Ready to DieBy Lisa Jackson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Lisa Jackson LLC
All rights reserved.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He was losing time.
The sun, threatening to set early this time of year, wasdisappearing behind a mountain ridge, the last cold shafts oflight a brilliant blaze filtering through the gathering cloudsand skeletal branches of the surrounding trees.
He felt the seconds clicking past. Far too quickly.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
By rote, with the precision he'd learned years before inthe military, he set up in an open area that would allow aclean, neat shot.
Not that the bitch deserved the quick death he planned tomete. He would prefer she suffer. But there was no time forwaiting. His patience was stretched thin, his skin starting toitch in anticipation.
He knew her routine.
Sighting through his scope one last time, he waited,breath fogging in the air, muscles tense, a drip of sweat collectingunder his ski mask despite the frigid temperatures.
Come on, come on, he thought and felt a moment ofpanic. What if today she changed her mind? What if, forsome unknown reason—a phone call, or a visit, or a migraine—sheabandoned her yearly ritual? What if, God forbid,this was all for naught, that he'd planned and plotted fora year and by some freak decision she wasn't coming?
No! That's impossible. Stay steady. Be patient. Trust yourinstincts. Don't give into the doubts. You know what you haveto do.
Slowly, he counted to ten, then to twenty, decelerating hisheartbeat, calming his mind, clearing his focus. A birdflapped to his right, landing on a snow-covered branch,clumps of white powder falling to the ground. He barelyglanced over his shoulder, so intent was he on the area he'ddecided would be his killing ground, where the little-usedcross-country ski trail veered away from the lake, angling inwardthrough the wintery vegetation.
This would be the place she would die.
His finger tightened over the trigger, just a bit.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
And then he saw her. From the corner of his eye, a tall,slim figure glided easily on her skis.
Reddish hair poked out from beneath her ski cap as sheskied, ever faster. Recklessly. Dangerously. Tall, rangy, andathletic, she wound her way closer. She'd been called "bullheaded"and "tenacious," as well as "determined." Like adog with a bone, she never gave up, was always ready tofight.
Well, no more. He licked his lips, barely noticing how drythey were. A hum filled his mind, the familiar sound he alwaysheard before a kill.
Just a couple more seconds ...
Every nerve ending taut, he waited until she broke fromthe trees. His shot was clear. She glanced in his direction,those glacial bluish eyes searching the forest, that strongchin set.
As if she sensed him, she slowed, squinting.
He pulled the trigger.
With an ear-splitting report, the rifle kicked hard and familiaragainst his shoulder.
Her head snapped backward. She spun, skis cutting theair like out-of-kilter chopper blades.
She dropped dead in her tracks.
"Bingo," he whispered, thrilled that he'd brought herdown, one of the most newsworthy women in all of GrizzlyCounty. "And then there were five."
Just as the first few flakes of snow began to fall, heshoved hard on his own ski poles, driving them deep into thesnow, pushing himself forward. In easy, long strides, he tookoff through the trees, a phantom slicing a private path intothe undergrowth deep within the Bitterroot Mountains. He'dlived here most of his life and knew this back hill country aswell as his own name. Down a steep hollow, along a creekand over a small footbridge, he skied. The air was crisp,snow falling more steadily, covering his tracks. He startled arabbit a good two miles from the kill site and it hopped awaythrough icy brambles, disappearing into the wintry woods.
Darkness was thick by the time he reached the wide spotin the road where he'd parked his van. All in all, he'd traveledfive miles and was slightly out of breath. But his blood wason fire, adrenaline rushing through his veins, the thought ofwhat he'd accomplished warming him from the inside out.
How long he'd waited to see her fall!
Stepping out of his skis, he carefully placed them insidethe back of his van with his rifle, then tore off his white outerclothing. Ski mask, ski jacket, and winter camouflage pants,insulated against the stinging cold, were replaced quicklywith thermal underwear, jeans, flannel shirt, padded jacket,and a Stetson—his usual wear.
After locking the back of the van, he slid into the vehicle'sfreezing interior and fired up the engine. The old Fordstarted smoothly, and soon he was driving toward the mainroad, where, he knew, because of the holidays and impendingstorm, traffic would be lighter than usual. Only a fewhearty souls would be spending Christmas in this remotepart of the wilderness where electricity and running waterwere luxuries. Most of the cabins in this neck of the woodswere bare-bones essentials for hunters, some without the basicsof electricity or running water, so few people spent theholidays here.
Which was perfect.
At the county road, he turned uphill, heading to his owncabin, snow churning under the van's tires, spying only oneset of headlights before he turned off again and into the lanewhere the snow was piling in the ruts he'd made earlier. Yes,he should be safe here. He'd ditch this van for his Jeep, butnot until he'd celebrated a little.
Half a mile in, he rounded an outcropping of bouldersand saw the cabin, a dilapidated A-frame most people in thefamily had long forgotten. It was dark, of course; he'd left ittwo hours earlier while there was still daylight. After pullinginto a rustic garage, he killed the engine, then let out hisbreath.
He'd made it.
No one had seen.
No one would know ... yet. Until the time was right.Carrying all of his equipment into the house, he then closedthe garage door, listening as the wind moaned through thetrees and echoed in this particular canyon.
In the light from his lantern, he hung his ski clothing onpegs near the door, cleaned his rifle, then again, as the cabinwarmed, undressed. Once he was naked, he started his workout,stretching his muscles, silently counting, breaking asweat to a routine he'd learned years ago in the army. Thisausterity was in counterbalance to the good life he led, theone far from this tiny cabin. His routine worked; it kept himin shape, and he never let a day go by without the satisfactionof exercising as well as he had the day before.
Only then did he clean himself with water cold enough tomake him suck his breath in through his teeth. This, too, waspart of the ritual, to remind him not to get too soft, to alwaysexcel, always push himself. He demanded perfection forhimself and expected it of others.
As his body air-dried, he poured himself a glass ofwhiskey and walked to the hand-hewn desk attached to thewall near his bunk. Pictures were strewn across the desktop,all head shots, faces looking directly at the camera ... hiscamera, he thought with more than a grain of pleasure.
He found the photograph of the woman he'd just sent toSt. Peter, and in the picture she was beautiful. Without atrace of her usual cynicism, or caustic wit, she had been agorgeous woman.
No more. Tossing his hunting knife in the air and catchingit deftly, he smiled as he plunged its sharp tip into thespace between his victim's eyes. So much for beauty, hethought as he sliced the photograph. Staring at its marredsurface, he rattled the ice in his drink and swept in a longswallow.
"Bitch," he muttered under his breath.
Turning his attention to the remaining five photographs,he felt his insides begin to curdle. God, he hated them all.They would have to pay; each and every one of them. Butwho would be next?
Sipping from his glass, he pointed at the first with the tipof his knife and moved it to the others. "Eeny, meeny, miney,mo ..." But before he could continue and make his selection,his gaze settled on one face: Stern. Brooding. Contemplative.With a hard jaw and deep-set eyes. In that instant, heknew who his next target would be.
Make that Sheriff Dan Grayson.
"Merry Christmas," he said to the photograph as the windpicked up and rattled the panes of the old building. With hisnew target in mind, he took the last swallow from his glassand felt the whiskey warm him from the inside out. Deep inhis heart he'd known all along that Grayson would be next.
He hoped the bastard was ready to die.
Grayson snapped off the lights of his office and whistledto his dog, a black Lab who had been with him for years."Come on, boy." With a groan Sturgis climbed to his feetand, tail wagging slowly, followed Grayson through the hallwaysof the Pinewood Sheriff 's Department.
The cubicles and desks were gratefully quiet tonight, thestaff composed of a few volunteers like him, who had electednot to celebrate with their families so others could be with theirloved ones.
"You outta here?" Detective Selena Alvarez asked. Shewas huddled over her desk, computer monitor glowing, acup of tea cooling near her in-basket.
"Yeah." He glanced at the clock. It was ten minutes aftermidnight and already a few of those who had either agreedto or who had drawn the short straw were arriving. "Whatabout you?"
"Hmm. Soon." She threw a glance over her shoulder andhe noticed how her black hair shined under the fluorescentssuspended overhead. As smart and dedicated as anyone inthe department, Alvarez had proved herself time and timeagain on the field of duty, yet he knew little more about herthan what was listed on her résumé.
He'd been sure to keep it that way. She had a haunted, secretivedemeanor about her, and he'd been tempted to dig alittle deeper into what made her tick, then had thought betterof it. She'd been interested in him; he wasn't so unaware notto recognize chemistry and attraction when it snuck up onhim, and he'd considered returning the favor but had stoppedhimself. Business and pleasure didn't mix, and he wasn'tready to start a serious relationship again, even though hismost recent divorce had been years earlier. But the sting ofCara's betrayal had cut deep and now, with Alvarez, the opportunityhad passed. His second marriage had barely lasteda year, again because Cara had never really been out of thepicture, and though Alvarez may have thought she wasfalling in love with him, it was probably just a bit of heroworship on her part, unfounded, of course. He'd certainly felther heightened interest, but before he'd reciprocated, she'dbecome involved with someone else, which was, he knew,best for all.
"Merry Christmas," he said and sketched a wave.
"You too." Her smile, so rare as to be almost nonexistent,touched a private spot in his heart. With a nod, he turnedaway. His dog at his heels, he flipped up his collar, yankedon his gloves, and walked the length of a long hall decoratedwith twinkling lights and silvery snowflakes, complimentsof an overzealous secretary who took the holidays seriously.
Grayson barely noticed. His thoughts were still muddledand dark, all knotted up with images of Alvarez huddledover her desk. Silently, he wondered if he'd made a big mistake;the kind that could alter a man's life. She'd almost diedrecently and he was just grateful that she was alive.
His steps slowed and he looked back down the hall. Maybethis was the moment to take that extra step and learn whatshe was about, see if there really was something smolderingthere ... maybe ...
He caught himself and resumed walking, his footstepssharper. "Stupid," he muttered under his breath, giving himselfa quick mental shake as he shouldered open the exteriordoor and stepped into the cold Montana night.
Aside for a few hours with his ex-sister-in-law and hisnieces, he'd spend Christmas alone, he thought with a grimace.
It wasn't the first time.
And probably wouldn't be the last.
"I said, 'I want for us to be together. Forever.'"
Standing in front of the woodstove in his old cabin,Nate Santana reached into the front pocket of his jeans andwithdrew a small, velvet box.
"Oh, Jesus." Regan Pescoli stared at the tiny box as if itwere pure poison. She even took a step backward, but it didn'tstop him from dropping down onto one knee, opening thebox, and holding it in his palm, the diamond ring within winkingagainst white satin. Tears filled her eyes, burning, and remindingher of the sappy fool she was just under the surfaceof her crusty exterior. "You don't ... I mean, I can't ... Oh,Jesus."
"Regan Pescoli, will you marry me?"
He looked up at her and her heart melted. Snow driftedagainst the windows, a storm brewing outside, but in thishundred-year-old cabin, it was just the two of them and Santana'shusky, who was sleeping on a rug in the corner of theroom. "I guess I should have done this before I told you thatI wanted you to marry me."
"You mean, asked me first?"
"That would have been nice." She tried to sound tough, tonot allow him to see just how he'd touched her.
"You haven't answered my question."
"I know, I know ..." She bit her tongue. The simple answerwould be: "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" beforethrowing her arms around him and crying happily as heplaced the ring on her finger, then carried her into his tinybedroom where they would make love all night long.
She blinked back that particular fantasy. Her life wasn'tsimple. And this wasn't a fairy tale. She was a woman, no,make that a detective, with two nearly grown children andtwo marriages in her wake. Her first husband, Joe Strand,also a cop, had died in the line of duty. They'd been collegesweethearts and she'd gotten pregnant, hence the hasty,often-rocky marriage and her son Jeremy, as bullheaded andhandsome as his father. Then there had been marriage numbertwo to Luke "Lucky" Pescoli, a truck driver who was ascharming as he was good-looking and with whom both kidswere spending Christmas Eve this year. That marriage hadn'tlasted long either, but the result was worth it: her daughter,pretty, smart, back-talking Bianca who, at sixteen, still believedthe world revolved around her.
Could she take another?
"For the love of God, Santana," she said, clasping hishand and hauling him to his feet. "I'm not ready for this. Youknow that. What the hell are you doing?"
"Proposing," he said dryly.
"Yeah, yeah, I get it, but ..."
"But what?" he asked, and his eyes were sparkling a bit.Was it the reflection of the Christmas lights, a single strandhe'd hung over the front room window, or her imaginationthat he might actually be amused at her confounded response?
"We've been over this before. I thought you understood.It's not that I don't love you—you know that I do—but meand marriage ... it's just never worked out."
"Because you were always with the wrong guy."
"Or they were with the wrong woman," she said. Whenshe saw that he was about to argue with her, she put out ahand to stop whatever arguments he came up with. "Youknow I don't believe any one person is the blame of a marriagecracking or rotting. It takes two people to work reallyhard and ..." She sat down on the old ottoman, so that nowshe was the one looking up, the one pleading, "Frankly, I justdon't know if I'm up to it."
"It could be fun."
"And it could be a disaster. My kids—"
"Will get used to the idea. You can't live your life forthem, you know. This is for you."
"I know, but ..."
"But what?" His playful attitude seemed to shift. "Eitheryou want to get married or you don't."
"Oh, sure. If it were just that simple."
"It's as simple as you want it to be." He arched a dark eyebrowand she felt her heart melt. In beat-up jeans, a darkT-shirt, and an open flannel shirt with the sleeves pushed tohis elbows, he was earthy and male, whip-smart and cocky, acowboy type with a murky past who had appealed to herfrom the moment their gazes first clashed.
It had always been that way with Santana. One look andhe could turn her inside out. She was a strong, no-nonsensewoman who couldn't be bullied into anything, a hard-noseddetective who had been accused more often than not ofbeing stubborn to the point of mule-headed. She'd neverbeen the wishy-washy sort.
Except when it came to the subject of Santana and marriage.
She shouldn't have been so floored. She'd seen this comingfor a long time; a bullet she couldn't dodge. She didn'tknow if she was ready and truth be told, she wasn't sure sheever would be.
"Come on, Pescoli," he said with the slightest bit of irritationbeneath his cajoling. "Is it that hard to say 'yes'?"
She shook her head. "No, that part would be easy, it's therest. The believing it will work out, that we'll always loveeach other, that it won't turn into something ugly where allwe do is try to get even."
"That won't happen," he said, and for a second she believedhim. "Not with us."
"I think that's what everyone who stands before God andfamily or a justice of the peace believes." --Questo testo si riferisce alla mass_market edizione.
(Continues...)Excerpted from Ready to Die by Lisa Jackson. Copyright © 2013 Lisa Jackson LLC. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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