Death Angel (Chapter One)

New York City

"YOU DID AN EXCELLENT JOB," RAFAEL SALINAS PURRED to the assassin, who stood on the other side of the room, near the door. Either the man didn't like getting too close to other human beings, or he didn't trust Salinas and was giving himself an avenue of escape if the meeting turned sour-in which case he was smart. People who were wary of Salinas tended to live longer than those who trusted him. Drea Rousseau, curled close to Salinas 's side, didn't care what the assassin's reasoning was, so long as it kept him at a distance.

He gave her the creeps, the way he never seemed to blink. She had seen him once before, and at that meeting he'd made it obvious he disliked her presence. He'd leveled his flat, unblinking gaze on her for so long that she'd begun wondering if he made it a practice to eliminate people who could identify him-other than the people who paid him, of course, and maybe even them after the money was safely in his hand, or his account, or however assassins collected their fees. She had no idea what his name was, didn't want to know, because while truth was supposed to set you free, in this case she thought it might possibly be deadly. She thought of him as Rafael's assassin, but in fact he wasn't one of Rafael's regular crew; he was a free agent, hired by whoever could afford him. At least twice now, that she knew of, Rafael had met the price.

To keep from looking at him and maybe finding that unnerving stare locked on her again, she unhappily examined the magenta polish on her toenails. She had put it on just that morning, thinking it would look interesting against the creamy white of the silk lounge outfit she was currently wearing, but the purple under-tones were too garish. She should have gone with a shell pink, something delicate and almost transparent to compliment the outfit instead of contrasting with it. Well, live and learn.

When the assassin didn't reply, didn't rush to assure Rafael that he was honored to work for him the way others had, Rafael's fingers drummed impatiently on his thigh. It was a nervous habit he had when he wasn't comfortable, a telling little gesture, at least as far as Drea was concerned. She'd intensely studied his every mood, his every habit. He wasn't exactly afraid, but he, too, was being wary, which meant there were two smart men in the room.

"I'd like to offer you a bonus," Rafael said. "An extra hundred thousand. How does that sound?"

Drea didn't look up, though she quickly processed the offer and what it meant. She went to a lot of trouble to never show any interest in Rafael's business dealings, and when he'd occasionally asked her some very casual but leading questions she'd pretended she didn't understand what he was getting at. As a result, Rafael wasn't as careful around her as he might otherwise have been. As far as he was concerned, she had no interest in anything that didn't directly affect her, and in a way that was true, just not in the way Rafael thought. He assumed she didn't care who the assassin had killed for him, that she cared only about what she was wearing, how her hair looked, about making Rafael look good by being as sexy and glamorous as she could make herself.

She was definitely interested in that last part; making Rafael look good in the eyes of others always put him in an expansive mood, a generous mood. Drea studied the platinum and diamond anklet that circled her right ankle, enjoying the way the dangling diamond glittered in the sunlight, the way the platinum glowed against her tanned skin. The anklet had been one of Rafael's gifts when he'd been very happy about something. She hoped his pleasure with the assassin's success put him in an equally generous mood; she wouldn't mind a matching bracelet-not that she ever hinted. She was always very careful not to ask Rafael for anything, and to ooh and aah over everything he gave her even if it was butt-ugly, because even butt-ugly crap could be sold.

She had no illusions about the permanency of her position in Rafael's life. Right now she was at the top of her game, mature enough to be womanly, young enough that she didn't have to worry about gray hair or wrinkles. But in another year or two, who knew?

Eventually Rafael would tire of her, and when he did she wanted to have built up a nice little nest egg for herself, mostly in the form of jewelry. Drea Rousseau knew what it was to be poor, and she intended never to be poor again. She'd severed all ties with the girl she'd been growing up, white-trash Andie Butts, the target of malicious jokes because of her name as much as anything else, and made herself over into Andrea (pronounced anDRAYuh, which sounded French to her) Rousseau (to go with the fancier pronunciation).

"Her," said the assassin. "I want her."

Her interest caught-who was her?-Drea looked up…and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. The assassin was staring at her with the same cold, unblinking gaze she remembered. Shock slammed into her like a tidal wave; she was the her he was talking about. There were no other women in the room, no one else he could possibly mean. Icy fingers of sheer panic laced around her spine, but then common sense reasserted itself and she relaxed. Thank God Rafael was a possessive man; he would never-

"Ask for something else," Rafael said lazily, looping his arm around her shoulders and snuggling her close to his side. "I couldn't give away my good-luck piece." He pressed a kiss to her forehead and Drea beamed up at him, almost limp with relief, though she tried not to reveal that for a moment she'd been scared almost senseless.

"I don't want to keep her," the assassin said dismissively, without looking away from Drea's face. "I just want to fuck her. One time."

Reassured by Rafael's immediate rejection of the request, confident once more, Drea laughed. She had a sweet laugh, as harmonious as the chiming of bells. Rafael had once told her she reminded him of an angel, with her long, curly blond hair, big blue eyes, and her bell-like laugh. She used the laugh as deliberately as if it were a weapon, reminding Rafael without words that she was indeed his angel, his good luck.

At the sound, the assassin's entire body seemed to tense, his attention so tightly focused on her she could almost feel the touch of it on her skin. Until then, if she'd thought about it much, Drea would have said he was already alert, but now he was somehow more so, as if all his senses were heightened, his focus so intensified she felt the burn of it on her skin and her laughter choked off as abruptly as if his hand had closed around her throat.

"I don't share," Rafael said, an irritated note underlying the ease of his tone. The top man never shared his woman; if he did, then he lost an edge, an important one, in the authority he had over his men. Surely the assassin knew that. But they were alone in the penthouse apartment, with no witnesses to what Rafael did or didn't do, so maybe that was why he'd thought he could have what he wanted.

Again the assassin said nothing, merely watching, and though he didn't move there was abruptly something lethal stewing in the atmosphere between them. Curled against him as she was, Drea felt Rafael's almost imperceptible twitch, as if he, too, was aware of the change.

"Come now," Rafael said, his tone cajoling, but Drea knew him well; she caught the uneasiness he was trying so hard to disguise, and because that wasn't something she was accustomed to seeing in him she almost darted an alarmed glance at him, before catching herself and instead inspecting a fingernail as if she'd spotted a chip in the polish. "That's a lot of money to throw away for something so brief. Sex is cheap; you can buy a lot of it with a hundred thousand dollars."

Still the assassin waited, as silent as a tomb. He had made his request, and the only thing yet to be determined was if Rafael would grant it, or deny him. Without saying a word he made it plain that he wouldn't take the money that had been offered; instead he would walk away, and at best Rafael would no longer be able to call on the assassin's services when needed. At worst-Drea didn't want to think about what the worst could be, would be. With a man like this, anything was possible.

Rafael suddenly looked at Drea, his dark gaze cool and assessing. She sucked in a breath, alarmed by that abrupt coolness, by the assessment. Was he actually considering the idea, weighing the cost if he continued to say no?

"On the other hand," he mused, "perhaps I have convinced myself. Sex is cheap, and I, too, can do a lot with a hundred thousand dollars." He removed his arm from around Drea's shoulders and stood, straightening his pants with a practiced movement that made the hem break across his foot at precisely the right spot. "One time, you said. I have business across town that will keep me tied up for five hours, which is more than sufficient." He paused, then added lightly, "Don't damage her." Without even glancing at her again, he walked across the living room toward the door.

What? Drea bolted upright, unable to think straight. What was he saying? What was he doing? This was a joke, right? Right?

Drea pinned her desperate, disbelieving gaze on Rafael's back as he walked to the door. He didn't mean it. He couldn't mean it. Any moment now he would turn around and laugh, enjoying his joke at the assassin's expense, never mind that he'd almost sent her into cardiac arrest. She didn't care that he'd scared her half to death, she wouldn't say a word to him about it, if he'd just stop, if he'd say, "Did you really think I was serious?"

There was no way he'd give her to the assassin, no way-

Rafael reached the door, opened it…and left.

Barely able to breathe, her lungs constricted by the tide of rising panic that threatened to strangle her, Drea stared blindly at that door. He'd open it now, and laugh. Any minute now, Rafael would come back in.

She didn't look at the assassin, didn't move, didn't blink, so thoroughly was she frozen. Her own pulse roared in her ears, her heartbeat like thunder. The hugeness of what Rafael had just done was so overwhelming she couldn't process it. Her body and most of her brain had gone numb, but a part of her mind still functioned, still grasped that Rafael had thrown her to the lion and then walked away without either a moment's hesitation or a single backward look.

The assassin moved into her line of vision, silently approaching the door and locking it-all the locks, the dead bolts, even sliding the safety chain into its slot. No one would be able to enter, even with a key, without alerting him.

Life flooded back into her body and she fled, clattering in her four-inch heels across the marble tiles. Her body acted of its own volition, driven by desperation, without thought or plan. She dashed toward the hallway, then realization brought her to an abrupt halt as her brain caught up with her body. Down the hall were the bedrooms, and that was the last place she wanted to be.

Desperately she looked around. The kitchen…there were knives, a meat mallet-maybe she could defend herself-

Against him? Any effort she made would be laughable to him-or, worse, make him angry, perhaps even angry enough to kill her. Within minutes her goal had changed from avoidance to simple survival. She didn't want to die. However brutally he treated her, no matter what he did, she didn't want to die.

There was no safe place, no haven where she could hide. Even knowing that, admitting it, she couldn't just stand there; with nowhere else to go, no way to stop him, she ran out onto the balcony, high over the city. She reached the wall and could go no farther, unless she tried to fly, and her sense of self-preservation was too strong to allow that. As long as she was alive, she would try to remain that way.

Blindly she reached out and gripped the iron rail set atop the wall, her fingers locking around the metal as she stared at nothing. Central Park spread out beneath her, a cool green oasis in the middle of the vast thicket of steel and concrete that was Manhattan. Birds soared below, and overhead fat white clouds drifted lazily across the pure blue of the sky. The hot sunlight touched her face, her bare arms and shoulders, while a breeze flirted with her curls. She felt disconnected from all of that, as if none of it was real, not even the heat of the sun on her cheeks.

She felt him approach, felt him halt when he was close behind her. She hadn't heard him, wasn't aware of a single sound other than the rustle of the breeze and the faint noise of the city far below; nevertheless she knew he was there. Every nerve in her skin was shrieking an alarm, telling her that Death was about to reach out and touch her.

His hand settled on the bare curve of her shoulder.

Panic exploded in her skull, mental fireworks that obliterated both thought and action. She didn't react; she couldn't. She stood there, violently trembling, because she was incapable of doing more, or even less.

Slowly, as if he savored the texture of her skin, he stroked down the length of her arm. His hand was hard and warm, his fingertips and palm rough with callus, but his touch was controlled, even…gentle? She had expected brutality, been prepared for it, had so focused on simply surviving that she couldn't process the reality of the caress. Her senses reeled just as if he'd punched her.

His sliding hand reached her fingers, which were still tightly knotted around the railing, and lightly stroked over them before reversing direction and moving up her arm as slowly as it had descended. When he reached her shoulder he didn't stop, but continued on to her neck, where he moved the mass of her curls aside and slid his fingertips over her throat, the curve of her jaw, following the slender threads of muscle and tendon and sending chills chasing over her entire body. After a moment he moved his attention to the wide shoulder strap of her silk tank top, playing with it, sliding his fingers under it, tracing the line of fabric downward. If he hadn't realized before that she wasn't wearing a bra, he had to know it now.

"Breathe," he said, the first word he'd ever spoken to her. His low, slightly rough voice made the word a command.

She did, gasping in air and only then realizing, by the acute relief in her lungs, that she'd been holding her breath for so long that she'd been in danger of passing out.

Slowly, still so slowly, he moved his hand down her side, the heat of his touch searing through the thin silk. He reached the bottom of the garment and his fingers dipped under it, exploring the elastic waistband of her flimsy, billowy pants, slipping beneath and around. Now he also knew that she wasn't wearing panties, either. Drea swallowed the lump in her throat and squeezed her eyes shut.

Closing her eyes was an instinctive move to shut him out, to distance herself from the here and now, but instead her action seemed to make all her other senses even more acute. Leisurely he moved his hand up her stomach and, with nothing else to distract her, her focus latched on to the touch with almost painful intensity. Her muscles contracted, her entire body tightening as he moved up, up, while she waited, once again holding her breath.

His hand closed fully over her left breast, and the air rushed from her lungs. He held her breast, stroked it, cupped it in his palm as if weighing it. He swept his thumb over her tender nipple, the rough pad rasping, until her nipple engorged and stood out firm and plump; then he moved on to her other breast and repeated the process.

Once again her senses reeled. The sheer pleasure of the caress scattered her thoughts, leaving her gasping and grasping for an anchor, something to hold her grounded. Whatever she had expected of him, it hadn't been…this.

He bent his head and the heat of his mouth, the softness of his lips, closed over the sensitive cord in the side of her neck as he moved forward and pressed his body against her back, from shoulder to knee. Oh, God, he was so hot. She had felt cold, but his heat burned her. She had been braced for brutality, but he slid beneath her defenses with a touch that brought only pleasure.

"I won't hurt you," he murmured, his lips moving over her skin as he slipped his other hand under her top. He played with her breasts, stroking them, plucking at her nipples, while his mouth on her neck made the bottom drop out of her stomach again as if she were on a roller coaster, rising and falling on a dizzying tide of sensation.

She had no idea how long they stood there, just that the disconcerting pleasure went on and on. She was lost, at sea without a compass. This was so far outside her experiences and expectations that she had no idea what to do. Pleasure? Her relationship with Rafael was all about pleasing him; her pleasure didn't factor into it at all. She had accepted that, concentrated on doing everything she could to make him happy. When had a man last even tried to please her physically? The memory was hazy, lost in the years, so long ago that she had ceased expecting any personal enjoyment. To feel it now, at the hands-literally-of a stone-cold killer, was staggering.

He pulled her nipples, gently pinching, and the sensation was just sharp enough to send a bolt of sheer sexual excitement straight to her groin. She felt herself reaching up and back, her body arching instinctively into his hands as her fingers slid around the back of his neck, feeling the hardness, the thickness of muscle. She clung, hearing the soft sounds of invitation she was making, feeling the hard ridge in his pants as she rolled her bottom across it. Her stomach muscles contracted again, this time in blind anticipation, and she tried to turn toward him.

He stayed her, holding her facing the rail, the city spread out before and around them. She felt him tugging on the elastic waistband of her pants, felt the sudden coolness of air on her bare ass as he dragged the silk downward, felt the tension of the elastic around her thighs.

Panic surged again, once more mixed with disbelief and horror. Here? On the balcony, in the open, where anyone might see them? The street was too far below for anyone down there to see, but what about people in the neighboring buildings? Telescopes abounded in this city, thousands upon thousands of people spying on their neighbors, on the buildings across the street, and surely the FBI or the DEA or someone was watching Rafael, which meant they were also watching her-and this man had her half-naked on the balcony.

He moved closer again, murmuring something low and soothing. He pressed against her nakedness, and his hand moved between them. She heard the muted rasp of a zipper, his knuckles briefly pushing between her buttocks, startling her into a stifled shriek, then she was aware of nothing except her own excruciating exposure and the heavy pressure of his bared penis at the opening of her body.

"Bend over a little."

His hand on the back of her neck made sure she obeyed. His feet were between hers, pushing them as far apart as possible given the restriction of her pants around her thighs. He bent his knees, lowering himself for a better angle, and with his other hand he worked the thick head back and forth against her opening, moistening both her and himself. Then he pushed up and in, the intrusion slow and difficult.

Drea writhed, caught like a worm on a hook. Her thigh muscles tensed and relaxed, trembling. He caught her, pulled her back to him, held her braced as he slowly withdrew and thrust forward again. His right arm held her locked to him, while with his left hand he reached down and delved between her soft vaginal lips. He scissored his fingers around her clitoris, holding it captive as he moved inside her, back and forth, back and forth, the thick, hard length of his penis touching something inside her-her G spot, maybe-God, she didn't know, all she knew was that she was rocketing toward climax so fast she couldn't think, then she was coming, hard, her inner muscles milking him, and raw animal sounds of completion were tearing from her throat.

She would have collapsed forward if not for his grip. He eased out of her and turned her around, holding her until she stopped gasping and shuddering, until she stopped crying. Why was she crying? She never cried, at least not for real. Yet now her cheeks were wet, her breathing hard and jerky. She fought for control and, when she could, she opened her eyes and looked up, met his gaze, and lost her breath all over again.

She'd thought his eyes were brown, but now she saw they were hazel, which was a completely inadequate word for the colors she saw there: not just brown and green and gold, but blue and gray and black added in, then shot with white striations. Up close the color reminded her of dark opals, full of surprising color. Nor was his gaze cold; she felt burned by the heat she saw there, the intensity of desire. He hadn't cooled down any, which ran contrary to any experience she'd ever had. Once a man came, he lost interest in continuing to play. But this man was still hard, still ready, and-

"You didn't come," she blurted, struck by the abrupt realization.

He began walking her backward toward the open glass door, lifting her off her feet when her lowered pants threatened to trip her. "Just one time, remember?" he said, his gaze glittering with both heat and fierce intent. "Until I come, all of this counts as just once."