Kita Kim took a direct hit across the chin.

Only the heavy padding saved her from a knockout blow. Her ears rang and white stars sparkled in her vision. That was what she got for letting her mind wander, even for a moment.

Kita shook off the daze. She was trying to train Hannah Smith to defend herself. The goal was to get Hannah to engage if one of her nieces was being attacked by their father. But if she hadn’t fallen into that kick, it would have lacked the force needed to really hurt her.

Hannah got in a kick to Kita’s thigh. She’d probably have a bruise, but the woman hadn’t used near enough force to take down a two-hundred-fifty-pound man.

“Do it again. You have to kick hard enough to hurt a guy who weighs a lot more than you do.” She purposely infused her voice with perkiness, leaving out the frustration.

Hannah nodded, setting her mouth and crouching into a defensive stance. Her eyes, lost in a sea of delicate, purpling skin, glowed with anger. Her muscles trembled with rage, but her matchstick arms would be no problem for the bulk and sheer power of her abusive brother-in-law bent on attack.

Unless Kita could get Hannah ready to defend against her attacker slash abuser slash brother-in-law, he would crush this woman, just as he had crushed Hannah’s sister. At least, that was what they believed. Tammy Donner had disappeared. After a cursory investigation by the local police, Frank Donner had been cleared. He insisted that his wife had run away and left him and their three daughters.

But Hannah and Kita knew the truth. Frank Donner had killed his wife. And if Kita couldn’t get Hannah to defend herself and her nieces, she was worried he would kill Hannah too.

Somehow Kita had to get Hannah to embrace her rage. Whip her into a vengeance frenzy. Or at the very least, induce her to not curl up into a defensive ball.

Because Kita’s boss, Jillian Larsen, had refused to help Hannah. Even though Hannah Smith and her nieces were just the type of clients usually helped by the agency Jillian had cofounded.

Adams-Larsen Inc. and Associates—publicly an exclusive PR firm­­—was privately a relocation specialist agency.

“We don’t break the law,” Jillian had said to Kita emphatically.

Because Adams-Larsen, or ALIAS, as she and her coworkers affectionately called it, skated on the edges of legality. While nothing they did was outright illegal, there were definitely blurred lines. At the end of the day, they saved people. And Kita loved being part of justice for those wronged.

Which is why this situation sucked big hairy donkey balls. Hannah Smith was in serious trouble.

Frustration bubbled in Kita’s stomach. She hated when abusers picked on someone weaker. Asshole.

She could take down the brother-in-law with ease. But Frank Donner wasn’t going after her. And Kita could only offer Hannah lessons while she wasn’t on a case. If Kita received a new assignment, she’d have to cut back on training Hannah.

Kita held up her arm and rubbed her nose through the concealing face mask.

Jeez, she was ripe. The earthy odor of sweat steamed in the padded assailant suit. Her powder scent deodorant, which had worn off an hour ago, left her less than fresh. Major body odor wafted into her nose along with the unhealthy scent of Hannah Smith’s fear.

Normally Kita reveled in this type of workout but Hannah’s obvious discomfort hit at Kita’s consciousness and her muscles were rigid with impotent frustration. Tension ratcheted up with every sobbing breath Hannah took. The threat to Hannah was real and immediate, not some faceless, nameless bogeyman, but a man who had and could kill. Even if no one but Hannah and Kita believed it. But Jillian Larsen didn’t care that Kita believed Frank Donner was a killer.

“Kita.” Jill had gentled her voice. “I understand your aversion to authority. It’s a good part of the reason we hired you. I even understand your frustration.”

Kita had rubbed at the abnormal bump on her wrist, the break that hadn’t quite set properly when she was seventeen.

Jillian didn’t always play by the rules either, but she couldn’t understand something she’d never experienced. Kita knew in her improperly-healed, ached-when-it-rained wrist that Hannah Smith was in mortal danger.

Adams-Larsen had the means and the contacts to save Hannah and her three nieces. But they weren’t going to.

“Again.” Kita prepped to attack the slight woman.

The bulky padding made Kita look like the Michelin Man on steroids. Due to years of training, she could move with a fair amount of agility, probably more than Hannah’s brother-in-law possessed. But Hannah needed to learn to counter the violent threat. She needed to work past her fear and get angry.

Kita rushed Hannah, roaring, trying to scare her, trying to shake her.

Within seconds Hannah leapt out of Kita’s path, then twirled with a roundhouse kick to Kita’s back. Kita rolled, then swept Hannah’s feet out from underneath her, and she hit the padded floor with a thud. Kita jumped to her feet and leaned over her.

The woman lay on the mat, her eyes closed, her cheeks gaunt and the yellowed bruising, from the black eye before this one, apparent in the bright florescent lighting.

“You okay?”

Hannah’s chest heaved. Through the entire training session she hadn’t said a word. Not once had she cried out, even when Kita had struck a blow.

A single tear trailed down the side of Hannah’s face and pooled in her ear. Kita’s heart shattered at the defeat pulsing off this woman in waves.

“How am I ever going to do this?” Hannah’s voice shook and she still hadn’t opened her eyes.

Kita refused to give up.

“Right now is when you strike,” Kita said fiercely. “Right now, with your heavy booted foot, you kick as hard as you can at his crotch.”

Sweat poured down Kita’s back, and her hair matted to her skull underneath the face mask and extra padding.

“Kick me as hard as you can,” Kita demanded. “Don’t hesitate. You won’t hurt me.” The crotch had been reinforced to protect the suit wearers, usually men, from the debilitating blows.

“You’re so strong,” Hannah whispered. “You don’t understand how hard this is.”

A heavy, gaping crater swallowed Kita’s heart. Air stuck in her throat, and her lungs resisted her breath so sharply the gasp hurt. She grasped Hannah’s shoulders. She hadn’t always been strong. And she knew exactly how fucking hard this was for Hannah.

“You do not have to be a victim.”

Hannah whimpered. Kita knew she wasn’t hurting the woman, she was barely holding on to her.

“I can’t do this.”

“You can.”

Kita wanted to rage at the system that let a violent offender go free to terrorize his family, the very people he should protect and keep safe.

But she knew, better than anyone, that life wasn’t always fair. And the only one you could count on to protect you—was you.

For a moment she wished Marsh Adams—her friend, her mentor, the man who’d showed her these moves when she’d been facing her own demons—was here. As Jillian’s partner, Marsh was the reason Kita worked for the agency. But Marsh was MIA these days, out on assignment, and no amount of wishing was going to bring him back.

“You can do this.” Kita leaned forward in a lunge, holding out her hand, waiting for Hannah to grasp it so she could pull the tiny woman to her feet.

“He’s going to kill me.” The defeated slump of Hannah’s shoulders sparked a resounding denial. No way was she going to let Hannah’s asshole brother-in-law win. She’d do whatever it took to make sure Hannah and the children were safe.

“Not if I have anything to say about it.”

The rumble of the employee garage door vibrated through the gym floor and the protective mats, shimmying up Kita’s body to stop in the region of her heart. Adrenaline flooded her. It was the middle of the morning and as far as she knew everyone at the office was accounted for.

Except Marsh.

But ever since an incident in this building last month, the staff had been a little on edge.

Could just be someone in the field coming in for tech or ops help. Although she didn’t have any appointments on her calendar. Could it be Dwayne or Victor, coming back from a relo early?

The first set of locks disengaged. Then the second door lock buzzed, the click resoundingly loud in the sudden silence of the sparring room. Hannah cowered on the floor as Kita shifted to watch the mirrors lining the wall and to observe who entered the facility.

A transparent bullet-resistant wall, made of layers of glass and polycarbonate, isolated Kita and Hannah from any threat in the hallway. The only way into the sparring room was through the password-protected entrance to the locker room on the other side of the building. The basement had been revamped to accommodate the sparring room, showers, lockers and the totally indulgent steam room.

Hannah grabbed her hand and Kita hefted her up to standing with one forceful jerk. “Again.”

Kita split her attention between Hannah and the mirrors.

Hannah smoothed down the material of her yoga pants and dropped back into a defensive stance. Kita nodded in approval. Yeah, that’s it. Kick my ass.

The steel-reinforced door opened slowly. The shadows beyond the entrance to the garage were dark and somehow ominous. Her tension ramped up as she readied to attack Hannah, while her brain shifted into higher gear, preparing to defend Hannah against danger. Which was stupid because whoever was coming through the door would have already had to go through several security checkpoints before being allowed access to the building. Adams-Larsen took their security seriously. No one who didn’t belong breached the facility.

No one.

And since the shooting last month, security had been tighter than ever.

Kita’s heart thumped loudly in her chest. The ba-bump, ba-bump a rapid percussion, as her hearing preternaturally heightened while she waited for whatever, whoever, was coming.

A silver-haired man with broad shoulders and an imperious bearing—something about his demeanor so arrogant the very air around him seemed to be holding its breath—stepped through the door. The single halogen light illuminated his face with startling clarity. She’d never officially met him, but, she knew who he was. She’d seen pictures in Marsh’s office.

The judge. Marsh’s father.

In the shadows behind him another man paused in the doorway. Ignoring the workout room and sparring women, the judge strode down the hallway like he owned the place.

Hannah kicked out and Kita twisted carefully to block the kick to her thigh. “You need to hit right on the knee.”

Hannah nodded and crouched again. 

Something in the movement of the second man drew her gaze back as he entered. He pulled the reinforced door closed behind him. The overhead halogen beam highlighted the almost blue-black of his hair and emphasized his broad shoulders. He kept his face turned away from the observation windows, staying in the shadows.

Not Marsh. It had been stupid to hope that Marsh was coming. It had been what felt like forever since he’d been in the office.

Apprehension shivered over Kita’s spine. Hannah shifted so she was slightly behind Kita.

Ironic. Both the man above her and the woman behind her were hiding.

For a moment, the man paused. He had stepped into the light, head tilted down, watching the defensive tableau, his pale blue eyes piercing, glowing with intensity. Kita felt the man’s regard like an almost physical caress. Her visceral reaction to the quick assessment was confusing, unwanted.

As if a rush of pheromones had drop-loaded into her system and made a beeline toward her female parts.

Her five-ten body was cocooned in the padded assailant suit, her breasts smashed and wrapped to protect from blows, and her ombre blond ponytail encased in the watch cap underneath a large padded helmet. Sex should be the last thing on her mind.

With an instant dismissal he followed the judge to the waiting elevator.

Why her hormones, which had been dormant for a very, very long time, suddenly stood up and started howling was a mystery. But the damn things were banging on the door, demanding to be let in.

Ridiculous.

“Who was that?” Hannah asked softly.

“No one we need to worry about.” Kita shook the unexpected reaction to the stranger out of her head. She curled her fingers at Hannah in a “bring it on” gesture. “Kick me again.”

Hannah kicked out at Kita’s padded hands in a one-two-three pattern.

But there was no power behind Hannah’s attack. Her moves were still timid, unsteady.

“Try to hurt me.” Kita kept her tone firm.

But Hannah continued to be lackluster rather than aggressive.

“I just don’t know if I can do this.” Her shoulders slumped, her gaze dropping to the padded floor. “What if he wins?” she whispered.

“We won’t let him win,” Kita said fiercely. Her blood pumped in a river of anxiety but she kept her demeanor fierce.

Because she truly believed that if Hannah Smith didn’t either learn to defend herself or, better yet, disappear with those kids, they would all be dead soon.

***

Who was that man? Click here to read Stalked.

Happy Reading!

<3 Lisa