NEWSFLASH: REDEMPTION was the winner of the Cleveland Rocks contest, as well as a finalist in the Fab Five (2x), Gateway to the Best, Hot Prospects, and Romancing the Lakes contests!
REDEMPTION is a completed 100,000-word, romantic thriller.
REDEMPTION is not your mother’s romantic suspense novel. REDEMPTION is not another serial killer story. REDEMPTION is a romantic thriller with two plot timelines, a dark hero, an inspiring heroine, a heinous villain, and a shocking climax.
Four years ago in L.A., a sadistic rape robbed Angela Reardon of her trust in men and her sexuality. Now living near San Diego, the fiercely independent interior decorator has built a successful business and a new life, sans love or sex. Haunted by her inability to identify the rapist, Angela wants only to be left alone—until a shadowy stranger reignites dormant desires. But her journey to sexual recovery may be brief…because someone wants her dead.
Jake Stone’s targets deserved to die. That belief had always mitigated his guilt. Until now. After a corrupt CIA handler tricks the former Agency assassin into accepting a fake national security contract, Jake can’t believe he’s falling in love with the courageous, but emotionally scarred, young woman he’s been hired to kill. While battling his own demons, he struggles to restore Angela’s sexuality despite knowing he must eventually consummate the hit. He seeks redemption by searching for the person who put a price on Angela’s head. When the trail leads him into the carnal underbelly of L.A., the truth shocks even the hardened hitman.
Late Thursday night, August 16
Coronado, California (near San Diego)
He slouched on the edge of the bed, his fingers clutching the deadly syringe hidden in his jacket pocket. Despite the timpani drum pounding in his chest and echoing in his ears, he kept his face expressionless.
He stared at the naked, unsuspecting woman asleep on the bed, her slender body seductive even in slumber, her blond hair a halo on the pillow.
The guilt gnawing at his gut did not spring from having been inside her, making love to her earlier in the night, but from what he knew was in her heart and mind and soul. That knowledge made killing her wrong on so many levels. Sadly, he’d known it was wrong for a long time, but he had been powerless to change the course of events set in motion all those weeks ago.
His fingers tightened around the syringe. A heavy sigh escaped his lips, releasing an avalanche of regret, remorse, and resignation; but still, a mountain of sorrow crushed his chest.
What kind of monster had he become?
Somewhere along the way, the compass of his conscience had lost the true magnetic north of morality.
The woman stirred and opened her eyes. At first, she smiled, but that quickly faded when their gazes met.
He hated what his eyes told her.
“Why—” she began.
Approximately fifteen weeks earlier
Valley Center, California (northern San Diego County)
With long angry strides, Jake Stone paced in his office and growled into his cell phone. “Dammit, you know I’m not in the business anymore! Why the hell are you contacting me?”
“Good to talk to you, too,” the mechanically altered voice of the Contractor answered. “The Agency has a delicate situation, and I immediately thought of you.”
“I’m not interested.”
“But we need your specialty and are willing to make accommodations and compensate well for it.”
“Not interested,” Jake insisted.
“We’re paying three times the normal fee.”
Jake frowned and didn’t respond.Shit, that’s a helluva lot of money, even for a high-value target. Must be a serious threat to national security. Definitely a top level hit.
When Jake hesitated, the Contractor seized the opportunity. “It’s an incredible deal. Want to hear more?”
Even though he’d sworn off the nasty profession, maybe he should at least listen to the critical information. “Not really, but go ahead,” he muttered. “Who?”
“A twenty-nine-year-old single woman.”
“A woman? Crap.” In all his years of killing for the CIA, Jake had eliminated only two women: one, a terrorist; the other, a spy. Both deserved to die. For a man whose parents had ingrained the belief that women were to be respected and protected, killing one was damn hard. “Why?” he demanded.
“The hell it isn’t. You know I never accept a contract without knowing the target’s crime.”
After a tense moment, the voice continued, “The woman has connections to the State Department. Apparently, she gained access to some highly classified information and decided to sell it. To the wrong people.”
“Why not arrest her for treason or whatever, instead of putting her down?”
“I don’t question the Agency’s decisions, and neither should you.”
“Look, jerk, I’m a legitimate P.I. now. I don’t work for you guys anymore, so I can ask all the damn questions I want.”
“You can ask, but I can’t answer.” The Contractor exhaled impatiently. “Fine. I’ll only tell you that we believe the information she sold got one of our operatives murdered.”
“Damn bitch.” He shoved his fingers through his hair. “Where?”
“She lives and works near San Diego, across the bay in Coronado.”
“A domestic hit? Are you out of your fucking mind?” Jake asked.
“Well, you are within spitting distance of Mexico, and we thought—”
“My specialty is fake suicides. People don’t usually run across the border to commit suicide.”
“The Agency realizes there are complications, but we need this particular situation handled by the best. And you’re the best.”
“Kiss my ass.”
“I’ll pass. The woman looks real hot in her picture, though, so I’m sure you’d prefer to have her kiss your ass anyway. Damn, I’d love to screw her.”
“You’d screw your own mother to get some action, asshole. What’s the timing?”
The Contractor ignored the insult. “Well, that’s one of the accommodations. We understand that subtlety is of utmost importance and that your finesse takes time, so delivery would be acceptable any time in the next three months.”
“Yeah, maybe you could get some action out of her yourself.” His laugh sounded harsh and crude even with the mechanical alteration.
“Isn’t the Agency afraid she’ll steal and sell more secrets?”
“No. We plugged the leak at the other end.” The Contractor snickered. “And we’re sure you’ll keep a close eye on her until you complete the contract. So, what do you say?”
“I’ll think about it. Don’t call me. I’ll call you. Noon, tomorrow.”
Jake slammed the phone on the desk.
Damn, he didn’t want to come out of retirement but someone had to avenge their fallen comrade.
May 8, a week later
Valley Center, California
The tall man scowling at her from the doorway was intimidating even though he wore only a large bath towel wrapped around his narrow hips. His piercing pewter eyes bore into hers so intently that she had to make a conscious effort not to look away.
“Good morning. I’m Angela Reardon from Heavenly Interiors. I have an appointment with Mr. Jake Stone.”
“Fifteen minutes early. The appointment is at nine thirty.”
“Yes, it is. I expected worse traffic driving up here from Coronado.”
“You should’ve called,” he snapped.
She bristled at his rudeness. “I apologize if my timing is inconvenient. I can wait in my car for fifteen minutes, if you prefer.”
“Too late. You’ve already interrupted.”
A flurry of activity behind the man caught Angela’s eye. A moment later, a nubile young woman materialized beside him. She wore skin-tight denim shorts and a white tank top that exposed a large expanse of cleavage. A straw basket filled with several small, colorful bottles hung from her arm.
“Sorry, sweetie, I didn’t take time to clean up the room. Try not to get so stressed out this week. It was hell getting the knots out of your neck and shoulders this morning.” She stretched up on her tiptoes, leaned into him, and slid her tongue between his lips. Her hand caressed the curly black hair on his bare chest. The man pulled her body tightly against him and slipped his fingers beneath the waistband of her shorts. When he released her, she flipped her auburn hair back over her shoulders. “See ya Thursday, hunk. And remember, no stress.”
“Right, sugar, no stress.”
Sugar spun away, flashed a catty smile at Angela, and scampered to a silver Eclipse.
Not bothering to hide her disgust, Angela gaped at the woman until the car sped out of sight down the long winding driveway. When she turned back to the doorway, the gray eyes were studying her.
“My masseuse,” he said nonchalantly.
She raised her chin. “Perhaps I should come back at another time,” she said, her tone tight with repugnance and reserve.
“No. You’re already here.” He motioned her to follow him inside.
“Fine.” Angela frowned as she bent to pick up the decorator samples. “Would you be kind enough to help me with these?”
When he didn’t answer, she looked up to find she was talking to an empty doorway. She sighed and shook her head.
With the unwieldy pinwheel of paint color strips tucked under her arm, she grasped the handles of the two heavy catalogues of wallpaper and fabric samples. After lugging the items inside, she scowled at the man who was already halfway up a curved staircase.
“I presume you are Mr. Stone,” she called to him.
He stopped, turned only his head, and peered down at her. “You presume correctly. Close the door.”
She pushed the massive, carved-wood door shut with her hip and shoulder. “Where would you like me to wait?”
A sly grin spread across his face. “Bring your stuff up here. The master bedroom is one of the rooms I may have you redecorate.” He resumed his climb without waiting for a response.
Angela drew a slow, deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips. She rolled her head to the left and then to the right, trying to loosen the tension that squeezed the back of her neck. It had taken only a few minutes to not like Jake Stone. If he chose to retain Heavenly Interiors, she would pass his design work over to her assistant. A wave of relief accompanied that decision.
She glanced up the stairs. Bedroom. Dread quickly replaced relief. A shiver raced across her skin. She swallowed hard and steeled herself. This is a business meeting. I can do this.
Finding renewed resolve, she climbed the long staircase. The samples seemed to grow heavier with each step,. Finally at the top, she set everything down on the plush, gray carpet. While flexing her fingers, Angela surveyed the portion of the house that was visible from her vantage point.
A contemporary chandelier was suspended on a long chain from the ceiling of the cavernous, two-story foyer. She noticed the intricate illumination pattern it cast on the pearl ceiling and walls and on the black marble floor far below.
Her gaze moved upstairs. Floor-to-ceiling windows showcased a dramatic view of hills covered with granite boulders, but no houses. Across from the spacious, airy landing where she stood, a small alcove was furnished as a cozy library. To her left stretched a hallway with five closed doors. In the opposite direction, a short hallway ended at the open, double-door entrance to what she guessed was the master bedroom.
A voice emanated from that room. “To your right, Ms. Reardon.”
“I’m coming, Mr. Stone. I was just admiring your lovely home.”
Angela heaved an exasperated sigh and lifted her burdens again. She marched through the doorway, but halted abruptly. Her eyes widened.
The master bedroom was enormous, one of the largest she had ever seen. A partially open door revealed a peek into a luxurious bathroom. Across the room, an archway framed the entrance to a walk-in closet. Another arched opening led into an adjoining space containing a massage table and several pieces of weight-lifting and exercise equipment.
A variety of smells invaded her nostrils: spicy, pungent, musky. Her eyes searched for the sources. Two small colorful bottles lay on top of a towel draped across the massage table.
Her gaze traveled the room, stopping at the huge bed. Angela sniffed. One specific odor assaulted her senses.
Her throat tightened.
A black and tan comforter lay on the floor at the end of the bed. Black silk sheets and four oversized pillows were jumbled in disarray. On the nightstand lay three torn condom wrappers.
Angela’s breath caught. She shuddered.
Her heart thumped and echoed in her ears.
The scars from her past burned in the present.
Tiny beads of moisture strung themselves across her upper lip.
The memories swirled inside her as the room spun around her.
The catalogues dropped from her hands.
Black silk sheets. Black creeping into her vision.
Her eyelids and head drooped.
That hideous smell.
The smell of sex.
Oh God, no!
Uptight bitch. Jake had seen the disgust on the woman’s face as she watched his masseuse leave. Well, to hell with her. Angela Reardon was a traitor who’d gotten an operative killed, possibly someone he’d known during his time with the Agency. He already resented being pulled out of retirement to kill a woman so maybe he’d complete the contract quicker than originally planned. Perhaps her personality would even make his job easier.
But damn, he was pissed. And it was affecting his work. Acting like a jerk wouldn’t lure her into his deadly web of deception. He needed to play nice with the bitch so he could finish the job as soon as possible.
Jake slipped off the towel and hurled it across the dressing area of the walk-in closet. He looked down critically at his tensed, naked body. His masseuse was right. He was stressed, coiled. He had really needed the third climax that Ms. Reardon had interrupted. Shaking his head with frustration, he swore silently.
He stepped into a pair of khaki shorts, sans underwear. While flipping through the mass of hangers for a shirt, he paused when his ears caught an odd one-two thud from the bedroom. A louder thump followed a few seconds later.
Puzzled, Jake walked around the closet’s center divider and peered out the opening.
“Ms. Reardon?” he called.
Despite his instructions, had she refused to come to his bedroom? Was the arrogant snob too prudish to enter a man’s personal space?
With a devilish smirk, he strolled across the room toward the door. But when he rounded the foot of the bed, he froze.
Angela Reardon lay in a heap on the carpet.
Two long strides and he knelt beside her. Instinctively, he checked for a pulse. Had nature done the job for him? No. The woman’s pulse was fine. A cursory examination revealed no signs of injury, so he scooped up the petite body and laid it on the bed.
He returned quickly from the bathroom with a cold, wet washcloth and smelling salts from a first-aid kit. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jake leaned over the unconscious woman.
While he wiped the sheen of perspiration from her delicate features, he admired the flawless complexion warmed with a light tan. High cheekbones. Full, tempting lips. He brushed the blond hair off her face and rubbed a few silky strands between his fingertips. The shoulder-length hair encircled her head like an aura on the black pillowcase. He appraised the feminine figure hidden beneath the ivory-colored, linen business suit: ample breasts, thin waist, and slender hips. Damn, why couldn’t she be an ugly traitor?
He wanted to touch, but didn’t. She was too vulnerable. He shook his head vigorously to clear it of thoughts that shouldn’t have been there.
Finally, he forced himself to wave the smelling salts under her nose. She groaned and turned her head away. Another pass of the acrid substance and Angela’s eyes fluttered open. Jake stared into the pools of dark chocolate.
For only a second, her eyes reflected confusion. Then, her gaze dipped to his naked chest. Terror replaced confusion.
Her scream shattered the silence.
A palm stung his cheek. He recoiled and blocked the next slap. Changing targets, her fists pummeled his chest.
“What the hell, lady!”
Stunned, but not hurt, Jake straddled her, caught both wrists, and pinned them to the bed.
“Don’t touch me, you bastard,” she shrieked.
“Easy, Ms. Reardon, relax.”
Her arms went limp, and she shuddered. Tears wet her cheeks. “What did you do to me?”
“Do? I didn’t do anything. You fainted.”
Eyes filled with distrust glared up at him. Without warning, her knee slammed into his groin. He collapsed on top of her, and she went still.
“Fuck! What’s wrong with you?”
“Please, don’t…hurt me,” she cried against his chest.
Straining to ignore the blinding pain in his crotch, Jake confined her beneath him. Somewhere in the depths of his mind, the name of her fear registered. Rape.
“Easy, now. Easy. Nothing bad is going to happen,” he said gently. He raised his body slightly so he could see her face. “Look at me, Ms. Reardon. Please.” Her eyes stayed tightly shut. “I’ll move once you understand that you’re safe.” He hesitated. “I won’t hurt you.”
Her eyes opened. Although brimming with tears, they shone with determination. “Get off me, Mr. Stone.”
His gaze unwavering, Jake pushed himself up and swung his feet onto the floor. “Can I get you anything?”
“If you would kindly give me some privacy for a few minutes.” She turned her face away. “Then, I’ll be leaving.”
“Okay. I’ll be downstairs.”
Jake pulled the bedroom doors shut as he left. He stood for a moment with his hands on the doorknobs. What the hell had just happened?
He slammed his fist into his other palm repeatedly as he hurried down the stairs and headed to the kitchen. His plan was at risk. How was he going to salvage this snafu?
He directed his anger inward. Yes, Angela Reardon had betrayed her country, but Jake was furious with himself for letting the Contractor convince him to take the contract to kill her. Earlier, sex had helped relieve what several days of self-loathing had done to his body. But the sources of the tension were still coiled inside him. Resentment at being coerced out of retirement. Anger at having chosen the immoral profession in the first place. And frustration at having to kill a woman.
The last reason was definitely not the least.
Standing in front of the security system console, Jake shook his head at the mess the morning had become. He wasn’t sure yet how to clean it up, but he knew the first step was to prevent Angela Reardon from leaving.
Ten minutes later Angela set the weighty decorator samples on the foyer floor. Her throat tight and her face still warm, she glanced around, but saw no signs of Jake Stone as she reached for the front door handle. Thank goodness. When she turned the ornate knob, a chime sounded somewhere in the house. But the door didn’t open. She twisted harder and yanked. Nothing happened except another chime. What’s going on?
“My bad,” a voice said from across the foyer behind her. “The security system is on.”
A lead weight fell in Angela’s stomach. She released the knob and turned warily to face Jake. “The security system locks the doors so you can’t get out?”
“It’s specially designed.”
“Specially designed? It’s probably a violation of several fire safety building codes.”
“You’re right. I confess. I wired it myself.”
“Why would anyone want to lock himself in or imprison his guests?” she asked, her voice becoming oddly high-pitched.
Jake chuckled. “My P.I. office is down that hall.” He pointed across the foyer. “I occasionally do interrogations here, and I must have control. You’d be surprised at the potential scenarios when I might want to prevent someone from leaving.”
“No, Ms. Reardon. You’re not my prisoner.” He smiled and held up two glasses. “I made us something to drink. I mix a mean Bloody Mary, and I figure we could both use one right about now.”
Angela swallowed hard. She wanted to escape and to never see this man again. No amount of decorating fees would compensate for the emotional distress she would suffer at having to face him after what had happened upstairs. The sooner she put the incident behind her and moved on, the better. Just another scar to add to the others she had suffered since the…
“It’s really nice outside. Why don’t we take our drinks out by the pool?” he coaxed.
“Thank you for the offer, Mr. Stone, but I want to leave. I’ll send you some referrals to other excellent interior decorators in San Diego County. Now, if you’ll unlock the door—”
“I don’t want anyone else.” He casually leaned against the wall, crossed his ankles. “You’re the best, or so I’ve read. I was looking forward to learning more about Angela Reardon’s design-your-own-heaven philosophy.”
A smile came uninvited to her lips. “You did your homework.”
“I’m a P.I., Ms. Reardon. Homework is a significant part of what I do for a living. The article about you in San Diego Woman Magazine was extremely complimentary.”
“Thank you. The editor was quite kind.”
“Please,” he said, raising the glasses. Serious gray eyes locked onto hers. “We got off to a rocky start this morning. I take full blame for being an ass.” A sheepish grin softened his face. “I’d like to start over.”
Angela studied the man. How odd—or cunning—for him to take responsibility. His actions had certainly been the trigger, but he had no reason to anticipate her violent reaction. No one would. Only a handful of people knew about her past. That was the way she wanted it, needed it.
She averted her eyes. Tension and embarrassment still swirled inside, but no terror. The weight in her stomach lightened. I can do this. Clinging to a slender thread of composure, she met his penetrating gaze with courage.
“Fine, Mr. Stone. The Bloody Mary…sounds delicious.” She bent to pick up the decorator samples.
“Why don’t you leave those things there? Let’s just talk.” He paused, and then added, “Mr. Stone lives in Chicago. I’m Jake.”