Prime Target (Target #1)

By: Marquita Valentine

I don’t have to imagine it. “It’s not something I contemplate on a daily basis.”

Everly snorts, and then winks at me—something I find absolutely charming. “And they say the British have no sense of humor.”

I’m not British, but the accent suits me. As does my name. The location. Everything about Raleigh, North Carolina suits me.

Since I moved here, I’ve trained myself to think like an Englishman, to speak, eat, and make assumptions about Yanks. It’s easier this way, and I’m less likely to fall into old habits.

“How is business?” I ask, setting the box cutter on the counter. A conversation about the internet-based company she runs seems to be banal enough.

She beams at me. “Two more new clients this week. One makes the most adorable bows for little girls, and the other makes the cutest sweaters for dogs. When I’m seventy-five, I hope to have just a tenth of Ms. Mabel and Mrs. Jemima’s energy.” The way Everly talks about the women she helps makes me smile inwardly. She gushes over their wares, using words like adorable, cutest, fabulous, and super yummy. In reality, these women should gush over her. “Sales are already pouring in like crazy, and I was able to give my two weeks’ notice at the YMCA.”

“Congratulations.” I smile a little. This is excellent news. There was many a night I kept my shop open just to make sure she got home okay. Late nights and a shady downtown area are not safe for a woman walking alone.

She traces a pattern on the countertop, right beside her box of books, and then peers up at me through lacy black lashes. “Maybe I could help you, too? I’d be more than happy to set up a site for you on Etsy or eBay.”

“Thank you, but no. Rare books wouldn’t do well.” And there’s no way I’d advertise my business’s location. Might as well place a neon arrow pointing at the building.

Everly’s gaze bounces around my shop. I know she wants to say something about my lack of customers, but she doesn’t. She’s too kind. Too soft. Too weak.

No, I remind myself, for some, kindness is a strength.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll go sit and read for while. I don’t want to wait until I get home.” Without waiting for a response, she picks up her books and dashes to the back of the store to sit in the plush cub chair I bought just for her.

Bemused, I stare after her.

With a little grin, she settles in the chair and pulls out a book, pretending to read while eying me over the top of the pages. Just like I pretend to work while keeping an eye on her.

“Roman,” she says, taking my breath away as she wriggles out of her coat. Her book nearly falls out of her lap before she catches it.

For a moment, I can only stare at her, at her lush figure flattered by the simple dress she wears. It’s green like her eyes, with a wide, pink belt around the middle. “Yes?” I manage to get out.

The bells on the door ring and a familiar face reflects in the mirror across from me. I clench my jaw. Petrov. Two weeks ago, I had dinner with his brother. That night, his body was found floating in the Seine.

Blissfully unaware of the danger, Everly asks, “Did you buy the hot chocolate and Granny-Smith-apple-flavored jelly beans just for me?” She holds up the bags of hot cocoa and jelly beans, clearly delighted at the find. My heart turns in my chest. The feeling is odd. It’s dangerous.

Once, on a particularly blustery morning, she had mentioned liking hot chocolate, and I’d spied the bag of jelly beans in her purse. Naturally, I went out and bought every bag I could find while ordering the best hot cocoa money could buy.

Naturally, I’m a stupid fuck.

Petrov smirks as he awaits my answer, beady eyes darting to a smiling Everly, then back to me.

“No. Someone left it here. I have no use for it,” I answer evenly. “Once you’re done checking your order, let me know and I’ll get you sorted before you leave.”

Her face falls, and I want to stab myself in the heart. “Oh,” she says in a small voice. “I’m, uh, ready now.”

Petrov pretends to peruse my shelves while I force myself not to apologize to Everly. “The total comes to twenty-five seventy-four.”

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