Billionaire Mystery Romance
By Vanessa Lafferty
Copyright © 2016 by Vanessa Lafferty
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including emailing, photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Table of Contents
Before I’ve finished this glass of champagne, I’m going to kill a man. But not just any man. No, before this party’s over, its billionaire host will have left this world.
The last time I harbored murderous thoughts was in college, when I stupidly used my boyfriend’s private email and found the library of sexting pictures he’d saved from his online harem. An AK-47 came to mind then, or a bazooka. Something to paint the walls of his dorm room with his cheating guts.
But tonight isn’t a revenge fantasy. It’s deadly real, a nightmare rendezvous, and it’s about to burst to life. Athena’s my name. Murder’s so not my game…except this one time, tonight.
Tonight I’m going to kill the man responsible for my father’s death. His name is Manuel Raul Valdez, and he ordered the hit. I remember meeting him a few times when I was little, always on family occasions. You see, he and Papa were business rivals, and as a mark of respect they would invite each other to the occasional milestone celebration or private function. Keep your enemies closer and all that. They never liked each other personally, but there was always respect. Valdez once brought me an awesome little toy doctor’s set, with a stethoscope, a fake syringe, a prescription notepad, a thermometer, and other cool stuff. It made my birthday. What I didn’t know was Valdez had done it to prove how good his spies were: if he could find out what his rival’s daughter wanted more than anything for her birthday, what else could he find out? About Papa’s business, for instance…
Well, I never did become a doctor, or anything else, really. I’m twenty-three, single, part way through a night-class degree in Business Management, and on the (long uphill) slimming slope—at least I’m no longer obese. But tonight I have a prescription I could never have scribbled on that child’s notepad and a way of administering the treatment that definitely authentic. In the slightly chubby forefinger of my right hand is a ring. On the end of this ring is a tiny needle with a cap. All I have to do is prick Valdez with this needle, pierce the skin anywhere on his body, and he will die within twelve hours.
How’s that for a return present, Manuel, you, son of a bitch?
I sip champagne and pretend to mingle with over a hundred rich people I don’t know and don’t want to know. Smiles, nods, micro-talk (that’s small-talk with even less of a point), indulging the hungry gazes of old letches: it’s all camouflage in the driest, stuffiest jungle I’ve ever been in. But I’m the predator tonight. A five-foot tall, C-cup predator with blue eye shadow and copious eyeliner, and a sequined sapphire dress to die for.
Valdez’s hacienda is on the southeast coast of Malta. It’s blistering hot here during the day, but evening brings a cool, succulent breeze that circulates the second floor drawing room, sweetening the air with the scents of sub-tropical trees and flowers from his massive coastal garden.
It’s tough to get near Valdez, never mind catch him on his own. At least one bodyguard stands beside him at all times, sometimes two. A gaggle of guests hovers, clucks nearby wherever he goes. I’ll have to slip in between them and brush past him, prick him on the hand, hope he doesn’t notice me. Being in a crowd might help there. On the other hand, I didn’t exactly go for inconspicuous with this dress…
“Evelyn, right?” an enthusiastic British baritone voice accosts me from behind.
I swivel into an unconscious reply, my tongue still tied to thoughts of murder. It comes out as “Ex…Cugeous?” which would probably translate as “Excuse me? Wow, you’re gorgeous,” if this had been any other time and place. I melt. Mentally scramble to find a polite brush-off, draw a blank instead.
“I see. Don’t speak English, eh, Evelyn?” He raises his glass to me. I can’t decide if he’s making fun or not, so I convince myself he is. Right now, any way out of this is a good way out.
“There’s nothing wrong with my English, thank you,” I reply. “Only with your hearing… I said ‘Not right now’.”
He quirks an eyebrow, loosens his already loose collar—the top button’s open, and his bowtie’s hanging down the lapel of his tux. His striking blue-gray eyes are swimming a little, and from the way he sways on his heels, I’d say there’s a naught percent chance he’s still sober. “Not right now? An intriguing response,” he slurs. “I’m prepared to wait…as long as it takes.”
“For what exactly…?”
He opens his mouth to reply, stops, holds a finger up instead, as if that will help him divine a better chat-up line. It doesn’t. Poor guy can’t remember what day of week it is.
“If you’ll excuse me…” I say. When he stares blankly at me, I remind him, “You can go away now. Go over there. The girl with the backless dress, she said she’s been waiting for you to talk to her.”
He looks over at her, and then grabs me by the arm. “No, it has to be you. I love the whole Persian princess thing, and you’re so rocking that dress.”
“I’m Greek-African, and you need to get off me right now.”
“Sorry. I really am. It’s just that…I need to get naked with you, Evelyn. Tonight… And there are things I can do—”
With a jolt of disgust I pull away—“Don’t come near me again, you sleazy shit”—leaving him to down the remainder of his bubbly and stumble on to his next poor victim.
By this time, Valdez is on the move. This way, in fact…
I took a deep breath, slip the cap off the needle, and try to compose myself on the move, aiming my walk so that it crosses his path with nonchalant timing, just close enough to…
Son of a—
The obnoxious Brit cuts in front of me, feels me up on the way past. Before I can react, he’s all over Valdez, shaking his hand, patting him on the shoulder, whispering something in his ear, which elicits the biggest roar of laughter of the evening from the man I’m here to kill.
I hang back, cool off. This isn’t going to work. Maybe it never will. I’m no assassin—I’m plain old Athena Katsaros, and I don’t even eat meat. But right now the hate I feel for Valdez is only marginally stronger than the hate I feel for that insufferable British tuff that’s ruined everything. Maybe I should just stick him instead, see how much he slurs then.
No, there’s still time. I can still do this. Perhaps when the guests start to thin and the evening’s winding down, I can make my move. So for now, I’ll slip the cap back onto the needle and hang fast.
“That’s either the craftiest hard-to-get routine I’ve ever seen, or you’ve no idea who you’ve just turned down.” A leggy, middle-aged redhead in a sleeveless number slinks beside me, her lascivious gaze fixed on the Brit tragedy who’s been busy regaling Valdez for the past ten minutes, non-stop. Everyone seems to think he’s a cut-up. And the women are practically clawing each other to get next to him.
“I don’t want to know who he is,” I lie. The idea that he’d fend off all these dazzling women and single me out, hit on me is…distracting.
“Of course not… That’s why you can’t keep your eyes off him.”
“What? No, I—”
“’S okay, honey’. He comes on strong. If I’d only just met him, I’d be intimidated too. But trust me, there’s only one Barrett Carlisle. You won’t want to turn him down a second time. It’s just a friendly piece of advice.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not that desperate.”
“Awww, poor sweet thing…”
“Uh-huh. Well, he’s all yours, babe.” I blow a bit of venom into that last word, hoping she gets the message.
She snorts a gentle mocking laugh, holds up her glass to me, and then slinks away. Her pale, bony shoulders are so sharp they could literally cut their way through a crowd. Adios, bitch.
It isn’t long before I’m dying to pee. The nearest restroom, I’m told, is across the balcony outside, so I make it there and back as quick as my high heels will carry me. When I return, Carlisle has chosen his victim, sorry, date for the evening, a Latino waif who can’t be more than nineteen. He says goodbye to his host in typical grandiose fashion—a playful headlock is involved—then gives the girl a running piggyback on his way out.
With him out of the picture, my chance to strike is near, I can sense it.
Less than fifteen minutes later, that chance arrives. Valdez excuses himself from the group he’s with—including his bodyguard—and heads toward the balcony. Perhaps toilet breaks, or to get some air? He is looking a bit pale. Maybe too much champagne… The loyal bodyguard follows anyway, keeping his distance.
I start for the open screen door at a slow pace so that Valdez and I will reach it at the same time. But he lengthens his stride, quickens his step, to make sure he gets there first. Christ. Is he about to throw up? Or is his bladder about to explode? With my short legs I’d have to run to keep up, but I can’t do that. No use drawing attention to myself.
Once outside, Valdez clutches his stomach and props himself up on one of the stone pillars. Coughs, stumbles in a not-so-straight line across the balcony. The gibbous moon sinks behind a silver raft of cloud, and it goes dark. It’s very dark. Seizing the opportunity, I dash out after him, my heels cli-cli-clicking on the bare stone. “Mr. Valdez, is everything alright?”
He groans, almost doubles up in mid-stride.
“Mr. Valdez?” I deftly uncap the needle on my ring and go to help him—help from which he will not recover.
“I’m—I’m all right,” he manages. “It’s just a little—”
A tiny dart from the shadow taps his jugular before I can reach him. It’s tiny and orange. Valdez smacks the back of his neck as though he’s swatting a mosquito, but it only rams the dart further in. He brushes it off, looks up at me with eyes that spit recognition; like quelled oil fires, they empty suddenly.
He flops to the ground. Like dead? Like really dead?
But—but I didn’t do this! Someone else shot the dart. I was just here minding my own killing business…
“What did you do?” Strong arms wrestle me to my feet; spin me round so roughly it almost dislocated my shoulder. The bodyguard’s livid face is inches from mine. He looks down in disbelief at the body of his dead master, and then brands me with his gaze. Oil fires at full flame.
“I didn’t do anything,” I plead. “He was sick. He just dropped down.”
“You liar…!” He slaps me hard. The pain lashes right through me, stings like hell. I go to knee him in the balls but he’s ready, blocks it with his knee. Suddenly his hands clasp around my throat and dig in—endgame force I have no defense against. I pound on his arms and his shoulders and work to pries his fingers loose. Something works. He lets go. But his next blow is a vicious backhand that leaves me completely dazed. For a few seconds I’m…someplace else, observing the whole scene. It’s with a cold indifference I watch the man reach for his weapon and pull the trigger.
But I don’t feel a thing.
A shadow swoops down from the tangle of vines and creepers that girdle the stone pillars. It lands in front of me, on top of the bodyguard. Their combined weight topples them both over, knocks me backward against the balustrade. I crab away from the flurry of fists and body moves and countermoves. My senses return with the piercing sound of a scream. It’s a woman’s scream.
It wasn’t mine. At least I don’t think it was.
The bodyguard lands a hefty punch to the ribs of my dark defender. Dressed all in deep gray, with a ski mask that shows only the whites of his eyes, this man of the shadows is tenacious. He takes blow after blow and keeps giving back. Finally, after ducking a huge roundhouse kick, he sweeps the bodyguard’s legs from under him and lands a devastating boot square in his face.
A crowd has gathered at the screen door entrance. I can see the silhouettes. But it’s so dark out here they won’t be able to see us. Our faces, that is. All that might change, though, if we don’t get out of here in hurry, the dark defender and me. More screams, shouts in Maltese for someone inside to “Aghggel…!”
“You’ll have to jump—right now,” the stranger says to me in Greek, peering over the edge. But all I can see down there is an arrangement of six large, ornate fountains lit purple by underwater lights. Surely he can’t mean—
“We’ve no time,” he insists. “Jump now or face the consequences. It’s your choice.” And with that he vaults over the balustrade. Plummets forever… His dull splash below sounds miles away, unrelated to what’s just happened.
The fear bites, gnaws as I scan the balcony to my left—it’s filling with heavy suited types, and they’re acting quicker than me. My mind can’t steady the scales of this decision under pressure, so instinct alone will have to tip the balance.
He saved my life. I need to trust him.
So I kick off my heels, clamber onto the balustrade; slide my butt to the very edge. By now I’m showing all my legs and a bit more besides, but it doesn’t seem to matter. In a single glance, I size up the trajectory of the jump and the absence of my dark defender. The latter spurs me on. There’s no more time. Oh God. I suck in three quick breaths, hold the last one…
…and shove myself off.
A chorus of gasps and screams from faraway party land only helps to steel me on the way down. I’ve always been a bit of a daredevil on holidays—kayaking in the chop, jumping off low cliffs into the sea, wreck diving with friends—and the sensation of falling is not new to me. But I’ve never done any of that blindfolded, with a sequined cocktail dress flapping about my ears.
The shock of thumping into water wakes me absolutely. I climb out, wipe my streaming hair back over my shoulders, and search for the man in gray. Security lights blaze on all around the house itself, so I can’t go that way. That leaves the garden, seaward—the only viable escape route for a man who operates in the shadows.
Moonlight reflects off the sea’s glassy wrinkles, and that’s how I spot him, in silhouette against it, running flat-out up a shallow mound. He’s left me behind, the bastard! Mustn’t have thought I had the pluck to jump. And when I try to follow him, my ankle gives way, drives splinters of pain up my left leg. I limp on, determined not to give up. This whole kill-trip might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, but I did it for Papa, and Papa would not want me to get caught.
The stranger halts, looks back. His shoulders appear to slump, his head bows, and my heart reaches out across the shady acre between us. He’s coming back? He is coming back! My dark defender, here for the same reason I am, can’t let me die. He doesn’t say a word as he approaches, just takes my arm and with surprising gentleness, supports my limp. We pass through a maze of hedges, and then row after row of pungent flowers whose colors are well-kept secrets of the night.
But we aren’t moving fast enough, and he knows it. I can’t see anyone else, but coordinated shouts across the grounds of the hacienda seem to be zeroing in on our position. They grow closer from every direction—all except one, the sea. The stranger crouches, bows me onto his shoulder and carries me up a steep earthen verge. At the summit is a row of poplars. Beyond, a high, wire mesh fence roofed with coils of barbed wire.
I expect him to put me down but he doesn’t, instead pushes his way through a slit he’s already cut into the fence. It’s his escape route.
Who is he? Why has he just killed Valdez? What’s he going to do with me if we make it out alive?
From now on it’s a steady downhill run to the beach. Clumps of tall, swooning grass soon become isolated among the shallow dunes. The stranger’s breathing is heavy, he’s exhausted. After making for a cleft between two dunes, he spills me onto the sand, plucks me onto my feet and supports my limp again—all without a word.
I daren’t break the silence.
We come to a miniature estuary channel overgrown with bracken. With one arm he brushes aside the foliage on the water’s edge, revealing a black, glimmering Jet Ski moored in the shallows.
“Who are you?” I ask.
I do as he says, but rather than ride pillion, I shuffle up front, grab the handlebars. After almost screwing up the whole night for everyone concerned, it’s time I did my part in this. I tell him, “I’ll drive.”
He motions to throw me off, decides against it. In the whites of his eyes I glimpse a spark of recognition—his, mine, I’m not sure—but it persuades him of something. He touches his ribs, winces, and then hops on behind me. “Cut right across the bay,” he says. “Make for the headland, about a quarter mile before the lighthouse.”
He’s speaking fluent Greek, but I’m pretty sure he’s something else; call it a hunch, woman’s intuition. He slides his gloved hands around my waist, grips me just above my hips. I give a shivery gasp, immediately try to hide it by starting the engine. With neither headlight nor sunlight, it’s dangerous to be on the open sea in any kind of small craft, especially one of these. Good job I’ve been handling jet skis since I was fourteen. I take us out slow, conscious of the estuary’s low water-line.
Once we’re out in the chop, I throttle up, but slowly. Enough to skim the waves rather than jump them… He doesn’t protest, which gives me confidence. Night-lights along the coast appear to bob up and down with us as we ride the swells. It has an odd tranquilizing effect, and reminds me of some of the earliest boat rides I ever took with Papa, around the harbors of Zakynthos and Kefalonia after sunset, when he’d bring me an ice-cold can of 7-Up lemonade and let me steer for as long as I wanted, sometimes till well after bedtime. Then we’d sleep on the boat, Papa and me, and go snorkeling the next morning. We were so close back then, when I was little, before I realized what a cruel son of a bitch he could be, had been, with Mama. It took me a long time to forgive him for that, for the dark side of his staunch Greek tradition. Maybe I never really have. But I’m glad I finally came home in time to patch things up with him. I’d beaten myself—and him—up for long enough on that wayward journey to a family-less nowhere. Before the end, we more or less saw eye to eye, Papa and me, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Tonight I almost got even for you, Papa. Tonight I almost killed…for you.
As we get nearer the lighthouse, the whiny drone of rotor blades drills through the sky overhead. A single helicopter flies by, its spotlight slithering across the choppy water on its way to Valdez’s side of the bay. Whether it’s looking for a boat or not, it glides past us as though we’re invisible—but I feel more exposed than ever in this dress that’s barely holding together in the face of a wicked headwind.
The stranger lets go of my hips, and I hear the click of a weapon. For one brief horrible moment I anticipate a point of cold steel pressing against the back of my head; but it doesn’t come. He grips my waist with one hand instead, and in the rear-view mirror I can see his gun arm outstretched, pointing behind us. Thank God the bullet isn’t for me. Well, at least not yet.
“What is it?” I call back. “Is someone following us?”
“I think so. Head in at the next cove, but slow it right down,” he replies, “and keep to the middle of the channel. There are sharp rocks on either side.”
My approach to the jetty and the timing of my stop is a neat bit of piloting, synchronized with the heavy swell so that the stranger is perfectly in line with the ladder when we reach it. He fastens the Jet Ski’s mooring line to the cleat, hops off, and then helps me climb up the ladder.
There’s another vessel moored here, a sleek-looking cruiser, big, expensive, macho as hell. The cove is secluded, with a sheer, craggy cliff on either side. A forest of acacias rings a house partway up the hillside. There’s no beach, but stone steps lead to plenty of smooth rock ledges at various points up the hill and the cliffs. This place has been well thought-out, by someone who celebrates his privacy.
“You go wait in the boathouse, Athena,” he says. “And stay out of sight.”
“We were definitely being followed?”
“Maybe… I can’t be sure. Just lie low till I get back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To get you a change of clothes—didn’t count on having to smuggle two out.”
He sighs, nurses his ribs. “What the hell were you doing there anywhere?”
“It’s same as you. Only you got to him first.”
He towers over me, cocks his head to one side, glowering down. “You were going to ice Valdez?”
When I don’t answer, he shakes his head, points me to the boathouse.
I folded my arms instead; stand as tall and straight as I can on one leg. “Not until you tell me who you are.”
“It’s best that you don’t know. Trust me.”
“I do trust you, but it’s your fault I’m here. You owe me—”
“And it’s my fault? Owe you? Lady, I just saved your idiot life.”
“You killed him right in front of me! My way would’ve at least given me time to get out safe. No one would’ve suspected a thing; he’d have died hours later. But your way—he just dropped. What did you think was gonna happen?”
He blurts a cruel, mocking laugh. “You’re instructing me on how to assassinate someone? You mean, in that dress? Damn, you are a peach and a half, sweetheart.”
“And you’re a dumb, knuckleheaded…bogeyman.” Not my finest insult, I admit; it just popped in there.
“You really want to know who I am.”
“Then come to the boathouse.”
“It’s a deal.”
He helps me across the jetty and unfastens the padlock. There isn’t much inside, just a couple of outboard motors, a few scuba tanks, and a brace of folded-up sun loungers. He rigs one up for me, fetches a beach towel from somewhere in the back, then makes sure I’m comfortable before he leaves.
“Hey, you promised—”
He shrugs. “Got you out of sight, didn’t it?”
“You, sneaky shit…”
“Just stay put, Athena. For Christ’s sakes, do that one thing for me.”
“Then you’ll tell me who you are.”
“You have my word.”
“Good. And bring me a bite to eat as well. I’m starved. Make it something with low calorie—” He’s out the door before I can finish. But even though I’m on my own in a killer’s private boathouse, in a cove hidden from the world, maybe with more vengeful killers on the way, I feel strangely relieved. Untouchable… Like the night after the worst exam of your life: even though you know there are more harsh exams waiting, you’re gotten over the biggest hurdle, and you’re lit from within by that cool afterglow, that secret feeling that everything’s going to be okay.
It might only be the eye of the storm, but at least I’ve survived this far. And more than that, much more, I haven’t had to kill a man after all.
Footsteps crack on the boards of the old jetty outside. I can only hope it’s my dark defender returning. If it isn’t, this may be the last dress I ever wear. That’s an insane thing to think about, but everything about this evening has been insane.
The door swipes open, and I shuffle upright on the lounger. A man wearing smartly pressed trousers and a thin, dark green turtleneck sweater marches in, hands me a small gym bag. The waves in his dirty blond hair, his delicious light tan, piercing blue-gray eyes and utterly gorgeous face remind me of…
“Put those on, and leave your damp dress in the bag…Evelyn.” He pretends not to notice my jaw hanging loose on its hinges, instead crooks a charming, superior grin as he unpacks the contents of the gym bag for me. “These might not be a perfect fit, but they should do till we reach England.”
“Are you talking about Carlisle? You mean that asshole from the party?”
“One of those is correct.”
“But—but you were shit-faced.”
“And you found me repulsive.”
I scoff. “Damn right.”
“So we were both pretending.”
“Yes! Wait…what?” He’s being clever, too clever, and smooth, too smooth. I recall what the redhead with the bony shoulders said about him—that he comes on strong, and that I wouldn’t want to turn him down a second time. So I pull the towel up to my chin, making double sure no skin is showing anywhere.
“Who are you really?” My mind tries to thread together some kind of explanation for him being here, with me, instead of passed out in bed with his Latina wife, but it’s beyond me right now. Needlepoint isn’t my strong suit. Just ask the poison-tipped ring on my…
It’s gone. It must have come off during the struggle on the balcony. Damn.
“Barrett Carlisle. Really tired, sore, and in uncharted waters…”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You know who I am, you know what I am. There are only a handful of people in the world who are privy to that information.”
I swallow hard, glance to his pocket, where I imagine there’s a lethal weapon of some kind with my name on it. But if he wanted me dead, why did he bring me with him? Why has he just revealed his identity?
“Get changed,” he says. “That wet dress would bury us both if someone saw it.”
“What—change with you in here?”
He rolls his eyes, and then turns his back. “I’ll talk, you get dressed.”
A part of me wants to insist he wait outside: I might be rocking this sapphire number tonight—his words, not mine—but I’ve always been self-conscious about my figure, never having had, until recently, one I was even remotely happy to flaunt in public. As far as clothes go, baggy and casual is my thing. On the other hand, nothing about this night smacks of the Athena Katsaros I’ve known all these years; these are uncharted waters for me, too, and there’s something exciting—no, deep-down thrilling—about the fact that I don’t shrink from danger. Real danger… But more than that, I’ve never felt as alive as I am right now. Those oil fires I saw burning in the eyes of Valdez and his henchman earlier: I’m not so sure they weren’t my eyes I was seeing—in reflection because right here, right now, something’s igniting me again.
This time it isn’t hate. It’s more subtle, flavorsome, a slow-burning fuse to a secret cache of erotic fireworks I didn’t even know I possessed. It’s something to do with the danger, the disrobing, and him—a killer, protector, and a billionaire Brit. All it would take would be a little turn of his head and I‘d have no defense against the piercing eyes of my dark defender. He’d see right through me, and I’m shivering with fear and anticipation just imagining it.
It makes no sense. But here’s the thing: I’m so going to do it.
“Okay, who the hell is she?” I ask, dropping the towel.
“Buggered if I know…”
“So why did you call me Evelyn at the party?”
“It was either that or Tallulah.”
It’s cute. I can’t help but twitch a smile. “Why not just use my real name? You knew who I was.” It suddenly hits me how significant that fact is, because I never attend those kinds of parties, and I’m pretty sure I’d remember if Carlisle and I had met before.
“I was trying to embarrass you. I needed you to leave,” he says.
He sighs. “Because the reason I was there, what I came here to do, I did it for you.”
“It was for me?” I slowly unzip my dress at the side; let the cool air feel its way in. It gooses my bare back, and my nipples begin to harden against the damp fabric hanging loosely out front. The thin shoulder straps need only gentle sideways tugs in order to slip…
“I’ve studied you, Athena. I know all about you. And I’m always very thorough.”
Oh my God… The dress falls, catches on my wide hips, exposing breasts that have never seemed so perfectly shaped, and nipples that have never felt so erect. I’m suddenly dying for him to see me and terrified at the same time. It’s an intoxicating spiral of desires that leaves me breathless. I shove the dress down past my hips, feel it pool about my ankles. Close my eyes to let my imagination take over…try to see myself through his eyes.
“How do you know me?” I ask.
“At first, she was just an orphaned girl who needed my help. Now, she’s a woman to me. A rare, brave, completely pain-in-the-arse woman, who happens to be a hundred times more beautiful than she ever thought she could be. She has these exotic, painted eyes that are pure Scheherazade, and a body a man could die for.”
I gasp, open my eyes, and meet his gaze less than halfway. The urge to hide screams inside, but fades behind a shivery desire to know more. About what he sees, what he likes, what I can do for him if he comes closer.
He says nothing, just walks up to me, and his hungry blue-gray eyes exploring every inch of me on the way. My breath hitches. I start to tremble. An aftershave the flavor of a mountain lake in summer fills my part of the boathouse. But it isn’t my part, never was; this is all his. My assignment never reached past the balcony. I’ve been under his protection since then, and this is my final—and willing—surrenders to my dark defender.
If you want me, you can take me.
“I came here to help you get even,” he says, draping the beach towel over my shoulders. “To right a wrong someone has done to you. And this…this wouldn’t be right.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Shhh… It’s all right. You’ve been through a lot; not just tonight, but for months now. I know how it is, what you’ve been through. And you’re not thinking straight.” He holds me to him, gentle but firm, the way Papa used to hold me when I’d done something bad that had left me upset.
That memory, and everything that has happened since—my wayward years apart from him, our tentative reunion, his sudden violent death at Valdez’s bidding, the packed but lonely funeral, Roger Stimson’s kind words after, and this whole crazy quest for vengeance—it all spills out in bitter sobs in the arms of my dark defender.
We lie there for hours, Carlisle and me, together on the sun lounger. He says we can’t make a move till tomorrow anyway. His rendezvous is in the early afternoon, and until then we’re safest here, out of sight, incommunicado.
So who is he really? What’s his part in all this?
“I was hired to kill Valdez.”
“Yeah, I kind of get that part,” I reply, “but who hired you?”
“It was someone who wanted him dead.”
Oh-kay…Interrogating Barrett Carlisle is like picking the world’s most stubborn lock—you really need the right tools for the job. I haven’t a clue what those might be, but I persevere anyway. If I’ve gotten this close to him, he can’t be immune to me.
“But if you did research on me, it must have been connected with Papa’s death.” And I turn pale at the thought; a chill flush makes me clench all over. “It wasn’t…you, was it? You didn’t kill Papa. Tell me it wasn’t you.”
“It wasn’t me. I don’t just take any contract they offer. Think of me as more of a fighter against wrongdoings, an anonymous means to settle a score that deserves to be settled. Like what happened to your father. That was a cold-blooded business decision. Valdez couldn’t stand being out-maneuvered in the market-place, so he made that choice to eliminate his rival. The preening shit was on holiday at the time, a watertight alibi, and of course there was no way to tie him to the killing. People like that are always six degrees removed from the act itself. Not a shred of evidence that would hold up in court.”
“Roger Stimson put it that exact same way,” I tell him. “He tried to talk me out of coming here, offered to hire someone for me. God, I wish I’d listened to him now. Roger was right all along. This is another world—a shadow world.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s a really close friend of Papa’s. He came to see me shortly after the funeral, sat me down, put his arm round me—Roger’s always seemed like an old uncle—and he told me he’d found out beyond any doubt Valdez was responsible.”
“How did he find that out?”
“Don’t know. But I trust him completely. He’s gotten Papa out of so many scrapes over the years; he might as well be the family consigliore. But I told him I didn’t want anyone else doing this for me. Papa would have made sure he moved heaven and earth to avenge me personally, if I’d been killed; so I had to do the same. No, I wanted to do it. It’s the old Greek way, and it’s the right way. Someone murders a loved one like that, you should absolutely get even. Like a vendetta. You should ram that murder down his fucking throat and cheer when he chokes.”
It hits me again, the fact that I didn’t kill Valdez. That in the final moments, I was thwarted, and the hate driving me ever since Roger Stimson’s visit hasn’t been sated… It’s still there, gnawing at my idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.
“That’s where I come in,” says Carlisle with a sigh, as though I’ve forced him to reassess his part in all this. “They hire me so they don’t have to pull that trigger.”
“So you are an assassin for hire—a billionaire assassin for hire. That…makes no sense.”
“Maybe it’s not, but the world makes no sense. This is how I at least try to make sense of it.”
“You mean killing people?”
“I mean by getting even for those who can’t.”
“So you’re a vigilante.”
“It’s a fine line between the two, I find. A vigilante takes the law into his own hands. A hit man kills for personal gain. Where those two intersect, you’ll find the shadow of Barrett Carlisle.”
“I think I get it now. Someone offered you a contract to kill Valdez, and before you decided to accept or not, you looked into him, to see if he fit your killing code. And that’s when you found me—the daughter of Andreas Katsaros, Valdez’s business rival, who’d recently been murdered. So you pieced it together from there, using your…shadow world connections. But you really didn’t expect me to show up tonight.”
He strokes my hair, whispers, “I had no idea.”
“That I could go through with it…?”
“That you could surprise me… Not many have.”
His warm breath tickles the back of my neck, and my stomach flutters. “Surprise you in what way?”
“In every way… The pictures I saw of you, the impression I had in mind: before tonight, you were just another helpless victim who relied on the law to dole out justice. But the moment I recognized you at the party tonight, I knew I’d underestimated everything about you.”
I lace his fingers in mine and feel the warm tingle spread. “Barrett?”
“Thank you for saving my life.”
We just lie here, listening to tidal swells press up against the wooden bottom of the boathouse, and the echo-pops of dripping water in between. Hours pass. I sleep fitfully, dream in sharp, menacing sketches that end just before something bad happens. Sometimes he’s there when I wake up, sometimes he isn’t.
The orange glow of sunrise steals in through gaps between planks and rotten knots in the wood. It feels like we’re both a long way from home. Primal forces have brought us here, but we don’t belong here. Barrett Carlisle could do anything he wanted, go anywhere, be with anyone; but he’s opted for these serial blind dates with death. He’s a killer with a conscience. It’s only a matter of time before he’s surprised again—but by the sound of a bullet.
“Why do you do it?” I ask.
He gets up again, rummages through another gym bag he must have brought down from the house while I slept. Then he checks his watch. “We need to head out.”
“Head out for the rendezvous?”
“They won’t wait around. Get changed, Athena. I’ll be outside, prepping the boat. Come as soon as you’re ready.”
The apparel he’s selected for me is much more my style—T-shirt, jogging top and slacks, flip-flops—but they’re all too big, and I’m mortified when I catch my reflection in the glass of his windshield. To distract him from my tragic appearance, I point to the house on the hillside. “Who lives there?”
“He’s an acquaintance.”
“Is this his boat, too?”
“No. Jump on.”
When I remind him of my sore ankle, he plays the gentleman again, lifts me aboard. It’s something I can’t quite get my head round—the paradox that is Barrett Carlisle. He’s already a billionaire, but he kills for money. He’s a predator who also protects. He ends lives with relish but is tender and even chivalrous to an injured woman. He goes out of his way to be charming and extravert in public, when in private he’s so taciturn with his emotions he’s barely the same person. I don’t expect he’ll ever tell me everything, but seeing as I’m along for the ride, I’m going to do my best to get to the bottom of the mystery that is my dark defender.
What made him this way? Who started it all? Will he ever stop?
Below deck is a ridiculously overdone boudoir berth, complete with satin sheets on a squashed-heart-shaped bed, Persian rug, mini bar, empty champagne bucket, and air freshener with a perfumed scent straight out of Arabian Nights. I’m not sure whether I should do a dance with veils or just throw up.
“How long still before we get to the rendezvous?” I ask him when he pokes his head in to check on me.
“It’s just a couple of hours. You should stay down here till we’re away from the bay, then come up if you like. I bet you’re dying to see what this baby can do.”
“Uhhh, yeah, if you say so…” It strikes me as a reckless thing to suggest under the circumstances, but then he does live life on the edge. And he’s done his homework on me. “Even better than a jet ski…”
“You’ve no idea.”
“It’s very trusting of you, last night—to let me pilot like that.”
“I knew you had it in you. And I couldn’t pilot and shoot at the same time, could I.”
“So there’s something you can’t do?”
He nods to a small galley area at the back. “There might be a sandwich or something in the fridge. Help yourself.”
“I’ve already eaten.”
He revs up the cruiser’s beast of an engine, gets us underway as I take a grateful first bite of my cheese, ham and pepperoni sandwich. It’s a good combo, and I wash it down with a sparkling Appletini. Carlisle maintains a respectable speed while I’m below deck, doesn’t push it. And to be honest I’d rather stay down here for a while, until we’re so far out of sight of Valdez’s hacienda it might as well not exist anymore, except in my nightmares.
But if I have to go on deck, I so don’t want to wear what I’m wearing. Next to a sexy British billionaire—no, the sexy Brit billionaire—I look like a slum dog junkie on a bad hair day. So I go to see what the boat’s single closet has in store, not exactly holding my breath. Going off the decor so far, I’ll probably be sifting through exotic negligee. Sigh.
A sleeveless arm lashes out when I open the door. It grabs me before I can react. I scream into a firm hand pressed hard against my mouth, so hard I can feel teeth puncturing lip. The man pulls me in, coughs a few times, and then snarls in my ear, “You make another sound, and I break your neck. Nod if you understand.”
I do as he says. But how did he get in here? When? That hateful voice sounds…recent, familiar. He sweats profusely, and he’s trembling.
Again I hear the click of a gun behind me, just like on the Jet Ski last night. And again the dread washes over me: is this bullet for me? Is this how my kill-trip ends?
“You’re going to tell me who you are, both of you,” he says between coughs. “You’re going to tell me who you’re working for. Then I decide whether to kill you or not.”
I don’t believe that last part for a second. He has no reason to let us live. He’s got none. We’re dead, Carlisle and me, unless…
No, we’re just dead. This is Valdez’s personal bodyguard—a man with a vendetta of his own. He’s already failed in his duty once. He must have tracked us last night. Carlisle did think we were being followed across the bay, but he was sure that once we’d cut into the cove, we were invisible. We’re untraceable. So how could this man have seen us, without lights, on the dark ocean? And why didn’t we hear him climb onto the boat? Where did he leave his own boat?
There are just too many questions that have no answers. And no way out of this.
On deck, the man fires a shot. It misses Carlisle by inches, makes a hole in the windscreen. Carlisle ducks onto the seat and spins round, just the top of his head visible. He sneaks a peek, then slowly raises his hands and gets up.
“Turn off the engine!” the man yells hoarsely. “Do it now!”
Carlisle complies, and then resumes his posture of surrender. “What now, old boy?”
“Why were you at Valdez’s hacienda last night? Who sent you?”
“What? Nobody sent me. I received an invitation through a business associate. Valdez throws a mean soiree, everyone says so. And, being in Malta for the weekend, I couldn’t pass up the chance, so I made a call to a friend of mine who knows Valdez’s PR man. We got on well, I thought, Manny and me. Do you mind telling me what all this is about?”
He fires another shot, again misses by inches. “Who sent you? I will not ask again.”
“Very well… Let go of the girl and I’ll tell you.”
“No. You tell me now: who is the girl, and who is she working for?”
The inscrutable Brit shifts his weight a little, adjusts his sunglasses. He throws his hands aloft when the man gets fidgety. “Take it easy,” Carlisle says. “Just try to get comfortable, old boy. The girl is Athena Katsaros, daughter of Andreas Katsaros. I assume you know the name.”
My sweaty abductor can barely stand. He wheezes every breath, coughs behind stubborn clenched teeth that chatter in my ear. And his shakes are getting worse. Maybe he caught a chill last night when he swam in the sea in order to sneak onto this boat.
“She came for revenge?”
“Are you serious? She told me all about what happened on the balcony. It was after I’d left. She said Valdez was sick as a dog, and he collapsed in front of her. But when she tried to catch his fall—to help him—someone attacked her, tried to kill her. There was some kind of scrap on the balcony. So she fled for her life, came straight to my home. I’ve never seen her that frightened. And now you’re here, after her again, blaming her for I don’t know what. It’s rotten form, old chap… absolutely rotten of you. And I don’t know what the hell you’re pointing that thing at me for! Manny and I hit it off first thing last night.”
“You keep saying that, but…but there is no such thing as coincidence.” The man staggers with me still in his grip. He’s about ready to keel over. “I-I followed you both. There was no mistake. The fence, the jet ski…”
“No mistake? I’m afraid there’s been some terrible mistake.” Carlisle deftly adjusts his sunglasses again, this time tilting them so that the glare of the sun flashes in the eyes of my abductor. The man reacts, shields his eyes with his gun hand. In that brief moment of blindness, he loses his advantage. Carlisle rips the glove box open and pulls out a pistol of his own. He doesn’t wait for the stand-off. He shoots the bastard in the shoulder above his gun arm.
With a cry, the man jerks back and lets me spin out of his grasp. He slips on the smooth deck. I scramble away toward the onrushing figure of Barrett Carlisle, who pays me no notice. Instead, he tosses his sunglasses overboard and proceeds to kick the life out of the feverish assailant—vicious, vengeful kicks doled out with almost psychotic rapidity. He’s doing a lot more than just protecting us; he’s meting out punishment. The kicks never seem to end, and he doesn’t appear to want them to end.
“Barrett, that’s enough!” I tell him.
As he glances round at me, the oil fires burn with fierce abandon through his stunning blue-gray eyes. Just what is it that’s filled him with this much hate—hate enough to drive a man who has everything to a place from which there’s nowhere left to go. He can jet around the world all he likes, pretend to be whoever he wishes, but the real Barrett Carlisle will never be able to escape this moment: a moment he goes to extraordinary lengths to recapture, to recreate, time and time again. He’s only really alive in this moment, I think. For all his talk of helping victims find justice, it’s clear to me now: he lives to get even.
If I can, and if he’ll let me, I’m going to help him find the peace he sought for me. But first things first…
“Who else knows about us?” Carlisle presses his gun to the man’s glistening forehead. “Who did you tell?”
He mumbles something I can’t decipher, and then hacks up a grave, chesty cough. It seems to excite a rumbling chuckle deep in the sick-pit of his stomach. He assaults us with a toothless, blood-stained grin.
Carlisle leans closer. “Say that name again!”
More coughs, deathly wheezes. Again the mumbled word I can’t make out. But Carlisle seems to. He sits up, looking out to sea, his mouth pursed to a thin white line.
“What did he say?” I ask.
He holds a finger up to me, as if to say, give me a minute, Athena. I need this minute.
It reminds me of…my own finger. The ring… The needle… I lost it during my struggle with this man on the balcony. What if I…pricked him before it came off? Not Valdez, him. Is that why he’s so feverish? The poison was supposed to take twelve hours to kill. It has to be about that long since the balcony fight.
“Barrett, it’s my poison. That’s why he’s sick. He’s dying because of—” Carlisle pulls the trigger before I can finish, tosses the man overboard, and restarts the engine before I can tell him what I’ve done. Perhaps he already knows, and he killed the man quickly because he doesn’t want me having murder on my conscience. But it’s too late. I’m the same as him now, a child of the shadows. Wherever we go from here, whatever happens, I’m on the same dark trajectory as him.
And we have a rendezvous to keep.
Beautiful, stunning, hot, sexy, intelligent Athena Katsaros filled with mysterious thought and personality. A woman that you don't want to miss, who trained just for revenge? With that, an unidentified man that she have never met. A man that she just met that saved her life... and she was able to trust him? But how long will this trust last? Only that day... or for as long as she's being saved? Introducing SECRET, in the Sexy Action BWWM Interracial Romance Series by Vanessa Lafferty. It's definitely something you don't want to miss! So click BUY now and Keep Calm and Read A Cozy Action Mystery!