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Forbidden passion, blackmail and murderous intent in the cold, glittering heart of Manhattan.
Against his better judgement, slick, pansexual hitman Frank Mancini falls for the sultry sister of his latest client. He is hiding a dark secret, and intends to seduce her before his past is revealed.
Tony Freemantle’s last wish is to seek vengeance on the half-brother he blames for his misfortunes. He’s never met him. He doesn’t even know what he looks like. All he knows is that he wants him dead.
Pagan Freemantle is the innocent woman unwillingly caught up in her sibling’s deadly plan.When she discovers she has to pay for the hit, her attempts to make a deal throws her headlong into a dangerous attraction with a man who is patently bad news.
And can she trust Richard Mason, the elusive millionaire half-brother who is just a seductive voice at the end of a telephone? When a road trip to California ends with shocking revelations, it seems she can trust no-one but herself.
They ended up in a dark, grotty bar on the Lower East Side. A doorman as big as a couch grunted a greeting and let them in without argument.
‘You come here often?’ Pagan asked dubiously as the internal door was opened for them by another huge man with a glossy bald black head.
Mancini did not reply but steered her towards the bar. The bartender immediately prepared two shot glasses with Jim Beam Black and gave them to them without a word. It seemed that Frank Mancini was not expected to pay for his drinks.
Pagan did not drink hard liquor very often but she wasn’t inclined to make an issue of it. Mancini’s admission bothered her. No-one had actually said those things to her before and she had no idea how to handle any of them.
The bartender nodded to the doorman who snapped his fingers at the occupants of a dark table in the corner of the room. They moved without protest as Mancini led her to the intimate seating area.
‘I get it,’ Pagan said as she sat as far away from him as she could. ‘This is you shaking your tail feathers a little, Frank? You’re a regular here. You can command the best table. You don’t have to pay for your drinks. What are you trying to prove? You’re a player? Is that it?’
‘Fuck you, Freemantle,’ he said mildly. The bartender came over with the bottle of bourbon and put it between them, together with some olives and grissini.
‘Get some of those wings and skins, will you, Jack? The lady is hungry.’
‘Coming up, sir.’
Pagan opened her mouth to protest, but the truth was, wings and skins sounded good. She just hoped the place had some form of kitchen hygiene.
‘So you say you want to buy me a drink then you take me to a place where you don’t have to pay. That’s a smooth move,’ she said, picking up a bread stick and waggling it at him.
He laughed for the first time. ‘Yeah, I guess. Did you like your birthday present?’
‘I did. I guess thanking you got lost under being pissed off. I love it but it doesn’t mean you can go through my underwear.’
‘It’ll take more than that, you mean?’
‘Something money can’t buy.’ She realised they were smiling at each other in the way two people did when all around them had faded into nothingness, leaving only the absolute reality of each other.
‘So I guess that brings me to my revised terms,’ he said.
‘Do you agree to them?’ He asked, when she did not speak.
‘I can get you the money for Monday,’ she said, trying to avoid sounding sullen.
‘And the other part of the agreement will present itself naturally, I’m sure. Not that I’m prepared to wait too long.’
She shifted in her seat. A kiss could mean anything, just as Moira had intimated.
‘I believe the terms have yet to be finalised,’ she said carefully. ‘It would be unwise for me to agree to something when I have no firm idea what is expected of me. That doesn’t make good business sense.’
He thought for a moment. ‘No, but I do have some parameters which may help.’
‘In what way?’
‘For a start, the kiss has to be on the mouth. No negotiation on that. And the length of the kiss should be no shorter than, say, thirty seconds. I am being generous,’ he added when she began to protest. ‘What I’m looking at is a possible long-term investment. At the moment I’m out of pocket, but if I can see potential, I’m more likely to take a risk. It’s a little like playing the futures market,’ he said with a deadpan expression.
A waitress came over with plates and cutlery. ‘Food’s just coming, folks.’
‘Thanks, Brenda.’ Mancini obviously knew everyone there, but immediately his attention was back on Pagan. ‘So those are my terms. Thirty seconds. And trust me, I can achieve a hell of a lot in thirty seconds, lady.’
She stared at him. ‘What if I refuse?’
‘Then I’ll sue your ass for breach of contract.’ He picked up his bourbon and smiled at her from behind the glass.
‘I didn’t sign any contract.’
‘Yeah, you did, by agreeing to be with me now.’
‘I didn’t have any choice, remember?’
‘You could walk out right now. I’m not stopping you.’
For a moment she was tempted to do just that, but cabs did not come to this part of town, and they both knew it. Bastard.
‘This is just a game to you, isn’t it?’
‘I’m enjoying myself, if that’s what you mean.’
‘I’m glad one of us is,’ she replied tartly.
When the food came, to her relief it looked and smelled appetising. The bartender refilled their glasses and left them alone.
‘Eat,’ Mancini ordered. He put two potato skins loaded with cheese and bacon on a plate and held it out to her, then began dissecting a chicken wing, taking all the meat off the bone before loading it on a potato skin and eating it.
She followed suit, and for a while they abandoned conversation just to enjoy their meal. Pagan had to admit it was probably the best skins and wings she had for a long time.
‘Have you told your brother the deal is off?’ Mancini sucked sauce off his fingers. Hell, he even did that elegantly. She tried hard not to watch him.
‘No.’ The truth was she did not want to tell him. The idea of him going elsewhere to get the job done sent shivers down her spine.
‘Good. If he goes to someone else then this is going to get very messy for you,’ Mancini said, echoing her thoughts.
‘Why should you care?’
He watched her steadily. ‘I’ve been in this city a long time, Ms. Freemantle. One thing I’ve learned is there’s always a scumbag with a gun ready to do something dumb for a few hundred bucks. Against my better judgment I’d rather that didn’t happen to you. You’re a nice person and you don’t deserve to be caught up in this kind of shit.’
‘Why thank you, Mr. Mancini,’ she said dryly. ‘Richard wanted to meet up. He invited us to the West Coast. For some reason he doesn’t want to meet in the city.’
He nodded. ‘Good. So why the face?’
‘I wasn’t aware I was wearing one.’ She resolved to be more careful in future. The man opposite didn’t miss a thing. ‘I’ve since upset him because I had assumed he was mentally deficient in some way. That was the line our parents always fed to us but if I apologise to him, maybe I can pull that back. Maybe, deep down, we’re the family he’s always longed for.’
‘A classic case of being careful what you wish for in Tony’s case,’ Mancini said sombrely.
‘Agreed, but I’m reasonable. Richard seemed eager to get to know me before…’ She tailed off, remembering the roses, the late night call and the teasing tone Richard had used before she made such a crashing error.
Okay, so the guy could be a prize creep. She chewed on a potato skin, considering the ramifications.
‘You have doubts about this guy?’
Damn him. He had done it again.
‘I don’t think we should underestimate him. If he’s wealthy, he’ll have resources. I just don’t know if I can trust him.’ All her half-formed fears were coalescing into one maelstrom of doubt. ‘Oh god, Frank, is this a massive shitshow waiting to happen?’
She felt his hand on hers. ‘You won’t know unless you meet him. Do you drive?’
She tugged her hand away. ‘A hell of a lot faster than you.’
‘Maybe now is time to think about a road trip. Let Tony take the jet. It’s his show, after all. You’re just the money in the background, remember?”
‘I’m Richard’s half-sister, and it’s me he’s been talking to,’ she reminded him sharply.
Mancini leaned forward to get her attention. ‘Look, I hope Richard Mason is a really nice guy who wants a family to enjoy Thanksgiving with, but what if he isn’t? What if he’s a bigger nightmare than Tony is?’
She heaved a sigh. ‘So what’s all this about a road trip?’
‘Keeping you safe. Leaving a minimal footprint. Use cash to pay for everything and keep to the speed limit. Most important, let Tony take the rap if shit starts to go down. And don’t give me that, “he’s my brother,” crap. He won’t do a thing to protect you. He’s only out for himself so with that in mind, I’ll be there in the background, watching out for you.’
She stared at him. ‘None of this makes any sense. You’ve just written off 50,000 dollars. Now you’re saying you’ll travel the other end of the country for a shit assignment that won’t come to anything as far as you’re concerned. What’s the catch?’
He motioned to the bartender, who poured another two shots into their glasses. She knew whatever he was about to say, she wasn’t going to like it one bit.
‘Let’s get one thing straight. I’m a lone wolf, Ms. Freemantle. If people want me to help them out, they have to find me, and I’m very fussy about the assignments I choose. When some scrawny little dipshit thinks he can put out a contract on a wealthy man, it piques my interest. When his hot as fuck sister then tries to renegotiate for me not to kill the mark, my interest raises exponentially. It isn’t about the money. You can keep your five thousand bucks. I’ll just take the kiss and I’ll make sure your loser of a brother doesn’t lay a finger on Richard Mason. Why? For the reason I stated before. Nice women like you don’t deserve to be caught up in this kind of shit.’
She took a while to assimilate all he had said. ‘So…you’re my bodyguard now?’
He tossed the bourbon down his throat and smiled at her. ‘I’m your guardian angel.’
She bit her lip, trying not to laugh. He could be called a lot of things, but angelic wasn’t the first word she had in mind.
‘I’m not sure Richard will appreciate me turning down his generous offer.’
‘You’re not turning it down. You’re subliminally saying you’re not swayed by the trappings of wealth and you’re an independent woman. He’d have to be a real asshole not to be impressed by that.’
She bit back a smile. ‘Flatterer. There’s one problem. I don’t have a car.’
‘I’ll sort it. All you need to do is massage Mason’s ego and get your loser brother on that jet.’
‘That isn’t going to take much. Given the choice of spending five days in a car with me or drinking champagne in luxury, I know which he would choose.’
Mancini rested back in his chair, regarding her carefully.
‘If you want me to waste the fucker I’d fully understand, but it would cost you a hell of a lot more than just a kiss.’
‘How much?’ The question was out before she could stop it. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean that.’
‘Yeah, you did. I’d willingly ice that fuckhead for free, but if you insist on paying, I’d say a week with you on a Caribbean island. Access all areas.’
She didn’t bother asking him what he was hoping to have access to. It was written all over his face.
‘I’ll take a rain check,’ she murmured.
The remains of their meal was cleared away and loud rock music began to play. A group of men gathered around a small stage where a single white spotlight lit up a gleaming chrome pole. A cheer went up as a scantily-clad woman walked on and began draping herself around it. Mancini gave her a cursory glance and turned back to Pagan.
‘Time to go.’
He drove them back towards Chinatown, but emergency road-works surrounding a burst water pipe thwarted them from getting close to Mott Street.
‘It’s okay, I can walk from here.’ She wanted to and escape the inevitable awkwardness which accompanied the end of a late night with a strange man.
‘It isn’t safe.’ He parked the Cadillac outside a disused lock-up garage. When she scrambled out of the car, he followed and took her arm, steering her down a narrow alley filled with dumpsters and overflowing trash bags.
‘I’m fine, Frank. I’ll get a cab.’ She tried to squirm away from him.
‘Yeah, right. Guardian angel, remember?’ There were no other vehicles, yellow or otherwise, in sight. The alley looked dark and threatening, with only a sliver of sodium lighting at the other end denoting the long, broad stretch of Broadway. When she stalled and refused to move, he sighed and drew his gun.
‘Do you feel safer now?’
‘Strangely, I really don’t.’ The slice of light at the end of the alley beckoned.
‘Relax. I know these streets well. You have nothing to fear from them.’
‘Fine, but what about from you?’
He didn’t reply. The sound of shuffling and bags being raided kept her on high alert. They were halfway down when he stopped.
‘What is it?’ She looked nervously around her.
He did not answer but led her to the side of the alley. She looked around at the dimly lit fire escapes and dark doorways. There was no-one else to be seen.
‘I think it’s about time you paid your debt,’ he said quietly.
‘Right now?’ Her voice was a harsh whisper.
‘Why not? You said yourself you didn’t want to be seen with me in the middle of the street.’
‘Yes, but …’ She knew it would have to be faced eventually. Maybe she was hoping for somewhere … what? More romantic? It was a business arrangement, nothing more, with a man who seemed to enjoy making veiled threats.
Guardian angel, my ass.
‘Fine,’ she said crossly. ‘But don’t think I won’t be timing it.’