Last Hit

Last Hit

Synopsis:

Nikolai

I have been a contract killer since I was a boy. For years I savored the fear caused by my name, the trembling at the sight of my tattoos. The stars on my knees, the marks on my fingers, the dagger in my neck, all bespoke of danger. If you saw my eyes, it was the last vision you’d have. I have ever been the hunter, never the prey. With her, I am the mark and I am ready to lie down and let her capture me. Opening my small scarred heart to her brings out my enemies. I will carry out one last hit, but if they hurt her, I will bring the world down around their ears.

Daisy

I’ve been sheltered from the outside world all my life. Homeschooled and farm-raised, I’m so naive that my best friend calls me Pollyanna. I like to believe the best in people. Nikolai is part of this new life, and he’s terrifying to me. Not because his eyes are cold or my friend warns me away from him, but because he’s the only man that has ever seen the real me beneath the awkwardness. With him, my heart is at risk..and also, my life.

Note: This is a standalone novel with no cliffhanger. The next book in the series will feature an entirely different female and male protagonist.  Word count for the book checks in at slightly over 100,000 words.

You can read an additional short featuring the couple. Jessica Clare and I wrote this as a holiday treat for our fans.

ePub: http://bit.ly/1c7ywL8
Mobi: http://bit.ly/K4vcKq
PDF: http://bit.ly/1eF70fU

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

DAISY

I have planned for this day in secret for six long years, I think as I wake up and stretch, a giddy burn in my stomach that might be nerves.

Today, I will escape.

The day starts as any other. It’s like the world can’t see how excited I am inside, but I’m practically vibrating with anticipation. Freedom is so close I can taste it. I get out of bed and dress in a dark, floor-length skirt and matching blouse. I throw a sweater on over it, so every inch of my body is covered. Then I go to my mattress and pull out the disposable cellphone and the small wad of cash I have saved up.

Seven hundred dollars from six years of saving. It has to be enough. I tuck them both into my bra to hide them.

I go to the bathroom and pull my dark hair into a ponytail and then splash water on my face to cleanse it. I stare at my reflection. My face is bleach pale, but there’s a flush on my cheeks that betrays me. I don’t like it, and I wet a cloth and press it to my cheeks, hoping the color will fade. When I can’t delay any longer, I leave the safety of my bathroom.

My father is seated in the living room. The room is a dark cave. No light comes in. There’s a chair and a sofa, and a TV. The TV is off, and I know it’s only programmed to broadcast happy, chaste channels like religious TV or children’s shows. If I’m lucky, I get to watch PBS. I long for something edgier, but my father has removed everything else from the channel list, and I’m not allowed the remote.

As usual, the only light in the room is a small lamp beside his chair. It halos his recliner, and my father is seated in an island of light in the oppressive darkness. He reads a thick hardback—Dickens—and closes it when I enter the room. He’s dressed in a button-up shirt and slacks, his hair neatly combed. It is ironic that my father dresses so well, considering he doesn’t leave the house and no one will see him but me. If I ask, he will simply say that appearances are important.

Our entire house is like the living room: dark, oppressive, thick with shadow. It’s sucking the life out of me, day by day, which is why I must do what I can to escape.

“Sir.” I greet my father, and wait. My hands are clasped behind my back, and I’m the picture of a dutiful daughter.

He eyes my clothing, my sweater. “Are you going out today?”

“If the weather is nice today.” I don’t look at the windows in the living room. Not a shred of light comes through them. It’s not possible. Despite my father’s pristine appearance, the house looks like a construction zone. The arching windows that once filled the living room with light are boarded up with plywood, the edges smoothed down with yards of duct tape. Father has made the living room into a fortress to protect himself, but I have grown to hate the oppressive feel of it. I feel like a bat trapped in a cave, never to see sunlight.

I can’t wait to escape.

He grunts at my words and hands over a small key. I take it from him with a whispered thank-you and go to the computer desk. It has a roll-down top that my father locks every night. He doesn’t trust the Internet, of course. It’s full of bad things that can corrupt young minds. He has a filter set up on the browsers so I can’t browse explicit websites, not that I would. Not when the only computer in the house is ten feet from his chair.

I calmly go to the computer and type in the address for the weather website. Today’s forecast? Perfect. Of course it is. “The weather looks good.”

“Then you will run errands today.” He pulls on a pair of glasses and picks up a notepad, flipping through it. After a moment, he rips off a piece of paper and hands it to me. “This is the grocery list. Go to the post office and get stamps as well.”

I take the list with trembling fingers. Two places today. “Can I go to the library, too?”

He frowns at my request.

I hold my breath. I need to go to the library. But I can’t look too anxious.

“I’m already sending you to two places, Daisy.”

“I know,” I tell him. “But I’d like a new book to read.”

“What topic?”

“Astronomy,” I blurt. I’m only allowed to read nonfiction around my father. It’s a harmless topic, outer space. And if he presses, I can say I’m continuing my education despite finishing my homeschooling years ago. Father won’t relax his grip enough for me to go to college, so I have to continue my learning as best I can.

He stares at me for a long moment, and I worry he can see right through me, into my plans. “Fine,” he says after an eternity. He checks his watch. “It’s eight thirty now. You’ll be back by ten thirty?”

It’s not much time to go to the grocery store, the post office, and the library. I frown. “Can I have until eleven?”

His eyes narrow. “You can have until ten thirty, Daisy. You are to go to those places and nowhere else. It’s not safe. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.” I close the computer, lock the desk, and hand the key back to him.

As I do, he grabs my arm and frowns. “Daisy, look at me.”

Oh no. I force my guilty eyes to his gaze. He knows what I’m doing, doesn’t he? Even though I’ve been so careful, he’s figured it out.

“Are you wearing makeup?”

Is that all? “No, Father—”

His hand slaps my cheek in reproach.

We both stare at each other in shock. He’s never hit me before. Never.

My father recovers first. “No, sir,” he says, to correct me. I stare at him for so long that my eyes feel dry with the need to blink. Resentment burns inside of me, and for a long moment, I wonder what my father would do if I slapped back. Or if I marched down to the basement and shot off a few rounds into the wall of phonebooks that acted as the backstop for father’s makeshift (and probably illegal) indoor shooting range.

But I can’t think like that. Not right now. I’m not yet strong enough. So I swallow my anger.

“No, sir,” I echo. Calling him “sir” is a new rule. Now that I’m twenty-one, I’m not allowed to call him “Father” anymore. Just “sir.” My heart aches at how much he’s changed—as if every year the terror in him grows stronger and if I stay here, it will overtake me, too.

He grabs my face with his other hand and examines it closely, though I know it’s dark enough that he can’t see me all that well. The festering resentment continues to bubble in my stomach, but I permit this. It won’t be much longer. After today, I won’t have to deal with this ever again.

After a moment, he licks his thumb and rubs it on my flushed cheek, inspecting it under the light. No makeup. He makes a hmmph sound. “Fine. You can go.”

“Thank you, sir,” I tell him. I take the list he hands me, and the cash, and rush to the front door.

There are six locks and four deadbolts on the door, and it takes a moment for my trembling fingers to undo all of them. I get to go out.

I get to leave.

I’m never entering this house again.

Once the door is unbolted, I carefully shut it again and then wait a moment. The sound of my father locking and turning all the bolts again reaches my ears. Good. I stand on the covered porch for a moment and stare out at our yard. Our small house has a rickety fence in the front that is falling down, but we don’t repair it. The grass is knee high because Father won’t let me mow it but once a month. Surrounding our house are acres and acres of farmland that we let out to neighboring farmers. We don’t grow anything ourselves, since that would entail being outside.

And the Millers don’t go outside unless they can’t help it. I know that when I was eight, he witnessed my mother’s murder while shopping. I was too young to remember much about her, just a smiling, happy face with warm brown hair and even warmer eyes that disappeared one day. And I know that my father reported her murder to the police but that the killer was underage. A fluke, a random shooting at a grocery store, and my mother had been the victim. Two years later, the murderer was back out on the streets, and he’d commented in court that he was coming after my father for locking him away.

I think it was bravado, nothing but the bragging of a young boy full of rage. My father took it to heart. He refuses to go outside, believing himself safe and protected in his home.

I can’t hate him for it. I want to, but I can’t. I know what it’s like to live every day in fear.

I head down the road, practically running to the bus stop so I’ll have time to do everything. The bus arrives a few minutes later, and I go to the local grocery store. I get my cart as if it’s just another day. I shop for the items on the list, taking great care with my selections. When I get to the checkout, they frown at me. They recognize my face. They hate me at this grocery store, but I don’t care.

As soon as I have my purchases bagged, I immediately head to the customer service counter. I place two of the items I’ve bought—vitamins and ibuprofen—on the counter. “I need to exchange these.”

The clerk there knows my routine. I’m sure she thinks I’m crazy, but she simply waves a hand. “Get what you need and bring it back.”

I do, and five minutes later I have exchanged the expensive, pricey brands for two cheap generics. After years of receipt scanning, I know which ones don’t print brand names on the receipt and I always, always switch them out and pocket the change. It’s the only way I can save money and not have Father notice it missing.

Now I have seven hundred and fifteen dollars.

I take the groceries with me to the post office, get the stamps, and then head to the library. I should have gone to the library first so the groceries would stay colder, but today, I don’t care.

I head to the romance shelf, looking for the book I was reading. It’s there, tucked safely behind other books so no one will borrow it until I’m done reading it. I fish it out and read chapter seven while standing up. I wish I could take the book home with me, but Father would never let me keep it. I’m only allowed to read classics. So I come to the library as often as I can and read a chapter at a time.

I close my book with a dreamy sigh a few minutes later. The hero has just kissed the heroine and is sliding his hand into her panties. I want to read on, but I mustn’t. There’s still so much to do. I will dream about how he touches her, I’m sure. I want to be touched, too.

I want a hero. A big, strong, handsome prince to come rescue me from my miserable life. But since one has not arrived, I must rescue myself.

I soar through the nonfiction and grab a book on astronomy. Then I pause, and I put the book back. I don’t know why I’m keeping up the pretense. I’m not going home to Father. Not today. I head back to the romance section and grab my novel.

Then, I move to the computers and pull up the Gmail address I have created for myself. If Father only knew that the library had computers to use that could access the Internet, he’d never let me come here.

There’s a response in my email. I dance in my chair, so excited I can barely stand it.

Daisy,

I’m so glad you found my ad! You sure you don’t want to see the place before you come here? It’s not the greatest, but it’s a roof over the head, and the rent is cheap enough. Come by and say hello before you decide anything. We’ll have lunch.

XOXO

Regan

There’s a phone number at the bottom of the email. I print it out, along with the original Craigslist listing for the apartment in Minneapolis. Will she get upset if I meet her for lunch and then just never leave? I hope not.

There is a second email as well. This one is a confirmation of an appointment. Today, at ten thirty. The timing is perfect.

I also print out the bus schedule. I check out my book and head home. The bus drops me off on the road fifteen minutes before the person I’ve scheduled will arrive. Nerves begin to gnaw at me. I walk exceedingly slowly, watching for a car to pull up in front of my father’s boarded-up farmhouse.

It shows up right on time, and I rush to meet the man that emerges from the car. He’s big, middle-aged, balding. No-nonsense looking. He wears dark scrubs and frowns when I come running out of the bushes, grocery bags in hand.

“I’m Daisy Miller,” I say breathlessly and extend my hand to him.

“John Eton,” he says, and glances at our house, taking in the boarded up windows, the overgrown lawn. “Someone lives here?”

“My father.” At his skeptical look, I say, “He’s agoraphobic. He won’t leave the house. That’s why the windows are boarded up.” I want to tell him so much more about my father’s craziness and his controlling nature, which has gotten worse over the years, but I can’t. I need to leave.

A look of sympathy crosses the man’s face. “I see.”

“He’s going to need an assistant twice a week,” I tell him. “That’s why I’ve hired the service—you.” I sound so calm, even though I’m dancing inside. “I need you to come by and see what errands he needs to be completed. Check in on him when he needs it. He doesn’t use email and won’t answer his phone unless you ring once, hang up, and then ring again. That’s how he knows who is calling.”

John Eton stares at me like I’m the crazy one. “I see.”

“When you knock at the door, you have to knock four times,” I tell him. “Same reason.”

“All right,” he says. “Shall we go in and say hello?”

I hold the two grocery bags out to him. “I’m not going in.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m leaving,” I say, and I offer him the grocery bags again. To my relief, he takes them. “Father . . . wants me to stay. And I can’t. I can’t stay any longer.” Tears well up in my eyes, but I blink them away. I love my father, I do. I just can’t live with him for one more moment. The entire world is out here, waiting. “I hired you to take care of him. His disability check is direct deposited on the first. I’ve set up the service to be auto-debited on the fifth of every month. I just need someone to come out and take care of him, since he won’t leave the house.”

“I see.” John doesn’t look happy, but he glances at the house and then back to me. “Are you running away?”

I’m twenty-one. Can adults truly run away? But I nod. “I can’t take it any longer.”

Sympathy crosses his face again. “I understand. Is there a number I can reach you at in case there are any questions? Or if something goes wrong?”

I’m startled at his words, guilt coursing through me. Something . . . goes wrong? I’m leaving my father in the care of this man. A stranger. A service I’ve hired that won’t care that he has a panic attack if he hears a car backfire, who won’t care that my father weeps when he goes to bed every night, who won’t care that even a hint of sunlight in the living room will send him into hysterics.

But I can’t think about that, because if I do, I’ll end up staying. I give him the number of my disposable phone, knowing I won’t answer it. There’s too much guilt involved. My father will be heartbroken and angry that I have left without so much as a good-bye. But I know my father. I know that if I go in and confront him, he’ll overpower me. Not physically, but with guilt.

And I have to leave. I just have to.

So when John steps toward the house, I clutch my wallet close and then run. Tears stream down my face as I go, but they’re not tears of sadness.

They’re joy.

The sun is bearing down on me, the birds are singing in the trees, and for the first time, the world is wide open.

I’m free.

Clutching the printout close, I head up the dirty stairs to the fifth floor of the apartment building.

I have just gotten off of a six-hour bus ride to Minneapolis, and it feels good to stretch my legs. I should be tired, but I feel invigorated instead. I’m free. I’m free. I’m free.

Earlier, I texted Regan to let her know I was on my way. We set up a meet up at the apartment, and then we’re going to go to dinner afterward to hang out and get to know each other and see if we mesh and I want to move in. I don’t care if she’s the most obnoxious person in the world. I’ve lived with a difficult, demanding person for twenty-one years. Nothing she says or does can be that bad. I will still want to move in.

The building is dirty, but it’s buzzing with life. There are people hanging out in the hallways, chatting, and people out on the streets. I smile at everyone. I can’t stop smiling. I’m so excited to be out living a real life. A normal life, like everyone else my age.

I find Regan’s apartment—224. It’s at the end of the hall. I knock, and a moment later it’s answered.

A cheerful blonde opens the door. She’s tall, statuesque, and gorgeous. She’s wearing tight-fitting clothing and her hair is curled into loose waves. Regan is beautiful. She lights up at the sight of me. “Are you Daisy Miller?”

I smooth a stray lock of brown hair into my ponytail, feeling very plain next to her. “That’s me. You must be Regan Porter.”

“You’re so cute! Not what I imagined at all.” She examines me with an excited look on her face. “But . . . I hate to ask. You sure you’re not pulling my leg about how old you are?”

“I’m twenty-one,” I say, pulling out my identification card. It’s not a driver’s license; that would have involved Father letting me leave the house for longer than an hour at a time. I make a mental note that I need to learn how to drive in this new life.

She takes the card from me and nods. “Sorry. I just had to ask. You have this . . . I don’t know. You look younger than I thought.” She squints at me. “Or just sweeter, I guess. Anyhow, how’s it going?” Her enthusiasm is back, and she waves a hand at me. “Don’t just stand there. Come on in!”

I enter the apartment, clutching my wallet to my chest, and look around. It’s a tiny apartment, easily a quarter the size of my father’s house. The walls are grimy and there are cracks in the corners, but the back wall has three enormous windows that give a view of the city, and I’m pleased to see that they’re wide open. Sunlight pours in, shining on scuffed wooden floors.

There are posters of horror movies up on the walls, and a futon for a couch. There’s a folding chair off to one side and an ugly coffee table.

I love it.

“I know it’s not much to look at, but I’m slowly furnishing by hitting estate sales,” Regan says to me with a grin. “It’ll get there.”

“It’s just fine,” I say enthusiastically. “I love it.”

She laughs. “Well, you’re not hard to convince. So Pollyanna of you. I like that. Come on. I’ll show you the rest of the place.”

The bathroom is little more than a closet with an ancient tub and a toilet. My room isn’t much bigger, but there is a bed, an old dresser—courtesy of Regan’s last roomie who’d moved out—and a nightstand with a lamp on it. There is also a window. I move to the window and glance out. It faces the street and a building across the way. I don’t care what the view is as long as it has one.

“So, what do you think? Like I said, your share of the rent is four hundred, due on the first, and that includes all utilities paid. It’s not a great place, but it’s pretty central to everything, which is good if you don’t have a car. Do you?”

I shake my head. “I don’t.”

“Like I said in the ad, my boyfriend stays here a lot. If that bothers you, this might not be the apartment for you. My last roomie couldn’t handle it, so she left.” She shrugs her shoulders, unapologetic. “Just putting that out there up front so there’s no misunderstandings.”

“I don’t mind.” I don’t care if she has three boyfriends.

“There’s a laundry room down in the basement if you want to wash clothes.” She eyes me curiously. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are your clothes?”

I don’t have any bags with me. “I . . . left them at the farm.” I know I must seem weird to her.

“Fresh start, huh?” She pats me on the shoulder and then rubs my arm. “I know how that goes.”

I nod, feeling a lump in my throat. Fresh start, indeed.

© 2014 Jen Frederick



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