If driving a piece-of-crap tow truck through the seediest part of town with a Smith & Wesson beside her means putting a roof over her son’s head, then Samantha Jones is going to be the best damn repo woman on the books. The streetwalkers, the drug pushers, the bands of looking-for-trouble punks haunting the mean streets at midnight don’t intimidate her. These are her people. The guy she finds bound and bloodied in the trunk of her latest conquest, a flashy new BMW, is a different breed entirely.
Daniel Panterro was certain he was going to die. Instead, by a stroke of luck, he was beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead. But if he’s having a bad day, Sam’s day is about to get way worse. Danny knows he hasn’t seen the last of the vicious drug runners who kidnapped him from protective custody. His only recourse is to take his pretty savior hostage and force her to help him. There’s no going back for Sam and her four-year-old son, Tyler. They’re in way too deep.
With ruthless killers stalking their trail, Sam’s only choice is to trust this handsome, menacing stranger. But as she relinquishes control, Sam feels an unmistakable desire. Could she be tempted by Danny, who seems intent on protecting her and Tyler from even his own darkest secrets? And what is the price of falling in love with a man who operates on the edge of danger―her heart, her life...or both?
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Karen Robards is the New York Times bestselling author of more than forty books, including the romantic thrillers Justice and Sleepwalker, and the historical romance trilogy Scandalous, Irresistible, and Shameless. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Mom, I’m scared.” Tyler’s voice was scarcely louder than a whisper. Curled up in his bed with one arm wrapped around his favorite stuffed bear and the other tucked beneath his head, he was a small, thin boy who hardly made a dent in the covers. His black hair was still damp from the bath she had made him take just before getting into bed and smelled, just faintly, of baby shampoo. The expression in his blue eyes proclaimed his absolute conviction that she could keep him safe from all harm. Samantha Jones looked down at her four-year-old son and felt a pang in the region of her heart. She was a twenty-three-year-old single mother with a precarious job situation, very little money, and absolutely no experience raising kids, and she was all he had.
Probably she wasn’t going to get mother of the year anytime soon, but she was doing her best.
“Close your eyes and go to sleep, and I’ll be home before you wake up,” she promised. Like Tyler, she was slim and fine-boned, with unruly black hair—hers reached the middle of her back—and blue eyes. She sat beside him on his twin bed in the pool of lamplight cast by the room’s only illumination, the small red lamp on the nightstand. Her back rested against a pillow tucked against the headboard and her knees were bent to prop up the book she’d just finished reading to him. Dressed in jeans and a well-washed blue uniform shirt, all she needed to do was pull on her boots and she would be out the door and on her way to work, which was where she was going just as soon as she finished her nightly ritual of putting Tyler to bed. “Mrs. Menifee is here.”
The sound of the TV in the living room confirmed it. Cindy Menifee, a fifty-something widow who lived alone in the duplex next door, had a key and let herself in as needed. The first thing she always did was turn on the TV. Mrs. Menifee worked days as a bookkeeper for a tire store. Like everyone else Sam knew, she lived from paycheck to paycheck and was glad, for the little Sam could pay her, to stay with Tyler at night while Sam worked, saying that since she was right next door anyway it was almost like getting paid to stay home.
“I know.” Tyler’s voice was even smaller. His skin was fair, like hers, but unlike her he had freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose. His eyes beseeched her. “Couldn’t you stay home this once?”
Sam’s stomach tightened. She knew that feeling guilty because she had to go to work to earn money to support them was a waste of time, but Tyler actually was a little extra needy tonight. He’d had a bad day at preschool: his friend Josh had invited two other boys from their class to a sleepover, but had left Tyler out. To make him feel better, she’d rented a movie he’d been dying to see, and he and she had spent the evening eating popcorn and watching it, which was why he was still awake. Almost she hesitated. Almost she gave into the impulse to say, just this once, and stay with him. But she had to work, or they didn’t eat or have a roof over their heads or anything else. She had tried to arrange things so that she and Tyler spent as much time together as possible. During the mornings, while he was in preschool, she took classes, with the eventual goal of becoming an emergency medical technician. As an EMT, she would make enough to one day maybe be able to buy a small house, and pay for things like a bicycle and braces. At night, when he was sleeping, she went out and repossessed cars. She was tired and stressed out a lot, which she tried her best not to let Tyler see, but they were making it.
“Big Red’s waiting out front. He’d be sad if I didn’t come out.” Big Red was Tyler’s name for the (big red) tow truck she drove. Sliding off the bed, putting the book down on the nightstand, Sam kept her tone light.
“Did you use the monster spray?” Tyler’s lower lip quivered. Sam felt another of those mommy-guilt heart tugs. Tyler had been having nightmares lately, nightmares that the pediatrician said were perfectly normal and part of a developmental phase and yada yada. Still, they worried her terribly. She’d come up with the idea of filling a plastic spray bottle with water and telling Tyler it was a potion to keep bad dreams away. He loved the idea of it, called it monster spray, had her spray it under his bed every night before he went to sleep—and continued to have nightmares anyway.
Sam couldn’t help thinking that if he had an older, more experienced mother, if he lived in a house in the suburbs and had a dad who was actually a part of his life and all the good things he should have, he wouldn’t have nightmares.
“Tyler, do you want me to sit in here with you while you go to sleep? I can sing to you,” Mrs. Menifee said from the doorway. Mrs. Menifee knew the drill: Sam was supposed to be at A+ Collateral Recovery by 11:00 p.m. to receive her assignments for the night. It was twenty minutes until eleven now. She had to go.
“Okay,” Tyler said.
“Thanks.” Sam smiled at Mrs. Menifee with real gratitude as the older woman pulled the red rocking chair that Sam had carefully painted to match the lamp and the headboard up beside the bed and sank down in it. Mrs. Menifee’s tightly curled hair might be a little too red and she might wear a little too much makeup and her blouses might be a little too tight and low cut over her ample bosom in hopes of attracting husband number three, but she was kindhearted and good to Tyler and absolutely reliable. In the year since Sam and Tyler had moved into the duplex next door to her, they’d all three developed a firm friendship in which Sam did things like water her plants and feed her cat when she was away visiting her grown daughter in Chicago, and Mrs. Menifee watched Tyler.
“See you in the morning.” Still keeping it light, Sam headed for the door.
“We’ll be fine,” Mrs. Menifee said comfortably.
Pausing, Sam took one last look at her son. He was perfectly fine, cozy in his own bed in his own room, with Mrs. Menifee rocking beside him.
His eyes were wide open and tracking her. “I love you, Mom.”
Her heart gave another of those mommy-pangs. “I love you, too, baby.”
As she left the duplex to go to work, Mrs. Menifee’s slightly off-key voice singing “Camptown Races” followed her.
About fifteen seconds before the first bullet hit him, Daniel Panterro accepted the fact that he was probably going to die. Given the fact that he was bound hand and foot, stuffed into a car trunk, and just conscious enough that he knew something bad was going down, there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it. Except bitterly regret the circumstances that had gotten him into the mess in the first place.
“You really think we wouldn’t find you, asshole?” Army Veith was the name of the guy pointing the pistol at his head. Real average looking. Average height, average weight, not old, not young, nothing to make anyone remember him. No way for anyone to guess that he was a killer for hire. One of the best. Currently in the employ of the Zeta cartel. Veith had just arrived on the scene, which was how Danny knew his life could now be measured in seconds. Everything that had come before had been courtesy of his thugs. “Where’s the money?”
Danny’s mouth was still dry from the gag that had just been ripped out of it so he could talk. He tried to swallow, but came up with so little saliva that it was hardly worth it. He had no idea what money Veith was talking about, but he sure as hell was not going to let Veith know it.
“Sock drawer,” Danny croaked. He might be done for, but he’d be damned if he was going to cringe. He tried not to think of his mother, a sixty-six-year-old widow who doted on him, her youngest child and only son. His death would devastate her. It would leave his three sisters reeling. He would never play basketball or video games with his nephews again.
Please God let—
Veith shot him. Just like that.
In the thigh. At the last minute Veith had shifted his aim. The pfft of the discharge—Veith’s gun sported a silencer—registered in Danny’s brain at approximately the same instant the bullet tore through him.
Danny screamed. It hurt like a motherfucker. His thigh felt like a flaming splinter had blasted through it. He could feel the instant engorging of his flesh, the hot upwelling of blood. Had the bullet hit an artery? Broken a bone? Sweat poured over him in a wave. He almost vomited. His body wanted to roll and kick and contort in protest, but between the way he was tied and the fact that he was a six-foot-two, 190-pound guy crammed into a car trunk, the opportunity for movement was limited. Cursing, he tried to block out the pain, tried to force his poor battered brain to work, to think of some way out of this.
Unfortunately, his brain was coming up with zilch.
“Next one goes through your elbow.” Veith’s eyes were as cold and merciless as the black waters of the Mississippi River that ran behind the warehouse. The river where, unless Danny was mistaken, his corpse was shortly going to end up. “I’m gonna ask again: where’s the money?”
Shit. Danny realized that he was panting like a dog. He could feel blood gushing from his leg, soaking his jeans, and knew that blood loss was going to be a problem if he lived longer than the next few minutes. Which, face it, meant it probably wasn’t going to be a problem at all. A black wave of anger hit him: somebody had fucked up big time. But this wasn’t the moment to get pissed about it. This was probably the moment to be making peace with his maker, but he’d rather try to come up with some way to survive. Forget cringing. Now that he’d gotten a real taste of what was getting ready to come his way, he would have begged if he’d thought it would do any good. Despite his efforts to block the pain, it threatened to overwhelm his senses. Jesus, when he’d signed on for this gig he had accepted the possibility that he might die—it came with the territory—but getting himself blasted to bits before they killed him was worse than anything he had foreseen.
Damn Crittenden anyway. Where was he, where were they all, while this shit was going down? The key here was that he wasn’t actually supposed to die.
Veith’s gun hand moved, almost imperceptibly. Danny’s heart lurched. He thought of his mother having to identify his mutilated body, pushed the image out of his head.
“Santos has it,” he groaned. It was a lie, but if lying worked to buy him some time, he was ready, willing, and able to lie like a two-dollar whore.
Veith didn’t fire.
“Santos?” Veith repeated. Except for one dim lightbulb swinging from a wire high overhead, the warehouse was dark. If you didn’t count Danny, Veith, two other thugs, and the BMW Danny was crammed into the trunk of, it was also deserted. The better for torturing and killing you in, my dear. Given Danny’s present position, reading Veith’s expression was nearly impossible. But he could hear the sudden interest in his voice.
Veith thought there might be a possibility that he was telling the truth. Danny automatically filed that information away to be passed on to Crittenden later before he remembered that he most likely was not going to be passing on anything.
Because he was going to be dead.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he didn’t want to die. He was thirty-two years old. Had a big, boisterous extended family. A hot girlfriend. A good (although dangerous, see present situation) job. Tickets to the NBA championship game in two weeks. Lots of things in the works.
“You have five seconds to tell me everything you know.”
Veith was taking careful aim at his right elbow. The one that was uppermost. If a bullet tore through his elbow at that angle, the pain would make the blazing agony in his leg feel like a mosquito bite. To say nothing of the fact that it would shatter the joint and he would probably never regain the full use of his arm. Not that he was going to need it where it looked like he was going anyway, but still.
“One. Two. Three. F—”
It was the thought of more pain that pulled his foggy thought processes together enough to allow him to try to improvise.
As a new wave of sweat enveloped him, he broke in on Veith. “Like I said, Santos—”
“They’re coming. They know where we are.” Thug number one—Danny hadn’t gotten a good enough look at either of them to be able to identify them—came running, his feet thudding on what sounded like a concrete floor. From where? Danny didn’t know, although he presumed a lookout was being kept.
Theoretically, he was too valuable to the feds who’d been holding him for them to just abandon him. Veith would expect a search-and-rescue team to be coming on strong.
So did Danny, for entirely different reasons.
Veith swore under his breath. To Danny’s immense relief, he lowered the pistol.
“We’ll finish this later, Marco,” Veith told him.
Yeah, Marco, as in Rick Marco, because Veith had no idea who he really was. Which was the only reason Danny was still alive.
Then Veith stepped back, and the trunk lid slammed down.
A moment later, the car was peeling rubber out of there. Danny lay in the trunk, blind as a mole in the pitch dark, woozy with pain, fighting to find enough oxygen to keep him conscious in the superheated, carbon-monoxide-tainted air.
He was still trying to process exactly what had happened. No, how it had happened: the assault on the safe house where as Marco he’d been under twenty-four-hour guard, the lightning-fast slaughter of the U.S. Marshals assigned to protect him, his own kidnapping and brutal interrogation.
They’re coming. Danny held onto the promise implicit in that gasped warning like a drowning man to a lifeline. “They” had to refer to the feds. He was an undercover FBI agent, for God’s sake. His fellow federal agents would not just leave him to die.
Two a.m. in gorgeous downtown East St. Louis, which was an oxymoron if she’d ever heard one, Sam reflected glumly. A Friday night turned into the wee hours of a Saturday morning. She was still pretty enough that guys were always hitting on her. She should have been out dancing, partying, or at least seeing a movie and getting a pizza. Something.
She sighed. Get real. If you weren’t doing this, you’d be working the third shift at Walmart. Or Waffle House. Or somewhere equally shitty.
Instead she was driving Big Red, a junky hook-and-chain tow truck, down a pothole-heavy street lined with bars and tattoo parlors and seedy restaurants and liquor stores. Getting double vision from looking at too much neon. Ignoring the streetwalkers and drug pushers on the corners. Ignoring the bands of looking-for-trouble punks, too. If they wanted trouble, she had a Smith & Wesson revolver on the passenger seat beside her. And a tire iron tucked beneath her seat. Much as she hated to admit it, these were her people. These mean streets were her mean streets. She could handle herself.
Didn’t mean she had to like it.
Her cell phone rang. Her best friend, Kendra Wilson.
“What?” Sam said into it.
“I’m just about to leave work.” Kendra cashiered weekends at the local Publix grocery store. They’d been besties since kindergarten. When the shit had hit the fan in Sam’s life some five and a half years ago now, Kendra had been one of the few people Sam had been able to count...
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