Blaze McGuire pulled her waist-length red hair into a high ponytail at the back of her head contemplating the fact that she was going to die tonight—and it was of her own choosing. She was going to war with the Hallahan brothers and their mobster boss. They didn’t know it yet, but they would be walking right into hell. They thought they were going to have everything their own way, but they were wrong. Very wrong. She was a woman. She was young. They dismissed her as no threat to them. And in that they were making a very, very big mistake.
Her hair wasn’t just red hair, it was red. Her hair had been that vivid, insane color of red since the day she was born. Hence the name her father had given her, staring down at his newborn daughter who was already giving the doctors hell for dragging her out of her safe little world, kicking and screaming into the cold light, her hair blazing along with her lungs—and that should have given them a clue what they were buying when they murdered her father.
Most people didn’t know when they were going to die, she mused as she rigged the explosives on the door to blow, the charge precise, sending anyone in front of it outward, little blow back into her beloved bar, hopefully leaving it intact. Still, if the charge didn’t kill them all before they got inside, she would give up the bar’s interior in order to take the battle to them. Tonight, the four Hallahan brothers were going to come for her and she would take as many of them with her as possible.
Sean McGuire had been a good man. A good neighbor. An even better father. The bar was successful because he had a reputation for being honest and he was a good listener because he genuinely cared about his customers, his neighbors and especially his daughter.
He knew everyone by name. He laughed with them. He attended funerals when they lost someone. He got them home at night safe if they drank too much. He cut off the ones that were spending too much and needed to be home with their families. He was just a good man. A good man some mobsters had pulled out of the bar and beat to death because he wouldn’t sign his establishment—the one that had been in the family for two—now three generations—over to them.
Sean had also served in the U.S. Marines and he knew his way around weapons, especially the making of bombs. He was a specialist in the field, so much so that he actually had helped out the local bomb squad the three times they’d gotten calls, because what he knew about explosives, few others did—and what he knew—he taught his daughter.
Blaze had been given an usual education and she’d loved every minute of it. Her father made it clear he loved her and was always proud of her and he’d always been patient with her, but he believed in teaching his daughter everything he would have taught his son. He was patient, but he didn’t make it easy because she was a girl. She was required to do everything—and learn everything—he knew about defense and offense. She’d soaked up the training.
It had always been the two of them, Sean and Blaze, after her mother left. Truthfully, she remembered her mother as a disconnected woman who was never happy—when she could remember her and that wasn’t often. Her mother left when she was four. They’d never done one single thing together. Not one. She couldn’t even recall her mother holding her. It had always been her father.
Sean had been a boxer, a mixed martial arts cage fighter and he enjoyed the lifestyle. He had always insisted his daughter work out with him. She had—since the time she was two. She grew up boxing her father. Learning martial arts. Street fighting. She learned to fall properly and she knew all about joints and pressure points. More, Sean hadn’t neglected teaching her how to shoot or to use a knife. He certainly hadn’t neglected her training when it came to explosives.
Later, when she was ten, Emeline Masters came into their lives. Emeline lived mostly on the street, shuffled from one home to another, but mostly on the street. Emeline became a family member and spent a great deal of time crawling in Blaze’s bedroom window from the fire escape and sleeping inside with her. Sean pretended he didn’t know. Emeline, thankfully, was away from all of this and in Europe where Sean had sent her to protect her. Blaze had called her, of course, but told her to stay where no one could harm her.
Blaze smiled grimly to herself as she laid out a grid pattern on the floor of the bar and then paused to glance out the window, looking down the street. This had once been a good, decent neighborhood, a place she had called home for twenty-four years. She’d grown up in the apartment over the bar. It was a big building, right on the corner, prime property. The building and three others on either side had been in their family for generations. Her family had taken good care of them and never sold, not even when property values had soared.
Her eyes narrowed as she returned her attention to the delicate job of setting wires throughout the bar. Low. Mid-calf. Thigh. Hip. She criss-crossed them, building a web. Yeah. They should have known all about that red-headed baby when they dragged her father out of his own bar and beat him to death. They’d broken nearly every bone in his body before they killed him. She knew, because the M.E. had told her.
Rage welled up. Swirled in her belly. Deep. So deep she knew she’d never get it out. She knew why they’d broken his bones. She’d heard about the ‘persuading’ technique from a few of the other business owners. The mobsters wanted properties signed over to them. Her father had already signed his property over to her. She owned the bar. They’d gone after the wrong person. And now they were coming for her because she’d sent them an invitation. Not to buy her out, but to war.
She would have signed over the bar in a heartbeat to them if they’d called her and told her they had her father. They thought it was important to teach the neighborhood businesses a lesson—what they wanted—they got. They weren’t going to get what they wanted, not even after they killed her. She’d made certain of that. They wouldn’t touch Emeline either. They wouldn’t get to harm the last person in the world she loved.
Blaze pressed her fingers to her eyes to stop the burning. She hadn’t slept, not in days, not since she’d come home to find her father gone, the door to the bar open and blood on the floor. She’d been frantic, running through the streets like a maniac, calling the cops repeatedly only to be told they couldn’t do anything for twenty-four hours, but they’d send someone by. They hadn’t. She’d sat alone in the apartment over the bar, arms around her knees, rocking herself, trying to tell herself that her father was strong and he knew how to take care of himself but there was so much blood.
She taped a knife under the table closest to the stairs. If she lived through the initial attack, she would have to have an exit plan. She needed to rig the stairs. If she got to the apartment—and she knew the chances were slim to none—she could go out the escape and up to the window. She did that often. She’d been doing that with Emmy since she was ten years old. Once on the roof, she could choose any direction. She would also stash a couple of weapons up there as well.
Two factions of mobsters had moved into the neighborhood, the first and the most brutal, a year and a half earlier and they were extremely violent. Four brothers, Irish, by the look of them, but Sean hadn’t known them and he knew every Irishman in the city, went by the name of Hallahan. The four were always the front men for one of the crime lords, with their grim faces and their ugly demands, all four were quick to brutal, extreme violence. And they owned the cops. The police, who had always spent evenings and sometimes days in the bar playing pool, had stopped coming around. She knew they worked a man by the name of Reginald Coonan. Their boss always stayed in the shadows, but he liked blood and his men liked violence.
A few weeks earlier, a tall, extremely good-looking man in a business suit came by the bar and handed a business card to her father. It had a number printed on it, nothing else. The man was soft spoken and simply told them if they needed protection, to call that number and someone would come. She found it significant that her father hadn’t thrown the card away, even though they both thought this was another crime lord intending to take Coonan’s territory from him. Sean had never discussed the incident with her, but he kept the business card safe, right by the phone.
Blaze had never moved the card. But she’d looked at it numerous times. She’d done a little investigating and it hadn’t been easy to uncover the identities of any of the mobsters. She knew now the four Irish brothers. Each of them had grown up in Chicago and had moved to her city. They were Hallahans, and all were short, muscular and very scary. They had come to the city to because it had gotten a little too hot for them where they’d grown up, and she suspected, because Reginald Coonan, their boss, had moved from Chicago as well.
She had very little on the other faction. The man that had come so quietly into the bar was named Tariq Asenguard. He owned a dance club—an extremely popular one in the neighborhood. He was quiet, only came out at night and owned a very kick-ass estate edging the water. The entire place was fenced—and he had multiple acres, a gatehouse and a boat. She didn’t know where he’d come from and every avenue she’d tried to find out more had been shut down.
Everyone knew he had money—lots of it. He was also a very scary man. He could take over a room just by walking into it. She had mixed reviews about him. Half the people who had encounters with him thought he was the devil. The other half was certain he was a saint.
He had a partner. A man by the name of Maksim Volkov who no one knew anything about. He was the silent partner. He owned the property bordering Tariq Asenguard’s estate, but few ever saw him. He was partners with Asenguard in the dance club. Asenguard, who was there often, clearly the face of the club, but few actually ever saw Volkov. There was something about his name that made Blaze shiver—and she wasn’t given to flights of fantasy. Tariq Asenguard was definitely a badass, but he was cool about it. Maksim Volkov was a question mark. She knew others worked for them, but it didn’t matter now. She didn’t care. They hadn’t murdered her father, so therefore, she was throwing in with them. After she was dead.
Methodically, Blaze positioned weapons throughout the room and around the bar, and then practiced getting to them. She didn’t want to hesitate. She’d need every second she could get. If nothing else, she wanted to take the Hallahans with her when she went. She felt calm. Nerves would come later. And then the kick of adrenaline.
She glanced at her watch. Outside, light was beginning to fade. The streetlights wouldn’t come on. Someone had shattered the old-fashioned gas-looking lights that lent character to the streets. The four brothers almost always came at night. She knew they didn’t care if anyone saw their faces and knew who they were. Everyone was far too intimidated by them to come forward.
She just plain wasn’t the come forward and testify type, not when she didn’t believe for one moment that there would be a conviction. These men had killed her father. They’d tortured him first and then they’d killed him and thrown his broken body out of a moving car, in front of the bar like trash, right at her feet. She hadn’t seen them torture of kill Sean, only throw his body at her.
The brothers had timed it just right, coming into the bar just at closing when Sean was standing just inside the door. The M.E. said he found Taser marks, puncture wounds where her father had been taken down, not by one Taser, but by four. The moment they had incapacitated him, they had struck brutally, leaving behind a good amount of blood. It had been Blaze who came home to find the bar unlocked, blood on the floor and her father missing. Even with the blood, the police had done nothing. They promised to send someone around to take a report, but no one showed up. That hadn’t surprised her. The cops had all but abandoned her neighborhood and everyone in it.
Blaze looked around the bar. The building—and the bar—were over a hundred years old. She didn’t understand why the mobsters spared some of the properties and went after others. Their takeovers seemed random. She’d tried to put together a pattern, but she couldn’t find one. It wasn’t the businesses they wanted because after they acquired property, they never opened the business again. The dry cleaner six doors down was closed. The lovely little grocery store on the opposite corner remained closed, forcing all the residents to go out of their neighborhood to get food.
She made her way up the stairs, leaving a trail of weapons. She didn’t believe she would ever get to them, but still, she had been taught to plan for every contingency and living was one of them. The apartment where she’d grown up was large. She loved it. It had been home all her life.
Home. Her father had done that. Given that to her. He laughed a lot. His eyes lit up when he laughed. So many times he’d whirled her around the living room floor, singing at the top of his lungs, making her laugh with him. He lived life large and he’d wanted her to do the same.
She knew her father dated women, but he never brought them home. She asked him why he didn’t remarry a million times because she was always afraid if she found someone he would be lonely and she didn’t want her father ever to be lonely. Sean simply told her there was no point in settling. It was either the right one or no one. He’d learned that lesson the hard way and he hadn’t found the right one, but that he was still looking.
She had always wanted that for him. Wanted someone else to love him the way she did, but he’d never let anyone other than Emeline fully into their lives and maybe that was what made her the same way. She dated, but she never gave herself to anyone because she knew it wasn’t the one. Maybe there wasn’t really the perfect one. The right one. She’d never know now because she was going to die tonight.
She stashed a go bag with clothes and money on the roof by the fire escape, tucked out of sight. Two more guns and that was it. She was more than ready for war. She stood on the roof for a few minutes just looking out over her neighborhood, remembering the sound of laughter. There had always been the murmur of voices and the sound of laughter. Now there was just…silence.
Blaze sighed and made her way back down the stairs to the bar. It was a beautiful bar, all curved mahogany. Gleaming. Dark wood. The long mirrors and bottles and glasses stacked neatly. She was a good bartender. Fast. Efficient. Flashy. She could flip the bottles and do tricks with the best of them and some nights her customers called for that. Her father would stand back, shaking his head and laughing, but his eyes were always alive with pride in her.
She’d nudge him out of the way with her hip, tell him, “let me show you how it’s done old man,” and perform a few outrageous tricks, getting the customers fired up. When she did that, they always had a spectacular night. It brought in crowds outside of their neighborhood, so the bar was nearly always full. They didn’t lack for money. Still, the mobsters who had murdered her father weren’t after the money. They wanted her home. The property. And they were never going to get it, not even after she was dead.
She caught up the phone and dialed the number on the business card, and then idly tapped the edge of the card on the surface of the bar while she waited as the phone rang. Two rings only.
“Talk to me.” The voice was soft. Male. Scary beautiful. Just plain scary. Definitely not the same man who had come by the bar and left his card. This man had an accent she couldn’t place. He sounded dangerous, like a man who didn’t have to raise his voice to command a room. Like a man you never—ever—wanted to cross.
“I’m Blaze McGuire. Someone with this number came by a couple of weeks ago. The Hallahan brothers killed my father and they’re coming for me. An envelope containing the deeds to the properties will be sent to you on my death. Tariq Asenguard and Maksim Volkov will inherit. You can deal with what’s left of them after tonight.”
There was a small silence and then that voice whispered into her ear. Low. Commanding. “Get. The. Hell. Out. Of. There. Now.”
She froze, her fingers curling around the phone. She felt every single word resonate right through her body. He was good with that voice. Even through the phone she wanted to obey him and she wasn’t all that good at obeying anyone—not even Sean sometimes.
“Can’t do that,” she said softly. “I’m going to die tonight and they’re going to pay. If they don’t get inside, and I’m gone, be careful. The entire bar is rigged to blow. One wrong step and you’re dead. In the envelope you’ll receive, is a way to disarm everything. Where you can safely step and what to avoid. How to get through the maze.”
“Blaze. Get. Out.”
He said her name as if he knew her. Intimately. As if he had the right to be worried about her. Protect her. As if she belonged to him. Blaze was a name that, to her, didn’t sound feminine. He made it that way, his accent caressing the name, making it something altogether different.
Her tongue touched her upper lip. Her breath caught in her lungs. She had to fight the pull of his voice.
“You don’t understand,” she said softly. “And you don’t need to. I have to do this. They aren’t going to get away with this.”
“No, sweetheart, they are not, but this is not the way to do it. Get out of there and wait for us. We are on the way.”
The way his voice moved over her body, stroking like a caress, rasping like a tongue, yet still commanded, sent a chill down her spine. More than anything she wanted to obey. Not because she was afraid of dying, but because the note of command in his voice was affecting her in ways she didn’t understand.
“Not going to happen,” she whispered, her heart pounding. She had the feeling that he was on the move and that he was moving fast. “They killed my father.”
“I know, draga mea.” His voice was even softer. More persuasive. Sliding into her mind so she felt warmth where there was darkness and cold. Where there was rage. Where she had to keep a hold of that rage and not allow whatever was in his voice to warm that cold. “We will handle this for you and these men will pay. Get to safety. We are on our way.”
She pressed her hand hard to her heart. It was beating far too fast. Pounding. Her mouth had gone dry. Even her head hurt, as if by defying him, her physical body protested. It didn’t make sense to her. She’d always been her own person, able to stand up to anyone. She didn’t want to talk to him anymore, but she couldn’t pry her fingers loose from the phone. She just stood there, one hip to the bar because it was holding her up. Her body trembled when she hadn’t been trembling faced with certain death.
"I-I..." She found herself stammering. All she had to do was put the phone down, but she couldn’t. Her fingers were locked around it.
“You do not want your beautiful bar blown all to hell,” his voice continued to whisper in her ear. “Our way is so much better. You will continue to have your property. Your home. The neighborhood will be rid of a couple more of the monsters.”
So soft. So intimate. As if they were in bed together. Tangled up. Arms and legs. She could almost feel him moving in her. That intimate. And she couldn’t drop the phone. She should. But she couldn’t. She was mesmerized by his voice. She stared out the large window that took up nearly one entire wall. On the other side of the window were thick iron bars. She’d cried when they’d had to install them. She’d lived there most of her life in complete freedom and then someone somewhere made the decision to ruin their neighborhood.
“People are dying.”
“I know, draga mea. We will stop them, but giving them your life is giving them another victory.”
“They killed my father.” The words broke from her. She hadn’t cried. She’d refused to cry, not even when she’d told Emeline. Not until after. Not until the men who killed him were dead. “They broke him into pieces and then they killed him.”
“I know, inima mea,” he whispered.
She had no idea what language he spoke, only that he spoke it with the most intimate accent possible. She didn’t dare look away from the window or she would have closed her eyes. To hold his voice to her. Wishing she had known him before she was a stone inside. Before her smoldering fire had grown into a wildfire burning out of control, for vengeance.
“Let us handle this. It is what we do.”
“After.” She tilted her chin. Straightened her shoulders. “You handle them after.” She forced her fingers to loosen their death grip on the phone. His voice was so mesmerizing, so hypnotic, she could almost believe he was a dark sorcerer, bent on controlling her through his voice alone. But she wasn’t given to flights of fantasy. She had been raised to deal with any issue, and the murder of her father was personal. “After,” she whispered again. “You deal with them after.”
“Wait. Blaze. Wait for me.”
His voice. That voice. It seemed to be inside her. Inside her head. Stroking her from the inside out. She had always relied on herself or her father. Sean had taught her that. Given her that confidence. But his voice and the way it seemed to be inside her head made her feel as if without him, she wasn’t Blaze anymore. She was adrift.
“At least do that for me. Go up into the apartment. I’m about four minutes out. We can deal with them together. You go upstairs. I will come to you from the roof after we get rid of them and we will make a plan. Together.”
Blaze closed her eyes and forced her numb fingers to work. She hung up. The moment she did, she felt sick. More, her head hurt. Not a little bit, but pounding, as if by hanging up, something inside her got left behind and set off little jackhammers tripping in her skull. She pressed a hand to her knotted belly and picked up one of the guns lying on the bar. Her hand shook and that shocked her.
She had absolute resolve when it came to bringing justice to her father’s murderers. Of course she was afraid. No one wanted to die. But she was confident. And utterly committed to her cause. Still, her hand shook when it never had before. That was how much his voice had shaken her.
A slow heat curled in the pit of her stomach and a small shiver went down her spine. She would have liked to have met the owner of that voice. Yet again, maybe not. She talked with men all the time, the bar separating them. She could laugh and flirt and know there was that boundary no one crossed. His voice had crossed it.
She slammed the magazine into her weapon and turned her attention toward the bar-covered window. She saw the flash of headlights as the car raced down the street toward her property and she knew instantly it was them—the Hallahans. They had come. Her stomach settled. Adrenaline began to pump. She took a few deep breaths as the big SUV slammed into the sidewalk and screeched to a halt. All four doors popped open and the men spilled out.
She could see them all clearly, even in the waning light, because she’d changed the light-bulbs outside the bar to illuminate the sidewalk. She’d used a high wattage bulb, uncaring of what the electricity would cost. She wasn’t going to be around to pay it. She studied them, these men—no monsters—who had beat her father to death. They’d broken his bones on purpose to torture him. They could have called her, but they hadn’t. They enjoyed hurting him.
She didn’t take her eyes from the window, watching them come up the sidewalk, moving with confidence, their big, beefy frames rolling side to side as they moved together to approach the bar.
Everything went silent. Time tunneled, as it often did when a fight was close. Her attention focused on the door. She became aware of her heart beating. Each separate beat. Each pulse. The ebb and flow of her blood as it rushed through her veins. Everything around her went still. Utterly still. She didn’t hear insects. She didn’t hear traffic. There were no solid footsteps as the men with their steel-toed boots came closer. There was only Blaze and the gun in her hand.
Her hand was rock steady now and she took a slow breath, watching the window, keeping an eye on the door handle of the bar. If they touched that, if they opened the door, it would set off the charge.
Without warning, the Hallahans backed up, moving toward their car, all four of them. Blaze took a step forward, her body hitting the bar. She shook her head. They couldn’t leave. She moved quickly around the bar and stopped dead, looking at the web of wiring. The entire room was a trap. She would have to spend an hour dismantling everything. What had tipped them off? They hadn’t even gotten close to the entrance. Damn. Damn. Damn.