Force by Deana Birch
General Release Date: 16th November 2021
Word Count: 88,302
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
ACTION AND ADVENTURE
CRIME AND MYSTERY
THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE
A reformed hitman tries to right the wrongs of his dark past by saving a stranger from the clutches of a stalker.
Francis Ricci is a cold-blooded assassin. Correction…was a cold-blooded assassin. Now he’s legit—and, to be fair, it’s a good life. As the head of a top private security company, he’s gone from killing softly to protecting fiercely—especially all things family. So, when his sister-in-law finds a nanny but there’s not enough info for a background check, it’s him who hops on a plane to investigate the potential guard of the littlest Riccis.
Small-town girl Megan Walsh is ready to run away from a sad life and a serious stalker. She gets just that chance when Mr. Tall, Dark and Mysterious offers to take her to New York without a trace. Being a nanny might not be her dream job, but it’s a hop, skip and a jump away from her dream city…and just around the corner from her best-kept secret.
The intimacy of hotel rooms confirms a mutual attraction and, despite all arrows pointing to it being a horrible idea for them to date, Megan and Frankie’s relationship plows ahead. But scarred pasts haunt bright futures. And when the demons come calling, the couple will be forced to choose between who they want to be and who they truly are.
Reader advisory: This book contains violence against women, kidnapping, murder and stalking. It is best read in order as part of a series.
I parked my baby-blue Porsche in my brother Leo’s cobblestone driveway. He’d bought one of those huge historic homes and made everything inside modern. I thought it was flashy and a bit of a way to gloat about how much money we were making, but he’d done it to make his girls happy. Besides, who was I to judge? My apartment overlooking the East River was just as over the top.
In truth, I loved that Fiona and Violet had given Leo the shove back to putting his family first. His friend Anton had taken too much of his loyalty over the years. I was glad it was focused back where it belonged. I rang the bell for Sunday dinner with my favorite bottle of Tignanello cradled in my arms like the treasure that she was.
The door swung open, and Leo rolled his eyes. “Thank God you’re here. Can you please explain to my very pregnant and very stubborn wife that she can’t just hire a nanny after one Facetime because they ‘bonded’.” He air-quoted the last word, which was a mistake, because Fiona noticed it right away and stomped over. I had no idea how she moved so gracefully with her massive belly.
“I like her. She has a degree in early education. She’ll be great for Vi and the twins. Plus, I’m the one who will be spending time with her. It’s my opinion that matters.”
I scanned the entryway for any signs of my Aunt Chezzie, the dog or any damn neutral ally, but found none.
Leo made way for me to enter then turned to his wife. “Fi, I’m just saying let me do a background check. It will take twenty-four hours.” Calmer, and with a smile, he continued, “Then—if everything checks out—we can offer her the position.”
I leaned over and gave Fiona a kiss on the cheek. “You look great. How you feeling?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t do that, Francis Ricci. Don’t change the topic for his sake. But thank you…and I’m exhausted. Chezzie came early and took Violet to the beach, so I napped then hired a nanny.” She grinned at Leo, whose nostrils flared as he reached for the bottle.
“Nice,” he said as he read the label. Then, to his wife, “You gotta give me twenty-four hours. I can’t let a stranger into our house—our life—without at least running her social security number. Come on.” With his free hand he tucked a strand of her long, brown hair behind her ear. “It’s just to keep you safe. You know that.”
Fiona frowned, but Leo’s soft tone had worked its charm. “Fine. But you have to promise not to be biased against something stupid like bad credit. That was me three years ago. There are people out there who just need a break.” The little lift of her eyebrows and tilt of her head emphasized that she wouldn’t budge on her final point. My sister-in-law was clear on many things. One, her house had to be immaculate at all times. It was how she respected the wealth she was experiencing. Two, Sunday dinners were mandatory. And three, she always remembered where she came from.
Leo cut his eyes over to me in a ‘see what I’m dealing with here’ glance. And I did—not that I would admit it in front of her. But we had to at least run a credit check on the new nanny.
I pointed my thumb to the door. “I have my laptop in the car. I can run her details while we eat then have a look after. You’ll get your answer tonight like that.”
Fiona smiled but Leo scrunched his face like he’d smelled something foul.
He shook his head down the hall to the kitchen and mumbled, “Always gotta be the hero.”
It wasn’t far from the truth. Since Leo and I had changed the direction of our lives, I’d gotten a lot of satisfaction from doing the right thing. But it was odd to let a talent go to waste. Not that I’d enjoyed killing people, but I was just so damn good at it. Our father had been an outstanding teacher. It was fucked up—we were fucked up—but there had been a perverse pride in a job well done, another unsolved murder. With our new roles of keeping people safe, the feeling wasn’t the same. It was somehow status quo.
Fiona mouthed a ‘thank you’ and reminded me that I had work to do then quietly clapped her hands to the kitchen where she kissed her husband. His annoyed stance from before melted like chocolate on a hot day. It was pretty fucking disgusting how happy they were, especially since I’d failed—yet again—to find a spark with the last woman I’d gone on a date with. Chezzie had told me I was ‘emotionally unavailable’. To me, that sounded like a bullshit label to make a man feel guilty about not wanting to talk about stupid shit. Maybe my standards were too high. I’d seen what Leo had. I wasn’t sure I deserved the same thing, but I wouldn’t take any less.
I let myself out and grabbed my laptop from the small trunk then settled into Leo’s study. Fiona bounced in with a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “Here’s everything I know about her.”
There was no date of birth or social security number, just a small photo, a list of odd jobs and her education. Yeah, little brother, I see what you’re dealing with.
But there was contact information, a current employer and an address, so at least I had something.
I faked a smile to Fiona. “I’ll get started. Call me when it’s time to eat.”
“You’re the best. I appreciate this so much.” She rubbed her hand over her belly, smoothing the white sundress, then was gone in a whoosh.
Okay, Megan Walsh of small-town Iowa, let’s find your secrets.
I started with social media. If she were a drunken party girl, there would be proof. But none of the Megan Walshes matched her photo or location. What twenty-something didn’t want her face plastered everywhere so her friends could tell her how pretty she was?
Without a social security number, I couldn’t run her credit, and finding her date of birth without some kind of hint from a public profile would require me guessing what county she’d been born in and hacking into their records—something I would have hired an expert to do. I did manage to find a picture of her apartment building, which was small and ugly. That only made her poor, but what person trying to be a nanny would be wealthy, anyway?
After about an hour, I didn’t have much.
“Hey.” Leo leaned into the study. “Please tell me she’s a serial killer so I can be right just one damn time.”
“She’s not anything for the moment.” I held up the piece of paper Fiona had given me and waved it. “There’s not a lot here to go by.”
Leo scrubbed his face. “What am I gonna do? I can’t bring a stranger into our house. Shit. But dinner’s ready. Let’s eat.”
I closed my laptop and followed him down the hall to where Chezzie and Violet were already at the table with Fiona. Leo had grilled some sausages and a massive steak. Three of Chezzie’s best salads were in the middle of the table. I kissed my aunt and niece then sat opposite them.
“Uncle Frankie? Did you know that Nana’s secret to making salad was to rub the bowl with garlic first?”
“I did.” I winked and unfolded my napkin. I loved how Violet had blended perfectly into our family and made it her own. Chezzie had a way of highlighting all the positive sides of our past and keeping the dark secrets dead and buried where they belonged. I also appreciated the bond that my aunt had with Fiona’s little sister. She’d never been able to have children, and my father had made her boyfriends uncomfortable, at best. No one had been good enough for his little sister. Leo and I hadn’t been the only ones who’d suffered from his need to keep his family under his insistent thumb.
Fiona waited until everyone was served and we’d started eating before looking at me and saying, “So?”
“Sorry. Big nada for the moment. But the agency must have run a check on her, right?” I wiped my mouth and short beard with the cloth napkin.
“I think so.” Fiona cringed a little and Leo pounced.
“I know. I’m sorry. But I liked her so much. She’s young and her dream is to live in New York.” Fiona’s whine was chipping away at my brother before our eyes. She continued, “And I need someone. Chezzie has a business to run. Those beautiful babies we made could come any day. I don’t want a snooty old lady looking down on me for how I change a diaper or swear in front of Violet. I want Megan.”
Leo closed his eyes and Chezzie shot me a glance to fix it, probably because she knew I could.
“I’ll fly out tomorrow. Leo, you stay close to home, and Jackson can handle the security detail solo for forty-eight hours. I will check out this Megan Walsh and report back. Happy?” I turned to Fiona and offered a small smile.
“Yes. Thank you.” Fiona beamed, Chezzie changed the subject and Leo discreetly flipped me off while pretending to scratch his ear.
As soon as dinner was finished, I excused myself to go home to prepare. I booked my plane ticket for the next day. For some ridiculous reason known only to the airline gods and their intelligent fuckery of how to make air travel the least enjoyable experience possible, I had to fly south to Charlotte in order to fly west to Iowa. That meant that my entire day would be wasted. But what was I going to do? Fiona had probably the closest thing to kids in her belly that I would ever have and was doing a stellar job of raising the little girl who had captured all our hearts. That bit of family, those Sunday dinners, they were the only things keeping me affixed to happy and normal. They were my reminder that my life had changed and needed to stay on its current path. There was no way I would lose them.
About the Author
Deana Birch was named after her father’s first love, who just so happened not to be her mother. Born and raised in the Midwest, she made stops in Los Angeles and New York before settling in Europe, where she lives with her own blue-eyed Happily Ever After. Her days are spent teaching yoga, playing tennis, ruining her children’s French homework, cleaning up dog vomit, writing her next book or reading someone else’s.
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