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Mary Stone - Fatal Secrets (Sky Stryker Series Book 1)

A Taste of… Fatal Secrets

Chapter One

Shannon Shanahan settled into her seat as the subway lurched forward, pulling her faux fur-lined coat tighter around herself. She dug through her purse and checked the time on her phone. 

One in the morning?

Exhaustion wrapped around her body like a weighted blanket, and she couldn’t wait to take a steaming hot shower and crawl into bed.

She’d had a long day—no, a long week—and the real work hadn’t even begun. It was the opening day of New York Fashion Week, and she was going to be the centerpiece in the seven o’clock show tonight. Fatigue morphed into anticipation, her stomach fluttering with excitement.

This was it. The moment she’d worked so hard for. It made all the less-than-desirable things she’d done to get here worth it.

Didn’t it?

Shaking off the doubt—and other feelings she didn’t care to name—Shannon pulled out her compact mirror, running her finger over the intricately etched flowers before opening the vintage, polished silver lid. The item had been a gift from her grandmother when Shannon graduated from high school.

Hard to believe seven years had flown by already.

With a sigh, she scrutinized her reflection. Big brown eyes stared back at her, her face caked with a heavy layer of foundation. Wisps of long, chestnut-colored hair escaped the messy ponytail she’d thrown together after swapping her Valentino crepe couture minidress for her favorite pair of leggings and a cozy emerald-green sweater.

Makeup concealed the bags under her eyes. Long days of casting calls, photo shoots, and walks, coupled with restless nights, made for a haggard appearance. But she was living her dream of working as a model. And with the money finally starting to come in steadily, she’d soon be able to move out of her century-old apartment in East Harlem.

The subway slowed, and she glanced up. Only a few more stops until it was time to get off and walk the last two blocks of the trip to her apartment. Shutting her compact and tossing it in her purse, she fished around for her cell phone again.

Her parents and younger brother were flying in from Montana for the last night of fashion week, and she’d convinced them to stay in the city for an entire week. Although she’d made a brief trip home to her family’s ranch for Christmas less than two months ago, it had been ages since they’d visited her in The City That Never Sleeps.

And since there was no telling when she would see her brother again before he went off to college, she planned to make every minute of their visit count. First on her agenda—after they watched her walk the runway, of course—she was going to take them to a Broadway show.

Phone in hand, she punched in her code and opened the internet app. As she pulled up a schedule of shows, her battery icon flashed red. Only three percent left.

Dammit.

She’d been exhausted the night before and had forgotten to bring along her charger this morning. With a groan of frustration, she scrolled through the programs.

Two percent.

Shannon clicked on the link for Wicked. She’d seen the show not long after moving to New York but wouldn’t mind watching it again. And Wizard of Oz fan that she was, her mom would love it.

The screen went black.

Just my luck.

Oh, well. She didn’t have much time before her stop anyway. Tossing the dead device in her oversize bag, Shannon leaned back and closed her eyes. She couldn’t decide what she wanted more…a shower, food, or sleep.

Once fashion week was over and she could spend a few days without stressing about bloating and fitting into her outfits, she was so blowing her strict regimen of healthy eating. And she knew the exact place she’d take her family on day one of ditching the diet.

She could almost taste the cheesy slice of pizza she’d been dreaming about from Lombardi’s in Little Italy. Paired with a real soda, not a diet one, and she’d be in heaven. Then maybe they’d get some cannoli from—

Shannon’s skin prickled with a sudden rush of fear. Tiny hairs rose on the back of her neck, and her whole body tensed. Why do I feel like I’m being watched?

Her eyes snapped open.

Heart pounding, she scanned her surroundings. Nothing more than an assortment of tired subway passengers who weren’t paying her a bit of attention.

She exhaled slowly, fighting the urge to laugh at her absurd paranoia.

Get a grip. You’ve made this trip a gazillion times. No one’s ever bothered you. You’re just tired.

Besides, she had pepper spray and knew how to use it. Except it was likely buried at the bottom of her gargantuan purse. Her suitcase, as her brother called it.

She grinned at the thought, rising from her seat as the subway came to a stop.

Finally.

After she grabbed her bag and patted her coat pocket to make sure her keys were inside, her thighs burned as she climbed the ridiculous number of steps to the sidewalk.

As Shannon stepped into the frigid February air, the creepy sense that someone was watching her returned tenfold. She whipped her head around, and a pair of icy-blue eyes met her gaze.

She swallowed hard, taking in the man’s broad shoulders, off-center nose, and brown hair that peeked out from under the hood of his black jacket. He gave a slight nod, his expression bored as he pulled his phone from his pocket.

Relief flooded her, and a nervous laugh escaped her this time.

She started power walking, ignoring the biting chill that seeped into her bones.

Don’t be paranoid. You’ve got this. A few more minutes, and you’ll be—

A strong arm wrapped around her waist as a hand clamped over her mouth.

Adrenaline pumped through Shannon’s body, her fight-or-flight instinct kicking into high gear. She thrashed wildly, but the arm around her torso held her in an iron grip.

A puff of warm breath tickled her ear as the assailant’s grasp on her tightened. “Scream, and you won’t like what happens.” He removed his hand from her mouth, and she took a deep breath right before a rough cloth touched her lips. Her attacker shoved the rag into her mouth.

She gagged as it threatened to go down her throat.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She needed to think. Panicking would only get her killed. If only her cell phone weren’t dead. And why the hell hadn’t she walked out of the subway with pepper spray in her hand?

When she’d first moved to the city, she always knew exactly where the can was. But at some point, she’d gotten complacent. If she made it out alive, the first thing she planned to do was organize her purse.

Behind her, tires squealed, and a car door slammed.

“Is she sedated?” The voice belonged to a woman.

Why does she sound so familiar?

“About to be.”

The woman chuckled. “Well, hurry up. The boss is leaving the country as soon as we deliver this one. You know he doesn’t like to wait.”

Sedated? Leaving the country?

Fear wrapped around Shannon’s heart and squeezed like a boa. She twisted and kicked, the grip around her waist and arms loosening.

“Be still!” A sharp object pierced her neck.

No. This can’t be happening. My family, opening night…somebody help!

As her limbs grew heavy and her brain turned foggy, Shannon’s eyes fluttered closed. Rough arms tossed her like a rag doll, and a door slammed as the world faded away.

Chapter Two

“That’ll be twenty-three dollars and forty-six cents, or a mediocre blow job.”

Sky Stryker opened the door and swung one leg out of the taxi before she registered the cab driver’s words. “You…what?”

He peered at her through the rearview mirror, eyes unblinking and crinkled at the corners. “The fare. Twenty-three forty-six. Meter’s still running if you’re gonna take your time.”

“But you…”

He lifted a graying eyebrow, and she swallowed her protest as well as her desire to punch him in the back of the head. Determined to exit the taxi with her dignity, Sky dug into her well-worn purse and fished out a twenty and a five. She would’ve added another five if he hadn’t been such a smarmy asshole. “Right. Here you go.”

Dirty fingers reached for the money, and she caught a strong whiff of the same stale tobacco stench that clung to the dingy fabric interior. Any hope of sparing her outfit had been lost. She stepped out into the rain and glanced back at the driver as he counted the cash.

He let out a disgruntled huff. “Thanks a lot, lady. Real generous of you.”

Sky hooked her purse strap over her shoulder and turned to close the door with a sharp thanks of her own, but the taxi lurched forward, spraying a puddle across her tights. She leaped back as the door slammed shut. Catching the heel of her boot on the curb, she flailed to stop herself from landing butt-first on the soaked sidewalk.

A woman in a sleek black trench coat strutted past without so much as a glance, but Sky’s cheeks flushed anyway. She smoothed out her rumpled sweaterdress with as much finesse as she could muster.

Welcome to the city.

Even though it was February in Manhattan, she’d had no intention of wearing her parka or handmade scarf from college when she left her apartment a half hour ago. She was about to attend one of the most renowned events in the world, New York Fashion Week. And while her mauve sweaterdress and simple black boots over black tights hardly screamed striking, it would have to do for weathering the wintery chill and drizzle.

While not all of fashion week’s festivities were open to the general public, her cousin was one of the models gracing the runways. And although Sky wasn’t exactly the picture of fashion herself, she’d be crazy to turn down the invitation.

The cabbie had dropped her on a narrow sidewalk lining an eroded street in the Tribeca neighborhood. As she gazed up at the massive, black-brick building with picture windows, apprehension tightened in her belly.

Was this Vanity Studios? Though not quite as glamorous as the centerpiece Spring Studios location, where GDL would be presenting their second show in two days, the seven-story swanky location was somehow exactly what she’d pictured for a fashion show of such prestige.

From her left, a shiny black limo approached. To her right, a frazzled assistant—based on the way she rushed in with an armful of garments—slipped inside the building and disappeared.

Anxiety rippled through Sky, and she wondered what she was doing at such an iconic event. She rifled through her purse for the ticket, which was more of a formal invitation than an entry pass, while keeping an ear pricked to her surroundings.

Ding!

Sky retrieved her phone and grinned as she glanced at the screen. The text was from her new friend, private investigator Kylie Hatfield Coulter.

I love chapter three. You make me sound like such a badass when I was actually screaming and practically peeing myself.

Sky’s smile grew. She’d met the feisty private investigator a few months ago while visiting Asheville, North Carolina. Her face fell as she remembered how terrified she’d been at the time.

Kylie had been investigating a child-trafficking ring when the leader of the ring tried to kidnap her to sell the P.I.’s unborn twins. Sky had helped distract the ringleader while Kylie’s husband, Linc, took the despicable person down.

Luckily, Kylie and the babies had been fine, and even luckier for Sky, her newfound friend had agreed to be the subject of the tell-all book about the private investigation world she’d recently finished writing, Behind the Shadows.

Sky had planned to move to New York back in November, but she’d pushed back the move until the book was done. Now it was going through her editor while Kylie beta-read it.

All was well that ended well.

“Lady, you got any change?”

Sky jumped as a grimy hand landed on her shoulder, and her heart nearly shot out of her chest. She slapped the hand away and stepped back, ready to put up her dukes. Her muscles relaxed when she met the wide gaze of a frail man with matted hair. He clutched his hand as if she’d burned him.

Don’t touch strangers, buddy.

But she apologized as she reached into her purse and pulled out a couple of dollars she’d stuck in the top. “Here you go. Just…don’t touch people out of nowhere. It’s not safe.”

The homeless man—or so she assumed—grinned, his eyes lighting up like he’d won the lottery. “Thanks.”

Her voice sounded much shakier than she liked. She needed to get a grip if she was going to survive such unfamiliar territory. Sky might have been born and raised in the great state of New York, but she was a country girl through and through.

Give me grass and trees over concrete and steel any day.

Bidding the man farewell with a little wave, she strode away. It was only twenty past six, and the streetlamps cast orange swells of light barely bright enough to ease her nerves. Overcautious or not, her knowledge of the city came from nineties sitcoms and mob movies, and her ignorance prompted vigilance.

A burst of thumping music and a surge of voices cut through the hectic sounds of traffic. A woman with an umbrella and sleek updo had opened a set of glass doors, releasing the soundtrack of an important event from within.

Hope rising in her chest, Sky continued digging for the ticket as she hurried toward the doors, dodging the slickest parts of the concrete and inadvertently flicking dirty slush from her heels to her stocking-clad calves. “Wait!”

Sky drew up to her with slippery soles before regaining some traction beneath the shallow entrance alcove. “Thanks.” She smiled, but the woman didn’t reciprocate. Sky nearly choked on the waves of irritation rolling off her. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.” The woman’s reassurance sounded more like a pointed order than a comfort. She eyed Sky’s purse and frowned. “Do you have a ticket?”

Sky closed her hand around the slender card inside her bag and pulled it out for the woman to see. “Yes.”

“You should’ve used the main entrance, but I suppose I can let you in here.” The woman closed her umbrella and waved her on through.

Ah…creepy cabbie dropped me off on the wrong side of the building.

She instantly regretted letting him keep the change, paltry as it was. On the bright side, she was at the right place.

Sky stepped inside, a mist of lightly perfumed air tickling her nose. A floor-to-ceiling digital screen punctuated the otherwise uniform palette. Stark white walls surrounded the sizeable lobby, but only a single reception desk and a lone cream couch sat on the opposite side of the vacant space.

A pass-through, guarded by a slip of a man wearing pants so tight she could practically see a pimple on his ass, revealed a large room where fashionable people milled about. Though how they heard one another talk with all the pounding music, Sky didn’t know. She hoped that wasn’t where the fashion show was happening.

Glancing straight ahead, she spotted a pretty blond girl in cat-eye glasses staffing the desk. As Sky watched, the receptionist blew an enormous pink bubble from the wad of gum she was chewing.

Ticket in hand, she approached the teen, who had to be about half her age. “Excuse me.”

The receptionist tore her gaze from her computer screen. Just like the woman in the trench coat, her eyes were hooded with unspoken criticism as she scanned Sky’s appearance. “Yes?”

“I’m looking for the Guillermo De Luca show.”

Miss Teen USA scanned her from head to toe, clearly taking in Sky’s now slightly bedraggled appearance. Her mouth lifted in a sardonic half smile. “It’s by invite only.”

Sky held up the fancy card stock denoting her reserved seat, bristling at the young woman’s judgmental tone. “Yeah. Good thing I was invited. Can you tell me where it is, please?”

“Studio Four.” With lifted brows and a dramatic tilt of her head, the receptionist drew Sky’s attention to the screen, which she now realized announced tonight’s show. “Like it says there.” She repeated the exaggerated motion toward Sky’s ticket. “And there.”

“Which would be where?”

The catty teen returned her attention to her computer, a clear signal that Sky was no longer worth her time. “Elevator. Fifth floor.”

“You’ve been a pleasure.” Sky didn’t bother asking where the elevator was, or better yet, the stairs. Social dismissal from a woman half her age was one thing, but after the lewd cab driver and the mounting sense of exclusion, she was in no mood to wade through subtle insults from someone who was several years shy of being able to buy a drink.

Soon, Sky spotted the elevator, tucked back in a corner. Nearby, a mop bucket propped open the door to the stairwell as a custodian cleaned up a spill, blocking access to the stairs.

She sighed. Elevator it is. This is fine. Perfectly fine. You can do this.

Now was as good a time as any to start sucking it up and facing her fear of small, enclosed spaces. As long as the elevator didn’t get stuck, she’d be okay.

Over eight million people in this bustling city. Better get used to being a sardine in a tin can. You are Sky Elaine Stryker. You are safe. You are brave.

The elevator dinged, yanking her back to reality, and she scampered into the waiting car alongside the woman with the umbrella. The woman still seemed irritated, but Sky detected another vibe from her, a whiff of motherliness. Perhaps she wasn’t insufferable.

Offering her another tentative smile, Sky repeated her earlier sentiment. “Thanks. Sorry.”

The woman hummed her acknowledgment, and the doors glided shut. Deep reverberations of the club-style music were still present, but Sky no longer felt them pulsing in her chest. She exhaled a steadying breath.

You are safe. You are brave. You are—

No sooner had she begun to attempt to ease her fluttering nerves, though, when her aloof companion volunteered conversation. “You’re going to want to work on that.” Sky shot her a quizzical look, but the lady kept her stare pinned on the doors. “This is Manhattan. If you plan to apologize for every little thing, you’ll never have time to say anything else.”

“Oh.” Sky couldn’t discern whether she was imparting this knowledge out of annoyance or as a friendly—albeit stern—service. “Yeah. I don’t normally do that. I’m new to the city, and I feel like I’m in everyone’s way while I’m trying to figure things out.”

“You probably are.” Still, the woman kept her gaze averted. “But don’t apologize for it. You have a right to acclimate yourself, and everyone else has a right to resent you for it.”

The elevator opened into a wide corridor as white as the lobby. The same throbbing beat from downstairs pulsed in Sky’s ears.

A placard on the wall across from the elevator pointed to the right, but when she spotted the sign for the ladies’ room, she bolted in that direction.

Catching a glimpse of herself in the restroom mirror, she tried not to wince. What was she doing here? She looked like Mary Poppins took a stroll through a consignment shop for old ladies. She’d be laughed at the moment she stepped through the studio door. Worse, Megan might be embarrassed to be seen with her country-bumpkin cousin.

I’m a hot mess.

She brushed her auburn bangs back in place and studied her frumpy sweater dress and stockings, cringing at her attire.

Why am I doubting myself? There’s way more to me than what I wear.

But wasn’t that what the whole fashion industry did? Focused on the outside instead of what was on the inside?

Pulling out the little notepad she always carried, Sky jotted that thought down. She’d have to remember how she felt at this moment, how merely being in the same area as these models made her doubt herself.

“At least my hair looks striking, or so I’ve always been told.” She pointed at her reflection. “You’re just as good as any of these people. Stand tall and believe it.”

Sky sighed. Did the inside of a person even matter anymore?

In Hell’s Kitchen, secrets are as deadly as the shadows.

The gritty streets of Hell’s Kitchen are a far cry from the rural farm where Sky Stryker grew up. But here she is, eager to take the writing world by storm, diving deep into the treacherous waters of true crime to uncover the city’s hidden evils.

If she isn’t chewed up and spit out first.

Only five days after moving to the city, Sky attends her cousin’s prestigious, by-invitation-only fashion show during New York City’s Fashion Week. Though she’s more country bumpkin than fashionista, she’s… Read More