They’re trying to kill her, and she doesn’t know why…
Kathryn Holt knows only that she has to get far away as fast as she can. In a frantic, cross-country odyssey, she transforms from pliable Kathryn to feisty, determined Kate Miller, staying one step ahead of the killers on her trail. Then Fate delivers her into the hands of a dark knight with a tortured past. The safety he offers is as tempting as he is.
After having his perfect life ripped apart, recluse Quinn sees protecting Kate as his chance for redemption. He never plans on wanting the guarded beauty, never mind falling for her. Denying the explosive chemistry between them is useless, and as danger closes in, he must fight to expose the killer or risk history repeating itself.
READ CHAPTER ONE
“Kathryn will be dead before the weekend is out. You have my word on it.”
Kathryn Burke froze at the entrance to the suite of offices, keys in hand. The voice sounded just like Peter, her fiancé. He was somewhere in the suite, loud, confident, and unmistakable. No, she was wrong. He wouldn’t be saying that so calmly. She must have heard wrong.
His next words dispelled that notion, blindsiding her and stealing her breath.
“Relax, Miguel. It’s almost over. I’ll get rid of Kathryn this weekend, and then we’ll be home free.”
She rubbed her forehead. Two days ago, she’d finally stopped taking the little white pills he kept giving her, pushing herself out of the fog she’d been living in. Was she having a hangover from the aftereffects? An auditory hallucination?
The meeting with the insurance adjuster had upset her, and she wanted Peter to help her push the matter.
“Let’s have dinner,” she’d begged. “I need your help.”
She wanted more investigation into the fire that killed her parents. The adjuster wanted her to take the settlement check, telling her the arson investigation was closed. Peter had soothed her, telling her he had a late client meeting and they could discuss it when he got home.
Irritated and frustrated, she’d finally dumped her frozen dinner in the trash, got in her car, and drove to the offices of Burke, Fleming and Associates. Peter usually locked the doors when he had late meetings, but she still had her father’s keys. She was going to slip in unannounced, not give him a chance to turn her away.
And she’d walked into that frightening declaration.
God, how could he say it so calmly? This was the man she was supposed to marry.
Another voice spoke up, an unfamiliar one, lower, deep, and edgy with a Hispanic accent. “You’d better be right. Disposing of the girl is a priority.”
She wanted to clap her hands over her ears. Icy fingers of terror danced on her spine, urging her to back out into the corridor and run like hell.
Get away from here. Now.
But like some evil magnet, the conversation pulled at her, dragging her farther into the suite of offices. Easing the key from the lock, she guided the door to a soundless close and moved softly into the darkened reception area. Slipping off her shoes with shaking hands and stuffing them into her purse, she forced herself to tiptoe down the hall, her footsteps silenced by the thick carpet.
Pulse racing like a Formula One engine, her stomach trying to claw its way up into her throat, she moved nervously forward until she peered around a corner into the largest office. Once it had been her father’s. Now he was dead, her Uncle Merritt gone also, and Peter ruled the law firm from behind the massive desk.
The office was empty, dark except for a tiny desk lamp casting a narrow pool of light. The voices came from the small adjacent conference room. Swallowing her fear, Kathryn eased behind the connecting door that was open a few inches. She flattened herself against the wall, her heart beating a tattoo so loud she was sure they could hear it.
Maybe she’d misunderstood what they said. Of course. That had to be it. Her hearing was playing tricks on her or she’d imagined it.
“I’m telling you, Miguel.” Peter’s voice was confident. Arrogant. “You can relax. I have it under control. Blink your eyes, and she’ll be gone. Dead. It’s a done deal. Life will continue without a ripple on the surface.”
Kathryn thought she might pass out. She hadn’t been wrong. They were planning to kill her, Peter and this other man. Miguel. Who in God’s name was he? And why did they want to get rid of her?
“We can’t afford any mistakes with this.” Miguel’s voice again. “You’ve dragged it out long enough. If she decides to snoop around we’re all in trouble. Get rid of her. Now.”
“I told you, I have it under control.” Peter’s tone was defensive. Almost hostile.
Miguel’s next words stunned her even more. “Until then, keep her away from the office. We can’t take the chance she’ll see or hear something.”
Kathryn frowned. What on earth could she possibly see? Since her father’s death, she only came by rarely, and then just to meet Peter.
“I’ll make sure of it.”
God, he was so smug. So assured. Had he always sounded like that and she’d just been so besotted she hadn’t noticed? What an idiot she was.
“We’re out of time.” Miguel reminded him. “I have orders from the top. Get rid of her at once or we’ll do it for you.”
“I understand. Believe me, no one will be happier to see her dead than me.”
Her body shifted into full panic mode, the pulsing of her blood boomed in her ears. Dead. She still couldn’t process it.
“And your arrangements won’t trigger anything?” Miguel’s skepticism was obvious.
“No. I promise you. I’m taking her away this weekend for a change of scenery. As far as anyone knows it will be to help her get over her depression. It’s common knowledge she’s been living on those pills. When she takes a few too many, who will think twice about it?”
Take a few too many?
Surely no one would buy that. Did anyone who knew her really think she’d kill herself? She tried to swallow, but her mouth was drier than Arizona. A hysterical laugh threatened to explode, and she forced it back.
None of this made sense. Why was it so important to get rid of her? What was it about the firm she wasn’t supposed to know? She felt like Alice Through the Looking Glass, needing only the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter to complete the crazy picture.
Peter—her Peter—wanted to kill her. How insane was that?
God. Peter. She closed her eyes, and his image swam before her, tall, muscular, handsome with his sun-bleached blond hair and laser blue eyes. Except now the face that had seemed so caring was stamped with evil. What an act he’d put on, and she’d been dumb enough to fall for it.
A wave of lightheadedness swept over her. She realized she’d been holding her breath and forced herself to exhale slowly. She was pushing her luck staying here, and she knew it. Any minute, they could discover her. She started to move away from her hiding place, but the next words she heard chilled her blood.
“I’m just telling you, Peter, this better be handled right. We were fortunate with the other deaths. We can’t push our luck.”
Other deaths? Had they killed someone else? Who?
“I’m taking care of business,” Peter protested. “I got rid of the parents without any problems, didn’t I? And despite all Kathryn’s weeping and wailing, I convinced the investigators to rule it an accident and close the case.”
Oh, my god. My parents. The fire. I knew something was wrong. That damn adjuster. I was right to be suspicious about the “accident”.
She still remembered that night in painful detail. If she hadn’t been tired and left early after dinner with them, she’d be dead, too. Was that the plan? But why? What was it that made her family targets for murder?
“John brought it on himself.” Peter’s voice had a strident quality. “He was about to do something foolish. I dealt with him, and I’ll deal with Kathryn.
“Too bad John developed a conscience. Just like his brother, Merritt, or they could both be living the good life.”
Her father? Her uncle? Kathryn’s mind couldn’t process the implications.
“Yeah, too bad.” But there was no remorse in Peter’s voice.
“They should have remembered we can reach out anywhere in the country—in the world—to find out what we want. To find anyone. Anything. Anywhere.” He paused. “You would do well to remember that, too.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Just call me when it’s over,” Miguel told him, “so I can pass the word.”
Alarm bells were screaming in Kathryn’s brain. Get out! Get out! Get away! Her panic meter shot to a new high, the darkened room around her reduced to a swirling fog. Hysterically, she realized this was the most she reacted physically to anything in weeks. Maybe months.
Feeling dislodged from any kind of reality, she squeezed her eyes shut, hard, then opened them again and tried to focus. She had to get a grip here. Slow breaths. Stay calm. Don’t do anything to give yourself away.
“Just deal properly with the officials.” Miguel again.
“I’m not concerned. We’ve spread enough money around, have enough people we’ve paid off wherever we do business to take care of that. Cops, prosecutors, government agents, whatever, everyone has a price. It’s all a matter of finding it. I can make anything go away, no matter how high up I have to go.”
God, it got even worse. Peter had paid people off? If she got away, where could she go that she’d be safe? Nowhere.
“And our records?” Miguel asked. “Are they up to date?”
“I’m going to enter the latest transfers tonight,” Peter went on. “Everything’s saved on the flash drive so there’s nothing on my computer. It’s plugged in and ready to go. As soon as we’re finished here, I’ll lock it up in its usual place.”
“You leave it lying around like that?” Miguel’s voice was sharp with irritation. “So carelessly? Don’t you think that’s irresponsible on your part? Everything about us is on there.”
“For God’s sake.” Peter sounded exasperated. “I told you. There’s nobody here but us. I locked the outer doors. And no one else is coming here tonight. Not even the cleaning crew.”
“If that drive fell into the wrong hands, we would be out of business.”
“Relax. No one’s going to get their hands on it.”
“You’d better be right.”
Flash drive. If she could get hold of that…
Her eyes skittered wildly around the office. Could she make it across to Peter’s desk without being spotted? Quietly, crouching down, she moved behind the desk and eased open the door where the laptop was. There, just as he’d said, plugged into the USB port. A desperate voice said Take it. Something this important could be her best insurance. If God forbid they found her, maybe she could bargain for her life with it.
Just let me get this and be out of here, she prayed. With hands that were far from steady, she reached for the tiny object and shoved it into her pocket. As she turned to move away from the desk her arm caught a stack of folders on the corner, knocking them to the floor with a thud. She froze.
“What was that?” Miguel’s voice. Sharp. “Did you hear something?”
“I’ll look,” Peter said, “although I can assure you there’s no one here but us.”
They were coming! They’d find her! Go, go, go.
Propelled by a greater fear than she’d ever known, Kathryn raced down the hall, through the outer doors, down the stairs, and into the parking garage. Gasping for breath, she nearly leaped into her car.
Her hands were shaking so badly she needed both of them to get the key in the ignition. Heavy feet pounding down the stairs warned her to hurry. Finally she shoved hard, the key slid in, the engine started, and she threw the car into reverse.
The door from the stairs to the parking area banged open, and Peter and another man came barreling through. She slammed her foot on the accelerator and sped out toward the street, tires screeching, rainwater splashing against the doors. In seconds, she lost herself in the rat’s nest of traffic on Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa’s busiest major thoroughfare.
Weaving back and forth in the lanes, her view distorted by the rain that had not let up all day, she prayed harder than she’d ever prayed in her life.
Please don’t let them be able to follow me, find me.
God, what a naive simpleton she’d been. What a dense, gullible fool.
Her chest felt so constricted she could barely breathe. Her heart still raced wildly, beating in cadence with the raindrops thrumming against the windshield. Fighting to get herself under control, she gripped the steering wheel so hard her hands were cramping.
Despite the inner chill that invaded her body, she was sweating heavily. Her long hair was coming loose from the clasp that held it away from her face, and her once-neat tailored pants suit felt sticky and uncomfortable. Her hands were slick with sweat, slippery on the wheel.
“Damn it! Get out of the way,” she swore at the cars in front of her. “Move, move, move.”
She could still hear the voices, so cold and matter of fact.
…kill her…kill her…kill her…
And the swooshing of the inner door to the garage just as she had backed her car out, tires screeching. The panic as she listened for another car engine to start.
The tiny silver rectangle was tucked in her bra, its touch almost burning her skin. God, if only she hadn’t been so clumsy and knocked those files to the floor. If only she’d been faster down the stairs.
OhGodohGodohGod. They’re going to kill me. I have to get away.
Shut up, Kathryn, and think. This is no time to fall apart.
There it was, up ahead. The on ramp to the interstate. But which way to go? Which way? Which way? She took the northbound ramp, the first one she came to, and became lost in the lanes of speeding cars.
She drove through the rain, forcing herself to think. In an instant, her life had turned upside down. She could never go back. She’d be dead if Peter got his hands on her. But where could she go? What could she do? She had no one to turn to. And the little data storage unit was burning a hole in her pocket.
There was really only one thing she knew for sure. Somehow, some way, she had to disappear.
“God damn it, Miguel, I don’t know what she was doing here.”
Peter ground his teeth in frustration.
His immaculate office looked like the aftermath of a tornado, with papers and files scattered everywhere. Frantic was not a normal part of his personality, but right now he was as close to it as he could get. He picked up the folders from the floor, dropped them, shoved others aside as he scoured his desktop for the precious storage.
“Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” Each word was punctuated by the pounding of his fist on the desktop. He dropped into his chair and raked his fingers through his hair. Anger tightened every muscle in his body.
“It seems she’s not quite as manageable as you thought,” Miguel Osuna snapped.
“She assured me she was staying home tonight.” He pulled out drawers, dumped their contents on the floor, and dug through them.
Miguel paced, something Peter knew he rarely did, hands in his pockets, his face set in angry lines. “It seems she changed her mind.”
“Kathryn never changes her mind.”
“It seems she did so at least twice in her life,” Osuna pointed out, his voice lethal-sounding. “The night she was supposed to be with her parents and again tonight.”
“I can’t begin to think why she did.” Furious, he swept a pile of papers aside, tumbling them to the floor to join the rest of the chaos. “Damn it. The flash drive isn’t here.”
“You assured me the office was locked up. How did she get in?”
“I don’t know.” He avoided Miguel’s stare. “I guess she still has one of her father’s keys. I thought I’d collected them all.”
Peter knew he was in big trouble here. The air in the office was thick with tension and rage. And something else. For the first time in his adult life, Peter Fleming knew what fear was.
“You’ve put us all at risk.” Osuna’s voice was hard and cold. “Not just our little corner of the world, but Carlos as well, and our entire operation. I cannot believe how careless you’ve been. Now you know why leaving that thing out was a mistake.”
“Damn it, Miguel. She never, ever comes here unexpectedly. Certainly not like this. Why should I expect she would tonight? Of all nights?”
“In our line of work you must expect the unexpected. Your lapse in judgment will cost us dearly. You won’t like the reaction from the top, I promise you.”
Peter scrubbed his hands across his face. “I was ready to make the new entries right after our meeting. There was no risk. No one was supposed to come near this place.”
“You should consider yourself lucky she didn’t take any of the hard copy files with her. Unlike the ones on the flash drive, they aren’t encrypted.”
“I don’t know why she took anything, for God’s sake.” He slapped his hand on the desk. “I’ll find her. Count on it.”
“We need to make some arrangements.” Miguel pulled a cell phone from his pocket. “I’m not sure after this we can trust you to handle things by yourself.”
“What does that mean?” Peter curled his hands into fists.
“It means I’m going to use our available resources. As soon as I make a phone call, our men will start looking for her.” He punched in a number and in a moment began speaking in rapid Spanish. When he paused, he looked at Peter. “Give me that picture of her on your desk.”
“Picture?” Peter frowned.
“Never mind.” Miguel Osuna picked up the framed head shot himself and snapped it with the camera in his phone. A few more sentences, and he disconnected his call. “They have her picture and general description. People will start looking at once.”
“She can’t have gone far,” Peter told him. “She hasn’t the experience or the guts to figure out how to hide herself away.”
“Do you think after what happened tonight I’d put any confidence in your assessment of Kathryn Burke?” He was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He listened for a few minutes, then hung up without saying a word. “She’s not at the condo. There’s no sign of her car, and we know she hasn’t had enough time to get there and leave again. Wherever she went, that wasn’t it.”
“I can’t believe she’d just drive off into the night with nothing,” Peter said, his jaw set in frustration. “That isn’t her style.”
Miguel skewered him with a murderous look. “It seems there’s a lot you can’t believe, unfortunately for us. Especially unlucky for you.”
Peter tried furiously to think of what to do next. He looked at his computer, snapped his fingers, and in a moment his hands were flying over the keyboard. “Money. She’ll need cash. She never carries much with her.”
“What are you doing?” Miguel asked.
“Checking her bank accounts. Maybe she used her ATM card. It will tell me where she’s been, anyway.” He sat back and watched while information scrolled across the screen. When it stopped, he leaned forward. “There it is.” He shook his head.
“What did you find?” Miguel demanded.
“She’s hit some machines in town, pulling money out. But not enough. My guess is she’s still running. When she thinks she’s far enough away, she’ll hit the ATMs again or cash a check. But the pattern shows us she’s heading north.”
“Where would she go?”
“God knows. I don’t think she’d call any of her friends, and she has no close relatives left.”
Miguel stabbed a finger at Peter. “I hold you completely responsible for this. There will be consequences. You know I’ll have to make a rather unpleasant phone call tonight to report everything.” He was gone before Peter could frame a reply.
He slumped back in his chair, rubbing his temples. Hell and damnation. He’d planned so carefully for everything. How had it fallen apart like this?
Where are you, Kathryn? When I find you, you’ll be begging me to kill you before I’m finished.