In the sweating heat of Louisiana, former Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, faces her toughest challenge yet.
Professionally, Charlie’s at the top of her game, but her personal life is in ruins. Her lover, bodyguard Sean Meyer, has woken from a gunshot-induced coma with his memory in tatters.
Working with Sean again was never going to be easy, but a celebrity fundraising event in post- Katrina New Orleans should have been the ideal opportunity for them both to take things nice and slow. Until, that is, they find themselves thrust into the middle of a war zone.
When an ambitious robbery explodes into a deadly hostage situation, the motive may be far more complex than simple greed. Somebody has a major score to settle and Sean is part of the reason.
Only trouble is, he doesn’t remember why.
New York Times best-selling author Harlan Coben had this to say about her new book, just out in the U.S. last month.:
"Zoë Sharp is one of the sharpest, coolest, and most intriguing writers I know. She delivers dramatic, action-packed novels with characters we really care about. And once again, in DIE EASY, Zoë Sharp is at the top of her game."
Here are the first two chapters:
Even on a good day I don’t enjoy being shot at. Been there, done that, and it bloody hurts.
I wasn’t kidding myself this was going to be a good day.
Maybe that had something to do with the fact that my gun hand—my right—was securely handcuffed to a reinforced briefcase weighing probably twenty-five pounds.
That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad. I’d put in enough time on the range to be proficient with either hand. My left wrist, however, was just as firmly handcuffed to Sean Meyer’s right. Neither of us was exactly overjoyed by this state of affairs.
Especially when everything was about to go to shit around us.
We were on a quiet street of generic storefronts, parked cars dotted along either side. There were people nearby but nobody gave us a second glance.
And then, just when the tension began to give me heartburn, a dozen rapid shots cracked out further down the street. I was half expecting them, but still they startled me. I forced out a strangled yelp, even though I knew they were scare shots, fired from a single weapon rather than part of an exchange, designed purely to start a stampede.
They got the job done.
Sean wheeled and I had to swing fast to stay with him. His eyes were everywhere. He’d already drawn the Glock 17 semiautomatic, hefted it in his left hand, but he stayed on his feet, upright, alert.
Next to him, useless as a stuffed lemon chained to that damn case, I felt helplessly exposed. I willed myself calm, knowing I had to rely on Sean to protect me—to protect both of us.
People started to stream past us. Some screaming, some shouting—unintelligible words filled with a contagious panic. I tugged deliberately at his arm.
“Sean! We need to get out of here—”
It was the vicious tone more than the words that shocked me into silence. As we turned, I caught a glimpse of figures crossing between the buildings. They were dressed in jeans and loose shirts like the rest of the crowd. Unlike everybody else, though, they moved with direction and purpose, and they were armed.
I didn’t speak, didn’t distract Sean, but by the way he tensed I knew he’d seen them, too.
His brows were drawn down flat in concentration, making his harsh face seem colder than usual. Cold enough to make me shiver.
He muscled me sideways effortlessly, snatching roughly at the cuffs so that it jarred my whole arm. I should have been protesting at this point, but I said nothing. It took willpower to remain passive.
Sean went down on one knee, pulled me into a crouch alongside him, using an old parked Chevy for cover. We stayed up by the front wheel where the engine block provided more of a shield.
More people sprinted by. A man tripped and went sprawling right behind us. Sean ignored him. He had the gun up in front of him, head tilted to best utilise his dominant eye.
A target broke cover, dodging through the remnants of the fleeing people. Sean fired on him without hesitation, four fast shots that somehow threaded through the crowd, tracked and hit. He went down.
Before the first man finished falling another had appeared, jinking between parked cars on the opposite side of the street. He had a machine pistol held at waist-level, and he strafed us as he ran. Sean held his nerve, his position and his aim, taking only two rounds to drop him.
The third and fourth assailants came in together from oblique angles, taking advantage of any tunnelling in Sean’s focus. Sean twisted, forgetting about my dead weight on the end of his right arm. He growled in frustration as his first shots went wide, taking an extra fraction of a second he barely had time for.
His breath hissed out as he swung his arm over the top of me and fired again, so close I felt the gases blast past my cheek, heard the brutal snap of the report clatter in my ears. The hot dead brass spun out and scattered around me. One casing hit the side of my neck, burning the skin. Instinct told me to stay on my feet. Instead I dropped flat, trying to get my hands over my head. Not easy with unwieldy objects attached to both arms.
Then I heard the Glock’s action lock back empty.
I hadn’t been counting the rounds, but I couldn’t believe Sean let the gun run dry in these circumstances.
I raised my head, my locked-together fingers hampering his reload. Sean hit the release to drop the magazine and shoved the Glock, butt upwards, into the vee at the back of his bent leg. He snatched the spare mag out of his belt and slapped it home with the palm of his hand, then pulled the gun free and flicked the slide release awkwardly to snap the first round up into the chamber.
The whole operation had taken maybe a couple of seconds, left-handed, smooth and without a slip, but he was staring at me as if I’d just tried to get him killed.
As if I wanted him dead …
“Come on—up!” he commanded, almost wrenching my arm out of its socket as he dragged me upright. The briefcase dangled painfully from the short cuff chain, gouging at my right wrist. I groped for the case’s handle, stumbling as we fell back into the mouth of an alley.
The expanding slap of a long gun rebounded between the brick buildings, and then they came at us thick and fast, half a dozen armed men, experienced pros, motivated, confident.
It was always going to be a no-win situation.
Sean went to the wall that allowed him to keep his left hand free, facing outwards, elbowing me round behind him. He fired at anything that showed itself past the edge of the scarred brickwork, dialled in now, emotions buttoned down tight.
And this time he dropped the magazine out before the last round was fired, keeping the Glock’s working parts in play. He shoved the gun into his belt to reach for a reload.
I stayed close up behind him—I had no other choice. But I had my face slightly turned towards the back of the alley, and for this reason I saw a door open halfway back, a man emerge with a gun in his right fist. He was tall, rangy, his arms already raised to firing position, and he was smiling.
I sucked in an audible breath. Sean heard it, head snapping round. For the merest fraction of a second he hesitated, then tried to hurry the magazine into the pistol grip and fumbled it.
The man’s smile became broader. He fired.
Not at Sean, but at me.
I felt the punch of the impact in my chest, high on the right, where he knew the round would drill diagonally through ribs, lungs and heart. Where he knew it would do the most harm.
I gasped but couldn’t get my breath, started to slide down the rough wall as my legs folded under me. Sean turned into my body as if to stop me falling. His face was an inch from mine. I stared into eyes dark as mourning and saw nothing reflected back at me.
That hurt worse than the shot.
His left hand was empty. It snaked under the tails of my shirt. I felt his fingers close around the SIG Sauer I wore just behind my right hip, pulling it free.
He knew I carried the gun ready, with a round jacked up into the chamber. There was no safety.
He fired as soon as the weapon cleared my torso, four rounds straight into the centre of the smiling man’s body mass.
As the guy went down I just had time to note that he wasn’t smiling any more.
“C’mon, Charlie, it was just an exercise,” Parker Armstrong said. “The whole point was for you to make things as difficult for Sean as possible, really test the guy out.”
I remembered my faked mini-hysteria, the deliberate inaction that had stuck in my craw to maintain. I looked down at the coffee cup clasped between my tense fingers. “Well, I did that all right.”
My boss’s smile was dust dry. “I’ll bet. But Sean passed the course—top ten per cent.”
I remembered the shots that had threaded through the crowd. That they’d been accurate was not the point. Collateral damage was not supposed to figure in our line of work.
“Yeah, but—before—we both know Sean would have been in the top two per cent, easy.”
It was how we’d taken to referring to Sean’s near-fatal shooting and the resultant coma that had locked him down for nearly four months. Before he’d nearly died and then come back to us changed not just physically and mentally but emotionally, too.
Before the part of him I knew—the part that really knew me—had died, in a way.
“It’s only been five months since he woke up and he still passed fit, Charlie. That’s impressive, by anyone’s standards.”
I hunched my shoulders. “You didn’t see him, Parker—the way he looked at me …”
And the way he didn’t.
Parker leaned forwards on my sofa, elbows resting on his knees, and pinned me with a level gaze. “There’s no point in taking a Stress Under Fire course unless it lives up to its name. Your job was to drive him hard, to look for the cracks.” His voice softened sympathetically. “Nobody escapes unscathed, Charlie—that’s the point of it. Sure, it was never going to be a cakewalk for either of you, but I knew no one else would push him harder. You’re the one who knows him best.”
“I knew him best,” I corrected. “But that’s not true any more.”
We sat there in the high-ceilinged living room of the New York City apartment. Parker looked at home there, but his family owned the building so I suppose he had every right.
He’d offered it to us at a ridiculously subsidised rent as part of the relocation package that had tempted Sean and me away from the UK in the first place. Otherwise there was no way we could afford to rent within sight of Central Park, even if you did practically have to stand on a chair to see the greenery.
I glanced up, found him still watching me. There was something both soothing and unnerving about Parker’s calm silence. “The old Sean would never have let them shoot me in the chest,” I said at last. It sounded almost plaintive.
Parker smiled more fully then. It transformed his rather sombre face, took half a decade off his age. “C’mon, Charlie, Tony’s been waiting to get his own back ever since you shot him in the balls last year.”
I felt a sheepish grin of my own rise up. “Hey, that was just his bad luck. I was aiming for low-centre-body mass, just like he advocates—the most static part of a moving target. He should just be thankful we weren’t using live rounds.”
“As should you,” he said. “How’re the ribs?”
“Black and blue, thanks.”
“Yeah, those sims sting like a bastard, don’t they?”
The Simunitions training rounds used on the SUF course were designed to give participants a nasty and painful reminder of the consequences faced in the field. Heavy or protective clothing was disallowed by the instructors, so there was nothing to lessen the impact. As with the real thing, nobody wanted to take a hit.
The sims had the advantage that they could be fired from a replacement barrel in the shooter’s own weapon. They were the most realistic training round I’d encountered short of live ammunition.
Getting shot in the chest had been an experience that left me bruised and aching, but it had only been a day or so ago. In a week the visible marks would have faded like they never were. Only the implanted reflex would remain.
I drained my coffee, rose stiffly and reached for Parker’s empty cup too. He’d come straight from the office and was wearing his usual formal dark suit. It was well-cut without being flashy. I could have used the same words to describe Parker himself—everything about him capable of blending into the background. Unless you looked closely at his eyes. Then you realised he’d seen and done more than you ever wanted to know about.
Sean had eyes like those.
I took the cups into the apartment’s kitchen area, dumped them in the sink. When I came back, I found my boss standing by the tall windows looking out across the Upper East Side. His hands were in his pockets, but I knew from the angle of his shoulders that he wasn’t anywhere near as relaxed as the pose suggested.
Parker wasn’t only my employer and, I suppose, my landlord—over the course of Sean’s incapacity he’d become a friend. He could have become much more than that, if we’d let it happen.
He turned around. “So, how are things between the two of you?”
I shoved my own hands into the back pockets of my jeans, wished I hadn’t when I saw Parker divine the defensiveness of the gesture. “OK-ish,” I said. “Intellectually, Sean accepts I’m not the girl he remembers from the army—the one he thinks betrayed him. He accepts that we moved on, found each other again, came over here together and are sharing this place, working for you.”
“Intellectually, he accepts it, but emotionally?” I shrugged, shook my head. “That’s another thing altogether.”
Parker stepped in suddenly, reached out and took my upper arms. His grasp was light, but sufficient to stop me getting my hands free without a struggle. I didn’t try.
“Look, Charlie, if things have gotten too … difficult here, you can always move out. I know the two of you are not sleeping together—”
I did wrench free then. “Sean told you that?”
“He didn’t have to,” he said gently. “This is a two-bedroom apartment, and you’ve moved your gear into the second bedroom.”
For a second I thought about telling Parker that Sean had become a violently restless sleeper, racked by desperate nightmares as if back in the coma’s grip. Besides, he’d shown no inclination for intimacy—not with me anyway.
How can I share a bed with someone who not only doesn’t love me, but doesn’t really even like me any more?
I shrugged. “He snores.”
Parker placed his hands back on my shoulders, not calling me on the lie. “Hey, Charlie, I know it’s tough,” he said softly. “But if the both of you need some space, some time, I have room at my place. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need.”
My throat tightened. “Parker—”
Off to my left, the apartment front door slammed. I jerked back automatically, but was aware of the shocked guilt plastered across my face when Sean appeared in the living room doorway.
He was dressed in his running gear and dripping with sweat. No longer as wasted as when he’d woken, Sean had worked hard to rebuild his muscle bulk. But his right leg was dragging a little as it did when he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion. He’d done a lot of that.
The gunshot wound to his left temple had disrupted his brain’s control over his right side. Remastering simple coordination was just one of the battles still raging.
Sean saw the pair of us, standing together like that and his eyes flicked over us with unreadable intensity. I thought I caught just a flicker of contempt.
“Hi, Sean,” Parker said with remarkable composure. “Charlie and I were just discussing your Stress Under Fire course. Sounds like you aced it. Tony says it’s the first time he’s ever been taken down by someone using a New York reload.”
A New York reload was simply to pull a second loaded gun when the first was out of action. Simple, but effective.
“It wasn’t against the letter of the rules,” Sean said shortly. “The spirit, maybe, but it got the job done and that’s what counts, right?”
“Right,” Parker echoed, wary of his tone. He nodded towards Sean’s clothing. “How’s it going?”
“Fine,” Sean said, straightening as if in the presence of a senior officer. “Just done a quick five miles. No problem.”
I frowned, but Sean nailed me with a single, deadly glance which Parker deliberately ignored.
“That’s great, Sean. You’re looking good.”
He started for the door, stopped after only a few strides, as if changing his mind about something.
“Ah, Charlie, I need for you to come in early tomorrow. We’ve been tasked with security for a client who’s attending a big fundraiser down in New Orleans next week. Some of the areas worst hit by Hurricane Katrina are still derelict and it seems the glitterati finally decided to do something about it. They’ve organised some big charity gala, plenty of feel-good largesse and displays of ostentatious wealth—including high-profile security. Nothing too taxing.”
“So why the need to contract out?” I asked. “Don’t they have their own people?”
“Not necessarily,” Parker said. “And you were specially requested—an old client. He reckons you saved his ass once before, and he wants you assigned this time around.”
In the periphery of my vision I was aware of Sean shifting impatiently.
“OK,” I said quickly, curiosity curbed. I checked my watch automatically. “I’ll start putting together the usual security inventory first thing. Be a nice chance to see if that new comms gear is all it’s cracked up to be.”
“How many on the team?” It was Sean who asked the question, but my eyes flew to Parker’s.
“That’s up to Charlie,” he said, impassive.
He’s not ready!
If not now, then when?
Sean watched the silent exchange with narrowed eyes, his body tense. For a long extended moment, nobody spoke.
I swallowed. “Can we … talk about this when I’ve had a chance to look over the logistics?” I said then, keeping my voice as neutral as possible. “See how many people we actually need?”
Parker considered for a moment, then turned to Sean. “You feel ready to come back?”
I failed to hide my dismay at Parker’s question. A mistake on my part.
Sean turned on me. “What?” he demanded roughly. “With respect, Charlie, wind your bloody neck in.” Those dark eyes fenced with mine, filled with an impotent fury and something else, too—fear.
I held my tongue. I’d been injured in the past and faced the sheer frustration of needing to get back on the job—long before anyone else believed I was fit to do so.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” he said. “Especially for a job that’s ‘nothing too taxing’, eh?” He might have got me with that argument, had he not added, “Besides, if she’s up to it, then so am I.”
I swear I saw Parker flinch. I know I did.
“Whatever personal issues you have with Charlie, keep them outside the office,” he said, pleasant but icy at the same time. “Charlie’s a first-class close-protection operative, as she’s proved on more occasions than I care to number.”
Sean’s nod was fractional at best, and aimed solely at Parker.
“Looks like I’ll see the both of you in the office tomorrow morning,” Parker said. He smiled. “Good to have you back, Sean.”
Sean didn’t say anything after he’d gone, just headed for the shower.
I was left standing by the window, looking down onto the afternoon traffic, with a sense of foreboding deep in my chest that had nothing to do with being shot, even by a bullet filled only with paint.
Parker had taken Sean on as a partner. As far as many people were concerned, I’d just hitched along for the ride. Armstrong-Meyer held the enviable position of being regarded as one of the best close-protection agencies in the States—if not worldwide. Sean was a vital, visible, part of that. Parker would, I recognised, always take his side. He had no choice.
But I did.
And if things didn’t improve between Sean and me—maybe not back to the way things were, but at least to the point of easy civility—then one of us was going to have to quit.
Didn’t take a genius to work out who.