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An excerpt from

PERSONAL ENEMY

Silhouette Bombshell #29
February 2005
ISBN 0-373-51343-7

Kindle
Nook
Kobo
Sony


Chapter One

Stamford, Connecticut.

Adria Caskey slid out from the front seat of the aging brown Chevy onto the sidewalk in front of the Dragon, Inc. building.  The glass structure glittered under its slick coat of rain—one of a hundred such jewels in this town of glitzy corporate headquarters.  But even the gray sky, low clouds and drizzle couldn’t quite hide the grim neighborhoods surrounding Stamford; they reflected onto the shiny skyscrapers like carbon flaws in a diamond.

As she swiveled to shut the door, fractious butterflies fluttered in her stomach.  Being irresolute wasn’t like her.  She’d worked hard for her self-confidence.  She always got the job done and had a file folder full of letters to prove it.  But she wasn’t sure honor and revenge mixed well.

Caleb Stuart, her grandfather’s friend and a sociology professor on sabbatical from Yale, leaned over from the driver’s seat and stared up at her through the open passenger’s side window.  He was in as dire a need of a good grooming as Norm, the golden retriever sitting in the back seat.  Both sets of big, brown eyes were worry personified.  "Are you all right?"

Misting rain dewed her hair, her face, her coat, chilling her already cold insides.  How could anything be all right now that her grandfather was gone?  "I’m fine."

"You don’t have to do this."

"I do."  Her well-being depended on it, depended on her confronting the man whose father had killed her parents, destroyed her family and stolen her sense of security.  He’d built his empire on blood money and he would soon find out that blood made weak underpinnings.

"Your grandfather would want you to continue his work."  Caleb’s words panted out in overeager puffs as if he were Norm wanting to play ball.

"It hurts too much."

Caleb’s bearded cheek twitched as if he understood the dichotomy of the situation.  "But a secretary, Adria?"

"I need a change."

He grabbed her raincoat’s sleeve and jostled her hand playfully from side to side.  "Then help me finish your grandfather’s book."

"Writing is not my best skill."  Adria pulled her sleeve free from Caleb’s grasp.

He shook his head, flapping the loose skin of his neck.  "I’m doing the writing.  I need you to help me understand your grandfather’s notes."

"I can’t.  Not now."

He turned his gaze out toward the street.  The beard beneath the generous nose was as grizzled as Norm’s muzzle.  Cars honked up and down the busy avenue.  A bus rolled to a screeching stop at the corner, belching diesel fumes when the light turned green once more.  "At least keep the business open for a while longer.  In case you change your mind."

"No, I have to do this."  She leaned in and reached through the window for her soft-sided briefcase.  Norm rewarded her with a wet kiss on the hand and a worried whine.  "Julie’s wrapping things up.  She should be done in a week or so.  She can help you with your book when she’s done."

Caleb’s eyebrows rose in an arc.  "I really hate to see you do this.  Your skills—"

"Are easily replaced."

"No, not the way your grandfather taught you.  There’s more there.  There’s—"

"Thank you, Caleb.  For all you’ve done for me.  I don’t know how I would have gotten through the funeral, these past few months, without you.  But this…"  Her shoulders hiked up to her ears and she shook her head, digging past the rawness of her grief for words Caleb would hear.  "This is something I have to do."

Caleb snuffled a dissent.  "He was so proud of you, of the way you’d carry on his legacy.  Please, Adria, reconsider."

She didn’t answer.  What could she say?  Caleb saw only one side of her grandfather.  He saw the man of honor, the philosophy of being still and moving like a great river, the art of using ounces to deflect pounds.  He saw old ways exercised in a modern setting and found it all fascinating.  What he didn’t see was the deep scar the death of Adria’s mother had caused, how her grandfather had wanted to excise the pain, but couldn’t get close enough to find the soft underbelly.  How could Caleb know when even she hadn’t recognized the depth of her grandfather’s torment until he’d wrenched his deathbed promise?

"Some day," she said, tamping the painful memories back into a dark corner of her mind, "I’ll tell you a story and you’ll understand."

With a sigh, Caleb slid back to the driver’s seat and rammed the cranky transmission into gear.  Norm hopped into the front seat Adria had occupied and hung his head over the window’s edge, his pink tongue lolling.  "If you change your mind, I’m here for you."

She scratched Norm’s ear.  "Thank you."

"I have some banking business to take care of.  I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour."

Holding her briefcase in front of her, she nodded.  As the Chevy nosed its way into the traffic, she turned toward the building.  The menacing growl of thunder, like a beast ready to pounce, rumbled in the distance.  She shrugged away the shiver of fear.  This is a job like any other.  You’ve been tasked with finding Peter Dragon’s weakness and bringing down his empire.  You can do this.

A cottony cloud of memory sponged at her mind, floating her back in time to her grandfather’s training sessions.

"What do you hear, keiki?"  Her grandfather’s gentle voice filled her mind.  The Hawaiian word for child he’d used as an endearment fluttered against her raw heart.

Adria saw herself at ten, sitting in a chair in the middle of an otherwise empty room with her eyes closed.  "I hear the sea, Grandpa.  And the children on the beach.  And the wind in the trees."

"What else?"

"You, breathing."  She giggled.

"Adria!  You must be serious."

"Sorry, Grandpa."

"What else?"

"Nothing."

"Relax, concentrate, suspend yourself more.  What do you hear?"

Adria did as she was told.  She wanted Grandpa to smile at her, tell her she was a good girl.  His smiles and his hugs made her feel warm and it seemed she was always so cold.  She concentrated her entire body and mind, feeling the force of her energy flowing through her.  "I hear tiny footsteps."

"Open your eyes, keiki."

When she did, a small bamboo cage stood on the wood floor, and inside, a cricket walked its boundaries.  And when she looked up, the bright beam of her grandfather’s pride shone down on her.

Adria juggled her briefcase into one hand and searched her sodden coat pocket for a tissue.  Finding none, she used the back of her hand to wipe away tears she’d promised herself she wouldn’t shed.  She missed her grandfather so much—missed his wisdom, his strength, his love.  Would this painful hole in her heart ever heal?

She closed her eyes once more.  Grandpa?

What do you hear, keiki?

I hear the rain, Grandpa.

What else?

Adria breathed in deeply, bringing in an intense awareness of her surroundings. I hear a telephone ringing.  I hear an elevator’s door opening.  I hear footsteps, Grandpa.  Dragon feet.

In her mind’s eye, she could see her grandfather’s boat of a smile. You’ve learned well, keiki.

You’ve taught me well.

Warmth seeped back into her icy limbs.  He was with her still.

She squared her shoulders and stepped toward the main doors.

Peter Dragon had chosen the building’s location well, but after that, he seemed to have left security up to luck. He’d made maximum use of glass.  At least it was tinted.  Anyone could walk through the front door—again glass—that swung outward, instead of in, and was protected only by a tape-type alarm that looked worn.  No security camera monitored the ins-and-outs of people.  The plush reception area with its soft lighting, its overstuffed furniture and jungle of potted plants offered a multitude of hiding spots—for people and bombs.

Her grandfather had taught her all about dragons—the western medieval kind with their poisonous skins and flesh-eating habits, and the gentle eastern ones with their wise and generous natures.  Had he known this day would come?  Had that been his way of preparing her even then for her honor-bound duty?

She shook the thought away and concentrated instead on her goal.

She stopped in front of the honey-blond receptionist partially enclosed in a half-moon-shaped desk of warm oak.  The name on the placard read Tiffany Banks. Although dressed in a business suit and styled like a Vogue model, the woman came across like a squeaky-clean teenaged cheerleader at a pep rally.

"Excuse me," Adria said, "could you tell me where I might find Mr. Peter Dragon?"

Tiffany’s red lips parted to reveal a set of perfect white teeth.  Her orthodontist must be proud.  "Do you have an appointment?"

"Yes."

Without verifying her claim, Tiffany turned a palm up, à la Vanna White, and fanned it toward the elevator bank.  "Tenth floor, to your right."

For a financial wizard who’d fought his way ruthlessly to the top, Mr. Dragon seemed to take security much too lightly.  That he wasn’t worried about payback said a world about him.  Arrogance.  Sheer arrogance.  And that arrogance would cause his downfall. 

Adria pushed the elevator’s up button and the brass doors swished open.  Soft, piped-in music made the ride pleasant enough even though her skin itched with anxiety.  A muted bing announced she’d arrived at her destination. Her stomach took a dive.  The tenth floor appeared deserted.  No one sat at the lone desk in the reception area.  Warm browns, rich creams, leafy greens and antiqued brass accents provided a comfortable décor.  From her left came the hushed sounds of ringing telephones, the clacking of computer keys and the rise and fall of muffled laughter.

No one challenged her presence.  She smiled.

Was Peter Dragon really as formidable as her Yale business professor had made him out to be?  Was he really as commanding as the profile in the latest issue of Business, Inc. described him?  Would he prove as ruthless as his father if he found out who she was and what she wanted from him?

She already had enough ammunition to arrange for his physical demise—if she so chose.  But even her grandfather wouldn’t sanction cold-blooded murder.  That wouldn’t be revenge; that would simply be falling to the enemy’s level.  No, what she needed was something more painful, and for that, she had to have access to his most sensitive data.

She rounded the secretarial desk and examined the agenda opened to today’s date.  Didn’t he realize that with just a glance anyone could know where he’d be at any time of the day?

The elevator door sighed open, revealing a pert brunette.  Flushed, she juggled an umbrella, a large Tyvek envelope and a purse that looked like a leather backpack.  "Excuse me.  I’ve got an appointment with Mr. Dragon about the secretarial job?"

"You’re late."  Adria looked pointedly at the agenda.  "Miss Murray."

"I know.  I’m really sorry.  But the bus was late and—"

With a hand, Adria cut her off.  She didn’t want to feel her heart softening at this girl’s plight.  "The position’s been filled."

The brightness of Miss Murray’s smile faded even as she held on to its shape.  "But I didn’t get to interview."

A twinge of guilt nipped at Adria’s conscience.  It couldn’t be helped.  To get to Peter Dragon, to find his weakness, she had to stay close to him.  "With a face like yours, you’ll have a job before the week’s out."

What was left of the brunette’s smile collapsed under the weight of her disappointment and curled back into a grimace.  "Thanks anyway."

As Miss Murray retreated, a voice boomed from behind the closed double doors of the office.  Enough like thunder to rattle down the bony processes of Adria’s spine.  "Janine, is that you?"

Razor-edged agony cut through the greasy knot in her stomach.  Drawing in a breath, she flipped the agenda closed, took off her coat and draped it over the back of the secretarial chair.  She squared her shoulders and strode to the Dragon’s lair.

Showtime.


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