Book Title: Vigilante Mine
Author: Cera Daniels
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Hosted by: Book Enthusiast Promotions
All businessman Ryan McLelas, a.k.a. Klepto, wants is redemption. But even if Amanda could forgive his itchy trigger finger, Ryan still has to convince her that his alter ego's no serial killer. No small task, with syndicate-paid police officers turning up among the dead. He'd better keep his own syndicate ties close to his chest and Amanda even closer, because if Klepto is unmasked while he's hunting the real killer, their passionate affair could mark Amanda as the next dirty cop on the hit list.
Ryan McLelas's fragmented cochlear implants itched. That was the high point of this cursed little rendezvous. The courier was late, and cheap construction scaffolding—under which Ryan and his dog, Romeo, sought refuge from the autumn downpour—leaked. Rain made the whole damned alley reek of sushi and visibility was minimal, steam curling up from the pavement.
At least his misery meant his brothers were safe tonight, as far away from this “calling” as he could keep them. They'd be warm and dry at the office, monitoring his tech, bickering over women and comparing themselves to comic book superheroes. A pained laugh rumbled in Ryan's chest. Okay, so his alter ego's disguise included a mask. And sure, their heritage meant he could hear across a city block—sometimes. But waiting in the shadows at the edge of town to cut deals with crime syndicates? Definitely not “superhero” material. Slipping drug lords more money to work with? Wrong side of the law for good guys.
He worked off a glove and rubbed his aching temples with chilled fingers.
“How long will you give him? I'm hungry,” the German shepherd at his feet whined over their telepathic link. Romeo rolled a loose block of pavement between his paws.
“If it wouldn't trash the ceasefire, I'd let you eat Captain Punctual.” Ryan burrowed his bare hand into the thick, dark ruff of his spirit guide's neck. The courier would arrive. Soon. There could be no other outcome. “We wait.”
The rain slowed to a trickle. Finally, his supercharged ears plucked out a crystalline hiss of shattering glass and the distinct weaving of footsteps.
He sucked in an irritated breath. Better drunk than dead. A dead courier . . . no. Ruthlessly, he smothered the concern. His father had never failed. Ryan wouldn't either.
“Klepto! Bet your sister's gotta pay the johns t'get some action,” the courier slurred.
Romeo shifted, and muted lamplight gleamed in ribbons over his black fur. “He wouldn't make much of a meal.”
His tongue lolled out of his mouth in a sly grin Ryan echoed mentally, but then the dog shook his entire body free of water. Cursing, Ryan swiped his palm over a faceful of rain. There had to be a point where this night stopped going wrong.
As if the universe heard—and laughed—his ears caught static from a distant police radio.
Tension ratcheted up his spine. This deal meant another half-year of peace among the two most powerful crime syndicate families in Relek City. The prickling in his head intensified as he pulled on his gloves. This ceasefire was paramount. Without it, innocent lives would . . . He ground his teeth. Police interference wasn't any more an option than a dead courier.
“Cops are close,” he growled. “Make this quick.” He buried his doubt under Klepto's arrogance even as he stalked into the alley. All teeth, Romeo edged out beside him.
“Don't be rushin' me, Klepto.” Soaked by the earlier downpour, the syndicate courier huddled in an oversized coat that likely hid multiple knives, as well as a gun. The smell of alcohol-borne courage tangled with the lingering odor of fish carcasses. He sneered at the dog. “Which one o' you ugly mutts has the dough?”
Ryan crossed his arms, dangling a bag from his fingers. “The information better be dry.”
A small device sealed in plastic sailed through the air and smacked the toe of one of his combat boots. He summoned Romeo to check it and kept his gaze fixed on the courier. Would booze make him belligerent enough to pull a weapon on Klepto? Stupid enough to try to walk away with both the information and the cash? Ryan flexed his hands, feeling the promise of adrenaline. Please be stupid.
“Micro USB,” Romeo confirmed. “Water-proofed.”
Ryan sent approval through their mental connection. If it's not all there, we'll make a quiet return visit. After the ceasefire was secure.
Romeo's bared teeth flashed wider.
“Tell your boss the Jones Group sends its regards.” He tossed the bag of cash.
The drunkard caught it. Ryan narrowed his eyes. Sober. Acting. He bent to scoop up the USB key as if unconcerned about making himself a target. But he listened. Zipper teeth clicked. Fingers ruffled stacks of unmarked bills. The pouch closed at high speed and when Ryan slipped the USB key into his pocket his ears snagged on the slide of metal on fabric. Belligerent and stupid. He smiled.
Romeo let out a guttural warning bark.
“Dumb mutt.” The courier's blade flashed low in the streetlamp.
No one attacked his dog. Ryan dashed forward and slammed his hand around the courier's arm. He squeezed, grim satisfaction in the way his gloved fingers dug into muscle. The other man squeaked like one of Romeo's plush toys.
“Next time, your guts line the street.” Ryan let his arm drop and waved Romeo aside.
Resentment scored the courier's face, but he took the cash and vanished into alley shadows. Waiting for the now-sober footsteps to fade, Ryan rubbed behind his spirit guide's ears in silent praise.
Romeo glanced up. “You are projecting pain.”
“Just frustration. The weather,” Ryan assured him, though the itching in his head continued to grow. He stifled another urge to massage his temples.
White noise filters on his earpiece held his power in check. They were stable now, no extra vibration to irritate the remnants of hardware in his head. No reason for pain in the area where, before his teens, he'd had discrete—fully installed—cochlear implants. He growled inwardly. Focusing on it made it worse. He'd have Zach tune-up his tech at the office.
He tapped on the combo mic, speaker, and noise reduction device hooked over his ear. “Find me a way home, boys. Law's on the street tonight.”
“Aye, aye, Mr. President.” Jay, his youngest brother, sounded far too chipper.
He shoved both hands into his trench coat pockets and turned away from the alley. “How much diesel-sludge have you had to drink?”
“Coffee? What am I on, Zach? Three?”
Ryan grunted. “Pots?”
Zach barked a laugh over the speaker. “Hey, few more gigs like this, you're gonna wish you partook.” Already an insomniac, the middle McLelas brother didn't share Jay's hard-on for caffeine, but his response was overly bright.
“Normal people function just fine without it.” Ryan shook his head. Morning board meetings at McLelas Financial were a trial, but he'd never admit it to these two.
“Normal?” Zach let out a snort. “Making chummy with the local bads is normal, bro?”
Footsteps, cautious and from the same direction the courier used to retreat, brushed his hearing. A retort froze in Ryan's throat. Criminals on these streets were bold, not careful. The cops. His gut clenched. The cash would be confiscated, the man behind bars. Dead, when a rival syndicate got to him in lockup. Failure. He closed his eyes. Unless the courier returned with the money, alive—tonight—he could kiss the ceasefire goodbye. Blood would fill the streets by noon.
Run interference, Romeo. Ryan backed under a fire escape. Tap. The first nudge to his earpiece kicked off the microphone and the feed from his brothers. Tap. A single layer of white noise down. The barest exertion of power. He sucked in a deep breath.
Then he opened his ears.
Ambient notes spun out around him like strokes on a canvas, draping the streets in mellow electrical humming, scurried movements of insects, innocent and guilty whispers behind walls, windows, closed doors. A block to the left the express rail wobbled along its tracks, brakes squealing before the S-curve. Skirting the edge of his range, Ryan could hear the Shaw Family's sniper of choice—crazy bastard—on a rooftop somewhere flirting with a tranq dart. One by one, Ryan rapidly sorted the early morning sounds, shoving each audible thread aside until he found the footsteps again.
Slow, light, churning loose grit and broken glass.
“10-4, Dispatch,” a man's voice said. His footsteps were heavier than his partner's.
Only two. Easy to divert. Ryan exhaled hard. “Gotcha.”
His enhanced hearing settled against its buffers as he bolted toward the officers. Hitting the corner, he shot a look around the crumbling brick wall, then up, scanning for snipers. Some of his tension eased. No extra shadows dotted the skyline. He eyed his nearest target.
Curves. Tight jeans. A woman, the Glock in her hands aimed and locked straight ahead. Plainclothes, maybe. But not undercover; openly using the radio. Ryan moved his gaze past her and swallowed a curse. He was too late. They had the courier pinned in a dead end.
Romeo, where are you? No answer. His chest squeezed. Bad time to go AWOL, furface.
“Relek City PD. Turn around nice and slow,” the female officer clipped out. Her voice was low and husky, like a jazz singer swirled with a shot of Jameson.
Interest rolled through him, wicked and harsh, a wave of unexpected magnetism, and for a moment Ryan was enthralled. The itching in his head intensified the longer he watched her. And he had been watching. Staring, even. Shaking off the bizarre sensations, he remembered he had a part to play. Ryan ground his teeth. This wasn't going to be pretty, but a master thief on a syndicate's payroll would protect his investment. Klepto had to step in.
“Two against one doesn't seem fair, does it?” He injected an extra dose of gravel into his voice as he strode out of the shadows.
The officer to the right spun and yanked his gun higher. He squinted. “And just what the hell are you supposed to be?”
“Angry,” Ryan said. “But I'll be considerably less so if you let my friend go and walk away.”
“I've got this, Jackson,” the woman said, and again, her voice curled over his senses like a caress. In perfect sync, the officers traded targets. Her face was in shadow, but there was no mistaking the confidence in her tone, her stance, and the rock-steady grip on her weapon.
“Do you, now?” Ryan took a step forward.
“Keep on coming,” she said. “Plenty of room in our cruiser for you, too.”
Lord, she had guts. Ryan smiled and so did she, a feral curve of warning that made lust fire on all cylinders. His jaw clenched against the torrent of images—the backseat of a car, this woman's voice and curves for company. Timing from Hell.
The courier moved. Low to the ground, cash in hand, the other man raced toward the far wall, skirted the second officer, and ducked through an opening Ryan had missed. Relief warred with fresh irritation at his lack of focus.
“Got him?” the female officer called. She didn't so much as twitch a muscle.
“Got him,” her partner shot back, already on the courier's heels.
When they'd gone from sight, Romeo sidled up, limping like an old stray. The woman's gaze narrowed and she turned slightly away from him, her stance suddenly rigid. Surprise? Fear? Not one to question good fortune, Ryan dashed to her side. Smooth as a dance, he blocked her trigger finger and anchored an arm around her waist. She came out of her shock with a strategic heel to his instep. Her weapon dropped, skittered away, and then the officer kicked for his shins.
Ryan spun her in his arms and her back hit the wall. Slim fingers groped at pressure points well-protected by leather. He pinned her wrists with his hands, her body with his hips. No chances. This one knew how to damage valuable goods.
Lamplight threw her face into relief. Her head tilted back, honey-brown hair sliding over her shoulders to rumple against a spread of blue and gold graffiti. Sharp blue eyes narrowed at him, sizing him up as if she were calculating how best to take him down.
“You should walk away from this one, rookie,” Ryan said.
He wasn't certain if he was talking to her, or himself. She wasn't a rookie, but he sure as hell felt like one, coherent thoughts shattered by the wicked level of attraction he felt now that he'd seen her up close. Ryan tightened his grip on her wrists.
“Detective,” she corrected. “And this, right here, is called a 'felony'.”
At the sound of her voice the inconvenient timing of his libido made itself evident. Ryan shifted his hips and gained a scant inch between them. Not far enough, and certainly not fast enough to prevent her furious gaze from widening, flicking toward his cargo pants, then back to his face. Something hot ignited in her eyes before she lowered her chin and stared at his throat.
Ryan struggled to remember how to speak in the growl he and his brothers had practiced for Klepto's persona. What the hell was wrong with him? He couldn't let an attractive woman past his guard like this. The last thing his vigilante trio needed was a cop in on their secret.
He cleared his throat and jerked his chin to the side. “I disarmed you too fast. Rookie.”
Her chin popped up like a dare, her lips pursing. All icy fire and fury now, her eyes sought his. Ryan knew what she would see. Darkness. The hood of his trench coat added to Klepto's mystique. If the street lamp hit them right, she might even spot the edge of the leather mask he wore over his eyes to further disguise his identity.
The muscle in her thigh coiled, telegraphing an attack.
She bucked. His body crushed hers. Both of them exhaled a harsh breath at the contact, but she didn't try to break free. He turned his head to see her lips parted, glistening as though her tongue had come out to play.
Taste. The buzz of night pricked at his ears, drowned out common sense.
“Get off of me,” she said, but she sounded breathless.
He hauled cool air into his lungs, scrambling for willpower. Instead, he found his nose too close to thick waves of brown and blonde hair. Lord, she smelled like a hot fudge sundae. Caramel and chocolate. Sinful. Ryan gritted his teeth and drove his thoughts toward ice cream, ice—Antarctica—but his lips grazed heated skin. All he'd wanted to do was keep his cover, give the courier a clear route home.
The courier who was being chased by a second cop while Ryan was—what the hell was he doing? Romeo, make sure he gets clear.
“I should stay. You are not . . . yourself,” Romeo said.
Not himself? If anyone gets to him, we're sunk. Ryan reared back from the officer, seeking distance from the smooth skin of her neck, but he hesitated over a white scar gracing her left cheekbone. His fingertips ached to trace the mark, no gloves in the way. Her chest rose and fell in quick, shallow bursts. Fear? Desire? Murderous rage?
“I am not a rookie.” She flexed her wrists, brought her lips to the side of his hood. “And I'm not afraid of you.”
“Another rookie mistake.” And then, for no fathomable reason in the whole blasted cosmos, Ryan turned his head and captured those rebellious lips with his own.
Just a taste.
Her fingers tangled in the cuffs of his trench coat, her body arched against him. Arched? Yes. Yes. He licked at the seam of her mouth and she sighed into the kiss, the last vestiges of defiance gone.
Chocolate and caramel. Just as delicious as he'd feared.
Her teeth gave an experimental nip at his lower lip, her tongue smoothed over the sting, and Ryan's fingers slid up the curve of her back. He didn't remember releasing her wrist, which was probably bad—or good, as her free hand burrowed under his coat, wrapped in the t-shirt stretched across his chest. Sound gave way to sensation until it was only lips and breath, stroke, parry, wet and heat. Never enough. Time spun out until she flattened her hand on his chest. Pause? She hauled her elbow backward. No, stop.
“Stop, Spiritwalker,” Romeo growled inside his head.
Vague memories of sense cracked through his haze of need. Breathing too hard, Ryan twisted so his shoulder took the punch she aimed at his jaw. The detective reeled backward toward the mouth of the alley. Her fingers brushed at her lips, lust-glazed blue eyes locked on the vicinity of his mouth like it had been laced with the world's most powerful aphrodisiac.
Hell. He wondered the same about hers.
She blinked rapidly. “How dare you—”
“Get off the street. Go home.” He forced himself to play his role and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed as if a damn near nuclear kiss was the norm. As if his body wasn't still raging with otherworldly hunger for a complete stranger.
She drew in a long, ragged breath, then her radio crackled. Her partner. With her gaze hopping between him and Romeo, she made her escape. Night shadows swallowed her retreating form. Ryan let untamed tension seep into the bricks at his back. Inexplicable. He should—but couldn't—just let her go. A kiss like that, well, he needed a name to go with those lips.
“And now you'll have to find out which precinct she works for, jackass,” he murmured, then let out a low curse. He shouldn't have let her go at all.
No, he should have let her go and stopped her partner from chasing the courier.
Ryan's mind worked in a fury. That body. The way she'd responded like they'd danced a thousand times before. Why had she kissed him back? Why hadn't she used his libido against him instead, kneed him in the goods and taken off? He scooped up her Glock, then straightened and tapped on his earpiece. Maybe Zach or Jay could track down her identity before morning.
A yip pierced the off-balance sensation in his ears, followed by a very real growl. The warmth of his encounter chilled. His spirit guide was no longer in sight.
Romeo? Ryan immediately broke into a trot. The detective . . . which way had she fled?
“Hey, bro, you there?” Zach's voice blared in his ear but Ryan didn't have the opportunity to turn off the speaker.
Under a buzzing street lamp, the courier had the male cop in a chokehold, a pistol muzzle to the officer's jaw. Ryan's detective stood across from the pair, her palms up and those fearless, crystal blue eyes smoldering with barely contained anger.
The courier nodded his way, his grin mean. “Yours was prettier than mine. Feisty, too. Don't blame you for playing.” A fresh bruise and blood gleamed in the corner of his lips.
“You planning to use that piece?” Ryan asked.
“Yes.” The courier smashed the butt of his gun into her partner's head, then turned it on the detective in the same lightning-fast motion. “Got a problem with that?”
She'd stopped breathing, though her stance remained strong. Fear, doubt, and indecision, everything he'd managed to corral for the night barreled into his chest and he fought to keep it off his face. Klepto couldn't show deference to cops. Not if he was working for Jones, as he'd claimed. But Ryan couldn't just stand here and let one get shot. Not if he wanted to live with himself in the morning. He ground his teeth, willed the ringing in his ears to subside, then forced himself into his role.
“More deaths on the street don't concern me,” he began. “But they might your boss, if it makes you late with our payment.”
Thin, feminine eyebrows furrowed at him and his focus crumbled again.
“Boss doesn't like cops nosing in on business,” the courier said.
“Think killing her will get you a bonus?” Ryan took a step closer, pulling out the detective's weapon. “She's unarmed. Don't waste your bullets.”
“You here to help me or her?” the courier snapped.
“You, of course. Killing takes time you don't have. Get moving.” Ryan leveled the Glock at the detective. “And allow me.”
“Please. With my own gun? Are you syndicate or aren't you? Where's your creativity?” The officer's tongue snaked out to wet lips still pink from his kiss. Remembering?
Ryan was no stranger to beautiful women. But he'd be damned if he could get this particular woman's spirited lips—chocolate and sin—off his mind long enough to keep the Glock aimed and steady.
The courier cocked his pistol.
Her eyes flickered with an instant of doubt.
Ryan cursed. This was one argument he didn't dare lose, but without Romeo, without being close enough to reach her, all he had was a bluff. He slid his index finger over the trigger. “She isn't your concern.”
The courier disengaged with a shrug that did nothing to ease Ryan's tension. The other man shoved his gun into his oversized coat. “The lady cop wants creativity. I'm an artist with a blade.” Then he launched toward the detective.
She was already moving into a defensive stance but her gasp hung in Ryan's ears. Something in his head snapped.
Barks and shouts reverberated past his filtering software, blowing past the fail-safes on his earpiece. The tight control over his enhanced hearing shattered and he stumbled. Feedback from the microphone assaulted his eardrums. His entire body jerked in pain, and his finger spasmed on the trigger.
That one shot sparked a hailstorm of bullets.
“Ryan!” His brothers' chorus of concern vanished under the hideous ringing in his head.
The street lamp ambiance haloed down the street like some kind of glowing, fuzzy mold, glinting off the soles of the courier's sneakers as they retreated over the pavement like white rabbits. Territory markers. There were rival territory markers on the road. The minute he'd aimed at the courier . . . Ryan swore, wobbled, and couldn't find his balance. A shooter dodged past him, running the courier down. Mad laughter drifted toward the main road as the two syndicate players continued a duel.
The detective was on the ground.
Tell me I didn't just shoot her.
Hell. Ryan inched forward as sound became an unbearable roar, each bullet like an atom bomb to his skull. Hot, sluggish blood traced his jaw. Tell me I didn't just start a war.
Somehow he reached her side. The right leg of his cargo pants soaked up a puddle of what he hoped to God was water. Romeo nudged his elbow, the detective's eyes closed, and Ryan's world went silent. It would take him the rest of his life to atone for the crimson stain spreading across her t-shirt.