around with her looking intimidating until somebody spells you. You're good at that."
Aaro yanked his bag off the carousel. He couldn't even count all the things there were to hate about this scenario. A terrified woman on the streets of Brooklyn, babbling Ukrainian, torn blouse, bleeding face, needle full of junk. Why even ask? Another hard-luck story. Violence, rape, betrayal. It drove the woman to drugs, insanity, and finally into a fucking coma. And they wanted him to translate all the gory details for them. Great. Just great.
He did his Red Sea routine again, in the direction of the rental car counters. He didn't want to translate this pathetic tale of woe. It was going to suck ass, and there was nothing he could do to help. He needed to stay far away from women like Lily's unlucky pal Nina. Bleeding heart do-gooder at her battered women's shelter. She tried to help the huddled masses and the wretched refuse, and this was the thanks she got. What a total clusterfuck.
No, he would drive hundreds of miles out of his way to avoid Lily's friend, and her big-ass problems. Let someone else hoist up that cross.
"Lily's giving Nina your cell, right now," Bruno informed him. "I'm sending you the audio file. Be looking for it."
Aaro's breath hissed through his teeth. "Goddamnit, Bruno—"
"Then Nina will call you. Tell her to her face you don't give a shit. That you just can't be bothered. Go ahead, say that to the scared, traumatized, crying girl. I wish I could be there to watch the show."
Aaro hung up on him, and got in line at the rental car counter, rubbing his thumb over the hot, sickening red throb in his forehead.
He would be worse than useless to this woman, standing around in a hospital room with his guns, taking up air and space. Helpless and stupid, like a big dumb rock. What good would that do her? He'd just make her uncomfortable. Like she didn't have enough problems.
God, he hated flying. His guts hurt like fingernails were poking into them. And he hadn't slept since he'd heard about Aunt Tonya.
Weird, this reaction. Hadn't seen his aunt in decades. Hadn't spoken to her since he broke contact with his family. There was no way to maintain contact with Tonya and stay clear of the rest of them, so he'd cut ties. Snip, snip. Ruthless bastard with the bolt cutters, that was him. He hadn't thought of Tonya in so long. He'd put an insulating mental fuzz between him and his past, disturbed only by the biannual reports he got from the P.I. who kept the Arbatov clan under surveillance. He paid the guy well for that service. Watching Arbatovs was dangerous work.
It was from the latest report, received three days ago, that he'd heard about Tonya being in the hospice. He'd hacked into the hospice computer for details. Feeding tube. Respirator. Dialysis. Morphine.
Tonya was dying. And with that realization, the memories amassed behind the retaining wall burst through.
It had wiped him out. Oh, man. Tonya.
Tonya was the youngest sister of Aaro's father, Oleg Arbatov. Like Aaro himself, she did not belong in the Arbatov family. Dreamy, absent, never learned English worth a damn. Never married, despite being beautiful in her youth and having many suitors. Aaro's mother had died of cancer when Aaro was five and his sister, Julie, only two. Tonya had come to live with them to take care of the children. That arrangement had lasted five years, until Oleg got married to the poisonous hell-bitch Rita, who was barely nine years older than Alex himself.
Rita had run Tonya out. Things had gone pretty much to hell, from then on.
Tonya was ... well, different. She'd spent more than half of her adult life in the nuthouse. She saw things no one else saw, talked to people no one could see. She made people nervous. It had comforted them to label her crazy. But she'd never seemed crazy to Aaro. He'd loved hearing her dreams, her stories, her visions. Aunt Tonya had read his palm, his face, his eyes. Said he was destined for great things. Fame, fortune, travel, true love. Huh. So much for her precognitive abilities, but he appreciated the thought. Julie had loved her, too.
When Aaro was thirteen, Oleg had gotten violently frustrated with his son, as had often happened. He'd broken Aaro's arm, ribs. Bruises, contusions, ripped cartilage. Tonya had rebelled, surprising everyone. She stole Rita's jewelry to pawn, snatched Alex and Julie, and ran with them. That took guts. He hadn't appreciated how much at the time.
They'd taken a bus to the Jersey Shore, and spent almost a month there before they'd been dragged back. His arm and ribs healed slowly and itchily, while he and Tonya and Julie took long, shivering walks on the beach, picnicked on sodden sand under the deserted boardwalk as if it were high summer, watching seagulls squawk over garbage washed up by the surf. They giggled over dumb TV programs on the grainy old set in their motel room, ate greasy food in the diner, went to the movies, played cards. Tonya had told them stories. Fables, from the Ukraine.
None of them had ever been so happy.
It couldn't last. All of them had known that. The pawned jewelry had eventually betrayed them. Tonya had been sent back to the nuthouse, and he and Julie—well. No point even thinking about that.
That brief taste of freedom had stuck in his mind ever since. It hung there in his head. Like a star. Always out of reach.
He batted the unhelpful thought away. It pissed him off, this nagging, sucking feeling, of something slipping away from him. Like he'd ever really had Tonya, after not seeing her for almost twenty years. What was he losing that he hadn't already lost, decades ago?
Excerpted from One Wrong Move by SHANNON McKENNA Copyright © 2012 by Shannon McKenna. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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