I put five right through the heart on the first target; put two in the forehead and one in the groin for the second. Just to change it up. My favorite piece was my 1911A.1 in .45 caliber that I retooled to a .38 super. It's got a three-pound trigger pull, like my dad used to prefer, and I cherish it. I signaled that I was going to collect my targets and the horn sounded. The outdoor range wasn't too busy, so only a couple of guns were safetied as I took care of business.
Once I was back in the safety zone again, I examined my life-sized targets with satisfaction.
"Not too bad, sugar. Not bad at all."
Startled, I still kept a cool hand and careful eye as I turned to face the intruder into my personal space. "Thanks," I replied, taking in the longish blond hair, steel-gray eyes, and the profusion of hair-thin scars that crisscrossed over his hands and along his jawline. This was a man who had seen more than five men's share of fistfights, I would have guessed. "I haven't seen you around here, before."
He took a pipe from the inside pocket of his light jacket and slid it between his lips. It was one of those Sherlock Holmes pipes curved like a saxophone. He caressed it over the rest of our conversation, when he wasn't playing with it between his lips.
Sexy, suggestive, and dangerous. A deadly combination.
"I'm scouting for new talent," he told her. "Jasper Whitlock," he went on, extending his non-pipe-holding hand to shake. "Looking for talent like yours."
"Yep." He straightened his spine and eyed the rest of the range. "You about done for today? I've had my eye on you for a while, sugar, and I have a proposition."
My laugh surprised me. "You're propositioning me? But you don't even know me."
He offered a playful wiggle of his eyebrows. "Not that kind of proposition, sweetheart. At least, not yet. But you'd be surprised, Isabella Marie Swan-daughter of Charles Swan, deceased, and Renée Higgenbotham Dwyer, also deceased-what I know about you."
I tried to hit him right there in the safety zone, but he caught my wrist with a fighter's reflexes. "Hey, ink," he said, checking out the binary code I had etched into my arm years before. "Nice."
He didn't ask me what the numbers meant.
Which was fine. Either he knew or he didn't. I wasn't going to tell him. I never did.
I followed him to a diner where he told me about the program he managed. Black, black, black ops. They made the Men in Black look like a storefront church on Main Street. Legally, what we did on the Team didn't happen, but each of us had an escape route sanctioned by the government if it became necessary. They needed people like me and Jasper. People who could eliminate other people without questions, without regrets.
After my first hit, though, I was a bit shell-shocked. I rocked back and forth in Jasper's living room on his sofa, pretending to watch a movie on Netflix.
"Hey, Bella," Jasper murmured, settling in next to me and leaning forward to slide the pipe into the pipe holder on his coffee table. His arm slid around my back as he leaned into the sofa, pulling me back with him. His voice, with its delectable southern accent, soothed me while he took over the job of rocking me. "You did fine. Real good. I'm proud of you."
"Yeah. Remember who he was and what he was going to do."
I turned to look into Jasper's eyes, finding calm comfort there as well as encouragement. "I remember."
He inhaled and I did, too, closing my eyes and resting against him. His lips caressed my hair, I tilted my head and...one thing led to another. I woke up in his bed the next morning with a smile on my face.
It happened often enough to keep us both smiling, but not so often that we made it a habit. We loved each other, but we weren't in love, as it happened.
Still, when either of us made a hit, we had sex. Good sex. Sometimes, it lasted for days, with breaks for snacks. And I got more ink on my arm. Lips to commemorate the Eurochick who was creatively distributing business secrets for profit. A spiral to remember a too-friendly fellow who tinkered with electronics. And so on.
My forearms were pretty. Even Jasper got some ink. A bell. A pipe. A few numbers that I guessed meant something to him.
I never asked. We were good, like that.
"No. Way. I can't." I pressed my lips together and shook my head before looking my boss in the eye. "Not him. I can't."
"Isabella," Jasper said, bending to bring his head on a level with mine. "He's dangerous. He knows...things." He passed his hand over my head. "Look, what's the problem? You're the best we've got." His hand moved from my head to my arm, where I had inked an ever-growing design over my brief but lucrative career.
"I can't, Jazz. Not him."
Jasper pushed me lightly into the sofa, which smelled like his Borkum Riff pipe tobacco, before he settled next to me, his hand resting lightly on my knee. Jazz was a very touchy-feely kind of guy. "You know him," he stated. "That's why."
I leaned back to the end table and slid the eight-by-ten photograph to my lap. "Yeah. His name's Edward Masen." I tapped the picture and narrowed my eyes at it. Blurry, it had been blown up from a low-resolution image. "He looks...older..."
Jazz snorted. "Hell, yeah. He's been gettin' into all sorts of trouble, darlin'. Talkin' to people he shouldn't. The usual."
"He's dangerous." Blowing out a breath, he asked, "How do you know him?"
"School," I hedged, tracing Edward's indistinct features.
Jasper nodded slowly. "Sugar... If we don't get him in the next seventy-two hours, he'll be meeting with his people and telling them what he knows. I hear that he's making this information transfer lucrative."
And that was the problem. Edward knew people. Apparently, that hadn't changed. "He's a smart guy," I admitted. And oh, so hot...
"Yeah. So he needs to disappear," Jazz said, his hand pressing more firmly on my thigh. "Hey," he added, easing back. "It'll be lucrative for you, too."
I moved from tracing Edward's face to tracing the ever-developing pattern of ink on my arm. "All right." I'd been investing; I could disappear myself, if I could make myself take on one more target.
He was leaf-green eyes and a crooked smile. Confidence and innocence combined to make the most charismatic boy in the senior class. I was the science geek and honors student. We both wound up working on the yearbook.
He knew people. He was in charge of gathering advertising, of seeking sponsors. His efforts-his connections-alone brought the yearbook price down by five dollars a copy. He dazzled his way through more commercial sponsors to help with the price of Prom, too. His name was Edward Masen and that meant something, in Seattle.
But to me, he was just Edward. First boyfriend. First kiss. First prom date. First sexual partner.
First guy who didn't call the next morning. I thought I understood, back then. He "got what he wanted" and all that. But, no. What had really happened was a death in his family and then it was the end of the year and awkward and he was going away to school and I wasn't...
And then my dad decided not to tell me he had cancer; he just put his affairs in order and enjoyed the time he had left without radiation or chemotherapy. "I made damned sure you could protect yourself, Bells," he had told me when he finally succumbed far enough that I had to be told. "You'll be all right, kid."
I guess I had been. But with my mom dying from breast cancer years before-What was it with my family?-and my dad? I decided there was no way in hell I'd ever have kids of my own. I had a tubal ligation on the first anniversary of my dad's death. I would be the last Swan.
Death had come to me in so many ways, but I had become Death for others, too. And I never missed a target.
My heart throbbed, my breath whooshed out, and my mouth went dry when I heard his voice. "Eh- Edward." Seattle rain pounded on the striped awning where I had been steeling myself for this hit.
He raked a hand through his short, copper-blond hair. "You can't be here," he rasped.
"But, Edward," I said, turning to face him fully, pouting just like I'd rehearsed. It was an expression that had utterly distracted other targets and I was counting on it working on him. "I heard you were here and, and it's been a long time."
His expression hardened, then softened, a light coming to his eyes. "Where've you been? I looked, Isabella. I did, when your dad died, and-"
I clenched my jaw against way too many memories. Come on, I have a job to do. You can't mess this up. You can't! "Yeah," I whispered. I doubted he heard me, with the hard rapping of the rain. "Uh, so. Yeah. I had to, to find something I could do, so I did." Recovering my poise, I stepped closer to him. Oh, good lord, he smells amazing...
"Isabella..." His voice passed over my head, almost a caress. "I can't talk to you here. I have to, have to do something. Can we, can we get together, uh, tomorrow, maybe? I have this, this thing and I-"
The new voice belonged to the wet, shadowy figure that unfolded itself from the yellow cab at the curb. Fear just about strangled me. "James!"
"You know him?" Edward choked out, sounding incredulous.
Laughing, the lean fellow tossed a long ponytail over his shoulder. "Well, hell, if it isn't Swan. And Masen."
I felt Edward's tension and my hand tightened around my "pimp gun." A little .22 with a mother of pearl handle I inherited from Charlie. Charlie had called it that and the name stuck. "James," I said more quietly at the same moment that Edward said, "Lovac."
Edward pushed me behind him. "I'll catch you in twenty, Lovac. I just ran into an old friend, and-"
James smiled a shark's smile. Broad and flatly predatory. "Yes, she's an old friend of mine, too. What're you doing here, Swan?"
"What're you doing here, Swan?" he'd murmured a year ago, his finger tracing the curve of my ear. "I told Whitlock that this one was mine."
Bile burned my throat, but I played it off and ignored the knife dancing on the fabric over my kidneys, the weapon between his body and mine. "Aw, did you, James? I'm just protecting my rep. I don't miss. I don't bail. I don't leave leftovers."
Cinnamon puffed out with his breath in the corner of the bar and I felt the tip of his knife a bit more insistently. "You don't have to work for him, you know."
It may have been my lifelong respect for the law-instilled by my dad-that kept me sane while I did what I had to do. The knowledge that I was working for the betterment of society as my government saw it. The belief that what I did was for a good cause-somewhere. Hard as it was, the money was good and the results were clear. Jasper and I had plugged two pipelines of information that had saved lives.
James Lovac was just in it for the money.
"I'll pay you half again what you're getting," he promised, as if he were offering me sex on the Riviera, not the opportunity to switch employers.
I shook my head. "Not interested." I cocked my head back. "Do you really want a scene? Do you want to bleed?"
"No. Let me go. Take him if you can," I said with a shrug.
He grinned that flat-eyed grin. "May the only man win."
James was probably still mad at me for getting the target first.
"Just ran into an old friend from school. I knew him before..."
"Before you went into the business. Of course. He's in business with me now, though, so..." He casually checked the street. It was after the dinner crowd had escaped indoors, but before the evening entertainment strollers-accustomed to the nearly incessant rain-came out in numbers. The sidewalk was clear, in this section of the city. Clear, but thick with danger.
The moment took forever. It flashed by in an instant-in the time it took for two guns to be drawn and fired. I gripped mine and darted out from behind Edward just as James Lovac thrust his own piece out from his dripping trench coat. It was a nine millimeter. I heard James spit something out, but my gun was against his chest and I fired at an angle. A fatal angle.
"Isabella!" Edward called just as the wrecking ball hit my shoulder. "What the holy hell?"
James fell in front of us, I was frozen in shock. Edward wrapped his arms around me, his breath heaving in steamy clouds that passed in front of me, seeming to hang over James' body. Steam rose from his mouth, too, in one final exhalation.
"Isabella..." Edward shuddered, the motion causing pain to ricochet through me in a delayed reaction.
My shoulder was screaming with each breath I took, each breath he took, and every beat of my heart pushed blood out of my body. "Eh-Edward..."
He caught me, his deep green eyes coming into focus briefly as he lifted me in his arms. "Seems like one of you missed," he guessed shrewdly.
I tried to smile. "Long story," I murmured before his face went blurry and I passed out.
"Who the hell are you?"
I heard the demand as my brain fought from its fog. It was dark. Cold. I was so cold, except for what felt like hot knives - lots of 'em-in my left shoulder. "Eh?" I managed.
He swore, the man who held me. "Isabella. I've got you."
"Bella?" My name came to me from a tiny speaker. "Sugar? What happened? Where's Masen?"
"James Lovac happened." Edward. He had me. Relief and shame pierced me equally. "Who are you?"
I didn't wait for Jasper to make up a story. "I'm here, Boss." I couldn't give his identity away. On my cell phone, he was listed as Holmes. Sherlock Holmes. "Shot. But cool."
There was dead silence from my phone. Then, he spoke with the calm I needed to hear from him. "All right. Where's Lovac now?"
"Got him," I said, finding Edward's narrowed eyes, his lips tight and his nostrils flared. The man was still so hot... "Where is he?" I asked Edward.
"This is all kinds of fu-messed up," he volunteered, his voice smooth for all the cold fury in his gaze. I had to smile. I had forgotten what a gentleman Edward Masen could be. "Holmes?" he sneered, "I had to hide Lovac. He'll be found, but later. Isabella will need to find a bolt-hole."
"Got it covered, Boss. No sweat," I said to Jasper.
Jasper's tone was still calm. "You'll need a doctor, sweetheart." Edward's arms stiffened noticeably around me and I saw, then, that we were in the backseat of a car. The windows were fogging and darkened. "Who answered your phone?"
"My first and last missed target," I said, wincing, not wanting to meet Edward's eyes. "I'm screwed, Boss."
"I know people," Edward volunteered. "I'll get her taken care of."
"No. Just bring her to me, or stay with her. I know you know her, Masen. She told me that much. Bring her home and let me take care of her."
Edward's brows flew into his forehead, wrinkling the skin. I could see the misty dim light of a streetlight make it through the tint on the windows to show me the moisture on his skin. Sweat? Rain? Did it matter?
"She did? And she came anyway?" Edward inquired.
"Long story," I mumbled. I could feel the broken pieces of my shoulder with every breath. The pain was darkening my vision again.
"I know a surgeon," was the last thing I heard Edward say before I fell back into the black.
There were more awkward places, more uncomfortable situations, more tense relationships out there in the world-I knew that. But waking up with my sometime lover and employer, my mentor and best friend holding my hand while my first boyfriend, first lover, first missed target, and betrayed former friend on the other side of the bed was possibly right up there with Most Awkward Ever.
The surgeon didn't help any. He was at the foot of the bed, grimacing at the images on a small computer.
And I was naked above the waist, with only a satin-edged blanket between me and all these men.
I opened my mouth-I had no idea what I'd say, but I felt pressured to say something into the tense stillness of the room. It was the kind of tension you feel when everyone's been talking about you behind your back and you suddenly show up in front of their noses.
Three pairs of eyes pierced me with their focus: gray, green, and blue. The doctor had light blue eyes. He spoke. "Ms. Swan."
He nodded dispassionately. "In short, you came out better than anticipated. You are clearly not a conventional woman, so I won't go there, but I will say that without intensive physical therapy, you will lose at least half the function in your left arm."
Oddly enough, something in my middle-a taut place balanced only by stress-relaxed when he said that. Tears filled my eyes and slid out their corners, wetting my temples. Two fingers-one scarred and familiar, one smooth and more tentative-wiped the tears away.
"Okay," I whispered. "Okay."
Jasper's eyes were easier for me to meet, so I did. In them, I saw the comfortable calm he had always provided for me. His lips tilted in an intimate smile. "Well. Your old boyfriend here," he said, "told me you'd need a bolt-hole. You have good taste in exes."
On my right, Edward snorted. "Isabella?"
Reluctantly, I turned, fearing a distance in his expression I worried about. "Edward? I-"
His finger slid from my temple to my lips, silencing me. "Not now. Later. We'll talk later." He shot a look to the doctor, who was watching us with a cool regard, and then to Jasper. "Right now, let's get you safe."
"I've got your new ID and backup, Bella," Jasper said, bending to pick something up off the floor. "How do you feel about being Mary Alice Brandon from Biloxi, Mississippi?"