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By Joan Swan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Joan Swan
All rights reserved.
Heather Raiden sat on the floor of her darkened home on Lake Washington in Seattle and stared at the midnight blackness through her night-vision goggles. The man she'd been watching for two nights remained huddled in the compact speedboat he'd rented under the name Dane Zimerelli.
He'd dropped anchor in the perfect location to view Heather's living room, kitchen, and bedroom, all on the lake side of the property.
"I hope he's freezing his balls off out there."
At her elbow, Dexter picked up on the bitterness in her voice and whined. Lowering the binoculars, she ran her hand along the shepherd's silky-soft fur. His brows darted with his gaze, making him look truly worried. He was an incredibly sensitive animal, frighteningly intelligent. And her very best friend.
"Don't look at me like that. I can't just sit here and do nothing."
She reconsidered her options. Cops would brush her off. A private investigator would take time. Ignoring Zimerelli had potentially lethal consequences. And she'd spent seven long years preventing those lethal consequences.
Heather hurried through the darkness to her bedroom with Dex's nails clicking behind her on the hardwood. When she stepped through the door, he pushed past her, jumped on the bed, and lay in that alert pose, head up and watching every move.
"Everything I've done will be wasted if I don't act now. All my sacrifices ..."
She stopped and closed her eyes, absorbing the weight of loss that always came with the thought. So many sacrifices. But only one she regretted.
Only one that haunted her.
Already dressed in black, Heather slipped on dark, lightweight running shoes and tightened the laces. In the bathroom, she wrapped her long hair into a bun. Her mind and body immediately slipped back into the training she'd gained. Training she had, admittedly, hoped never to use. Training that was still just training because she'd never utilized it in real life. But she'd also known deep down she'd need it some day.
Resigned, focused, she headed for the door leading to the garage and pulled her slim black jacket from the peg. She slipped it on, crouched in front of Dex standing faithfully at her feet, and hugged him tight.
"Ya lyublyu tebya," she whispered, her throat closing tight around each Russian word, a reminder of the past she'd fought so hard to leave behind. "I love you so much, sweet boy," she repeated in English with more emphasis, because once just didn't feel like enough.
With a kiss to his muzzle, she stood, met his eyes, and firmed her voice when she commanded him to protect the property. "Zashchita."
In the garage, Heather located her black canvas duffel at the base of the stairs. Adrenaline fizzed through her blood. The duffel's zipper ripped the silence and tension pulled at her skin. She clenched a penlight between her teeth, pulled the Heckler & Koch .45 semiauto from the bag, and checked the remaining contents—lock hacker, silencer, extra ammo, rags, bleach-laden wipes, latex gloves.
As she turned the key in the engine of her BMW, Heather experienced fear, resignation, the dark thrill of power. And anger over having to use such drastic and brutal measures to take back control over her life.
"Maybe there's more of my family in me than I thought."
She backed from the garage with the sick realization sticking to her like tar.
Heather left her sleepy Laurelhurst neighborhood for the streets bordering the University of Washington, still dotted with cars and pedestrians. Fear drummed its fingers on the back of her neck. What-ifs teased her mind into tangles. Her neighbors would take care of Dex if anything happened to her. She'd set up charitable trusts to receive her assets.
Heather located the stalker's rental and parked a block down and turned the car off. But as she waited, she realized that having her death in order didn't help her face the possibility.
Another deep shiver wracked his body, and Mitch Foster clenched his teeth around a growl. "My dick's turning into an icicle."
He lowered the night-vision binoculars and reached for the thermos of coffee, but it was empty. He chucked the container at the floor of the boat, glaring at the darkened house. "Screw this."
Halina Dubrovsky had turned out the lights over half an hour ago and he couldn't see shit. Her boyfriend, some dude named Dex, hadn't shown up for two days. Didn't matter. Even if the guy did appear, Mitch had enough information on Halina's daily activities now to confront her without running into him.
When Mitch cornered her, she wasn't going to have anywhere to turn. Anywhere to run.
Not this time.
He started the motor and crawled toward shore, holding his speed down for silence and warmth. Huddled behind the windshield, he pulled his phone from his pocket and hit the speed dial for Kai Ryder.
"What's new?" Kai answered.
"Genital hypothermia," Mitch said. "My nuts are buddying up with my kidneys."
"You have two? Balls, I mean. I thought you were down at least one."
"Shut the fuck up. How are Lys and Brady?" he asked, hating himself for missing the birth of his first nephew.
"Great. You'd never know Alyssa had a baby last week, and Brady and I are totally bonding."
"I hate you." He was only half joking.
Kai laughed, the asshole. "Was it worth it?"
"No." His teeth were starting to chatter. "No sign of the boyfriend. No friends. No activities. She rows in the morning, works all day, goes to the gym, runs with her dog."
And she played with her dog. And cuddled with her dog. And freaking slept with her dog. She was so damned sweet to that animal it made his teeth grind. And that was just one of the behaviors he found incongruent with what he'd learned of her over the last few days.
"Mmm," Kai hummed. "Bet she's got a killer bod."
"Ryder," he warned.
He didn't need any reminders. He'd been watching her for two days and she wasn't particularly discreet when it came to changing clothes. But then, under normal conditions, she wouldn't need to be. From the street, her home was virtually nondescript, the only entries the front door and one curtained window. Lakeside, the house was nearly all glass, but its orientation and landscaping created a seclusion Mitch could only get around with a boat specifically positioned on the lake and a pair of binoculars.
He hit a dense patch of fog and another tremor gripped him bone deep. "Shit. I thought I knew fog, but this place is colder than San Francisco. What intel did you get? I'm going to confront her in the morning before she goes to work."
"She's a secretive little thing," Kai said.
"No shit," Mitch muttered.
"From what I've found, she's not using her real name for anything. She's completely dropped it. The alias Heather Raiden goes back seven years, and I still think her using your middle name for her last name is ... odd. Kinda creepy, actually. I mean, it's almost like there's a message there or something."
Mitch got that feeling, too, though he kept vacillating over the possible meaning. "Like, 'Fuck you, Foster. You're too stupid to find me even when I'm using your name?' That kind of message?"
But even as he said the words, he didn't believe them. Not at gut level. When she'd walked out on him, she hadn't been cruel. She'd been ... withdrawn. She'd been ... resolute. Keeping her husband a secret from Mitch—yes, that had been cruel. But when she'd admitted it, when she'd broken off her relationship with Mitch to go back to the husband, she hadn't done it in a careless or vicious way.
Even now, seven years later, his gut told him that if the man hadn't been there with her, silently standing sentinel when she'd confessed and broken it off, she wouldn't have been able to do it. Wouldn't have been able to resist his pleas for an explanation. For a chance to talk to her—in private.
God, he'd been such a fool for her. And remembering still both hurt and angered him.
Kai made an indecisive sound in his throat. "I don't get that."
Hope percolated to the surface. "You're picking up emotions from her?"
Kai was only one of seven firefighters exposed to radioactive chemicals in a military warehouse fire six years before. The way the chemicals had warped their DNA gave each member of the team paranormal abilities. Kai was empathic, but generally only picked up on emotions from those close by or those endangering the team. And at the moment, Kai was eight hundred miles away.
"No," Kai said, but he didn't sound convincing. "I think this is more intuition."
"Screw intuition." If Mitch clenched his teeth any harder, they'd crack. "Either use your powers or get me hard intel. I don't want to hear any shit in between."
"Damn, you're irritable. You're bringing me down, dude."
"Ice cubes generally aren't warm and fuzzy." Neither were men tracking down exes for explanations about conspiracies ruining their lives. He pulled into the slip designated for the rented boat and tied off. "And what the hell's up with your new attitude, Ryder? Did you get yourself a new lay or did you just finally get that stick out of your ass?"
"Someone sounds jealous," Kai said, singing the last word. "I know where you can find a good stick ..."
"Got that covered, thanks."
"Ah, good point. Back to said stick—her job at the university deals with vaccine research. She's evidently making headway in this new wave of DNA vaccines. She's well respected in the field. Travels, lectures, publishes in trade journals."
"How nice for her, but hardly scintillating." Although that remnant of her altruistic personality was just another annoying paradox. "Move on."
"She's low, low profile. No scandals. No legal disputes. No community work. No charity work. No family. No deep personal ties that I can find at all. I think Keira's abilities went askew here. I can't find anyone named Dex or Dexter in her life at all."
Keira O'Shay, another firefighter in the team, was clairaudient and had been trying to pick up thoughts from Halina by using a photograph Mitch had dug up from their time together.
He jumped to the dock and rain tapped his face as he jogged toward his rental. He couldn't understand why it wasn't snowing. It was sure as hell cold enough. He unlocked the car with a press of a button on the key fob and slid in.
"The more I need all your so-called powers, the more limits pop up," Mitch complained. "Talk about annoying."
"Dude, she's not working with an ideal candidate. Why don't you call me back when you warm up."
Mitch cranked the heater and revved the engine. "Tell me about her finances. Her house is small, but in a prime location. Comparable properties run well over a million bucks. She's driving a nearly new, fifty-thousand-dollar BMW."
"Don't bite my head off, okay?" Kai said, irritation deepening his voice with warning, "—but I don't know. She makes a little over a hundred grand a year at U of W. She rarely gets more than her expenses paid when she lectures. And we haven't been able to find any strange influx of cash. So, unless she's drug running on the side—"
"Or got a big payoff seven years ago ..." Mitch muttered. That probability twisted the hot knife that had already plunged to the center of his body. As if she hadn't betrayed him enough in their relationship, the discovery of Halina's involvement in this conspiracy was beyond any sick plot he'd witnessed in his criminal law practice.
"Jessica has been combing through Schaeffer's financials," Kai said, referencing another team member. "She hasn't found evidence of a payoff."
"Yet." The car's heater melted the chill from the interior, but not from Mitch's soul. Halina's immersion in this conspiracy meant everyone who mattered to him was living in fear because of something that had involved him. "She will. I have no doubt."
"And I thought I was jaded," Kai said.
"So, basically, you've got nothing I can use."
"You're so welcome for giving up my week and researching this chick fifteen hours a day, dude. Though, I have to admit, the pictures were worth it. Where do you find these women? One is hotter than the next. This one, though ... she may be my favorite. She's got a really exotic look—"
"I'm tempted not to tell you what Ransom discovered about her trainer," Kai said, "and let her kick your ass tomorrow morning."
Mitch braked hard before turning out of the parking lot. He idled there, his mind suddenly consumed by this flash of information.
"Ransom" was Luke Ransom, another team member and former firefighter who now worked as an ATF agent.
"What kind of pictures?" Mitch asked. "And what trainer? Why do you save all the good stuff for when I'm ready to hang up on you?"
"Just a few photos, really. Considering how long and deep I had to look to find them, I'd bet she doesn't even know they're on the Internet. A couple are from her lectures. A couple are of her with the U of W rowing team. She's given clinics there in the past.
"Luke says her trainer is a retired marine Special Forces guy with a company called Precision Tactical. He teaches everything from hand-to-hand combat to marksmanship. Gives classes out of Halina's gym. Runs clinics around the country for both military and civilian groups. Has a dojo in the back of his storefront where he sells the highest tech weapons and surveillance equipment between San Francisco and Seattle."
Mitch's brow fell. This was the strangest information of all.
"That's ... weird. Halina was so antiviolence she wouldn't let me kill a bug in the house."
"Hello," Kai said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "No one on the team but me had even held a gun before Schaeffer came into their lives. Now look at them—everyone but Seth is a near expert in every weapon from handguns to hand grenades, and even Seth carries when he feels the need. Schaeffer has a way of turning people violent."
That was very true. And Mitch didn't like the way this information was shaping up. He'd walked into this planned confrontation on solid ground: Halina was a traitor. And even while 80 percent of the information still pointed in that direction, he was getting undercurrents of something amiss.
Mitch joined light traffic on the main street, still alive with college students. "She hasn't gone to the store since I've been following her. But she's at the gym every day. What kind of classes does he teach there?"
"Krav Maga," Kai said. "Luke says her instructor is an expert. Learned the techniques directly from Israeli Defense Forces during his time in the military."
Mitch's mind flipped back to his last sighting of Halina in a sports bra and shorts before she'd disappeared into the bathroom, then emerged in a silk slip of nothing before turning off the light for the night. The memory of all those sleek lines, the hint of ab and arm muscles created by subtle shadow, the fullness of her breasts against that dark silk ...
At a stoplight, he squeezed his eyes shut and shook the image from his head. Yes, she definitely had the toned body of someone training hard. But the radical nature of Krav Maga, an aggressive self-defense technique focused on brutal counterattacks and utilizing a myriad of fighting techniques from street-grappling to judo was extreme, to say the least.
"Ryder, are you just screwing with me again?"
"No, dude, what I'm telling you the woman Dubrovsky was before is very different from the one we're collecting information on now. This shit isn't adding up. Which is why I think I'm getting these bizarre vibes."
"Vibes." Mitch rubbed tired eyes. "Really? You can't give me something better than vibes?"
"She has two weapons registered in Heather's name."
Mitch swerved to the side of the road and stopped. He couldn't drive with all this shit flying. "What?"
"Twenty-first-century update," Kai said. "Chicks shoot guns. Even chicks who aren't freaking snipers like Keira. And, I have to say, it really turns me on."
"TMI. I don't want to know what twisted shit turns you on, Ryder." Mitch's fingers had gone white around the steering wheel. "And Halina wasn't any chick. I had one nine millimeter seven years ago and she hated that thing. When she found out I owned a gun, she got really weird for, like, days. Kept breaking dates with me. Refused to sleep with me until the damn thing was locked in a safe in the closet. She bought the freaking gun safe for me. Wouldn't look at the gun, let alone touch it."
Excerpted from Shatter by Joan Swan. Copyright © 2014 Joan Swan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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