Read Tasting Fear Online

Authors: Shannon McKenna

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense

Tasting Fear

Praise for Shannon McKenna

“Sensual, hard-hitting love scenes, and underlying themes of hope, faithfulness and survival.”


Romantic Times
on
Extreme Danger
(4 starred review)

“A passionate, intense story about two people rekindling lost love in the middle of a dangerous, heart-pounding situation. Intricate storylines give the book depth and power, tying in the edge-of-your-seat ending with flawless ease.”


Romantic Times
on
Edge of Midnight
(4½ starred review)

“Wild boy Sean McCloud takes center stage in McKenna’s romantic suspense series. Full of turbocharged sex scenes, this action-packed novel is sure to be a crowd pleaser.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Edge of Midnight

“Highly creative, erotic sex and constant danger.”


Romantic Times
on
Hot Night
(4½ starred review and a Top Pick!)

“Super-sexy suspense! Shannon McKenna does it again.”

—Cherry Adair on
Hot Night

“A scorcher. Romantic suspense at its best!”


Romantic Times
on
Out of Control
(4½ starred review)

“Well-crafted romantic suspense. McKenna builds sexual chemistry and tension between her characters to a level of intensity that explodes into sexually explicit love scenes.”


Romantic Times
on
Return to Me
(4½ starred review)

S
HANNON
M
C
K
ENNA
T
ASTING
F
EAR

KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

www.kensingtonbooks.com

Prologue

J
ohn was stoked. This job was going to be easy money.

He parked in the shadow of a tree—not that his quarry could see him parked around the corner. The stupid old fuck was probably congratulating himself for being so crafty. Marco Barbieri’s plane from Italy had landed five hours ago, and the old man had been riding taxis in big, useless circles around the boroughs of New York City ever since. He’d changed cabs five times, but he always took the traitorous RF blip with him, the one planted deep in the trolley of his carry-on suitcase.

And it had led John right to the small upstate town of Hempton.

Served the old fart right for trusting his domestic staff back at his crumbling palazzo in Castiglione Santangelo. All it took was money to get the device planted in Barbieri’s suitcase. Not even that much money.

John slunk along the spiked wrought-iron fence that lined the street, staying in the shadows of overhanging shrubs. The taxi was pulling away, turning the corner. Barbieri climbed the steps slowly.

Triumph pumped through John. He’d found the elusive, long-lost Contessa. Marco Barbieri’s runaway bride. She’d be a shriveled hag now. Too damn bad, but she was still the key to the treasure chest. Marco Barbieri himself knew jack-shit. He was played out, ripe for the coroner’s slab, but the Contessa was another story. She would know what his boss needed to know. Why the fuck else would she have run?

John’s hands twitched with eagerness.

The door opened. A square of light, a tall, thin silhouette of a woman. The two figures stared at each other, motionless. John squinted in the dark. Too far to be sure, but saliva still pumped into his mouth.

They were speaking. John wished he’d been able to plant a listening device. Fuck it, he’d just get the woman to repeat their conversation, word for word. A few minutes with John’s talents, and the old bitch would walk on her hands and bark like a dog if he told her to.

He enjoyed that part of his work a bit more than he should, but whatever. No one ever knew how much he enjoyed himself on the job except for his victims. And they certainly weren’t telling.

He pondered ways and means as he composed himself to wait. Killing Barbieri in front of the Contessa would put her in the right mind-set for his interrogation, but it might also make a mess. John could wait when the situation warranted it, but his employer had been waiting for decades already. Nothing could be served by more waiting.

He drifted like a big dark ghost up the stairs, pulling on the mask. Unnecessary, since the Contessa would not live out the night, but John had found that wearing the mask unleashed him in some obscure way. He became superhuman. The essence of Death. Just putting it on made his body buzz with unholy anticipation.

He heard voices behind the door, the click of locks being disengaged. John slunk to put his back to the wall, reining in the hungry blood-drinking beast inside him. No knives, no guns. Barbieri’s blood spilled here would narrow John’s options afterward.

The instant the old man stepped out the door, John was in motion; grab, wrench, a strangled grunt, a wet crunch of a spine snapping, like a chicken with its neck wrung for the pot.

“Marco!” The old woman sprang out the door at him.
“Stronzo!”
she shrieked.
“Assassino! Aiuto!
Help!” She clawed at his face.

He lunged back, startled, dropping Barbieri’s limp body to the floor. Her shrill cries choked off as he knocked her into her house, onto the floor. She scrambled back, crablike, and squeaked as he landed on top of her, knocking all the air out of her. He clapped his hand over her trembling mouth. Feeling her fragile rib cage hitch and jerk, seeking air. The fine, soft wrinkled skin beneath his palm. He pinned her flailing hands in the vise of his thighs. Her long white hair had come loose. Her shirt was torn. Her thin, frail body vibrated with stark terror.

He drank it in, grinning. Guzzling it. Terror. A heady liquor.

“Not as fresh as I like,” he remarked, lightly. “You must’ve been good-looking a century ago. But I’m a professional. I’ll manage.” He yanked out the first implement that came to his hand, a hooked blade, and waved it in front of her eyes. “So, Contessa. Let’s talk about the sketches. Where are they?”

Her eyes froze wide. “D-d-don’t know wh-where.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh, yes, you do,” he said through clenched teeth. “And you’ll tell, Contessa. Believe me. You’ll tell.”

Something like amusement flashed in her eyes, in spite of her fear. Something cynical, ironic. She gave him a little head shake.
No
.

As if she were laughing at him. The uppity dago bitch actually dared to laugh at him. Like she thought she was smarter. Better.

Killing rage flooded him like rocket fuel. He was going to know everything in her head. He would carve it out of the snotty old whore, chunk by chunk. He reared up, twirling the blade in his fingers—

And realized she was no longer looking at him at all. She looked at the ceiling, gasping. Her face was white, her lips purple. He rolled off her, dismayed. Sure enough. Her freed hand went to her chest. Clutching. Oh, Christ, no. A fucking heart attack. He leaned over and stared into her face. “You stupid, troublesome bitch,” he said loudly.

She focused on him, and his heightened predator senses felt her, slipping away to where he couldn’t follow. He saw a fleeting hint of triumph in her eyes before they rolled, went blank. Unconscious. He wanted to howl. Dying, to spite him. And now old Barbieri was dead, too. The boss was not going to be happy.

Searching Barbieri’s suitcase and briefcase yielded no insights. They’d fucked him but good. He touched the Contessa’s throat. Dead as a doornail. He suppressed the urge to mutilate their corpses.

The austere room was empty but for a writing table and some carefully lit art pieces. Three envelopes lay on the table.

He snatched one up. Stamped, but not yet sent. The one he held was addressed to a Nancy D’Onofrio. He ripped it open and squinted at the fine, delicate antique cursive script.

My dearest Nancy,

What I have to tell you will come as a shock, and I’m sorry to tell you in a letter. I wanted to tell you all in person, but after my cardiologist appointment last week, I see now that I do not dare to wait until I can get all three of my girls together in one room…

Girls? John’s head lifted like an animal scenting new prey. His eyes lit on a shelf crowded with photographs.

He strode over. Sure enough. Three young women smiled out of the picture frames. Pretty girls. Each hot, in her own dick-prickling way. Too young to be the bitch’s daughters. Granddaughters, more like.

Fresh meat. And their addresses, written right there. Handy.

He stared at the images, breathing hard. One buxom, curvy girl with curly dark hair was curled up in a window seat, reading. Another mahogany-haired sylph was holding up a calico cat beneath her chin, smiling. A slender redheaded waif sported a slinky evening gown, gesturing toward a huge abstract sculpture behind her. All had sparkling eyes, rosy lips, expanses of smooth, unmarked skin like untrodden snow. Hot blood, blushing beneath. Curves and hollows, for him to pinch and squeeze and bite. Those girls would walk on their hands and bark like dogs for him, too. He would find those sketches, make his pile of money, and have a fine, juicy old time doing it.

So much saliva exploded into his mouth he began to dribble. He licked his lips, wiped his chin absently. Wouldn’t do to make it easy for the forensics techs, leaving a puddle of genetic material for them to test.

Finally, this job was starting to get interesting.

Outside the Limit
Chapter
1

“A
re you girls going to be all right?” Elsie’s white brows knitted anxiously above her faded blue eyes. “I can stay, you know.”

Nancy plastered what she hoped was a calm, reassuring look on her face as she gently nudged the old lady out the door. She gave Elsie’s wrinkled cheek a kiss. “We’ll be fine. We just need some downtime.”

“But…but I’m sure Lucia wouldn’t have wanted you girls to be all alone, at such a terrible time,” Elsie fussed.

“We have each other, Auntie Elsie.” Nancy’s sister Nell grabbed the elderly neighbor’s hand. “Thanks for the casserole. You’ve been wonderful. Lucia was lucky to have you for a neighbor. We all are.”

When Elsie was finally nudged and flattered out the door, Nancy collapsed against it, sliding until her butt hit the floor. “God. It took forever to get rid of them all. Lucia must have known everyone in town.”

Nell sank down to join her. Vivi flopped onto her back onto the scratched floorboards. She clapped a hand over her eyes to block the late afternoon sun. They were all in black, for the graveside service, and Vivi’s fiery locks seemed the only color in a room leached of color.

Nancy stared at her sisters, feeling empty. She always felt as if Lucia’s house was a benevolent entity, enveloping and protecting its people. Now, it just felt tired and old. As if the life had been sucked out of it.

Well, it had. The warmth, the benevolence, the life that had been Lucia. The house was just a house, faded and creaking with age.

Nothing like a funeral to pop the bubbles of one’s imaginative fancies. She was desperately glad Vivi and Nell were there with her.

Nell blew out a sharp breath. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I hadn’t been up here to see her for over a month. I thought, we’ll be celebrating her birthday soon enough, so I just took on extra shifts and put it off.”

“Me, too,” Nancy said wearily. “I’ve been swamped. Two albums to cut. Mandrake going on tour. Blah blah blah. Who gives a shit, right?”

“Lucia’s birthday was today,” Vivi said. “We should have been drinking port wine, eating one of those grape focaccias she made. Funny. I hated that thing, but I’d give anything to be crunching grape seeds in my teeth, telling her to get with the new millennium and make fudge brownies. Getting the lecture about the importance of tradition.”

“God, Vivi, please, no,” Nancy pleaded. “Don’t get us going.”

The warning came too late. Vivi’s face convulsed. The grape fo-cacia set the three of them off. For the umpteenth time.

They carefully avoided each other’s eyes when the sobbing eased down. Nell’s fingers found Nancy’s. “I’m so sorry you had to find her alone,” Nell said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if it had been me.”

“Same thing I did,” Nancy said wearily. “Called nine one one. Fallen to pieces. I was already nervous. I’d called her two evenings in a row. She didn’t pick up. Not like her. So I guess I was braced for it.”

“The asshole might have called an ambulance when he saw she was having a heart attack,” Vivi said. “The bastard murdered her, even if the coroner did decide not to call it that. Natural causes, my ass. Since when is being scared to death a natural cause?”

“Ironic, isn’t it?” Nell mused. “The thief takes the jewelry, the stereo, and the TV, and leaves the Fabergé picture frame and the Cellini bronze. Ignorant dickhead.”

“Speaking of which. We can’t leave Lucia’s fine art here,” Nancy said. “You’re the sculptor, Vivi. Why don’t you take the bronze?”

“Yeah, a priceless Cellini satyr would look great on the dashboard of my van. Right next to the air freshener and the plastic Madonna.”

“I thought you were through with the crafts fair circuit,” Nancy said. “Didn’t you say you wanted to stay in one place these days?”

Vivi shrugged. “Theoretically. Maybe someday. I guess two studio apartments in Manhattan the size of gnats’ asses aren’t much better than a Volkswagen van for museum-quality art exposition, huh?”

“No way,” Nell said. “All I’ve got are books. Volumes of epic poetry don’t have much direct trade value for crystal meth or heroin. How about you, Nance? Isn’t your block protected by the Hells Angels?”

Nancy shrugged. “Yeah, but even so. The crack houses the next block over do not inspire confidence. So, what? A safety-deposit box?”

“We can’t put Lucia’s precious
intaglio
writing table in a safety-deposit box,” Vivi said. “Damn.”

The three of them dubiously regarded the table in question.

“Should we get an alarm?” Nell suggested, her voice full of doubt.

Vivi harrumphed. “Seems silly, since the house is empty.”

“I’ll go out tomorrow and buy a plastic tablecloth,” Nancy said. “Something hideous, for camouflage. I’ll take the bronze, and you take the picture frame, Nell, until we come up with a better plan.”

This attempt at brisk practicality petered out into sad silence. Vivi rolled onto her side. Nancy slid her hand into her sister’s long, silky mane.

“It feels so strange,” Vivi said quietly. “She was our foundation, wasn’t she? Now she’s gone, the world’s lost all its structure.”

Nancy tugged Nell into the embrace. “We’ll make a new structure. We’ve got each other, right? That’s what Lucia would have said.”

The group hug was a sure detonator for another sob explosion. The doorbell jangled in the middle of their sobfest, making them jump.

“I can’t handle another condolence call,” Nell whispered, mopping her face. “Check the peephole. Don’t make any sound.”

Nancy peeked out. A bored-looking young man stood there, holding a box. “Looks like a delivery guy,” she told her sisters.

“More flowers?” Vivi asked.

“No, it’s a smallish white box.” Nancy pulled the door open. “Yes?”

“Special hand delivery from Baruchin’s Fine Jewelers,” the guy said. “For Lucia D’Onofrio.”

“She died a week ago,” Nancy said. “Today was the funeral.”

The guy blinked rapidly, mouth open. This scenario was not covered by the very simple flowchart in his head. He looked helpless.

Nancy took pity on him. “I’m her daughter. I’ll sign for it.”

“Ah…ah…lemme call my boss.” He called, muttered for a moment into his cell, passed the clipboard, waited as she scrawled her name. “Uh, sorry for your loss,” he mumbled, abashed.

Nancy took the box into the house. “Baruchin’s Fine Jewelers since nineteen thirty-eight,” she read. “Anybody else want to do the honors?”

Vivi and Nell exchanged nervous glances. “Go for it,” Nell said.

Nancy pried open the seals. Inside were three small identical leather boxes. Nell flipped open each box. They leaned over. Gasped.

A rectangular gold pendant was inside each box. Each was adorned with a delicate cursive letter, each done with a different color of gemstone. The
N
for Nancy was done in tiny sapphires, the
A
for Antonella in rubies, and the V for Vivien in emeralds. Diamond brilliants clustered around the letters for contrast. Each pendant had a halo of white, lacy white gold openwork swirling above the top of the rectangle. They were exquisite. It was cruel. The three of them turned away from the table and totally lost it. For at least ten minutes.

Finally, Vivi dragged a shredded Kleenex out and blew her nose. “She was going to give them to us on her birthday,” she said.

Nancy nodded, loosening the V from its velvet nest. She reached around Vivi’s neck, fastening the clasp. She did the same for Nell, and then her own. “We’ll wear them always,” she said. “In her honor.”

Vivi fled to the kitchen, clutching her pendant in her hand.

Nell clutched hers, her wet eyes faraway. “She saved us, you know,” she said. “At least me and Vivi. Maybe not you, Nance. You were born grown up. You could have saved yourself from the cradle.”

“Ouch,” Nancy said sourly.

“It’s a compliment,” Nell said. “I respect and admire you for it.”

“Right. Stolid old Nancy,” she muttered. “Hit me over the head with a brick. I barely even blink.”

“Wrong,” Nell snapped. “Solid. Solid is different from stolid. You’re tough. Not flaky. Tough is sexy. There’s nothing sexy about flaky.”

Nancy grunted. “Yeah? Ask any of my ex-fiancés.”

“Hell, no.” Nell made an exaggerated pantomime of spitting on the ground. “Not unless you want me to slug them out for you.”

Vivi burst out of the kitchen, eyes alight. “I found it!” She waved a yellowed scrap of paper in one hand and a wine bottle in the other.

“Found what?” Nancy asked.

“The recipe! For that horrendous grape thing!
Schiacciata all’ uva!
We even have some grapes, with seeds! Elsie left some with the casserole. The recipe’s in Italian, but you read Italian, right, Nell?”

Nell adjusted her glasses, took the paper out of Vivi’s hand, and peered at it. “The measurements are metric, but we can find a conversion table online with Nancy’s BlackBerry,” she said.

Nancy was bemused. “I thought you hated the grape thing!”

“Oh, I do,” Vivi assured her. “But that doesn’t matter. It’s the perfect thing for Lucia’s wake. Just us three all sniveling together, a couple of bottles of port, and the gross grape focaccia.”

Nancy grabbed her and hugged her hard. “Okay,” she whispered.

None of them were good at pastry, but they put their hearts into it for Lucia’s sake. Their ragged version of
sciacchiata all’uva
was a far cry from Lucia’s elegant traditional Tuscan dish, but whatever. The oven timer did not go off. The smoke detector did. But the quantity of port they had drunk made them indiscriminating enough to actually eat some of it. It was as wonderfully awful as ever, especially burned.

They toasted Lucia until dawn, alternately laughing and crying at the impenetrable mysteries of life and death. The cruelty and the beauty of it.
Il dolce e l’amaro,
as Lucia would’ve said. The bitter and the sweet.

 

Nell leaned out of the passenger-side window of Vivi’s gaudily painted Volkswagen van the next morning. “Take-out dinner, eight o’clock, my place,” she reiterated forcefully. “Be there.”

“If I can,” Nancy hedged. “I’ve got a million things to take—”

“To take care of, yes. You always do, but you still have to eat,” Vivi scolded, leaning over Nell’s lap from the driver’s side.

“If you’re not there, we’ll think you don’t care,” Nell warned.

Vivi’s taillights glowed in the morning mist until they turned at the corner and were gone. The sky was heavy with bruised-looking clouds. Nancy’s head felt bruised, too. No surprise, considering the port they’d sucked down in their drunken revels. Cathartic, yeah, but this morning she felt like something scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

Too bad. Time to get busy and do all the normal things in her crazy schedule, plus everything that had been put off last week because of Lucia’s death and funeral. Fortunately for her, frantic activity was her favorite coping mechanism, considering her career choice—an agent manager for singer-songwriters and folk bands. Back in college, she’d wanted to be a musician herself. She’d learned, to her cost, that she didn’t have the chops for it, and decided to make the best of it, and help the musicians who did. And
that
she
was
good at. Damn good. She had just the detail-minded, dogged determination for it.

She had nudged her handpicked group of folk artists and ensembles out of the pub and coffeehouse concert series circuits and into theaters and more prestigious folk festivals. They were getting better record deals, more airtime on radio stations. Some were poised to break into the big time. If that happened, her hard work would start to pay off. This was the last push toward that glorious day when she could hire a staff, instead of being a one-woman agency. She’d been working sixteen-hour days, sometimes working nights as well, for years.

But that was fine with her. A woman zipping around at three hundred miles an hour, six hands waving like a dancing Shiva, a cell phone in every one of them, did not have time to feel this sour, sucking hole of grief inside her. Or at least, if she did feel it, it would be on the periphery of her consciousness, not smack-dab in the center.

Even so. She pressed her hand against the ache in her middle. It was going to take some crazy scrambling to distract herself from this.

First, something hideous to cover the writing table. She got into her car, zipped down to the dollar store, and stood in the aisle for several minutes pondering the merits of hideous florals or plastic plaid in dull hues of beige and taupe. She concluded that in the understated simplicity of Lucia’s front room, the quietly ugly beige and taupe mumbled “Don’t notice me,” whereas the checks and hideous floral squawked “What’s wrong with this picture?” Or perhaps she was giving the burglars too much credit. As if those drugged-up bottom-feeders were going to be listening to what plastic tablecloths whispered to them.

It was raining when she got back. She held the package that held the tablecloth over her head as she darted up the steps.

“Excuse me, miss?”

The deep voice jolted her, and she let the package drop. It slid down the stoop, landing at the feet of a man who stood there. He stooped to pick it up. Rain sparkled on the spiky tips of his short brown hair. He stood, looked up, and her breathing stopped. Everything stopped. Time stopped. Or seemed to.

“Sorry to startle you.” His words started the clock again.

That’s okay,
her lips tried to say, but her lungs were still immobile.

She gave him a jerky nod. Her glasses were spotted with rain. She dried them on her sweater. Even out of focus, he was amazingly good-looking. No, good-looking was too pallid a term. Cut it down to just “amazing.”

She couldn’t focus in on any particular detail. His broad, strong-boned face was wet with rain, but it was his eyes that did it to her. Beard stubble accented all his chiseled planes and angles of his jaw. His eyes were silvery green, the color so bright it seemed to catch the light and reflect it back. Huge shoulders. Fabulous thighs, nicely shown off by faded jeans, although she’d bet money he wasn’t conscious of it. She’d also bet money that he had an ass to match.

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