Death Angel (Chapter Five)

RAFAEL SALINAS QUIETLY OPENED DREA'S BEDROOM DOOR and walked to her bedside. He had seldom been in this room, though he'd had his men regularly search it to make certain she wasn't up to anything. Her chosen decor was so fussy and frilly it was cloying, and normally he didn't like being reminded that his mistress had such bad taste. Tonight, for some reason, the excess not only didn't bother him, but in a strange way was almost touching. Her room was like the room of a young girl whose doting mother had let her decorate however she wanted, almost innocent in its exuberance.

She was asleep, lying on her side facing away from the door, curled in a tight knot on the very edge of the bed. She looked smaller than usual, as if she'd been diminished. The light from the hallway spilled across the slightly exotic cast of her cheekbones, tangled in the heavy mass of her curly hair. She had cried until she was exhausted, and even in the dimness he could tell how swollen her eyes were.

He wasn't a man who suffered from self-doubt; that was for fools and pussies who either didn't know what they were doing or didn't have the guts to do what they wanted. Still, for the first time in years-decades-he felt crippled by uncertainty.

Equal amounts of panic, anger, and confusion churned in his gut. How had this happened? Why was he feeling this way about Drea, of all people?

He sat down in the bedside chair, moodily watching her. She'd been with him for two years, longer than any other woman, but only because she was placid and undemanding. He didn't have either the time or patience to deal with whines, pouts, and demands. Being with Drea, however, was easy; she was even-tempered, slightly dumb, and interested in nothing except shopping and looking pretty. There was never any drama from her, no tantrums, no demands for expensive gifts or, worse, his time. He never gave her much thought; she was just there, smiling and complacent, whenever he wanted sex.

If he'd had to think about it, though, he would have said sex was the only reason he kept her. He hadn't wanted to let that bastard have her, sure, because no man worth his cojones shared his woman, but his options had been limited, and all of them bad. If he'd said "no," which his pride and ego wanted to do, he'd have lost the killer's very valuable services-services he would very much need when the time was right. There was also the real possibility that the killer would take his refusal personally, and while Rafael wasn't afraid of anyone, he was smart enough to know there were some people you just didn't fuck with-and the assassin was one of those people.

So he'd swallowed his pride, his temper, and said "yes," and he hadn't liked it one fucking bit. He'd stewed about it all afternoon, imagining his woman naked with another man, and he'd even caught himself, damn it, wondering if the bastard's dick was bigger than his. He didn't have to worry about shit like that, so he was pissed that the little niggle of doubt had intruded. He had the money and the power, and that was what mattered to women like Drea.

But even though he'd seen the shock in her eyes when he agreed to let the assassin have her, he hadn't expected her to really care very much. After all, sex was how she paid her way. No big deal, right?

Part of him really thought he'd find her filing her nails, or watching that damn shopping network she loved so much, as placid as always. Instead he'd found her huddled on the balcony, crying her heart out, and he felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach. Her appearance had shocked him: her hair wet and slicked back, no makeup, eyes swollen from crying. Her face had been pinched and white, as if she was in shock, and the expression in her eyes-

Broken. That was the only word he could think of to describe her. She'd looked broken.

At first he'd thought she'd been hurt physically, that the bastard was the kind who got his rocks off by hurting women, and once again Rafael had been knocked off balance by an unexpected reaction, this time his own: he'd been swamped by pure rage that anyone would dare harm what was his, that simple, harmless Drea had been hurt. No matter what it cost him, now and in the future, he'd have the assassin hunted down and killed.

But that wasn't what had happened. Instead, she was devastated by this proof that he, Rafael, didn't love her, and she had given up hope that he ever would. He mentally fumbled all the pieces together, setting himself up for another punch to the gut.

The last blow was the one that leveled him, put him down for the count. Drea loved him.

Rafael still couldn't get his head around the idea. Love wasn't part of their deal. But here she was, making plans to leave him because now she knew he didn't love her and she didn't have any hope he ever would. The assassin hadn't even touched her. As unbelievable as that seemed, she had no reason to lie about it, because he'd arranged it, expected it. There was nothing to hide from him, nothing that needed to be hidden. Suspicion was second nature to him, so he'd checked the penthouse. No bed in the place showed signs of having been used. Drea was fresh from the shower, the bathroom still humid, the clothes she'd been wearing dropped on the floor as always, one towel used and carelessly discarded. He had to figure she was telling the truth.

He felt betrayed, because she wasn't what he'd expected, what he'd become accustomed to having. She wasn't there because of convenience and money and protection, or any of the other reasons a woman like her usually hooked up with a man. She was there because she loved him. He was confused, and furious, and-fuck!-flattered. He didn't want to be flattered, he wanted everything to be exactly the way it was before. He didn't want it to matter to him that she loved him, but it did.

It shouldn't matter to him if she moved out; he could replace her without effort. Women always came to him, he never had to go out looking for one. He knew that-he knew it, and yet the thought of losing her made him sick with panic. He, Rafael Salinas, was worried about a woman! It was enough to make him laugh. And yet, there it was: he didn't want to lose her. He didn't want another woman. He wanted Drea. He wanted to keep her in clothes and shoes and give her money to buy all the silly pampering she wanted, and most of all, he wanted her to love him. That was the most ridiculous part of all this, that he should care at all if she loved him, if anyone loved him.

Slowly, sitting there in the half-dark, he began to think that maybe he had fallen in love with her. It couldn't be, but how else could he explain this sense of panic, this confusion, this pain? He hadn't loved anyone or anything since he'd been a kid, growing up in the toughest barrios of Los Angeles, when he'd learned that valuing someone merely gave your enemies a weapon to use against you. He had to stop this line of thought, shut it down now.

But it was heady, this feeling that made his heart race, and his stomach jump, and for the first time in his life he understood why people did such stupid things when they were in love. This weird mixture of euphoria and dread felt as if he'd mainlined a mysterious drug, so instantly addictive that already he wanted more.

Drea stirred, drawing his attention to the bed. A tender ache settled in his chest as he watched her roll over and once more draw her legs up into a tight curl, as if even in her sleep she tried to protect herself, to make herself small and insignificant. She needed him, he thought, needed him to stand between her and the world, so she could feel safe. Someone like her, dumb and sweet and gullible, would be a sitting duck if she was on her own.

Either she hadn't been sleeping soundly or the intensity of his gaze awakened her. She opened her eyes, and for a moment she didn't appear to notice him, sitting there in the shadows. Then she registered the open door, and she blinked a few times, then rubbed her eyes. When she saw him she said "oh" in a small voice that still sounded exhausted and raw from crying.

Rafael wanted to do something he'd never done before, for anyone: he wanted to comfort her. He wanted to take off his clothes and slide under the covers with her, hold her close and whisper reassurances to her-anything to take that empty, broken expression from her eyes. The only thing that stopped him was an uncertainty that she would welcome him, something that would never have occurred to him before. His pride and ego had taken a battering already that day, and he didn't want to risk being rejected. Tomorrow would be time enough to push his luck a little.

"I was just checking on you," he said, keeping his voice low and trying to sound matter-of-fact, as if he did that sort of thing all the time.

"I'm okay."

She didn't sound okay. She sounded as if there was no spirit left in her, as if she'd never smile again.

There was a squeezing sensation in his chest that made talking difficult. He licked his lips, then swallowed nervously. He'd done this to her, hurt her so deeply that he'd destroyed the almost childlike joy she'd taken in life. He'd make it up to her, he thought fiercely. Somehow, he'd talk her into staying. He could always make it impossible for her to find another place to stay, thereby forcing her to stay here. He didn't care what means he used, so long as they worked.

Just that morning, less than twelve hours ago, she would have been asking if there was anything he wanted, catering to him, fussing around him to make certain everything was just the way he liked it. Now she simply lay there, making no effort at all to even have a conversation, and the chasm that separated them felt as if it were a thousand miles wide. If only she got mad the way other women did, he thought in frustration, then he could get mad in return, and he wouldn't be feeling this helpless. But Drea never lost her temper; he didn't even know if she had a temper.

He'd joked with someone once that she had all the depth of a petri dish, and now he wished that were true.

He'd made fun of her, dissed her to others, and he hadn't realized or appreciated that all this time she'd been, very simply, devoted to him. If loving someone else was a bitch, being loved was insidiously worse, imposing a subtle burden of care on him. Twelve hours ago he'd been free. Now he'd been ambushed by emotion, and chained as effectively as if feelings were made of steel.

"Do you need anything?" he asked as he made himself get to his feet. He couldn't just sit by her bedside like some idiot.

She hesitated a few seconds before answering, seconds in which his heart leaped in hope, but then she said, "Just some sleep," and he realized that her pause had been caused by exhaustion rather than indecision.

"I'll see you in the morning, then." He leaned over the bed and kissed her cheek. Once, twelve hours ago, she would have turned her head to meet his mouth with hers, but now she simply lay there. Her eyes were already closing before he turned away.

RAFAEL HAD BARELY shut the door behind him when Drea's eyes popped open, and she shuddered. She was a good actress, but she knew she wasn't good enough to hide what she felt if he tried to have sex with her. She couldn't do that again, not with him; she had to escape before he really pushed the issue, because she didn't trust herself to maintain control if he did.

At least tomorrow Rafael would be surrounded by his usual retinue, whom he had sent away this morning so he could deal with the assassin without any of them knowing what he was up to. Usually having his inner circle of muscle constantly around got on her nerves, but now she was grateful for their anticipated company. Rafael would take care to treat her normally, so none of them could guess what had happened today; his ego wouldn't stand letting that become public knowledge. He would have to go about his scheduled business, whatever that was. It would be nice if he had to fly across country, but she'd have known if he had a trip scheduled.

He was acting…weird. She had expected him to be flattered that she was in love with him, but she hadn't expected him to completely derail. Bringing her water, checking on her…sitting in her bedroom in the dark, for God's sake! He was acting as if he'd had a character transplant, and it was creeping her out. She would think he'd fallen in love with her if the idea wasn't so ridiculous. Rafael didn't love anyone. She doubted he'd loved his own mother.

But if he thought he was in love with her, at least for now, that gave her some leverage. That leverage, of course, came with strings, because he might want to stick close to her, and that was the last thing she wanted. She needed a little alone time, so she could get her plans organized and launched.

From the beginning of her relationship with Rafael, she'd taken steps to secure her future. He'd given her numerous gifts of jewelry, but at no time had she ever assumed he'd let her take the jewelry with her when he dumped her. To circumvent him there, she'd taken photographs of each piece and had them all duplicated in paste-very good fakes that had cost her hundreds of dollars to have made, but the cost was well worth it. Each time she'd worn a piece of the real jewelry, when she gave it back to Rafael for him to lock in the safe, she'd swapped the costume piece for the real thing. Rafael guarded the fakes, and when she could, she slipped away to the bank where she had a safe-deposit box he didn't know anything about.

She could live for a while, and live well, on the money she could get from selling the jewelry, but that wasn't enough. Taking the jewelry would make him angry, but it wouldn't be a slap at him, an insult that would cut him to the quick. Besides, he'd given the jewelry to her, so it was hers anyway. She wanted to do something that would make him a laughingstock, that would eat away at him.

Yeah, it was dangerous. She knew that. But she'd thought things out, and once she was out of the city she had an advantage; Rafael was purely Big City. He'd lived his entire life in either Los Angeles or New York. Rural America was as foreign to him as Timbuktu, but she'd grown up in a small town in the middle of the country, and she knew how to make herself inconspicuous, how to blend in. There were a lot of places where she could reinvent herself. He wouldn't be expecting that, because he thought she was too dumb to pull it off. On the other hand, he also thought she was too dumb to steal him blind, and pretty soon he'd know better.

She'd have to move fast and keep on moving, and have an alternate plan she could go to each step of the way, in case something went wrong. She should expect things to go wrong, then she wouldn't panic when they did.

She would have, at most, a few hours' head start. If she wasn't out of New York City by then, she was as good as dead.