Cover for Burning Ache by Adrienne Giordano Single man with hands in his pockets

Chapter One

I’m in hell.

It’s not so much the fact that I’m about to blow a man away. I can live with that. He’s a piece of shit. The world is better off without him.

The raging inferno inside me comes from knowing that, once I dispose of him, there will be more. Plenty more. And not just the twelve on my list.

But I can’t get too far ahead of myself. I have to stay present and focus on the now. That’s what all the live-your-best-life fanatics say.

A car door slams, snapping my attention back to the street. The only break in darkness comes from the stingy streetlamps dotted between parkway trees and the occasional blast of headlights coming down the block.

I’ve tucked myself behind two bushes, hell if I know what they are, but they’re squat and round, and sit on the edge of this asshole’s property. The neighboring home’s garage on my right gives me cover from that angle. All in all, an excellent spot from which to kill a man.

And there he is. I’ve watched him for two weeks now. Following him around, getting his routine—or lack thereof—down. This is my process. Observe, learn, act.

I’ll give this one credit; he’s no dummy. He varies his pattern, leaving and returning home at different times each day. One thing is for sure. He has no job. Scum like him don’t need jobs. They rely on criminal activity to pay bills. By the looks of his home, a neat two-story, business must be decent. Most of his kind live in rundown shacks in crappy neighborhoods where kids kill each other purely on instinct.

My only regret is his two children. Well, I assume they’re his. I saw the mother leaving with them two days ago, baby carrier in one hand and the toddler’s tiny hand in the other. She, at least, has a job. A nail salon five miles away.

I followed her, too.

From what I can tell, she handles most of the family duties. Daycare, groceries, play dates. All her. Which I have to believe will be a good thing, since I’m about to make her children fatherless.

I hope those kids are sleeping. I don’t want them freaked out by the resulting chaos.

The overcast sky obscures even a hint of moonlight. It has to be close to midnight.

Almost time.

I inhale, drawing the cool night air into my lungs. I should be in my bed right now, fireplace roaring. Instead, I’m watching Roy Jackson move down the sidewalk, his steps quick but not rushed.

He knows.

As a high-ranking gang member, any day could be his last. He never dawdles. No lingering or staying outside too long, particularly in the darkness.

Could be dangerous.

He knows.

I inhale again and moist winter air settles me. Focuses the mind. A car hooks a left onto the quiet street—dammit—and I duck back behind the bush. Based on his stride, I have about a five-second window. If this car doesn’t get a move on, my shot is blown.

The driver hits the gas and speeds down the block, clearly exceeding the twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. Where’s a cop when you need one?

No cops tonight. Not for speeders and not for Roy Jackson.

The soft slap of rubber—his sneakers—against the wet pavement reaches me. He’s close.

I peek out again and there he is. Twenty yards away.

I lift my weapon, line my shot to center mass, and hold my breath for half a second before slowly releasing it. My finger slides over the trigger, but there’s a slight resistance. Is it me or the gun? Maybe both.

He’s close.

Fifteen yards out. I’m ready.

I squeeze the trigger. Ping. Again. Ping, ping.A silencer muffles the shots enough that no one will be jerked from their bed or the late-night talk shows. Roy Jackson drops, his body bucking, then crumpling to the pavement. In the darkness, I can’t see his face. That’s a damned shame.

I shove the weapon into my gym bag and check my surroundings for nosey neighbors. Nothing.

Quickly, I hop out from behind the bush and walk—don’t run—down the street, my steps, like Roy Jackson’s, not rushed. Just another pedestrian out for a midnight stroll.

Another one off the list, is all I can think.


Chapter Two

Clients, many times, were like hemorrhoids.

A real pain in the ass.

Waylon stood in front of a two-foot-square safe that a ninety-year-old man could crack open with a few whacks of his cane.

“What’s wrong with it?” Walker asked.

The man had to be kidding. This would be why Way insisted on doing home visits before agreeing to build or modify any weapon.

He pointed at the square floor safe and faced his middle-aged, highly educated, yet completely dumbass client. “Mr. Walker, all due respect, you can’t expect me to supply you with a semiautomatic AR-15 if this is the safe you intend to store it in. It’s not even big enough to hold that weapon.”

Walker obviously thought he could phone in this home visit. Maybe he figured his money and big shot CEO title would allow him to schmooze his way through it. Way had seen it all. Guys like Walker expected Way to see a safe—any safe—and be satisfied that he’d covered his ass on selling a semiautomatic, center-fire rifle with a telescoping scope to a complete amateur.

Not happening.

Way lifted his clipboard, made notes regarding the exact safe Walker needed to purchase—that sucker wasn’t cheap—and handed the form over.

Walker’s mouth dipped at the corners. “What’s this?”

“My recommendations.”

“Yeah, yeah. Fine.” Walker folded the note, stuck it in the back pocket of fancy jeans like the ones Way’s cousin Grif might wear.

Way? He was a simple Levi’s guy. What did he need with jeans that cost $150?

“When can you get me the gun?” Walker asked.

People.Way stifled a sigh. “Not until you get the safe I recommended.”

The older man’s eyes narrowed. “Look, son.”

And, yeah, he hated that lame-ass tactic. The one that made the person you were talking to feel like the younger, stupider version of humanity in the room.

“I’m not your son. If you want a custom rifle, customizations that will, in my mind, make it an assault weapon, I need assurances from you, along with your signature on my contract that says you’ll have safeguards in place to avoid that weapon getting into the wrong hands. Or on the black market.”

Walker puffed up his chest.  “What are you accusing me of?”

Tactic number two: feigning insult. Way had only been in the gunsmith business since leaving the Marines a year earlier, but he’d heard enough excuses from clients to know how these things typically went. And Walker didn’t disappoint when it came to the Bullshit Olympics.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, sir. I’m making my position clear. You can either follow my recommendations or find someone else to sell you a rifle.”

“I guess that’s what I’ll do, then.”

So be it. The guy was a total pain in the ass, and they hadn’t even started on specs yet. All Way knew was the man had gotten his number from another client. At which point he’d outlined what he considered fairly simple terms all customers must agree to.

Home visit.

Necessary security.

Gun safety classes.

Signed, legally binding contract.

Way was a gun guy. Always had been. Not a hunter, because he just didn’t see the allure of shooting an animal. Unless, of course, that animal wanted to eat him. Then all bets were off.

But hunting? Not his thing. He’d rather head out on his motorcycle for a few hours. Or a month. Whatever it took to clear his mind, keep his family out of his business, and give himself some space.

When his schedule didn’t permit road trips, he turned to guns. Buying them, customizing them. Shootingthem. Politics aside, he enjoyed getting out on a range, sucking in fresh air, and dialing in to the singular focus of hitting a target at one thousand yards.

Some people had shrinks. Way had motorcycles and target practice.

Welcome to America. The finest nation in the world, where citizens got to choose their method of relaxation.

After this visit with Walker, he might need both the bike and target practice. A two-fer.

He left the house, a five-thousand-square-foot colonial midway between Steele Ridge and Asheville, and hopped in his SUV, tossing the clipboard on the seat beside him.

Damn this wasted morning.

Still, it reinforced his belief that he needed to meet prospective gun owners. Get a feel for them and how they intended to use the weapon they wanted him to build or modify.

Way did both.

For certain people.

To date, he’d done work for forty clients. All since he’d returned to Steele Ridge after ten years in the military, the last six as a recon Marine.

He scooped his cell phone from the cup holder. The screen lit up revealing—one, two-three—six voice mail messages.


He tapped over to voice mail and skimmed the list. Two from his mother, one from his older brother Cash, two from big sis Maggie, and one from baby sister Riley.

All these calls in the thirty minutes he’d been in Walker’s home.

He dropped the phone into his cup holder and blew air through his lips. So much for a quiet ride back to Steele Ridge. Now he’d spend the whole time returning these calls. If he didn’t, they’d keep calling, asking where he was and why he wasn’t getting in touch. And then, if he didn’t respond, one of them would “drop by” his workshop for some manufactured reason that would make it appear like a legit visit when really they wanted to know why he wasn’t returning calls.

God forbid he should be working.

He loved them. Endlessly. They were funny and nuts and so insanely loyal that sometimes he wondered how the fuck he got so lucky. After he left the Marines, his family was the sole reason he’d moved back to Steele Ridge.

With all that loyalty came living in a fish bowl and for a guy who’d spent the majority of his life entertaining himself, the attention wore on him. His crew didn’t understand his need for quiet and space and he’d begun to wonder if moving back had been his first mistake.

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