It's so close, I can taste it...
Some books fly onto the page. Others, well, they take a bit more time. I honestly cannot tell you why it took a year and a half to write Hiding Away. Perhaps I was too close to Aiden, or maybe it was because Natalie was so distant, I couldn't even pin her down.
Either way, finally, Hiding Away is here, and it's a perfect cap to the McAllister sibling trilogy. Not to say there won't be anymore Beachside... we'll be back to Seaview. More to come on that.
As promised. Here's your sneaky peek.
8 years ago, Manhattan
One. Two. Three. Natalya lowered her gaze, slowly raising her lids as the headlights faded down the dark lane of millionaire suburbia.
Now. Four strides and a leap, her heart pounding in rhythm with each step, like a coiled hinge, she rappelled off the tree, her breath held, fluid as she bounded into the air, she caught the branch, pummeling her momentum to swing over. Weightless until the moment of impact, she gripped tight and landed like a frog on a blade of grass. Feet turned out, its wobble threatening to shake her off like a dead leaf, her arms spread as she rose to stand.
One foot in front of the other, she advanced along the branch, legs vibrating in rhythm with its natural sway.
Knees bent, she vaulted and laced her hands over its elder above. Hand over hand, her gloves sticking like a lizard with each movement, she eased over the top of the fence.
Breath held, she dropped to a silent freefall; knees bent, body shifting as she absorbed the impact. Twelve meters to the house. Scanning the manicured back yard, Natalya froze behind the nearest topiary and ensured the area was clear.
With precise strides, she sprinted over the squishy lawn. Nearing the building, she released off the last step and clung to the wide iron downspout. Climbing swiftly, hand over hand, foot over foot, she reached the third floor.
Shuffling steps below echoed against the night, booming to her ears but nothing more than a murmur within the empty property. She glued her body to the wall. The guard sauntered across the shadowy lawn. He turned left, then right, pulled out his flashlight and spun it like a cowboy practicing his quick-draw. With a peppy twist of his knee, a rhythmic head tilt back and forth, the boogying guard spun and continued his patrol.
Smirking, Natalya waited until he rounded the far corner of the mansion.
Okay, focus. Two meters to the window; too far. The wall was smooth as glass, no way to scale it. Above, the overhang was solid stone.
Climbing to the top of the downspout, she moved her sticky-gloved grip to the ledge and shuffled her hands until she hung over the window.
Closing her eyes for another count of three, she pulled in a careful breath. Loosening her fingers, she dropped. With one hand, she caught the window overhang, her feet just touching the window ledge.
Phew. Okay. Made it. That wasn’t so bad.
Leaning down, she scanned the room. Empty. The owner was out for the night at a charitable event. Ha. As if. Either siphoning the funds or finagling a selfish tax write-off.
Or so she suspected. Not her job to care.
Okay, so she wasn’t exactly Robin Hood herself. She was just here for the data. Correction, she was here for the fat paycheck.
While her peers were muddling through their freshman year at college or earning pennies interning for their parents’ companies or gaining life experience through volunteer programs, Natalya was making hand over fist. A few more jobs, and she would be set up for the next few decades. For life, really, if she invested well. She wasn’t one for extravagance anyway, not like her parents. Give her a beach house, a camera, and some privacy. Maybe a fast car. Otherwise, that’s it. No fancy parties or expensive dogs or… topiaries.
Pulling out her phone, she punched in a series of codes and held the device up to the locked window and initiated the program she lovingly called, Open Sesame. Not very clever, but it was better than her second choice of B&E. And… click. Okay, so the electric lock didn’t actually click, but the light did flash green.
Sliding her fingers into the crack, she pulled. Tugged. Ground her teeth and heaved.
Argh. The stupid window was jammed. Carefully leaning down on the narrow ledge, she squinted and checked… and the window had been painted shut. Who did that, anyway? Slackers.
With her pink pocketknife, she sliced through the dried paint, closed it, and slipped it back into her pocket. Bingo. The window slid without argument.
In the midnight blackness of the room, she crossed to the computer. With her gloved fingers, she fired up the slick PC. Connecting her device, she ran the program. She was tempted to tap her foot and hum while she hacked the system.
On the home screen of the asshole’s PC, she dug for the files she was looking for. Huh, this must be it. What kind of idiot names their illegal deeds folder Eyes Only?
Encrypted, but this was what her employers were paying her for. If they wanted a full hack, they’d have to pay a hell of a lot more. Not that she even wanted to know what tripe these politicians were trying to dig up on each other.
With a few quick keystrokes, she loaded the file onto her data card. They’d wanted her to start sending everything to the cloud immediately, but she knew better. Maybe even negotiate a little extra before handing it over.
It was almost too easy. Natalya loved her job. And she was damn good at it. Ought to be after all the uppity private academies her parents had shoved down her throat since she was in preschool, the years of gymnastics. Joke was on them when she didn’t make the Olympic team, when she used all those advanced programming classes for theft rather than getting on at a high-profile tech company like her instructors had dreamed.
Quickly shutting off the computer, not leaving a trace, she climbed back out the window. No sign of the guard below. Perfect.
Shit, how was she going to get down? Well, a few hundred thousand was worth risking a few fractures.
Lowering herself down, she slid down the wall to the second-story window below. Sliding with the full force of gravity, the slick wall not providing a scrap of friction, she swallowed a squeal and scraped her gloved hands down the wall.
Landing on the overhang with a thud, balancing precariously on her toes that screamed from the impact, she held her breath and lowered herself to the bottom ledge and creeping to the side. Okay, that was a terrible idea.
Pulse pounding through her limbs, her stomach roiling at her stupidity, she clung to the wall as she calmed down enough to figure out how the hell she was getting down the last two stories.
Louder than the ringing in her ears, resonating through the window, she heard a blood-curdling scream.
Running on the adrenaline of the near fall to her death, the terror in the next room sent her heartrate through the roof. Sealing her eyes shut, she couldn’t look. Blinded by furious terror, she held tight, hoping she was concealed enough to not attract the sort of attention that could trigger such a terrified sound.
Grinding her teeth, she kicked herself for being the spoiled brat. Dammit, someone was in danger. Easing over, ignoring her trembling lower lip, she peeked in the room. The lights had illuminated the opulent guest bedroom.
Dressed in a formal tuxedo, the owner of the house shoved a woman in the open door. He slipped off his jacket and laid it neatly on the chair, then rolled up his sleeves without a care for the woman stumbling backwards, catching herself on the bed.
Bracing herself against the fluff of the bedding, she snarled, “You’re a monster.”
“Sometimes.” He strolled toward her, cracking his neck and rolling his shoulders like he was settling in for a casual chat.
“Please.” Nowhere to go, the woman scanned the room like a mouse surrounded by traps. Hhis indolent approach could almost seem seductive, but the menace in his eyes told a different story. Head held high, she took a deep breath and wrapped her hands around her middle. “I worked for you for ten years, but I can’t do this anymore. I’ll leave quietly. You’ll never hear from me again.”
“You’re right. I won’t.” He drew a handgun from his back waistband and shot the woman so fast, so carelessly, Natalya recognized the true meaning of the phrase, in cold blood. The woman’s head wrenched back, her body following from the sheer force of the blow, blood trickling from her skull as she instantly lay lifeless on the bed.
Nausea, tears, terror rocked through Natalya as she struggled to comprehend what she had just witnessed. Panic rocked through her; she shook her hands to wake them back up, the numbness coating into her bones.
Inhaling one, two, three. Out four, three, two, one. Carefully pinning herself to the wall, she ensured she wouldn’t be seen.
Scanning the area, she searched for a quick exit. If not for her own safety, she needed to do what she could for the poor woman.
There. The guard was nowhere in sight. The bedroom light flicked off.
Two floors up, garden mulch below. Lowering herself so she dangled from the window ledge, she dropped to the ground.
Steadying her feet, checking the sightlines, she took off across the yard. Sprinting along the fence, she aimed for a boulder, the highest point along the fence line. With one swift move, she rocketed atop the boulder and used the momentum to vault over the fence.
Landing on the other side, she rolled when she hit the loose gravel over asphalt. Jumping to her feet, she took off down the street, her hip aching from the impact. Rocks imprinted into her hands, she brushed them against her pants with each stride.
Holding it all in, not the time to collapse, she kept up the searing pace until she reached her concealed car. Sweat beaded on her forehead, breath refusing to slow in the safety of her car, she drove her ass home without breaking a single traffic law.
Her adrenaline followed a steady downward spike, completely gone and hollowing out her gut as she finally turned up the final hill towards home. Driving down the alley behind the house, she rolled into her usual spot in the carport behind the house. She quickly changed into innocent looking jeans and t-shirt, ditching her black gear under the seat.
Forcing a cheerful smile, just in case, she strolled across the backyard. Lifting and sliding, she jimmied open the sliding glass door.
Holding back the terror, the tears; just a few more seconds and she could crash on her bed and let it all out. If her parents wondered at the red eyes in the morning, she’d claim it was a boy. Not the mangled skull of the woman she’d seen murdered, her blood seeping into the blankets.
How could she call the police? What would she say, While I was burgling this asshole, I saw him murder someone?
“Welcome home, darling,” her dad’s voice dripped with sarcasm. He sat at the foot of the stairs, all the adrenaline that had detoxed from her blood re-ignited, shooting straight into her veins.
“Dad. Hey,” she forced the angsty teen head flip she’d rehearsed so many times when her parents would ask about her future or her friends. It had come pretty naturally since blowing it at the Olympic trials, but tonight… she wanted to curl up in a ball and wish it all away, but getting past her dad was the final hurdle.
“Yeah. I know, I shouldn’t sneak out,” she bobbed her head up and down as she struggled to keep her shit together.
“No, you shouldn’t. Where were you?” His eyes drilled into hers. Lucky thing he’d taught her well, smooth talking bigshot that he was.
“What friends? From what your mom tells me, you haven’t talked to any of your friends since they’ve gone off to college.”
“You’re right. I talked to Nel earlier, and a few of them were in town for the weekend.” Couldn’t he just give her a break? She’d been the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect athlete… until it had all come crashing down.
“Are you starting to realize how important your future is yet? Natalya, you need to think about what you’re going to do with your life. I can get you an entry level sales position if you truly need to put off college any further. It’s not too late; I can make a few calls and get you into any Ivy League you want.” His eyes softened.
“I know. It’s been a weird night and I’d like to sleep on it. How about I think it over and we can talk more tomorrow? I was considering going overseas, you know, travelling a bit before I think about college and a career?” The night was crashing down around her, and she needed to get out of there before she lost it.
“Sure darling, let’s talk more tomorrow.” He rose from the stairs and pulled her in for a bear hug like when she was a little girl.
What the hell? Heart thundering in her chest, she feared he could tell weird was a massive understatement. For a man that hugged so rarely these days, the overdue affection worried her more than getting caught. Like he was planning a full interrogation tomorrow, or he was buttering her up for something big. The manipulative actions certainly worked on her mother, who never seemed to anticipate, or maybe not care about, the inevitable duplicity.
She bit her lips together to block the waterworks from starting. The hug worked; she wanted to tell him everything, only holding back because she knew he’d flip if he found out about how much trouble she’d gotten herself into, probably even more than her career.
A jarring chime bellowed from the doorbell. Stiffening, she struggled to catch her breath as her heart leapt out of her chest.
Deep creases formed in her father’s forehead as he scowled at the door. He moved to open it.
“No, wait-” she tried to stop him so she could figure out if it was the cops or the psycho murderous asshole that had found her. Not hesitating when she ran to stop him, he ignored her and swung open the door.
Two men in bullet-proof vests and dark blue jackets with FBI printed in big yellow letters stood outside, holding up their badges. “Special Agents Huong and Dawson.”
Natalya shrunk back. Agent Dawson looked barely a few years older than she was; not intimidating like she’d imagined as his eyes landed on her. He flashed her a mournful smile, “We need to talk.”
Her father’s head whipped around, and his eyes grew wide as he assessed her terrified expression. “Weird night, huh?”
“Alone,” the agent clarified. His partner, Agent Huong, quite the opposite with silver hair, eyes creased from seeing too much, yet equally safe, held back in silent observation.
“She’s my daughter.”
From just outside the doorway, Agent Huong leaned to make eye contact around her father and raised an eyebrow, “How old are you?”
Exhaling heavily, crossing her arms so they couldn’t see how bad she was shaking, she said, “Nineteen.”
He shrugged casually, “I’m going to need you to come with us.”
Shit. She flashed back to the woman bleeding out on the bed, her brains splattered across the damn blankets. Natalya should be relieved; she was doomed to spend the rest of the night worrying over whether to do the right thing for the woman murdered in front of her eyes, risking prison herself, or keep quiet and think about the stupid Ivy League her father promised, without anyone ever knowing the dark secret she carried. At least now the decision was made for her. “Okay,” she nodded, swallowing the bile that burned her throat, envisioning her orange jumpsuit, her furious parents.
No. She righted her posture and faced the FBI guys. Whatever her crimes, this woman was more important. Shoving her hand in her pocket, she thought about the data card. Who the hell knew what she’d stolen; she was willing to bet it would further incriminate Peterson, but if he was already being put away for murder? Okay, so maybe she could be a little selfish and not add to her prison sentence if she’d stolen something sensitive. Or, better yet, an ace up her sleeve if it came down to it. “Can I go grab a jacket first?”
Pushing past her father, Agent Huong gestured for her to lead the way. Huong nodded, an apologetic smile breaking through his poker face. “Of course, let’s go.”
The FBI agents followed her up the stairs, her father nipping close at their heels. He growled, fists balled at his sides as he spewed threats. “I’m calling my attorney. You are not taking my daughter from her home in the middle of the night.”
Her mother came tearing out of the bedroom, clinging to her bathrobe as she wrapped it around her silk pajamas, her voice weakly demanded, “What? No.” She shook her head back and forth, her sleepy curls swishing over her face as she struggled to catch up, the waterworks already flooding down her face as she stood petrified in the hallway.
While they were distracted, heart thundering in her throat, Natalya slipped into her bedroom and into her closet. Reaching above the closet door, she slid the data card into the concealed crevice in the drywall over the door. Quickly lowering and turning, she grabbed the nearest coat from the hanger.
Dawson appeared a moment later. “Better grab a few changes of clothes while you’re at it.”
She nodded softly as she calmed her breathing. “Okay.” Without a word, she stuffed some basics into her old school backpack, holding back the searing hot tears that welled behind her eyes. Maybe they weren’t arresting her after all? She’d be well clothed in that orange jumpsuit if they were here to drag her to prison.
She didn’t dare ask. Not in front of her father. Roaring across the house, his voice shook the walls with increasing threats of legal action, adding how he would personally destroy their careers.
She followed Dawson back out of her room while Huong was attempting to calm her parents, “We just need to ask her a few questions. She’ll be safe with us.”
At the end of the hall, she saw her brother’s door crack open, his little face peek out. She waved gently and mouthed, Be good okay? Love you. Her heart broke at his big eyes, his lips turned down with a pitiful quiver. Xander was such a good kid, his nose always in a book or in front of the computer or playing in the street with the neighbor kids.
Slinking behind Huong to keep distance from her parents, knowing either of them would latch on and make it worse, she followed Dawson down the stairs. Part of her wanted to throw herself in her parent’s arms and never let go. Let them stand up for her and hire an attorney so they couldn’t take her away. But that would only make things worse. For everyone.
Especially the woman who was probably being buried under one of those topiaries right now, the sheets being washed or burned or buried along with her.
Enough of her recognized she’d been a selfish idiot. Crashing around her like shattered crystal, her invincibility was gone. She’d never lacked for self-esteem. Maybe she should have, just a little, and she wouldn’t have gotten herself in so deep.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her father scowled past Huong, adding a disappointed head shake for her. Was it because she’d gotten herself in legal trouble, or because she was taking the high road and going with the agents?
Never showing his back to her father, Huong followed down the stairs. Filing behind Dawson out the front door, Natalya held her head high as she accepted her fate, refusing to let her parents see her fear, her guilt, her regret. Huong reassured her parents one last time as he backed out the door, her father’s expletives threatening the foundation beneath him.
Still, her parents didn’t look half as crestfallen as they had when she’d blown the Olympic trials. That had been a lifetime of their investment in her, and in one failed landing, she’d proven she wasn’t the gifted athlete she’d been raised to be. Her last hope at representing her country as an Olympic gymnast shattered. Disappointment. Wordless head shaking.
There was nothing she could do about fixing that day, about changing the outcome.
But she could make amends in this.
Dawson slid into the driver’s seat while Huong climbed in the back next to her. Huong spoke directly to her for the first time. “We followed you from Peterson’s. Natalya Haldon?”
She nodded, trying to find her voice through the frog lodged in her throat. “Yeah. That’s me.” She bit her lips together to hide the tremble.
“What were you doing there?”
Inhaling deeply, watching her neighborhood fade in the distance, she gritted her teeth and laid it all out, finding that attitude she’d flipped her father. “Trying to rob him.”
From the front seat, she heard Dawson chuckling, shaking his head. Huong let the corner of his mouth turn up, but otherwise maintained a straight face. “I appreciate your honesty. You’re not under arrest at this time.”
“Look,” he sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. He exuded calm confidence, an experienced agent. “We’ve been tracking Peterson for a while now. Tonight, a woman went home with him, hours before he was to have left a fundraiser.”
She blinked desperately but could no longer clear the watery regret from her eyes. Couldn’t shake the image from flashing in her mind over and over again.
“Imagine our surprise when we watched you bailing over the fence, minutes after his arrival.”
She shrugged, wiping away the tears that streamed down her cheeks.
Huong continued, “We thought you might be her at first, but she’s built quite differently than you are. Tell me, do you know anything about her whereabouts?”
Swallowing the hot lump in her throat, Natalya nodded. The agents fell silent, waiting for her answer. Clearing her throat, she answered, “He shot her.”
Huong’s eyebrows drew together as he took in the information, but he held his calm. She glanced ahead and saw Dawson’s knuckles turning white on the steering wheel. “You’re sure? It was Peterson himself?”
“Yeah, it was him alright. I was climbing up the building to get to his office, but I stopped when I heard the scream at the second story window.” She described the scene as precisely as she could. Of course, she mentioned she’d been on her way up to his office, not on her way down with stolen data. If she wasn’t under arrest, she may as well not give them any reason to consider it.
“Dawson?” Huong asked his partner.
“Yeah, I know. We’re not going back to the office tonight.”
The drive was interminable. Where were they taking her? She didn’t dare ask. Asking might give her an answer she didn’t want to hear.
As they drove further into the night, her eyes grew heavy. She should be terrified. After what she’d seen, she was grateful to be in safe hands. Even if just for the night.
Glaring at the three microscopic blank lines, Aiden grimaced. Resigned, he raised his hand and caught the professor’s attention. “It says to provide an explanation on the attached blank page if you need more room, but there is no attached page.” Oh boy. Off to a great start.
“Mr. McAllister, right?”
“That’s right.” And now he would permanently be known as the guy who had a record. A few of his fellow law students looked his way and snickered, already done with their perfectly above-board background checks. Across the room, Ev, his ex-girlfriend, and only friend in the program, rolled her eyes and winked.
Clearing her throat, his professor sauntered toward him with a reem of white paper. “And how many pages do you require?”
“Just one, thank you professor.”
She cleared her throat again as she slid a blank page onto his desk and strolled back down the aisle. Maybe she needed a lozenge. Or she just enjoyed passing not-quite-silent judgment.
While his classmates all handed in their paperwork and left, he scrawled the last of his additional information. Nothing serious, he just… come on, you couldn’t tell him that every lawyer out there hadn’t experimented a bit. That every one of them hadn’t found themselves on the wrong side of the law a few times. He’d be willing to bet half the damn med students across campus had some condition that had turned them onto medicine from an early age. Why would it be different for law students?
Ignoring another throat-clearing from his ancient professor, he set the completed form on her desk. Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he steadied his pace so it wasn’t obvious how terrified he was that that ridiculous sheet would get him kicked out before he even started. A dirtier record than his own, maybe his buddy Chase would get him a job deep-sea diving. No way was he working on the boats at his dad’s fisheries company.
As he neared the door, she cleared her throat with a finality that drilled into the last of his confidence. “Mr. McAllister?”
Cringing as he turned back, he nodded, “Yes, ma’am?”
“Nobody wants a lawyer that makes them feel judged.”
He angled his head in question.
“If you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, a decent heart, and a window into what it’s like on the client’s side of the bench, you’re already miles ahead of your peers.” The corner of her wrinkled mouth twitched as if she was considering smiling.
“And watch you’re not saying yes like that all the time. Can’t win them all.”
He flashed her a self-effacing smile, “Yes, ma’am.”
She shook her head and actually completed the smile. “Keep your nose clean.”
Not a problem, there. Those days were done.
As he stepped into the hall, he found Ev with a group from the class, already making friends as he knew she would. “Hey, Aiden. If you’re done brown-nosing, we thought we’d head out for drinks.”
Nodding, he followed them out into the sunny afternoon. Still wound up from the fucking bizarre interaction with his professor, he begged off to drop off his backpack. In his shoebox apartment, he dumped his bag, and ran cold water over his face.
His phone buzzed as Ev hurried him along. Rolling his shoulders, he locked up and strolled down the block to the bar. A local favorite watering hole from the looks of things, it was doggy enough to be unimposing with its dim lighting and weathered wooden tables, but was clean and packed with familiar faces from campus.
Glancing down, he double checked that his white t-shirt was clean and unrumpled, the fly on his jeans was up, and he smoothed down his walnut-brown hair that he’d had trimmed a few days ago. All good. He passed through the chattering crowd and waved to Ev and her new friends.
Stepping up to the bar, he ordered a pint. A juicy-lipped blond in a lacy black top and tiny skirt that barely covered her ass sidled up next to him. “Buy me a drink?” she asked, eyes wandering along his arms like she wanted to lick him, then hanging on his lips.
Inhaling cautiously, he shook his head. “Sorry, but I’m meeting some friends.”
Tucking that plump lower lip into her teeth, he couldn’t tell if she was pouting or purring. “Maybe next time, then. You seem really sweet.”
For all the five seconds she’d been around him? She must be an excellent judge of character. The bartender slid his beer over. Aiden replaced the frothy glass with cash and backed away. “Have a good night,” he nodded to both.
Parking on the stool at the high-top table Ev had saved for him, Aiden took a welcome sip of the fizzy brew.
Ev raised an eyebrow, “Not your type, huh?”
He groaned, “Hell no. Hot, but looking to pull the old ‘I got you through law school’ divorce in a few years.”
On his other side, one of the guys, Jack? Yeah, that was it. He couldn’t keep track of everyone’s names yet. Anyway, Jack air-saluted before downing his gin and tonic by half, “You can tell that from one come-on? Be my wingman?”
Chuckling, Aiden shrugged, “I can show you the ropes.”
From across the table, he felt high heels link around his leg from another classmate. Not a word, just a wink. Goddammit.
At his side, Ev laughed out loud and slapped him on the back. “Looks like you’re the one that needs a wingman.”