STACKING THE DECK

(Redemption Club series, Book 1)

(ISBN: 9780990314547)



Chapter One




One woman’s rooftop sun deck was another woman’s sniper roost. Skye Hamilton’s index finger hovered near her rifle’s trigger as she perched on the flat roof. Slightly higher in elevation to the neighboring estate, her location allowed a convenient overlook to the party going on fifty yards away.

Through the scope, cross hairs were tattooed across her target’s chest, which was covered in a cobalt blue shirt and dark-gray suit jacket. Around him, the Malibu home’s tiled poolside patio was like the red carpet on awards night, populated with Hollywood’s rich and powerful. The trees glowed with fairy lights, and the tall cocktail tables set up for this event twinkled with tea lights in crystal-cut holders that winked in the darkness like stars. The stars that shined the brightest were actors and actresses, directors and producers—many of whom Skye recognized, though she didn’t get to the movies much.

A hair had escaped the tight bun under her black skullcap and now tickled her cheek in the cool April breeze, but she resisted the urge to swipe it away. Making a quick mental note to buy more bobby pins, she forced the distraction from her mind and focused on her other senses. Her vocal cords tightened, her pulse kicking up past the normal adrenaline-induced high.

She shifted the cross hairs higher. Robert Stone had thrown his head back in laughter, exposing the tan column of his throat, at something said by one of the party guests surrounding him. Laugh lines bracketed his mouth and eyes, evidence of the fifty-seven years that had shaped his body, carving rivulets across his forehead and painting a few gray hairs among the ebony at the temples. With manicured fingers and soft hands, he tipped his champagne flute to his lips. As her research had indicated, he was the epitome of a wealthy and powerful individual, pampered and confident in his place in the world.

And someone wanted to do bad things to him. More specifically, someone wanted to pay her to do bad things to him. But Skye only used extreme force when it was justified, when the law had failed and there was clear evidence the bounty was worth the cost. Mark Sheldon hadn’t come through with the burden of proof—yet. She was only staking this spot out for later, for when that proof came in and showed Stone was as ruthless as the rumors about him suggested.

The cool night breeze drifting over the surrounding mountains carried the heavy scent of jasmine and prompted the loose hair to resume its dance against her jaw. A light dusting of tangy salt from the nearby Pacific clung to her lips. Skye absorbed this sensory information but centered on the source that mattered most in this particular hunt—her sight. Unfortunately, she had yet to see Loretta Sheldon, the young woman she’d been sent to retrieve, or proof that Stone was involved in her disappearance.

Kill Stone. Bring Loretta home.

That’s what Mark was paying her for.

Because, by all accounts, including the good-bye note Loretta had left behind, Robert Stone appeared to have lured the seventeen-year-old from the safety of her family and friends. And that was an unforgivable breach where Skye came from. One defended one’s self, property and family, at any cost.

Skye’s finger caressed the trigger, but she didn’t apply pressure. There’s no evidence. The reports of people she’d talked to said Stone was only nice on the surface, that he’d been known to use violence to settle scores. Rumors. There’s no proof. She’d resume her investigation tomorrow, confident that persistence would lead to Loretta and evidence that this man had taken her.

Her attention shifted again, sliding down Stone’s black silk tie and to the right, to the magenta square of silk sticking out of his breast pocket. Silver initials stood out against the colors, declaring his conceit. The colors echoed those in the logos of his film production company, hotel chain, cruise line and other businesses sheltered beneath the Stone Corporation umbrella. Despite the passing thought that his attire was more suited to a peacock than a mogul, the ornamentation seemed to emphasize, rather than contradict, Stone’s masculinity. It was all about confidence, and how one wore it. Stone wore it like a second skin.

A diamond signet ring flashed as Stone’s hand tipped the champagne flute to his lips. She tracked the movement as he placed an arm around a smiling blonde who wore a magenta evening dress that coordinated with his attire. The woman must be his latest arm candy. She damn sure wasn’t Loretta.

Her research into Stone’s past revealed two failed marriages and a string of heartbreaks. Either the man fell in love hard and often or enjoyed the chase, particularly when young, beautiful women were the prize. Skye was betting on the latter, especially since Loretta had been lured with some very enticing bait—an offer of a part in Stone’s next movie.

Skye wondered if the blonde was aware of her sugar daddy’s reputation. Likely not. If so, the woman wouldn’t smile in that wide, vacant way. Or maybe she would. For the past ten days, the Hollywood lifestyle Skye’d been observing was so far from her world and everything she understood about the way one should live life, and what was normal, that it seemed she was in some kind of warped dream. Or nightmare.

The blonde’s red lips parted on a laugh and Stone drew her in closer to his side. Protected and cherished. Skye hadn’t been held that way since she was a child. Actually, she’d never been held that way. Only in her dreams.

In an instant, her focus shattered as memories of the past and a sharp pang of longing intruded. She sucked in a shaky breath and set down the rifle. She might as well call it a night. Loretta wasn’t here. She’d continue searching for the proof she needed and return another day—because she didn’t know the word failure, and she sure as hell knew about patience.

She sat back on her haunches and began methodically packing her equipment into her duffel bag. Taking a quick inventory, her fingertips moved swiftly across her rifle, handgun, hunting knife—

The soft sound of a footfall, lost immediately in the breeze among the gentle rattle of leaves in the surrounding treetops, alerted her to someone else’s presence. She palmed the throwing knife from her black boot, pushed to her feet and spun to face the threat. She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet. Adrenaline pumped hard and fast into her system, and the need to run rolled over her limbs—but she froze as she realized there was nowhere to run.

A tall, broad-shouldered man effectively blocked her main escape route. Dressed in a simple, but elegant, suit that somehow made him seem more dangerous, he stood between her and the spiral staircase that twisted down to the patio below. It was the only access to the sun deck. Damn.

She recognized him as one of the three bodyguards working Stone’s party. Fifteen minutes earlier, he’d slipped out of her field of vision when one of the young, drunk starlets at the party had almost fallen into the pool and he’d escorted her into the house.

A slice of moonlight painted a streak of silver in his hair, but she guessed he was around thirty years old, just a few years older than her. But several inches taller—about six foot three, if he was an inch. And shoulders so broad he could pass as the great Atlas himself. His size was misleading. She’d watched him weave with predator-like stealth and grace among the throng of guests. She wouldn’t underestimate him.

“I’m glad you chose not to shoot Mr. Stone.” His gaze moved to the bag at her feet before shifting back to examine her face. She fought the urge to squirm as he seemed to memorize every feature.

He stopped several feet away, out of arm’s reach but close enough for her to see his hair was a dark blond. The ends curled against his neck, and the breeze lifted the top briefly, like a caress. Everything about him was hard, including his eyes. His hands stayed loose at his sides, as if he might draw on her, though there was no telltale bulge of a concealed weapon. There were quieter ways to deal with her, anyway. Those hands—strong fingers with a couple of flecks of old scars, thin white lines glowing in the moonlight, decorating the surface. Like a bruised apple. One hard knock wasn’t going to keep her from tasting it.

She rather liked a couple of scars on a man. They were evidence of a survivor, a hard worker, a warrior—and likely, this man knew his craft well. Unfortunately, his skills probably included killing. Ex-military? He didn’t look like your average Army Joe, but she could see him as a Special Forces guy. His erect posture hinted at the hard edge of a soldier, and the casual way he took in every part of their surroundings without seeming to indicated his experience. That didn’t bode well for her. Still, she’d trained with men like him, and he seemed more curious than dangerous at the moment. Besides, based on her reconnaissance, he was trespassing just as much as she was.

Her fingers tightened around the small knife tucked against her side, between her palm and her hip. “I wasn’t going to shoot anyone.” Not yet.

She calculated the distance to the edge of the roof and the jump it would require to land in the pool below. According to the very chatty gardener she’d encountered when she’d posed as a local out for a morning jog, the owners of this lush spread were in Europe for several months but had kept up the grounds and the pool. The deep end was just below her side of the roof.

“It’s a twenty-foot drop.” Her rooftop soldier’s voice was cool as he guessed her thoughts.

Better than being six feet under. But climbing out of the pool, running while sopping wet, and making it back to the truck before this man could catch her, didn’t boast encouraging odds. Worse, she’d have to leave her equipment behind. She’d done it before—in her training, the ranch’s own version of a mud run during the Arizona summer’s monsoons—but she’d rather choose an option with a better chance for success.

“I’m not going to hurt you.” His arms went out to his sides in a gesture of trust and he grinned, all boy-next-door charisma. Oh yes, this soldier was dangerous. Good thing she was immune to the man’s charm.

She stifled a snort. “That’s good, considering I didn’t do anything except observe a party. From private property, I might add.” At her condescending tone, his eyebrows lifted.

“This isn’t your property,” he said. Hell, what if the groundskeeper had been wrong? What if this was the soldier’s home? Maybe he wasn’t security after all and the starlet was his girlfriend, and he’d escorted her into this very house, right beneath Skye’s nose.

But that didn’t ring true. Trust your instincts. Her uncle’s voice rang in her head. Besides, she’d already begun the lie. Better to stick with it.

“It isn’t yours either.” She hoped her guess was correct. When he didn’t deny it, she continued with the story she’d concocted. “I’m housesitting for a friend while he’s in Europe. I just got here today.”

“And you thought you’d hang out in the dark?”

“Just came up here for some fresh air.” She took a deep breath as if to confirm her lie. His gaze flicked to her breasts as her lungs filled. Interesting. Apparently, he wasn’t immune to her charms. She filed that information away as a possible weapon.

“I wanted to catch the view of moonlight on the ocean. I’ve never seen the ocean.” That part, at least, was true. Earlier that week, she’d taken a couple of hours to just sit on the beach and listen to the waves, to watch their seductive power.

His gaze took a leisurely stroll down her body and his lips quirked ever-so-slightly. “Kind of strange attire if you’re just looking for some fresh air. Or maybe, where you come from, they like to wear skintight black for late-night strolls.”

Camouflage was more the order of the day at the ranch. “Huh. I didn’t peg you for a fashion icon.”

His laugh startled her. She bit back a curse, irked that he was taking pleasure in pinning her like a dead bug—and that he’d gotten the drop on her at all. What would Viper say about her listening skills? She’d let those precious moments of lost focus override her training. And she continued to let her concentration be derailed by the spark of amusement in the stranger’s eyes.

So she went on the attack—verbally, at least. Pricking a man’s pride could be a valuable weapon. “And maybe where you come from, it’s typical to dress in suits and ties and dance for your boss like a puppet?” The brief lightness between them faded and she instantly regretted reminding him he was here on a mission.

“My client pays me well to do all kinds of things, including identifying threats.” He eyed the duffel bag at her feet. “If you were just up here to observe the ocean, you over packed. I suggest you start talking—the truth this time.”



Jared Bennigan wondered how far she would take this charade. Given his mystery woman’s attire, and the rifle, and who knows what else peeking out from inside the bulging duffel, there was no excuse she could offer that would make sense—other than she’d come to do harm.

And yet, behind eyes the color of the deep blue Pacific, he could see the wheels turning, sensed her mentally cataloguing the escape routes and calculating the odds of success. And damn if he wasn’t enjoying this unscheduled detour in his bland evening. He hadn’t been this intrigued on the job—or by a woman—in months, so it couldn’t hurt to draw things out a bit. After all, he had her trapped, though he wouldn’t even have known she was lurking here if he hadn’t had to escort an inebriated young woman from Stone’s party to a taxi at the end of the long driveway. He’d seen an old pickup truck that clearly didn’t belong among the guests’ luxury cars, parked in the shadows just down the street. And he might not even have seen that if it hadn’t been white and the moon hadn’t chosen that moment to come out from behind a cloud.

Yeah, that lapse in focus jabbed at his pride. He was a man who made sure to do his job well, and ensured that the rest of his team did, too, and yet he’d failed to see the old, dirty truck or the attractive, potentially dangerous, woman lurking near Stone’s property.

When Jared had tapped on the truck window, the man behind the wheel had jumped so high he’d nearly bumped his head. In jeans and an old T-shirt, the man hadn’t been dressed for a party. Drawing on his experience as an ex-military police officer, Jared had demanded to see identification and the man had produced a driver’s license that pronounced him Mark Sheldon, forty-three, from Kingman, Arizona. Realizing Jared wasn’t actually a cop, Sheldon had refused to answer questions. Jared had insisted Sheldon leave the premises and alerted the other two guys on his team to be extra cautious. An additional security sweep of the area had led him here, and he wondered exactly what this woman and Mark Sheldon were hunting for so far from home.

A tingle of the old excitement had obliterated, at least for a few moments, the heaviness he carried around. He wanted the feeling to last, so, like a wolf playing with his rabbit, he toyed with her instead of taking her immediately to Stone. Besides, he had no doubt she’d fight tooth and nail when cornered. And if this woman had weapons training, as her equipment would suggest, he’d do well to remember that sometimes rabbits had distinct advantages over wolves.

Then again, she bore no resemblance to a quiet, timid rabbit. She had wide, expressive eyes of multiple shades of blue, and a mouth built for sin—at least of the lie-telling variety, though his imagination quickly came up with several other suggested uses. He couldn’t make out her hair color beneath the cap she wore, but the strand that flicked about her face was a rich mahogany when it danced into the moonlight.

Her gaze again went to the roof’s edge. Hell, was she thinking to make a running jump for it? She’d break her beautiful neck.

He lifted his hands, palms toward her in a sign of submission. “I’m not here to fight you. Unless you give me a reason.” The image of their limbs tangling brought an altogether different type of scenario to mind—one in which she eventually willingly submitted to him in every way. Her gaze slid over his body with the same detailed consideration he’d given her earlier. Parts of him leapt to life, but he ignored them.

“Moon bathing, then?” she asked, lifting one sleek, dark eyebrow.

“Not tonight.” A smile tugged at his mouth as his blood thrummed with the excitement of a potential chase. God, he’d missed this. At least the life of a military policeman on an army base had variety, especially while he’d been in Afghanistan. Since leaving the military a year ago, the formation of his company, Global Security Solutions, with his best friend Devlin Grimm, had provided regular doses of adrenaline. But his current contract—working security for Robert Stone these past three weeks—usually meant babysitting a bunch of rich, drunk people and evading the advances of pretty, entitled heiresses and actresses.

It was a necessary evil if he wanted to make headway on his true goal—finding his missing sister, Chelsea, whose last known whereabouts had been connected to Stone. The police were reluctant to believe she’d been taken against her will, since there’d been no signs of foul play, or maybe because Stone was a generous donor to police fundraisers. So Jared had taken the investigation into his own hands. He had the resources, after all.

“Odd place for a midnight stroll, sir.” The woman winced as if regretting using the designation, and the delicate point of her chin went up a couple degrees. She had experience with men in authority, then. And she seemed to resent it, at least on some level. The fingers of her right hand clenched, probably around a weapon.

“It’s not midnight yet. And I think we both know you’re not some Cinderella gazing longingly at the ball.” He jerked his head toward the party down the hill, keeping part of his attention on her hand.

She snorted. “Stone’s no Prince Charming.” She pressed her lips together, as if regretting the muttered words.

That was an understatement. Secretly, he despised the pompous ass, but circumstances required he tolerate the man. Unexpected anger and frustration struck him in the gut but he pressed it down. Working for Stone was temporary—until he could find the answers he sought. Answers he feared only Stone had. But what did this woman want with his client? “So, you do know Stone.”

She didn’t reply, not that he expected her to.

Jared cocked his head, studying his mystery woman. She didn’t look like a blackmailer, killer, or kidnapper, or any of the other recent threats that had prompted Stone to hire security, but Jared wasn’t about to underestimate her, especially with the distrust and anger shimmering in her eyes. Besides, money could lure even the least desperate of men—or women—to commit unusual acts, and Stone had some very wealthy enemies.

“That doesn’t mean he deserves to be shot,” he said. She bit her bottom lip, drawing his attention there for a split second. His gaze lifted to her eyes, where he caught a flash of triumph. Clever girl.

“I was only observing the party. The guy’s a big-time movie producer and I wanted to catch a glimpse of the glamorous life.” She shrugged. “Nothing illegal about that.”

He eyed the bag again. Suddenly, he’d had enough of the lies. She stiffened as he took a couple of quick, long strides forward and grabbed the hand that he suspected held a weapon. He twisted her wrist until, with a soft gasp, she released the knife and it clattered to the sun deck. Her muscles bunched in preparation to fight and he sent her a warning glance. “Don’t even think about it, or losing your knife will be the least of your worries.” He loosened his grip on her slender wrist but didn’t let go.

She didn’t do anything to stop him as he reached into the duffel with his other hand. She probably sensed it would be a losing battle. Or maybe she was biding her time, waiting for him to expose a weakness she could take advantage of. Not likely, sweetheart. Inside the duffel, he spied another knife—this one larger—a rifle, a handgun and several boxes of ammunition.

He straightened. “Why didn’t you take the shot?”

She shrugged as if it were no big deal, but didn’t answer.

“This may be your lucky day. Mr. Stone is offering a reward to find whoever’s trying to pay someone to harm him.”

Surprise flickered across her face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He ignored her denial. A contract had to be the reason she was here, armed to the teeth. “Maybe he’d pay you to tell him who hired you.” And Jared could entice her to share with him what she knew about Stone. Maybe it would lead to his missing sister.

Her soft lips pressed into a defiant line. “He can’t afford me. Some things are worth more than money.”

He nearly laughed but choked it back as he caught the seriousness in her tone. All evidence implied she was a gun for hire, yet she appeared to have her own code of ethics. His mystery woman became more intriguing by the minute. “Either way, I’ll be taking you with me to see Stone. You two can sort this out.”

He was twisting her arm behind her back to force her to march in front of him toward the stairs, when a gunshot sounded, and shards of broken brick flew from the edge of the rooftop, only a few inches from his other hand. Reflexively, he dropped into a crouch, but in the same moment she twisted, breaking his hold and flattening her body against the deck.

The knife he’d knocked from her hand glinted in the moonlight, out of her reach. He planted a boot on her duffel bag, which lay at his feet, figuring this would keep her from attacking him from behind as he dealt with the more pressing threat—the unseen gunman.

Turning his gaze to the external problem somewhere out there in the dark trees, he remained behind the low ledge that rimmed the sun deck and reached for the mic at his collar. He switched it on, hoping he wasn’t too far away from Stone’s home to communicate with the rest of the security team. “Shots fired. I’m on the roof of the Montegena property north of Stone’s.” He switched off the communication. “Is the shooter one of yours?” he asked the woman. When he didn’t receive a reply, he swiveled to face her, only to find her gone. Her duffel bag was still in a heap at his feet, deserted in her haste to escape. She’d apparently fled down the spiral staircase, quick and quiet as a… rabbit.

Remaining in a crouch, he skirted the perimeter of the rooftop, glancing out into the darkness but seeing no sign of movement, either from his mystery woman or the shooter. She’d disappeared into the night.

“Shit.” He turned on the mic again. “In addition to an unidentified shooter, be on the lookout for a woman dressed all in black. Five-seven, blue eyes, dark brown hair. Armed and…” Dangerous? She might have been unarmed when she left the rooftop, but she could have another weapon stashed somewhere, and her accomplice sure as hell had one. “Approach with caution. Bring her to me.” He couldn’t wait to get his hands on her.

His grin of anticipation faded as a motor roared to life and the sound of rubber on asphalt squealed from the direction of the road. Shit.

He snatched up her duffel bag, noting that the rifle was still there, as well as a handgun, a couple of knives and a rope. He might be able to trace the registration on the rifle or gun—if they weren’t stolen. Then he remembered the truck. Had Mark Sheldon been her accomplice? Had he come back for her? It was the most likely scenario.

He made the choice to risk another bullet by scurrying across the roof to the stairs, assuming the shooter—very possibly Mark Sheldon—had fled with his mystery woman. As he descended, two voices replied through his earpiece, indicating that his message had gotten through to the other men monitoring Stone’s party. He repeated the truck’s license plate information, make and model as he slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and took off running for the place where the vehicle had been parked.

Maybe he could catch his rabbit yet.



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Copyright © 2009-2016 by Anne Marie Becker. All Rights Reserved.

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