Authors: Wendy Byrne
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HARD TO STOP
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Copyright © 2015 by Wendy Byrne
Gemma Halliday Publishing
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Max Shaw high-fived the stranger next to him as the Rangers scored a goal with three seconds left in the third period to send the playoff game into overtime. The front-row box seat had cost him ten grand, but it was worth every penny. Playing hooky from the charity event and sending his friend Damon in his place had been a stroke of genius. The guy loved hobnobbing with the rich and boring, whereas Max had grown weary of the scene.
He signaled for a beer from the tired-looking vendor and settled back in his seat. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He didn't bother to look, although the workaholic in him was tempted. Probably one of his clients with questions about tomorrow's stock forecast. While he loved his job as a trader on Wall Street, and he couldn't dismiss the lifestyle it allowed him to live, the tedium of some aspects of the job was getting to him. The volatility of the stock market kept the adrenaline junkie in him pacified, but lately everything about it had started to annoy the crap out of him.
Maybe he needed a vacation. Springtime in Paris sounded good about now. He loved that city. It didn't hurt that he had a girlfriend or two who lived there who he could call up to keep him company during his visit. A break from his life might be exactly what he needed. He stretched out his legs and pondered how quickly he could get things arranged.
His phone buzzed again. Shit.
Even while knowing it was a bad idea, curiosity got the better of him as he dug the phone from his pocket.
I'm coming for you, Maxim.
A chill pricked the hairs on his arms. He pissed people off all the time, but this felt different. Sometimes people got a little weird when money was involved. His client with the gambling problem kept begging him for advances, and he had to cut him off. Tempers flared between them, but it had never gone any further. Still, he couldn't brush off the paranoia that kept surfacing.
He glanced at the readout again. Holy crap. How could he have missed it? They'd used his Serbian name. His spine tingled while the accompanying fear surfaced.
Who is this?
he texted back as he glanced around the raucous crowd and held his breath. For longer than he cared to think about, he'd been that person others had feared. He'd been the person who knew multiple ways to kill someone without making a sound.
Payback's a bitch, isn't it?
Show yourself. Make this a fair fight,
Max responded and tried not to fidget in his seat.
Since when have you played fair?
Despite the eight years that had passed, and living a whole continent away, apparently he couldn't outrun his past. All the horrible things he'd done flitted through his mind in a montage of guilt-ridden memories.
He'd wronged so many people in his life that he'd lost count. But most of all, he'd wronged those he'd loved. He'd known this day would come sooner or later. Being an assassin always meant there was a price to pay in the end.
Unable to respond, especially to a valid accusation, he stood, leaned his back against the glass surrounding the hockey rink, and surveyed the people around him. Most were preoccupied with their cell phones, or drinking yet another beer. No one—at least in his visible range—was paying attention to him.
But an overcrowded stadium wasn't optimal for a hit. Even an excellent sniper wouldn't be able to find a hiding spot to take an effective kill shot.
Why warn him? That was the part that didn't make sense. Wouldn't it have been easier and more efficient to catch him unaware?
In, out, over, and done. That was the way he would have taken care of what he had to do.
No, the text was meant to terrorize him. Keeping him on guard ensured a slow method of torture him until the inevitable happened. He'd never used that tactic, but some in his former profession had. Those were the ones with the big egos and the swagger to match. He ticked off names in his head of assassins with that MO and came up with four or five. Those types stayed around to dangle doom in front of their victims and then got off on their discomfort.
Instead of giving in to the paranoia, he contemplated the nature of the attack and considered the vulnerabilities of his current position. Given the crowd, a close strike could hide the attack easily. More than likely it would be at the end of the game when everyone filed out into the hallways and exits.
A knife would be the most likely weapon given those circumstances. The momentum of the crowd would cover the crime long enough for the assassin to get away. By that time, Max would be dying or dead. He'd used that tactic in a soccer match in Spain.
Petrovich had sent him there to kill a man named Pablo Vargas. It had been Max's first kill, and he'd been scared as hell.
At seventeen, he was ready to prove himself. With his dark hair and eyes, and fluency in Spanish, he blended into the crowd like a local. The plan was simple, but Max knew the unspoken consequences of failure. Jake and Sabrina would be at the man's mercy. His breath stalled. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath to settle his nerves.
He confirmed the information he had tucked into his pocket. Sitting a row up from his prey, he had the perfect vantage point. He could and would do this. He had no other choice.
Max shook off those feelings of regret that tingled his spine, leaving him breathless on the bad nights. The nights when nothing would stop the memories from surfacing. He couldn't remember the fabricated excuses for why Petrovich said the man had to die, but Max had completed the act before getting lost in the crowd. Once he got out of the stadium, he got sick and threw up into a trash bin. Even while the sounds of the ambulance pulsed through the night, he'd been able to spirit away without even a glance of suspicion sent his way.
That was only the beginning. There'd been many more that followed.
And now things had come full circle. He'd become the hunted. Could be a man or a woman. Both had been known to be assassins. Cleo had come after his brother, Jake, and then had been swallowed into anonymity. Max scoured the crowd for the dark-haired woman who had nearly killed his brother, even while he knew she wouldn't look the same.
She wouldn't take the risk and come herself. Being on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list kind of put a damper on her travel plans. Max sucked in a breath and tried to think through his options. Enlisting his siblings' help was a no go. They'd been sucked into the life because of him, even though he'd promised his parents he'd protect them.
As the Rangers retook the ice, Max made his move. If anyone was out to get him, they'd have a hard time blending in when there wasn't a crowd. Except for a few stragglers who were using the bathroom or getting one last beer, everyone would be in their seats, riveted to the overtime session. But he knew once he was on a kill list, he couldn't get off until the eventuality happened. This would not go away.
He took the stairs two at a time up the aisle to the exit sign. When he yanked open the door, he let instincts he'd suppressed take over. The analogy of riding a bike passed through his brain as he walked. Those reflexes from long ago that had served him well were still sharp as he attuned himself to his surroundings. A cough over to the left. A slide of shoes on the right. The labored breath of a person who carried too much girth behind him. No other sounds piqued his senses. Which was both good and bad as his lone footsteps echoed in the vacant hallways.
A door jacked open to the left, and the roar of the crowd rushed into the hallway. He held his hands in front of him and went into a defensive crouch.
His heart rate tripled. His fingers tingled. Adrenaline surged through his veins while his insides went on high alert.
"I'm sorry, Daddy. I have to go," a young boy pleaded.
"This is going to be the fastest pee in history," a father said as he ushered a young boy into the men's room.
Max let out a breath and relaxed his stance. Closing his eyes for the briefest of seconds, he let the sense of calm riddle through. Maybe his hair-trigger reflexes needed a little fine-tuning after all.
He walked past the vendors and kept his gaze focused. As he continued down the corridor toward the exit, his phone buzzed in his pocket. When he glanced at the readout and spotted his friend Damon's number, a sense of relief riddled through him.
"Enjoying being me for the evening?" He leaned his back against the wall and relaxed as much as he could under the circumstances.
"Everyone's calling me Max, which is cool, but this is one weird scene. Did you piss off some clients or something?" Damon laughed even while he sounded out of breath.
"Why?" The Shaw itch crawled up his back. It had been a long time since he'd felt it, but the predatory nature of it was unmistakable. Oh shit. He pushed away from the wall and picked up his pace as the earlier texts came front and center in his mind. Of course. His appearance at tonight's charity event had been publicized all over Manhattan. Whoever was after him was targeting Damon, thinking it was him. Their size and coloring was similar enough for a hired assassin to easily confuse the two of them. "What do you mean, 'weird'?" Max rushed down the steps of Madison Square Garden, flagged down a cab, and got inside. He fidgeted in the seat as they wove their way through traffic.
"These two guys keep popping up wherever I'm at. I wouldn't mind if it was a hot babe, but two dudes—not so much. Besides, there are not enough women in skimpy outfits here. I'm out of here." Damon let out a nervous laugh. "Although there is this weird woman too with dark hair who's kind of creeping me out. I think she's some kind of cougar."
"Stay inside, and I'll meet you. I'm on my way." His heart rate quickened. He couldn't help but remember when Petrovich had tried to take him out right before they escaped to New York. If not for his siblings, he wouldn't have survived.
That text could have been a lark—some weird combination of jealousy and vindictiveness. Still, every instinct he possessed told him something was wrong. They were after the wrong man. It should have been him at the charity event tonight. He would have stood a chance at beating them at their game.
But not Damon.
"I'm not scared or anything. It's just not as exciting as I expected it to be playing the infamous Max Shaw, playboy extraordinaire and financial guru." Even though Damon spoke with lightness, his voice faltered. Max sensed the nervousness in the guy's tone, which only inched up his fear factor once again.
"Sit tight. I'll be there in a few minutes." He was trying to straddle the line between gut-wrenching panic and normalcy, and he suspected he was failing at both.
"I heard the Rangers went into overtime. Stay put. I'll meet you at that Irish bar across from Madison Square Garden, and we'll finish watching the game from there. What's the name of that place again?" Despite Max's pleas, he heard the whoosh of doors as Damon walked outside.
"Tir Na Nog." The name of the bar spat from his lips as Max bailed from the cab when it got stuck in traffic about two blocks from the museum.
"I…hey…what the hell…" Damon's phone clattered to the sidewalk.
"Max Shaw, it's time to meet your maker and pay for past sins." The voice was muffled, but the words were clear.
"Noooooooo!" Max screamed into the phone even while knowing anything he might attempt from this far away was futile. Instead, he ran. Maybe he could make it there in time to intervene. Damon shouldn't pay for Max's sins.
"Not Max. Here's my…wallet…take…" Damon's voice faded into the night.
Only two more blocks. He had time. He could stop them.
Max's legs felt leaden. Up ahead he spotted four men in the center of the square outside the Museum of Modern Art. Normally this place would be more populated, but with the light spring rain falling, people weren't congregating outdoors. One of them had to be Damon.
Before he could finish the words, a popping noise filled the air. Everything faded into the distance. Max felt like he was running on a treadmill, as progress toward his goal made him feel like he was standing still. Too late. The words circled his brain as he watched three men take off and one lie motionless on the ground.
His head pounded while his chest squeezed. He sprinted the last block and prayed what he saw wasn't what he thought. People began to spill outside the local bars and restaurants, no doubt curious about the sound. Sirens announced the NYPD's imminent arrival. He needed to get to Damon first.
He pushed his way through the gathering crowd. Blood soaked the front of Damon's shirt as Max pressed a finger to his neck, seeking a pulse. Nothing.