Crime families and mob wars only exist in the movies. Betrayal. Violence. Murder. They don’t happen to ordinary people.
For Lincoln Hollis, this is his world, and there isn’t a clapperboard in sight. A trained killer and advocate of justice, he’s been sent to unravel the neat little bow tied around Kate Fletcher’s perfect life, exposing her to the brutal truths she’s been so meticulously shielded from, before delivering the ultimate punishment for her family’s sins.
There’s just one problem. They’re his family’s sins, too, and he must make a choice.
Who will he say goodbye to first?
I’m dying. Of course. This is what death feels like.
Beautiful, really. Serene. The pain is gone. I can’t feel the blood trickling across my skin anymore, but the warmth from the wound remains, spreading over my body like a comforting blanket. I feel sleepy now. It’s taking over. Like those final moments when you’re lying in your own bed, on a mattress moulded just right, on a soft pillow filled with plump feathers…just before you slip into a wonderful dream. You know you’re awake, but you can feel your consciousness slinking away. It’s too late to stop it now. And I don’t want to. Nothing hurts. The bad memories are fading. There’s only one name left in my mind and I refuse to let go of it.
I will see you soon.
I am twenty-four years old. I have a fiancé, a mortgage, and seven fish. I’m responsible. An adult. Yet, today feels like the most grown-up day of my life as I get ready to start my new job. My first job, really. At least, it feels that way. Before today I’ve only ever waitressed in one of my dad’s restaurants. I enjoyed it, it paid the bills, but I never considered it a real job – one I’d earned myself. I grew up helping out there. The rest of the staff are like family to me. Today, I’m breaking out on my own, going after something I’m genuinely interested in rather than taking an easy ride from my father. I can’t carry on leading such a mundane, pointless life. I need to get out there. Have some fun, make memories, experience things.
“Bun or ponytail?” I ask with a fistful of brown hair in my hand behind my head, making eye contact with Simon, my fiancé, in the full-length mirror as he sneaks up next to me.
Moulding his body to my back, he grabs my wrist, making me drop my hair. “Down. Flowing over my balls while you suck my cock,” he whispers into my ear.
We’ve been in a relationship for two years, living together for seven months, and he can still send tingles shooting between my legs with only words. But I’m responsible, remember? Which means I can’t be late on my first day, so I arch my bum and push him away before swatting his arm. “You’ll crease my uniform.” The smile on my lips betrays my serious tone.
Simon pouts. “Spoilsport.” Plucking a bobble from the dressing table, he passes it to me and adds, “Bun. Don’t want you getting pulled into the shark pool by any loose strands.”
The fact he thinks he’s funny makes me laugh more than what he actually said. He’s such a nerd at times, bless him. My official job title is Guest Liaison Officer, which is fancy-talk for helper should anyone need any assistance during their visit to the aquarium. My job entails walking around, being visible, and answering – or getting answers to – any questions visitors may have. I’ve taken a small hit in the wages department and it’s not my dream role, but it’s in my dream field and so I’m choosing to see today, and the position of Guest Liaison Officer, as the first rung on the ladder I intend to climb. Maybe someday I can go back to college, work behind the scenes with marine life. That’s the goal.
First, however, I need to start at the bottom, and as I twist the navy blue bobble around my bun for the last time, securing it in place, nerves start popping in my belly. I don’t like the feeling. My stomach feels full, so full it’s not giving my heart enough room to beat so it has to do it faster. Ugh. I think I might actually feel sick.
“You’re going to do great,” Simon assures, rubbing over my shoulder.
I turn to face him when he pulls me towards him at the waist, looking up into the blue eyes that always seem to calm me. “I’ve got no friends there.”
“You’ll make friends.”
I tilt my head and cock one eyebrow. He knows I won’t make friends, not easily anyway. I just…don’t know how. I’m socially awkward. If people don’t approach me first then we’ll simply never speak. I don’t really understand the concept of polite conversation. Is chatting about the weather actually a thing? If it is it seems pointless.
“I’m not sure I remember where everything is from my induction last week.”
“Then you’ll ask someone.” Simon’s smile is consoling. He understands how my mind works, that I overthink everything. “You’re new, they’ll understand.”
“Kate…” He cuts me off, placing a gentle finger over my lips. “You’ve got this. I believe in you.”
Closing my eyes, I draw in a deep breath through my nose and let it out as a long sigh before looking at him again. “Thanks,” I say, nodding. I’m a grown-up. Responsible. I can do this. “I’m being silly.”
Grinning, he leans forward and kisses the tip of my nose. “There’s my tough girl.”
Tough girl. The name makes me smile…this time. Sometimes it pisses me off, depending on the situation. He gave me the nickname not long after we started dating, when I took playful offence to being called ‘Princess’. I have a hard enough time being called the term by my dad, but he’s my dad so I suck it up. I’m not a damn princess. I’m not a girly-girl who needs a big strong man to rescue me or shower me with pretty things. Well, not all the time. Sometimes I do need a big strong man, like the time I tried to mount the bedroom TV on the wall myself and ended up on my arse with the TV landing only inches away from my head on the floor. I wasn’t such a tough girl then. I wasn’t much of a princess either when Simon called me out on it and received a “Fuck you, arsehole,” in response.
“Good luck,” he adds, and then he sweeps his lips over mine, absorbing some of my nervousness, before releasing me. “I’ve got to leave now.”
I nod in understanding. Simon has to get to work too. He works in construction and his firm is currently building a new set of offices for the council on the other side of town. I love it when he’s on jobs close to home. His firm take contracts up and down the country and sometimes he has to go away for days at a time. He calls and FaceTimes but it’s not the same. I always miss him.
“Oh, wait!” I call after him. “Don’t forget to pick up a loaf of bread for Mrs McKinley on your way home!” Mrs McKinley is our next door neighbour. She’s lived alone since her husband passed away many years ago and she doesn’t have visitors that I’ve ever seen, so Simon and I look out for her.
After saying, or shouting from separate rooms, our goodbyes, I finish applying my make-up – nothing fancy, eyeliner, mascara and dabs of concealer over the two spots on my chin.
I’m driving to work less than ten minutes later and for a moment I start to wish I was on my way to the restaurant, but then I mentally slap myself. I only want that because it’s familiar. I certainly don’t miss the heat, the demanding customers, the blisters on my feet. No, I need this, I want this, and I’ll be good at this.
Need. Want. Good. Need. Want. Good. I chant that in my head throughout the drive. Well, until the words start getting muddled up in my brain and I realise I’m turning a little cuckoo over the whole thing. Grown-up, I remind myself. Just a regular grown-up, starting a regular job, like regular grown-ups do every day.
Jesus. I’ve arrived. Now, I really feel sick. It’s stupid and irrational, I know. I like to think of myself as fairly intelligent and a fast learner, so there’s really no reason for the day not to go well. That’s what I force myself to focus on after leaving my car in the staff car park, plastering the confident smile I’d been practising on my face as I press the buzzer to be let into the huge building via the staff entrance.
A security guard manning the reception desk opens the door for me. It’s a relief to get inside the air-conditioned building after melting in my car where I don’t have the luxury of air con. It may be August, but the weather has been abnormally hot for a British summer this year. I recognise the man behind the desk from my induction day last week. I even remember him talking to me for a while about a frog pond he’s got in his garden, but his name has completely evaporated from my brain.
“Morning…” Thank God for name tags, “Rick.”
“Gooooood morning,” he says, so cheerfully it’s almost songlike. He reminds me of my Uncle Maurice with his old-and-wise, life’s-too-short, seize-the-day vibe. I wonder if he’s got the embarrassing uncle dance moves down, too. He’s certainly got the same kind eyes and potbelly hanging over his belt. At least, the same as I remember. A sad smile tugs at the corners of my lips. I miss Uncle Maurice. He’s the only family I have on my mother’s side and because he lives in Italy I haven’t seen him in…wow…nine years, since he last visited home. Still, he rings me every couple of months to check in and catch up.
The sound of my name snaps me back into the real world and a flush of embarrassment heats my cheeks. “S-sorry,” I mutter. “I, uh…you just remind me of someone.”
A smug grin tickles his mouth as he nods. “George Clooney. Don’t worry, I get that a lot.”
He makes me chuckle… and relax. Suddenly, I have no idea why I’ve been so nervous all morning. “Yep, you guessed it. A much hotter version, of course.” That wasn’t so hard, I tell myself. I just had a conversation with a virtual stranger and didn’t make a complete tit of myself.
“I like you,” he says with another grin. “Jack’s waiting for you upstairs.”
“Thanks, Rick. See you later.”
With a deep but less nervous breath, I turn for the lifts and make my way to the office floor. I was told last week to go to the conference room upon arrival, which is easy to find because it’s directly opposite the lift when I step off it.
Jack, my manager, is indeed waiting for me when I push open the heavy door. “Ah, Kate!” He speaks my name with the same enthusiasm he did during my induction and tour. I think he really loves his job, which is actually pretty great to see when you’re starting out in the same company. “Here’re copies of your contract and everything you signed last week,” he adds, handing me the white file he was reading when I entered the room. “You’ll also find your name badge in there and a key to your locker in the staffroom.”
“Great, thank you.”
“Someone will be here to show you around soon. You’ll be able to shadow them for a few days until you get a feel for the layout of the place, see how things work. Until then…” He pauses to wave his hand around the room. “Grab a drink from the machine, pick a chair, or have a nap,” he says, amusement in his tone. “Whatever you do, enjoy your last few moments of quiet before the buses full of school kids start arriving at opening time.”
I’ve always thought I’d be pretty good with kids, but I’m not experienced enough for the position of Tour Guide yet anyway. Still, I laugh at his joke because he expects me to. Then, when he leaves, I take a seat, pin the name badge which says Kate Fletcher ~ Guest Liaison Officer ~ in place, and look through the papers in my file to pass the time.
Now I’m here, I think today’s going to be great.
Nine hours later, as I wave goodbye over my shoulder to Rick, still on shift at the desk, I rate my first day a solid eight-out-of-ten. I’ve knocked two points off for my lunch hour. I sat alone, not brave enough to go and hijack anyone else’s table and conversations, and when no one had approached me fifteen minutes after finishing my lunch I left the cafeteria and spent the rest of my break in the toilet so I didn’t look like the awkward saddo with no friends…which I was, of course.
Tomorrow, I’ll pluck up the courage to make the first move and talk to someone. Maybe. Either that, or I’ll take a packed lunch so I don’t even have to enter the cafeteria and can hide out for the entire hour in the staffroom instead. I’m undecided.
On the drive home, I decide to call my dad to see where he is. He’s been so busy lately securing new premises for another restaurant to add to his chain, that we haven’t seen each other in over a week. For us that’s a long time.
Pressing the voice-command button on my steering wheel, I say aloud “Call Dad.” I decide before it even rings that if he’s close by I’ll pop over for a visit. Often, he’s miles away at what he considers his ‘hub’ restaurant in Kent. I don’t know why because he started his business here, in Lancashire, back in the eighties, but I suppose down south is where the money is. I’ve only been there once when I was very little, so I don’t remember much about it, but the two restaurants he owns up here are designed to be visually identical on the inside, so I imagine that will be the same.
“Kathryn, what can I do for you?” His tone is a little more curt than usual as it comes through the stereo speakers.
“Hey. I miss you. Thought I could come over?”
“Sorry, princess. I’m a little—” he pauses mid-sentence but returns quickly, “Caught up with something. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He sounds a little breathless, or frustrated perhaps, but I decide it’s best not to pester him about it on the phone. It’s probably just business. My dad isn’t a chef, he’s the money man, the brains behind the operation. He works too hard, that’s his trouble. He should be slowing down now, preparing for retirement, but knowing my dad the day he slows down will be the day he dies. Honestly? I think this is the only way he can live without my mum. She was killed in a car crash on the motorway when I was nine. From then on, I was brought up by countless different nannies while my dad worked every hour he could. I remember my mum, but not as much as I’d like. Some days she’s all I think about, others she doesn’t cross my mind at all. I hope she doesn’t know, wherever she is now, that I forget to think about her sometimes. The thought makes my chest heavy with guilt.
“Oh,” I reply, unable to conceal the disappointment in my voice. I suppose I’d hoped he’d want to hear all about my first day at work. I shouldn’t be too surprised, really. He never wanted me to leave the restaurant, although he didn’t say that directly. The reluctance was clear on his face. He offered me more money, told me for the millionth time that I didn’t need to work at all because he is more than wealthy enough to provide for me. I know it’s out of love and concern, but I don’t want to rely on him. I want to make my own way, pursue my own dreams, leave my own legacy, just like he has. Everyone else my age is climbing their way up their respective career ladders now. Some are married, starting families. I need to do that. Grow up, finally. Take care of myself. “Okay. Speak tomorrow. Love you.”
He doesn’t speak another word before hanging up. Jeez, someone must’ve really pissed him off. I hope he’s okay. Well, straight home it is. Our two-bedroom terrace is a twenty-minute drive from the aquarium when there’s no traffic but, unfortunately, I hit the middle of rush hour and it takes me almost fifty. Thanks to the warm weather we’ve had, the house is stuffy when I open the front door, so the first thing I do is open the living room and kitchen windows to let a gentle breeze blow through. I think about starting dinner next, but the twinge in my neck and the ache in my feet convince me to sit down in a comfy spot for half an hour first.
Something tickles me and I bat it away before pulling my cold arms closer to my chest. The something, whatever it is…laughs?
“Uh-w-what?” For the briefest moment I don’t know where I am or what time it is, and then my cloudy unfocused eyes graze over my fiancé’s body hunched over mine. “Oh…crap.”
“Wow,” he says, the word shaking through a chuckle. “Love you, too.”
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” My voice comes out groggy as I shuffle into a sitting position on the sofa. “Haven’t even started dinner.”
Leaning over, Simon bumps my nose with his before standing up. “Leave that to me,” he says, shrugging out of his dirty hi-vis work jacket. “I’ll throw a pizza in the oven when I’ve had a shower, and then you can tell me all about your day.” It’s nice that someone is interested. I’m looking forward to talking about it.
Smiling gratefully, I stretch my toes and relax back into the sofa. On a weekend, I’d probably join him in the shower, but not tonight. Not after he’s been working on a construction site all day and built up fifteen layers of sweat and grime over his skin. “Sounds perfect,” I say.
I know I sound corny as hell, but I feel like the luckiest woman alive to have Simon in my life. After a handful of disastrous relationships, I’ll always be grateful to the blind date who stood him up during one of my shifts at the restaurant two years ago. He waited for over an hour and we talked a little more each time I tended his table to top up his drink, or rather he talked and I giggled pathetically. Then, he came in a few days later, and a few days after that. Eventually, I found the courage to be flirty with him and told him it didn’t look like his date was going to turn up.
“Oh, she’s here. I just haven’t asked her out yet,” he said before setting his lips into the most devilish smile.
I’ve been his ever since.
After a month in my new job I’m finally starting to feel at home there. I haven’t shadowed anyone in two weeks. I could find my way around the aquarium with my eyes closed and I actually have friends, or at least acquaintances that might one day be friends, to sit with in the cafeteria. I look forward to going in each day, almost as much as I look forward to coming home to Simon. Sometimes I wonder if those tiny bubbles of excitement that pop in my belly when I see him will ever fade. I hope not.
Those bubbles appear, as always, when he gets home from work. He’s earlier than usual tonight. “Won’t be a sec!” I call out from the kitchen. After giving the beef stew in the slow cooker a stir, I pop the lid back on and wander through to the living room. The first thing I notice is that he’s not dirty tonight. He looks a little flustered too. He tries to hide it with a smile, but I know him too well to fall for that. “Everything okay?” I ask, ambling over to him and kissing his stubbled cheek.
“Of course.” He takes my face in both hands, staring into my eyes. “I love you,” he whispers, and then he presses our lips together.
I open my mouth instinctively, craving the taste of him. His tongue swirls and dances with mine before he sucks my bottom lip between his teeth, nibbling gently. Then, he drops his forehead to mine.
“I love you, too,” I say, growing a little concerned. Running my fingers through his short brown hair, I encourage his head up to face me again. “Something’s bothering you.”
He sighs and palms my cheek. “Had a run-in with my father. No big deal.”
Ugh. Simon’s parents always manage to put him in a bad mood. They have lots of money, not unlike my own father. The only difference is my dad doesn’t think I’m a waste of space because I didn’t go to university and achieve some big fancy career. His mum’s okay, if not a little snooty, but his dad weirds me out if I’m honest. He’s got a mean face and a condescending attitude to go with it. Thankfully, they live up in Scotland and we don’t have to see them often. I’ve only met them twice, in fact. “Your mum and dad are here?” I question.
“Just my father, and he’s gone now. He passed through on his way to Birmingham. Business.” Simon shrugs.
Like mine, Simon’s dad is a businessman, only he owns a chain of casinos instead of restaurants. He’s a self-made man, which is why I don’t understand his problem with Simon working in a trade. Who says Simon won’t go on to own his own construction company one day and be as successful as his father? He’s only twenty-eight. He’s got dreams, too, and lots of time to achieve them. Sometimes I wonder if there’s more to their relationship than Simon tells me, but then I tell myself I’m being ridiculous. Simon tells me everything.
My lips part, ready to ask him what happened, but he talks first.
“Something smells good,” he says, raising his nose as he follows the smell towards the kitchen.
“Stew,” I say, disappointed that he doesn’t want to elaborate. “It’s ready. I’m just waiting on the cobs in the oven.”
He nods. That’s all. My beef stew is his favourite. I learned how to make it from Dominic, the head chef where I used to work. Usually, Simon’s face lights up when I make it.
Damn his pompous twat of a father.
Later in the evening, we’re curled up in bed with the TV on the chest of drawers playing to itself, because neither of us are looking at it. We’re freshly showered, and naked, and while Simon twirls strands of my long hair around his fingers, I hook one leg over his thighs and snuggle closer.
“Do you ever think of just…getting away?” Simon asks. With my head on his chest I can’t see his face, but his voice sounds curious.
“What, like a holiday?”
“More like…moving. Emigrating, maybe.”
My head snaps back in surprise, and then I shuffle back until I’m lying on my side, facing him. “Emigrating?” He can’t be serious.
“I’ve been looking into it.”
“There’re so many more opportunities abroad, so much more for our money. And, really, what’s keeping us here?”
Gobsmacked, my breath stutters for a moment before I can answer. “Uh…my dad. My job.” I shake my head, wondering where this has come from. “The house, the fish—”
“Okay, okay,” he interrupts. “It was just an idea.” He smiles but I sense disappointment behind it.
“Sounded like more than an idea to me.” My tone is unintentionally snippy, the aftermath of shock, most likely. I bet this has something to do with his bloody father making him feel like he’s not good enough, not achieved enough.
“It was, but you’re right. Now’s not the right time. Let’s just start with a holiday instead.” His reassuring words didn’t serve their purpose because it would neverbe the right time for me. I’m a home bird. I don’t like change. That’s probably the main reason why it took me so long to find the courage I needed to leave the only job I’d ever known despite craving something else entirely.
“Hmm.” I return the smile he’s offering, but unease pokes at my stomach. “We’ll start saving,” I suggest. I wouldn’t mind going back to Corfu, actually. I visited the Greek island many times as a child with my parents. I only have vague memories, but it could be fun to explore it again.
Leaning over me and trapping my body with his strong arms, Simon turns playful. He pecks kisses along my lips and nose and then flashes a grin which makes every one of my muscles turn to jelly. “Let’s be spontaneous for a change. Reckless.”
I’m confused, yet I can’t help but smile wider at the mischievous look on his face.
“Let’s just book a ticket. To anywhere. Tomorrow. Let’s go on an adventure!”
I start laughing because, clearly, he’s pulling my leg. I just can’t work out why. “What is wrong with you?” I choke out through the laughter as he kisses my neck. “Have you been drinking?” I know he hasn’t, but I can’t think of another reason for his behaviour tonight.
A throaty chuckle tumbles from his mouth. “No. I…” He looks down on me, his smile fading along with my own. A moment of seriousness crosses between us and I don’t quite understand what it is or what it means. “Never mind. I’ve just had a hell of a week at work. Escaping seemed like a good idea for a minute…but now I realise I just need to look at you and all my problems go away.”
Oh hell. He’s got me again. My insides start to melt at the same time every inch of my skin becomes acutely aware of the closeness of him. I forget what I’m planning to say the second his hand dips under the duvet, his callused fingers stroking a trail towards my pussy. I’m throbbing in anticipation before he even reaches his destination and when he slides one finger along the seam of my folds, so gently, so teasingly I can barely feel it, I throw my head back and gasp. “Oh…God.”
And just like that, everything is right with the world.