She Can Kill (She Can... #5)


by Melinda Leigh

CHAPTER ONE

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been eighteen months since my last assassination.

Christopher slowed the car as he approached the turnoff. A visit to his father-in-law’s estancia triggered equal amounts of guilt—and fear. The ranch was the last place he wished to be. Franco had a job for him. The kind of job he’d been avoiding since his daughter was born eighteen months before, the kind of job that required his expertise with a weapon.

But that’s what happened when you married the daughter of an arms dealer.

“Mama,” Luciana demanded from her car seat.

Christopher glanced in the rearview mirror. Small white sandals kicked, and her tiny mouth bowed with impatience.

“Yes, my princess,” he said. “Mama is here. We’ll see her soon.”

Eva had driven the seventy kilometers from their Buenos Aires apartment to the estancia early that morning to attend a family meeting, while Christopher had made excuses. His economics paper wasn’t finished. Luciana needed a nap. The truth was something he couldn’t share with his wife or his father-in-law. He couldn’t do the job. Whatever sharp edge he’d had in the past had vanished the day his daughter had been born. He’d lost it, plain and simple.

But it was no sacrifice. Love expanded in Christopher’s chest. Luciana was perfect. His daughter had made him feel things he didn’t know were possible. The moment of her birth had altered him forever. Holding her squalling, brand-new life in his hands had spun his perspective one hundred and eighty degrees. The first time he’d looked into her trusting eyes, he knew his life would never be the same.

He would never be the same.

But as Eva had pointed out in their heated argument that morning, an invitation from Franco Vargas wasn’t a request. It was a demand.

So here he was.

He stopped the car at the entrance. Was it instinct or sheer reluctance that made him hesitant to turn down the lane? Two long rows of trees lined the gravel-and-dirt drive leading to the house. Staring down the gauntlet, he lowered the window. The warm breeze sweeping off the pampas lifted the hairs on his neck. Where were the guards? Franco kept surveillance at the ranch as invisible as possible. His father-in-law enjoyed the illusion of being a regular family, but usually, Christopher could spot the sentries. Wary of any deviation from normal, he hovered his foot over the gas pedal. But he had little choice. His attendance was mandatory. The last thing he wanted was for Franco to become suspicious. If he ever guessed that Christopher wanted to take Eva away . . .

That couldn’t happen.

He turned between the brick pillars, pausing midway down the long drive to point out a mare and foal in the pasture. From the backseat, Luciana clapped and shouted, “Caballo. Horse.” With her parents speaking two languages, Luciana seemed to flow between English and Spanish with no effort.

If only the Vargas family really earned their living from polo ponies and wine. But Franco’s hobbies were merely a front. The Vargases’ trade in illegal guns went back generations. They were more militant gang than family.

The ranch house was built traditional style: square and low. The barns and polo fields sat to the left of the whitewashed, concrete house. Terra-cotta red tile roofs brightened the landscape. A few outbuildings of similar plain design were sprinkled around the property. Christopher parked in front of the house, amid a cluster of vehicles. The sounds of splashing, music, and the occasional squeal of a child floated on the hot breeze from the back of the house. Near the end of an Argentinean summer, the family would be enjoying the pool. Franco had only two daughters, but there were cousins, uncles, and in-laws involved in the business. For the most part, Eva and the men would gather inside for a business meeting while the other women and children enjoyed the warm afternoon.

Silently, he hoped the business was finished for the day. He’d never admit it to Franco, but since Luciana had been born, Christopher much preferred swimming with his daughter. He felt more comfortable in the backyard with the women, children, and old men.

He liberated the baby from the backseat. Clutching a stuffed brown rabbit in one hand, she kicked her feet.

“You’re bringing your bunny with you?”

“Bebé.” As usual, she insisted the rabbit was her baby.

Impatient, she called her cousins’ names.

“You hear your playmates.” Christopher set her on her feet, straightened her yellow, flowered sundress, and took her firmly by the hand. The ranch had its perils. Water, horses, dogs, and sharp tools created lots of opportunities for a curious toddler to be injured.

He bypassed the front door. Franco’s head of security and most trusted employee, Nicolas, would be in the hall. Christopher preferred to avoid his scrutiny and silent disdain. Nicolas did not believe a man should be at home while his wife took care of business. His contempt stung. Nicolas had been a mentor to Christopher for years. He’d taught him to handle weapons. He’d taught him to kill.

Heading directly for the backyard, he led his daughter along the side of the house. Luciana’s tiny white sandals slapped on the path as they rounded the corner.

An explosion split the peaceful air. The ground rolled, and people screamed. Then the rat tat tat of machine-gun fire sounded from the back of the property. Christopher scooped Luciana off the ground. He turned toward the car, but the sounds of engines and tires on gravel stopped him. Pivoting, he ran in the opposite direction. The closest shelter was the barn. More screams, his child’s included, pierced his heart.

He raced to save his daughter, but his heart bled for the wife he left behind.

Screaming, gunfire, and the frightened whinnies of horses carried over the lawn. Holding his child, Christopher ran across the grass toward the barn. Just outside the entrance sat a horse van. He glanced into the van’s interior as he raced by. A cartridge of bullets lay half-buried under a pile of hay. The intruders had used the arrival of a new horse to launch their attack. No doubt the van’s true drivers were dead, their bodies dumped somewhere along the highway. If Christopher had been planning the attack, that’s exactly how he would have gained access to the ranch. Horses were his father-in-law’s number one weakness.

He entered the cool shade of the barn. A horse neighed. Luciana sobbed. Her cries rose to a terrified pitch.

“Shh, my princess.” He needed to quiet her. The commotion covered her screams for the moment, but the second the shooting was over, someone would hear her wails. He turned her face to his chest. Her arms and legs wrapped around his body. Christopher flinched at every spurt of bullets, waiting for one to punch into his own flesh, rendering him incapable of protecting his child. Questions bombarded him.

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