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Death Angel (Chapter Six)

DREA OVERSLEPT, AND FINALLY DRAGGED HERSELF OUT OF bed feeling as if she'd been battered, in both body and mind. Four hours of sex, even really good sex, might sound good in theory, but it wasn't something she wanted to do again, even without all the emotional upheaval that had accompanied it. She couldn't deny the physical pleasure, but she liked to be the one in control. She'd rather have a clear head during the act, and take care of her own needs later, when she was alone. Look how stupid a few orgasms had made her, even if the dumbing effect was only temporary. She'd never make that mistake again; if anyone was made stupid, it would be the guy, not her.

This morning she didn't let herself wimp out in front of the mirror; she squared up to it and focused on what she saw now, not the reflection that had been there years ago. She wasn't that stupid, vulnerable girl any longer, so thinking about her was a waste of time.

The present was bad enough, she thought critically, turning her head from side to side as she examined herself. Her face was colorless, unless she counted the bruised-looking shadows under her swollen eyes, and her hair was so snarled it looked as if a nest of rats had been wrestling in it. Maybe it was just ego, but she didn't want to look pitiful. She couldn't wipe away every trace of yesterday, but she could certainly look better than this.

For the first time ever, she locked the bathroom door before undressing. She didn't care what Rafael thought, didn't care if he didn't like it.

She picked up a comb and fiercely attacked the knots and snarls in her hair, then got in the shower and scrubbed with her favorite perfumed shower gel. Yesterday afternoon she hadn't had time to put conditioner on her hair, which was why it was such a mess this morning. She took the time now, and felt the thick strands turn silky under her fingers.

The first thing she'd do, she thought grimly, was cut most of this mess off. Not only was her hair too identifiable, but she didn't like her hair this long, or this curly. She had some natural wave in her hair but these corkscrew curls resulted from stinking chemicals and hours of maintenance. She'd deliberately chosen the look, knowing it made her look more frivolous and less capable, but, damn, she was tired of it. She was tired of pretending she didn't have a brain, tired of putting someone else's needs and wants ahead of her own.

She pulled on her robe and tightly belted it, then swiftly began putting on her makeup, feeling as if time were slipping away and she had only a few hours in which to escape. She shouldn't have slept so long, she should have set her alarm, but she hadn't, and now she had to move fast. With Rafael weirding out on her the way he had, as if he'd suddenly discovered this deep love for her-yeah, right-she couldn't predict what he'd do next, and the uncertainty scared her. He was a dangerous man, and a smart one. All it would take to tip him off was for her to make one slip of the tongue, or forget to guard her expression. She hadn't made that mistake in the two years they'd been together, but she'd never before been so on edge, either. She didn't trust him, and she no longer trusted herself to hold things together.

An idea struck, something that might give her a small advantage if it worked. If not, then at least her situation wouldn't be any worse. She forced herself to cough. The sound was mild, at first, but as she did it again and again the cough became deeper, rougher. She stopped after a minute and said "Damn it" out loud, to test her voice. Already she sounded hoarse, but not hoarse enough. She coughed some more, pulling the effort from deep in her chest, and felt her throat burn. If she were sick, she'd have a ready-made excuse for keeping Rafael at a distance if he tried to have sex with her-and she'd also have an excuse for looking so pale, which was nothing but her ego talking, but after yesterday she needed every bit of ego she could rustle up. Between the two of them, Rafael and the assassin had pretty much ground her into dust.

She heard a faint sound in her bedroom, and a chill ran down her spine. Rafael! She whirled and unlocked the door, pulling it open in the same motion and stepping out without looking, as if she hadn't heard anything and didn't know he was there. She all but bumped into him, and jumped with a fake yip of surprise. "I didn't know you were in here," she said, pleased with how hoarse her voice sounded.

He put his hands on her waist and frowned down at her. "Are you sick? You sound terrible."

"I might be catching something," she mumbled, looking down. "I woke up with a cough."

He tilted her face up, his dark eyes sharply examining her pallor, the shadows under her eyes. Drea could barely force herself to stand there and let him touch her. He was a handsome man, with thick black hair and chiseled features, but she had never loved him and at the best of times had found only mild pleasure in being with him. There was no pleasure left now, only hate burning so strong and hot she could barely contain it.

Still, she managed to put suffering in her expression as she looked back up at him, then she closed her eyes and swallowed. Straightening, she gently removed herself from his grasp and went to her closet. Opening the door, she turned on the light and stared into the small room, at the shoes scattered across the floor and the laden hangers jammed together without any sort of system. "I need to find a job," she said in a wobbly voice, the tone a little lost and bewildered. "But I don't know what to wear."

The truth was, there was nothing in her closet appropriate for job-hunting, and nothing she would mind leaving behind. Every garment had been chosen with the purpose of showcasing her assets, and was either too flamboyant or too revealing. There was nothing tailored, not a single skirt long enough to reach her knee-or, if it did, there was also a side slit to add oomph.

Rafael came up behind her and this time he slid his arm around her, pulling her close against his side. He bent his head, pressed his warm mouth to her temple. "I think you have a fever," he murmured. "You should stay home today, and when you're feeling better you can worry about what to wear." He gave a small, indulgent smile, as if he were talking to a child.

"But I have to-" She knew damn well she didn't have a fever, because she wasn't sick, but that was exactly what she'd wanted him to say.

"No," he interrupted. "You don't have to leave, and you sure as hell don't have to hunt for a job. You don't have to do anything, except rest."

She pulled back from him and searched his face with a desolate gaze. She let her lips tremble a little "But…yesterday…"

"Yesterday, I was an idiot," he said forcefully. "Listen to me, babe: I don't know how many times you want me to say it, but I'm not tired of you, I swear. I don't want you to leave. I want you to stay here and let me take care of you the way I always have. You can't make it on your own. You're not qualified for any job except looking pretty, but you're damn good at that."

Drea let a weary sigh leak out of her, and she leaned her head into his shoulder, let him support her weight. "I don't know what to do." The vulnerability of her posture disarmed him, and also gave her the chance to make certain she could control her expression. She was incredulous that he'd actually admitted he'd been in the wrong about anything-a first-and enraged that he so completely dismissed her capabilities. Logically that last shouldn't matter, because she'd worked damn hard to make him think exactly what he'd said, but to hell with logic. She was in an emotional free fall, and the only handholds she could grab were those of hate and rage. She clung to them, because without them she'd never stop falling.

His hand slid up and down her back, gently rubbing. "That's what I'm telling you: you don't have to do anything. We'll go on the way we did before. Nothing has to change."

He had no idea how much things had already changed. She didn't say anything, pretending to think things over, then she threw in a bout of coughing just to be on the safe side. The last thing she wanted was for her voice to begin recovering and sounding normal.

He hugged her close, squeezed her. "You should take it easy today, see if you feel better tomorrow. How about if I bring you a present tonight? What would you like?"

"I don't know," she said, and sighed again. "I think I will just stay in today. I don't feel like shopping. What are you doing today? Are you staying here?" She injected a faintly hopeful note into her raspy voice as if she actually wanted him to stay around, though she felt relatively safe in assuming he wouldn't; Rafael rarely spent the day at the penthouse. He liked to see and be seen, and unless there was some party to attend he never took her with him.

"No, I have business I have to attend to. I'll leave a couple of the guys here, okay? Anything you want, anywhere you want to go, just tell them." He never left the penthouse empty; someone was always there, making it difficult for the FBI or anyone else to slip in and plant surveillance devices. At first she'd always had two babysitters watching out for her; one would stay behind while the other kept watch on her if she went anywhere. Later, after Rafael decided he could trust her, just one man stayed behind to watch the penthouse and if she went out she went alone. It had been awhile since she'd had one assigned specifically to her; Rafael probably thought he was giving her a perk, when instead he was making her plan that much tougher to play out.

"Who?" Not Orlando, please, she prayed. Orlando Dumas was the sharpest arrow in Rafael's quiver, especially with computers. The last thing she needed was someone computer-savvy looking over her shoulder. When she'd first moved in with Rafael, Orlando had been her most frequent babysitter, because Rafael knew Orlando was the most likely to spot anything suspicious.

"Who do you want?"

"I don't care," she said listlessly. If she expressed a preference at all, Rafael would wonder why; even asking whom she didn't want would trigger his suspicions, so it was safer to let him choose the person he wanted. She'd deal with it regardless. "I guess I'll look at some things online this morning, and if I feel better later on I'll go to the library."

"You do that." He kissed her again, this time on the forehead. "I don't know what time I'll be back, so eat without me, okay?"

"Okay." Perfect. Eating without him wasn't unusual. They usually shared breakfast, which she wouldn't have to do today because she'd overslept and was late, but most of the time she ate her other meals alone. She'd never been a big part of his life, she realized; how could she have deluded herself that she was anything more to him than convenient sex? She was easily replaced, easily forgotten-and easily bartered.

That was about to change. By the time she was finished, Rafael would never forget her.

Satisfied that he'd weathered the threatened upheaval to his domestic arrangement, Rafael gave her another hug and kiss and strolled out. Drea blew out a huge breath, her legs going weak with relief. Maintaining her act, schooling her every expression and word, had never been a problem, but now it took real effort and she felt the strain. In her head she could hear a clock ticking, warning her that she couldn't keep this up for much longer.

Still, she played it safe, because he might look in on her again before he left the penthouse. She turned on her television, put it on a shopping channel with the sound turned very low, and curled up in a chair with a cashmere throw pulled over her legs. Then she waited, closing her eyes and straining her ears for the sound of the door closing. She'd have muted the television if she'd been certain Rafael wouldn't reenter her room, but until he actually left she had to assume he would. How much of her life had she wasted doing this, setting the stage and making certain every detail was perfect, on the off-chance he might notice?

This time it paid off. He opened the door without knocking. Drea opened her eyes as he crossed the room, and to her astonishment saw he had a cup of coffee in his hand. "I brought your coffee," he said. "It'll help your throat."

Impatience roiled inside her, made her want to clench her teeth, but she stopped herself just in time. He'd notice the motion of her jaw muscles, and he'd know she was putting on an act. God in Heaven, would he just leave? He must have some worm in his brain, to be acting like this.

"That's so sweet," she said, and coughed some more as she took the cup from him. "Thank you."

"Cream and three sugars, right?"

"Right." No, it was two sugars and skim milk, which told her how much attention he'd paid. Now she'd have to skip her morning toast to make up for these extra calories. She sipped the too-sweet, too-rich brew, and smiled at him. "Perfect."

A faint blush tinged his high cheekbones, and it was all she could do not to gape at him. Rafael Salinas, blushing? The world as she knew it must have ended, and she'd been too damn busy being traded around like a whore to have noticed.

She let her head rest against the back of the chair, and sighed as if she felt really miserable. Maybe the bastard would take the hint and leave her alone. She had to be careful not to overdo it, though, or he'd be strong-arming some doctor to check her over. She also didn't want him checking on her all day long. He never had before, but today was a day for firsts.

"Call me if you need me," he said.

"I will."

He was clearly torn, wanting to go about his business but at the same time not wanting to leave her. For once, she was out of ideas. She just wanted him to go, and couldn't think of any maneuver that would steer him out the door, so she curled deeper into the chair and closed her eyes; that way, at least, she wouldn't have to look at him.

But, wonder of wonders, either that worked or he couldn't think of any more reasons to delay. She heard him leave her bedroom, then the rumble of masculine voices, and finally the blessed sound she'd been waiting for: the closing of the main door. She could still hear the television in the parlor, and an occasional comment as the two men he'd left behind settled down to watch some sports on the tube.

She resisted the urge to peek and see who Rafael had chosen to babysit her. She was supposed to be sick, and lying down; she didn't want to make anyone suspicious by bouncing out of the bedroom as soon as the door had closed behind Rafael. Her timing didn't have to be down to the minute, but she wanted to leave Rafael as little time to react as possible.

There were plenty of things she could do to get ready, though. She tiptoed over to the door and turned the lock in the doorknob. Locks like that were flimsy and wouldn't slow down any of Rafael's men for more than a few seconds, but she felt safer having that little bit of warning.

Going to the closet, she pulled out a large leather tote. First into it went one of her few pairs of flat-heeled shoes. Once she managed to slip away from her babysitter, she'd have to do some fast walking, and the four-and five-inch heels she preferred might be glamorous but they were hell to walk in.

One thing that worried her was that she didn't know how much influence Rafael had in specific areas. Cameras were everywhere in this city, recording people in stores, walking down the sidewalk, getting on a subway. Everything that went on in a bank was definitely recorded, but she felt safer about that because Rafael didn't know about her safe-deposit box, or which bank she had used. But if he had any pull with the city, the traffic engineers, or the cops, he might be able to get access to recordings and be able to track her movements. That was a chance she'd have to take, because if dematerializing was a learnable skill, she hadn't yet found the class that taught it.

Almost everything here would have to stay. She selected some basic cosmetics, enough to get her by but not enough that Rafael would ever notice part of her stuff was missing. The rest she left scattered across her vanity, as if she were expecting to return. She rolled up a pair of black cropped pants, and a skimpy black shirt, and added them to the bag. Black was the least noticeable color in New York, because so many people wore it, even during the summer. Another bag, smaller and plainer, also went into the tote.

That was it. She'd buy everything else she needed as she needed it. She was satisfied that no one, looking at this room, would think anything other than that she'd gone shopping and would soon be back. Rafael, knowing how she loved clothes and makeup, would never believe she'd willingly left all this behind, and that would buy her precious time-she hoped. She'd have to make a clean escape; if the babysitter saw her, tried to catch her, then she'd have no grace period at all.

She paced. She watched the clock. After awhile, hunger pains drove her from her room to the kitchen. Rafael didn't have a cook because he didn't trust people outside of his network, and generally thugs didn't develop their culinary skills, but he did have food delivered so there was always something available.

She made herself walk slowly, as if she didn't have a lot of energy. The two men sitting in the living room looked around. To her relief, neither of them was Orlando Dumas. Their names were Amado and Hector, and if she'd ever heard their last names she'd promptly forgotten them. They were okay, sort of middle of the pack: not the smartest, not the dumbest. Cool. She could handle that.

"You feelin' better?" Hector asked.

"Some." She'd forgotten to keep coughing, but her voice was still a little raspy. "I'm going to heat some soup for lunch. Do you want any?" She doubted it, because she could see plates and glasses on the coffee table, indicating they'd already eaten, plus Amado had his hand in a huge bag of Doritos.

"Nah, we've already had lunch. Thanks, though."

Hector had fairly good manners, for a thug.

Drea went into the kitchen and nuked a bowl of soup, ate it standing up at the counter. Her heart was kicking into high gear; she could feel the rhythm of the beats picking up in speed, feel the excitement beginning to race through her veins. She looked at the clock again: two p.m.

Showtime.

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