UCLA student Cass Turner was hoping to move on from the family business—but when the business is professional assassination, that’s easier said than done. And sleeping with the man she was supposed to kill only complicates things. Her relationship with Nick Kosta, a lieutenant in LA’s largest crime family, was supposed to be no-strings-attached fun. But if the two of them want to stay alive, they’ll have to keep each other close.
Nick’s traitorous cousin, Isaiah, is out for blood, so Cass can’t afford any distractions as they try to hunt him down. Yet she can’t help puzzling over Nick’s motives—does he really share her deepening feelings or does he just feel responsible for her? And if their relationship is for real, will they even have a future? Because with their enemies several steps ahead of them, one false move could bring disaster for everyone Cass holds dear...and in this game of cat and mouse, no one will leave unscathed.
“Byrne has created a heroine who is wise enough to know her own mind, and strong enough to stand up for herself. Those willing to enter this world of high-stakes violence and unique morality will be rewarded.” –RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
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Game of Vengeance
By Amanda K. Byrne
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Amanda K. Byrne
All rights reserved.
I huff out a breath. "What else am I supposed to do? Sit at home, twiddling my thumbs?"
"Nah. You'd be sitting on the couch in my office twiddling your thumbs." Nick's trailing his fingers over the scar on my stomach as if he's trying to reassure himself it won't split apart at the slightest provocation.
"You can't force me to come into work with you every morning. Unless you're planning on handcuffing me and tossing me in the trunk of your car." I try to scoot away from his touch and almost fall off the bed, biting back a sigh when he tightens his hold.
I liked my little beach hut when it was just me, and I could walk around in my underwear because it was too damn hot to wear any clothing. For the last three days, I've liked it even better, but two full-grown adults crammed into a double bed isn't exactly my idea of a good time. There's not a lot of action happening in said bed, though I have to admit I've slept a lot better tucked against his side. My libido's taking a vacation while I recover, and Nick hasn't so much as hinted at sex.
"You remember the handcuffs?" he asks, a lazy smile on his face. It's distracting, that smile, causing my brain to misfire even as I want to smack him for it.
I shoot him a death stare. "Do I remember the handcuffs." He cuffed me to the door of his car with a set of fuchsia fuzzy handcuffs a few days after we'd met. It's pretty hard to forget those things. "You're not seriously saying you'd use them?" I pull his hand off my waist. "I can't keep the rest of my life on hold, Nick. I want to go back to class."
He slips his hand free and glides it over the curve of my hip. "It's only for a little while longer."
A little while longer could easily turn into not just yet, and the next thing I know, I'm a college dropout, forced to either work a dead-end job or continue killing people for money. I struggle to keep my annoyance in check. He's worried. I can work with worried. I roll off the bed and pad across the room to the miniscule kitchen for a bottle of water. "You can't know that. I'm not made of glass, and I can't live in a bubble."
He gets to his feet and stalks toward me, brows lowered as he glares. He nicks the bottle from my hand and drains it. "You died. Twice. I don't want to find out if the third time's the charm."
Point to him. I stroke a hand up his chest, his enticingly bare chest, and curve it around the back of his neck, letting my fingers play through the ends of his hair as I consider my words. Isaiah hasn't been found, and as long as he's out there, Nick and I both have targets on our backs. At the same time, though, forewarned is forearmed, especially in this case. "Isaiah took me by surprise," I say softly. "He's not going to be able to do that again. Campus is crowded. If I'm not on campus or with a friend, I'll come straight to your office and hang there until you're ready to go home." The UCLA campus, where I'm trying to finish my last year, is a sprawling complex, and during the day, full of students. The student body is huge.
"It'd take some mad skills and serious cojones to pull something off there. I'm more likely to get jumped in the parking garage again than on campus."
He threads his fingers through my hair, rubbing the muscles of my neck until I want to purr with contentment. "You're not helping, love."
My heart sputters at the endearment. I went a month without hearing him say it. A month where I hadn't heard anything from him, and as the days bled into weeks, the doubts started creeping in. He's ten years and a world of experience older. I wouldn't blame him for not wanting to be tied to someone as young as me.
Yet every day since he's been here, he's proving it's not just heat and blind lust between us. The things we went through together and the forced proximity have thrown us directly onto the this is more than just sex track, and I'd be foolish to think the connection we forged isn't strong enough to withstand a few weeks apart.
It's not love. But it's getting closer every day, and it's scaring the poo out of me.
"C'mon. You've seen the campus. You'll have a copy of my schedule. You can have someone pick me up instead of letting me drive myself." I tip my head back. I hate the glimmer of fear in his dark eyes, hate that it makes me question his motivations, because it's the one doubt he can't lay to rest. A part of me is convinced this protective bent he's got is because someone in his family tried to kill me.
Not because he cares about me.
Whenever I stumble down that rabbit hole, though, I claw my way back out, determined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He came for me. He could have ushered me onto a plane as soon as he arrived or moved us to a hotel where we could have separate rooms. Instead, he stayed. I lost a lot of strength and stamina confined to bed for two weeks in the hospital, then off and on over the past month recovering from plastic surgery. So all we've really done is wander at a snail's pace through Phuket, trying to get the other to eat the fried grasshoppers from the various food carts. And that's only when we're not staying out of the heat of the day in my hut.
Honestly, those are my favorite times. The times when we're just sitting here, talking. The times that mimic the evenings in his condo in Manhattan Beach, where he distracted me from my guilt enough to eat.
It might have come out eventually that Nick's favorite food is an In and Out burger, but because we're here, with little else to do, I learned it earlier. Like I learned his favorite color is green, his favorite movies are Stand and Deliver and Billy Madison, and that he and Constantine grew up like brothers, much like Marc and Isaiah.
He presses his thumb into my lower lip, then lets it slip down to my chin. "How many classes?"
I can't stop the giddy joy rising in my chest and smile. A normal life. I get to go back to a normal life. Or as normal as I get. "Four. If they have the last courses I need to graduate during the summer term, I'll be done by September." Then I have to worry about getting a job, what to do with the rest of my life, and my lack of work history. Somehow I don't think putting assassin on my resume will score me any interviews.
His hand drifts farther, brushing over my neck and along the faint scar left by Josef, a member of the family who tried to kill me on Isaiah's orders. The doubts stir from their slumber at Nick's constant touch tonight. His attention should make me happy. I am happy. I step back and tell those doubts to shut up.
He studies me a minute more, the light on the little porch buzzing when another fly gets trapped. It's so damn loud, that buzzing, filling the silence. "Fine," he says. "I get a copy of your schedule?"
The worry line between his brows makes my heart sputter just as badly as when he calls me "love," only in an entirely different way. "Yes. A copy of the schedule, and anything else you think I need to stay safe. Except a babysitter. I've still got Josef's knife." Somewhere. It's probably buried in a bag at Nick's.
"I'm getting you your own. Something that fits your hand better." He picks up my hand, holding it palm out, and uses his thumb to trace the creases.
My excitement dims a smidge. Carrying my own weapon is permanent, one that speaks of Nick's faith that I can handle myself and the scrapes I get into. It's also part of the life I'm trying to leave behind, if only Isaiah would pop up from whatever rock he's hiding under.
And I wonder, not for the first time, if staying with Nick means I can't shed that identity. If it'll dog my steps like an unfriendly ghost.
Nick's phone rattles angrily across the table. He kisses my palm, drops my hand, and reaches around me to pick it up. "Kosta."
Knowing the call could take anywhere from a couple of minutes to an hour or more, I grab another bottle of water and wander out onto the porch.
The sticky heat of the night drops over me like a wet blanket, smothering me in its weight. The humidity around here is insane, giving the air a tangible quality, like I can squeeze it between my fingers and watch it ooze out like syrup. The hut is at the end of a row of other huts just like it, some with their porch lights on, some dark. This close to the beach, there isn't much of a bug problem, and I lean on the railing, staring out over the black water.
Funny how oceans are the same no matter which one you're looking at. People earn their living on them. Swim in them, play in them. The color is different. So's the temperature, and the creatures swimming through them.
The ocean's always changing too. The way it breaks apart and reforms, holding on to most of the old stuff that keeps it recognizable as a salty body of water, letting in enough of the new that scientists either scream with delight over previously undiscovered species or moan about the fate of the planet as its levels rise.
It's also not mine.
My ocean is the one near the Santa Monica pier. The place I go after a job, a kind of meditation that allowed me to slip back and forth between Cass the College Student and Cass the Assassin. I miss my ocean. I miss Los Angeles, I miss my friends, and I miss my mother.
I miss Turner something fierce.
The door opens behind me, and Nick steps onto the porch. He props his elbows on the railing. Our bare shoulders touch, the only body parts that do, and out here in the messy heat it's almost too much. "Good news? Bad news? Indifferent news?"
"Har." He shifts to wrap his arm around my waist, pulling me to his chest, ignoring my half-hearted protests that it's too hot to cuddle. "That was Con. LAPD raided one of the escort agencies, and the manager's being brought up on charges. Con's concerned he'll talk."
"You let a man run that service?" In the movies, it's always women who run those businesses.
"He did a good job of it until he got greedy and started selling drugs out of the office. Been charged with possession with intent to distribute. Fucker had a couple kilos worth of cocaine waiting to be doled out. Tough as the drug laws are, he'll be going away for a long time."
Well, shit. "What are you going to do?"
His chest rumbles at my back as he growls in frustration. "Let him use our attorneys. Pretty much the only way we might have a chance of him keeping his mouth shut."
Which means if he doesn't, his fate will likely be very different. I turn around and place my hands on his chest, needing some space. I can't stumble around in the dark anymore. I've already done two jobs for his organization. With Isaiah in hiding, the chances of me taking another life are pretty high. I need to know what Nick does with the people who betray him. "What happens if he doesn't? What if they offer him a deal? If he was stupid enough or desperate enough to run drugs while engaging in other barely legal activities, his loyalty might snap."
He dips his head, his gaze locked on mine. "I think you can guess what happens." His voice is quiet, the words final and brutal, the last swing of the gavel. "The organization demands loyalty. Learning the scope of who we are and what we do is only given once trust is earned. You break that trust, you pay. Whatever that price might be. It's always high, and it's never what you expect. Right now, he's probably thinking if he talks, we'll come for him. We might. It might be his brother. It might be his wife."
My stomach clenches in a violent, shuddering knot, my mouth dry as I stare at him. No. No way. Innocent people. He uses them like ... like ... tools. "His wife? You go after women? Do you murder children too?" Say no. Please say no.
In the low light, the shadows on his face take his blank expression and twist it into something sinister. "We do what needs to be done, Cassidy. Sometimes that means using whatever leverage we've got. Sometimes that's women and children, though those are last resort measures."
I back away, out of his arms, skin prickling as the truth hits home. I knew Nick was as deadly as me. Without seeing it in action, I guess I didn't really believe it.
I sure as fuck do now.CHAPTER 2
I am the hypocrite I accused Nick of being. My own words come back to haunt me, a reminder I convinced him we're not so different.
Yet I can't move past my initial horror.
Women. He'll take women as collateral. As revenge. As payment. It doesn't matter if they're clean of any wrongdoing of their own. If the punishment fits the crime, he'll send them to the guillotine.
Am I a hypocrite? I've never killed someone to punish someone else.
Or maybe I have.
The plane ride to LA is painful. He's brutally polite, the distance between us mere inches and as wide as the Grand Canyon. Each brush of his arm against mine makes me squirm, the two of us crammed together in our coach class seats. My fingers twitch with the need to lace our fingers together, tight enough they'll never break apart.
At one point, I fall asleep, waking to find myself curled up against him. His heart's a steady thump under my ear, lulling me back under.
If the plane ride is painful, the drive from the airport to Nick's house in Santa Monica is torture. It's mid-afternoon. Too soon to go to bed, and we're both too tired to do much of anything. Nick weaves in and out of traffic, his eyes on the road, the muscle in his jaw jumping like crazy. It's the only indication he's pissed.
Well, good for him, because so am I.
I'm angry at him, but mostly, I'm angry with myself. I let myself be seduced, swayed, blinded by my own loneliness. I knew this about him. I knew his brutality could outstrip mine, and I convinced myself it didn't matter because he was the first person to come along in forever that I didn't have to lie to.
I kill people for money. I don't ask if they're guilty. I don't even ask what sins they've committed. Because of the measures I've put in place to ensure I don't know any more than necessary, I could have easily killed someone for revenge, killed to send a message. I was right, all those weeks ago — his hands are just as bloody as mine.
I feel sick.
"You alert enough to go to the grocery store?"
I startle at the question, the first thing Nick's said since we left Bangkok. "I think so. Why?"
He slides a glance at me. "I need to run through my security feeds, check in with Constantine and my father, then I need to crash. There's no food in the house, though. If you feel up to it, you can take the car and go to the store. Otherwise, order what you think we'll need and have it delivered."
The store. The beach. I could go to the beach for a little while, kick some sand around, berate myself some more. It'd give us some time apart, and if I dawdle long enough, he might be asleep by the time I get home, and I'd have more time to work through my tangled mess of thoughts. Plus, he needs sleep. He looks awful, his hair rumpled, faint lines bracketing his mouth, his eyes bloodshot.
He flinches as I trace the line of his jaw with my fingertips, but I don't pull away. It's like having to learn him all over again, this hard and soft man, figure out where he puts that ruthless part of him so I know not to poke it with a stick. Some of the tension leaves him as I rub my fingers along his skin.
"Almost home," he murmurs.
Home. I drop my hand. I'd forgotten I'm basically homeless, and his comment brings it screaming to the forefront. As long as I'm with him, I have a place to stay, but it's not the same as home.
I wonder if he understands the difference.
We ease into the driveway and climb out of the car, the cooler Santa Monica air freezing compared to the tropical heat of Thailand. It perks me up a bit, stripping away the top coat of travel fatigue, and I grab my bags and follow him through the front door.
Inside, I hesitate in the hallway leading to the bedrooms. There's a guest room at the end of the hall. Will Nick want to share a bed with me? Better question, do I still want to share a bed with him? Our last night in Phuket wasn't exactly blissful, the tension between us so intense he actually got up at one point and left.
Excerpted from Game of Vengeance by Amanda K. Byrne. Copyright © 2016 Amanda K. Byrne. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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