First thing Nick had thought when he saw the naked chick on the video monitor. Preening and stretching, tossing her hair, showing off her tits for the camera. Diving into the pool like she owned the fucking place. The babe had nerves of steel, he’d grant her that.
He scooted backwards, dragging her with him til he hit the glass poolhouse wall. The place made him feel like he was in a fishbowl when the lights were on. All glass, all around, and no cover of any kind.
He braced himself for the volley of bullets to explode out of the darkness, turn all that art deco flash into shrapnel.
Didn’t happen. Not yet. Any second now. Any second.
He took the gun away from the girl’s neck just long enough to hit the switch to kill the underwater lights, plunging them into darkness.
The beeper had jerked him out of a doze, and sleep addled dumbfuck that he was, he hadn’t put on the infrared goggles before charging out here. It was a sure thing the guys out in the woods had them, though. The girl wiggled, trying to stand.
Uh uh. Not in this lifetime. A deft kick knocked her bare feet out from under her. He jerked her off balance so that she dangled helplessly in his grip.
“ I . . . p-p-please . . .”
“ Shut up. Not one word out of you. Got that?”
A shudder racked her body. Her head jerked in assent.
Jesus. How? Who? This enterprise was so fucking secret, he didn’t even know a lot of the details himself. Who knew about his cover, other than Tam? Had Ludmilla turned on him?
Maybe one of Zhoglo’s business rivals had an infiltrator. Maybe some foreign police agency had gotten tipped off, and setting up a cozy welcome for Zhoglo when his boat docked. Nick didn’t blame them, but he stood to get slaughtered from every side. And Zhoglo was supposed to arrive tomorrow—aw, fuck.
He had to stay alive til then.
He eased the door open, dragging the naked chick out. Her feet scrabbled and her whimpering made it hard to listen for the rest of the team, wherever they were. He got her down the walkway to the house while his brain churned out the possible explanations. One: Naked Chick was the assassin, a black widow fuck-n-kill type. OK, she wasn’t packing anything he could see, but a body like hers was a weapon in itself. Might as well conk most guys over the head with a club as let them ogle tits like that. And of course, there were weapons that were easy to hide.
He’d have to take a closer look. The idea sent a surge of interest into his groin. His one-eyed snake didn’t care if the bathing beauty was a icy hearted killer.
Sometimes he wondered how men lived to adulthood, let alone old age, with that much concentrated stupidity dangling between their legs.
Two: Naked Chick was a distraction, to engage his attention while the ambush moved in on him. The come-and-get-me way she’d presented her body in the poolhouse was one mother of a distraction. A sexual spell. The way her skin gleamed when he’d dragged her up, the jewel like reflections on the disturbed water—it was magic.
Yeah. Sudden death could be so magical.
He guided her through the door and into the main house. Nice and easy. He didn’t need to be aggressive. She wasn’t fighting him. In one swift move, he cuffed her slender wrists together behind her back, hooking them to the banister of the spiral staircase. He hadn’t lost his touch.
He stepped back, ran his eyes over her body. Wow. Whoever sent her must have a big budget. The girl was fucking amazing. He forced his mouth to close, and went back to his situation analysis. Concentrate.
Three: Naked Chick was an expendable sex worker with no clue, and this was a perverse test from the big boss to see how Arkady behaved. This would be just the kind of game Zhoglo might play with a new guy, to get a feel for his weaknesses.
Which would mean he was being watched. All the more reason not to lose his cool. And if he was careful, he might even get the upper hand. Worth trying.
“ Who sent you?” he asked, in Ukrainian.
She blinked, big-eyed. “Huh?”
She sounded American. Not likely, not for a job like this, Nick thought. “Who sent you? Tell me who sent you here,” he asked, in Russian, this time.
He tried again, the same phrases, in Chechyan, Estonian, Moldavian, Georgian, in case she was a ticking bomb sent by one of Zhoglo’s business rivals. He tried Hungarian and Romanian, too, just in case. The big Z might have pissed off Daddy Novak. These psycho dudes were not known for their loyalty when billions of dollars were at stake.
Not so much as a spark of comprehension on her face. Just the appearance of shivering terror, blank confusion. But she was a professional, after all.
They’d picked their bait well, if bait she was. Stop-your-heart pretty, with all those pale, soft curves, huge green eyes. Just how Nick liked them. Not too skinny. Old world, Eastern European gorgeous, not a stringy Malibu beach babe.
He especially loved the mouth. The plump, parted, quivering lips made him speculate briefly about her professional sexual specialty. She must be stellar at giving head.
He felt sort of honored. If he rated a top of the line call girl to lure him to his doom, he must have hit the bigtime when he wasn’t paying attention.
He wondered how old she was. He guessed twenty three, twenty-five, max. Couldn’t have been in her current profession for long. The radiant innocence vibe couldn’t be faked. Innocence faded real fast.
The visuals were perfect. She was still gleaming with water, nipples tight, drops of water clinging to the dark fuzz between her thighs. Full tits, shown to advantage. Hey, cuffs were fun. Tight nipples. Helpless whimpers.
Nick dragged himself back to reality. Like hell was she helpless. She probably had a coil of wire fastened into her hair to garotte him the second he turned his back.
“Who are you? And who sent you?” he asked, in English.
“I’m . . . ah, Becca Cattrell,” she quavered, her voice high and thin.
“Becca Cattrell,” he repeated. “Who the fuck is Becca Cattrell?”
She shook her head, eyes wide. “Ah . . . me?”
“Not funny.” He tipped her chin up. “This isn’t a game. Who sent you?”
“M-m-marla sent me,” she gasped out.
“Yeah? Did she? Who the fuck is Marla?”
“My b-b-boss,” she stammered out. “At the Club.”
So Marla was her madam. OK. That was part of the puzzle, but not the part that interested him. “Why did this Marla send you to me?”
“She just told me, to, ah, use the pool,” the girl quavered. “She told me th-th-that you were nice!”
Nice? She sounded betrayed. He chewed on that, staring at her. “I don’t know any women named Marla,” he said. “And guess what? I’m not nice.”
“Oh.” She blinked like a trapped bunny.
He squelched a foolish impulse to trust her. “Wait here.”
Like she had a choice. He loped back to the security room, checked out the infra-red. Did a slow, steady sweep with the thermal imager, three hundred and sixty degrees. Nothing suspicious. He did it again. Nobody out there with warm blood and a beating heart except for wild animals.
He flicked a switch that showed two different angles in the foyer, and studied the girl from both sides. Thick, wet hair hung down, hiding her face. She was trembling. He had to get her warmed up.
No, he told himself sternly. He didn’t. Butthead chivalric impulses would get him killed. He had to think like Zhoglo. No heart, no conscience, no compassion. Cold as a cadaver in a meat locker.
He studied her body. She didn’t have the taut, nervy musculature of someone trained in hand-to-hand. She looked soft, touchable. Built for pleasure, not a sinewy, streamlined killing machine. He was tempted to rule out the possiblity of her being the assassin. But he really did have to search her first.
He hesitated as he went by the linen closet, and yanked out a towel, cursing himself for the soft-headed idiot that he was. He decided to add to his stupidity by grabbing the space heater he saw under a shelf. What did it matter if the assassin and/or call girl was more comfortable while he interrogated her? Zhoglo wasn’t watching. At least he hoped not.
The girl eyed him warily and Nick realized how strange he must look to her, carrying a goddamn space heater and towel like a cabana boy. Fuck it. He plugged it in, aimed the blast of hot air at her. She stiffened as he gathered a handful of thick hair, and twisted it into a rope to squeeze the water out, then let it fall.
Thoughts of that garotte flashed through his mind. He ran his fingers through that wet, silky hair over her scalp, trying to intuit the tricks a naked female assasin might use to conceal the tools of her trade.
Her hair was amazingly thick and soft. No garotte wire in it.
She shivered at his touch. No earrings, rings, necklaces, anklets, bracelets, toe rings. She made a quavering protest as he ran his hands over the deep curve of her waist, up her back. Nothing taped up there. Then between those soft thighs, another popular place of concealment. That provoked a squawk of outrage, and a furious wriggle. He ignored both.
He brushed the edge of his hands up under her tits, which were more than full enough to conceal something taped or tucked up there. Nothing. Amazingly soft, though. Wow. He checked them again, just to be thorough. Hmm. That left bodily orifices, but that could wait. Hell, he barely knew the chick.
She flinched at his snort of laughter. “What’s so funny?” she snapped. “Are you done groping me yet, you disgusting pig?
“Not yet,” he said. He grabbed the towel and started drying her body.
She tried to twist away, sputtering. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” he replied. He flung the towel away, and ran his eyes over her. Mostly dry, and her lips had more color. Down to business. “Let’s talk, Becca Cantrell,” he said. “Tell me all about Marla.”
“I-I-I work for her her. At the club.” She got points for consistency.
“OK,” he said. “The club. That’s a good place to start. Tell me all about this club, beautiful. Who runs it?”
“Ah, well, the CEO, I guess. James Blaystock the Fourth. It’s the Cardinal Creek Country Club, in Bothell. I’m the events coordinator there. I arrange meetings, parties, banquets. Weddings.”
Nick’s mental processes flash froze. He stared at her, his brain suspende in shock. Country club? What in the flying fuck . . . ?
“Marla is my boss,” she babbled. “Marla Matlock. She was the one who gave me the keys to Jerome Sloane’s—he’s her boyfriend—vacation home. It’s the big A-Frame on the hill. She told me she’s gone swimming over here for years. She said the owner was a harmless guy . . .” She faltered. “I take it he’s . . . not you, right?”
Nick cleared his throat, as the possible scenarios morphed into new, even less welcome shapes. “No. He’s definitely not me. This house changed owners recently. A few weeks ago.”
She nodded. “I see. P-p-please,” she whispered. “Let me go.”
Nick crossed his arms over his chest. She could still be lying but Sloane was the name of the guy who owned the nearest house. Nick had a file on him. Jerome Sloane was a rich art dealer in his fifties, who divided his time between Seattle and San Francisco. Nick had files for the owners of all the other properties on the small island as well. Sloane had left Frakes Island the second week of August, and he hadn’t been back.
Plausible cover story, the voice in his head whispered. Anyone else could have done the same research that he had done.
“OK,” he said. “Let’s assume, for a second, that this is true—”
“It is true! I swear, I never meant to—”
“Shut up.” He gave her a thin smile. “Assuming that it’s true, explain what you’re doing here in April. And more specifically, explain what the fuck you were doing trespassing stark naked, waking me out of a sound sleep and scaring the living shit out of me at . . .” he checked his watch, “12:40 A.M.”
Her eyelashes fluttered. “I?” she asked delicately. “Scared you?”
“Explain,” he growled. “And you’d better make it convincing.”
She let out a shuddering breath. “I’ve, um, been having some p-p-personal problems lately. I wanted to, you know, get away from it all. Marla persuaded Jerome to give me the keys to his island house. She told me about your beautiful pool. I’m sorry to have intruded. She said nobody would mind. I guess she was, um, wrong.”
He processed that. In point of fact, he had not yet had time to rig up the security system for the poolhouse, just the video. His beeper had gone off when she tripped the infrared set up at the perimeter.
This sucked. His chances of living through Zhoglo’s impending visit were slim enough without involving clueless bimbos who organized weddings and banquets. “Do you trespass naked often?” he asked, genuinely curious.
Dark, curling lashes swept down over enormous leaf-green eyes. She had a dusting of freckles on her nose. Concentrate, damn it.
“No,” she whispered. “I’ve never done anything so silly in my life. It was, um, an exercise. I’m trying to be—I want to be more, ah, adventurous.”
Adventurous? He stared at her. His lips twitched. His dick lengthened. Hell, he’d show her adventure. A hot, sweaty adventure that she’d never forget. Left, right, sideways, upside down, inside out.
No, he wouldn’t. “Adventurous?” he repeated.
She shrugged as best she could. “I know it sounds stupid. But I’ve always been a good girl.” The rest of her explanation came faster. “I brushed my teeth, I did my homework, I took my vitamins, I worked hard, I put myself last . . . I guess that’s why my fiance thought I’d make such a good politician’s wife—”
“Fiance?” He came down on the word, like shark jaws chomping.
“Ex-fiance.” She added the prefix with vicious emphasis. “I’ve never had the nerve to misbehave, so the bastard figured there would be no dirt for the gossip mongers to dig up. Might as well marry a plastic mannequin, that condescending, manipulative son of a bitch—”
“Can we stick to the subject, please?” he broke in.
Too late. The chick was on a roll. A detail came back to him—the nearly empty wine bottle he’d glimpsed by the pool. She must have carried it in. Finished most of it off.
“That snake cheated on me!” she said heatedly. “With Kaia! She’s the adventurous type. Her nose is pierced. She’s trekked in Nepal. She’s gone on safari. Whoop de doo for her. Bitch.”
Her fury made his mouth twitch. He hadn’t smiled in so long, almost didn’t recognize the sensation. Sort of like a tic.
She didn’t appreciate it. “What’s funny? Do I amuse you?”
“Sorry.” He looked her up and down. “I don’t think you’re a mannequin. You look real to me.”
“Um, thank you, I think,” she said stiffly. “I don’t suppose that means you would consider taking off these handcuffs? They hurt.”
He stared at her. No matter what he did, he’d fucked up. If what she said was true, he’d endangered them both by making her curious about him. If what she said was a lie, then there was an evil plot afoot, which meant that the chances of him going on up to the Great Stake-Out In The Sky tonight were very good.
He took a deep breath, let it out. The more he looked at that gift-of-God gorgeous body, the less inclined he was to worry about it.
It occurred to him that if she was just a naked events coordinator, she wasn’t likely to drug or poison him while they did the deed.
He stopped that thought dead in its tracks. The chick was scared out of her wits. Restrained with his cuffs. Didn’t matter how stunning she was. He had never forced the issue with a woman in his life, and he damn well wasn’t going to start now. No matter who was watching.
He couldn’t think of any safe way to deal with her. If only there was a way to scare her off the island until Zhoglo and his crew had come and gone. But keeping her quiet might be impossible. She could go to the local cops, file a complaint, and screw up everything. Perhaps fatally.
So. What now? He couldn’t expect her to laugh it off. Of just give her the cuffs to take home for a souvenir of an o-so-wacky encouter with her nutty new neighbor. They would have to become instant friends for that to happen.
Every male instinct clamored to keep her right where she was. Naked and helpless and very close to him.
Grow up, dickwad. He let out a regretful sigh, and undid the cuffs.
End of Excerpt