Book 3 in the Games People Play Series
They say it takes a thief to catch a thief, and Harrison Tate is proof. Once a professional burglar, he now makes a lawful living tracking down stolen art. No one needs to know about his secret sideline, “liberating” artifacts acquired through underhanded methods. At least until one of those jobs sees him walking in on a murder.
Gabrielle Wright has long been estranged from her wealthy family, but she didn’t kill her sister. Trouble is, the only person who can prove it is the sexy, elusive criminal who shouldn’t have been at the island estate on that terrible night. She’s not expecting honor among thieves—or for their mutual attraction to spark into an intense inferno of desire.
Under the guise of evaluating her family’s art, Harris comes back to the estate hoping to clear Gabby’s name. But returning to the scene of the crime has never been riskier, with their hearts and lives on the line.
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Harrison Tate didn’t believe in luck. He believed in planning. Right now, he needed the luck.
He blinked a few times, hoping the scene in front of him would change. No body, no blood . . . nope, it was all still there.
A woman—the woman—the one who stuck to a schedule and rarely ventured outside a three-mile area. She should have been reading at the dock, as she did every nonrainy day at this time for the last three weeks. Sitting there, watching the waves lap up on the stone retaining wall that separated the Chesapeake Bay from Tabitha Island. Her private island.
He’d staked out the isolated land, this house and this woman for more than a month. Watched from a boat at one point and from the small uninhabited island a short distance away at another. He’d been able to hack into the camera on her laptop. He knew when she was working on it, which was almost always.
He’d tracked her movements, knew her schedule. But on the ride over here he’d missed seeing someone else go into her house. Someone who wanted more from her than a painting.
The longer he stood there, looming over her still body, the more he became locked in a confining shell he could not break. Less than thirty seconds had passed since he walked into the old-school library with its dark floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and massive desk positioned in front of the French doors to the small patio outside. He’d found her there, sprawled on the floor with her eyes closed and her chest not moving. Blood pooled around her and seeped into the muted gray carpet beneath her.
Just as his brain signaled to his hand to grab his cell and call for help, her eyes popped open. Stunning green. That fact registered in his mind. Next came her fear. It bounced off the walls and pummeled him. Her body shook with it.
She reached out and her fingertips brushed his pants right near his calf. She likely thought she grabbed him and pulled hard, but he barely felt the touch. Whatever energy she possessed had been spent during the furious battle that waged in the room before he got there. Glass shattered on the floor, an overturned table. Books and papers scattered everywhere.
He dropped down, balancing on the balls of his feet, and reached for her hand. He still wore his gloves but she didn’t seem to notice. She kept mouthing something. A soundless word he couldn’t make out. He leaned in with his ear right over her mouth, trying to pick up a thread or any noise but that didn’t work either.
He pulled back and looked into her eyes. They were clouded now and unfocused. “Tabitha?”
He knew her name because he made it his business to know the people from whom he planned to liberate any number of items. In her case, a specific painting that usually hung over the fireplace. It balanced there now, ripped from the wall with one edge hanging over the mantel. Teetering, ready to fall. All eleven million dollars of it.
“Help me.” The words came out of her on a strangled cry. Her chest heaved as she fought for breath.
He could see her wince as she inhaled. Her hand slipped out of his as all the tension drained out of her. Her eyes rolled back then closed.
“No, no, no.” This time he started mouth-to-mouth. He blew and counted, trying to remember the precise sequence from every television show where he’d seen it performed and from a class he’d taken more than a decade ago.
He moved, thinking to press down on her chest, but the wound was right there. A slashing cut that left a gaping seam close to her sternum. Another slice into her abdomen. There was no question her attacker had unleashed a wild frenzy on her. Someone wanted her dead. He didn’t, but he had no idea where to push to save her or how to get her heart beating again either.
A crackling energy raced through him right behind an uncharacteristic panic. He prided himself on his ability to stay calm and handle nearly anything. He’d been trained to maneuver through any situation. Use charm, strength or pure nerve to battle his way out. Right now, every cell was alive and on fire and desperate to do something.
He clamped down on his fight-or-flight instincts and reached for the burner cell tucked in his back pocket. He had no idea how long it would take for reinforcements to arrive, but he’d stay as long as possible. Try to keep her breathing but leave enough lead time to escape.
One thing was true. He could not be caught here . . . or anywhere.
He’d just hit the first button to make the call as he heard the sound. A gurgling in her throat, as if she was drowning in her own body. An openmouthed labored breath . . . then a shocking stillness. Saliva dribbled out of the corner of her mouth as her head dropped to one side.
The death rattle. Had to be. He’d never heard it before and never wanted to hear it again.
He slid off his gloves and checked for a pulse. Nothing. She was gone.
With his brain in freefall, he lost his balance and tipped forward. Landed hard on his knees as every part of him shut down. For a few seconds he couldn’t think. Couldn’t get a single muscle to move. He stared at her, willing her to jump up or reach for him again. Anything.
The stillness in the room mirrored her unmoving body. He now knew silence could thump and beat just like a sound. The second after he thought it, reality pounded him. Smells came rushing back to him. An unexpected scent he couldn’t place.
A door thudded. He pegged it as a screen, which likely meant the front door.
“Tabitha?” A woman’s voice floated through the oversized rooms. “I thought we were going to meet at the dock twenty minutes ago.”
She’d been a surprise. Intriguing . . . a mystery. People whispered about her. They jumped to conclusions based on rumors. He had and now regretted it. Under different circumstances he’d take the time to meet her and see how deep those secrets of her ran.
All the stories about the sisters’ estrangement turned out to be untrue. All the talk about her being disowned. None of that mattered now because she was there, in the house. She was about to stumble into a horror and Harris couldn’t protect her from it. She’d be plunged into a hell worse than he had been.
He scrambled to his feet. Right as he turned to run back through the doors to the outside a thought hit him. His mind rebelled at the thought of what he needed to do. The pure sickness of it. His gaze zipped to the doorway before he bent down and used his glove to wipe Tabitha’s mouth. To erase any signs that he’d tried to save her.
When he stood back up a sensation hit him. Self-loathing. Maybe he was a fucking asshole just as his father claimed.
Footsteps sounded on the hardwood in the hallway. “Tabitha? Enough with the online sleuthing for today. It’s beautiful outside.”
Harris couldn’t wait another second. In a soundless jog, he stepped around the body. He’d already kneeled and walked through the scene, likely made it impossible for a forensic team to discover anything of value. His only goal now was not to track blood in a path directly to him.
The handle slipped in his hand, but he finally got the door open. He’d made it outside and into the sunshine when he heard the sister’s voice again.
“Hey, who are—”
He didn’t stop or look around. Didn’t wait to explain or comfort her. He pulled off his shoes and his feet hit the grass. He started running.
And then the screaming started. A high-pitched wailing that tore through him. A mix of shock and pain so raw it ripped away his defenses and slammed his body to a halt. Right there on the perfect lawn with the blue water shining all around the island, he froze. Not for long, but long enough to hear the sister’s gulping cries.
He shook his head and took off again. Ignoring the boat dock and the small beach there, he ran in the opposite direction to the rocky shoreline. To his small boat. He climbed over a rock ledge and down to the water’s edge.
Waves crashed in a soothing beat that clashed with the images rewinding in his mind. They would haunt him. All of this would. Tabitha. Her sister. The blood.
He skipped the boat and went right for the water. Nothing in the stolen craft would trace back to him. He’d worn gloves the entire time, so no fingerprints to be found. As he plunged into the water, splashes of red mixed with the blue. He looked down and realized blood coated his pants. Now it mixed with the Bay and slipped farther away from him with each new wave.
Trying to call up every ounce of training, he mentally walked through his steps into the main house. It took only seconds but felt like a full-length movie unspooled in his brain. Satisfied he’d covered his tracks, he turned the boat over and pushed it down until water bubbled up inside. He didn’t need to sink it, just be sure any unexpected traces and fibers disappeared.
He heard yelling. A man’s voice. It grew more faint as Harris saw a figure running for the front porch of the house from the far edge of the island. Away from Harris, not toward him. Likely the island caretaker responding to the sister’s screams.
That was all the incentive Harris needed. People were moving. Law enforcement would appear. The press—everyone. The Wright family had money. Stupid money. They would not stop until they caught the killer, and he refused to be tagged with that.
He needed to swim. To get to the smaller island nearby. From there he could call his reinforcements.
The way he got to the main island, by rowing, was too dangerous now. People would remember everything they saw the day Tabitha Wright was stabbed to death. A man rowing at breakneck speed dressed all in black and wearing gloves would stick out. No, he had to bide his time. Hide among the overgrown trees on the island two hundred feet away and let the people he trusted figure out how to extract him.
But he had to get there first, so he started swimming. A few strokes then he dove under. The tide crashed on him, stealing his breath. He didn’t care. This was life or death. First, hers. Now his.
Even being in good shape and with the protection of the narrow strait between the two islands minimizing the waves, the tide spun him around. For every two strokes he seemed to fall back one. He forced his mind to focus and his body to pump even harder. Water filled his mouth, not as salty as the ocean but the taste lingered. His ears clogged. The advance took an eternity and his lungs burned from the effort.
Just as his arms gave out, his knee brushed against the rocky coast of the smaller island. A thwapping sounded above him. He recognized it. Helicopters.
Keeping low, he crawled up into the brush. A jagged edge shredded his pants and slit his skin but he barely felt the cut. The sound of his heavy breathing echoed around him. Branches and some plant with sharp needles jabbed into him, but he kept going.
He shimmied on his knees and elbows until he landed in the protected cover of the overhanging trees. Turning over, he stared up into the canopy of green. Patches of blue sky poked through the trees and fluffy white clouds blew by.
On any other day, under any other circumstances he would declare it a perfect day to be outside. But today was his nightmare. A job gone deadly wrong.
He closed his eyes and the haunting sound of the sister’s cries came rushing back to him. He feared the noise would always fill his brain, as would the guilt of not being able to do enough for Tabitha, a woman he didn’t actually know.
Exhaustion tugged at him. He could feel his muscles crying out for rest. For a bed. For quiet. For any place that was not here.
He turned onto his side and forced his body up on one elbow. His joints groaned in protest. At thirty-four that never happened, but he didn’t have any energy left. The adrenaline surge that got him across that water had all but vanished. Now he lay there in the shade, wet and with cooling skin.
He pushed up to his knee and his body buckled. He couldn’t put any weight on his left side. Even through the dark, soaked clothes he saw a fresh spurt of blood. It stained the ground where he’d just kneeled. He used his gloved palm to cover the red blotch with dirt.
Pushing the whole way up, he hobbled on one leg. Half bounced and half dragged his body over to the nearest tree trunk and tried to get his bearings. He’d staked out Tabitha Island from here and left backup supplies. His plan B. Random items without any identifying marks. The most important being a satellite phone. The ultimate emergency safeguard that he had planned to double back and pick up when he finished the job.
So much for thinking today’s work would be fast and easy.
It took another five minutes to get to his hiding place. A helicopter had landed on the island and boats were circling, some filled with tourists looking to see what was happening and others in transit to likely lock the place down.
He reached for the duffle bag and ripped the zipper open. He still wore the gloves. They were molded to his hands now and stiff. He dialed one of the few numbers he ever called. If the sat phone was the backup plan, this phone number qualified as the end-of-the-world measure he never wanted to invoke.
The line rang once then a deep voice came on the line. “Yes?”
That was it. No greeting or introduction. Just a stern, half-angry bark. For the first time in an hour Harris felt relief. Like he might actually survive today.
“It’s Harris.” He blew out a long breath and said the words he’d vowed never to say again. “I need you.”
End of Excerpt
Dimon has become a go-to author for romantic suspense, with fresh plots, out-of-the-box characters, and romance to root for. This title, the most recent in her Games People Play series, hits the mark. Imaginative, emotional, action-packed, and artfully crafted.
A perfect example of [Dimon’s] ability to deliver sensually charged, adrenaline-laced tales that will have romance readers on the edge of the seat.
Riveting action, a twisty plot, and strong character development make Dimon’s fast-paced romance a winner.
— Publishers Weekly
THE PRETENDER is a unique, intriguing read.
— Fresh Fiction
It’s a sexy and intense romance, and I’ve already put the rest of the series on my to-read shelf.
— All About Romance
The Pretender strikes a good balance between suspense and romance between two damaged people who learn to trust each other. I liked Gabby and Harris and this is a solid entry in a series that I’ve found really satisfying from the start.
— TBQ Book Palace, Royal Pick