Last week we announced that Laura Kaye’s Hard As It Gets: A Hard Ink Novel is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Hard As It Gets: A Hard Ink Novel, you’re in for a real treat:
Hard As It Gets: A Hard Ink Novel
by Laura Kaye
in its Audible Audio Edition, Unabridged!
Tall, dark, and lethal…Trouble just walked into Nicholas Rixey’s tattoo parlor. Becca Merritt is warm, sexy, wholesome–pure temptation to a very jaded Nick. He’s left his military life behind to become co-owner of Hard Ink Tattoo, but Becca is his ex-commander’s daughter. Loyalty won’t let him turn her away. Lust has plenty to do with it too.
With her brother presumed kidnapped, Becca needs Nick. She just wasn’t expecting to want him so much. As their investigation turns into all-out war with an organized crime ring, only Nick can protect her. And only Becca can heal the scars no one else sees.
Desire is the easy part. Love is as hard as it gets. Good thing Nick is always up for a challenge…
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
Becca Merritt stepped through the heavy industrial door and into another world. A buzzer screeched above her head, sending her heart into quick palpitations somewhere in the neighborhood of her throat. Compared to the late April warmth, the indoor air was like a meat locker, thick and intensely cold—or maybe that was just the draining weight of her anxiety these past days. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms.
“Be with you in a minute,” a gruff voice called from the back. The driving bass beat of a hard-edged rock song echoed from the same direction.
Gripping her purse more tightly under her arm, Becca’s gaze scanned the colorful images covering every inch of wall space. Tribal birds, winged hearts, dagger-eyed skulls, full-faced roses, crosses, and cartoon characters were some of the designs she noticed at first glance. Playful, gory, beautiful, haunting, many of the images were objectively artistic and oddly compelling.
Becca found tattoos intriguing, and she saw a lot of them on patients that came through the emergency department. She’d never really considered getting one for herself, though. Her father would’ve flipped out, and she’d always valued his opinion too much to rock the boat. With her dad gone now, she supposed there was nothing stopping her besides not knowing what image she’d want permanently drawn on her skin.
Like nails on a chalkboard, the buzzer sounded again and the door banged shut behind her. Becca whirled, expecting…she didn’t even know what. Strange as the past few days had been, anything seemed possible right now. But it was just a woman. A totally fascinating woman. Despite wearing all black, she was a riot of color, from the dark red highlights in her shoulder-length black hair, held back in sloppy-but-cute pigtails, to the dramatic eye make-up, to the colorful ink running the length of both arms. She was the Goth yin to Becca’s Plain Jane yang.
The woman juggled a stack of huge pizza boxes and a plastic grocery bag of canned sodas. “Sorry if you’ve been waiting a while.”
“Oh, no.” Becca rushed to her. “Can I help you with that?”
“Aw, you’re a doll. Yes, please, before my wrist breaks off.” She twisted her hand out. Becca unlooped the plastic handle from her arm, revealing angry red grooves in her skin from bearing the weight of it. “It’s a good thing I like these guys so much.” A quick grin as she dropped the two pizza boxes on the counter, which nearly reached to her chest she was so short. She heaved a deep breath and braced her hands on her hips. “Now, how can I help you?”
Becca’s stomach flip-flopped. Would she finally start getting some answers today? “I’m looking for a Mr. Rixey.”
The woman arched a pierced brow. “Mr. Rixey? Don’t hear him called that often.” She chuckled and winked. Between her vibrancy and the mischievous sparkle in her dark eyes, she gave off such self-assurance that her presence dominated the room, making her seem much bigger than her petite stature. “And may I tell him who’s asking?”
“My name is Becca Merritt. I don’t have an appointment or anything.” The rich, spicy smell of the pizza made her stomach clench. When had she last eaten, anyway?
“I think he’s finishing up with someone, but I’ll make sure he knows you’re waiting. Have a seat, if you like.” She gestured to the Naugahyde couch behind Becca, the one that had probably been new when bell bottoms were fashionable, if the pea green color was any guide.
“Thanks,” Becca said. The cushion creaked as she sat.
The woman scooped the pies off the counter and disappeared behind a dividing wall. “Oh, Mr. Rixey, your presence is requested,” she said in a sing-song voice. The response was muffled by an outburst of exclamations over the arrival of their dinner.
The strangers behind the wall hurled playful insults and sarcastic retorts at one another. Becca smiled, reminded of Charlie, her younger brother. The one she’d always felt motherly toward, despite only being a year older. The quiet one, who withdrew into himself more and more with each loss her family had experienced over the years. The one she hadn’t seen or been able to contact for almost a week—ever since their fight—not even through the private channels he’d set up just for the two of them.
And the one communication she’d received from him had ratcheted up her worry so much she found herself sitting here. A ball of guilt and fear took up residence in her stomach and steamrolled right over those hunger pangs.
Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. Becca mindlessly fingered the silver charms on her bracelet, a quirky collection of bars and circles, then spotted an album of photographs featuring satisfied customers with their finished tattoos. She flipped through the pages of colored ink, silently debating which ones she would’ve actually considered getting. Sighing, she returned the book to the table.
Damn, but if coming to a tattoo shop with hopes of finding someone who could figure out what kind of trouble they were in wasn’t a sign of desperation, she didn’t know what was.
Footsteps approached from the back. Becca rose just as a man rounded the corner and stepped into the space behind the counter. The beat-up gray T-shirt he wore had an interstate sign that read “ROUTE 69.” Becca stared at it minute and felt her eyes go wide when she realized what it said. Tattoos peeked out above his collar and down the lengths of both arms to his wrists. He was young and had emo hair, long and dark and disheveled in a totally sexy way. Two little rings of silver hung at the corner of his right eyebrow. She gaped for a moment, unsure what or who she’d been expecting. A flock of butterflies whipped through her abdomen.
He braced his hands on the counter. “Hi. Sorry to keep you waiting. You need to see me?”
Pull yourself together, Bec. Unable to sleep the previous night, Becca was already five cups of coffee into a possible nervous breakdown. She forced a deep breath. “Uh, yes. You’re Mr. Rixey?”
He smirked and flicked his tongue against the piercing on the side of his bottom lip. “Yeah. What can I do for you?”
Becca approached the counter, suddenly uncertain where to start. So she went with the basics. “I need your help.” The man frowned, but Becca pushed on. “Look, I’m sorry to just barge in here, but I might be in trouble, and I’m pretty sure my brother already is. He sent me this.” She rifled through her purse, removed the folded print-out, and offered it to him.
His frowned deepened as he unfolded the rumpled paper. She knew the words by heart—
“You’ve got the wrong man.”
Panic tripped her heart into a sprint. “No, my brother sent me here. He wouldn’t have done that unless he thought you could help.”
He shook his head, his odd yellow-green eyes filled with relief and sympathy. “It’s not that. You gotta be looking for my brother, Nick. I’m Jeremy.”
A headache bloomed behind Becca’s eyes. She pressed her fingers into her temple and rubbed a small circle. “Oh.”
He spun the sheet around on the counter and tapped his finger against the paper. “See, I’ve never heard of your brother, and I don’t know any colonels. But I’m guessing that’s some sort of a reference to the Army. Which was my brother’s thing. Me? Not so much.” He smiled, an expression that managed to be aw-shucks cute and flirtatiously sexy at the same time.
Becca accepted the print-out of her last private message from Charlie, the one that had directed her to “Find Rixey, the Colonel’s team, Hard Ink Tattoo,” and sagged against the counter. “Do you know where Nick is? It’s really important I find him.”
“I’m Nick Rixey. Who wants to know?”
Becca jumped at the deep sound of the man’s voice. Geez. How long had he been standing there? And, big as he was, how had she not heard him approach? It was like he’d materialized out of thin air.
The surprise of his appearance pounded adrenaline through her system. Her racing pulse had absolutely nothing to do with the bulge of his impressive biceps straining the sleeves of his black T-shirt, the hints of ink just visible on his upper arms, nor with his harsh yet darkly handsome face. And definitely not with the way his jeans hung on those lean hips. Right. Definitely not.
Given who her father was, or had been, this was the type of man she’d expected to find at the end of Charlie’s cryptic note. His dark hair was a little on the long side, but the hard edges and leashed strength of his body clearly read ex-military. “I’m Becca,” she finally managed. “I think something’s happened to my brother, and his last message told me to find you.” She held the printout toward him, her bracelet jingling.
Arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the wall that led to the back of the business, Nick Rixey appeared for all the world to be nonchalant and unaffected. So then why did he remind her of a jungle cat poised to strike, all tense muscles and killer menace? His gaze held hers, and there was something so icy and calculating about it. She felt…observed and…evaluated. The color was the same as Jeremy’s, but with none of the warmth. Becca had to make a point of not squirming under the intensity.
Just when she was certain he wasn’t going to take it, he slipped the paper from her fingers, his gaze never leaving hers until he finally glanced at the message. His eyebrows sank into an angry slash. “Got a last name, Becca?” he asked in a deadly calm tone.
She restrained from verbalizing the No that parked itself on the tip of her tongue. But after the week she’d had—hell, the whole year she’d had—Becca was in no mood to play, even with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Dangerously Sexy. So she swallowed the sarcasm and made nice. After all, she was there to ask him for help. “Merritt. My name is Becca Merritt.”
His jaw ticked and his narrowed gaze went Arctic. “I can’t help you.”
Becca glanced to Jeremy, still standing at the counter watching their little drama unfold, then back to Nick. “But my brother—”
“If your brother’s in trouble, you should go to the police.” He tossed Charlie’s message on the counter in front of her.
“I have. They aren’t helping us.” Her stomach dropped into her sneakers. She knew little about Nick, except that this man was the only solid lead she had for help.
He shrugged. Shrugged! “Don’t know what else to say.”
Blood roared through her ears. Anger, fear, and desperation swamped her. “Charlie wouldn’t have sent me here without a good reason. I don’t know what else to do, where else to go,” she gritted out, hating the pleading in her voice.
“Sorry,” he said in a tone that didn’t sound regretful at all.
Becca stared at him, stared at the impassive expression on the face she’d found so incredibly attractive just a few minutes before. Now, she wanted to haul off and deck him. Just to make him react. Just to make him care about something.
She was so done with the vortex of mystery and anxiety and uncertainty swirling around the edges of her life. Ever since their father died, Charlie had grown paranoid, distant, and reclusive, especially lately—and that was saying something for a guy who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. Becca had loved and admired her father but she was so angry at him for getting himself killed, and for never making things right with Charlie before he’d died. And she was equal parts sick with worry about her brother and pissed at herself for shutting him down when he’d tried to tell her about the supposed conspiracy he’d uncovered. Because, now that he was missing, maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all. But what it had to do with this Rixey guy, she couldn’t begin to imagine.
And now, another brick wall—this one made of six foot three inches of stubborn asshole. Clearly she’d put too much unwarranted hope into this stranger. She was as mad at herself for that as she was at him.
Grabbing the paper and stuffing it haphazardly into her purse, Becca heaved a deep breath. “I am, too. Sorry to have bothered you.” She lifted her gaze to Jeremy, wanting to thank him for being willing to listen, but not able to voice the words. “I like your shirt” came out instead. Awesome.
Without waiting for a reply or meeting the other Rixey brother’s gaze, she turned, walked past the wall of colorful images, and left Hard Ink Tattoo.
Fine. She’d figure this out on her own. Somehow. She just prayed Charlie was okay until she did.
Because no way was she losing another member of her family. Not again. He was all she had left.
“Dude, that was harsh,” Jeremy said.
Resisting the urge to go after her, Rixey pulled his gaze away from the spot where Becca had stood and glared. His conscience was doing enough of a number on him without his brother starting in. “Don’t you have something to do?”
The younger man crossed his arms and returned the cold stare they’d both inherited from their father. “Nope. Seriously, man, why wouldn’t you even hear her out?”
Find Rixey, the Colonel’s team, Hard Ink Tattoo.
Because that message brought to the fore all kinds of bullshit he didn’t really want to deal with. He’d experienced enough trouble at the hands of a Merritt, thank you very much. No way he was signing up for more. Been there. Done that. Got the scars. And the discharge papers. No matter that he couldn’t ignore the way the woman’s pleading blue eyes had sliced into him. Or that a part of him wanted to put the hope she’d worn as she first looked at him back on her expressive face. He pushed off the wall. “Gonna grab some chow.”
Jeremy followed him into the back. “Fine. Play it that way. But it was a dick move and you know it.”
Rixey passed the three tattoo rooms, the piercing room, and the shop’s office that comprised Hard Ink’s inner sanctum before stepping into the wide lounge with two tables in the center, a couch along one wall, and a wall-mounted TV in one corner. “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”
“Yeah, and how’s that been working out for you?” Jeremy followed him in.
Jess looked up from her pizza. “Oh, look, it’s the Bickersons. I swear you two revert to twelve-year-olds in one another’s presence.”
“Shut up,” Jeremy said, smiling at Jess, his piercer, part-time artist, receptionist, and general Jill-of-all-trades. His little brother loved the girl like she was a little sister, having saved her life a few years before. Rixey didn’t know the details, and he didn’t need to know. But he respected Jessica for the deep loyalty with which she repaid Jeremy. She’d more than earned the second chance he’d given her here.
Laughing, Taz rose and threw his plate in the trash. “Thanks for the grub, Jer. I’ll head out.”
Jeremy clasped hands with the man who was one of his oldest, regular customers. “You got it. See you in a few weeks and we’ll start coloring that bad boy in.”
“Sounds like a plan.” They exchanged good-byes and Taz left. Jeremy and Rixey sat at the table and accepted paper plates and drinks from Jess.
“Thanks,” Rixey said as he plated himself two slices. He took a big bite—
“So what did that cute woman want?” Jess asked.
Rixey managed to force the pizza down his throat without choking on it.
Cute? Cute didn’t begin to cut it. Becca Merritt was the all-American girl personified, with her fierce blue eyes and wavy hair the rich color of honey. Bet she tasted as sweet, too. And, damn, that body. It was all he’d been able to do not to gawk at the curves her fitted T-shirt hugged, or trace his eyes over the lace just visible through the thin cotton. It was like the sun had strolled through their front door, casting heat and light all over him. Only the haunted dark circles under her eyes ruined the analogy.
A part of him felt twice as cold and dark when the door closed behind her. She’d done just as he asked and split, so he didn’t understand the ache of emptiness ballooning inside his chest. No way he was examining it too closely, either.
“Something about her brother being in trouble.” Jeremy’s voice pulled Rixey out of his head. “But she wasn’t here to see me, she was here for Nick. But Nick refused to talk to her, even though she had great taste in T-shirts.”
Jess glanced between them and frowned as she ate. Her arched black eyebrow told him everything he needed to know about her opinion on the subject.
Rixey sighed and pushed up from the table, Becca’s hurt and disappointment playing on a loop in his mind’s eye. He grabbed his plate and an extra slice. Seeing her had brought the whole friggin’ mess with her father to the front of his brain. He was shit for company now. The loss of your friends, your career, and your honor did that to a man. Aw, sonofabitch. “I’m gonna take this upstairs.”
He tuned out their voices as he retreated through the back of the shop to the industrial stairwell that led to the upper floors. Jeremy had bought the three-story building with the money their parents left him, and Nick had given him most of his share, too, becoming a silent partner and occasional tattooist in his brother’s business. Not having been there to help Jeremy with everything that went down when their parents died in a car accident four years ago… Yeah, it was the least he could do. Literally.
Shit. He was on a roll with the bad memories.
On the second floor landing, he turned right and keyed in a code. A metallic click sounded and Rixey pulled open the heavy door to the warehouse-style apartment he shared with his brother. It was supposed to have been a temporary arrangement, but ten months later, he was no damn closer to getting a life because he couldn’t think of anything that came close to replacing the one he’d lost.
Inside, the space still possessed an industrial character, with its brick walls, exposed I-beams, high, wide windows, and fifteen-foot ceilings. But Jeremy had done a phenomenal job refurbishing the place and installing modern amenities. Whether it was graphic art, tattoos, or building the interior architecture of their place, the boy had a pair of hands like you hear about. As much of a pain in the ass as Jer could be, Rixey had to give him that.
He crossed the wide living room, with its enormous leather sofa and pair of well-broken-in recliners claimed from their parents’ house, and headed down the hall to his office. He parked himself at his desk, booted up the laptop, and chowed on a slice of pizza while he waited for the login screen to load.
When the thing came to life, Rixey pulled up an internet browser and typed in Becca’s name. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, but something she’d said had dug its talons into his frontal lobe and refused to let go. “They’re not helping us.” Not me, but us. Who the hell was the “us”? Just the brother she’d mentioned? A husband? A kid? Man, two of the three of them gave him a real gut check he had no business feeling.
More distracting was the niggling question of how and why the Merritts would come to him, of all people. He didn’t expect them to know that bad blood flowed like a river after a hard rain between him and their father’s fabricated fallen-hero memory—they’d have no reason to since the Army prettied that sitch up real good for public consumption. The bigger question was how they knew about Rixey at all. Or why they thought he was the best person to help.
None of it made any friggin’ sense.
And, so what? Why the hell did he care? He owed Frank Merritt absolutely nothing. And his daughter even less.
True. But Rixey couldn’t deny a kind of morbid curiosity about how the daughter of the man who’d ruined his life came to stand in his shop and ask him—of all people—for help.
Scrolling through the search results, listings appeared for Merritts by both the names of Becca and Rebecca. He ruled out the ones who lived too far away or had pictures that clearly weren’t his Becca. His? No. Not at all what he meant. For fuck’s sake.
In the end, he narrowed it down to one of two possibilities. The Becca who was an emergency department nurse at University Medical Center or the Rebecca who was a kindergarten teacher at a private day school in the city. The woman he’d met seemed the sweet, nurturing type, the kind who brought warmth and comfort to others, so both jobs fit the bill. Rixey opened up the people search page and gathered some possibilities for address.
Why was he doing this again? He didn’t need her address if he had no intention of tracking her down, seeing her…helping her?
No. He just needed to convince himself she was safe. He’d devoted a dozen years of his life to Mother Army because he wanted to help people—and something about Becca had resurrected that desire after nearly a year of lying dormant. Once, he’d idolized Colonel Merritt, his former commander, before it had all gone to shit. So, fine. It wasn’t any skin off his nose to spend an evening checking things out. It wouldn’t be like the process server jobs he did where confrontation was part of the gig. For this, he’d stay on the periphery, out of sight. Rixey excelled at not being seen unless he wanted to be seen. What the hell else did he have to do anyway?
And wasn’t that cheery thought just par for the mothereffing course?
Whatever. It was just a little surveillance to make sure his curiosity didn’t keep him up all night—like he needed one more thing.
Printouts in hand, Rixey stalked into his bedroom and changed into a pair of black cargo pants. He secured his ankle carrier and sheathed a blade, then shrugged the holster onto his left shoulder over his Tee. He knelt in front of the open closet door and entered the code on his gun safe. The M9 felt like an old friend in his grip. He inspected the piece, holstered it, and slipped a spare magazine into the pocket on his thigh. Jacket, keys, phone, and addresses in hand, he made his way through the apartment and out the back entrance of the building. Last thing he wanted was to play twenty questions with Jeremy and Jess.
The gravel of the parking lot crunched under his boots. The last light of day held on for everything it was worth, casting bright pinks and dark purples across the twilight sky. But the old warehouse veiled the lot in thick shadows, making the black Challenger, except for its silver racing stripes, nearly fade into the dusky murk. Man, he loved that car. After a dozen years of humping it around in armored vehicles built for stability, not comfort, he’d promised himself something sleek, fast, and kind to the ass once he joined the ranks of the civilians.
He’d just never expected that to happen quite so soon. Or against his will.
Rixey dropped into the driver’s seat and took all kinds of satisfaction in the growling rumble of the car’s engine. Small pleasures, man, but, these days, he’d take ‘em where he found ‘em.
Now, to find Becca and prove to himself all was well. And then he could say good-bye to the Merritts once and for fucking all.
Three hours later, Rixey found himself waiting in the dark on a quiet street wondering for the tenth time what the hell he was doing. The first address on his list had taken him into affluent Roland Park in the northwestern part of Baltimore. The woman of the house had short black hair, so he’d headed cross-town to the second address located in the more middle-class neighborhood of Patterson Park. He’d been sitting there ever since staring at her dark rowhouse and hoping to get visual confirmation that Becca Merritt was doing just fine without him. Thank you very much.
The later it got, the more he became convinced he was just chasing ghosts. And that took his head to all kinds of places he didn’t want it to go.
Before his ass fell all the way asleep, Rixey pushed out of the car and sucked in a groan at the stabbing spasm the movement unleashed low on his left side. He might’ve been thirty-three but, courtesy of two bullet wounds, he had the lower back of a seventy-five year old. At least, that’s how it felt sometimes.
Gritting his teeth, he crossed the narrow one-way street, his muscles slowly relaxing as he worked them. He’d do his due diligence—walk the property, check things out, and then get the hell out of there. Let the past stay in the fucking past.
Talking to Becca would’ve been the easiest way to gather intel, of course, but the little two-story rowhouse was as dark and quiet as a tomb. Had been all night. So he ignored the front door and made for the cramped covered passageway that cut from the front sidewalk to the backyard. The rectangle of darkness was a mugger’s wet dream and seemed to swallow up any and all light.
Rixey paused at the edge of the pass-through and palmed the grip of the M9. All his senses came on line as he peered around the corner into the impenetrable darkness. Quiet. Still. Empty. He stepped into the shadows and let them swallow him up.
The far end opened onto a sidewalk the adjoined rowhouses shared. He scanned the visible landscape before stepping out of the passageway and then re-scanned the full one-eighty from the back of the neighbor’s house to the back of Becca’s. A car passed by on the street, and Rixey crouched lower, moved quicker. The rear perimeter of the property met an alley, and he stole to the fence there and scanned again.
Clear and quiet. Just as it should be.
Time to bug out.
A dim light became visible toward the front of the house. In quick succession, lights illuminated the interior from front to back. And then Becca—the very same bright ray of sunshine he’d met earlier in the day—stepped into the window of the back door.
Heart suddenly double timing it in his chest, Rixey melded into the shadows of a tree at the corner of the yard.
Silhouetted against the kitchen light, he couldn’t make out her features, just the gold of her hair pulled back from her face. She pressed close enough to the glass to peer right and left, and then yanked a pair of curtains across the glass. At the next window, she repeated the maneuver—right, left, closed.
Rixey frowned. What was she looking for? Maybe she was just cautious. Or paranoid. She was the colonel’s daughter, after all. Surely some of the SOB’s traits had been passed down the Merritt family tree. Or, maybe something is making her paranoid. She had asked for help, after all.
She was home now. And, as far as he could tell, everything was fine. He should get the hell out of there. Now. Right. So why couldn’t he pull himself away from watching over her?
For a few moments, her silhouette moved around and then disappeared from sight. Soon after, a low glow fell upon both of the upstairs windows. And then the light came on in the bathroom, judging by the wavy glass blocks that comprised the window and obscured the view. Nothing happened for maybe another fifteen minutes, when lamplight illuminated the room next to the bathroom and Becca stepped into the open space between the window curtains. In a robe. Hair down and wet, if the darker color was any guide.
Tension ripped through Rixey’s body and settled in places it had no goddamned business settling. She repeated the right, left, closed routine one more time and the heavy, opaque fabric put an end to the show.
Forcing himself to focus, Rixey did another three-sixty sweep of his location, then replanted himself against the bark of the tree and got comfortable with the idea of keeping lookout for a while. Just until she settled in for the night.
It took about an hour. She made a pass through the house, shutting off lights from bottom to top and ending with her bedroom. And then the place was dark again. Becca all tucked in her bed. Was her hair still damp? And was she an ancient-threadbare-T-shirt or sexy-pajamas kinda woman? He thunked his skull against the rough bark of the tree to divert his thoughts from imagining how both answers might look on her tight little body.
Shit on a shingle, what the hell was wrong with him?
Something else he was better off not thinking about right now.
Enough time passed that the moon shifted position in the sky, and Rixey gave the all clear. Nothing troubling going on here. Trying to relieve his screaming back, he rolled his shoulders and twisted at the waist, giving his traps, lats, and obliques a hi-how-are-ya, and then made his soundless way back to the Charger.
His baby came to life on a metallic purr. As he pulled a U-ey, the LED of his dashboard clock caught his gaze. 12:22 a.m.
Aw, hell, he was gonna hate himself in the morning. Seven-thirty chiropractor appointment—probably fortuitously timed, given how he’d spent his evening—followed by a day of being on call to serve papers to whichever poor bastards found themselves summoned, subpoenaed, ordered, evicted, divorced, or otherwise within the crosshairs of the law. Rixey specialized in what they called difficult services—which might find him doing witness or defendant location investigation—or skip tracing, dodging an angry fist, or chasing a soon-to-be-served asshole down a street. Good times.
At least Eastern Avenue was quiet at this hour of the night. Rixey sped along the strip usually bustling with business for the liquor stores and check-cashing joints located cheek by jowl next to storefront churches and generations-old ethnic restaurants. Hard Ink sat a few blocks off the main drag, between the run-down strip and one of the city’s industrial areas.
The long, low building hunkered down on a corner, two brick arms stretching a half block down each street, with a square gravel lot in the crook of the L-shape out back. Jeremy had grand plans to gather tenants for some of the unused space on the ground floor and had slowly but surely worked at rehabbing it. Generously put, except for the shop and their loft, the building was a work in progress. But Hard Ink had a loyal clientele and did a steady business, thanks to Jeremy’s growing reputation. It suited them just fine.
The Charger came to rest where it had started the evening, oh, six hours earlier. Rixey dragged himself out of the car and crossed through the cool night air to the lamp-lit back door. A five-digit code popped the lock on the thick industrial number with a metallic clank, and he secured it behind him before hauling his ass up the steps. Inside the dark, quiet apartment, his brain shifted to autopilot. Weapons. Clothes. Bathroom. Bed.
He pulled the covers over himself, a twinge in his back reminding him to take some meds. Despite the darkness, his hand found the bottle of Ibuprofen with no problem and he downed four with the remains of a bottle of water he kept there for just that purpose.
His body sank into the mattress. His aches floated away. And his mind drifted…to the image of Becca Merritt standing in a loose robe in her bedroom window. She ran her fingers through her wet hair, coaxing it to air dry and causing the neckline of the white terry cloth to gape, hinting at the swells of her breasts. After a few moments, she pressed her palms to the glass and scanned to the right and left.
As if she knew he was there, her gaze landed on him. For a moment, it was white hot, and the scorch of it reached down his throat and settled into his balls. Blood flowed to his groin, waking up a part of his anatomy that hadn’t seen action in more months than he wanted to count. But then the fierce blue of her gaze changed. Dark circles settled under wide eyes that looked at him with abject desperation. Her lips moved. “I don’t know what else to do, where else to go.”
Sleep fell away in a rush.
Blood pounding in his ears, Rixey stared up at the dark ceiling, its pattern of pipes, beams, and ductwork becoming discernible the longer he lay there, unconsciousness eluding him, guilt weighing him down.
Frank Merritt had stolen his career, his reputation, six of his best friends, and his fucking ability to sit or stand for any length of time without wanting to whimper like a little girl. What the hell more was he supposed to give? When would it be enough?
Even as he asked himself the questions, icy tendrils of dread snaked down his spine. And Rixey’s internal oh-shit-ometer went on full alert.
That sixth sense he had—that uncanny instinct that had kept him alive and unharmed on more ops than he could name—was telling him Becca Merritt had brought bad news to his doorstep. The kind that reached out from the grave, grabbed you by the throat, and did everything it could to lay you six feet under.
Becca knew the key wouldn’t work. Before she even slid it in the lock, she knew. Just to be sure, though, she pulled it out and slid it in again. It fit, but wouldn’t turn.
Charlie had changed the locks. Again.
He didn’t like her to come to his apartment. He sorta hated having anyone mess with his space, especially with his equipment. But his message, which she could only interpret as a call for help in light of her inability to find him, was a game changer. She had to figure out where he’d gone and why. And his apartment made the most sense as a starting point.
She sighed and braced her hands on her hips. Nowhere in this small stairwell to hide a key, either.
Oh, Charlie, what the hell is going on with you?
Maybe whoever lived upstairs could help. She jogged up the narrow cement steps, whipped around the railing to the front porch, and knocked three times on the door.
Nothing. Three more raps still didn’t get a response.
If she wanted a way into Charlie’s cramped basement apartment, that only left the windows.
As she stepped off the stoop, she immediately ruled out the front basement window. A cracked plastic cap screwed into the sidewalk ensured no one fell into the below-ground window well. Not that her brother appreciated the light—one of the first things he’d done was tape several layers of newspaper over the glass.
Hoping she’d have more luck with his bedroom window, Becca circled the block on foot and made her way down the alley that ought to lead to the back of his house. Her sneakers scuffed on the debris-strewn cracked pavement, the sound loud in the otherwise quiet pass-through. For the umpteenth time, she looked over her shoulder, feeling conspicuous in her scrubs and suspicious all at the same time.
From out of nowhere, the memory of the night their mom died of an aneurysm slammed into her brain. When the ambulance drove away, Charlie had hidden. She, Scott, and their dad had searched for over a half hour before Scott found him sitting in the dark in their tree house out back. Her thirteen-year-old heart had been sure she was going to lose her mom and her little brother all in the same night. The relief of finding him had unleashed her grief.
That night was why she’d become a nurse. She wanted to know how to help if something like that ever happened again. Without question, she’d played a role in saving so many people’s lives, doing what she did. Just never the lives of the people in her own family. And Charlie was her last chance.
Becca counted to the back of the fifth rowhouse and groaned. Freaking perfect. The rusted gate that sat at one end of the chain-link fence separating the property from the alley was chained and padlocked.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. It was like an episode of Nurses Gone Wild. If such a show existed. Which it probably did.
Toe in one square, she grabbed the rusted fence top and hiked herself over. She dropped to the overgrown grass and darted up the length of the narrow yard, her gaze flashing to the windows of each of the surrounding houses. It was a Thursday, so most people were probably at work, right? Still, Charlie’s paranoia must’ve worn off on her, because her skin absolutely crawled with the sensation of being watched. But maybe that was normal when you were about to perpetrate a breaking and entry. Or at least try to. This wasn’t the kind of thing with which she had a lot of experience.
Unlike out front, the back half-window was neither covered nor below ground. She knelt in the tall grass and leaned in close, shielding her eyes to block the glare of the afternoon sun. A set of yellowed blinds hung over the window, only allowing her a view where they were bent or askew. But it was so dark—
A door rattled and squeaked. “Hey! What the hell you think you’re doing?”
Becca wrenched into a kneeling position, scraping her temple on the brick molding above the window in her haste. She gasped hard and fell back on her butt, gaping up as a man flew out onto the rear stoop above her. Had he been home the whole time? “I’m…I…” She swallowed, struggling for even a little bit of moisture in her suddenly arid mouth, and shook her head. The freckles covering the old man’s brown cheeks might’ve given him a friendly appearance if he hadn’t been glaring at her. Or wielding a bat. “The guy that lives here is my brother. I haven’t heard from him in days,” she blurted.
He lowered the Louisville, thoughts of slugging apparently fading away, and the tension drained out of his sloped shoulders. He pressed his fingers to his ear and adjusted a hearing aid. Guess that explained the no-answer when she’d knocked. “Charlie’s sister, you say? You got some ID or something?”
She lifted the lanyard holding her UMC credentials still hanging around her neck and rose to her feet. “Becca Merritt.”
“Hmm,” he said, his light brown eyes flipping from the plastic card to the green scrubs she hadn’t bothered to change at the end of her shift. “You a doctor?”
“Nurse. Have you seen Charlie? He’s not answering his phone or returning any of my messages.”
He swiped his fingers against his temple. “You’re bleeding there.”
The sting had already told her as much. “It’s okay. Have you seen him? Please.”
The man rested the bat against the door and shook his head. “I don’t think he’s been staying here. Ain’t seen him coming and going, ain’t seen no lights, haven’t heard that music he likes to play.”
Becca’s stomach prepped for a three-story drop. “How long has this been going on?”
He gripped the rusted iron railing. “I’d say…a week. Maybe two. He’s current, though.”
Hope held her stomach in place. “Are you the landlord? Can you let me in?”
“He’s in some kinda trouble, ain’t he? Boy’s too damn smart on a computer for his own good.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, suspicion curling in her belly.
“Let’s just say my son had a little parking ticket problem, and now he don’t.” His eyebrows arched on his forehead and let her come to a conclusion all on her own.
Typical Charlie. He’d gone from obsessively studying software and web code as a kid to hacking into websites when he was a teenager just because he could. All self-taught. Luckily, he’d parlayed his hacking skills into a legitimate job as a computer security consultant—a fancy way of saying big companies paid him a boatload of money to hack into their security systems as a way of testing and evaluating them. But he still occasionally wandered on the wrong side of the cyber law. Just for fun. “Sounds like him,” she said.
He fished a set of keys out of his pocket and waved her up the steps. “I’ll let you in, Miss Becca. Come on.”
“Thank you,” she said, following him. Uncertainty fluttered through her as she approached the door, but she pushed through it and latched onto the affection she’d heard in the man’s voice when he spoke of Charlie.
Inside, the kitchen was like time traveling to the 1970s with the mix of green and gold appliances. But the room was tidy and smelled of fresh, strong coffee. The assemblage of roosters on one wall gave the space a sort of outdated charm and hinted at the presence, at one time at least, of a woman’s touch. The living room was more of the same.
A cascade of reds and blues fell over the worn hardwood of the foyer, cast by the sun shining through the colored glass of the fan-shaped transom so typical of Baltimore rowhouses. She followed the man out the front door and down into the cement stairwell where she’d started this little adventure not long before.
His key went right in. He pushed the door open but held himself back, gesturing for her to go first.
“Thank you, Mr.—”
“Call me Walt. Everyone does.”
She smiled and stepped past him. “Thank you, Walt.”
Inside, murky gloom shrouded the apartment, the slice of filtered daylight from the open door the only illumination. “Let me get the lights,” he said.
Becca walked forward, her foot coming down on something—
The overhead light came on.
The place was a disaster. Books and magazines shoved off shelves, the contents of drawers spilled every which way over the floor, clothing strewn about, the remains of cardboard boxes lying caved in here and there.
Her heart flew into her throat and she charged forward. Charlie!
A hand clamped on her arm. “Wait. Let me check things out,” Walt said, urging her toward the still open door. “Got a cell phone?”
Becca nodded, her mind reeling. He didn’t need to tell her what to do with it. “Maybe we should both wait,” she said. Last thing she wanted was for this old man to get hurt on her account.
“I’ll be all right,” he said, his brows an angry slash over his eyes. “Somebody did this in my house.”
She dialed 9-1-1 as she watched the old man prowl around and told the dispatcher who she was and what had happened.
“Charlie’s not here,” Walt called from the back room, and relief surged through her. “No one is.”
She relayed that information as well and then all she could do was wait for the police to show. Walt returned to her side at the door, shaking his head and making a bewildered sound low in his throat.
A few minutes passed, and she couldn’t stand still anymore.
Careful not to disturb anything, curiosity borne of anxiety dragged her through the apartment and into the small bedroom at the rear. Well, it was supposed to be the bedroom. An office was far more important to her brother. He slept on the couch and reserved this dedicated space for his huge L-shaped desk and computer equipment.
The damage was even greater here. Normally, a row of laptops covered one part of the desk, and countless other gizmos she couldn’t begin to name or understand filled the shelves above. Paper, overturned containers of discs, haphazard piles of cable, empty pizza boxes, and other debris covered the desk and floor. The chair was overturned. The file cabinet had been emptied out and all the desk drawers stood open.
The computers were all gone.
All she could do was shake her head in disbelief. It was surreal. Totally freaking surreal.
And it meant her internal gauges had been reading just right. Ultra-sensitive was the perfect frickin’ setting. Because Charlie was in trouble. Goosebumps erupted over her whole body.
Somebody had tossed this place upside down and over again. What were they looking for? Had they found it? And was Charlie here when they came looking?
The little choked noise she made was completely involuntary. The hand she pressed against her lips shook. Don’t go there. Don’t go there until you have to. Oh, God, please not again.
Sirens sounded in the distance and got louder—closer—fast.
“Miss Becca, the police are here,” Walt said, placing the emphasis on the po.
She nodded to the empty space, not sure of her voice, and carefully picked her steps back through the overturned piles of her brother’s life.
Walt waited at the door for her with kind, sympathetic eyes. How far they’d come in such a short time. For all she knew, he might’ve been the last person to see Charlie. Alive, her brain added, giving silent voice to her worst fears and raising an image of her older brother Scott in her mind’s eye. He’d died of a drug overdose a few weeks after his college graduation, and it had shocked the hell out of all of them. They’d gone to different colleges, and she had no idea Scott even used. She couldn’t live through the nightmare of burying a brother twice. She wouldn’t.
Tears pricked at the backs of her eyes. No. No way she was falling apart. Or assuming the worst. She would find Charlie and figure out what the hell was going on—and who was behind it. With both their parents gone, they were each other’s only remaining family. And she refused to let her little brother down. She’d done enough by refusing to listen to him last week.
Becca shifted into crisis management mode, sliding into the cool, dispassionate discipline the most critical cases in her emergency department required—the one that helped make sure lives got saved, not lost.
A pair of light green eyes flashed into her mind’s eye, and the rest of the man’s face—the angled jaw, blade of a nose, and grim set of his lips—filled in around that cold stare. Nick Rixey. If Charlie’s note meant he’d been a member of her father’s Special Forces team, he would’ve had training and skills she really could’ve used right about now. If her meeting with him yesterday had gone differently. If he’d just heard her out. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. A blaze of anger flooded through her veins. No use yearning after what wasn’t and would never be.
Car doors slammed out front. Becca stepped out the door, the transition between Charlie’s cave and the late afternoon sun making her eyes squint and water.
Would they take her more seriously than they did when she filed the missing persons report? Please, God, let them actually help me this time. But if not, she’d damn well figure this thing out.
One way or another.
Charlie’s life might very well depend on it.
Rixey’s mind was still standing in the back corner of Becca’s yard, keeping watch and waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Had been, all damn day. The distraction was making him sloppy.
And sloppy pissed him off.
Sloppy meant mistakes. Like missing the perfect opportunity to intercept the witness in an assault case he’d been tracking all afternoon. It was like his brain needed a frickin’ tune up, because he sure as hell wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
As he sat at his desk completing the affidavits for the three sets of papers he’d managed to successfully serve, he had no illusions about why that was.
His instincts refused to let go of this thing with the woman. It was like a fucking stone in his shoe, rolling around and jabbing at him. Normally, he was all about paying attention to instinct—sometimes it was all a man had on his side. And, generally, he trusted his instincts. They almost never failed him.
The one glaring exception had been a spectacular crash and burn of a failure that had left men dead, injured, and changed forever. Himself included.
And it had involved a Merritt.
Now, he didn’t know whether the instinct rubbing his hide raw over Becca should be trusted, or if his recent history was mindfucking him.
The forms chugged from the printer and Rixey scrawled his signature in all the appropriate places.
He leaned back and stretched, the reclining desk chair supporting his weight, and scrubbed his hands through his hair. The light in the room dimmed considerably, drawing his gaze to the window. Clouds were rolling in, blotting out the remains of the evening sun.
Too quiet. Too still. Too alone.
Story of his mothereffing life, these days. Goddamnit, he missed the guys. The ones who’d died and the ones who hadn’t.
Nope. Not gonna go there.
Rixey was up and out of the chair before he’d even thought to move.
In his bedroom, he suited up just as he had the night before, a whole lotta déjà vu filling the space between his ears.
Only one way to un-fuck his head. He had to put boots on the ground and eyes on the subject. Shit. And he needed more intel, which meant he was gonna have to talk to her this time.
Keys, phone, and jacket in hand, he made for the living room.
Jeremy walked in the apartment door just as he reached for it. His brother’s gaze dropped to the holstered gun under his left arm and he frowned. “You’re going out serving tonight?”
“Nah,” he said. He usually had sufficient turn-around time on a service to avoid working at night, when things were more likely to get dicey quick. “Got something else.”
“Something that requires your gun?” His pierced eyebrow arched.
Not wanting to open up an inquisition about what he was doing—especially since even he didn’t really know, he ignored the question. “All done downstairs?” Rixey asked. Hard Ink didn’t usually close ‘til nine.
He shook his head, longish hair tumbling into his eyes. He swept it back. “Grabbing some food before my next appointment. And that wasn’t subtle at all, Mr. Spook.”
Hand on the metal door latch, Rixey smirked. “Never a Spook. That’s CIA.”
“Whatevs.” He tugged the fridge door open, casting a yellow glow over that corner of the kitchen.
Rixey stepped out into the hall.
“Hey, Nick?” He ducked back in. Jer looked at him over the top of the refrigerator door, an unusually serious expression on his face. “Be careful.”
The civilian version of don’t get shot. Roger that. “Yup,” he said, and closed the door behind him.
As he turned onto Becca’s street for the second time in as many nights, he was struck by how close she lived to Hard Ink. Between the cross-town jaunt from the wrong Rebecca Merritt’s house and his brain-dead trip home the previous night, the observation hadn’t really sunk in before. Twelve minutes driving time was all that separated them.
Oh, no, it was a helluva lot more than that physical distance.
Lucky for him, the parking space directly across from Becca’s place was open. He eased the Charger into it, not worrying about stealth since he planned to talk to her. Somewhere nearby, a dog unleashed a high-pitched series of barks as Rixey shrugged into his jacket, cut across the street, and climbed onto the little stoop.
He knocked—three solid raps. From the porch, he surveyed the street in both directions. The last gray light of day clung to the sky, casting shadows in front of buildings and under trees. He turned his gaze back to Becca’s house. Flowerless rectangular planters hung from the sills of both front windows. The door was solid wood, black with white trim, and had a Schlage deadbolt, he noted with approval.
Rixey knocked again and looked down. The Baltimore Sun sat rolled up in a clear plastic wrapper on the little porch’s edge. Not home yet?
Fine. He’d wait.
Back in the Charger, he pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through his contacts. Without any real intention, he swiped the entry for Shane McCallan. Once, one of his closest friends. After they’d all been discharged and sent packing to the real world, his former teammate had called and emailed more times than Rixey wanted to remember. He’d been too buried in his own physical and emotional morass, though, and had ignored every one of them. Shit. Now it felt like too much time had passed. A pansy-ass excuse if he’d ever heard one. Coward.
As the second in command, though, Rixey should’ve known. Should’ve predicted. Should’ve stopped the shit before it was raining down all over them. If only he’d trusted his instincts. But he hadn’t. He’d trusted Merritt implicitly and dismissed the things that hadn’t made sense. No way Shane and the others didn’t resent the hell out of him for that.
Fucking coward, more like it.
He didn’t begrudge them whatever resentment they sent his way. It couldn’t possibly be more than he directed at himself.
From across the street, a car door closed with a thunk. Rixey thumbed out of his contacts and dropped the phone to his lap as he glanced out the driver’s side window.
A woman made her way up the sidewalk, an overhead street lamp confirming it was Becca. His gaze tracked back to the car that hadn’t been parked there before. A recent-model silver Prius, which seemed to suit her just fine.
Becca jogged up the front steps, swooping down in a weary-looking movement to retrieve the newspaper. She pulled the mail out of a wall-mounted box and unlocked the door. For a moment, the interior darkness obscured her, pushing blood through Rixey’s veins as a faster clip. But then the front hall light came on and her silhouette moved behind one of the windows.
At the same time a movement darted past the darkened window immediately above her.
Not sure what he’d seen, Rixey went totally still, his gaze fixed hard and steady on the rectangular expanse of glass.
There it was again. A nearly imperceptible shifting of shadows in the dark.
Instinct flooded adrenaline through his system and he shot out of the car.
Because Becca Merritt was not alone in that house.
The police were going to file reports for illegal trespassing and criminal property damage. It was a giant step past the dismissiveness Becca had received when she’d gone down to the station days before to file the missing persons report, but neither was going to attract much in the way of manpower or resources. The cops had pretty much admitted that to her face before they’d left Charlie’s.
Becca passed through the first floor of her townhouse, turning on lights as she went. She needed food and a shower. And then she could sit down and figure out where to start and what to do. She flipped on the kitchen light and dumped her purse and keys on the counter.
As she turned, her gaze went to the doormat in front of the back door. It was crooked and sat several inches out from the door. It hadn’t been crooked when she left this morning, had it? She stepped closer, carefully, like the hooked fibers might spring up and bite her. With her toe, she nudged it back into place, flush against the frame.
Her scalp prickled, all the hairs rising so high they threatened take-off.
She blew out a breath. What’d happened to Charlie’s apartment had rattled her. And no wonder. Whoever had tossed his place hadn’t left a single thing untouched. Just the thought of that kind of violation made her skin crawl. A lump of sadness slid into her belly. Charlie was going to flip out. Maybe she could clean it up before he saw it. Only problem was, the boy knew exactly where everything was supposed to be. No matter how neat it looked to her eyes, his would see a thousand things wrong. Either way, she couldn’t save him the grief of dealing with it.
Not to mention, until she figured out what kind of trouble Charlie had stumbled into, she probably shouldn’t be hanging out over there. His place clearly wasn’t safe.
Becca stepped to the window covering the top half of the back door and scanned the yard, then she tugged the pale green cotton over the glass, shutting out the night’s black gaze. She shuddered. Tonight wasn’t the first time she’d found something she was initially sure wasn’t how she’d left it. But usually she managed to come down on the side of sanity and convince herself she was imagining things.
After all, who really paid attention to the exact position of a throw rug? Or the exact angle of a stack of papers in relation to the corner of the desk on which they sat? Not her, until lately.
Enough. Time for food before her stomach ate itself.
She’d no more taken a step in the direction of the fridge when she heard a soft thump. Becca froze, listened. The neighbor? Their houses were adjoined after all. Except the noise had come from the front of the house, not the side wall.
Pull it together, Bec. She shook her head and reached for the fridge handle. Maybe she’d scramble some eggs. Or throw together a bowl of cold cereal. Low key was all she had energy for.
Goosebumps erupted across her skin and her heart flew into her throat. She knew that squeak. Staircase to the second floor. Top step just right of center.
Someone was in the house. Coming down her front stairs. And he had to have heard her arrive home a few minutes before. Adrenaline spiked, sharpening her senses and kicking her heart rate into a sprint.
Hide? Flee out the back door? Grab a knife? Confront? Was squeaky-stairs-guy alone? Were there others? Her gun taunted her from its storage box in her bedroom upstairs. It had been a housewarming gift from her overprotective father upon the purchase of the rowhouse—but it might as well have been in Bangkok for all the good it was doing her right now.
Thoughts ricocheted through her brain, the rapid fire momentarily freezing her between the options.
Then she was in motion. Wincing at every little noise she made, she picked up the landline and dialed 9-1-1. Afraid to risk even a whisper, she sat the receiver speaker down on the counter to muffle the operator’s voice. When she didn’t respond, they’d dispatch the police and an ambulance to the address associated with the phone number.
With help hopefully on the way, she tiptoed toward the back door. As she passed the butcher block, she eased a thick blade from the wood and prayed to any and every god that might be listening that she didn’t have to use it. Because the only way she could was if she were within arm’s reach of her intruder—which also meant she’d be within reach of his arms, too. Though, he probably had something better than a knife.
Shit, shit, shit. So not helpful, Bec.
But likely true.
Oh, God. That’s the fourth step from the top. Get out now!
Holding her breath, she slipped her cell into her pocket and approached the door. The minute she opened it, the noise would tell the intruder exactly what was going on. In case he pursued, she’d have to move fast and not look back. A plan took shape—out the door, down the steps, run to the sidewalk and then back toward the alley. Then she’d just keep running until she found a place to hide or heard sirens.
It was possible she was going to have a heart attack first, the way the damn thing was booming against her sternum.
She reached for the door knob.
It started turning on its own.
For a split second, her brain couldn’t process the information.
And then it did. Someone was coming in the back door. She was trapped.
It all happened in a blur.
The door eased open. A man all in black stepped out of the darkness with a gun.
Becca swallowed her scream and lunged with the knife.