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Authors: Wendy Byrne

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BOOK: Hard to Stop
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Max grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him to a standing position. "Let's try this again. Are you Jeff King?"

He gave them the once-over before a cocky grin lined his face. "If you're some guy sent by my old lady to try to get money out of me, it isn't happening. I got more than enough to worry about without supporting a brat that probably isn't even mine."

"I'm looking for Mick Collini. The sixteen-year-old Troy called you about the other day. He needed a place to stay and possibly some new IDs. You know anything about that?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I work construction. I don't get involved in that kind of stuff."

"Unless there's proper motivation, right?" Max asked.

"You a cop?"

"Not even close. But there's some money in it for you if you tell us where the kid is. He's a good kid, and we don't want anything bad to happen to him."

Gia stepped in front of Max and grabbed the guy by his flannel shirt. "We already know you were supposed to deliver him to Treno. Where is he?" The idea Mick could be dead made her stomach clench. All the
could
s and
would
s blended in her brain until it hurt.

Max glanced her way with a look that said she had lost her mind. She didn't much care. He pried her fingers off King's shirt before he spoke. "Tell us where he is, or I'll let her loose. Believe me, she can kick your ass. And did I mention she's got a gun too?"

"I could use the money, but the dumb-shit kid took off on me some time during the night. It wasn't bad enough that he called the cops on me and reported my house for selling crack or something, but now I got guys breathing down my neck. I don't need this shit."

"When did he leave?"

"Dunno. I fell asleep." When she raised her eyebrows at him, he heaved a sigh. "A guy's gotta sleep sometime."

"Don't you mean pass out?" Max wrinkled his nose. "I'm getting a contact high from the booze oozing from your pores." He hesitated for a second before continuing, "Hell, you thought I was one of Treno's men. That's why you ran."

"They're going to kill me for losing the kid."

"So they don't know yet?" She didn't dare think this might actually work out, but she couldn't help the bit of confidence.

"And I'm not going to tell them. I thought I might get lucky and catch up with him at the train station."

"Why would you think that?"

Jeff shook his head. "He kept saying he was going back to Manhattan. Something about a kid named Joey. That Joey could fix this thing."

She and Max looked at each other. "He doesn't know Joey's dead." A glimmer of hope bloomed inside for the first time in a very long while. Maybe this might work out after all.

 

*   *   *

 

While Gianna stared out the window on the short train ride into Manhattan, Max glanced at the text he'd received from Jennings.
Peter Cush killed by long-range sniper shot to the back in Paris two weeks ago.

Max closed his eyes and fought through the realization. This target on his back wasn't a fluke. This was an organized attempt at hunting him down to ensure he paid for past sins. He either had to kill somebody or be killed. Somebody put this witch hunt together. Once again Cleo came to mind.

Gianna jumped off the train seconds after it came to a stop. Her jog quickly turned into a run. She jostled her way through the crowd despite the mass of people going in different directions.

He caught up with her and grabbed her arm. "I know you're anxious, but we have to be methodical about this." Even though she looked as if she wanted to haul back and punch him, she acquiesced with a shrug. "Where would Joey hang out?"

She chewed her lip. "Hell's Kitchen would be a good bet. Joey got into a lot of trouble there."

"Let's get a cab."

She twisted her fingers and sat on the edge of the seat while barking shortcut directions to the cabbie. Not that Max blamed her for being anxious. They were all in on this Hell's Kitchen thing.

When the cab let them out, he slipped his arm across her shoulders and tucked her in close. She glanced around. "I don't see him."

"Relax, we just got here."

She seemed to get more agitated the longer they walked. Suddenly she stopped, before running full steam ahead. He followed behind her, keeping up with her stride until he was right next to her.

"What?"

"Up ahead. That's him." She ran full force, mowing people down as she went. "Mick." The person didn't turn around. "Michael. Let me help you." Her voice was part plead, part command.

The kid turned long enough to spot his sister, then he hightailed it as fast as he could in the opposite direction. The kid could run, but fear seemed to be motivating him. Mick jumped over a barricade and went down an alleyway. Then shifted into high gear and ran like hell.

Except two guys came out of nowhere and started after Mick as well. And they were more than a block ahead of Max and Gianna. One of the two turned and fired in their direction.

 

*   *   *

 

Gia stumbled as she moved behind the corner of a building. Her ankle throbbed while her fingers shook as she pulled out her gun. She needed to get closer but came up lame each time she tried to run.

No, not Mick.
Pain unlike she'd ever known seared her chest until it felt torn right down the middle. Her breath stalled as her stomach roiled in protest.

The men had caught up and were on either side of Mick, jockeying back and forth so it would be impossible to pick them off. Her brother was the only steady target, and she didn't dare shoot for fear of hitting him.

"Stop. Police." Even while she shouted the words, she knew these were not the kind of people who listened to the commands of police officers.

Max grasped her hand to prevent her from doing something stupid as the men pushed Mick into a waiting car. "We need to think this through. Call it in as a kidnapping. I got the license number. And I have a way to do something about it."

"I'm pretty sure those are Treno's guys. Nothing good is going to happen to him."

"They wanted Jeff to bring him in for a reason. They aren't going to kill him, because he's valuable to them. Maybe they think he knows something."

"What?"

"We don't know yet, but damned if we won't find out." With the confident swagger she'd known him to possess, he hailed a cab. "Follow that black SUV."

She hated having a partner. She never did play well with others, but for some reason working with Max didn't bother her as much as she would have expected. Or maybe it was not being in this alone that made her feel better.

Morning traffic had them tied up for a period of time, but they kept up with the SUV. The cabbie deftly drove through traffic, still keeping a good enough distance to avoid suspicion. The SUV wove its way through the maze of factories until it stopped outside one of them.

Seconds later, the men pushed Mick out the door and into a building. Gianna tried to exit, but Max wrapped his arms around her torso and held tight.

"You go in there now, and you'll both be dead."

She drew in a deep breath. Then another. And another. Until her heart rate was close to normal. He was right.

How would they be able to get him out of there alive? The police wouldn't touch the case with all the red tape she'd have to go through. Mick had a warrant out for his arrest, which might work in her favor—except she couldn't be 100 percent sure he wouldn't be harmed in the process, especially if they thought he knew something.

The only thing she knew for certain was that her brother was living on borrowed time.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

"It's been two days. I can't stand sitting around waiting for something to happen," Gia said as she paced the small hotel room even though it made the ankle she'd twisted hurt like hell. "I thought The Alliance place made things happen?" Inaction made her nervous. Nervousness led to mistakes. And that couldn't happen. They needed to develop a plan, and they needed to do it quickly.

He lounged against the chair and typed on his computer. "There's nothing to be done until it's time. That's the only thing I can say."

"There's got to be a way to break into that stronghold. You've led me to believe The Alliance is the Navy SEALs on crack. I need to see evidence of that about now."

"Planning is everything. There's no police raid until everything is worked out. This shouldn't be any different."

"It doesn't make sense. Why would they take him and not kill him? There's got to be something—" The final piece of the puzzle slid into place. "They want you. They want a trade. You for him, and you've known about it. You bastard."

He held up his arm to stop her blow. Then held her arms captive. "You're right. And I'm working on something that will get him safely out and not get myself killed."

"What have you done? Why do they want you?" A couple of scenarios clicked through her brain, involving him and that gossip about his being an assassin.

"I have a six-million-dollar price on my head they're trying to cash in on. That's why I know they won't hurt your brother until they get me."

"Rumor has it you were once an assassin, a fact which I don't even want to think about for fear I'll go mad. You know we put people like you in jail."

"Last I heard, you didn't have jurisdiction in Europe. And I've done nothing in the US that is even remotely illegal, except for maybe the last few days with you."

"I have some connections if you're on a wanted list overseas somewhere." Of course, she was bluffing. She'd never even been to Europe, but she had to take her frustration out on somebody, and he seemed like the likely target.

He had the audacity to throw back his head and laugh. "Good luck with that. You're welcome to try, but it appears I have a couple of people right now who want a piece of me who are ahead of you in line. But keep on trying."

She punched him in the shoulder. "Why do you do that? Incite me until I want to hurt you."

"Because aggression makes you feel better. Why is that, Gianna?"

She rolled her eyes. They both had their secrets. Maybe it was better that way. "I need to go for a walk. Since you've got the target on your back, I'll be fine."

"Don't bet on it. They've been pretty much one step ahead of us all along. Let me come with you. Besides, you don't want to aggravate that ankle of yours that you're pretending doesn't hurt."

"I'll be fine." Without another word, she lit out the door and started to run. "Ow. Ow. Ow." Mind over matter. "Ow. Ow. Ow." Maybe she should go a little slower.

She wanted her old life back, where she only had to worry about Mick engaging in underage drinking when he went out at night. Getting charged with murder was something she couldn't even have dreamed about. Now he was being held hostage because of Max somehow.

Who could she call at the department who wouldn't turn her in? Unfortunately, she hadn't made a lot of friends during her tenure at NYPD. Still, she didn't trust Max Shaw, nor would she ever, especially after what she'd just learned. He was the opposite of what she believed in. He killed people for a living. Right now he was a means to an end, since their lives were twisted together for the time being. But that didn't mean she shouldn't go off on her own. In a world dominated by men, she'd learned early on when to take a stand. And this might be her time.

She charged up the hill and worked through the pain. Her phone buzzed on her hip, and she clicked on the message.

Her heart went cold. For about five seconds, she thought about keeping this to herself. But in the end, she knew she couldn't. Instead, she limped back to the hotel.

By the time she got there, the thudding of her heart had reached her ears, drowning out everything but its beat. When she burst through the door, Max was exactly as she'd left him.

He jumped up and slid a reassuring arm about her shoulder. "What happened? Did you hurt yourself?"

"I'm okay." She shook her head as tears rolled down her cheeks, and she buried her nose into his shoulder. Being self-reliant had always been her default. If the plumbing needed fixing around the house, she did it. If the tile needed replacing in the bathroom, she'd be all over that. But this…this she couldn't handle. Not alone.

Finally, she gathered herself enough to hold up her phone and press the play button. Maybe she'd judged it wrong. Maybe he would be able to convince her that her eyes and head had seen something different.

"We need to get him." She sucked in air that seemed to be in short supply. "They've made my brother a criminal. Look." Her fingers shook as she showed him the phone. "Mick's robbing a bank and carrying an automatic weapon." Bile rose in her throat. Her chest ached. How had this happened so easily? So quickly that she hadn't seen it coming? He'd left a sweet note for her about protecting her, and now he was one of those people she despised.

"Maybe it's not what it looks like." He wrapped his hands around the side of her neck and tilted up her head. "They might have orchestrated this whole thing to get us to show our hand. To force me to turn myself into them, or to force you to turn me over to them."

Hope sprang in her chest, and for the briefest of seconds she could breathe. But the heart hammering inside said otherwise. He'd become one of them. A statistic she'd known all too well to be true. Kids got caught in the life and then couldn't get out.

She couldn't look at Max when she shook her head against his chest. To see the pity reflected in his eyes would put her over that perilous edge. "I've seen it too many times before. My brother has been lost. He crossed that line he'd been straddling for a couple of years now. Maybe he crossed it before. Maybe he was involved somehow in the murder of Damon Rice, for all I know." Facts were facts. "Now that I think about it, he didn't fight too hard when he got into that SUV." The hiccup of pain seared through her midsection and got caught somewhere in the vicinity of her lungs. For a second or two, she wasn't sure she would or could breathe.

"Maybe we should try to find out where this is. There's got to be some clues on the video. I could send it to Jennings for verification and maybe some identifiers." He smoothed his hands down her hair. "There's got to be some way of tracing this."

BOOK: Hard to Stop
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