Read Minutes to Kill Online

Authors: Melinda Leigh

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers

Minutes to Kill

ALSO BY MELINDA LEIGH

S
CARLET
F
ALLS
N
OVELS

Hour of Need

S
HE
C
AN
S
ERIES

She Can Run

She Can Tell

She Can Scream

She Can Hide

He Can Fall
(A Short Story)

M
IDNIGHT
N
OVELS

Midnight Exposure

Midnight Sacrifice

Midnight Betrayal

R
OGUE
R
IVER
N
OVELLAS

Gone to Her Grave

Walking on Her Grave

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2015 Melinda Leigh

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477829752

ISBN-10: 147782975X

 

Cover design by Marc J. Cohen

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014921970

To Gramps for everything

Chapter One

Thursday, 11:35 p.m.

He’s gonna kill me.

Standing on the closed lid of the toilet, Jewel looked through the dirty glass on to the dark parking lot of an industrial park. She dug at the dried paint with her fingernail, then tried the lock again. It gave. Gripping the sash, she tugged at the window. It moved a millimeter, the creak of old wood reverberating in the tiny motel bathroom.
No!
He’d hear. Sweat broke out under her arms. She reached down, flushed the toilet, then leaned over to the sink and turned on the faucet, hoping the running water would cover the sound of her escape.

She turned her attention back to the window. How long does it take the average person to wash her hands? A minute? That’s how much time she had left before he came looking for her. She shoved up the sash, flinching at the volume of the resulting groan. Did he hear that over the sound of the water?

The client knocked on the door. “What are you doing in there?”

He heard.

“Be out in a sec,” she called. She put her arms through the opening. No time to be quiet now. Just get out. She wiggled her shoulders past the sill. Once she was past her chest, she’d slide out like a newborn baby. Banging echoed in the small room. The doorknob rattled.

“Open the door. Now.” Mick.

Shit. Fear jolted her heart. If he got his hands on her, she was dead.

Or worse.

Her pulse scurried, and her breaths accelerated until tiny points of light dotted her vision. If he caught her, there’d be no going back to undo what she’d done. Some people thought dying was the worst thing that could happen to a person, but Jewel knew better.

Mick had taught her that being alive could hurt enough to make a girl pray for death.

Wood splintered. The door burst open. His brown eyes shrank to a mean, angry glare.

“You little bitch.” Mick lunged for her, his big hands closing around her ankle. Halfway out the window, she flailed, fingers grabbing at the window jamb, her free foot kicking out. Determination and desperation were no match for brute strength. Pain shot through her hand as a nail ripped to the bed. Panic scrambled for a hold in her belly.

He dragged her back down into the bathroom and dropped her. Jewel’s head struck the toilet tank lid, rattling the porcelain. Mick raised a hand across his body. The backhand sent her reeling sideways. She fell into the tub, and the shower curtain tangled around her body. He bore down on her, the need to inflict punishment clear on his lean face.

She kicked with both feet. The sole of her left shoe struck him under the chin. He fell back onto his butt, and Jewel scrambled out of the tub. She climbed onto the toilet lid and dove out the window, shimmying her hips. Sliding through, she landed on her hands on the pavement.

“You’re dead,” Mick shouted through the window. But there was no way his big body would fit through the small opening. He ducked back inside. She heard him arguing with the client as she straightened her shaking legs and ordered them to get moving. He’d be after her.

Jewel got her feet under her body and sprinted across the blacktop. She ducked into the shadow of a Dumpster, her lungs heaving in loud and ragged gasps. She put her back to the rusted metal and covered her mouth with her hand. Her body shook in uncoordinated waves. Quiet. She had to be quiet. He was going to hear her. He was going to find her.

He was going to hurt her.

She peered around the edge of the receptacle. The motel edged an industrial area and shared a parking lot with the surrounding businesses. Most appeared closed, their windows dark, the spots in front of their doors vacant. On the other side of a field of blacktop, rows and rows of cars lined up in front of a lighted warehouse-type building. An overhead billboard adorned with colorful Latin dancers announced “Carnival: Las Vegas’s Premier Dance Club.” There would be people there at all hours.

Jewel felt a presence. Lola, another one of Mick’s girls, came around the corner of the building. Squinting and bending low, she came closer. Jewel pressed against the rusted metal at her back. The other girl’s dark eyes went wide. Jewel mouthed,
Come with me
. Boots pounded on the blacktop.

Mick.

“Have you seen her?” he shouted.

Lola pointed at the Dumpster—at her.

Jewel paused, stunned by the other girl’s betrayal for a split second. They weren’t exactly friends, but Jewel had expected Lola to sympathize or at least share Jewel’s desire to escape. Big mistake.

Fear and survival instinct kicked in. Jewel sprinted on fear-loose legs toward the club. She couldn’t let Mick catch her.

A vivid memory clawed its way into her mind. Things he’d done to her when he first snatched her off the street in Toledo. She pushed it away before terror paralyzed her.

But a dozen strides later, she heard boots on the pavement behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. Barely thirty feet away, Mick bore down on her. Her leg muscles burned. Her throat and lungs cried. She felt her steps slowing, no matter how much she wanted them to move faster. The pills Mick supplied his girls helped her get through the days, but they hadn’t made her more fit. She raced across the asphalt. The footsteps behind her quickened. She tried to scream, but her throat squeezed tightly on to her voice, silencing her.

The first row of cars was just ahead, but there were no people in sight. She veered right, toward the entrance to the club, hidden in the shadow of an awning.

Behind her, Mick’s shoes scraped on loose sand. Closer. Closer. Her breath locked in her chest as he closed in.

Chapter Two

Fifteen more minutes and she’d be free
.

The glass enclosure of the private skybox muffled the din from the club below, but the floor vibrated with bass. Hannah’s gaze swept over the
Viva Las Vegas
glitter of Carnival, an enormous club off the Strip themed after the Brazilian celebration. The box was outfitted in chrome, disco balls, and leather. Though it was only early November, topiaries in each corner glowed with white Christmas lights. At one end of the room, long tables held an array of appetizers and desserts. A bar flowing with top-end liquor spanned the opposite wall. Waitresses in glittery showgirl costumes served more drinks from shiny silver trays. The firm’s client, club owner Herb Fletcher, knew how to throw a party Vegas-style.

“Ms. Barrett, what do you think of Herb’s club?” British investor Timothy Stark swirled an olive in his martini glass. While the rest of the men had dressed casually for the event in open-collared shirts and sport jackets, Timothy was never less than perfectly presented. At fifty, his fit and trim frame was attired in a custom-tailored charcoal suit, and no amount of desert heat could wilt his French cuffs. “I still can’t believe he owns this establishment.”

He said
establishment
as if he’d just gotten a whiff of raw sewage.

She bit back a laugh. Timothy was afflicted with a chronic case of tight-ass-itis. Carnival was clearly not his scene.

It wasn’t Hannah’s either. She gazed through the glass over the main floor, fifty thousand square feet of crowded floor space designed to look like a Brazilian street. Lights and music pulsed across glistening skin. Girls danced on stages and in Plexiglas boxes on risers. Jugglers performed on stilts. At midnight, a parade would wind its way through the crowd. Afterward, a nightly samba competition tempted inebriated guests onto the stage. The club touted itself as wilder than the festival in Rio.

A waitress in a rhinestone-and-sequin costume in peacock colors approached and offered them a selection of hors d’oeuvres. Her headdress, a fan of blue speckled tail feathers, waved as she moved.

Hannah took a napkin and selected a piece of grilled meat on a stick. “Herb turned Carnival from a warehouse into a very successful club.”

Though the noise and flash wasn’t Hannah’s style, she appreciated the detail in the design. Every inch of the space pulsed with lights and color. Even the ceiling had been transformed into a starry night sky.

That afternoon, Herb Fletcher and a half dozen foreign investors had signed on a thousand dotted lines, committing to the purchase and refurbishment of the High Roller Casino. The tired casino hotel would be gutted and given a complete renovation to turn it into an exclusive luxury accommodation with another of Herb’s famous themed nightclubs. All parties involved hoped the endeavor would be as successful as Carnival and the other two hotels Herb had refurbished. Everything Herb touched seemed to turn into giant piles of money.

Hannah watched a side stage closest to the box. A drunken woman in a Snookie-tight skirt and sequined halter top climbed onto the platform, bent at the waist, and writhed.
Oooh kaaay.

“What
is
she doing?” Timothy asked.

“I believe that’s twerking.” Hannah’s lips twitched as she suppressed a laugh.

“Tacky. Like everything else about this place.” Timothy plucked the toothpick out of his empty glass and ate the jumbo olive.

“It’s harmless fun. People seem to be enjoying themselves.” A lot. Part of her envied the crowd’s ability to let loose. Tomorrow’s hangovers aside, they were having a grand time. While other people relaxed as they imbibed, Hannah hated the artificial lack of control that came with alcohol consumption. It made her feel blunt instead of sharp, as if she were trying to cut a ripe tomato with a plastic knife. Hannah’s control was her security blanket.

Timothy huffed. “Speaking of tacky, here comes Herb. I know the man can afford a decent suit. Why does he dress like a thug?” His backhanded snootiness irritated her. His willingness to use the other man’s talent with money and simultaneously insult him felt traitorous.

With a manicured hand, Timothy set his glass on a nearby tray.

Hannah glanced over her shoulder to see Herb walking toward them. She couldn’t picture him getting a manicure or standing for a custom suit fitting. She turned back to Timothy.

He checked the time on his watch. “Oh, look at the time. I’d better go. You’ve put in your obligatory time. You should feel free to leave, too. Honestly, I can’t believe you showed up. You are far too classy for a place like this.”

“I’m glad I had the chance to see the famous Carnival.” Plus, invitations from important clients were obligatory. She smiled, but the muscles of her face felt tight. Timothy made her sound as snobbish and uptight as him. Was she? She hadn’t come from his upper-crust background. She was a military brat. She wore expensive clothes, but only because that was what was expected in her profession. A corporate attorney had to look successful to attract clients. The first thing she did when she went home was change into her oldest jeans. She couldn’t do anything about the tension in her posture. That was both inborn and ingrained. Being raised by a decorated army ranger and colonel left its mark.

“Hello, beautiful,” a voice said over her shoulder.

Hannah turned. Herb Fletcher, CEO of Fletcher Properties, grinned over a glass of whiskey. Despite his unassuming attire, or maybe because of it, the sixty-year-old pulled off gray hair and blue eyes with Paul Newman appeal. “Staying for the samba competition, Tim?”

“No, I’m sorry. I was just leaving,” Timothy said. “Perhaps we’ll see each other on another deal.”

“I’m sure we will.” Herb sipped his drink. His eyes went cold. He knew exactly where he stood with the British investor: good enough for his money but not his social circle.

Timothy turned to Hannah. “Royce said you’re going to London next?”

“After a short vacation, yes,” she said. Though her firm was based in New York City, Hannah spent very little time there. She traveled from one deal to another in a seemingly endless tour of international cities. After she was made a full-equity partner, her salary would justify the expense of a Manhattan apartment. “I expect to be there for three to four weeks.”

Timothy nodded. “I have another deal under consideration. E-mail me when you get in so we can discuss it.”

“I’ll do that,” Hannah said. She scanned the room. The crowd was starting to thin.

“It was a pleasure working with you.” Timothy held out a hand.

She shook it. “Thank you. Likewise.”

With a bow, he headed for the door, stopping to say good-bye to a few other guests on the way out.

“Tim made a quick exit.” Wickedness glinted in Herb’s clear blue eyes. “Why were you wasting your time with him when you could have any
man
in this room?”

Hannah wasn’t going anywhere near that loaded question. They were both her clients. “The party is fabulous, Herb, and your club is spectacular.”

“You should enjoy some of it.” He leaned in and dropped his voice. “I’ve been watching you. Any of these men would run to you at the snap of your fingers, but here you are, all alone.”

Herb didn’t spend much time alone. He usually had one of his very young dancers hanging off his arm. But then alpha males didn’t play by the same rules as the rest of humanity. They’d followed their own code since they’d emerged from their caves. Sometimes it seemed like that happened yesterday. Raised with three brothers by the Colonel, Hannah knew all about dominant men. Though when compared to the men in her family, Herb’s moral bar hung much lower.

“I don’t like to mix business with pleasure,” Hannah said.

“That’s no fun, because I suspect you work most of the time. You’re young. You need to enjoy life.” His hand swept through the air. “Look at all those people down there, blowing off steam.”

“They do appear to be having a good time.” The wistfulness in her tone embarrassed her.

“Other people like to have fun. You should try it sometime.” He lifted a flute of champagne from the tray of a passing waitress and handed the glass to her. As the girl passed, Herb gave her butt a quick squeeze. She shot him a flirty smile over her shoulder. “You should drink a bottle of champagne and samba all night.”

Herb had never acted inappropriately with Hannah, and she couldn’t help but appreciate his brass and style. At the same time, the way he treated his female employees made her uncomfortable. Hannah twirled her glass by the stem without drinking, exhaustion sliding over her body in a sudden wave. The whole obligatory corporate party thing felt old. Hannah could never let down her guard for fear that someone like Herb would get the wrong idea. Being a successful woman required above-reproach behavior 24/7.

He raised a laughing brow over his tumbler. “You seem distracted tonight.”

Hannah checked her watch. “I have a red-eye to catch.”

“More work?” Herb frowned. “Already? Surely, even you will take a few days off after a project of this duration.”

“No work. Vacation. I’m going home to see my family.” She didn’t mention that her
vacation
would include checking in with the prosecutor who was preparing for the murder trial of her brother and sister-in-law’s killer. Lee and Kate had been dead for eight months. Some days she forgot they were gone. She wondered if her brothers had those moments, when work was humming along and they suddenly
remembered
. Guilt weighted her shoulders. How could she forget, even for a second, that Lee was dead? Grief clutched her heart, its sharp nails digging in with determination.

How appropriate that this deal had been concluded in Vegas. Under the bright lights, revelry, and glitter, a thick layer of darkness spread, like the sadness that lurked under her success. Would making equity partner make her happy? Because since Lee’s death, all her professional successes felt hollow in a way she couldn’t explain. Her brother was gone, and his absence was a wound that would never heal. There was a giant hole inside her, and trying to fill it was like pouring sand through a sieve.

“Hannah?” Herb’s brow wrinkled. “Are you OK?”

She smoothed her expression, but her smile felt empty, too. “I’m fine.”

“Great party, Herb.” Her boss, Royce Black, one of the three founding cousins of Black Associates, appeared at her side.

“Thanks, Royce. They all worked hard and deserve some playtime.” Herb waved a hand over a group of sloppy drunks heading for the door to the main floor. His hand stopped, the fingers pointing at Hannah. “Even your hardest-working staff.”

“Well, we certainly appreciate your generosity.” Royce signaled the waitress and ordered a Glenlivet. “But I can’t allow you to monopolize my star junior partner.” He wrapped an arm around Hannah’s shoulders and gave her a friendly squeeze.

Hannah stiffened. The impromptu hug was not Royce’s style. He was acting strangely. Was it the liquor? Normally, he was a conservative drinker. She scanned his face. He didn’t appear intoxicated. Trouble with his new girlfriend maybe.

Her evening bag vibrated, the alarm signaling it was time for her to leave for the airport. She slid out from under Royce’s arm. “I have a flight to catch. I’d better go.”

“Thanks for making an appearance.” He followed her to the door of the box. “Call me when you get to London.”

“Of course,” Hannah said.

He scuffed a foot on the floor. He looked like he wanted to say something else, but didn’t.

“Is something wrong, Royce?”

“No. It’s just been a long couple of weeks.” He nodded. “Have a nice visit with your family. Safe trip home.”

“Thanks. Talk to you next week.” Just thinking she had to be in London in ten days sent another wave of fatigue through Hannah. She would have rather taken a nap than gone to this party. The door closed with a firm click. Hannah sighed. The corridor was blissfully quiet. She could still feel the beat thumping through the soles of her shoes. But she was free.

Her luggage was in the trunk of her rental car out in the lot. In a couple of hours, she’d be in the sky on her way home. Her heels were silent on the carpet as she made her way down the corridor toward the elevator bank. She pressed the down button. While she waited, she fished her phone from her purse and checked her e-mail and the status of her flight.
On time.

She opened a message from her brother Grant. Why was he up? It was three a.m. on the East Coast. An extreme close-up of her niece, Faith, popped onto the screen. The accompanying message read:
you’re coming to my party, right?
Faith’s first birthday was Saturday.

Hannah smiled at the photo and typed:
wouldn’t miss it. leaving for the airport now. is Faith having a tough night?

Grant messaged:
she’s cutting molars. text me when you’re close.

K
, she typed.

Luv u.

With a hollow ache in her chest, she typed
u2
and pressed send. Part of her wanted to see them with a frightening intensity. The other was terrified of the hold she felt on her heart every time she went home. If Hannah closed her eyes, she could smell baby shampoo. She’d only have a long weekend with them this trip. Four days seemed simultaneously like too much and not nearly enough time. Grant, who’d left the military to raise Lee’s kids, was taking them to Disney World, and Hannah had promised to dog- and house-sit. It was the least she could do. Grant let her use his house as her permanent address.

Would she run into Brody while she was in Scarlet Falls? Detective Brody McNamara had investigated Lee’s murder. Hannah had seen him on previous visits, when he’d been tying up his loose ends of the investigation. But the case was in the prosecutor’s hands now. Hannah had no reason to see Brody on this trip.

So, why was she disappointed?

Brody had stuck by the Barrett family when Lee’s killer had filed assault charges against Grant. To Hannah, Brody’s proven loyalty was more attractive than Royce’s shallow good looks. Not that Brody wasn’t hot, because he was, but the cop had something special: integrity. After spending twelve hours a day mired in the moral flexibility of Herb Fletcher and Las Vegas, integrity was damned appealing.

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