Read Soft Target Online

Authors: Mia Kay

Soft Target

Soft Target
By Mia Kay

Wounded FBI agent Gray Harper will honor his dead partner by returning to work—as soon as the Bureau shrink clears him for duty. In the meantime, a long vacation in his best friend’s hometown sounds like the perfect distraction. But Nate Mathis has another plan. His twin sister, Maggie, has a stalker, and Gray’s the only one Nate trusts to catch the bastard.

Admitting she’s scared would bring the cavalry, and Maggie Mathis has always taken care of herself. She certainly doesn’t need a bodyguard. As far as she knows, Gray’s in town to work as the Mathis family’s new business manager. That she’s always found her brother’s friend handsome is something she’ll keep to herself.

Gray’s real job would be a lot easier if he didn’t have to keep his intentions from Maggie. It would also be easier if he didn’t want to sleep with her. He certainly shouldn’t have kissed her good-night. There never should have been a second date.

All too soon, the line between responsibility and pleasure blurs. Gray hates to think of Maggie in danger. He hates that he thinks about Maggie too much, and of the day he won’t be there to protect her. Secrets aren’t easy to keep from those you love, but Gray needs to guard several with his life…before he risks losing Maggie forever.

89,960 words

Dear Reader,

Here in North America, we’re swinging back around to cozy days spent inside reading, while some of you (picture me waving at you, Australia) are headed into summer beach days. Whatever weather you’re enjoying—or not enjoying, as the case may be—a good book is always in order, and I have a few that may be just what you’re looking for.

This month, we’ve got a particular emphasis on the mystery and romantic suspense genres. We also have the first in several new series and are introducing four new-to-Carina authors!

Barreling onto the scene with a new series, new genre and a new pen name, Piper J. Drake offers explosive (at times literally) action and an endearing romance in the first book in her new romantic suspense Safeguard series,
Hidden Impact
. Meet military-veteran-turned-mercenary Gabriel Diaz. Betrayed, injured and building a new mercenary team, the last thing he expects to do is sweep Maylin Cheng off her feet—and out of the path of the car that tries to kill her. But now that he’s fallen for her, he’s all in to protect her at all costs, while helping find her kidnapped sister.

The always incredible Josh Lanyon joins Piper in the romantic suspense category, with a charming and loveable male/male romance,
Jefferson Blythe, Esquire
. With only an outdated copy of
Esquire’s Europe in Style
to guide him, Jefferson Blythe sets out to see the world and runs straight into death, danger…and the boy next door.

And making her debut, Mia Kay brings us her romantic suspense
Soft Target
. Wounded FBI agent Gray Harper will honor his dead partner by returning to work—as soon as the Bureau shrink clears him for duty. In the meantime, a long vacation in his best friend’s hometown sounds like the perfect distraction. But Nate Mathis has another plan. His twin sister, Maggie, has a stalker, and Gray’s the only one Nate trusts to catch the bastard.

In a contemporary romance that unexpectedly hooked the entire Carina Press acquisitions team from the first page, Lucy Parker brings everything we love about romance and our heroines to the page—and the stage—in her debut book,
Act Like It
. Enter our heroine stage right: she’s the darling of the London press. Enter the hero stage left: he’s public enemy number one. They barely tolerate each other—and they’re about to become the most mismatched couple on the West End stage.

Two new authors join Carina Press with new mystery series. Debut author Lisa Q. Mathews is first on the scene with The Ladies Smythe & Westin series. In
Cardiac Arrest
, Summer Smythe, a twentysomething party girl making a fresh start in a ritzy Florida retirement community, teams up with her neighbor, feisty senior Dorothy Westin, to clear her name in the murder of her popular—but heartless—cardiologist boss.

Jonathan Watkins debuts with Carina with his previously self-published and newly reedited and revised Bright & Fletcher Mysteries. As soon as criminal defense lawyer Issabella Bright’s long-lost father blows into the Motor City, kidnapping, ransom and murder follow him and threaten to tear asunder the work-and-romance partnership she’s built with the man who will go to any length to keep her safe. And that man, Darren Fletcher, soon learns that shielding Issabella from danger could swiftly end with his
Dying in Detroit
.

Weather (ha, get it?) you’re under a blanket keeping warm on your couch or enjoying the sun of your summer, these books will keep you company for a few hours and provide some take-you-away entertainment.

Coming in December: Hitting both physical and digital shelves just in time for Thanksgiving here in the States is book two of Shannon Stacey’s combustible Boston Fire series,
Controlled Burn
. Also in December:
Caitlyn McFarland
ties up her dragon-shifter romance trilogy, male/male author Annabeth Albert joins the Carina team and
Kate Willoughby
is back with a terrific new hockey romance.

Until next time, here’s wishing you a wonderful month of books you love, remember and recommend.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Executive Editor, Carina Press

Dedication

To my grandmother, Marie, who taught me to love romance novels and who makes up her own rules for Scrabble.

Chapter One

A guy walks into a bar...

Every lame joke Graham Harper could remember flitted through his brain as he stood just inside the door of Orrin’s Bar. He was as tired as those overused punch lines.

Maybe the joke was on him. “Why don’t you come early? I could use your help,” Nate had said. “Bring your stuff.”

So Gray had spent five days in a moving van with all his portable belongings, like a turtle. The worn suspension rattled every bone in his body, and the springs in the seat had been poking him in the ass since Montana’s eastern border. All in the name of friendship.

The bartender looked away from her conversation with a group of patrons who towered over her. In a relaxed T-shirt and overalls, she would have passed for an urchin from
Oliver Twist
if not for her skin’s golden glow and the stylish pixie haircut. Her smile sparkled, as did her eyes. And that hair—honey, cream and platinum—he’d only met one person with hair like that.

“Hi, Gray. Welcome back. Want a beer?”

Only in Fiddler, Idaho, could he be absent ten years and be treated like he’d only gone around the corner.

He walked to the bar. “Hi, Maggie. Nice to see you. Shiner Bock, if you have it. Bottle’s fine.”

She put one in his hand, and the cold, dark glass numbed his fingers. Gray tipped the bottle, closed his eyes and let the icy, bitter beer wash down his throat for the first time in almost two months. When condensation dripped to the bar, Maggie slid a coaster and a napkin in his direction.

“Don’t I even get a hug?” he teased with a wink.

“You’re Nate’s friend,” she said, echoing his tone. “He can hug you.”

This joke was as old as the others. Maggie Mathis, his best friend’s sister, was always friendly, always warm and welcoming. And in all the time Gray had known her, she’d hugged him exactly once.

“Nathan!” she yelled over the rumble of conversation. “Gray’s here!”

The man winding through the crowd shared his sister’s smile, but years of working outside had bronzed his skin.

Nate and Maggie Mathis. The wonder twins.

“You always were a sneaky bastard.” Nate’s grumble was diffused by a laugh.

The trademark cackle was as large a part of Gray’s college memories as his degrees. He’d heard it before he reached his assigned dorm room on the first day of orientation. As a Nebraska farm kid on a scholarship, Gray had been overwhelmed, already worried about his GPA and balancing his class schedule with work-study. Nate, the trust-fund baby from Idaho, had been planning a party to break the ice.

Gray braced himself for a hug like a half-nelson. Instead Nate hesitated, with a tentative smile and a raised hand. His gaze darted from one of Gray’s shoulders to the other.

Like I’m broken.

“Don’t hit the left one,” he muttered under his breath and forced a smile.

Shoulder to shoulder, halfway between a handshake and a hug, Nate whispered, “Do me a favor and just play along. I’ll explain later.”

Oh shit, not again.

“Guys!” Nate’s bellow silenced the crowd. “This is Gray Harper, best friend, best man, and our new business manager. Make him welcome, please.”

Business manager? What the hell?

“Nate.” Gray stooped to whisper, “What the fuck is going on?”

Nate dragged him across the room without answering. “You remember Kevin and Michael, don’t you?”

“Of course.” He stuck his hand out to a Nordic giant in wire-rimmed glasses. “Nice to see you again, Kevin.”

“It’s about time you came back,” Kevin answered. “We thought we pissed you off.”

Michael was next. He’d always been the most reserved of the group, but his callused grip was warm and his smile was as wide as Nate’s. “Welcome back.”

Their reunion was interrupted as a well-meaning but chaotic mob milled around the table while Nate yelled introductions over the din. Gray ignored his aching shoulder, spinning head and stiff smile as the crowd overwhelmed him. Maggie brought them refills and shooed everyone away.

“Don’t scare him before his first day.” She clucked after the men like a mother hen. “And Fred Drake, take off your hat. Your mother taught you better manners than that.”

A petite redhead weaved through the crowd. Gray recognized Faith Nelson, Nate’s fiancée, from the photos Nate had emailed over the last year.

“Gray Harper, Faith. Nice to meet you.”

She ignored his outstretched hand and snatched him into a hard hug. Despite losing his breath as pain lanced from his shoulder to his ribs, Gray warmed to the first person in months who hadn’t treated him like he was fragile.

As the tide of introductions waned, Gray surveyed the room. Warm yellow walls brightened the walnut floor and the matching trim around doors and windows uncluttered by the traditional neon beer advertisements.

Maggie held court behind a large oak bar, and red caps emblazoned with the Mathis logo crowded every surface or hung from chairs. There wasn’t a waitress. There weren’t any guitar solos screaming from a jukebox. The air was crisp, as if the windows had been open until the day had cooled in the sunset. No one was drunk. This was the weirdest bar he’d ever seen. But then, the Mathis family had always been unconventional.

Every college summer, instead of touring Europe or sunning on the beach, the twins had worked in the family quarries and lumber mills. Their only true vacation had been two weeks in July when their friends had flown in to play. Gray had come from his parents’ farm to join Nate and his childhood buddies, and Maggie’s college roommates had come from wherever they lived when they weren’t on campus in Seattle.

Maggie’s smile caught his attention, just as it had during those summer adventures. He drained the last of his beer and walked to the bar, winding through the friendly crowd, for another round.

Glassware and liquor bottles lined the shelves facing him. Framed photographs documented years of celebrations. One was of an older couple standing where he and Maggie were now.

Maggie followed his stare. “That’s Orrin and Faye Coleman, the bar’s original owners. He died a few years ago, and she’s in assisted living across town. You’re renting their old house.”

Before he could ask why he needed a house, Nate clapped him on the left shoulder, and Gray’s knees shook. He wasn’t sure if it was from pain or fear. Neither was good.

“Let’s go see your office.”

He was swallowed by a dark hallway, and Gray’s throat constricted as his stomach churned. The ceiling fan cooled the sweat on the nape of his neck.
It’s just a hallway, Harper. Get a grip.

He put one foot in the shadows, then another. Step, breathe. Step, breathe. Once he was inside the bright office, Nate closed the door. The men dropped into opposite chairs in front of a desk that managed to be imposing and understated at the same time. Gray’s head fell backward as he drew a deep breath and waited for his knees to quit shaking.

“Now that we’re alone, how are you? Really,” Nate asked.

On top of being drenched in a cold sweat, Gray imagined creaks and squeaks in his joints. Every morning he looked in the bathroom mirror to see if the screws in his shoulder and ribs had ruptured his skin while he slept. When he slept.

“It bothers me less every day.”

He needed to start keeping a list of the lies he was telling. At some point, confession would be in order.

“You scared the shit out of me,” Nate scolded. “How does a white-collar FBI agent get shot anyway?”

“Raids and arrests are part of the job, and money makes suspects as desperate as any other criminal.”
Especially mousy accountants committing investment fraud with money they skimmed from the mob.

Nate shifted in the chair and bounced his fingers against the upholstered arm. “How much longer will you be on leave?”

“Until I can get through physical therapy without a spotter.”
And until I can prove I’m not addicted to Vicodin and can see a closed door without thinking I’m in a cage.

“A month.” Gray’s conscience twinged. “Maybe two.”

“Is Shelby coming out later? After talking to her so much while you were in the hospital, I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

“No.” Gray sighed as he stared at the ceiling. This was another confession he avoided. “We—I—ended things about a month ago.”

“Damn. I’m sorry.”

Gray waved off the concern and changed the subject. “Why am I here two months before your bachelor party, and why the hell does everyone think I’m coming to work for you?”

There was a knock at the door a second before it opened. Maggie thrust a box at him. “You’ll need these. I’ve labeled them to make it easier.” She held up a small key ring. “There’s one for each door and the office. The larger ring has all the quarry office keys.” She lifted a second bundle. “These are your house keys. The garage door opener is in here, too. And I’ve put the lease on your desk. Nate insisted on month to month in case you don’t like Faye’s house. But if you don’t, you’re screwed because it’s the only place to rent in town.”

She was gone as fast as she’d come.

Enough was enough. He faced Nate. “What. The. Fuck.”

“She has a stalker.”

A familiar jolt of adrenaline fired through Gray’s system as his brain seized the first puzzle pieces of a new case. It felt good until he saw Nate’s tense jaw and shadowed eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Flowers have arrived every Monday for six months from some anonymous bastard. The accompanying notes are creepy as hell.”

“Define
creepy
.”

“They start out sweet—’I think you’re pretty’ sort of stuff. But they end with promises to come get her or be the last person she sees.” Nate’s ease had evaporated and taken his smile with it. Now his eyes were sharp and his jaw muscles gathered at his ear. His elbows rested on his knees, and his fingers were steepled together. He perched on the edge of his chair as if he was prepared to leap into action. “It’s clear he’s following her around, watching everything she does, and just
waiting
for some signal. And I can’t—”

Gray put up a hand to stop Nate’s typical headfirst rush. “Usually it’s someone you know.”

Nate snorted. “Dude, we know
everyone
in Fiddler, and I can’t imagine any of them would do this.”

“Is it always the same florist?”

“Our
only
florist. They’re ordered through FTD and Teleflora.”

“Payment?”

“Prepaid gift card.”

“You can’t get a judge to issue a warrant?”

“I’ve tried. Since he hasn’t approached her, they don’t consider him a threat and I can’t ask for special treatment.”

Despite belonging to the wealthiest family in town, Nate and Maggie had been born with shovels in their hands instead of silver spoons in their mouths.
No special treatment
was the family motto.

“How’s she handling it?”

Nate shook his head. “She refuses to suspect anyone or to change her behavior. The police department tries to watch her, but she ducks them. I suggested a bodyguard, and she quit carrying my favorite beer for a month. I’m afraid to suggest a security system.”

Gray frowned. “She’s never been irresponsible.”

“Yeah, but she’s always been independent. She thinks she can figure it out on her own. That if the guy knows her, he won’t hurt her. He’ll eventually come forward,” Nate grumbled. “But something’s not right. It’s gone on too long.”

Gray remembered the family who’d welcomed him, the friends who’d laughed with him during those college summers. Maggie had always been the bright spot at their center. The girl who brought
Anna Karenina
to the lake, wouldn’t camp without a sound system and doted on her family but rolled her eyes when they weren’t looking. Memories of her had followed him home each year and haunted him until Christmas break. She’d been off-limits on so many levels for more reasons than he could count. And he’d counted them—repeatedly.

“How can I help?”

“Find this guy while you’re here?” Nate’s raised eyebrows added to the plea.

“Aww, shit. Nathan, despite the badge and the gun, I’m basically a tax attorney. It would make more sense for me to be involved if he was embezzling to buy the flowers.”

Nate persisted. “I don’t know what else to do. I’ve tried. The police have tried. In a town this size, it shouldn’t be difficult. Maybe we just need a set of fresh eyes.” His grin was lopsided and brief. “And I know you can’t resist the challenge.”

Gray shifted positions and wondered if the creak he heard was the chair or his battered shoulder. Challenge and adrenaline aside, he wasn’t up for this. “Nate—”

“She’s the only family I have. I’m in the middle of wedding plans, a honeymoon, and being a newlywed. Not to mention work. I can’t be everywhere at the same time, and
everyone
deserves my full attention. Besides, I
suck
at details. You know that. If she gets hurt because I—” Nate stared at a spot on the floor. “I need someone I trust to look out for her, without her knowing they’re looking out for her.”

Gray’s head throbbed as Nate’s cockeyed plan came into focus.
Business manager, office, house.
“You’re a moron. You know that, right? This will never work. She’s got all the brains.”

“She’s been after me for a year to hire a business manager. We’re spread too thin, and it’s only getting worse.”

“So I’ve suddenly left a career in law enforcement to manage quarries?”

“I’ve never told her about the FBI. As far as she knows, you’re a tax attorney with an MBA and you’ve been working in Chicago since she last saw you.” Nate leaned forward in his chair. “You’re the only person I trust with her.”

Gray had seen Nate this tense only once, on the darkest day of the twins’ lives. That convinced him more than anything else Nate had said. So did Maggie’s laughter filtering through the door.

“Okay, I’ll try. But I get to say when I’m in over my head.”

Nate dropped back into the chair, and his deep exhale ended in a wide grin. “Thanks. Glen Roberts, the police chief, is the only other person who knows why you’re really here. He’ll give you access to whatever you need. Oh, and Faith knows. Can’t keep a secret from my girl.”

Other books

White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad
Surrender by Sue Lyndon
Epic Of Palins 01 - Dagger Star by Elizabeth Vaughan
Across the Creek by Asher, Jeremy
Frankenstein Theory by Jack Wallen
When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald
Roses are Red by Jasmine Hill
Tranquil Fury by P.G. Thomas


readsbookonline.com Copyright 2016 - 2020