Thrill Me to DeathRoxanne St Claire
A High Stakes Game
Cori peered into the darkness outside the boathouse. “That’s weird. How come I can hear a boat, but not see it?”
Max leaped up and tackled her, tumbling her to the floor just before the window cracked like fireworks and shattered.
“Oh my God!” Her cry was muffled by his hand, protecting her face as they hit the floor.
“Stay under me!” he ordered.
She squeezed her eyes shut, her hammering heart sending a deafening rush through her ears. “What is it?” she demanded, her voice strained from terror and the crush of his body.
She heard the click of his gun cocking. “Shhh. Listen.”
The motorboat raced into the night and she felt Max lift his head to look around. “Wait until I know it’s clear,” he said.
When she looked up, she saw that the glass looked like a five-foot-wide spiderweb, perilously suspended in the woodwork.
Max gently turned her face toward his. “You okay?” Their faces were inches apart and the thud of his pulse vibrated through her body.
“I think so. Thank you, Max.”
“Thank whoever was smart enough to put bulletproof glass in this place. They saved your life—because someone just took a shot at you, kid.”
National bestselling author Roxanne St. Claire kicked off her acclaimed Bullet Catchers series with
KILL ME TWICE
“Kill Me Twice literally vibrates off the pages with action, danger, and palpable sexual tension. St. Claire is exceptionally talented.”
—The Winter Haven News Chief (FL)
“When it comes to dishing up great romantic suspense, St. Claire is the author you want. Sexy and scintillating…an exciting new series.”
“Kill Me Twice is jam packed with characters, situations, suspense, and danger. The reader will be dazzled….”
More romantic suspense from Roxanne St. Claire—be sure to read these thrilling novels!
“St. Claire sets a sleek, sexy, and very American romantic suspense novel in the high-pressure world of auto racing…emotional…compelling.”
“This book really grabbed me…refreshingly cool.”
—Orlando Sentinel (FL)
“[A] page-turner…. Sexy, exciting, and poignant romantic suspense.”
“Wildly exciting…a breathtaking blend of mystery and sexuality as well as elegance and romance.”
—The Winter Haven News Chief (FL)
“Hot author St. Claire is back with more action, adventure, and romance. Great reading!”
“Intriguing suspense that crackles with sexual tension. The novel is a tour de force of the heart that will leave the reader breathless and yearning for more.”
—The Winter Haven News Chief (FL)
“Full of heart-stopping romance and mystery.”
—Old Book Barn Gazette
“A tour de force of sizzling suspense and scorching sensuality!”
“Romance, danger, and adventure on the high seas in just the right combination make St. Claire’s debut a very impressive one.”
Also by Roxanne St. Claire
Kill Me Twice
I’ll Be Home for Christmas with Linda Lael Miller, et al.
An Original Publication of POCKET BOOKS
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2006 by Roxanne St. Claire
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My heartfelt appreciation to the experts and loved ones who stand behind me:
No man is an island, but if I were, it would be Star Island. Special thanks to the real estate professionals of EWM in south Florida who provided in-depth information about this exclusive address and offered an insider’s view of how the other half lives.
Now I know why I spend hours at malls—the terrific people behind the scenes. A grateful thank-you to the public relations team at Simon Property Group, especially the generous individuals who run the Simon Youth Foundation for their quick responses and great work.
My deepest thanks to Osa Mallow, the spa director at the Mandarin in Miami Beach, for going above and beyond the call of duty to return my call just hours before a hurricane evacuation, providing the rich details that helped me bring this world-class destination to life.
Much gratitude to Joe Shepherd, Law Enforcement Investigator for the State of Florida, for offering key facts and reality checks on marine security, investigation, and police procedure in the sunshine state.
My bodyguards Gavin de Becker and Associates, and author Leroy Thompson, who make sure the Bullet Catchers are the real deal—thanks for the guidelines on guarding.
To Micki Nuding, who is simply an editor without equal. Max and Cori would never have come alive without your vision.
To Chris Michocki, who holds my hand, makes me laugh, spreads my good news, and helps me think of creative ways to kill people. You’re just a little too good at that.
Lastly, as always, my bone-deep appreciation to the little family of four who surround me with laughter and love. When I go live with the other half on Star Island, I’m taking you with me.
For J., who heals; for Gregg, who inspires; for Deborah, who empathizes; for Jeffrey, who delights. It’s an honor to be your little sister, who (still) tells tall tales.
N ot much impressed Lucy Sharpe. But when she told Max Roper his next assignment and he didn’t even blink, her respect for his famous self-control ratcheted up a notch.
Unless he didn’t recognize the name? Perhaps he hadn’t kept track of his former lover. Maybe he didn’t realize that Corinne Peyton, widowed billionairess, and Cori Cooper, DePaul law student, were one and the same.
Lucy slid a large color photo from a dossier, placing it so that the light caught the gleam in the subject’s midnight blue eyes and captured the sheen of her long black hair.
“Here’s a photo of Mrs. Peyton,” Lucy said, lifting her gaze to gauge his reaction. “Lovely, isn’t she?”
He barely nodded. Maybe an eyebrow moved a millimeter, but she couldn’t be sure. Anyone would think this was the first time Max Roper had laid eyes on Corinne Peyton. Anyone but Lucy, who made it her business to know everything about every man and woman who’d earned the right to be a Bullet Catcher, her top-notch cadre of bodyguards and security specialists.
“This was taken on the day the Peyton Foundation was launched, shortly after the Peytons were married. Four years ago.”
“The organization is the largest philanthropic endeavor of the multibillion-dollar Peyton Enterprises. Mrs. Peyton was instrumental in creating this foun
dation with her late husband.” She paused long enough for him to look up from the picture. “The Peyton Foundation provides complete financial support and legal services to the families of fallen law enforcement officers.”
Nothing. No giveaway pulse in his muscle-roped neck. No change in his carved-from-granite features. Max remained stoic and still, as always. A quality that made him an outstanding bodyguard, but one that rarely endeared him to clients who wanted to know what made this calm giant of a man tick.
She leaned her elbows on the table and repeated her earlier statement. “I’m assigning you to protect Corinne Peyton.”
He merely flicked the picture to the side and pulled the rest of the paperwork closer, skimming his fingertip down the key points on the top sheet. He lifted the page and studied a photo of William Peyton, taken on his sixtieth birthday. And another, picturing the mall magnate in his Star Island home on the cover of Fortune magazine.
“As you can see by the date, that article ran last year,” she added. “Just months before Peyton died, at sixty-three years old.”
Again, Lucy paused, waiting for Max to reveal his connection to the widow.
He simply pushed the file aside and leaned back to deliver one seriously disgusted look. “Miami? In August, Luce? Why not just send me to hell?”
She smiled. “Next time, Alaska. I promise.”
“That’s what you said after Madagascar. Put Jazz and Alex Romero on this. They live there.”
“They’re on assignment in Helsinki.”
He snorted softly. “That lucky bastard.”
“You won’t melt in Miami, Max.” Or would he?
He reopened the folder, as though he couldn’t resist another look at the man with a shock of white hair and a set of black eyebrows. The man who’d dotted the nation with ultraluxurious shopping complexes and reaped considerable wealth in the process. The man who got everything he wanted out of life…including the woman Max loved.
“So, did you know this guy?” Max asked casually. “Is that how the Bullet Catchers got involved?”
“No. This is a referral from Beckworth Insurance. Mrs. Peyton’s had a situation recently and asked the insurance company for security recommendations. They put her in touch with me.”
“Beckworth?” Max looked up, curious. “Is it a kidnapping threat?”
The Bullet Catchers routinely worked with Beckworth in areas with high incidences of kidnapping, such as South America. “No, but evidently someone tried to kiss her with the fender of a car while she was shopping. On the surface, this is a standard VIP protection.”
The crease in his forehead deepened at her pointed tone. “And below the surface?”
She leaned her chin onto her knuckles. “I’ve spent most of my adult life as a spy, Max. You know that I know you have a history with this woman.”
“An ancient history.”
She arched one brow. “Ancient enough for you to protect her with your life?”
He met her gaze. “If you ask me to.”
“Ancient enough for you to regain her trust?”
“If I had to.”
“Ancient enough for you to quietly determine whether or not she killed her husband?”
“What?” He blew out the word. “He died of a heart attack. That’s right here on page one of your file.”
“That’s the official report.”
Max waited a beat, his expression asking the obvious question: What was the unofficial report?
Lucy pushed her chair back from the Victorian writing table that served as her desk. At the mullioned window that filled one wall of her library, she stared at the Hudson River Valley and the manicured acres of her estate, lushly green from the summer rain.
“No formal investigation is being launched into William Peyton’s death. His heart failure was confirmed with an autopsy. But…” She turned to look at him. “Beckworth Insurance investigators are not entirely certain. It’s very neat, this young woman being handed billions and the power of all her husband’s voting shares on Peyton’s board of directors. Yes, the autopsy was clean. No one is filing charges and no law enforcement has been notified. But you know how thorough Beckworth is. Since they handle the insurance for the entire Peyton Enterprises, they want the truth, whatever it is.”
“She didn’t really inherit control of the company,” he told her. “Just that Foundation, and I believe it was one billion, not two.”
She couldn’t resist a wry smile. “So you have been keeping tabs on Cori Cooper.”
He glanced at the magazine cover. “I read.” His brow furrowed as he gazed at her. “This is no random assignment, Luce. Why me?”
Lucy locked her hands behind her back and looked hard at him. “You bring some critical elements to the party.”
A smile threatened. “Other than my boyish charm, they would be?”
“You are a superb bodyguard, you are an excellent interrogator thanks to your years in the DEA, and you have a personal relationship with the principal, making it easier to access private information.” He also had charm, in spades. He just didn’t dole it out liberally. “I do, however, have one major concern.”
He looked at her expectantly.
“Can you leave your emotions out of this, Max?”
His lip twitched and for a moment, she thought he was going to laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Unfortunately, I’m not.”
“Lucy.” He shook his head, a gleam in his chestnut brown eyes. “Of all things to get in my way, emotions would not be one of them.”
“I’ve never given you a responsibility like this, protecting and investigating a person you were involved with.”
He stood to a height that dwarfed her own six feet, his face still unreadable except for the tiny scar above his right eyebrow, which paled as he gathered the papers together.
“Not an issue. Considering I just got back from six months in South Africa sucking up to an arms dealer, I’d call babysitting some trophy widow a walk in the park.”
“Parks can be deadly places.”
He smirked. “Luce, this is Protection and Investigation 101. And I know Cori Cooper: That girl’s an open book.”
“That girl is a very rich woman under a cloud of suspicion for murder.”
His eyes shuttered momentarily. “If she’s guilty of anything, I’ll know it in five minutes.” He closed the folder and slid it into a soft-sided leather bag.
“Money—and murder—can change a person,” she warned softly.
He crossed the twenty-foot oriental carpet in just a few steps. At the door, he slowly turned back. “Have you considered the possibility that she had nothing to do with her husband’s death? That it was a heart attack, pure and simple?”
“Defending her already?” That was the risk in assigning him to the job: He couldn’t be objective.
He finally gave her a long, slow smile. “Just considering every possible outcome.”
“You do that. And try to stay cool down there.”
As he disappeared into the hallway, she could have sworn she heard him laugh softly.
Every Bullet Catcher was tested once in his career. Lord, she hoped that this Rock of Gibraltar, with a mile-wide moat around his heart, could pass his test.
“You know what I hate most about you, Mrs. Corinne Peyton?”
Cori turned to see her closest friend descending three stone steps to the lower lawn, moving in beaded evening pants as gossamer-like as her nickname. “I’m sure the list is long, Breezy, but what is it now?”
“That death becomes you.”
Cori drew back, offended. “That’s not funny.”
“I’m not, for once in my life, going for humor.” Breezy slid a well-toned arm around Cori’s waist and tugged her closer. “I watched you work that party for the last hour. You manage to exude grace, class, and radiance, with just the appropriate amount of grief and ennui.”
Cori tilted her head and laughed. “Ennui? Now there’s a word you don’t
hear thrown around too often.”
Breezy shrugged. “Occupational hazard of being married to a lawyer who likes expensive words.”
“Hey, you’re lucky to have him,” she said softly.
Breezy’s whole body softened next to Cori. “You miss your man, sweetie?”
“I do,” Cori admitted on a sigh. “Especially on a night like this.” She swept a hand toward the uplighting surrounding the tropical estate, the pool, and pavilion area trimmed with stately royal palms and littered with overdressed guests and obsequious waiters. “I turn around and expect to see him wearing that special look he saved just for me.”
“I’m going to be sick.”
Cori prodded Breezy’s ribs. “Did you come out here to abuse me or give me the latest numbers?”
“Neither, but I can do both. We passed two hundred thousand dollars on the last of the silent auction items. Some fool bid twenty-five thousand for a weekend on Lulu Garrey’s yacht.”
“Really? That’s great, Breeze.” Cori leaned her head toward Breezy’s thin but supportive shoulder. “God, I can’t believe how much work you did to pull this fund-raiser together. I’d be so lost without you.”
“Oh, please. I had fun. My goal was to make it so that all you had to do was slide your sexy self into that eye-popping Valentino, and show up to answer the one question on every collagen-enhanced lip in Miami.”
“Did he really die in the sack?”
Cori tried to laugh. “You know he did. But in his sleep.”
He died in his sleep of natural causes.
How many thousands of times in the last three months had she uttered those words? And how many times had a little voice responded in her head: No, he didn’t?
She turned to Breezy. “What they really want to know is if the trophy wife has turned into a merry widow.”
“Screw ’em. You never were a trophy wife.” Breezy pulled a cigarette out of her tiny bag and shot a glance toward the house as she lit and inhaled sharply. “Anyway, I came down to tell you that you have a guest.”