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Excerpt - Killer Assignment by Maggie K. Black

Killer Assignment
by Maggie K. Black


FRONT PAGE NEWS: MURDER! 
Journalist Katie Todd wanted her name as a byline on the front page, not in the obituaries. When an assignment goes very wrong, she finds herself pursued by ruthless kidnappers. Her only hope is the enigmatic and handsome Mark Armor. All clues point to him being the enemy of her enemy, but is he a friend—or something much more dangerous? Every move Mark makes to help Katie brings him closer to the life he left behind, but he can't say no to the beautiful writer. Will the secrets of his past put Katie in even more danger?

Excerpt of chapter one:

Katie Todd tightened her grip on the handle of her suitcase and tried to pretend she didn't know she was being watched. The sun had set long before her train had dropped off its few remaining passengers in Cobalt. Now damp, dark air hung over the tiny northern Ontario town, thick with the threat of rain. Behind her back, the lake spread out as still as a shadow. The small station was deserted except for one lone figure, lounging against a lamppost.

The young man had boarded the same train as she did in Toronto. He was in his late teens—twenty at most—and had sat there, hunched in the corner with his hands plunged deep into the pockets of a shapeless gray sweatshirt. When the conductor had announced, a couple of hours into their journey, that the train would be going out of service in the small town of Cobalt due to a rockslide on the tracks ahead, most passengers had opted to get off in the larger city of North Bay to either catch a replacement bus or find a hotel for the night. Only a handful of people had ridden the train to its final stop. Then, as the other passengers disappeared up the hill toward the gray shapes of town, the young man had stayed behind. His sharp eyes peered at her from underneath the brim of a baseball cap. They followed her as she moved. Katie shivered. Where was her taxi?

She never should have trusted Ethan Randall. When she'd managed to reach her boss at Impact News to warn him she was going to be delayed in reaching her assignment, the editor had insisted she take the train all the way to the end of the line, promising the newspaper would arrange transportation from there. Then her cell phone reception had dropped out, cutting off the call before she could even argue. She hadn't been able to get a signal back since.

Chances were Ethan hadn't even been listening. But you didn't last long at Impact if you didn't go where you were told. To call his management style chaotic was an understatement. The self-centered playboy didn't plan so much as react—changing assignments on a whim and then yelling at his staff for struggling to catch up.

This weekend was a perfect example. Here she'd been planning on getting her hands dirty at a fall cleanup event in Toronto's Don Valley. Instead, he'd sent her up north to cover the weekend gala that real estate developer Jonah Shields was holding on his private estate. Shields was exactly the kind of irresponsible businessman she'd become a journalist to expose. Now here she was expected to write some ridiculous fluff piece about how lovely his party was.

If all went according to plan, Ethan wouldn't be her boss much longer. But if she wanted to keep her job long enough to scoop his job out from under him, she couldn't afford to mess up a single assignment. Even if the taxi he'd promised to arrange was nowhere to be seen. She tried her cell phone again. Still no signal. Probably because he'd changed their work phones recently, and their new service provider had no coverage this far north.

So, no taxi. No phone. Just a dark, empty train platform growing colder by the second and a stranger's threatening glare. She took a deep breath and ran both hands through long, blond hair, the color of pure honey. Okay. She'd sort it out somehow. She always did.

The tiny town lay dark and silent ahead of her, barely more than a smattering of buildings, framed by the shadow of the old mine. Surely there would be something open in town and someone who'd let her use a phone. She extended the handle of her suitcase and started across the parking lot. The young man followed.

There was the sound of tires screeching. A white delivery van was speeding toward the station. It swerved into the parking lot and stopped short in front of her. She jumped back. The man behind the wheel was huge, with a camouflage jacket and the grim, scarred face of someone who'd been in more than his fair share of fights. "Katie Todd?"

A cold shiver shot up the base of her spine. But she forced a polite smile onto her face. "Yes?"

"I'm Al. I'm here to pick you up." There was no company name on the van and no windows in the back, either. The bottom of the chassis was pockmarked with rust, and the whole thing stunk of fuel. Whatever this van was used for delivering, it sure wasn't people.

"I'm afraid there's been some kind of mix-up," she said. "I was waiting for a taxi."

Al smirked. "Hop in." Something cold and dark flickered in the back of his eyes. "I'll take you where you need to go."

The van didn't even have a license plate. No way even Ethan could've messed things up this badly. She stepped back and nearly bumped into the teenager who'd followed her from the train.

"Hey, Billy!" Al waved a big hand toward the kid. "How about you open a door for Ms. Todd?"

Billy snickered.

She slid both hands onto the handle of her suitcase and tightened her grip. "Thanks. But I feel like a walk."

Al's grin faded. He nodded to Billy. "Grab her." He threw the van's back door open. For a second, she caught a glimpse of a bare, empty space with a blanket and roll of duct tape on the floor.

Billy lunged. She swung her suitcase around hard with both hands, then let go, launching twenty pounds of laptop and clothes directly into the teenager's chest. He stumbled back. She ran, expecting any moment to feel hands grabbing her, pulling her back. For a second, she started up the road toward town. But when she heard the van's engine turn over, she swerved right and dove down the grassy hill toward the railway tracks. She'd never be able to outrun them on the road. But if she made it as far as the train tracks they'd be forced to chase her on foot.

Her feet slipped on wet fall leaves. She hit the tracks and pitched forward, falling onto her hands and knees. Billy was slithering down the hill behind her. Katie gasped for breath, stumbled to her feet and forced herself to sprint.

The tracks lay ahead of her, disappearing into the blackness, between ragged cliffs on her left and the lake to her right. She could hear Billy's footsteps pounding down the tracks behind her now. She didn't risk looking back. Didn't dare slow. Couldn't let herself wonder why someone would try to kidnap her. Or what they'd do to her if she were caught.

A light flickered on the cliffside in front of her. Then the small beam swung across her path, like someone waving a flashlight.

She hesitated. Billy leaped on her from behind, grabbing her around the knees. He forced her to the ground, pressing her body into the railway slats. She screamed. His hands clamped around her ankles. He dragged her backward down the tracks. Her hands clutched desperately at the rails.

"Hey!" a male voice shouted. "Leave her alone!" Someone was scrambling down the cliff.

Billy's hand snapped to the back of her neck. Skinny fingers clenched the soft skin at the sides of her throat. "Don't move," he barked in her ear. "Or I'll kill you."

The tall figure of a man landed on the tracks in front of them. "Let her go." The voice was strong, deep and dark with the barely concealed hint of a growl. She couldn't see his face.

Billy knelt up, his hand remaining firmly clenched on her neck. A bony knee pressed into the small of her back. The weight of his body forced the air from her lungs. "Back off! I've got a gun, and I'm not afraid to use it." The tremor in his voice made her suspect he was lying, but when she tried to speak, she couldn't manage more than a whimper. "This is between me and her. Just turn around, walk away and pretend you didn't see a thing."

"I'm afraid I can't do that." He lunged at Billy, yanking him off her so suddenly the boy yelped in surprise as he was tossed beside the tracks like a sack of bones.

Strong arms reached down toward her. Hands clasped her arms in a motion firm yet surprisingly gentle. "Hey. Are you okay?" She nodded, using his strength to pull her shaking body to its feet.

The crack of a gunshot split the night air. Billy had fired wildly, the bullet flying off into the darkness beyond. In a heartbeat, her rescuer threw himself between her and Billy, shielding her with his body. But all that followed was the click of Billy's gun jamming. The teenager swore. He scrambled to his feet and ran back down the railway tracks.

The man sighed. "Nothing more stupid than a novice waving a gun around. They pretty much never hit what they're aiming at." He unclipped a flashlight from his belt and switched it on. Light brushed along the stubble of his jawline. He was tall, with well-worn jeans and the kind of sturdy shoulders that implied their owner was more at home in a thick and wild forest than inside the walls of an office cubicle.

"If he had a gun, why not pull it out earlier?" She was relieved to feel her reporter's instincts kicking in. As long as she focused on asking questions, she'd be able to stay in control of her emotions.

"My guess is he wanted to take you alive."

Her knees buckled. She glanced past him down the tracks, the desire to run as far as she could from the terror behind her battled with legs that threatened to crumble beneath her. For a moment, she fought the urge to let herself fall into his arms and cry. But instead, she planted her feet firmly beneath her. They were still alone, at night, caught in the dark empty space between a cliffside and a lake. Hardly the time and place to let herself fall apart. Besides, this man could be anybody.

"What happened?" His fingers brushed along her arm. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine. Thank you. I just arrived at the train station, and two strangers tried to force me into a van."

She swallowed hard and forced her legs to walk, slowly at first, but knowing that each step would take them farther away from the men who had tried to kidnap her. "Where did you even come from?"

He matched his pace to hers. "There's a path that cuts down the cliffside. I was sitting on a ledge halfway up when I heard you scream."

"Alone? In the dark?"

He blinked. "I was testing some broadcast equipment. I'm an engineer of sorts, and broadcasting a radio signal off cliffs like these over still water are pretty much ideal conditions for testing signal strength. I just thank God that I decided to do it when and where I did." He said the last bit with a bit more emphasis than she was used to. His hand hovered just behind her shoulders, just enough to let her know that his arm was there in case she wanted the support. "But are you sure you're okay?"

She paused long enough to let her gaze meet his. The lines of his face were tough and unflinching, which belied a more tender mouth than she was expecting. But it was the depth of concern reflected in his deep eyes that almost made her legs give way. She stepped away from his outstretched arm. He slid his hands into his pocket. "I'm fine, Mr….?"

"Mark. Mark Armor."

"Thank you for your help, Mark." Her voice sounded more formal than she'd been intending. But it wouldn't hurt him to realize she was hardly some damsel in distress. Last thing she wanted was another man thinking he could save her.

"I'm Katie Todd."

She stuck out her hand for a handshake. A curious smile curved up at the corner of his lips. But he took her hand and shook it up and down firmly. Then his fingers lingered over hers. Come on, Katie. Get hold of yourself. It's not like you can just count on a handsome stranger to step in and save you.

"The priority right now is reporting this to the police." She pulled her hand away. "Obviously, the sooner I make a report, the better. But the last I checked I couldn't get a cell phone signal. Do you know where I can find a phone?" There was that smile again on Mark's lips. Like he couldn't figure out whether to be amused or impressed.

"Most cell providers have no coverage this far north. Here, you can use my phone."

Mark reached into his pocket and pulled out an awkwardly shaped silver device that looked like a cross between a smart phone and a Smith & Wesson revolver. Katie ran her gaze all the way from the depth of his eyes down to the mud on his leather boots. Right, so well-worn jeans and a high-tech phone and he was testing broadcast equipment after dark in the middle of nowhere. Oh, right, and he wasn't the least bit fazed by being shot at. What was wrong with this picture? "That's actually a phone? I've never seen anything like it."

"I built it."

"You can actually get a signal with it here?"

"It's a satellite phone. The signal bounces off a satellite in orbit instead of using cell towers. I can get a signal pretty much anywhere in the world with it, no matter how distant or remote." Something in the way he said it made her think that he'd actually tried. "Is there anyone else we should be contacting? Were you traveling with anyone? Or was there someone who was supposed to be meeting you?"

"I'm just up here for work." On a nonsense assignment that was quickly unraveling before it even started. "I'm a reporter for a newspaper in Toronto." And hopefully its editor soon, once she managed to get Ethan out of the way. "How about you? I'm guessing from your gear you're with some kind of secret international law enforcement?"

Mark laughed. "Hardly. I run a small disaster-relief charity called Technical Response United Solution Teams—or TRUST for short. We travel around the world helping local charities respond to humanitarian crises and disasters mostly by designing and building different gadgets and equipment to help them."

Disaster relief. Perfect. She took the phone and dialed 911.

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