Two Cuts Darker Excerpt

Chapter One

Cable Beach, Nassau, Bahamas

Vincent

“He’ll kill ’em all before you could get the safety off,” the driver said to the other man in the front seat. Then he shot Vincent a look over his shoulder. “There’s at least ten. They’re dealing coke on Vlasenko’s turf. You know what to do.”

Vincent gave a grunt of acknowledgment but didn’t bother with words. He didn’t even know the driver’s name. No need. The man was interchangeable with the other men in the bratva who took their orders from the boss but knew nothing more than required for his job. No use to Vincent whatsoever.

Time to get to work. Make himself useful to the boss. Try to get closer. So he could get the hell out. He started to get out of the car, but the man in the passenger seat, Luka, called out after him. “Yo, G. What time should I put my money on in the pool?”

Vincent stared at him a moment. As the bottom man on the totem pole, Luka took a lot of shit from the others. He was about as suited for this business as a snot-nosed kid.

The man paled and turned back around in his seat, pretending he hadn’t opened his mouth. All of Vlasenko’s men were scared shitless of him. Especially Luka, the useless one. But that hadn’t been Vincent’s intention, at least this time. So he answered, “Five minutes.”

The driver slapped the other man on the shoulder. “No fucking way.”

“You heard him. I’m putting a hundred on five minutes.”

“I’ll take that action.”

Shutting the car door, Vincent studied his target. The bungalow sat back from the quiet road, dwarfed by overgrown trees and shrubs that hadn’t seen a pruning shear in at least a decade. The only other houses up the street bore heavy hurricane damage and looked abandoned. Nobody’d be calling for police.

He’d already checked over his weapons before leaving Vlasenko’s headquarters at the Royal Reefs hotel. His favorite Glock, a backup, spare cartridges for both, six small throwing knives and one larger blade for any up close kills he had to make. Quick, easy, in and out. Should’ve told Luka three minutes.

He slipped off the road into the heavy foliage, quickly making his way alongside the house. Lights shone from the front windows. Four rooms, no upstairs, cellar with brand-new steel doors and a shiny lock. Television in the front room. Sports game, soccer, two—no, three—men cheering. Vincent smelled cheap beer. Through a bay window, he saw five men around a table playing cards. One of them said, “And that’s when she told me to go all in, baby,” as he threw his cards down on the table, and the rest of the men roared with laughter. Someone fucked in the tiny back bedroom, the man grunting energetically. At the back of the house, a stoop. Two guards. Smoking cigars—good ones, by the rich tobacco scent. Eleven targets.

Best to start quietly. He unsheathed the knife. Long years in the Special Forces made it easy for him to stalk his quarry, using the shadows to get so close he could smell their sweat. The first man fell off the railing gasping through a puncture in his lung and heart. Vincent grabbed the second man’s arm as he reached for his gun, spun him around and broke his neck.

He slipped into the back room, a tiny, dingy kitchen. Smelled like smoke and old grease. A rickety table in the corner sagged beneath the bags of cocaine and cash. He eased down the narrow hallway, skipping the bedroom for now. Keeping the knife in his right hand, he pulled out the Glock with his left.

The first two fell before anyone managed to clear their chairs, let alone reach for a weapon. He stepped to the side and put his back to the wall, just in case the loud grunter heard the ruckus and decided to finish early. He shot the third in the chest. The man closest to him threw a beer at his head and crawled under the table. The fifth man managed to get a wild shot off before Vincent nailed him.

The three television watchers charged into the room. They’d probably expected him to take cover, but he always took the fight to his prey. He sprinted toward them, not giving them time to get a bead on him. Time seemed to slow. He registered their faces, the way their expressions changed from anger to slack-jawed shock as the bullets slammed into the first two. The third man whirled away, racing toward the front of the house. Vlasenko’s men could get him, but Vincent didn’t care to leave a job unfinished.

Pain seared his left shoulder, spoiling his shot, which went wide of his target. He threw the big knife instead, catching the man in the back. Blood dripped down Vincent’s arm and it felt like someone had doused him in kerosene and lit him up like a bonfire. He shuddered. The scent of his own blood sent his pulse skyrocketing. The fierce thudding of his heart echoed like a drumbeat in his skull. Instant rush.

Jacked up on adrenaline, he whirled and found the man who’d hidden beneath the table taking aim at him again. He strode toward him, ignoring the frantic shots the man squeezed off. The man scrambled away, tripping over the broken plates and glasses that had been on the table. Vincent grabbed a handful of his hair and dragged him toward the back room. The couple who’d been squeaking the bed had suddenly gone quiet. Vincent threw the man ahead of him, sending him sprawling on the bedroom floor. A gun fired inside, taking care of that target.

Vincent charged into the room and threw himself down low, skidding across the floor. A few shots went off, one close enough that he felt it whiz by his head, but now he had the shooter’s location. The man had selected a good spot behind the door in the darkest corner, away from the exterior windows.

With his blood scenting the air, Vincent didn’t want a quick kill. Instead, he wanted to get his hands dirty. He holstered the Glock and went after the man with his fists and feet. He kicked the weapon aside. Took out the man’s knee. Broke his nose. Yelling, the man dived for his gun. Vincent grabbed one of the short blades and jammed it in between his ribs. Hot blood poured over his hand and the man collapsed, wheezing, helplessly reaching toward his back as if he could stem the stream.

The man lay broken on the floor, gasping as his lungs filled with blood. He’d drown before he bled out.

A small noise made him whip his head around, hand automatically reaching down to pull out another small blade. Huddled on the bed beneath the blankets, a lump shivered. He jerked the blankets back.

So young. If she was sixteen, he’d give his Glock to Luka.

She scrambled across the bed, grabbed the lamp and threw it at his head. It shattered against the wall, but splinters of glass hit him hard enough to add a few new cuts on his bare forearms and the back of his head. He lunged after her, grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her head back, baring her throat.

Knife in hand. Breathing hard. Every instinct in him screamed with urgency. Blood, so sweet, so hot. He couldn’t focus. He could smell her fear and the stink of her body. Dirt and bruises smudged her skin. Her hair was a tangled snarl, so filthy he couldn’t tell its color. Beaten and likely raped by these men, she still trembled in his grasp and the whites of her eyes flashed in the gloom. She still managed to be terrified. Of him.

Worse, her fear made the beast in him sit up and sniff the air. The predator had been fully activated.

Prey acquired.

She whimpered, her eyes flashing with terror.

Vincent growled beneath his breath. An electric jolt shot through her body and she jerked frantically against him, fighting his grip. Wrong thing to do. This monster liked to play. Arms flailing, she managed to scratch a bleeding furrow down his forearm. His nostrils flared, his heart rate spiked higher and his fingers spasmed on the blade. A cut bloomed on her skin. Not a deadly wound, but her blood welled with invitation. He could paint the room in red.

Panting, he tossed her back on the bed and he rushed outside. He breathed deeply, letting the cool night air bank some of the fire searing him to ash. Too close. He’d almost lost control and killed an innocent. A woman. He’d killed plenty of times. People who’d deserved it, or at least been targeted by the government. But he’d never killed an innocent.

He could have killed the last man cleanly and quickly, but he’d left him gasping on the floor like a beached fish to slowly drown in his own blood. Then he’d nearly slaughtered a girl who’d probably been forced into prostitution at an age when she should have still been playing with dolls.

Too far. He’d gone too far. With as many kills as he’d made for Vlasenko, it’d been inevitable. He’d cross the line eventually. And once a man crossed that line, even in his head…

One of Vlasenko’s men slapped him on the shoulder as he passed. One by one, others went inside to strip the house of weapons and goods. Then they’d torch it. Message sent to the small-time rivals, loud and clear. Fuck with Vlasenko, and he’d send his best enforcer to wipe them out and torch their place.

Laughing like a kid in a candy store, Luka paused in front of him with a wad of cash. “Thanks, G. I made a killing tonight. Five grand in four minutes flat.”

He fisted his hand in the man’s shirt and jerked him up on his toes. “You made a killing? You? I just killed eleven men. I almost…” His throat seized around the words, strangling him.

Luka was armed. All of Vlasenko’s men were. Vincent grabbed his gun and forced it into Luka’s hand, crushing his fingers until he gripped it.

“Shoot me. In the head. Do it!”

Luka’s eyes shone wide in the moonlight and he licked his lips. “What?”

“Somebody has to.” He dragged Luka’s hand up, pressing the barrel to his forehead. “Just pull the fucking trigger.”

Someone whistled, drawing Luka’s attention up to the cottage. His hand fell away, leaving Vincent shaking. Sweat poured down his face and he couldn’t regulate his breathing.

“Looks like they were selling more than just coke.” Kozlov, Luka’s cousin, joined them, a huge grin on his face. “Several fine young women down in the basement. They’re not really Vlasenko’s type of product, but I’m sure he’ll think of something interesting to do with them.” He looked from his cousin to Vincent. “Anything wrong?”

“Nah,” Luka said with an aw-shucks grin that would probably get him out of just about anything. “G’s just screwing with me.”

“Get on up to the place and get your share.”

Luka nodded and hurried up to the bungalow. All the other men had taken first pick of the loot. If there was a spare beer left in the fridge, Vincent would be surprised. Kozlov gave him a wary look. “You should have gone first.”

Vincent grimaced and walked back to the car without a word. He wasn’t here for the money. He’d never become a part of Vlasenko’s bratva for the rewards. If he really wanted to die, all he had to do was leak his identity to one of Vlasenko’s men. They’d be more than happy to splatter his brains on a wall in some dingy hovel, but only after torturing him for information.

Dying didn’t scare him. He’d been searching for that peace most of his life. But he’d rather not go to his judgment missing body parts.

In the privacy of the car, he laid his head back against the cushions. His wounds burned and blood cooled on his skin but the fire still burned inside. The killing need ate at him like a cancer. Even if he finished this job, the darkness would churn and gnaw him from the inside out. So many roles. Mafia hit man. Spy. Sniper. Soldier. They had one thing in common. Killing. The only thing he’d ever been good at.

He had to finish the mission as soon as possible. Once free of Vlasenko’s bratva, he’d be able to gain some distance from the life of violence and crime. Hopefully enough to buy some time.

Time to find someone good enough to finally put a bullet in his skull.

Chapter Two

Belize

Charlie

The name I use in Belize is Randall Charles. The locals think I’m a wealthy American escaping from the harsh realities of Wall Street. It’s an easy role, one I’ve played often.

I play lots of roles. I drop and pick up identities as easily as some men change their clothes. I’ve hidden my true self for so long, and done it so well, that nobody has ever caught a glimpse of what I hide, until I walked into a veterinarian clinic in a small Midwestern town and met Ranay.

She looked at me and peeled away the mask of Charlie MacNiall that I’d been wearing for the job. But when she didn’t flinch from the horrors of what she saw, it made me wonder if she could peel back the mask underneath it, and the next. If she was brave enough to look beneath those careful layers that hide the truth from the world, would she run in terror at what she found?

I know I would. I did, when I saw the thing my father had become.

I am not a man any longer. At least, not the kind of man who thinks about finding a wife, having a family and paying a mortgage on the white picket fence. I don’t set an alarm clock to head to my day job each morning. The coin of my job is blood. The rewards, death. I keep the appearance of a normal person going about his everyday life, but only so I can get closer to my target.

There’s a killing need inside me. I can ignore it for a while, like a mild toothache. I know it’s there, but I try to pretend that I’m fine, that I don’t need to go to a dentist. But the ache worsens, a miserable pain deep inside of me, until it becomes the frenzy of a wild animal, a predator who’s been caged. He looks at his handler shoving the plate of raw beef under his door and he burns with thirst for hot, fresh blood. The sweet ragged screams. Fresh meat. Freedom.

Don’t feed me a neatly packaged steak and think the predator will ever be satisfied.

Ranay knows there’s a predator in me. As the most natural, unreserved submissive I’ve ever seen, she finds the danger my most appealing feature. She likes that I can hurt her and I don’t feel bad about it later. She’s taught me so much. Trust. Tenderness. Controlled violence while we fuck. I never expected to share even a fraction of my dark need with a woman, but she embraces me, even when I bring a knife to bed.

There’s nothing but darkness, pain and death inside of me. She’s touched the monster beneath. Just a moment. The barest glimpse.

She didn’t scream in terror and flee. Though she ought to do exactly that.

I find myself watching her as she walks along the beach, playing like a child in the sun. I wonder when it will happen. When I will show her too much and she’ll suddenly realize exactly how close to horror she’s been all along. I imagine how her face will twist with fear and revulsion. How she’ll flinch away from me. I try to imagine being alone again and the emptiness scares me like nothing I’ve ever known. Charlie loves her. He wants to make her smile. He wants to hold her, make love to her and meet every need she has.

But I cannot be Charlie all the time.

The monster loves her too.

Ranay

Life on the run with a killer wasn’t as fucked-up as I’d expected it to be.

I’d only been in Belize with Charlie for a week in our new life together, but so far it was like a dream vacation. We took walks on the beach at all hours of the day and night. As promised, the beach was secluded enough that I walked around naked most of the time. I’d never had a more incredible tan in my whole life. Whether we made love under the stars or in his bed, he was attentive and dedicated to drawing as much pleasure from my body as possible. In short, a tremendously wonderful lover.

A gentle, sweet lover. Other than the bite on my ass he’d given me as a hello present, I didn’t have a single mark on me.

Which told me something wasn’t quite right, despite the idyllic lazy days and nights we spent together.

Charlie was working extremely hard at keeping his monster reined in tightly, so I kept my darker needs under wraps too. I didn’t need the sadist every time he touched me. I knew he was there. He would see to whatever needs I had when it was time. And for now, I was more than happy to soak in the heat and care of the gentle Charlie as long as he wanted.

Every time I tried to talk to him about the FBI, he shook his head or laid a finger across my mouth to shush me. He didn’t want to hear what Special Agent Jill Matheson had told me about his brother while I recovered in the hospital. I didn’t even know if he’d accepted another contract or not.

I still wasn’t sure how I’d be able to face the reality of him leaving me and then returning with blood on his hands. The two people he’d killed before—the only two I knew about—had been to protect me. I had no idea how I’d feel about knowing he’d just gone out and killed some random stranger I didn’t know.

My sweet, tender Master was an assassin. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around that tidbit. Not completely.

Of course my parents were having a complete meltdown over my “disappearance” even though I’d called them immediately. Charlie had given me a secure satellite phone that I could use to call them whenever I wanted, but the frequency of those calls was going to flatline in a heartbeat if they didn’t let up on me.

“You know he’s a bad man, Ranay.” Mom worked extremely hard at being ladylike, so the volume of her voice told me exactly how upset she was. “The FBI want him for a reason. How could you go off with him like this?”

“He’s not a bad man, Mom. I promise.”

“Not a bad man?” Her voice rose to a piercing shrill. “How could you possibly think that? He took you away from us and you won’t even tell us where you are!”

“I love him. Why can’t you just trust me?”

“Trust you? Have you forgotten the nightmare you put us through with your last boyfriend?”

I closed my eyes, trying not to make a sound. It hurt. It hurt so badly. And no, not the kind of hurt that would send me shuddering over the edge of a powerful climax. A soft muzzle pushed into my left hand and I slid my fingers along the top of Sheba’s head to bury in her ruff. She stood guard for me, even trying to protect me from painful phone calls. My throat ached but I forced the words out. “I made a mistake. Charlie’s different.”

“Your mistakes are going to end up with you dead.”

“Maybe.” Hurt and fury roared through me. Yeah, I’d made plenty of mistakes—but most of them had been as a direct result of feeling so completely misunderstood and alienated my entire life. “But at least I’ll die happy.”

“I love you, Ranay. I always will.” Mom spoke each word forcibly. “But don’t call home again as long as you’re with that man. And don’t call expecting us to drop everything and come get you. Not again.”

“Yeah, well, that’d be pretty difficult since I’m not even in the country. Love you too, Mom.”

I hung up before I accidentally said too much. My phone might be secure, but if the FBI really wanted Charlie, they’d have tapped my parents’ phone. I stared out across the ocean, letting my breathing match the gentle waves as they lapped back and forth across the beach. I imagined each wave carrying away some of my hurt, rolling it away to the bottom of the deepest cavern in the ocean. They didn’t have to understand. Not as long as Charlie and I had an understanding.

His hand dropped onto my shoulder, but it didn’t startle me, even though I hadn’t heard him approach. My body knew his touch and would never fear it. “Tough call?”

“Yeah. You can have the phone back. I don’t think I’ll be needing it.”

His breath sighed out across my neck and he pressed a tender kiss to my pulse. “I’m sorry, kitten.”

“Don’t be sorry. Never about us.”

He sat on the sand beside me and I curled against his side. He smelled like salt and sun, mixed with the green lushness of the jungle. I couldn’t help but nuzzle his throat. “Are you sure this is the life you want? I’ll get you back home safely and you can keep the phone. We can talk whenever you want.”

I jerked my head up and glared into his eyes. “No. I’m not leaving you.”

His dark eyes gleamed in the sunlight, soft and molten like dark chocolate. “They’re right, you know. I’m not a good man.”

“You’re the best man I know.”

“Then you don’t know very many men.” He blew out a sigh and stared out across the ocean. “I suppose it’s time we had that talk now. What do they want me to do?”

I laid my head on his shoulder. “When I was in the hospital, Matheson and her boss came to see me.”

“Her boss?” He sounded surprised. “Do you remember the name?”

“Wilkins, I think? He ran the Kansas City office.”

“Then not exactly her boss. She must have been called out from Washington and temporarily reported to him for that case.”

I forgot that he’d been an agent himself years ago. “You know her?”

“I know her father, Paul Matheson. He was deputy director when I was an agent, and now he’s the director. I didn’t know Jill personally, but I think she did most of her work in international operations.”

I frowned, trying to remember exactly what Wilkins had said. If he’d lied about her, then he might be lying about what they wanted Charlie to do too. “He said he assigned his best female agent to Rusk.”

“I could see Jill being the best female agent the FBI has. I know her by reputation, and of course her father’s. She had to prove herself even more than the other women because she didn’t want to coast on Daddy’s reputation. I didn’t know she had an interest in serial killers, but they might have reassigned her to Wilkins just to bring Rusk down.”

“So Wilkins wasn’t lying?”

“He’s probably just the middleman. He’s not a big fish in the FBI food chain. My guess is that Matheson brought the order from Washington and he just went along. Did he give you the information, or her?”

“He did. It’s about your brother.”

Charlie didn’t move, not exactly. But his muscles went rock hard against me.

“They think he’s working for an international trafficking ring.”

“Drugs or people?”

His voice was so flat and cold that it made me shiver. “People.”

“Where?”

“They didn’t say. All they told me was that they might need your help to bring him down.”

He was silent so long that I lifted my head and searched his face. Bleak lines carved tunnels around his eyes and mouth. I didn’t know what to say, so I just held his hand and waited.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen him.” Charlie whispered so softly that I instinctively leaned closer, straining to catch every word. “I documented everything I could remember from our childhood. His favorite foods, television shows, clothes. Where we lived. The odd jobs he had as a teenager. His girlfriends. He was expelled so many times for fights that he didn’t graduate from high school, but he got his GED and joined the Special Forces. I know he trained awhile at Fort Bragg and ended up in the 10th Special Forces Group. I couldn’t get details of his missions, but I’m pretty sure he spent some time in Afghanistan. He came stateside for a few weeks about a year later, but I don’t know where he went. He didn’t come home and he didn’t call. His military file from that point forward is sealed and I was officially told that he was MIA, even though there’s no record of him ever being deployed again.”

“What does that mean?”

“Some CIA black ops program probably got him, at least in the beginning. When he never made any attempt to connect with me, I knew the truth and shifted my focus to stopping our father.”

“What truth?” I whispered.

He turned and the coldness seeping from his eyes made me flinch. The warm, gentle Master had been replaced by the emotionless killer. “He loved me and Mom only like someone who’s lost everything can. Yet he never made contact with me. He hugged me goodbye and said he loved me, and then I never saw him again.”

I shook my head slightly, not sure what he meant.

“He was protecting me from what he’d become. My greatest fear is that our father got his protégé after all. If Vincent is involved in that kind of criminal element, then he’s known nothing but killing for a long time. He honed his skills, first in the army, probably the CIA and who knows elsewhere. If he’s anything like our father, and me, then he’s developed a taste for it. He’ll crave it. Maybe not the blood, but the violence and control of taking someone’s life. Killing, over and over, all these years, and always alone. No one to help rein him in. If he slips, even just once, he’ll be like a rabid wolf, attacking anything and anyone. I have to stop him. He’d want that. I promised…”

I instinctively pressed closer to him, tightening my hold on him.

“I swore I wouldn’t allow him to turn into a killer like our father. Even if that means I have to kill him myself.” His voice broke and I squeezed him tighter. “My brother. I owe him that much.”

I hadn’t cried when Mom told me not to call home again as long as I was with Charlie, but I did cry now. I’d hoped for the best for him. I’d wished he could be reunited with his long-lost brother and we’d sit down to a holiday feast together. Maybe I’d even introduce him to my family and we’d exchange Facebook Christmas greetings.

Instead, Charlie thought he was going to have to kill the brother he loved so much.

“Do you have Jill Matheson’s number?”

I swiped at my tears and nodded. “I brought her card with me, just in case.”

“Good. I’ll probably be leaving in the next day or so.”

I squeezed his hand tighter, determined to stick with him like glue. To be there for whatever he needed. To rein him in if he needed it. “I’ll be packed and ready.”

He didn’t look at me and his fingers were loose against my hand. He wasn’t holding my hand—I was squeezing his fingers as if my life depended on it. He didn’t have to admit that he had no intention of taking me with him.

But there was no fucking way I’d let him leave without me.