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Death Angel
Author: Linda Howard

Chapter One

New York City

"YOU DID AN EXCELLENT JOB," RAFAEL SALINAS PURRED to the assassin, who stood on the other side of the room, near the door. Either the man didn't like getting too close to other human beings, or he didn't trust Salinas and was giving himself an avenue of escape if the meeting turned sour-in which case he was smart. People who were wary of Salinas tended to live longer than those who trusted him. Drea Rousseau, curled close to Salinas 's side, didn't care what the assassin's reasoning was, so long as it kept him at a distance.

He gave her the creeps, the way he never seemed to blink. She had seen him once before, and at that meeting he'd made it obvious he disliked her presence. He'd leveled his flat, unblinking gaze on her for so long that she'd begun wondering if he made it a practice to eliminate people who could identify him-other than the people who paid him, of course, and maybe even them after the money was safely in his hand, or his account, or however assassins collected their fees. She had no idea what his name was, didn't want to know, because while truth was supposed to set you free, in this case she thought it might possibly be deadly. She thought of him as Rafael's assassin, but in fact he wasn't one of Rafael's regular crew; he was a free agent, hired by whoever could afford him. At least twice now, that she knew of, Rafael had met the price.

To keep from looking at him and maybe finding that unnerving stare locked on her again, she unhappily examined the magenta polish on her toenails. She had put it on just that morning, thinking it would look interesting against the creamy white of the silk lounge outfit she was currently wearing, but the purple under-tones were too garish. She should have gone with a shell pink, something delicate and almost transparent to compliment the outfit instead of contrasting with it. Well, live and learn.

When the assassin didn't reply, didn't rush to assure Rafael that he was honored to work for him the way others had, Rafael's fingers drummed impatiently on his thigh. It was a nervous habit he had when he wasn't comfortable, a telling little gesture, at least as far as Drea was concerned. She'd intensely studied his every mood, his every habit. He wasn't exactly afraid, but he, too, was being wary, which meant there were two smart men in the room.

"I'd like to offer you a bonus," Rafael said. "An extra hundred thousand. How does that sound?"

Drea didn't look up, though she quickly processed the offer and what it meant. She went to a lot of trouble to never show any interest in Rafael's business dealings, and when he'd occasionally asked her some very casual but leading questions she'd pretended she didn't understand what he was getting at. As a result, Rafael wasn't as careful around her as he might otherwise have been. As far as he was concerned, she had no interest in anything that didn't directly affect her, and in a way that was true, just not in the way Rafael thought. He assumed she didn't care who the assassin had killed for him, that she cared only about what she was wearing, how her hair looked, about making Rafael look good by being as sexy and glamorous as she could make herself.

She was definitely interested in that last part; making Rafael look good in the eyes of others always put him in an expansive mood, a generous mood. Drea studied the platinum and diamond anklet that circled her right ankle, enjoying the way the dangling diamond glittered in the sunlight, the way the platinum glowed against her tanned skin. The anklet had been one of Rafael's gifts when he'd been very happy about something. She hoped his pleasure with the assassin's success put him in an equally generous mood; she wouldn't mind a matching bracelet-not that she ever hinted. She was always very careful not to ask Rafael for anything, and to ooh and aah over everything he gave her even if it was butt-ugly, because even butt-ugly crap could be sold.

She had no illusions about the permanency of her position in Rafael's life. Right now she was at the top of her game, mature enough to be womanly, young enough that she didn't have to worry about gray hair or wrinkles. But in another year or two, who knew?

Eventually Rafael would tire of her, and when he did she wanted to have built up a nice little nest egg for herself, mostly in the form of jewelry. Drea Rousseau knew what it was to be poor, and she intended never to be poor again. She'd severed all ties with the girl she'd been growing up, white-trash Andie Butts, the target of malicious jokes because of her name as much as anything else, and made herself over into Andrea (pronounced anDRAYuh, which sounded French to her) Rousseau (to go with the fancier pronunciation).

"Her," said the assassin. "I want her."

Her interest caught-who was her?-Drea looked up...and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. The assassin was staring at her with the same cold, unblinking gaze she remembered. Shock slammed into her like a tidal wave; she was the her he was talking about. There were no other women in the room, no one else he could possibly mean. Icy fingers of sheer panic laced around her spine, but then common sense reasserted itself and she relaxed. Thank God Rafael was a possessive man; he would never-

"Ask for something else," Rafael said lazily, looping his arm around her shoulders and snuggling her close to his side. "I couldn't give away my good-luck piece." He pressed a kiss to her forehead and Drea beamed up at him, almost limp with relief, though she tried not to reveal that for a moment she'd been scared almost senseless.

"I don't want to keep her," the assassin said dismissively, without looking away from Drea's face. "I just want to fuck her. One time."

Reassured by Rafael's immediate rejection of the request, confident once more, Drea laughed. She had a sweet laugh, as harmonious as the chiming of bells. Rafael had once told her she reminded him of an angel, with her long, curly blond hair, big blue eyes, and her bell-like laugh. She used the laugh as deliberately as if it were a weapon, reminding Rafael without words that she was indeed his angel, his good luck.

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