Chapter 1

Olivia

 

Seeing Cherise and Russel Harris together didn’t exactly do wonderful things for my mood or my sanity, but I didn’t have time to deal with their bullshit tonight. James needed me.

He was getting tired too easily these days.

An ache tried to settle in my throat, but I shoved it aside. I could cry and get maudlin and sad later, when I wasn’t dealing with a cutthroat bitch and her flying monkey.

Or witch…

I smirked, amusing myself as I pictured Cherise a lovely shade of green.

The smile faded, and fast, as she lifted a hand from her side.

“It’s time to be done with you, darling,” she said.

I recognized the gun. It was a Clarion CR12, similar to the Glock 19. It was too big for her hand, but she didn’t seem fazed by that fact.

“You know, if you want to get more involved in the tactical side of Clarion Arms, I can help. That pistol is too big for you.” I kept my voice neutral as I slowly lifted my eyes to hers. “We have smaller handguns. You even talked about how cute they were at the board meeting last year, remember?”

“Yes.” She flashed a toothy smile at me. “And you shot down the idea of creating a designer line.”

“Weapons aren’t toys,” I said flatly. “They don’t need to look like them.”

She waved what certainly wasn’t a toy at me. “Oh, never mind that. That’s far from my concern now, but I’ll get back to that idea sooner or later…once I’m in control.”

“You?” I fought the urge to laugh. “James would sooner leave Clarion in the hands of a gorilla than you. The gorilla has more sense.”

Tiny lines fanned out from her eyes, but the anger I’d hoped to incite didn’t rouse. Damn it. Sweat beaded along the back of my neck, slid down the inside of my dress.

“Do shut up, Olivia. You’ve been a pain in the ass since day one.”

“The feeling is mutual.” I heard noises and was vaguely aware that there were others in the small clearing near the center of the maze. But I didn’t dare look away from her – or the Clarion CR12. “You do realize that I’m not the real problem, right? James has named his son as the one who’ll take over, and the cops will look long and hard at everybody on the board if something happens to him.”

“Oh, something will.” She laughed brightly. “He’s going to jail for killing you, Olivia. He’s already gotten himself into so much trouble. That was considerate of him to sow the seeds there.”

“Killing…” I licked my lips, fought to keep my teeth from chattering. “You plan on killing me and framing him?”

The gun didn’t so much as tremble. “You are quite bright. We just need him to get here.”

“You’re insane. And you’re an idiot.” Terror had my heart pounding like a mad thing, but I struggled to stay in control. I had to think. I didn’t believe for a second that what she was saying would work, but personally, I was fond of life and knew better than to rely on hope as a strategy.

“We have witnesses, darling.”

Off to the side, I heard a low grunt, a noise. Too low for them to hear. Cherise didn’t look away from my face, but she did speak to Russel. “Where is he? We need him here for this to work.”

“I’ve already tried calling him several times. I texted him and said it was urgent – an emergency,” Russel said, his voice a near whine.

“Go get him,” Cherise hissed. “You need this as much as I do, remember?”

As he backed away, I shot a look at his face, but he was too busy staring at his feet. I sucked in a breath, swinging my gaze back to Cherise. If I screamed, would anybody hear?

The party was loud, and the house was too far away.

“Hillsworth,” Cherise said softly just as a twig snapped beside me.

A shadow separated itself from the hedges and came to stand in front of me.

The man was big, so big he all but blotted out the carefully placed lights that dotted the hedge maze.

The sight of the gun in Cherise’s hand had scared me, yes. Terrified me, even.

But the sight of this man did more than terrify me. His eyes were dead. Cold and dead. A few seconds ago, I’d been methodically thinking about what I needed to do to survive – and I hadn’t really even doubted it. I mean, Cherise trying to kill me? She was malicious enough, I didn’t question that. But she was also afraid of spiders and mice and blood. An assistant had cut a finger once, and she’d all but passed out.

I could handle somebody who got weak-kneed at the sight of blood.

This man probably finger-painted with it.

Everything in me screamed to back up and run, but common sense told me to be smart. You didn’t run from predators.

So even when he took a step closer, I didn’t let myself back up. I slowed my breathing and paid attention to everything. Watched. Listened. His muscles tensed just a fraction of a second before he moved.

I dropped, but it was only barely in time.

Kicking my shoes off would have saved a few seconds, but I hadn’t exactly come back here expecting to have somebody point a gun at my face or send a goon after me. Fortunately, I’d grown up living a life that prepared me for a lot of things, and I knew how to use everything to my advantage. A split second after I dropped, the shoes were off. I grabbed one of them and flipped it in my palm. As he bent to grab me, I drove the heel into his calf. Most shoe heels would have broken. My shoes were custom made and not just for looks.

James hadn’t just hired me to be his problem solver.

The first time he’d taken me to London, I’d gone as his assistant, and we’d been jumped in the parking garage. The policeman had stated in very cute, very crisp British tones that if I ever wanted a job, to just look him up. The two men had been on the ground, one moaning, his knee busted. The other had been red-faced and still struggling to breathe after I all but crushed his larynx.

Of course, my official title said nothing about the fact that I often acted as a bodyguard. All the extra training paid off, for now at least. I hit him with enough force to hurt before slamming my fist into his knee.

It buckled, and he toppled, swearing furiously.

I was still alive.

That was a good thing.

And I didn’t know how long that good thing would last.

The big bastard had a weapon of his own, and I knew he’d be faster, smarter than Cherise. I hadn’t broken his knee. He was already upright, and now he was pissed.

Slowly backing away from him, I weighed my options.

“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be,” the big guy said.

Hillsworth. She’d called him Hillsworth.

“Oh, I’m going to make it plenty hard.” They had no idea how hard I planned on making things.

“Would you just get her and shut her up?” Cherise demanded, her voice a harsh whisper.

Russel was looking around awkwardly, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think he looked guilty. Bastard. Son of a bitch. He should look guilty. He’d called me, told me to come here – set me up.

“It won’t work,” I said, lying through my teeth. “You need Adam here, right? Well, he headed out right as I was coming over here. Saw an old friend of his and they were going to go grab a drink or two. This…socializing thing isn’t his milieu.”

The man in front of me didn’t pay attention to a single word I said. Russel squawked though. “See? We need to just call this off. It won’t work. You heard her.”

“She’s lying,” Cherise said.

But I could feel her watching me, looking for some sign to assure herself that she was right. She wasn’t going to find one. I could lie far too well, even for my own comfort.

Lifting a shoulder, I said, “Apparently you didn’t see how uncomfortable he was. When he ran into his friend, he practically leaped at the chance to blow this joint.” For added effect, I muttered, “Asshole.”

That caught Cherise’s attention.

As I eased back a few more inches, Hillsworth took another step toward me. I was more than a little pleased to see he was limping.

“Hillsworth?” she asked, the question in her voice obvious.

“We’ll take her alive, wait for him. We can still make it work,” he said, a slow smile curling his lips. “I told you there might be a need to improvise. The price will go up.”

The dick was standing there talking about killing me the same way some people might discuss buying a car.

Swallowing, I backed up a bit more.

I was almost to the gap in the hedges. I knew this maze. I’d spent a lot of time in this garden.

I could run.

Almost there…

He lunged.

 

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