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Emma Holsten's ex-husband stole five hundred million dollars and a nuclear weapon from a criminal organization. Without telling Emma, her ex hid a clue to the money and nuke's location with her. Then he was murdered. Now someone is trying to kill her. Rollin Hanson, a mercenary bad boy, and Burke Cherlenko, a suave crime lord, offer to protect her and help her find the missing money and weapon. While she's attracted to both—and Rollin seems the best of the two—she can't trust either. Emma must determine which man to trust, find the money and the nuke, before she is murdered.



Chapter One

“Dead people don’t shop,” Emma argued into her cell phone, trying to sound reasonable when all she wanted to do was scream at the Franklin Mint service rep. She pulled into the narrow alley behind her antique store and drove slowly by the overflowing dumpster and three sleeping homeless guys.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but our records show that the order for the Faberge Star Wars Jedi Knight Victory Egg was placed on July 26th by a Mrs. Dolly Holsten.”

Emma gritted her teeth and forced her rabid emotions to quiet. “And I’m telling you my mother was dead on the 26th. And she was dead for seven months before that. I know, I buried her.” She slammed on the brakes and her Prius jerked to a stop in her tiny parking spot, jammed between a dingy brick wall and a delivery truck covered in graffiti.

“I’m very sorry for your loss. But in order to cancel this charge, I’ll need proof she is deceased.”

Her mind went red with rage and tears blurred her vision. “Well, how about if I dig her up and ship her body to your office?” Emma snapped and hung up the phone with sharp flick of her wrist. Throwing her cell into her purse, she took a deep breath. “Good one, Emma, take out all your frustrations on a sales rep...Christ, I’m losing it.” Guilt tweaked her gut. “I should call back and apologize.”

Her cell phone wolf whistled at her. She grabbed it and checked the number. Her sister’s nurse. Her back and stomach tensed so hard, they hurt. Her entire body geared for action. “Mary? What’s going on? How’s Lizzie?”

“I’m in a store with her and can’t get her to leave.”

Emma clutched the phone harder, her mind reeling. “What?”

Mary made an exasperated noise. “We were driving back from the doctor, she made me stop at Safeway and help her into the store and now she won’t leave. She keeps going up and down the aisles and pulling stuff off the shelves. I don’t know what to do.”

Emma’s tenuous hold on reality almost snapped. Somehow, she dug down deep and found some reserves. “Christ. Here, let me talk to her,” she said, rubbing her forehead and steeling herself.

“Lizzie! Lizzie!” Mary said urgently, her voice further away from the phone. “It’s your sister, Emma, here.”

Muffled sounds of the cell being handled came over the receiver, then Lizzie’s breathing. “ Um. Face! Need face!”

Emma’s mind went dark and her interior burned with frustration. All she wanted to do was take care of her sister and keep her calm, but Lizzie made her job nearly impossible. Her left-brain stroke had wiped out her speech center so thoroughly, she couldn’t even mime what she wanted. But that didn’t stop her constant and adamant demands. It was like taking care of a giant, sick baby. “Calm down, Lizzie. Look, go home.”

“No! Face! Um...face!”

“Here, give me that,” Mary said. “I’m sorry. I’ll get her out of here. I thought maybe you were close by and could stop and help me.”

“No, I wanted to get to San Francisco early today, I just parked behind the store.” Emma rolled her shoulders to loosen them.

“Oh. I’m sorry. Don’t worry. I’ll get her home. Oh, and happy birthday.”

Emma grunted.

“Your birthday’s September twelfth, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Mary.”

“What do you want for your birthday?”

“All I want is Lizzie to get better. I’ll talk to you later.” Emma closed the phone and held her head. Grief tore at her belly. The Lizzie she’d known was gone. She missed her more than she thought possible. Not only had she lost her only family, it ripped her apart to see her amazing, accomplished sister so damaged. Horrifying.

Emma wished she were stronger. She’d never been this close to the edge. If one more bad thing happened, she’d wind up in an asylum.

She got out of the car and locked it behind her. Taking a furtive glance at the sleeping homeless guys, she hustled to her back door, unlocked the five deadbolts and slipped inside her tiny antique shop. She relocked the deadbolts before turning to disable the alarm.

Somehow, just stepping inside her store centered her. This was a realm she could handle. Thank God there was one place where she had control.

On her way to the front of the store, a musky smell met her when she stepped by the 18th century German curio cabinet. She stopped and sniffed the air. Masculine. Cologne? No. Not quite. Hints of patchouli. She did a quick check around the store. No sign of Jerry. Nothing unusual. She’d unpacked a pair of old Scottish candlesticks the day before with stubs of stinky candles left inside. Probably that.

A half an hour later, the store open, Emma stood behind the glass U-shaped display unit that served as her counter, ready for the day to start.

“It’s my birthday, so it’s going to be a good day,” she announced to her empty store and the Universe. “I see people coming in here, buying expensive stuff. Hopefully that stupid Polar bear—no self-recriminations, Emma. We’re being positive now. So let’s ask for what we want. A hot rich guy to come in here, buy everything, fall in love with me and help me take care of my sister.” She chuckled. At least she still had her sense of humor.

The bell on the back of the front door announced there were customers. She looked up to greet them.

Four men oozed into her shop like an oily malevolent fog. Their faces shadowed by the hazy morning sunlight coming through the window behind them, they fanned out, each one dominating an area, crowding her tiny store. One by one, the fluorescents illuminated their hard, fortyish faces. Three dark-haired guys and a bald one. Dressed in black, they surveyed Emma and her wares like they owned the lot.

Her skin prickled, her body went cold and adrenaline jacked her system. Definitely not customers and not the sort of men she’d ordered. Her heart thumped hard against her ribs and she took a step toward her baseball bat.

Careful not to show any fear, she smiled at the group. “Good morning, gentlemen, how can I help you today?” Damn it, she should have kept the gun. Where the hell was Jerry? While useless, at least he would be another body in the shop. She took another step toward her bat.

Baldy smiled, eying her in a proprietary way. All the hair on the back of her neck and arms stood up. Sweat broke out on her forehead. About six foot, he had dark, even features—technically pretty hot—but his mahogany gaze was ice cold.

She fought a shiver.

He walked straight up to the counter. “You’re in my store.”

She took a step back. “Excuse me?”

A half-smile played on his full sensual lips. “I suppose I should start with some pleasantries, but I’m really not in the mood. So I’ll be blunt. Your scumbag partner Jerry owes me five hundred thousand dollars. Last night, after I had him beaten, I discovered he doesn’t have five hundred thousand dollars. Outside of 2,476 dollars and 97 cents at the San Francisco Credit Union, the only other thing he owns is this store.”

Emma blinked. “He owns half. And only because my dead ex-husband lost it to him in a poker game.”

“Now I own the whole thing. Unless you think it’s a good idea to fight me.” He withdrew some papers from an inner pocket of his jacket, unfolded them and slapped them onto the counter. With a menacing darkness in his eyes, he pushed them over to her. “Sign these.”

She stared at the man, unable to make the leap to comprehension. As they locked gazes, his words penetrated her brain. A high-pitched whine filled her head and he suddenly seemed far away. This wasn’t real. She must be hallucinating. She was so stressed out she was having waking nightmares.

Baldy’s henchmen took up defensive positions behind their boss.

Baldy was a conqueror. Clearly. The power in his dark brown gaze, the way he held his broad shoulders, the simple way he told her he’d had her partner beaten, all of it, the man was a king. An underworld king.

After a long pause where Baldy’s intense gaze never left hers, he said, “Sign them and you may leave.” He turned to his men. “Gather whatever you can to give to Banana and get the paperwork into file boxes. We’ll burn the place and collect the insurance.” He turned back to her. “Before you go? I’ll need your passwords for the computer. I’ll send a man around to collect whatever else pertains to the store at your home. Checkbooks, petty cash, all of it.”

This was real. This was really happening. Her dead ex-husband’s criminal world had finally claimed hers in its entirety.

Wild images flew at her. Lizzie lying in that horror movie of a nursing home in her own filth. The house for sale. Her car repossessed.

A thermonuclear bomb of fury exploded inside her. A deafening pounding pulsed in her ears as fuzzy images of the men whirled in front of her. A voice erupted from the depths of her gut like she’d summoned a demon from the fires of hell. “No! You will not do this to me!”

She blasted Baldy back three feet and made his men reach for their weapons.

“The bullshit stops here and now!” she roared, pounding her fist on the glass-topped display case, making the rare English teapots inside rattle. “You will not take away my only way to care for my stroke-victim sister, you will not leave me destitute and penniless, you will not cause me to lose what little I have left of my mind! You will get the hell out of here or I’ll jump over this counter and kill you all with my bare hands!”

Baldy didn’t react. He merely stood there, his arms crossed over his broad chest, watching her as if she were a fascinating TV show. Taking his cue, his bodyguards relaxed and put away their guns.

She glowered at him, her entire body shaking. “No way am I going to let some evil overlord of the underworld bastard come in here and take my store from me!” She pointed at the door. “You turn your ass around and you get out! I’m done taking shit from abusive men! Done! Burnt, spent, crispy. Get out!”

Baldy continued to stare at her with that detached, yet interested gaze.

It finally hit her. She had no power here. She’d lost. Totally utterly lost. She collapsed on her tall stool. “Right. I’ll just kill you all with my bare hands,” she said in small and removed voice. “This is so bad.” Suddenly, she started laughing. “I mean, it couldn’t get any worse, could it? Look at you, you’re a bloody criminal overlord.”

Belly laughs ripped through her and tears streamed down her face. Gasping for breath, she laughed until her sides hurt. “Oh, I’m dead. So dead.”

Something clicked. Death. Here was her way out. These guys would shoot her and her life insurance would take care of Lizzie. Her sister would never have to go back to that state institution. A weird, peaceful calm came over her. “Dead. Wow. Does that sound good,” she heard herself whisper. “Did I just say that aloud?” She laughed again. “How dumb am I? How about I grab a gun and shoot myself with it? Christ.” She held her head and groaned.

Baldy studied her as if she were an interesting bug in a laboratory. Without taking his eyes from hers, he said, “You’re cute. And insane. Just my type. Boys, we’re leaving.” He picked up the papers from the counter and slipped them back in his pocket. A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth and his gaze shifted. He took time to appraise her body, his eyes resting on her breasts for a good long moment.

She suppressed a shudder.

His dark gaze snapped back to hers, the coldness returned. He pointed a finger at her. “You owe me.”

And with that, he turned and walked out the door, his men on his heels.

Emma didn’t move. Did that just happen?

She waited for him to return. A couple minutes passed. She stared at the door. Nothing. No one.

A loud squeaking came from behind her, terrifying her. She yelped and swung around.

A man was extricating himself from the broom closet in the corner of the store next to the twelve-foot-tall stuffed Polar bear.

Anger ignited her insides like a match lighting a tank of gasoline. Had the world suddenly gone crazy? Was there a sign outside her shop that read: Woman Seeking Attackers, Apply Within?

She grabbed the baseball bat and got a good hold on it. She wished she could call the police but the last time she did that, the stupid cops tried to pin her ex-husband’s murder on her.

Mystery Man fought the closet door, pushing hard to get it over the old warped floorboards.

She got more and more infuriated. This was it. She was going to kill this guy.
He finally opened it wide enough, stepped out and gave a satisfied sigh. He had neck length dark hair graying at the temples, and a very tanned, distinctive face. Hooked nose, strong chin, carved cheekbones and a penetrating dark, almost black gaze. Maybe six feet tall with a wiry build, he wore a black leather jacket and dark jeans.

He sent her a radiant smile revealing perfect white teeth. “Happy birthday,” he said cordially.

“Get the fuck out of my store now or I will beat you to death,” she growled.

He eyed the bat, but didn’t seem afraid of her. “Emma, don’t worry. I’m here to help you, not hurt you.”

She snorted. “Oh, right. That’s how I met all my friends, they broke into my house and then we partied.” She seared him with a glare. “Get out or I’ll call the police.”

He stood his ground and chuckled. “Right. And Detective McCoy would rush right over here to help you, wouldn’t he?”

A chill came over her. She took a step back. How did he know the name of the detective who’d been persecuting her? “Who the hell are you?”

He sauntered over a bit closer, but stayed out of bat range. “An ally.” He shot her another grin. “I’m here to save you, believe it or not. Because you, my dear, are in more trouble than you can possibly imagine. I can help you. And maybe you can help me. He likes you. That’s good. And very, very bad. But useful. Let me buy you a birthday brunch.”

That masculine smell! As the man neared her, it was clear the scent belonged to him.

She studied him. This guy had a different energy than Baldy. Not a conqueror, but definitely a soldier or detective or something. For some reason, he didn’t frighten her. He didn’t have the same coldness behind his eyes. Still, he was playing with Baldy and therefore dangerous.

She held up her bat. “Get out.” Her eyelid twitched. She tucked the bat under her arm and held the lid closed to make it stop, her stomach tight with frustration. “Quick before I go all nuclear on your ass.”

He leaned on the counter. He was very comfortable in his own skin and about ten years older than she. Kinda hot on second look. Almost familiar in a way.

“Saved your hide, that temper of yours,” he drawled, flashing her a winning smile.

“Save it, Mr. Charming, I’m immune.” Even though there was something she instantly liked about the guy. Which made her instantly dislike him, too.

He didn’t even react. “Sorry to hear about your sister. Tough break. She looks better though, since you got her out of that nursing home.”

Her body went rigid and her jaw set. Gripping the bat more tightly, she held it high, walked around her counter and stopped within a few feet of him. “You stay away from my sister. Leave now or I bash you to death,” she bit out. “I swear I will.”

His smile faded, revealing a glimpse of a very different person underneath. Not cold like Baldy, but still a calculating player. She had something he wanted. And he wanted it badly.

His gaze darting between the bat and her, he held himself more defensively, hands at the ready in case she went for him. “I wouldn’t dream of hurting Lizzie, Emma. I’m here for you and believe me, you need me.”

Good move. Open, direct hook. “Doubtful.”

“I didn’t have to reveal myself, you know. I could have gotten out of here without you knowing it. The reason I’m talking to you right now is because your safety depends on it. If you haven’t already figured it out, you’re in danger. From that guy and a bunch of others. You have information certain people want. Which is why he didn’t kill you.”

The news almost sent her over the edge, but she held on. She’d learned long ago not to trust strangers. Especially strangers associated with her ex. “What information?”

“Information your husband died trying to protect.”

“Adam? He wasn’t my husband, I’d prefer if you didn’t refer to him as such.”

“He wasn’t?”

“He died two days before the divorce was final. And he was an idiot. You must have got your story wrong. The only person he’d ever die trying to protect was himself. But I do have one question. Which one of you jerks tried to pin his murder on me?”

He held her gaze steady. Strength radiated from the depths of his dark brown eyes. And confidence. “It wasn’t me. And I don’t recommend trying to find out. That information will get you killed. Well, faster than they’re gonna kill you, anyway.”

Talk about overplaying his hand. “Stop trying to manipulate me and get out.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Bullshit. Get out.”

“All I ask is ten more minutes of your time.”

“I said, get out!” She advanced on him and took a swing.

He jumped back out of the way, his eyes dilated. “Okay, okay. I’m going.” His expression went neutral and he studied her. Ran his tongue along the inside of his cheek. “You are cute. And insane. Just my type, too.” He rolled his eyes. “Hanson,” he said to himself, “we need to have a talk.” He reached into his jacket pocket, withdrew a card and put it on the floor in front of him, all the while keeping an eye on her bat. “Day or night.” He backed up to the door and opened it. “After ten in the morning is better. Before eight at night. Need my beauty sleep.”

He took a step through the door, then stopped and swung back to her. “Oh, yeah. Just because I came out of the closet in San Francisco,” he said, pointing to the broom closet, “doesn’t mean I’m gay.” He laughed heartily and stepped through the door. “Heh, closet, good one.” Holding the door open, he paused. “Don’t wait too long to call me, Emma,” he called out over his shoulder. “I hate to see nice people get hurt.” He left, walked past the front window and gave her one last glance. With a smile and a wave, he disappeared.

Emma dropped the bat, raced to the door and locked it. She caught herself and snorted at the futility of the action. Locks worked great with Closet Man, hadn’t they? Baldy wouldn’t have a problem with them, either. Even with all those locks and her alarm, the place was as porous as Swiss cheese and as easy to break into as a kid’s piggy bank. Great.

But what did they want? What information? What the hell was Adam killed for?
She hadn’t seen Adam for the last six months of his life. Not ever since he moved in with the toddler/stripper.

The longhaired guy seemed sincere. Which meant he was just a really good liar. A thug like Baldy.

She grabbed the card and read it. “Rollin Hanson and a number. Nothing. No occupation, just a name and a number. So informative!” She threw the card down onto the counter and paced over to an English suit of armor. “Adam’s dead, damn it!” she railed at the five-foot-tall antique. “When will that asshole stop affecting me? How much more crap am I supposed to take?”

She stomped over to her cash register to close it out. Universe had sent her a clear message: Close the shop. Go drink alcohol.

She opened the drawer. Jerry’s key fob sat near the change.

Emma pictured him unconscious and bleeding. Shouldn’t she be more upset by the thought? She felt strangely numb. On some level, perhaps even gleeful. Drunk jerk. If he wasn’t trying to bully her into walking away from the store, he was driving away the customers. Another one of Adam’s gifts that kept on giving.

Of course, the last time she’d seen Jerry, he’d pushed her too far. Emma smiled at the memory. He’d learned a very important lesson that day about her limits.

The only bad part of Jerry’s karma was Baldy. Clearly a creep of the worst kind.

You owe me. She did a full-body shudder.

* * * * *

Rollin walked down Valencia Street, scanning for Cherlenko’s bald head. A bracing foggy wind bit through his open jacket and chilled his sweaty body. Closet had been like a sauna. He shivered and zipped up his leather coat, continuing his search.

He thought of Emma swinging that bat at him and smiled. Hoo boy, what a woman.

Artsy white yuppies sat together at an outdoor café; a lone Mexican lady pushed a grocery cart down the sidewalk; a group of gay men chatted in front of a clothing store. No Cherlenko. He checked the parked cars, looking for Cherlenko’s silver Mercedes SUV.

Over his Bluetooth, Bobby said, “He’s gone, just drove away.”

Rollin stopped at the street corner and waited for the red light. “Damn it, no more cheap batteries for the transmitters. And next time, you change them out, you would have fit better in that dumb closet.”

“I told you not to buy those,” Bobby said through a mouthful of food. Sounds of chewing came over the com. The man never stopped eating and was skinny as a supermodel. Rollin figured by the time he hit twenty-five he’d fatten up, but Bobby was just as thin as he’d been at twelve years old when Rollin found him in that dingy Bangkok alleyway. Amazing metabolism. “So did you hear that? Isn’t Jerry in Vegas?”

“Maybe he got back without us knowing it.”

Two men flanked Rollin. His heart stilled and his body went hard. He had twenty ways to take them down if they attacked. Casually, he glanced at them. A tall skinny Goth twenty-something in guyliner and a gay bodybuilder whose waxed chest was on display through his open collared shirt. Rollin’s defensive posture broke and he relaxed.

The light turned green. Crossing the street, he said, “Check on Jerry. I think Cherlenko lied about him. Makes no sense that Jerry would be taken out of the picture this soon. Not until Cherlenko knows for sure that he can’t help him find the money. I think Jerry got Cherlenko to bully Emma out of the store in exchange for information. And I think Cherlenko just figured out what we did, that Emma’s the key to the money that Adam stole, not Jerry.”

“Cherlenko’s timing worked out perfect for us,” Bobby said, slurping his drink. “We couldn’t have planned that better.”

Rollin rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, poor woman. I don’t feel too good about this one.”

“Now don’t go soft on me.”

“For her?” Rollin said with a chuckle. “Uh...I’m goin’ the opposite.”

Bobby broke into a mild version of his distinctive donkey laugh. “Why do you always go for the crazy ones?”

“No idea. With this one, aside from the fact that she’s hella cute, it’s probably the sister thing. I’m a sucker for family loyalty. And she’s not really crazy. She had her shit together before she married that idiot Adam Ramsay.”

“I hope she can lead us to that money. What a sweet paycheck.”

Rollin walked past a trio of twenty-something white kids in pork pie hats. He stopped to check the street for traffic so he could cross. Super heavy. He kept moving. “She knew more about Adam than anyone else I’ve found. All his family’s gone. And even though I tore her house apart, I still think the money could be there. Or maybe a clue to where he put it.”

“I don’t know. You combed that place pretty good and so did Cherlenko.”

“Yeah, but I’ll bet Emma’s got some idea of where Adam might have hidden the cash.”

Sounds of chewing, then a large swallow. “What about Adam’s new girlfriend, Jennifer? I know you checked her out, but didn’t Adam say ‘Jenn’s goofy song’ was where the money was hidden? Weren’t those Adam’s last words?”

Rollin’s mind clouded with darkness and guilt tweaked his gut. He should have never handed Adam over to Cherlenko. If Adam hadn’t been such an asshole that day, he might not have. “Yeah, but Adam would have said anything at that point. Let’s see what I can get out of Emma. All I gotta do is pull out some of the ol’ Hanson Magic.”

Bobby snorted. “Here we go.”

Emma’s sweet face came to mind. Her large green eyes, short dark hair, amazing jaw line, cute pert nose and those full sensuous lips. Followed by her astonishingly hot body. Smokin’.

Finally, a break in the traffic. “Hey, I can dream, can’t I?” Rollin ran out behind a Porsche and crossed the street. “Besides, she may not live long enough to date.” He walked up behind a large Comcast van.

“Wait,” Bobby said.

A group of people came out of a nearby Italian restaurant and clustered near him on the sidewalk. Rollin turned toward the street so his conversation wouldn’t be overheard. “But damn, Cherlenko’s gotten even creepier and more delusional since I saw him last. I don’t like the way he looked at her. I know that look. And no good has ever come from it.”

“Last thing Emma wants is a man. She’s said that about a million times to her friends this week alone.”

Rollin blew some air through his lips. “Cherlenko’s got some weird power over women. He even got that CIA ice queen to flop on her back.”

“You’re clear.”

Rollin gave a quick check around. The crowd had dispersed. “Still, I think I’d better try for this one, just to protect her from Cherlenko.” He opened the back door of the Comcast van. The stench of salami assaulted his nostrils. “Jeez, what the hell are you eating in here?” he asked, climbing inside their mobile command center. He shut the door behind him and clicked off his earpiece.

Sitting in front of a bank of surveillance equipment wearing headphones, Bobby laughed, his dark eyes crinkling with amusement. He held up the rest of a sub. “Anchovy and peanut butter surprise,” he joked. He always threatened to eat the most disgusting combinations of food while they did surveillance together in the van.

“You’re sick.”

As Rollin squeezed by him on the way to the front, Bobby turned and breathed at him with an impish grin, engulfing him in a toxic cloud of salami, onions and mustard.

Wincing, Rollin waved his hand in front of his face. “Jesus, that’s terrible.”

He opened the small door to the front cab and started to go through it. At the last second, he punched Bobby in the shoulder and dove into the cab. A light touch grazed his back from Bobby’s return jab, but no solid contact. Rollin turned and sent him a triumphant grin.

“Getting slow, old man,” Bobby said with a smirk. “I almost got you.”

“Respect your elders, kid.”

“Ha, you’re the only elder I had who didn’t beat me.”

Rollin snapped his fingers. “I knew I forgot somethin’. Should have beaten you when you were young. Blew it.”

“Sure did.” Bobby flashed him a huge, food-filled grin.

Rollin started up the engine. Damn it, the more he watched Emma and listened to her, the more he liked her. Unexpected.

He sighed. He hated using people. Especially nice people.

“Oh, well, all’s fair in love and when money is involved,” he mumbled under his breath. “Especially five hundred million dollars.”

* * * * *

Burke Cherlenko sat back in his Mercedes-Benz SUV and smiled. What a spitfire. The sparks from Emma’s flashing green eyes had sent an electric shock straight to his cock. He loved the way her red lips curled lusciously with anger and the way she bared her straight white teeth at him. Delicious creature.

Withdrawing his cell from his jacket pocket, he punched in a number. “Dubois? I need everything on an Emma Holsten Ramsay. Everything she’s done since she was born. I want to know her spending habits, eating habits, education, friends, every boyfriend and husband, things no one else knows about her. All of it. As soon as possible. A bonus if I get it tonight. Thanks.” He hung up and set the phone on the seat.

Emma would look so good naked and underneath him.

He took a sip of his espresso. “David? Let’s stop by Burberry on the way home. Their fall line came in.”

“You got it, boss.” His driver signaled for a right.

Emma had surprised him from the onset. Number one, from the pictures on the walls of her home and by the way Jerry described her, Cherlenko expected a dowdy middle-aged woman with grey hair and a permanent scowl. He must have mistaken Emma’s mother for her. The only thing he’d been right about was the scowl, but he’d never seen a lovelier one. Creased in nearly flawless white skin, even her frown made her beautiful.

His biggest judgment in error was associating her with Adam. He figured anyone who married that parasitic imbecile had to be one too. As soon as she opened her mouth, he’d realized his mistake. Emma was sharp as a razor. And gutsy.

Sunlight broke through the fog and streamed in through his window. He pulled out his Gucci sunglasses and slipped them on.

Surprisingly, she had taste, too. She dressed simply, but very chic.

Such a contrast to that horrid décor of her house. He couldn’t decide whether it was the bathroom covered in Pez dispensers or the collection of Disneyana that sealed his opinion. Or her newly started collection of tin Japanese space toys.

While she also displayed English antiques on her shelves and Egyptian artwork, the woman was clearly a bit of a nut.

Still, she had a power about her. A deep, rock solid power.

Titillating. Arousing. And an enticing challenge.

His cell phone rang. Jerry. Right on time.

“Well? How’d she take it? Did she cry?” Jerry sounded like he was practically salivating.

Rage itched at Cherlenko’s spine and quickly took over his gut.

Interesting reaction. Protective of her already.

“No, she laughed,” Cherlenko replied. “Fascinating woman, actually.”

“Laughed? So is she out? When you gonna burn the place? Oh, yeah, I got an idea I’m following up about Adam. Could be the big payoff, my man.”

Disgust and revulsion washed through him. While he deplored killing, he’d make an exception in Jerry’s case. Once he got what he wanted out of him. More than likely Jerry was lying about his “idea”. His time was almost up.

“Great,” Cherlenko said with little enthusiasm.

“I’m on your team, man. So what about my store?”

Emma was a much more promising lead. Not to mention much more fun to court. She might even know the location of the weapon.

“Yes, about the antique store, that didn’t work out as planned,” Cherlenko said. “I’ve decided you’re going to walk away from it.”

“What do you mean, you decided? That’s my store!”

“Now your share is mine. Don’t worry, I’ll compensate you.” Right before I kill you.

“What if I don’t want to be bought out? I want her to suffer! That bitch hit me with my own gun, then kicked me in the balls in front of a bunch of people! Hey, we were partners in this and you may think you’re all high and mighty, but I’m gonna tell you a thing or two, man...”

While Jerry ranted, Cherlenko took out his Blackberry and typed in a one-word command.

“...yeah, so you’d better—hey,” Jerry exclaimed. “What the hell are you doing, man, breaking into my pad? Cherlenko, what the fuck is Banana doing here? Don’t! Put that down! That’s an antique! Emma paid a lot for that!”

A crashing sound came over the receiver followed closely by Jerry’s scream of pain.

Cherlenko laughed and clicked off the Blackberry. Idiot.

He pictured Emma beating up Jerry and a charge went through his dick. What a wild girl. She was going to be so much fun. Fun to play with, fun to tease, fun to seduce. He’d bet she’d be outrageous in bed. All teeth and nails. He couldn’t wait. That beautiful mouth twisted in tortured sexual agony. Her white ripe breasts in his hands. Diving between her delicious thighs. His cock got even harder.

Everything was coming together perfectly. The biggest deal of his life plus a bonus playmate.

He smiled.

I’m King of the World, ma.

With the weapon, the girl and the money, he would be.

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