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Opis ebooka Viper’s Defiant Mate - S.E. Smith

USA Today Bestseller! A hilarious action/adventure thriller that can be read as a standalone. Tina St. Claire was finally happy with her life until her older sister, Riley, suddenly disappeared. Tina suspects Riley’s boss had something to do with it, but her determination to find Riley leads the danger back to her own home... Prince Viper d’Rojah, a warrior from the Sarafin cat-shifter species, is not happy when he is sent on a special mission by his older brother Vox, King of the Sarafin. He has handled tougher assignments in his sleep and just wants to get back to finding the traitors trying to kill him and his family! Soon though, events spiral out of control and it’s all Viper can do to keep Tina and her gun-toting grandmother alive. The question is, how is he going to survive when the women discover his plans to kidnap them? Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story to transport readers out of this world! Brimming with her signature humor, vivid landscapes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite. Main Content: 188 (6x9) pages, 62,704 words

Opinie o ebooku Viper’s Defiant Mate - S.E. Smith

Fragment ebooka Viper’s Defiant Mate - S.E. Smith

Viper’s Defiant Mate

Sarafin Warriors Book 2

S.E. Smith

Contents

Acknowledgments

Copyright

Synopsis

Prologue

1. Righteous, New Mexico

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Epilogue

Sample of The Beast Prince

Additional Books and Information

About the Author

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Lisa, Sally, Elizabeth (Beth), Laurelle, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S. E. Smith

Montana Publishing

Science Fiction Romance

Viper’s Defiant Mate: Sarafin Warriors Book 2

Copyright © 2015 by S. E. Smith

First E-Book Published May 2015

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental.

Summary: Tina is investigating her sister Riley’s disappearance when an alien man comes to invite Riley’s family to her wedding – only he doesn’t quite know how to phrase the request and prefers to just kidnap them, thinking that would be an easy thing to do.

ISBN: 978-1-942562-65-8 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-942562-28-3 (eBook)

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Science Fiction Romance – Fiction. 2. Science Fiction – Fiction. 3. Paranormal – Fiction. 4. Romance – Fiction.}

www.montanapublishinghouse.com

Synopsis

USA Today Bestseller!

A hilarious action/adventure thriller that can be read as a standalone!

Tina St. Claire was finally happy with her life until her older sister, Riley, suddenly disappeared. Tina suspects Riley’s boss had something to do with it, but her determination to find Riley leads the danger back to her own home, and the unexpected arrival of an eerie stranger is more frightening than helpful, though he does eventually give her and Grandma Pearl a packet he claims is from Riley.

Prince Viper d’Rojah, a warrior from the Sarafin cat-shifter species, is not happy when he is sent on a special mission by his older brother Vox, King of the Sarafin. He has handled tougher assignments in his sleep and just wants to get back to finding the traitors trying to kill him and his family!

Soon though, events spiral out of control and it’s all Viper can do to keep Tina and her gun-toting grandmother alive. The question is, how is he going to survive when the women discover his plans to kidnap them?

Prologue

Pearl's Rules for Living:

Use your brain - that is why you have one.Safety is something you take seriously, otherwise you end up dead.If you have expressive eyes, keep them covered if you are going to bluff.Give someone enough rope, and they are bound to get tangled and hang themselves.Always carry a roll of quarters, you can do your laundry and knock out bad guys at the same time.There are rules and there are rules, pick which ones work for you.Don't fuck up unless you are willing to make it right.Mistakes are good, learn from them and move on.Always stay alert and don't let your guard down.Ask yourself, ‘Am I ready for this?’ If the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no, run like hell.If you are going to hit someone, make sure they stay down the first time. You might not get a second chance.Don’t trust a man, especially a good-looking one who starts out with sweet words. Same goes for a woman, she just wants something.A good book and fresh batteries can make your day tolerable.Your word is your honor, be careful what you promise.Humor solves any problem; think in animation.The only opinion you have to worry about is your own, since you have to live with it.Be the best possible you that you can be.Your goal each day is to make it a good one.Words can be as powerful as a fist; be careful how you use them.If you or your family/friends’ lives are on the line, ignore all of the above except Rule Number 1.

Unbreakable rule: Family and friends come first. Be loyal, be true, and love them like there is no tomorrow.

Pearl sighed as she wiped the splatter of beer from the frame on the wall. A sad smile curved her lips as she stared at the words carefully printed on it. She wasn’t perfect, no one was, which is what she tried to show her granddaughters. It was okay not to be perfect, it was being the best possible person you could be that mattered.

The list started out as fun as she and the girls added to it. It had changed a little over the years, especially the order, but the Unbreakable Rule remained the same. If Riley was following it, she would be alright, wherever she was.

Pearl rubbed her left hand over the ache in her chest as she thought about her granddaughters. They were her world and she would do anything she could to make sure they were safe. Unfortunately, she hadn't done as good a job as she had hoped. Riley was missing and Tina... Well, Tina had closed her heart up so tight, Pearl didn't know what to do. Turning away from the list over the bar, she surveyed the mess on the other side of the long bar. It had been a wild night and she was glad that Tina had missed it.

“Alright, boys,” Pearl called out as she picked up the broom and nodded to the bouncer standing over them. Her eyes ran over the small group of men lying in a bloody mess on the floor. “It’s clean up time The White Pearl way. Open your wallets if you know what is good for you, you have some furniture to replace.”

1

Righteous, New Mexico

“You can do this, girl,” Tina St. Claire murmured to herself as she glanced around the room to make sure she didn’t forget anything before she opened the door. “Just act cool, calm and collected. Pearl says that as long as you don’t sweat, no one will ever know you are bluffing or scared shitless.”

She stopped in the doorway to the old, but clean motel room that she had rented for the night and gazed out over the parking lot. She calmly adjusted her sunglasses before she stepped out into the bright early morning sunlight in Righteous, New Mexico. Closing the door behind her, she adjusted her knapsack containing two changes of clothes, some toiletries, and the paperwork outlining her research on her right shoulder before she pulled the strap to the messenger bag she used as a purse over her head and adjusted it across the front of her.

She lifted the tip of her hat to gaze up momentarily at the clear, cloudless blue sky. A pang of grief swept through her as she stared upward. The color reminded her of her sister, Riley’s eyes. Pushing the grief down, she ran her fingers along the brim of the dark brown hat before letting them fall to her side.

Tina ignored the dry heat as it swirled around her. It was hot, but not as hot as she expected; it was just a little dustier than she was used to. A shiver of uncertainty threatened to choke her as she stepped down the sidewalk heading to the small Bail Bond office located on the corner three blocks from the motel. Luckily, it wasn’t far from the Greyhound Bus station that was two blocks over. She would get confirmation on the information she had found and get out. The bus would be here in less than two hours. That should be plenty of time to find out if what she suspected was true, that Riley's former boss was more than just a lying jerk, he was a criminal.

A wave of guilt surged up when she thought of what she had been doing behind her Grandmother’s back. She knew Pearl was just as worried about Riley as she was, she just showed it differently. She knew deep down that she should have told her grandmother where she was going. The problem was that Pearl tended to shoot first, literally, if she had her shotgun, and ask questions later.

While Pearl had been dogging the Police Department in San Diego to get off their asses and do something, Tina had been doing a little investigating on her own. It was some of the highly questionable accounting practices, aka money-laundering, in Riley’s former boss’s accounts that made Tina suspect that her sister had discovered more than she bargained for when she accepted the job here.

Most people underestimated her sister, thinking she was a dumb blonde. Riley was good at letting people have their misconception. If there was one thing the St. Claire women had learned, it was not to give a rat's ass about what other people thought of them.

When they were growing up, some of the girls in High School had called her and Riley 'trailer' trash. Personally, Tina found that amusing considering they had never lived in a mobile home. Their mom may have abandoned them to their grandmother, but Pearl had been there making sure they had a nice, clean home, a good education, and while some of the places hadn't been the best, or safest place to live, they had always been immaculate.

Riley, on the other hand, had gotten into her fair share of fights before the school threatened to take them away from Pearl if she didn't quit. Pearl had shown them both how to use their brains, and their mouths, to overcome the bullies. Riley had always been better at it than her, mostly because Tina had a quirky sense of humor and enjoyed watching others put their foot in their mouths.

Plus, she thought as she walked slowly down the sidewalk. I don't have the violent tendencies that Riley and Pearl do.

Focusing back on the matter at hand, Tina thought of Douglas Knockletter and what she had discovered by going through his tax records. She had learned a long time ago that financial records were like looking at a person’s soul. You could learn a lot about them from their spending habits.

What she found out from Knockletter's returns was that there was no way that Knockletter could afford his lifestyle with the income he was reporting. She had noticed that right off the bat. Those findings made her think that all the polite, concerned conversations that she’d had with the bail bondsman about Riley’s disappearance were as fake as he was.

Glancing around, she noticed a man wearing the dark tan color of a law enforcement uniform, leaning against the wall outside a small café. He was watching her with an intense stare that sent another shiver through her, this time of warning. Thankful for the hat and sunglasses that shielded her face, she acted as if she was just out for an early morning stroll.

A frown creased her brow and worry made her want to bite her bottom lip, an annoying habit she had developed during her junior year of high school. There was something strange going on around here. She decided that it had more to do with the people in the town, than the location. The kid checking her in at the motel had been okay, but the feeling of being watched this morning sent her internal warning system into high gear.

She let her gaze roam the main street of town. There wasn’t much to Righteous, New Mexico. There was an intersection in the center of town where two highways met. The town wasn’t far from the Arizona, Utah, and Colorado borders. She would have understood Riley moving back to Denver before moving to a little hole in the desert like this. Heck, they didn't even have a decent department store! How her sister, Riley, ever ended up in a place like this, Tina would never understand.

Pushing her hair back from her face, she could at least appreciate that in the dry heat, she didn't have to worry about nervous sweat beading on her brow. She tilted the dark brown pleather hat further down over her forehead so that more of her face was shielded from the sun.

Another difference between me and Riley, she thought with an inelegant snort, thankful that she had applied a liberal dose of sunscreen to her face.

She had a very fair complexion, which meant she was constantly having to be careful about getting a sunburn. Unfortunately, she didn't tan… at all. Instead, she had learned one painful summer day at the community pool that she burnt to the color of an ugly red lobster. She had missed three days of school and had been in agony.

No, she was the winter to Riley's summer when it came to colors and personality, it would appear. Riley, with her infectious smile and sharp wit, had taken after their mom and Grandma Pearl in attitude, while Tina decided she must have taken after her father, a quiet, geeky man who had no idea how to handle her existence when she found him less than a year ago. She had pale skin, long, dark brown hair that refused to tolerate even the slightest curl, and boring dark brown eyes. Combine that with a full size fourteen figure, and she was… average, the complete opposite of her big sister who was bright like the summer, blonde, and beautiful with a kick-ass personality.

Tina briefly held the dark eyes that stared back at her before she turned her head, breaking the contact. Yep, her instincts were telling her that talking to the local police department here would not be in her best interest. It would be better to turn everything over to the police department in San Diego. At least, if her suspicions turned out correct. Pasting a fake smile to her lips, she pushed open the door to the Bail Bond office, listening to the small sound of the bell as it rang.

“Hello,” she called out. “Is anyone here?”

Tina heard the sound of a chair moving before the thud of feet resounded on the floor. Her eyes flickered to the clock on the wall. It said that it was a quarter past nine. She absently glanced down at her cell phone. It was off by almost ten minutes.

“Well, hello beautiful,” a man said from the doorway separating the front rooming containing two plastic chairs and a battered desk, and the back room where he had been. “Please tell me you need to be handcuffed.”

Loathing filled Tina’s eyes at his suggestive comment and the lewd, assessing gaze he was giving her. If nothing else resulted from this visit, there was one thing that was clear to Tina… her sister would have killed the bastard, or at least maimed him, if he looked at her like that. Impulsively, Tina’s eyes dropped down to look at the hand casually unbuttoning one of the buttons at the top of his shirt.

I wonder if it’s my imagination, or does he have a couple of crooked fingers on that hand? she thought with a slightly hopeful look that was concealed by her sunglasses.

“No, fortunately, I don’t need to be handcuffed,” she replied in a stiff voice before softening it and forcing what she hoped was a sexy smile onto her lips. “I do need help, though.”

Tina almost turned tail and ran when the guy pushed away from the door frame and motioned for her to step through the doorway. Instead, she bit her bottom lip and took a step forward. She gave Douglas Knockletter another weak smile as she walked past him.

Yes, I should have told Pearl where I was going so she could come in with her damn gun if this turns out bad, she thought with a sinking feeling in her stomach.

“Helping you will be a pleasure,” Douglas replied with a toothy grin. “A pleasure that I’ll make sure is reciprocated.”

Tina stepped into the back office, but refused the seat that Knockletter offered. This excuse for a man had been her sister, Riley’s, boss. She immediately recognized Douglas Knockletter’s voice. He had an annoying hiss when he said his ‘S’s’. It reminded her of the snake from Rudyard Kipling’s’ book Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. She had always loved that mongoose and cheered him on in his defeat of the dreaded Cobra.

“I highly doubt that,” Tina blurted rather bluntly as she turned to face where he had stopped in front of the desk. “I’m here about my sister, Riley St. Claire. I would like to ask you some questions.”

Almost immediately, the heated gaze turned to stone. The shiver of alarm sounded again, this time louder than before. This man was definitely in the same class as the Cobra. Well, she would just have to be the mongoose that brought him down, because there was no longer any doubt in her mind that those crooked fingers on his hand had her sister’s name all over them.

“Who are you?” Knockletter warily demanded, stepping back around the worn desk.

“Tina St. Claire,” Tina replied coolly. “I talked to you several times on the phone.”

Knockletter’s eyes became shuttered as he gazed back at her. Once again, she was thankful she had kept her sunglasses on. Pearl’s Rule Number two: if you have expressive eyes, keep them covered if you plan to bluff. Remembering that she was here to get answers, a flare of determination swept through her.

The little worm wanted to flirt with her until he realized who she was and what she wanted. While she probably would have gotten more information out of him if she had gone along with his nasty little flirting, Tina didn’t work that way. Heck, none of the St. Claire women followed the normal rules, they always followed Pearl’s rules. Pearl’s Rule Number Five: always carry a roll of quarters, among other things, with you at all times. That was the reason she always took the bus. Besides the fact she didn’t have to deal with airport security, especially since they tended to heavily disapprove of her carry-on items.

Pulling herself up to her full height of five feet nine inches, Tina stared back at Dudley’s Dipshit, Riley’s pet name for her boss. Suspicion and malice had replaced the glimmer of interest that had been there just minutes before. Folding her arms across her chest, she let her fingers slip into the little side pocket of her messenger bag. A roll of quarters was a powerful weapon when used correctly. It also allowed her to have coins to do her laundry when she traveled.

“I told you I don’t know where the fuck she is,” Knockletter replied in a harsh voice. “Trust me, I want to know.”

Tina’s eyes flickered to the two bent fingers on his right hand when he held it up in front of him. She couldn’t keep the smile of satisfaction from tugging at her lips. Unfortunately, Knockletter saw it too. The narrowing of his eyes and the anger on his face made the greasy, unattractive man appear even more sinister.

“I think you do,” Tina replied in a quiet voice. “I want to know why she broke your fingers. She wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t tried something.”

Knockletter’s mouth twisted into a grimace as he sat down in the chair behind his desk. He leaned back in it and folded his arms across his chest as he placed the heels of his feet on the edge of the dull wooden surface, crossing them at the ankles.

“There is an arrest warrant out for the bitch,” Knockletter stated coldly. “She busted two of my fingers and almost emasculated me with her knee.”

“There was nothing said about an arrest warrant,” Tina replied in a calm voice. “The detective handling her case never mentioned it.”

Knockletter grinned as he reached down and rubbed his crotch. “I guess I should have said, there is going to be a warrant for her arrest, unless…,” he said, letting his voice fade as he looked her up and down again.

I am so going to need a hot, bubble bath when I get home to wash the nastiness of his gaze off of me, Tina thought silently as another wave of distaste washed over her.

“Unless…,” she asked through gritted teeth.

Knockletter let his feet fall to the floor of the office and he stood up surprisingly fast. Tina jerked backwards several steps, her fingers automatically wrapping around the roll of quarters in her left hand. She stumbled back several more steps when he walked back around the desk. This time, he didn’t stop, though.

“Unless, my pretty little sister of the devil herself, you give me a reason not to,” Knockletter whispered, stopping when he had her trapped between his body and the back wall of the office. “A very, very good reason,” he breathed in, leaning forward to sniff at her hair.

“Who are you laundering money for?” Tina nervously blurted out. “Who is Javier Cuello?”

A gasp escaped Tina when Knockletter’s thin, crooked fingers suddenly wrapped around her throat. Terror washed through her when she saw the savage look in his eyes and the vicious twist of his lips that exposed his teeth. Gone was any semblance of civility.

“Who do you work for?” he demanded. “Who else knows about this?”

“No… No one,” Tina choked. “I… I just want to… to find my sister.”

“So do I, bitch,” Knockletter replied, raising his other hand to wrap it around her throat as well. “And when I do, I’ll make sure she meets you in hell.”

Realizing that she might have found the answers she was looking for, Tina reacted without thinking. She winced as her knee connected with the soft tissue of Knockletter’s groin. The move had the desired effect, his hands slipped from where they had been wrapped around her throat to grab at his crotch as he stumbled backwards with a stunned, pain-filled expression on his face.

Tina didn’t wait. She swung her left arm out, catching him in the jaw with the roll of quarters. As if in slow motion, she watched his head snap to the side and backwards. A splash of red spurted from his mouth along with a small pearly white tooth. She watched in shock as he continued around in a semi-circle before he collapsed unconscious to the floor.

Fear and exhilaration poured through her. She had knocked the bastard out! Riley was still alive… Well, at least her boss hadn’t killed her… yet. Hurrying over to the desk, Tina yanked the desk drawers open. In the small, left-hand drawer was a handgun of some type and a pair of handcuffs. Her eyes flew back to where Knockletter lay motionless. She grabbed the handcuffs and hurried back to where he lay. Pulling on his right arm, she dragged him closer to the old-fashion radiator. Bending, she quickly clicked one side of the handcuff around his wrist and the other side to the metal leg. Since it was bolted to the wall and floor, she knew he wouldn’t be able to pull loose from it.

Breathing a sigh of relief that at least she knew he was contained for a while, she returned to the desk. She opened the thin front drawer. Inside were several manila folders. She flicked open the cover and glanced down over the page. Columns of neatly typed spreadsheets filled with numbers were inside. She was about to replace it when she saw the familiar last digits of one of the bogus accounts she had discovered.

Deciding she needed more time to look over the numbers, she pulled the sheets out of the folder and replaced it with some blank paper sitting next to the printer. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be in a hurry to look inside the folder when he woke up. Shutting the drawer, Tina shoved the papers into her messenger bag before turning and hurrying back the way she had entered. She paused, backing up when she saw the Sheriff’s car pull up in front of the building.

Biting her bottom lip, she scooted into the corner near the cracked front window. Luckily, between the blinds, the stencil of the name of the bond’s company, and the dirt on the window, it was almost impossible to see inside.

“Sheriff Knockletter,” a voice called out as the man stepped out of his patrol car and reached for his hat. “Sheriff Knockletter.”

Tina watched as the sheriff who she vaguely remembered Riley referring to as Daddy Dumbest turned to respond to the old man hurrying toward him. She forced herself to freeze when he glanced impatiently toward the door she had been about to exit. This time, not even the dry heat could keep the sweat from popping out on her brow.

“What is it, Burt?” The sheriff asked in an impatient tone.

“I need to report an accident,” the man exclaimed in irritation. “Damn kid wasn’t watching where he was going and hit me as I was backing up in the Save-a-Lot.”

Tina released a silent sigh of relief when the sheriff grunted out an answer and turned back to his car. She leaned back against the wall and drew in a shaky breath before forcing herself to calmly walk to the front door of the building again. Her fingers deftly twisted the lock on the handle as she opened it and stepped out. Pulling the door shut behind her, she glanced at her cell phone. She had fifteen minutes to get to the Greyhound Bus station.

Glancing both ways, a smile curved her lips when she saw the sheriff would be busy for a little while if the old man’s yelling and the smoke coming from the front of the little blue Civic were any indication. Crossing the street, Tina hurried down the sidewalk. Soon, she would be on the road again, heading back to familiar territory, namely The White Pearl.

She smiled as she crossed the street to the Greyhound bus station. She glanced impatiently down the road, willing the bus to appear out of the mirage of heat waves that made the road look like it was covered in water. The minutes ticked by in painfully slow clicks before she saw the top of the shiny bus in the distance.

The sense of being watched made the skin at the back of her neck crawl. Pulling the messenger bag draped across her chest in front of her and adjusting her knapsack on her left shoulder, she carefully slid her right hand into the bag. This time, instead of quarters, she felt the familiar comfort sweep through her as her fingers wrapped around the metal knuckles she carried in it.

A deep sigh of relief nearly made her reach out for the wooden post holding up the sagging metal roof that offered a scant bit of relief from the fierce sun. Her eyes scanned the dilapidated buildings across from the sad, deserted bus stop.

Tina froze when the figure of a man stepped out of the shadows between two of the buildings. Her eyes narrowed as they locked with the man. Blood coated his chin, but it was the fury and hatred that blazed in his eyes that made Tina jerk her chin up in defiance. Her lip curled in contempt as she glared back at the scrawny, little bastard. She should have checked his pockets for a key to the handcuffs, but she had been reluctant to touch him.

Raising her other hand, Tina slowly gave Douglas Knockletter a one finger salute right before the bus pulled up and blocked her view of him. Dust filled the air as the bus slowly came to a stop. Tina climbed the short set of steps as soon as the door opened and gave the driver a somber smile as she handed him her ticket. Murmuring her thanks, she moved to the seat behind him and slid next to the window.

Shrugging off the knapsack, she dropped it into the seat next to her before she turned to study Knockletter through the darkly tinted glass as he stared at the bus. The bastard might not be lying when he said he didn’t know what happened to Riley, but something had happened to drive her sister into the desert and Tina was determined to discover what it was. She didn’t take her eyes off of him until the bus pulled away in a cloud of dust and hot air.

Only when the bus crossed the state line did she pull her knapsack closer to her and release the snap on the plastic clasp. Pulling out the paperwork she had brought with her, she stared at it blindly for several long second as tears blurred her vision.

“I won’t lose you, Riley. I won’t lose you, not like we lost mom,” Tina whispered, opening the file folder containing all the information she had to date. She stared down at the smiling face of her big sister. The wild, blonde curls framed Riley’s face, her infectious smile pulled at Tina’s lips, and her bright blue eyes shone with intelligence and a hint of challenge, making anyone with half a brain know they should tread cautiously. “I’ll find you, Riley. If that bastard or any of his friends did anything to you, I’ll hunt them down and shoot their asses. I promise. No one messes with us St. Claire women and gets away with it… no one!”

Tina brushed away the tear that escaped and began going over the information she had discovered shortly before she left San Diego. The detective helping them in San Diego had told her that Riley’s car had broken down not far from the county line. The car had been locked, her purse and suitcase were missing, and there was no evidence of a struggle.

It would appear that Riley had started walking toward the next town. An anonymous caller admitted to picking Riley up, but said that she had gotten out of his truck a few miles outside of the next town. The man’s story had checked out and the detective said, unless some new information came in, there was nothing else he could do. The case would remain open and Riley would be classified as a missing person.

“Missing person, my ass,” Tina muttered, turning the paper and staring down at the image of Douglas Knockletter. “You are hiding something. You know what happened, at least some of it. I just know it.”

She had used her connections to do an internal audit of the bastard’s business a little over a month ago. Toni Di Stefano, her best friend and a fellow accountant, worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a Business Forensic Field Audit Specialist. No one seeing Toni would know that she was a walking calculator on steroids with a mixture of bloodhound and a trace of mountain lion running through her veins.

Toni looked more like one of those bad-ass street gang members that could whoop your ass before you knew what happened, instead of the daughter from a powerful and very wealthy Italian family. They never would have met if it hadn’t been for an incident during Tina’s final year of high school. Tina had called to ask a huge favor from Toni for Knockletter’s tax returns for the past seven years.

“Why?” Toni had asked bluntly. “Do you want me to go through them for you? Do you think he has something to do with Riley’s disappearance? I can order an audit if you want.”

“No,” Tina had hastily replied. “I don’t want to take a chance on him knowing that he is being investigated and I don’t want you to get into any more trouble than you already will if anyone finds out that you accessed the records.”

“Shit,” Toni chuckled. “No one gives a fuck what I do as long as I get my work done. That means there is less for them to do. Besides, they are too afraid of my family name to do anything. I’ll send you the files. It is the least I can do for you, Riley, and Pearl.”

“Thank you, Toni. This means a lot to me,” Tina replied in a soft voice. “You know, it was you who saved my life, don’t you?”

Toni’s soft sigh came clearly through the cellphone. “Just as you saved mine, sorellina minore. If you need help finding Riley, say the word. I still have some contacts.”

A shiver ran through Tina as she remembered Toni’s grim offer. Her friend had contacts that always came with strings. In this case, she would be opening herself up to her family again. A family that she had turned her back on when she was seventeen and never looked back at, no matter the pressure to do so. An Italian family had strong ties. Toni’s family ties came with thick chains, concrete shoes, and a signature written in blood by the devil himself.

“Just the tax information,” Tina assured her. “People never seem to understand that their financial footprints tell more about them than anything else.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Toni replied with a sardonic chuckle. “My father learned that lesson the hard way.”

A small piece of Tina’s heart broke for her friend. Toni’s father was serving ten years in prison for tax evasion. According to Toni, he should be spending the rest of his life buried under the prison for the other things he had done. She knew deep down that her friend was right. The Di Stefano family controlled close to three-quarters of Little Italy in the Los Angeles area. At the moment, Toni’s mother and brothers were running it under the directions of her father.

“When does he get out?” Tina asked in a hesitant voice.

“Four months,” Toni replied with a dry snort. “They are letting him out for good behavior and the fact that he paid up what they think he owes the government. If I had done the audit, he’d never be seen the outside of a prison cell again. He is lucky I am family and that I have a sense of survival.”

“What are you going to do? Does he still want to marry you off to Rosso? Do you think he’ll come after you when he gets out?” Tina asked in dismay.

The silence spoke more than any words. There was no place to hide. Antonio Di Stefano knew it was his youngest daughter that had turned him in. What he didn’t understand was she did it to save his life.

Rosso wanted control. To get it, he planned to marry into the family. Once he did, he would eliminate Toni’s father and her two younger brothers. Toni had discovered the devious plan several weeks before her father planned to seal the agreement. Antonio Di Stefano refused to believe her, thinking she was just trying to wiggle her way out of the marriage. Hell, at seventeen, Tina would have done the same! Toni, in a desperate bid to save her family, delivered documentation to the District Attorney of Los Angeles and the Internal Revenue about her father’s illegal business and his history of tax evasion.

As bad as her father was, as much as he had done cruel and hurtful things, Toni still loved her father in her own way and would do anything to save him and her family. Her hope that her two younger brothers would not follow in her father’s footsteps had proven fruitless. Her mother ruled the family with as much of an iron fist as her father. Toni, realizing her mother planned to carry out the agreed marriage, had escaped into the night.

She turned up at TheWhite Pearl, tired and desperate, looking for the girl that had saved her just a few months before. Pearl had immediately taken Toni in, and a strong friendship had blossomed between Tina and Toni. They had eventually discovered they both shared a love for numbers and enrolled together at the local college to get their accounting degrees.

“Call me if you need anything, Tina,” Toni said instead. “You know I will be there for you and your family.”

“I know,” Tina replied with a sigh. “Thank you. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Good. By the way, I have an audit to do in San Diego in a couple of weeks. Tell Pearl to load up on the whiskey, Toni is coming to challenge her ass,” Toni chuckled. “Love you, sorellina minore. See you soon.”

“Love you, too, Toni,” Tina replied before disconnecting the call.

Now, she sat staring blindly out of the dirty window of the bus. She had found something during her forensic audit that she wanted to share with Toni, but now she was having second thoughts. The last thing she wanted to do was take a chance of endangering her friend.

A frown creased her brow as she thought about what happened. When she had asked Douglas Knockletter about Javier Cuello his face had changed. Tina knew enough from growing up in some of the neighborhoods she had lived in to know it was time to leave while she still could. There was no doubt in her mind that he was about to kill her.

Her fingers instinctively moved to her throat. She was going to have bruises on the pale column. There was no way she would be able to hide it from Pearl unless she wore a scarf or turtle neck.

She decided she would turn the information she had over to the agent in charge of her sister’s case back home. Staring down at the image of her sister one more time before she closed the folder, she couldn’t keep the desperate plea from escaping her.

“Riley, please, please, help me,” she whispered. “Pearl and I need you.”

Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back against the seat. She had barely slept in the past six months since Riley’s disappearance. Between working at the bar and doing her research, she was lucky to get four hours a night. The stress of the last few days was finally catching up with her. Wrapping her arms protectively around the manila folder, she cradled it to her chest as the minutes turned to hours as she made her way back home to San Diego.

Chapter Two

V