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Heart Of Stone

The Negotiator Series, Book 1

C.E. Murphy

For my dad, Thomas Allen Murphy, who likes this one best so far.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 Normally it doesn’t take an army for me to write a book. This one, though, required a rather absurd amount of feedback. To wit:

My agent, Jennifer Jackson, made me do a major rewrite on the original manuscript, then said, “This is much better! Now cut another thirty pages from the first hundred and we’ll really have something here!” You were right. Thank you.

My editor, Mary-Theresa Hussey, made me push the book in ways I wouldn’t have on my own, ways that gave the story more depth and richness than I’d ever imagined it to have. Thank you, too. It would be okay if neither of you ever made me work that hard again….

The art department has once more outdone itself, giving me yet another cover I’m thrilled to have my work judged by. Glowing thanks are due to art director Kathleen Oudit and to artist Chris McGrath. You guys help build careers, and I cannot thank you enough.

Dor and Lisa helped me with New York details, so anything I got wrong is either their fault (!) or I made it up wholesale to fit the world. :)

Tara, Mary Anne and Janne gave me feedback on the third draft, by which time I could no longer see the book for the words, so their comments were invaluable. I believe Silkie and Jai, my usual suspects, read every draft without their enthusiasm flagging, and Trent read it at least three times. Their fortitude astounds me. Rob, Deborah, Lisa (again!), Lydia and Morgan listened to me whine interminably about revisions. Rob, in particular, offered some critical brainstorming sessions that did huge amounts to help me develop the mythology of this world; so, too, did Sarah. Thank you all.

And all I can say to Ted is that I literally could not have written this book without you. I’ll give you a copy with the bits you helped with highlighted, and you’ll see how true that is. Thank you so much, hon. I love you.

CHAPTER 1

SHE RAN, LONG strides that ate the pavement despite her diminutive height. Her hair, full of corkscrew curls, was pulled back from her face, bunches jouncing as her feet impacted the asphalt surface. The words feminine and female, less interchangeable than they might seem, both described her well. Feminine, as he understood it, suggested a sort of delicacy, though not without strength. Female encompassed power as blunt and raw as sex. Watching her, neither descriptor would suffice without the other.

Lithe and athletic, she ran nearly every night, usually not long after sundown. Tonight she was late; midnight was barely an hour off, closer by far than the late-January sunset. He watched from his arboreal refuge, hunched high above the concrete paths, protective and possessive of the slender woman taking her exercise in a dangerous city.

There were safer places to run, safer times; he thought she must know that. The park was notorious for nighttime crime, but she threw away caution for something greater. For defiance against an ordered world, and perhaps for the thrill of knowing the danger she put herself in. There was confidence in her action, too; her size very likely precluded fighting off attackers, but the muscles that powered her run would help her outpace any enemy that might approach. It was a gambit, and he liked her for it. It reminded him of other women he’d known, sometimes braver than wise, always willing to risk themselves for others. Such demonstrations made him remember there was life outside the confines he’d created for himself.

So he watched from high in the treetops, protecting her whether she knew it or not. Choosing to make her safe despite the independent streak that sent her running after dark, without taking away her illusion of bold solitude. She would never see him, he reasoned. Her people were predators, and they’d come from the trees. In the primitive part of the mind that spoke of caution, they were the danger that came from above.

Humans never looked up.

He shook himself as she took a corner, careening out of sight. Then he leaped gracefully over the treetops, following.

Air burned in her lungs, every breath of cold searing deep and threatening to make her cough with its dryness. Each footfall on the asphalt was the jolt of a syllable through her body: Ir. Ir. Ir. Ra. Shun. Al. There were slick patches on the trail, thin sheets of black ice that didn’t reflect until she was on them. She slid ten inches, keeping her center as if she wore ice skates, stomach tightening to make her core solid. Keeping control in an out-of-control moment. The action stung her body as vividly as a man’s touch might, heat sweeping through her without regard for sense or sensibility. Then the ice was gone and she was running again.

Eyes up, watching the trail and the woods. The air was brisk and as clear as it ever got in New York. Pathways were lit by lamps that buzzed and flickered at whim. Patches of dark were to be wary of, making her heart beat faster with excitement. No headset. Taking risks was one thing. Outright stupidity was another, and even she knew she ran a thin line between the two already. Her own labored breathing and the pounding of her footsteps were enough to drown out more nearby noise than was safe. That was part of it, too, part of the irresistible draw of the park. She was not safe. Nothing she did would ever make her wholly safe.

It was almost like being able to fly.

“Irrational,” Margrit whispered under her breath. The word seemed to give her feet wings like Hermes, sending her down the path with a new surge of speed. Feet jolting against the ground made echoes in her hips and breasts, every impact stinging her feet and reminding her of sex and laughter and the things that made life worth living.

Risking everything made it worth living. Friends, only half joking, wondered if she was suicidal, never quite understanding the adventure that drew Margrit to the park at night.

The Central Park rapist had confessed when she was in her first year of law school and still wondering if she should have chosen to follow in her parents’ footsteps-either her mother’s MBA or her father’s medical degree-but the headlines that morning had solidified her belief in her own decision. Even now, seven years later, she knew her parents wished she’d chosen one of their professions, or at least a more profitable arm of law than the one she pursued, but thinking back to that day always rebuilt her confidence. Buoyed by the memory, she stretched her legs further and reached again for the feeling of freedom running in the park gave her.

Minutes later, she skidded to a halt under a light and leaned a hip against a battered bench, putting her hands on her knees. Her ponytail flipped upside down, nearly brushing the ground as she heaved in air. Thirty seconds and she would start running again. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.

“Good evening.”

Margrit spasmed upward, whipping around to face the speaker. A man with pale hair and lifted eyebrows stood in the puddle of lamplight, several feet away. He was wearing a suit, and had his hands tucked in the pockets of the slacks. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Jesus Christ.” She backed away a step or two, putting even more distance between herself and the man. Caution knotted her stomach, sending chills of adrenaline through her. “Get the hell away from me.” Every muscle in her body was bunched, ready to sprint, but her heart pounded harder with the thrill of the encounter than with the impulse to run. She wore running shoes, as opposed to his smooth-soled leather slip-ons, and had a head start. Caution hadn’t flared into panic or even true fear yet; her confidence in her own abilities was greater than

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