Prime Target (Target #1)

By: Marquita Valentine

Something I appreciated, yet despised. A small part of me had hoped that the Bratva would forget about the man known as Roman Smith. That perhaps getting shot was divine intervention and I could be free to pursue Everly.

In the following months, I had to close my shop while I recuperated, watched for signs of Petrov’s return, and had the entire place cleaned of the forensics powder the police had left behind. Though every Wednesday, I would sit on a bench in a small park by my shop and wait for Everly. Always, I would stay by her side while she read from one of the books I delivered to her.

I’m a glutton for punishment, I suppose, but in those quiet moments, I felt at peace with the world. I had the most lovely, most beautiful woman within arm’s reach, and I soaked her presence in. She didn’t try to force me to talk to her, though she did her best to get me to open up.

“What’s your favorite book?” she asks, setting her latest Zoe Ambrose novel down.

“The kind that makes me the most money,” I say, breaking off a piece of bread and throwing it to the birds in the park.

She rolls her eyes, and I bite back a grin. “Seriously, Roman. Tell me.”

“Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince,” I say softly. “My mother read it to me as a child before bedtime.”

She doesn’t make one of her gentle jokes at this. Instead, she inches closer to me, so close that our thighs are touching. “That’s a sweet memory to share with me.”

It’s a true memory. I pick up her book and examine it. “While you are reading a very raunchy scene.”

Blushing, she laughs. “It’s not raunchy. It’s romantic.”

We both grow quiet, and I hand the book back to her. Romantic. I can’t offer her straight-up fucking, much less romance.

“Fantasy is good,” I murmur, and she beams at me.

“Thanks for not making fun of what I read.” Her hand reaches for mine, but I move it out of the way. She makes a little face, then goes back to her reading.

The moment has passed, but I can’t help wondering what it would have been like to give in.

A gust of sharp wind brings me back to the present, and I blink.

For reasons known only to God, Everly sees something in me. Something she wants to touch and hold. I feel the same way about her. When I see Everly, all I see is pure goodness and beauty.

Yet, each time I look at my hands, at the tattoos that are inked so deeply into my skin I’ll never be able to remove them, I see blood. My fingers may as well be twisted and charred, oozing with blood, with the sins that I committed in the name of ridding the world of scum.

And not for the first time, I wonder what Everly would do if I confessed the truth.

“Exactly the same.” The redhaired woman’s words slither into my head.

A plaintive meow breaks through my clouded head, and I turn to find a small cat sitting by the back door. Its fur is an odd shade of bluish-gray.

Kneeling, I rub its head. “Lost, little one?” I’ve always had an affinity for animals, from the time I was a child. A weakness my father said I inherited from my mother’s family. Animals were meant to serve us, to do our bidding, not perform tricks.

I scoop up the purring cat, heading in the direction of the local shelter. Everly won’t be here for at least thirty more minutes, so I have time to get this bit of fluff there.

“Ridding the world of mice, eh?” I croon as the familiar brick building comes into sight. The door opens, and an older woman with black hair liberally streaked with gray comes out. Mrs. Tatum is the director of the rescue shelter. Bangles on her wrists jingle as they crash against one another.

When she sees me, she smiles—her expression genuine and warm, much like Everly’s.

“Mr. Smith, how are you today?” Her gaze zeroes in on the bundle in my arms and the smile melts away, leaving behind a frown so sad that grooves appear in the side of her mouth. “Ah, I wish you hadn’t brought it.”

I glance down at the cat. Yellow eyes regard me thoughtfully. “She can’t eat that much. I’m more than happy to donate food—”

“That’s not it.” She lets out a thick sigh. “We can’t take any more animals for at least a week. If they are left here, then we have to euthanize them.”

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