EXCERPT: NOTHING TO LOSE
The man’s plane landed at William P. Hobby Airport. Like any other businessman, he disembarked and headed with the seemingly endless throng of people toward ground transportation. Having no luggage other than his carry-on, he was standing in line for a taxi within minutes.
Innocuous looking, he blended into the mass of people as if he didn’t exist. If a thousand people were later asked if they had seen a slender man of medium height with short, brown hair and pleasant features, most would say no. A few might say yes and yet be unable to describe him. Blending in was part of his trade, and he was very good at his chosen profession.
When an overaggressive traveler grabbed the taxi meant for him, he did nothing but step back and wait for the next one. Attracting attention would be unwise. The rude man would never know that he came in close contact with Death today.
Finally procuring a cab, the man gave the name of a hotel in the city. Nothing particularly expensive—just one of the many hotels on the outer edges of the big metropolitan area where one wouldn’t be noticed.
After checking in, he followed a large family onto the elevator. All eyes were on the overexcited, squealing children. No one noticed the silent stranger in the corner.
Reaching his room on the third floor, he slid his key card into the slot and pushed open the door. A sniff of air brought a scowl to his bland features. He’d asked for a non-smoking room, and this one had definitely housed a smoker. A complaint or a room-change request would only bring unwanted attention and make him memorable. Shrugging philosophically, he set his bag on the luggage rack, withdrew his new, unused phone from his pocket, and punched in a number.
On the first ring, a male voice answered, “Yes?”
“I’m here,” the man said. Not waiting for a reply, he ended the call.
Most people would unpack their clothing or check the television guide. Others might take a quick look over the room service menu. He did none of those. His total focus was on the job. Once that was finished, he would leave and go about his business. He wouldn’t stay in the same hotel. Instead, he would head into the city and pay an exorbitant price for a one-night-only stay. Then he would return to his home and be someone else until another employment opportunity presented itself again.
Three minutes after making the call, a soft chime indicated he had a text message. Clicking on the message icon, he quickly took in the brief but significant information. Two targets. Both events were to look like random acts of violence—a specialty for him.
All relevant information gathered and memorized, he deleted the message, then efficiently and thoroughly demolished the phone. He would drop the decimated parts into a dumpster on the way to his first job.
After a quick check in the mirror to ensure his pleasant, nondescript appearance was still in place, he walked out the door with nothing more on his mind than to complete a successful business transaction—just like any other businessman.
Kennedy O’Connell stepped back to admire her work and released a contented sigh. Yes. Even though she’d painted only a quarter of a wall with one coat, she was almost sure this color was the right one.
“Oh holy hell, you changed your mind again.”
Grinning, she glanced over her shoulder at her husband. “Eighth time’s the charm.”
His arms wrapped around her and pulled her against his hard body. As he nuzzled her neck, she could feel his smile against her skin. Kennedy knew if she looked at his face, his eyes would be dancing with good humor. Thomas O’Connell was a patient, even-keeled man, but her indecisiveness about the color for the nursery had put him to the test.
Snuggling back into his arms, she asked, “So do you like this color better than the last one?”
Without raising his head, Thomas growled, “It’s perfect.”
She snorted softly. “That’s what you said about the first seven.”
“That’s because they were perfect, too. Anything you pick is going to look great.”
She appreciated his faith in her. Having grown up in various foster homes, her priorities had been getting enough food to fill her belly and staying out of trouble. Surviving her childhood hadn’t involved learning about colors, textures, and fabrics.
When she and Thomas had married, almost everything she owned was secondhand and ragged. Since then, she’d been learning little by little, mostly by experimenting, what she liked. She had delighted in setting up their home, creating a beautiful environment she and Thomas could enjoy together. Now that their first child was on the way, she wanted everything to be just right, so she had taken experimentation to a whole new level.
She was on winter break from her first year of law school. In her spare time, she freelanced as a researcher for several law firms. She had considered taking on some jobs to earn a little extra money while on break, but Thomas had encouraged her to take her time off seriously by doing nothing at all. Never one to be idle, she couldn’t stop herself from working on the nursery. This wasn’t dry contracts, torts, or mind-numbing procedure. This was relaxing and fun.
Thomas’s big hands covered her protruding belly and caressed. At just over twenty-two weeks, she was all baby. The weight she had gained—thirteen pounds so far—had gone straight to her stomach.
“How’s Sweet Pea doing today?”
Smiling at the nickname Thomas had taken to calling their baby, Kennedy covered his hands with her own. “Sweet Pea is doing wonderful.” She tilted her head to look up at him. “But you know, if it’s a boy, you cannot call him Sweet Pea, right?”
“It’s a girl,” he assured her. “As sweet and beautiful as her mother.”
“I hope you’re right, if only because everything I’ve bought so far is pink.”
“I’m right.” He kissed the nape of her neck. “So. No queasiness?”
“Nope. I think she’s decided to take the day off.”
Warm breath caressed her ear as Thomas gently bit her lobe. “I’d say that calls for a celebration.”
Heat licked up her spine. Morning sickness that lasted long past morning had put a damper on their lovemaking lately. When she wasn’t in the bathroom throwing up, she was concentrating on staying still to keep from getting sick. But today, for whatever reason, the baby had decided to give her a break.
Turning in his arms, she whispered against his mouth. “I’ve missed you.”
His mouth covered hers, and Kennedy gave herself up to the delicious and familiar taste of the man she adored. Two years of marriage had only increased her love for him.
He raised his head and dropped a quick kiss on her nose. “Think that’ll hold you till tonight?”
Her smile teasing, she winked at him. “Yes, but don’t blame me if I get started early.”
His gruff laughter was cut off abruptly as he kissed her once more. Before she could pull him in for a deeper connection, he backed away. “Save some for me.”
Already tingling in anticipation of the coming night, Kennedy watched him walk away, loving how his swagger denoted confidence without a hint of conceit.
Thomas stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder. “I’ll call you before I head home to see what you need.”
Blowing him a kiss in thanks, Kennedy turned back to her project, blissfully unaware that it would be the last time she would see her husband alive.
Detective Nick Gallagher slid into the front seat of his car, started the engine and flipped on his headlights. Damn, it was already dark. He pulled out of the parking lot and headed in the opposite direction of his apartment, pushing the vision of going home for a quick shower out of his mind. In fact, he’d be lucky to make his date on time. This was the first time today he’d had a few minutes to himself. This morning he’d been tied up in court, waiting to testify in a murder trial. The minute he’d walked out of the courtroom after his testimony, he’d been called in on a double homicide.
He took all of that in stride. He had played this dice when he’d chosen his career path. Sometimes, though, a little downtime to handle personal issues would have been nice.
With that thought in mind, he grabbed his cellphone and punched the speed dial for Thomas. His best friend was a detective in the Narcotics Division. Lately, the only way they’d communicated was through text messages and emails. Yesterday, Nick had gotten an oddly obscure text from him that had put his cop instincts on high alert.
Thomas answered on the first ring. “You forget something?”
“How’s that?” Nick asked.
Thomas chuckled. “Hey, Nick. Sorry. I was just talking to Kennedy. She’s been having some wild cravings lately, and I figured she’d thought of something else she wanted.”
“So you’re headed home for the night?”
“After I make a stop at Bailey’s grocery.”
“Corner of Kendrick and Mulberry.”
“That’s on the other side of town. Why so far?”
“I’m on a mango run. I was in the area last week and picked up some fruit at the store. Kennedy went crazy over the mangoes and asked me to pick up some more. I think she’s got some sort of special dessert in mind for tonight.”
Nick didn’t question his friend’s need to please his wife. He’d seen Thomas’s devotion to Kennedy firsthand…there was almost nothing he wouldn’t do for her. And Kennedy was the same way about her husband. If anyone had the perfect marriage, it was the O’Connells.
“Sounds like you guys have plans for the evening.”
“Yeah, something like that. Why? What’s up?”
“I thought we might meet later and talk about that text you sent me yesterday. You know…about the Slaters.”
The slight pause before Thomas answered told Nick that plans or not, his friend didn’t want to discuss the subject. “It’s nothing, really. I made a couple of calls, thinking I’d found something interesting, but nothing panned out. Forget about it.”
Thomas O’Connell was the finest man Nick knew, but he couldn’t lie for shit. Something was definitely going on. “What do you mean you made a couple of calls? To who?”
“No one…really. Just forget I mentioned anything, okay?”
“Look, I’ll be the first to admit there’s no way the Slaters are as squeaky clean as they pretend. But if you are right, they’ll screw up big-time one day and get what’s coming to them.”
“Yeah, I know that. Like I said, it was just an idea that didn’t pan out. I’m over it now. So who’s the hottie of the night?”
The less-than-smooth effort to change the subject made Nick even more suspicious. Letting him off the hook for the time being, he said, “Louisa something or other.”
“Where’d you meet this one?”
“Belden’s party last week.”
“Where’re you taking her before you take her to bed?”
Nick snorted his disgust. His reputation of being a lady’s man was mostly fictional. Yeah, he dated a lot of different women, because he enjoyed their company. Somehow, even Thomas was under the impression that it also meant he had a lot of sex.
“I don’t sleep with all of them.”
Thomas gave his own snort, this one of disbelief. “Yeah. Right.”
Knowing whatever protests he made would only be construed as modest, Nick decided to go back to their original discussion. “Seriously, let’s talk about the Slaters tomorrow. If you’ve got something on your mind, I want to hear about it. Want to meet for lunch at Barney’s?”
“Um…yeah…sure, lunch sounds good. But I promise there’s nothing to talk about. Gotta go. Catch you later.”
Nick cursed softly at the abrupt end to the call. Thomas was definitely keeping something from him. Tomorrow he’d get in his face and make him talk. Screwing around with the Slaters wasn’t a good career move. With their kind of influence, they could end a career with a phone call. On the other hand, if Thomas did have something significant on the family, then Nick wanted to know about it.
Mathias Slater and his clan were Texas royalty. Few people in America, much less Texas, hadn’t heard of the Slaters. They were one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the country with descendants dating back to the first American settlers. Nothing seemed to tarnish their good image. Even the arrest and conviction of the youngest Slater, Jonah, on a major drug-smuggling charge had done nothing more than elicit sympathy. Shit bounced off of them like they had some kind of protective shield.
Nick knew almost nothing personally about the family—just what he’d seen on the news or read in the paper. One thing he did know was they had major connections. Hell, last week he’d seen a photo of Mathias Slater shaking hands with the president. The family had the kind of influence that most people could only dream of having.
A few months back, Thomas had handled the investigation of Jonah Slater and had given Nick the lowdown. Slater had been caught red-handed with a boatload of illegal drugs. In fact, he’d looked so stinking guilty that Thomas had said he would have suspected the guy had been framed if he hadn’t been a Slater. According to Thomas, it’d taken almost no investigation or effort to put Jonah away. He was now serving a hefty sentence in Brownsville.
Mathias Slater had made the most of the publicity. He’d held a press conference, stating that he still loved his son and offered his full support. He’d even donated millions to a drug-rehab facility. Nick had caught the press conference on television and had seen more than a few people wipe away tears.
Thomas had described an incident the day Jonah Slater was sentenced. Said it had given him several sleepless nights. Jonah had been about to walk from the courtroom, his hands and ankles shackled, but he’d stopped in front of Thomas and said, “Hell of an investigation, O’Connell. Hope you didn’t break a nail.”
Nick agreed it was strange but had encouraged Thomas to let it go. Cryptic remarks from convicted criminals weren’t exactly unusual. And prisons were filled with criminals who swore they were innocent. Few freely admitted their guilt.
As Nick pulled in front of Louisa’s apartment complex, he glanced at the dashboard clock. Yeah, seven minutes late. Jerking the car door open, Nick strode up the sidewalk. Before he got to Louisa’s front door, she had it open for him. Long-legged, honey blond hair, full pouty lips, and exotic eyes. She looked exactly like her magazine photo that had been splashed all over the country last month. Many men would have given their eyeteeth to talk with a cover model much less date one. So why did he want to turn around and walk the other way? Since he already knew the answer to that, he kept moving forward.
Giving her one of his stock smiles in greeting, Nick listened to her chatter with half an ear as he led her to the car. Had she been this talkative last week?
Thankfully, the restaurant wasn’t far away. Within minutes of leaving her apartment, they were seated and had ordered their meal.
They were almost through with their appetizer when Nick had to stifle a giant yawn. For the past ten minutes, Louisa had droned on about her weekend in St. Moritz with some Hollywood celebrity. Taking a large bite of his ravioli so he wouldn’t have to respond verbally, he chewed, nodded, and did his best to put on an interested expression, wishing like hell he’d never made this date.
“And then Maurice said the funniest thing. He—”
The abrupt ringing of his cellphone was a welcome distraction. Holding his hand up to stop her chatter, Nick answered, “Gallagher.”
“Nick, it’s Lewis Grimes.”
Before he could wonder why the captain of the Narcotics Division was calling, the man continued, “There’s been a shooting.”
The fine hairs on the back of his neck rose. The instant he heard the victim’s name, he went to his feet. “I’ll be right there.”
He threw a wad of cash on the table. “I gotta go. That should pay for dinner and a cab home.”
Before she could open her mouth to answer, Nick was already running toward the door, his date forgotten. His mind screamed a denial, but Grimes’s stark words reverberated in his head, refusing to allow him to deny the truth. “Thomas O’Connell has been shot.”
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