Authors: Cora Carmack
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General
For my parents,
who taught me not just to dream,
but to dream big.
And for Patrick and Shelly,
for all of
that allows me to keep on dreaming.
HEY SAY WRITI
a book takes a village, and in part that’s because writing a book is never just as simple as putting words on a paper. The stars have to align (and a lot of people have to help) to turn those words into a finished project.
First, I have to thank HarperCollins, in particular my editor, Amanda, and my publicist, Jessie, for being 100% behind me and my books. Thanks also to Molly and Pam and every person whose hand touches my work—from copyediting to cover art. I’m glad to have found such a terrific home.
Second, thanks to my agent, Suzie. I say it all the time—to family and colleagues and even the eighty-year-old man sitting next to me on a plane who asked me about writing—signing with you and New Leaf was the best decision I could have possibly made. Thanks for handling all my crazy.
A giant thank you to Kelly for being so invested and so awesome at what you do. You know I’m a control freak, and I have trouble handing things over to others, but I have never, not once, hesitated to trust your skills and opinions. You’re that awesome.
Thank you to Patrick and Shelly for attempting to help bring order to my chaos and for being fantastic friends. Thank you, Lindsay, for always being there when I need to vent or text for hours in caps lock. Bethany, thanks for always badgering me to name characters after you (and for taking care of Kitty Katniss while I’m off at signings).
Thank you to my family. I’m a hot mess most of the time, and somehow you guys manage to hold the pieces of me together even when you’re a thousand miles away.
And to my fantastic readers and all the amazing bloggers who have supported me—I could not do any of this without you. I will always do my best to make it up to you guys with more books and posts of cute boys with cats. Sarah, Johana, and Christine, I hope you like your cameo appearances. And to all the readers that I’ve met at signings this year, I cannot even begin to express the ways in which you all have touched me—to all the kick-ass girls in Miami; to Antonella in Houston; to Ria, that I see everywhere; to Vilma; who is awesome; to Jeanne, who I shared HP and margaritas with; to my tattoo ladies in Oklahoma—I could probably go on forever. I’ve met so many wonderful people in so many wonderful cities, and every time I am humbled and amazed at the support and love you show me and books in general. Love you all!
’D SPENT BLISTE
hot days in the desert, followed by achingly cold nights. I’d been shot, nearly blown up, and sprayed with shrapnel like it was water. Now I was a glorified babysitter.
The universe has a strange sense of humor.
The pretty blonde stood a dozen rows ahead of me on the airplane, her nearly identical picture burning a hole in my back pocket. She was trying to shove a large backpack, not unlike the pack I had in the Marines, into the overhead compartment, and I was getting a long look at her body while she did it. Her baggy cotton T-shirt rode up to show a slim tanned waist. I cast my eyes down, but then they got stuck on hips covered by short denim cutoffs that gave way to long, equally tan legs. I looked away.
For a second.
What the hell. I was getting paid to look after her. In my book, that counted as permission to look. Plus, if I was going to be following her around a continent, I needed to be able to recognize her at the slightest glance.
That was a good enough excuse as far as I was concerned.
Her clothes reminded me of something you could find at a garage sale, but somehow on her, they worked. She appeared effortlessly beautiful, radiant in that way that you can’t help but take a second look. But knowing her father and the world she came from, I’m sure that look was both purposeful and pricey.
With some girlie magazine tucked under her arm and a drink from Starbucks, she took a seat, and I couldn’t see her anymore.
I sighed, already antsy, and we weren’t even in the air yet. My knees pushed uncomfortably up against the seat in front of me. The old man next to me had already taken the armrest, and I leaned on the remaining armrest tilting my head against the seat back.
I was bored, and boredom and I did not mix well. I needed action and adrenaline and excitement. But I knew I was likely to be stuck with stuffy museums and tourist traps and prissy little European cafés.
The info her dad had given me said she just graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts, so I’d expected her to choose Paris or London—some place known for its artistic side.
Maybe Kiev was artsy.
I knew as little about this city as I knew about her.
Kelsey Ann Summers.
Twenty-two years old.
Recent college graduate.
Traveling around Europe. Indefinitely.
Which meant I’d be following her
In the grand scheme of things, it was a pretty great gig. Certainly better than the landscaping job I’d had (and been fired from). Beat that shitty office job that I wasted two weeks on, too. Boring or not, I’d be on the road. For whatever reason, I couldn’t stand staying in one place right now. My father had been the one to negotiate this “job.” He was tired of helping me out, and I was damn tired of needing him.
So Sorority Girl Stalker it was. Put that shit on my résumé.
The money sure as hell didn’t hurt either.
I’d keep watch while she did her girlie stuff. I’d scan for pickpockets and make sure she stayed safe; and I’d get to see some of the world not through the windshield of a Humvee for once.
I only met her dad once, to sign the contract and pick up the thin file with Kelsey’s information and his contact numbers. The whole thing was like some weird Bond movie, only with far fewer explosions and government secrets.
Mr. Summers was surprised he’d never met me, seeing as how our families ran in the same circles. I didn’t tell him that that was because I was the black sheep of the family. Then he would have found someone else to follow his daughter, probably worried that I’d corrupt his little angel.
Speaking of Mr. Summers . . . I fished out the phone he’d given me, and sent him a short text to let him know we’d both made it onto our connecting flight in New York and were about to take off. He didn’t respond before the glaring flight attendant told me to turn off my phone. I turned on airplane mode, pretended like I pressed down the power button, and then laid it facedown in my lap.
A few hours into the flight, the cabin had grown dark and the man next to me had been trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable way to sleep for what felt like ages. Maybe it was cruel, but I sort of hoped he would remain unsuccessful. Just looking at him you could
he was one of those guys that would accidentally snuggle up against you in his sleep.
He also had
written all over him.
No thank you.
On the edge of sleep, I leaned as far away from my restless neighbor as I could manage, my elbow on the outside armrest and my head on my hand.
Something bumped my arm, jostling me out of my almost-sleep. I looked up to see a familiar face. Her eyes were heavy with sleep and her hair was mussed. I wondered briefly if this was what she looked like first thing in the morning, then her eyes swept up toward mine. Cursing myself for my slow reaction time, I pulled the baseball cap on my head down lower and turned away as she mumbled, “Sorry.”
I didn’t answer, pretending to fall back into sleep.
I made sure to keep my limbs out of the aisle and my head down. A few minutes later, I recognized the strappy sandals on her feet as she shuffled back toward the front of the plane.
I glanced up, careful to keep my hat down. The old woman sitting next to her had taken advantage of Kelsey’s absence to get something out of her bag, and was now struggling to return the bag to the overhead bin above her.
Normally, I would have stood up to help, but I couldn’t risk drawing any more attention to myself. I was banking on the darkness of the plane and Kelsey’s obvious sleepiness to negate our earlier interaction.
Instead, I watched as Kelsey took the bag from the woman and lifted it up above her head. Her shirt rode up again, and this time my eyes didn’t hesitate to search out the smooth skin of her waist.
Damn. I needed to reel that in ASAP.
I leaned my elbows on my knees and pressed my forehead into my knuckles. This didn’t bode well for my self-control on this trip. It had never exactly been my strong suit. The Marines had helped with that, but I still had my weak points.
And a pretty blonde was definitely one of them.
Lust made men do stupid things.
Okay, me. Lust made
do stupid things.
People tend to notice when you openly stare at them. That particular stupid thing could send me packing on the first flight back to Houston in no time.
My father had already threatened me with a job at his company if I didn’t shape up and stick with something, and that was something I’d never had any desire to do. Sooner or later, I would run out of jobs willing to take a chance on someone with my track record, and I’d be forced to accept it. Then I’d be right back on the track that had sent me off the deep end nearly a decade ago. But this time, I wouldn’t have the Marines to pull me out of it.
I turned up my music as loud as I could stand it and settled back in my seat, determined to get some sleep.
This was a job. Plain and simple. I
to think of it that way. And since it would be easy for the next ten hours or so, I should rest now while I could. The real job would begin when we landed in the Ukraine.
I closed my eyes, glad at least that the Marines had taught me how to sleep just about anywhere. This was a mission. Just like all the rest. And it was a hell of a lot easier than any of the others I’d had over the years.
T DIDN’T TAKE
long after landing for me to realize that this job wouldn’t be nearly as easy as I had anticipated.
I’d thought it was kind of ridiculous when Mr. Summers gave me a phone with a GPS tracker linked to Kelsey’s. I had assumed I’d just get up early, watch for her to leave, and then follow. She’d go back to her hotel. I’d wait for her to go to sleep, then snag some rest of my own.
Oh, how very wrong I’d been.
I checked into an inn across the street from her hostel in Kiev, specifically requesting a room that faced the street and would give me a good view of her coming and going.
I got my key and climbed the narrow stairs to the room, pulling my phone out of my pocket on the way. I dialed the number Kelsey’s father had given me, and a woman answered.
“Mr. Summer’s office.”
I cleared my throat. “Yes, um, this is Jackson Hunt.” I wasn’t sure how much further to identify myself. Daughter Stalker wasn’t exactly a title I was ready to throw around in public.
“Yes, Mr. Hunt. Mr. Summers is in a meeting, but he was expecting your call. You arrived safely?”
“Yes, we both did.”
“Excellent. He’ll be in touch.”
The line went dead. I stood still in front of my door for a few moments.
That was somehow less . . . dramatic than I thought it would be. I was glad I wasn’t the only one handling this matter-of-factly.
I fit the old-fashioned key into the lock and entered the room. I deposited my stuff on a simple bed with spindly legs and a thin mattress, then glanced out the window—just in time to glimpse Kelsey fleeing the hostel on the back of some guy’s moped.
“Oh, fuck me.”
I grabbed a few key items and powered up the app that linked me to her phone. Cursing, I took the stairs two at a time, as fast I could, down to the lobby. I ran out into the street, but she was long gone.
A tourist couple with fanny packs (yes, actual fanny packs) jumped in response to my swear.
Easy, Hunt. Blend in.
That’s what this mission required. I needed to get good at it, and fast. My heart beat loudly in my ears as I waited for the app to finish loading. I was trained to operate under pressure. Panic should not have been a problem, but this was different.
First, it’s a lot easier to fight a person than to protect one. And when I did protect someone, it was usually a guy in combat gear who had a gun of his own. And I knew those guys. I knew their tendencies, their strengths, and their weaknesses.
I was beginning to realize just how little I knew about Kelsey Summers.
The phone pinged, and I watched a moving blue dot that I guessed was her. She was already a couple miles away. I jogged down to a busier corner and flagged down a taxi. It wasn’t until I slid across the cracked leather seat that I realized I couldn’t tell him where I was going because I had no fucking clue.
His dark eyes met mine expectantly through the rearview mirror, and I held up a finger to buy some time. I’d bought a Ukrainian phrasebook in the airport on a whim while Kelsey was in the bathroom. I felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of my neck as I dug it out of my bag and flipped through the first few pages frantically.
One look at the letters that I didn’t recognize (or have any idea how to pronounce), and I knew the phrasebook was going to do jack shit for me.
“English?” I asked the driver.
He didn’t need to reply. I got the giant, resounding no just from the slant of his thick eyebrows.
I tried showing him the app, hoping maybe he would recognize the interface of a GPS or be able to recognize what part of the city that blue dot was currently moving through, but his eyebrows only furrowed further.
Defeated, I smiled, threw him a couple coins for his trouble, and then climbed out of the cab, now even farther away from Kelsey and with no idea how I was going to get to her.
It took me exactly ten minutes to figure out that my Ukrainian phrasebook was largely useless (not just because I was useless when it came to using it, but because most of the people I ran across spoke Russian instead).
Did Kelsey speak Russian? I may not have gone to college, but I didn’t think the average rich girl from Texas would be fluent in the language. Then again, given the chance to go to Europe, the average girl would have probably chosen London or Paris or Rome.
Maybe she knew that guy on the moped. Except, her father didn’t mention anything about Kelsey visiting friends (or a boyfriend) overseas. But then again, he ran in the same circles as my father, who made it a point to be as oblivious as possible, so perhaps he just didn’t know.
Or maybe that boyfriend was why he sent me. Maybe he was dangerous.
Frustrated, I rubbed my hand across the top of my shorn head, not for the first time, missing the longer hair I’d had before enlisting. You’d think after two tours, I would be used to it, but I wasn’t. Groaning, I decided that I wasn’t getting any closer to her by standing around. And the idea of her being God-knows-where with that guy had my insides clenching uncomfortably.
I set off on foot, too annoyed and worried to actually look around me at the city. I could only stare at that dot and know that I was fucking this up as badly as everything else in my life.
Finally, after another ten minutes, the dot stopped moving. I walked for a little longer, and when I was certain that Kelsey wasn’t going to take off again, I worked on finding someone who could help me figure out where she was and how to get there.
There was a moment when I assumed the worst about her unmoving dot. Maybe it was because I’d lived amidst war for more than a fourth of my life. But I shook that off. The Ukraine wasn’t war torn, not right now anyway. She was probably sitting down in a café or on a park bench.
My deliverance came in the form of a cute little girl with scuffed shoes, curly hair, and a gap-toothed smile. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, but she understood me. My words anyway. She directed her big brown doe eyes at my phone, but she was a little too young to help me figure out how the map translated to the city of Kiev.
“Ivan!” she called out. Her tiny fingers circled around her mouth, pressing into her chubby cheeks, and she yelled louder, “Ivan!
An older boy, distinctly preteen with messy hair and pimples, came bounding over toward us.
?” he said, annoyed.
Her tiny lips moved faster, words with too many consonants pouring from her mouth, as her hands took up residence on her hips.
Ivan, who I guessed was her brother, rolled his eyes and held out his hand toward me.