On the outside, Cass Turner looks like any other beautiful California college girl. But besides studying at UCLA, she's hiding a shocking secret: she's a highly trained assassin with multiple kills under her belt. After a year spent avoiding the family business, she takes what she hopes will be her final job and winds up saving her target's life and getting way more than she bargained for...
As a lieutenant in LA's largest crime family, Dominic Kosta is determined to find out who wants him dead, and he's convinced Cass can help him. But the longer they search for the truth, the more questions arise...and the deeper their attraction grows. Nick has his own reasons for wanting to resist Cass, but it's a losing battle. And together, they're free of secrets and lies. Still, getting involved with Nick has put a target on Cass' back-and in this game, it's either kill or be killed.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.43(d)|
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Game of Shadows
By Amanda K. Byrne
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Amanda K. Byrne
All rights reserved.
I should have said no.
Even as I walk down the street, hands tucked in the pockets of my hoodie, I'm arguing with myself. So many things about this job are off. The lack of information. The lack of movement. The compressed timeframe. The late deposit on the heels of the rush request. I don't need the money, though it's always welcome. I should be home, trying to finish my essay on sociological theory's roots in Marxism.
I haven't pulled a job in almost a year, which is why I took this one. Practice or a need to prove I can still do this, take your pick. Whoever wants the hit completed took the time to research how I work. I prefer to operate on a "keep me in the dark" basis. I don't need to know whether they're good or evil, whether they're guilty or not. I'm not judge or jury, just the executioner. All I need is a photo and a bare bones schedule, and I can pull it off.
But I didn't have a lot of time to do my recon, and that's the current argument kicking around in my head as I hurry down the darkened street to the site. The e-mail gave me a place and a time along with a picture.
He's why I'm here. I might as well admit it now while I can.
He has this presence that captivates me, even in a photo. Dark hair, dark eyes, a nose, cheekbones, and a jawline that look like they belong on a Greek god.
I'm young and female. Last time I checked, I was alive, and my hormones were functioning on a normal level, thank you very much. I think my reaction was well within the accepted range for someone presented with a visual they found compelling.
It's not so much that he's attractive, though. It's that combined with something else. He looks as dangerous as me. Or the "me" that Turner insists I'm capable of being.
Thoughts like that lead to sloppiness and distraction.
Focus, Cass. Lock it down.
The entrance to the restaurant is on a tiny side street, narrow and cluttered with cars and garbage, clumps of people dotting the sidewalks. The buildings are crowded together, some flush, others with dark cracks barely large enough for a body between them. Those cracks are perfect for my needs. Heading for the alley, I skirt the light pouring from the restaurant entrance onto the sidewalk and slip into a narrow passage beside the restaurant. If there's a back entrance to this place — and there should be — I could very well end up screwed. Just because the entrance is in the front doesn't mean that's the one he'll use.
I poke my head into the alley. Not only is there a back entrance, there's two guys hanging around it, smoking and chattering in Spanish. The alley's so narrow the busier cross street at the end is almost obscured. No wonder the dumpsters are out front. The dark is deeper here, no streetlights or businesses to break it up. Keeping one eye on the two men, I edge into the alley. One building over, on the opposite side of the alley, is another skinny break, much like the one I just left. It empties onto another crowded street. Perfect for disappearing.
The target's supposed to enter the front of the restaurant at nine PM. I pull out my phone, hunching over to block out the glow of the screen. Ten till. Ten minutes to find a decent place to hide, ten minutes to figure out how to pounce.
This is the shittiest job. I should have said no.
I head back to the front of the restaurant and scan the few cars parked along the curb. None of them are large enough to hide behind. I weave through the crowd to the other side of the street, searching for a shadowed nook, an empty doorway, something that will serve as a disguise. Finding none, I pull out my phone again. Almost nine.
Time to walk away. This isn't worth it.
Frustrated, I push my hood from my head and study the street one last time. If I had more time to prepare, I might have been able to make this work. Crowds are actually easy for me — lots of camouflage. Quick jab of the needle and off I go, let the poison do the rest. It's good for knife work, too, though not as reliable. Hanging around to see if the wound I made was fatal could be the difference between walking away and getting caught, so I don't.
The street's too narrow. That's the problem. Not enough room to move, and the shadowed spots are out in the open. A litany of excuses run through my head as I search for a place to hide. Turner would be able to make it work. His voice echoes in my head, a stream of chastising statements, disapproval lending them weight. I glance over at the restaurant one last time. Maybe I missed something.
I did. Him.
He's striding toward the entrance of the restaurant, all dominating and alert. He's tall. Built. People stop what they're doing, follow his progress as he walks down the sidewalk. Cars slow.
The black SUV rolls along behind him, stopping when he pauses outside the restaurant. I wasn't told there'd be men with him. Newbie mistake, assuming he'd be alone. I can't finish this job. I won't be able to get close enough.
The front passenger side door cracks open, the snub-nosed barrel of a gun barely visible in the light stretching into the street.
Follow your gut, Cass. Your gut will get you out of trouble.
Turner's words have never failed me before, and neither has my gut, as he calls it. My gut says that gun isn't for protection. They wouldn't be tailing him in a car if they were meant to guard him.
I'm not about to let someone else take my payday before I have a chance to decide if I want it. The target's still outside the restaurant, so I dart across the street, shedding my hoodie as I go. Little changes to fool anyone who might have noticed me before. I try not to wince as I think of the syringe I just abandoned, tucked in the pocket of my sweatshirt. "Hey, baby!" I throw my arms around his neck and bounce up, hoping like hell he's a fast thinker.
His hands cradle my ass, his face inches from mine. There's no trace of surprise. Only a slick, sinful smile that ties my tongue into a giant knot. "Who the hell are you?" he murmurs.
I suck in a breath. Mistake. Oh, big, big mistake. He smells incredible. Like cinnamon. He squeezes hard, and I stifle a yelp. Bastard. "I'm assuming you noticed the SUV crawling after you?" He flexes his hands in response, loosening his grip. I widen my grin. "Unless they're yours, I thought you might want some help getting out of here."
His gaze flits down to my mouth and back up, his smile changing to a smirk. It stings, that change, as though he thinks there's no way I could be of any help, and my conviction wavers. Why did I think this was a smart idea? He's a job. The more contact I have with him, the harder it'll be to go through with it. I unwind my legs and slide down his body. He catches my hand in his before I can walk away and leads me into the restaurant.
All the tables are full, the noise level a high hum, punctuated by the clatter of plates and laughter. He slides a hand into the back pocket of my jeans and bends down, his breath tickling my ear. "Help away."
I really should have stayed home.
"Back entrance is through the kitchen. We can cut through the alley to the next street." He shifts his hand to my hip and squeezes once. I hope that means he understands.
We're halfway across the dining room when the front door to the restaurant opens. I quicken my pace, pulling free of his hold, winding around the last few tables.
The first shots are loud. It's a spray of them, crack crack crack, and I abandon my oh-so-casual stroll to the back door of the restaurant and lunge through the entrance to the kitchen, slipping on the greasy floor. He's right behind me, his hand grasping my elbow before I can go down. The cooks mill around, exclaiming in Spanish and English, getting in the way as we race for the exit.
There's a vise on my lungs. My heart's beating so hard I'm positive I've broken a few ribs. We tumble out into the narrow alley as the next gunshot rips through the chaos of the kitchen.
It's a few hundred yards to the next break between the buildings and the relative safety it represents. Adrenaline churns in my stomach as I sprint for it, banging my elbow on the unforgiving brick as I dart through the opening.
Dark. So very, very dark. The pavement is broken and cracked, and I twist my ankle in my haste to get to the other side. Fuck. Pain shoots up my leg as I put weight on my foot.
"You gonna keep going, or you gonna let them find us?"
I ignore him and limp forward, gritting my teeth with every step. He swears, and I swallow a squeak as he grabs me from behind and tosses me over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. "What the hell?" I hiss.
"Moving too slow." He jogs to the next street and sets me on my feet as he pushes out into the open. "You're going to have to walk. We'll draw too much attention if I carry you."
Nodding, I put my foot down, wincing as pain vibrates up my shin. "I'm parked about ten blocks away." He stares down at my feet, and it hits me — we don't have to stick together. "You know what? Never mind." I wave a hand at the street in front of us. "Go. Disappear. Watch out for black SUVs with super tinted windows."
A bullet zips past, leaving behind a burning line of pain along my right thigh. He curses, scoops me up, and runs down the street, dodging people trying to get away from the gunfire. He veers off through the nearest door. It's a bar, and all I can say is it's dimly lit and not even half full. "Back entrance?" he barks. The bartender silently points to the far wall, and my target — for one fleeting second I wish I knew his name — dashes through the bar to the back. He eases the door open, and I stick my head out to scan the alley.
Some of the gunmen are at the far end, facing away from us. Likely searching the street to see if we'll pop up there. I withdraw my head. "Opposite end of the alley. Four of them."
Shouts from the front of the bar push him through the door, catching it before it can slam shut. He keeps close to the building, using the shadows as cover, pausing at the next door to try the knob. It doesn't budge. He moves from doorway to doorway, each second that passes with us out in the open bringing us closer to a date with the wrong end of a gun.
We're running out of doors. He tries another doorknob. It twists easily under his hand. He nudges it open with his foot, and we slip inside as shouts sound in the alley.
When he puts me down, my ankle throbs in protest. Bright spots flash in front of my eyes, pain streaking down my leg. This fucking hurts. Blood seeps through my jeans, soaking the heavy fabric.
He fumbles with the doorknob, muttering under his breath. "See anything we can put in front of the door?"
I shake my head, too distracted by my ankle and the bullet wound to my thigh to notice much of anything. Turner would be telling me right about now to push through it. I swallow hard. "I can walk. I'll find some place to hide out for a little while." The faint wail of sirens sends a wave of relief through me, weakening my knees, and I slide to the floor. Sirens mean cops. Cops mean whoever those bastards with guns are will be clearing out.
Derision's clear on his face as he looks down. "You can walk?" He leans over, grabs my hands, and hauls me to my feet. "Maybe if we're lucky this place has a first aid kit we can use."
The sirens scream closer. It's a comforting sound, which is strange. It's never been a comfort before. I grip his arm as I limp forward. "Looks like some kind of storeroom."
He doesn't respond, just guides me through the dim hallway. We find a small room off to the left, outfitted with a busted couch, a table, and a few chairs, lit by a bare bulb that sputters a couple times before staying on. "Go lie down. On your side. Take your pants off first."
The fog of pain lifts for a minute. Attractive as he is, I'm not letting this guy see me without my pants. "How about not? If there's a first aid kit around, fantastic. I can clean myself up. You can sneak out or whatever."
He levels his gaze at me. "Take off your pants."
The temperature in the room rises about ten degrees. "I can take care of my own injuries, thank you. Your concern is touching but unnecessary."
The button on my jeans is undone in a blink, his fingers lowering the zipper, inch by inch. What the fuck? I swat at his hands, pull them away. "Stop it."
"Pants off, love. You're going to need some help with that bullet graze." He brushes his fingers over the exposed skin above my panties, and the heat of his touch, one simple touch, blanks my mind. He peels them over my hips, working his fingers into my pant leg to pull the fabric from my skin where it's sticking with blood. Embarrassment catches up with me as he kneels to untie my sneakers and free my ankles of their denim bindings. The hottest guy I've ever seen is taking off my pants, and the only reason he's doing it is because I can't bend over and take care of it myself.
The offending clothing item is in a heap at my feet, and he picks me up again. The couch makes an ominous creaking sound as he lays me on my side. "Thought I saw a sink nearby."
I'm half naked. Cold. Cold and getting colder, the adrenaline rush draining from my body. He's prowling the room, probably searching for the elusive first aid kit. Those things are damn hard to catch in the wild. I bite down on my lip to keep the giggles inside and listen for the sirens. They've stopped. Hopefully that means the police are out on the street, rounding people up.
The target holds up a white box. "Found it." He opens the kit and sifts through the contents. A packet of gauze, an Ace bandage, some tape, what looks like a couple of wipes, and a tube of ointment end up on the table next to the box. After washing his hands, he dampens some paper towels from the holder over the sink in the corner and returns to my side, kneeling next to the couch to wipe the blood from my leg.
The first touch stings like hell. I dig my fingers into the couch cushion. What's that phrase? Lie back and think of England? Think of something else. Anything else. The e-mail to send to the client, declining the job. The conversation I've been putting off with Turner. The research paper on nineteenth century poets I haven't started. That stupid sociology paper. "What's your name?" I gasp.
"You can call me Nick." His focus never wavers from my thigh.
Crap. I didn't actually mean for that question to come out. "Nick." Knowing his name will make it harder to kill him. Fantastic. "Thanks for this. You really didn't have to stick around."
"Right. Do I look like a monster? Those men would have eaten you alive. Besides, I owe you."
I don't have an answer for that.
He tosses the used towels on the floor and gathers the stuff he set out. He squeezes the edges of the wound together and reaches for a bandage. Warm. Way too warm, his hand on my leg, the rest of him close enough I can smell him. Cinnamon. Unusual. Intoxicating. "Do you think we'll be able to get past the cops? I mean, if they're still out there? I've got a paper to finish." Maybe if I focus on my assignment I won't notice how good he smells.
"A paper?" He glances over, our eyes locking for a brief moment. "You're a student?"
"Yeah. I'll graduate in the spring."
He smooths the first of the butterfly bandages over the wound. "UCLA? USC?"
"UCLA." I shut my eyes, giving in to the fatigue and pain clouding my mind.
"Thought you looked young," he muttered. "What's your name?"
Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow. The wound burns more the longer he pinches the edges together. He can't get those bandages on fast enough. I open my mouth to lie, and the truth falls out. "Cassidy. Cass. I go by Cass."
"Cass." He strokes a hand down my leg, closing it around my swollen ankle. "Shift onto your back for me, and we'll get this wrapped." He lifts his head enough to meet my gaze. "Then you can tell me how a college student gets through a gunfight unfazed."CHAPTER 2
I roll onto my back, propping myself up on my elbows. "Pretty easy to do when you grow up in a violent neighborhood." I nod to my ankle. "I can wrap that myself. Thanks for playing nurse."
He ignores me again and reaches for the Ace bandage. My ankle's so hot and swollen I can barely feel his hands.
"Where'd you grow up?"
"East Coast." Always lie, except when it's better to tell the truth. Giving him my name is safe enough. No one would suspect a student is an assassin, and telling Nick about my studies will get him off my back. He doesn't need to know anything more.
Nick. He should have remained nameless. Just the target. Now I'm going to have to return the money. Dammit.
"East Coast covers a lot of territory." He tucks the end of the bandage into place.
"It does." I scoot up and swing my legs over the edge of the sofa, gingerly putting my weight on my injured leg. "Thanks. Again. You didn't need to do any of this." I hobble over to my jeans and sneakers. Getting my pants on might be a bit of a problem. I lean against the table and wiggle them on, wincing in pain as the fabric catches the edge of the gauze covering my wound. I shove my feet into my sneakers and straighten my shirt.
Excerpted from Game of Shadows by Amanda K. Byrne. Copyright © 2016 Amanda K. Byrne. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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