He’s death for hire…
Some people measure life in hours. Days. Weeks. I measure mine in kills. A covert military mission gone wrong robbed me of my memory and any link to my past. This is my existence now. I execute and survive. Nothing more, nothing less. I was ready to write Isabel Foster’s name in my ledger of unfortunate souls until she uttered the one word that could stop the bullet meant for her. My name.
She knows my face. She knows me. She’s the key to the memories I’m not sure I want back. Now nothing is simple. I still have a job to do, and my soul isn’t worth saving. I’m not the man she thinks I am. I can’t love her. And sparing her life puts us both in the crosshairs.
Other Books In This Series
Print & eBooks In This Series
Rio de Janeiro
Carnaval saturates the streets like a thousand tiny rivers of excess and desire. Heat and music and the ebb and flow of revelers create an undeniable pulse of excitement. It exists in the balmy ocean air, settles on my skin, and sizzles against my nerve endings. I feel like I could drown in it.
“Do you want another drink?”
Kolt’s American accent stands out in the cacophony of the open-air bar.
I don’t need another drink. The alcohol from the few caipirinhas I’ve already had flows through my bloodstream, making me horny and impulsive. I meet his gaze and consider where I want the night to go.
“We have to work tomorrow.” I’m not sure if that will discourage him, though.
“Then maybe we shouldn’t waste all night here.”
I smirk. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’ve been staring at you in that dress all night. And right now, I’m willing to do just about anything to have a couple hours alone with you.”
With his soft brown eyes, he rakes me in, betraying his desire. He’s smooth-shaven with lightly tanned skin. His short, dirty-blond hair has grown out just enough to curl naturally at the ends—as close to rugged as he’ll ever look.
I swirl the ice in my glass. “A couple hours?”
He rests his hand on my lower back and presses his lips to my bare shoulder. “You know I want a lot more than that.”
I tense. I care about Kolt. Deep down, I know he cares about me too. But every time I sleep with him, I feel his grip tighten on me as if I’m becoming more his. He doesn’t understand I’m not his at all. I can’t give him more.
But I can give him tonight. One more night.
“Let’s go back to my place,” I say, silently promising myself I’ll indulge the physical attraction one last time.
His eyes widen a fraction before returning to normal. He gets the attention of the bartender with his broken Portuguese and pays him quickly. He makes no effort to fit in here. Most days he looks like he should be strolling the grounds at Harvard, the very place that shaped him through undergrad and another shaky year in grad school.
Kolt’s on vacation from his life. It’s been six months. In another six, he’ll go back to it, and I know as surely as I know my own name that he intends to bring me back with him. I tick off all the boxes. We have chemistry. If we both ignored my inability to love him, I could fit into his life nicely. He’s rich and driven, and every time he looks at me, I know what he sees. A pretty fuck. A prize to be won. A match.
But I’m not on vacation. I’m running away. The urge to thrust myself into a future unknown was so powerful, it landed me in Rio. In the center of this chaos is exactly where I want to be—until I can find the truth. But the truth is like this overwhelming place. It’s much easier to get lost than to ever find what you’re looking for.
“Let’s go.” Kolt slips his hand into mine, and we’re off.
He leads the way, walking quickly through the boisterous crowd. His eagerness has my heart beating faster, momentarily overwhelming the sensations of the celebration around us.
I’m mourning the decision to leave the festivities the second we turn onto the quieter Rua Lopes Quintas. Shadows play in my periphery as we head toward my apartment. Relief and unease curl inside me with Kolt’s possessive embrace around my midsection.
“Thanks for walking me home,” I hedge, already anticipating his disappointment, because I don’t think I can go through with it. Not tonight.
We’re at my door, and he turns me, squaring our bodies. He weaves his fingers into my hair, caresses over the dampness at the roots, and guides my mouth to his. I accept. Because if we’re not lovers, we’re undeniably more than friends. And even though I refuse to give him everything he wants, I still crave contact. His taste is a mirror of sugar and citrus on my tongue. He slides his other hand to the back of my thigh and inches up, pressing his groin to the center of my physical desire. But his desperation barrels over his sensuality.
I close my eyes and reach for what I want… A memory. Silvery-blue eyes flash in my mind. Full lips mark my skin, and then the memory takes me away. In my mind, I’m pinned under hard thrusts that threaten to shatter my body and my heart. Reckless lust and love I want so hard to believe was pure.
A rush of desire hits me. I gasp and answer Kolt’s persistent groping with an infinitesimal shift in my hips. With a hungry growl, he pushes me back against the rough stucco of my building. My eyes open to his perfectly chiseled features. I turn my head, disconnecting our mouths. Undeterred, he latches on to my neck instead.
He hitches the tight fabric of my dress up like he means to take me here in the street but stops short of baring me indecently. “Why do you do this to me?” His voice is low, gritty with need.
I wince because I really don’t want to do this to him. “If I gave you everything, you wouldn’t want it.”
He pulls back to stare at me for a quiet moment. “That’s a goddamn lie, and you know it. I want you all the time.”
He can’t want the person he’s never truly seen. I trace my fingers across his lips, wishing I could tell him the truth. That I’m incomplete. Still utterly broken. And he doesn’t have what it takes to put me back together. Somehow I know if I told him all that, he’d try to talk me out of it. Either way, the answer isn’t the one he wants.
“I drank too much. It doesn’t feel right.” I offer the half lie that gives him no choice but to leave me alone.
He may be cocky and entitled, but Kolt is still a gentleman. His shoulders soften, and his touch falls away. “At least let me walk you up.”
I shake my head. “I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Are you sure?”
He’s only being half genuine, giving me one last chance to give in. I consider it one more time. I lean in, close the small space between us, and kiss him softly on the mouth.
“Good night, Kolt,” I whisper against his lips.
He reacts, taking the kiss deeper, molding his hands over my ass and yanking me against him. I pressure him back gently because we’re riding a dangerous edge when it comes to self-control. I still have plenty, but I’m not sure he does.
Finally he lets our bodies separate. His breath comes in uneven pants as he looks me over like every inch of my bare skin burns him.
“Good night, Isabel. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tension lines every plane of his face as he turns and takes brisk strides down the street. He disappears into the shadows I have learned never to trust. I reach for my key, quickly turn it in the lock, and bolt the door behind me.
Sweat beads down my back. My heart beats slowly, like the pendulum on an old clock. Adrenaline rushes don’t come easily for me. As I circle to the rear of the building, memorized details project onto the bright-white screen of my mind.
Isabel Foster. American. English teacher. Aged twenty-five.
Marked for death, she’ll be extinguished within the hour. I register the faintest measure of relief that her lover—or the man who desperately wanted to be—is now out of the picture. Collateral damage isn’t uncommon, but I prefer to avoid it if I can. God knows I have enough blood on my hands.
I scale the metal stairs in the darkness, mentally mapping my journey from a brief assessment of her living arrangements days ago. The week of Carnaval is already loud and dangerous. Her death will be one of dozens of others reported by the morning.
I peer into her apartment through the glass doors that open from her second-floor balcony. Nearly every light is on. I withdraw my gun from the holster hidden under my shirt. With practiced deftness, I spin the silencer onto the end until it’s secure.
Opening the door from her balcony, I pause when a low sound comes from the bedroom. After a beat, I slip inside, leaving the door open a crack for my inevitable departure. I glance around the living room that leads into a small kitchen. My brain captures snapshots that my photographic memory will store forever, whether I want it to or not. A thriving bromeliad on the window sill. A framed photo of her with her parents. An old purple crocheted blanket strewn over the back of the couch. None of it matters. Tonight will be the last night she draws air.
With that final thought, I move toward her nearly closed bedroom door. The gap reveals my target, but instead of taking action, I halt my advance. Where I didn’t care about the sounds of my approach seconds before, now I still my breathing and freeze my motions to become totally silent.
She’s on the bed. Her chestnut hair fans out on her lavender pillow, and the sheets are tangled around her ankles. With one hand, she’s massaging her breast through the sheer black fabric that clings tightly to it. The other hand is hidden under her panties. Her position reveals details I couldn’t have appreciated when I watched her from afar—graceful, toned legs, a line of unreadable text inked along her rib cage, and a smooth, firm stomach decorated with a tiny silver ring pierced through her navel. The pinched look on her face is one I haven’t seen before. Not even with her boyfriend. A fascinating mix of anguish and rapture.
With her eyes closed and her position on the bed, she can’t know I’m here watching her pleasure herself. The pendulum of my heart swings a little faster at my predicament.
Her beauty doesn’t give me pause. A nagging instinct that I know her from somewhere else doesn’t give me pause either, though perhaps it should. My weapon hangs heavily at my side now as I entertain both a slow burn of arousal and a rare moment of empathy that I’m about to end her life in the midst of her ecstasy.
I trace my fingertip over the cool metal trigger and attempt to rationalize my hesitation. Then I swiftly resolve to correct it. But not before Isabel’s body arches. She wraps her fingers around the edge of the mattress, taking a handful of sheet with her. Her movements quicken, and she sucks in a breath. I’m growing hard, cursing myself with every passing second for my inaction.
I grit my teeth and lift the gun, lining the barrel up precisely to ensure a quick, painless end.
Her body undulates unevenly as the orgasm rolls through her. She trembles and moans, and my groin betrays the pleasure it’s giving me too.
Her lips part with a loud groan and then…
My name leaves her lips and fills the room like a gunshot.
I freeze, and the pendulum stops.
* * *
JAY: Please report on the status of Isabel Foster.
I chew on a thin red stir straw, rest back into the office chair that sits behind my desk, and stare at the text cursor on my screen. I’m still in disbelief. I’ve never hesitated like that. I sure as hell have never had a change of heart. I simply have no heart to change.
This was curiosity, pure and simple.
I mash the straw between my molars and quickly type a reply.
RED: In progress. Need a little more time.
Jay’s response comes quickly. I sense her displeasure before the words appear on the computer screen. We’ve spoken in person only once in three years, and the details are still foggy. She provided only the information that she felt I needed to go into my new life. There was a time when this unnerved me, but now I take solace in it. The less I know, the better. Everyone, including me, is likely safer that way. Except for my marks, of course.
JAY: The client is eager. Is there a complication?
I hover my fingertips over the keys, weighing my reply. Complications are rare and historically have never required her intervention. Still, I remain irrationally protective of my error, and I want to ensure enough time to fully investigate the source of it.
RED: She has a boyfriend. Waiting to
get her alone so I can keep it clean.
JAY: When will it be done?
RED: Within the week.
I hesitate and follow the answer she doesn’t want to hear, trying to allude to inevitable closure on the subject of my living, breathing mark.
RED: Where to next?
JAY: Take care of this and I’ll let you know.
Jay knows I prefer to disappear for a while after a local hit. Rio is vast and crime is rampant, but corruption is being confronted more vigorously, and at least some of the many homicides will receive the thorough investigation they deserve. In addition to being American, Isabel Foster is the daughter of a Pentagon official. Chances are extremely slim, but not impossible, that her death could be linked to my face, my untraceable fingerprints, my unregistered and unmarked car, or my apartment. All in all, incarceration would be easier to avoid if I were nowhere to be found.
After wrestling with my total fuck up all day, I turned my focus to research and compiled a more thorough profile of the girl—an exercise that offered no enlightenment. As far as I can tell, our lives haven’t intersected in the past three years. The Tristan on her lips could easily be someone else.
I try to reassure myself that she could be important, even if I don’t understand why yet. Then I remind myself that Isabel Foster is a beautiful woman who shouted my name as she brought herself to orgasm, and there is not a single iota of importance to that odd coincidence. I am being idiotic, male, and uncharacteristically human. Yet I stare at the photograph before me, and all of my instincts—all the ones that have kept me alive through God knows how many situations that certainly should have left me dead—tell me unequivocally that my hesitation has merit.
I blink a few times and type into the protected chat that allows both Jay and me anonymity, never knowing each other’s exact whereabouts. We deal in death wishes and wire transfers, with not a shred of trust between us.
RED: A hint?
I try for humor, knowing Jay has none. Still, having something to look forward to would be welcome. Rio is becoming intolerable. Sensory overload. Easy to blend in, impossible to tune out. I’ve had the strong urge to move on for months. Perhaps now is the time. Now, when I’ve faltered so irrationally, risking everything.
Yes, I’d move on after this. I’d take Jay’s next assignment, scout my next stop, and say goodbye to Brazil for a while.
JAY: How is your Russian?
I smirk. Jay’s reply is both humor and insult. She knows my language skills are shit and I hate the cold. I’ve never said no, though.
RED: Flawless as always. I’ll be in touch.
I close out the chat and pace the largely empty living room. Nearly every square foot of my apartment is dedicated to my work. The space contains an old teacher’s desk covered with connected monitors. A leather chair sits in the corner. The walls are cluttered with notes, all currently dedicated to the inauspicious woman who is hijacking my thoughts at the moment.
I have no need for couches or formal dining areas. Or friends, family, or lovers. I’ve never had a guest, and I suspect I never will.
I’m going to find out why Isabel Foster’s face feels like it’s been tattooed onto my brain. I’m going to eliminate her. And then I’m going to leave this country without a trace.