The H.O.T. Sampler

HOT Sampler

Dear Readers:

I hope you enjoy the Hostile Operations Team sampler! If you’re a fan of romantic suspense and military romance, then keep reading. The heroes in these stories are big and bad, the heroines are strong and capable, and the romance is always smoking hot.

In this sampler, you’ll find the first three chapters of all seven books of the series. This should give you a chance to decide if you like my style and if the HOT guys are for you. At the end of every sample, you’ll find links to the book the sample came from. And at the end of the entire HOT sampler, you’ll find links to all the books.

So read and enjoy! I hope you’ll become a Hottie. You can find me at the following places. Let me know how you like HOT. I love hearing from my readers.

Best Wishes,
Lynn_sig

P.S.: You can also get this free sampler for/from:

Hot Pursuit

PROLOGUE

Two months ago…

SOMETHING WAS WRONG.

It wasn’t anything obvious, but Captain Matthew Girard felt it in his gut nonetheless. It was an itching sensation across his skin, a buzzing in his belly. Perhaps it was simply the weight of this mission pressing down on him. Though the Hostile Operations Team always performed critical missions, this one was even more so. Failure was not an option.

Beside him, Kevin MacDonald lay in the sand, his camouflage-clad form as still as marble until the moment he turned his head and caught Matt’s eye.

Kev’s hand moved. Doesn’t feel right, he signaled.

No, Matt signaled back. Count on Kev to pick up on it too. They’d been on a shitload of ops together. Matt knew that if his second-in-command was picking up on this weird vibe, it wasn’t just him. Yet the mission was too important to scrub without more than just a gut feeling to go on.

“It’s awful quiet in that compound.” Jim Matuzaki’s voice came through the earpiece a few moments later.

“Yeah,” Matt answered into the mic attached to his helmet. Almost as if the tangos inside knew that a HOT squad was coming and had abandoned the compound.

The stone structure thirty meters away rose two stories high and lacked windows. The roof was flat to enable gunmen to look out on the surrounding territory and defend the building.

But there were no gunmen. Not tonight.

In the surveillance photos, the gunmen were so plentiful they’d stood out against the pale roof like a porcupine’s quills. And now…

Nothing.

Though it was quiet here, gunfire exploded in the distance at regular intervals. A pitched battle between a pocket of enemy forces and a Ranger battalion raged a few miles away. HOT’s mission was quieter, but no less deadly.

They were here for Jassar ibn-Rashad, heir to Freedom Force leader Al Ahmad. But this mission was different. Usually, they killed the target. Tonight, they were extracting him. The rumored new Freedom Force mastermind was wanted higher up in the chain, and Matt didn’t question orders from the Pentagon. They wanted him, they were getting him.

Matt and his team had planned the mission to kidnap ibn-Rashad for weeks. Down to the last damn detail. And then they’d gotten word just a few days ago that ibn-Rashad was moving to this location.

The intel was good. Damn good. And their contact had been reliable on more than one occasion.

But this time?

The bad feeling in Matt’s gut was getting stronger by the second. He’d thought the kid seemed more nervous than usual the last time he’d gone to meet with him. The kid had always been nervous, but he’d seemed to trust Matt’s word. And Matt had trusted him as much as he was able. Trust, but verify.

Which the CIA had done. All the chatter indicated that ibn-Rashad had moved to this location. Nothing indicated that the Freedom Force had any idea they were being targeted. And in spite of the niggling feeling he’d had about the whole thing, Matt had chosen to press forward with the op.

Just then, a light flashed up on the roof and blinked out again. Male voices carried in the night, followed by a bark of laughter.

“Two men,” Marco San Ramos said over the headset. “Smoking.”

Marco and Jim were closer and had a better view through the glasses.

“Richie?” Jim’s voice came through the headset again, calling Matt by his team name.

He knew what the other man was asking. What they were all waiting for. In another location close by, Billy Blake, Jack Hunter, Chase Daniels, and Ryan Gordon also waited for the signal to go or to retreat. The timeline was tight, and if they didn’t go in now, they’d have to scrub the mission. They had precisely twenty minutes to infiltrate the compound, kill the tangos, and extract ibn-Rashad.

If they were going in.

“Mission is a go.” Matt made the split-second decision in spite of the acid roiling in his belly. What if they didn’t get a second chance at this? Lives hung in the balance with ibn-Rashad remaining free. This mission had always been risky, but what did they ever do that wasn’t?

Failing was simply not a part of his genetic makeup. Maybe he got it from the old man—that combination of stubbornness, meanness, and sheer cockiness that wouldn’t let him back down unless there was no other option. He wasn’t stupid, but he wasn’t a quitter either. And people’s lives hung in the balance.

People he could save. He’d made a promise, long ago, and he’d kept it. He was still keeping it.

“Repeat,” Matt said, his jaw tight, “mission is a go.”

“Copy,” Jim replied. The rest of the men chimed in. Seconds later, two cracks rang in the night. And then Billy’s voice came over the headset. “Targets on roof neutralized.”

Matt let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Jack “Hawk” Hunter could always be counted on to make the difficult shots. The dude was probably the best sharpshooter Matt had ever seen. Thank God.

Everything went like clockwork from that point on. They converged on the compound from their separate locations. Kev set a charge on the door and then it exploded inward. Billy tossed a flash-bang into the opening. It went off with a loud crack, the light flaring for a split second as bright as a nuclear flash. Whoever was in that room would be temporarily blind and disoriented after that baby went off.

The team rushed through the door, going right and left in succession, guns drawn, as pandemonium reigned inside. HOT worked like a well-oiled machine. Each man knew instinctively where to shoot, could have done so blindfolded.

Within seconds, the terrorists lay dead and the scent of spent gunpowder hung heavy in the air, along with the odors of smoke and stale sweat.

Sweat also trickled down the inside of Matt’s assault suit. He didn’t have time to be uncomfortable. Instead, he and Kev raced up the steps along with Marco and Jim, searching for ibn-Rashad, while the other guys secured the perimeter.

A methodical sweep of the rooms proved futile.

“He’s not here,” Marco spat. “There’s no one else.”

“Goddamn.” The skin-crawling sensation Matt had had from the beginning of this op was now a full-blown assault on his senses. Kev looked at him, his face bleak behind the greasepaint, his eyes saying everything Matt was thinking.

Jassar ibn-Rashad was supposed to be here. He’d been reported here as of this afternoon, in fact. There was a price on the man’s head and no reason to move from this location… unless he’d been tipped off they were coming.

Sonofabitch. Matt suddenly felt like he was standing in a lightning storm, holding a steel rod in the air. He wasn’t necessarily going to be struck down, but the possibility was damn good.

“Do another sweep for intel. West side. Three minutes, and we’re out,” Matt ordered.

“Copy,” Marco said. He and Jim headed for the west side of the house while Matt and Kev split up to cover the rooms at the east end. Matt swept into each room, weapon drawn, helmet light blazing. There was nothing. No papers, no computers, no media of any kind. Nothing they could use to determine what ibn-Rashad was planning next.

He hit the hall again and met up with Kev, who shook his head.

Jim and Marco arrived next, empty-handed. The four of them pounded down the stairs. Another quick sweep of the rooms on the ground floor, and they were back into the night with the rest of the team, running for the extraction point five miles away.

They hadn’t gone a mile when bullets blasted into the air beside them. A hot, stinging sensation bloomed in Matt’s side. He kept running anyway. Until they crested the dune they’d been traveling up and came face-to-face with a series of rocket-propelled grenade launchers pointed right at them.

CHAPTER ONE

Rochambeau, Louisiana
Present day

“MM-MM, LOOK AT THAT GIRARD BOY, all grown up and better looking than a man ought to be,” said one of the ladies under the row of hairdryers.

Evie Baker’s heart did a somersault. Matt Girard. Dear God. “Careful,” Stella Dupre yelped as warm water sprayed against the side of the sink and hit her in the face.

“Sorry.” Evie shifted the hose.

She was a chef, not a shampoo girl, but she didn’t suppose that distinction mattered anymore since the bank now owned her restaurant. Shampoo girl in her mama’s beauty salon was just about the only job she could get at the moment, in spite of the resumes she’d blasted to every culinary school contact she could think of. The economy was bad and no one was hiring—and she didn’t have the luxury of waiting for something else to come along.

She didn’t think her skills would rust anytime soon, but it hurt not to be cooking right now. She should be playing with recipes, tweaking the flavors, and experimenting with new combinations. Instead, she was rinsing hair for a host of Stella Dupres—and doing it badly, apparently.

Mama glanced over at her, frowning even as the snip-snip of scissors continued unabated. The ladies in the salon swung to look out the picture window as Matt strode along, and the chatter ratcheted up a notch. The odor of perming solution and floral shampoo surrounded Evie like a wet blanket, squeezing her lungs. Her breath stuttered in her chest.

Matt Girard. She hadn’t seen him in ten years. Not since that night when he’d taken her virginity and broken her heart all at once. She’d known he was back in town—hell, the whole town had talked of nothing else since his arrival yesterday. She’d even known this moment was inevitable, except that she’d been doing her best to avoid all the places he might be for as long as possible.

They’d had an easy relationship, once. The kind where he could tug her ponytail, drop a frog in her shirt, or tease her endlessly about her buckteeth—which, thank God, she no longer had. But that had been when they were kids. Then she’d gotten breasts and started blushing whenever he looked her way, and things had changed. Or at least they had for her.

Matt, however, had been determined not to see her as anything other than little Evie Baker, the tomboy he used to play with when her mama went out to Reynier’s Retreat every week to fix his sick mother’s hair. He’d apparently persisted in that belief until the night she’d asked him, after a single shot of whiskey to give her courage, to be her first.

She’d had so many stupid dreams, and he’d crushed them all. But not before he gave her what she’d asked him for.

“Heard he got shot out there in Iraq,” Mrs. Martin said as Evie’s mama rolled a lock of gray hair around a fat pink curler.

“Yes indeed, got a Purple Heart,” Mama said. “The senator was right proud, according to Lucy Greene.”

“That’s not what I heard!” Joely Hinch crowed. “Miss Mildred told me he’s being kicked out of the Army because he didn’t obey orders.”

“Fiddlesticks,” Mrs. Martin said. “That boy bleeds red, white, and blue. Same as his daddy and every last Girard that ever was born up in that big house.”

Joely crossed her arms, looking slightly irritated to be contradicted. “You just wait and see,” she said smugly.

“Shush up, y’all,” Mama said. “I think he’s coming in.”

Evie’s heart sank to her toes. She wasn’t ready for this. Not on top of everything else. She was feeling so bruised and battered after her failure with the restaurant. She did not need Matt Girard swaggering back into her life and making her feel all the chaotic emotions she’d once felt for him.

She finished Stella’s shampoo and wrapped her hair in a towel. “I’m not tipping you, Evangeline.” Stella sniffed. “You have to be more careful than that.”

“I know. And I don’t blame you at all.” Except, of course, she desperately needed every penny she could get if she hoped to escape this town again. It wasn’t that Rochambeau was bad—it’s that it was bad for her. Always had been.

Here, she always felt like the awkward kid who lived in a tiny cottage with her mama and wore secondhand clothes because that’s all they could afford. Didn’t matter that the clothes were no longer secondhand, or that she wasn’t a kid anymore. Or that she didn’t care if the girls who lived in the nice big houses with the manicured lawns didn’t like her; she still felt like that girl who wanted so desperately to fit in.

And the biggest part of fitting in had, at one time, relied on the man striding toward her mama’s salon like he didn’t have a care in the world. Evie’s heart did a somersault as he reached the door.

Magazines snapped open in a flurry as the ladies tried to appear casually disinterested in the six-foot-two hunk of muscle about to open the glass door. More than one pair of eyes peeked over the tops of glossy pages as he stepped up to the sidewalk from the street.

No way in hell was she sticking around for this. It wouldn’t take these ladies more than a few moments to remember the scandalous rumors about her and Matt, and she didn’t want to be here when they did.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to get some things out of the back.” Without waiting for a reply, she strode toward the stockroom. Rachel Mayhew, Mama’s regular shampoo girl, looked up and smiled as she passed. Rachel was only twenty, so she probably didn’t know about Evie’s disastrous night with Matt. Or maybe she did, considering the way this town talked.

What should have been Evie’s own private shame had all too quickly become common knowledge back then. Part of that was her own fault, and part was Matt’s—but she still wasn’t sticking around to endure the sidelong glances and whispered conversations.

Life had beaten her up enough recently and she wasn’t in the mood to feel like a wounded teenager today.

A month ago, she’d said goodbye to her dream. It still hurt. Her lovely little bistro in Florida was now in the bank’s hands, and all because she’d trusted a man. Or mostly because she’d trusted a man.

Her restaurant, Evangeline’s, hadn’t exactly been doing a booming business, but things had been getting better and growth had been steady. It had, for a time, flourished under David’s management, which was how she’d grown to trust his insistence that he knew what he was doing and that she should spend her time perfecting her recipes instead of worrying over the mundane details.

David was cocky, charming, and utterly confident. She’d found that intriguing. One thing had led to another, and they’d ended up sharing a bed from time to time. She’d liked David, thought they were on the same page. He was an accountant who loved to cook, who knew a lot about social media and advertising, and who increased her profits by a few simple—or so he’d said—marketing tricks.

All of it lies. He’d increased her profits, yes. But then he’d robbed her blind. She’d seen the books on a regular basis and never known anything was out of whack. He hadn’t meant her to know, of course, but it still bugged her that she hadn’t seen through David’s schemes.

No, she’d been so thrilled with the way things were going that she’d spent more time doing what she really loved—cooking and creating recipes for the Cajun fusion dishes she’d become known for in their community. A mistake that she still kicked herself over, even though David had covered his tracks too well for her to see anything amiss.

She’d trusted him. But how had she not known he was bad news? How had she let herself be fooled by a handsome face and charming manners?

She’d learned in the aftermath of the destruction he’d wrought that the authorities thought he had ties to organized crime. He’d been skimming money, along with other more nefarious schemes such as money laundering and extortion. She hated to think about it. Evangeline’s had been everything she’d ever wanted when she’d broken out of her hometown and gone to cooking school a few years ago.

But here she was again, back in Rochambeau and washing hair in her mama’s salon, just like when she’d been in high school. Loser. All she wanted was to get out again at the first opportunity. Before that loser feeling wrapped around her throat and squeezed the rest of her dreams away.

Matt reached for the door, and Evie darted behind the stockroom curtain. Her heart slammed against her ribs as the tinkling bell announced his arrival. She turned to lean against the doorjamb and pushed the rose-print polyester aside with one finger. She was being silly. He wasn’t here because of her. He was here because his sister had sent him on some errand or other for her wedding.

Hell, he probably wouldn’t even blink twice if he ran smack into her.

Evie frowned. Her eyes slid down his body and back up again. He was still something to look at. Something easy on the eyes and hard on the senses.

He’d changed in ten years, but some things were still the same. That cocky swagger as he’d approached the shop. He’d always walked like his daddy owned all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Which he damn near did. The Girards had been Rochambeau’s wealthiest family for as long as anyone could remember.

Matt’s dark hair was cut very short, and his shoulders were much broader than when he’d been seventeen. The fabric of his white cotton T-shirt stretched across a wide chest packed with muscle. His bare forearms made her throat go dry.

Something quivered deep inside her, the way it always had from the moment she’d become aware of Matt as more than a boy she played with. Something hot and dark and secret. Evie squashed the feeling ruthlessly.

He pushed a hand through his hair, every muscle of his torso seeming to bunch and flex with the movement. She would have sworn she heard a collective sigh from the ladies in the salon. Rachel absently ran water in her sink, cleaning out the soap bubbles from the last shampoo. When she got too close to the edge, the water sprayed up into her face.

Evie would have laughed if she too weren’t caught up in Matt’s every move. She’d adored him ten years ago and worshipped him until the night she’d given him her virginity.

What a mistake that had been. Not because the sex had been awful. No, it’d been pretty exciting, all things considered. It was what had happened afterward that ruined it for her. The shift in their relationship hadn’t been what she’d expected. And then he’d been such an ass about it.

“Afternoon, ladies.” Matt tipped his head to them.

“Afternoon,” they murmured in unison, voices sugary and lilting, eyes assessing and cataloging him.

“Miz Breaux.” He took her mother’s hand and kissed it like a courtier.

“Oh, shoot.” She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “What do you want? Don’t you know this is a beauty parlor? Sid’s Barber Shop is on Main Street.”

“Well, ma’am.” He grinned that devil-may-care grin Evie remembered so well. “I figured Old Sid can’t see so well anymore and I’m still fond of my ears. I’d much rather have a lady’s touch, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh my.” Mama giggled. Giggled.

Evie rolled her eyes. No wonder she couldn’t pick a decent man. She came by the defect genetically. Mama had been divorced three times. She’d gone back to using her maiden name after the second one in order to avoid confusion. Evie had her daddy’s last name, her sixteen-year-old sister had a different name, and Mama had yet another one.

“You don’t even look like you need a haircut,” Mama was saying.

He scrubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. “My sister thinks I do. And it’s her wedding.”

Mama giggled again. What was it about that man that turned even the smartest woman into an airhead? “Well, we can’t let Christina be disappointed then, can we? But you’ll have to wait until I finish with Mrs. Martin.”

Mama gestured toward the pink vinyl seats in the front of the shop, and Matt gave her the famous Girard smile that used to melt the female hearts of Rochambeau High School. Evie felt a little hitch in her own heart, in spite of herself.

Why did he still have to be so damn good-looking? Was it too much to ask for him to be balding or growing a potbelly? Apparently so. Mother Nature was cruel.

“Sure thing, Miz Breaux.”

Before he’d taken three steps toward the waiting area, Mama said, “You remember my daughter, Evangeline, don’t you? She was a year behind you in school. Y’all used to play when I’d come out to do your mama’s hair every week.”

Evie’s heart crashed into her ribs. The ladies in the shop grew quiet while they waited for his answer. She knew what they were thinking. What they were waiting for. Why should it bother her what they thought? What any of them thought?

It had been ten years ago, and it didn’t matter anymore. She was grown up. Matt was grown up. Who cared?

Except that’s not how Rochambeau worked, and she knew it. It might have been ten years, but he’d humiliated her. He’d broken her heart and tossed her to the wolves when she wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of her actions. Not that anyone knew for sure what had happened, but rumors were usually enough in Rochambeau.

“Yes, ma’am, I sure do. How is she?” He didn’t sound in the least bit remorseful. But why would he? He’d departed for college a week later, and she’d been the one left behind to pick up the pieces.

“Evie’s great,” Mama announced. “Been living in Florida, but she’s home now. Maybe you can talk to her while you wait. Y’all can catch up.”

Evie’s stomach plummeted to her toes. Oh no. No, no, no. What if she went into the bathroom and refused to come out? Or just quietly slipped out the back door and disappeared for a couple of hours? It was time for her lunch break, and—

Coward. Evie stiffened her spine. She wasn’t running away. If it wasn’t now, it’d be some other time. She couldn’t avoid him forever. And far better to get this over with in public, while she could maintain her dignity and show the good people of Rochambeau there was nothing left to talk about.

“That’d be great,” he said in an aw shucks way she didn’t buy for a second. He might talk smooth and act all friendly and gee-whiz ma’am, but she knew better. God, did she know better.

He was nothing more than a self-centered, arrogant jerk with a giant sense of entitlement and no mercy for those he considered beneath him. A little corner of her heart still hurt like it had been yesterday, but she ruthlessly stomped on the feeling until it stopped.

“Good,” her mother said as if it were the best idea in the world, her gaze sweeping the shop. “She was here just a minute ago. Evie? Evie?”

“She went in the back,” Stella offered with what Evie was convinced was a hint of glee. Bitch.

Right. There was nothing Evie could do except face this particular blast from the past. Because there was no way on earth she’d ever let Matt Girard humiliate her again. She’d learned the hard way, but at least she’d learned.

“I’m right here, Mama,” she said, whipping off her smock and pushing back the curtain.

CHAPTER TWO

MATT STILL DIDN’T KNOW WHAT he was doing at the Cut ‘N Curl, but the second Evie Baker walked out of the stockroom, he felt as if someone had dropped a truckload of cement on his head. He hadn’t seen her in ten years, not since the night he’d taken her virginity in the back of his daddy’s Cadillac.

He’d never forgotten that night, never forgotten what a dickhead he’d been. He didn’t expect she had either, which is why he wasn’t surprised that she was currently glaring daggers at him.

Little Evie Baker. Not so little anymore.

He remembered the first time he’d ever seen her, when he’d been seven and his mama had first gotten sick. Norma Breaux always brought Evie with her when she came out to Reynier’s Retreat. He hadn’t known any of the kids in town because he’d been in private school then, but when Evie didn’t scream after he dropped a worm on her, he knew he’d found someone fun to play with. His sister always screamed and hated even a speck of dirt to land on her pretty clothes, but Evie had been as good as any boy when it came to getting dirty.

Matt’s temples throbbed. He’d never wanted to hurt her, God knew, but he’d been in a bad place back then. No, he’d been an arrogant, entitled prick. He knew he shouldn’t have touched her when she’d asked, but he’d done it anyway.

By that point, he’d been trying for years to ignore the way she’d changed—one day she started wearing dresses and blushing whenever he looked at her; the next she had breasts and curves and he had no clue what to say to her anymore. But then she was there, standing before him with her eyes flashing and her cheeks flushed, and she’d just been so damn pretty, and so damn exciting, that he’d taken her hand, led her out to his daddy’s car, and drove them away from the party they’d been at.

He’d felt guilty every moment since, but it was simply another thing to add to the heap of guilt inside his soul. Later, when he’d gotten his head on a bit straighter, he’d thought about calling her to apologize, but too much time had passed. By then he’d figured it was better to let it stay in the past.

A mistake, he thought now. This woman was not happy to see him. There was no pushing aside old mistakes, no going back to a simpler time when they’d gone fishing for crawdads together or sat in a tall tree and watched the gators glide through the bayou.

This Evie Baker was not in a forgiving mood, and he didn’t blame her at all.

Still, a very male part of him couldn’t help but appreciate her on another level. The level that had gotten him in trouble in the first place.

Evie had been a lovely teenager, but she’d blossomed into an even lovelier woman. And he shouldn’t do a damn thing about it, no matter how much he might want to. If he’d met her in a bar, he’d do everything he could to get her to go home with him.

But she was not a woman in a bar, and he owed her more than that. Matt focused on her pissed-off posture and flashing eyes.

“Evie.” She stopped in front of him, arms crossed.

Jesus. She was all curves and sleek skin in a pair of cut-off jean shorts and a body-hugging pink tank top. Her legs were still long, still built to hug a man’s waist.

Shit. He didn’t need to be thinking that way.

And yet, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help it. It was the first thought that sprang to his head when his gaze glided over those legs. He’d kick himself for it later. Right now, he had a bigger problem: keeping his body from responding the way it wanted to at the memory of the last time he’d seen her.

She’d been naked, her lush form arrayed before him, her skin hot, silky, and damp with sweat. She’d been so damn sweet, so innocent. And it’d been a long time since he’d had any sweetness in his life.

“Hi, Matt.”

“You’re looking all grown up.” He could have bit his tongue off when her eyes narrowed.

“It’s what happens in ten years.” Hostility swirled around her like a tornado.

He stretched his arm along the back of the chair beside him with a casualness he didn’t feel. New tactic. “So how have you been?”

“Great. You?”

She was smiling now, but he wasn’t fooled. Violet eyes looked back at him with a mixture of embarrassment and fury. He’d done that. He’d put that look on her face, and it bothered him more than he could say.

God, he had a lot to answer for.

“Great,” he said, parroting her like an idiot. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

She shook her long black ponytail. He remembered wrapping his fists in that hair and tugging when they’d been children. And then he remembered wrapping his hands in her hair for a completely different reason.

“Thanks, but I can’t stay. It was nice to see you.”

“Wait a minute,” he said as she moved away. She stopped and half-turned toward him. He glanced at the ladies watching them. They were just out of earshot, but he leaned forward and pitched his voice lower anyway. “What’s your hurry? We’ve hardly said two words to each other.”

He knew the reason, but he didn’t want her to go. Not yet. There was something about having her near, something that sparked inside him and made him feel somewhat human again. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t know if it would last.

But he liked it. For the first time in months, he felt as if he could breathe again. As if he’d come home for real instead of simply going through the motions.

She sighed and turned to face him completely. He got the distinct impression she was calling up some sort of internal armor system in order to deal with him. Definitely not what he was used to in a woman—but then nothing about his relationship with Evie had ever been normal.

Usually, with other women, he was the one with the internal armor. He was the one who pulled away, because he had nothing to offer beyond a few stolen nights before he was back out on a mission.

But dealing with Evie felt completely different.

Her chin thrust out, her eyes flashing cold fire. “It’s not personal. I’m just busy. And there’s really nothing to say, is there?”

Matt stood. Hesitated when she seemed to shrink away from him. His height and size could be intimidating, he knew, but he hadn’t expected that reaction from her of all people. As if she were afraid of him. She’d never been afraid of him, even when he’d jumped out from behind a tree and screamed bloody murder. She’d shrieked, of course—and then she’d socked him.

But this, here and now… it loosened any remaining restraints on his tongue.

“I’m sorry.” He hadn’t known quite what he would say if he ever saw her again, but that was certainly the least of what he owed her.

“For what?” The question surprised him, though perhaps it shouldn’t. Evie Baker never had liked to show any weakness. She glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening, lowered her voice another notch. “I came on to you, remember?”

At least she didn’t pretend not to know what he was talking about. He admired that. And he also admired the way she always tried to take responsibility, even when it wasn’t her fault. It was frustrating as hell, but so was Evie. She’d never backed down from a challenge in all the time he’d known her.

Still, she wasn’t the one at fault here. He was. “Yeah, but you probably didn’t expect me to brag about it.”

Anger slid through him. He’d been such an arrogant young fuck back then. Stupid. She’d given him her innocence, and he’d trampled it in the dirt like it was his due. He still had no idea what he’d been thinking when it was over and he’d swaggered back to the party.

He was leaving in a week, going off to West Point, and he remembered being so ready to escape. Ready to get the hell out of his father’s house and be his own man. He’d been drunk, stupid, and filled with a rage at the world that he couldn’t explain.

Evie shrugged. “What guy wouldn’t have told his buddies, especially at that age? It was a long time ago.”

He stepped closer, lowered his voice as Rachel Mayhew turned off the taps to her latest shampoo customer and cocked an ear in their direction.

“Maybe so, but I shouldn’t have done it. We were friends and then—”

Her gaze snapped to his. “Were we? Were we ever?”

He felt her words like a barb to his heart. He deserved them. “I thought so. But I fucked up. I’m sorry.”

He didn’t bother to tell her he’d been falling-down drunk when he’d spilled the details of their evening to his friends. It wasn’t an excuse.

She drew in what he assumed was a calming breath. And then she lifted those lashes and speared him with her pretty eyes again. “You did fuck up. Bad. But nobody gave you a hard time about it. They reserved that for me.”

Shame rolled over him. “I know the guys made your life hell after I left.”

“Not just the guys. Oh, they thought I was an easy mark, that’s certain. But the girls weren’t particularly nice either. Well, some of them. It hurt. A lot.”

Before he could even begin to answer, to find the right thing to say, she seemed to shake her head as if clearing away the fog of pain and anger. “Ancient history though. Over and done and not your problem.” She glanced down at her bare wrist. “Oh, hey, look, it’s time to get going. As much as this little reunion has buoyed my spirits, I gotta run.”

“Evie—”

The door chimed then and a petite blond woman barreled inside, stopping Evie in her tracks and cutting off any further apologies Matt tried to make.

He recognized her cousin right away, but Julie Breaux didn’t even spare him a glance.

“Hey, Evie, can you see if there’s room to fit me in? I want to get my highlights done before the party tonight.”

“Sure, let me check the schedule.” Evie turned away and the woman started to follow, then came up short as if she’d just realized he was there.

If looks could freeze a guy in his tracks, he’d be stuck here into the next millennium. Julie arched an eyebrow, coolly assessing him.

“Heard you got a whole battalion captured out there in Iraq.”

Jesus. There was nothing this town didn’t blow out of proportion. Though what he usually did for the military was top secret, the Department of Defense propaganda machine had to work overtime once the Freedom Force took to the airwaves with news of their captives. By the time the DoD was done, Matt and his team looked like average G.I. Joes on a rescue mission rather than part of an elite counter-terrorism unit.

Which was precisely as it should be. There was no compromising the identity of HOT. Ever.

“Nope, it was just a platoon,” Matt replied with a sarcasm he didn’t feel. Jim Matuzaki and Marco San Ramos weren’t ever coming home again because of him. Because he hadn’t listened to his gut that night.

Not a day went by when he didn’t think about them. Two guys he’d shared dusty foxholes and claustrophobic caves with, who’d watched his back more than once. He’d failed them by not scrubbing that mission. He’d wanted to get Jassar ibn-Rashad and save lives, but he’d lost two instead.

Ibn-Rashad was still out there. Still planning to kill.

And Matt might not ever get a chance to do a damn thing about it. His future with HOT was shaky at best after the failure of the last op. His team had been inactive for weeks while other HOT teams came and went. They’d had to sit and watch others go into the field, knowing they’d failed at their task, knowing others were in danger because of them.

Soon, he’d find out his fate. Next week, when he left Rochambeau, he had to attend a hearing on what had gone wrong out there in the desert. He would take responsibility for what had happened to his team, and he might never go on another operation again. His days in HOT very well could be over.

The place where he’d been shot still throbbed. The bullet—a long, ugly mother called a 7.62×39—had pierced the skin, but it had lost momentum going through his assault suit and gotten stuck without passing into his body. He’d been lucky that day, even if he hadn’t deserved it. And luckier still when another HOT squad infiltrated the camp and rescued his team before the rest of them could be killed.

Standing here now, in a beauty salon in Rochambeau, was surreal at best. That sense of unreality he’d been living with for the last couple of months grew stronger. What the hell was he going to do if he got assigned to a desk for the rest of his career? It would, in effect, be a demotion, even if they never stripped him of rank.

And it would mean the end of everything that made any sense to him.

“So how’s Christina doing?” Julie asked. “I haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks now.”

“Fine. Nervous, maybe, but fine.”

“That’s good. She’s nice, your sister.” Unlike you remained unspoken.

“She is indeed.”

Julie’s gaze dropped over him then. “So you gonna be at the lake tonight?” she asked, switching gears on him so fast he had to shake off a sense of whiplash.

He looked at Evie, didn’t miss the look of disbelief that crossed her face as she glanced up from the appointment book. Her cousin had just performed a one-eighty turn at ninety miles an hour, going from hostile to flirtatious in a heartbeat.

“Probably not.”

Julie stuck out her lower lip. “Too bad.”

Definitely a sexual vibe there. He tried to imagine it. Couldn’t. But he could imagine it with Evie. It’d been far too long since he’d had a woman, and though Evie was the wrong woman for a variety of reasons, he couldn’t help but think about it.

“Great news, Jules,” Evie said. “Mama can fit you in in about an hour.”

“Sounds good,” Julie said as she went and leaned on the counter beside Evie.

“Will you be there tonight?” Matt asked Evie as she penciled her cousin’s name in the appointment book. He didn’t know why he was asking, since he had to attend a formal dinner for Christina and her fiancé tonight. But he wanted to know.

She looked up, her gaze locking with his, and he felt the jolt inside, right at gut level.

“No.”

Julie pinched her arm. “Yes, you will. I promised everyone I’d bring you. You’ve been in town for almost a month and you keep promising to go. It’s been so long, and everyone misses you.”

Evie looked skeptical and Matt felt a throb of irritation at her cousin. “I really don’t think—” Evie began.

“Aw, Evie, come on. It’s just one night. Don’t be so stuck up.”

“We’ll talk about it later.” Evie was clearly not happy with the idea. She put the pencil down and grabbed Julie’s arm. “Let’s go get some lunch. Give your sister my congratulations, in case I don’t see her before Saturday,” she said to Matt.

The two of them headed for the back of the shop, disappearing behind the same flowered curtain she’d emerged from earlier. Matt turned and sank down on the pink vinyl seat again, feeling oddly numb and out of place.

He was home in a pink nightmare of a salon, Evie hated him, and Jim and Marco were dead. The contrast was so stark, so gut-wrenching. Half the time he just wanted to shout at everyone that they had no idea what kind of things happened out there in the world and how dare they go on as if everything was normal, but the rational part of him knew they wouldn’t understand. Not only that, but they’d also think he was crazy.

He thought of Evie’s dark hair and flashing eyes. For a few minutes, she’d made him feel grounded. Real. Now he felt the way he had for the past two months: as if he were walking around with his guts on the outside.

“You ready, sugar?” Norma Breaux said then, whipping Matt from his dark thoughts. She shook out a hot-pink plastic smock and wrapped it around his neck as he sat down in her chair.

He was ready for anything these days.

And none of it good.

* * * * *

French Quarter, New Orleans

The files were gone. The computer. Everything. He’d been careless. David West melded into the shadows of the building, peering into the dark alley. Rivera’s grunts had been in his room. He couldn’t go back, nor could he verify what he knew to be true. But he didn’t need to. He’d seen them, seen Brianna Sweeney leaving with her two thugs in tow.

Once, he’d been one of them, doing as he was told, moving into an area and enforcing Ryan Rivera’s will. He’d been the bean counter, much higher on the brain meter than any of those three, but he knew them intimately. Had worked with them countless times.

Most recently with Brianna in Florida at a place called Evangeline’s. He thought he’d evaded the organization this time, but sonofabitch if he hadn’t quite done it after all.

He’d wanted out, but apparently once Rivera had a hold of you, you never got out.

Cold sweat dripped down his spine. He’d blown it. He should have moved on by now, but he’d holed up here for the past two weeks instead, indulging in the decadence and sin the Quarter had to offer. He’d gotten cocky, and he’d gotten stupid. He’d been so sure he’d covered his tracks. He was going by a new name, and he always paid in cash.

He’d left Florida five months ago, moving around constantly until he’d landed here. He’d been safe, goddamn it! Certain he’d pulled it off. How had they found him?

He shook his head. It still swam from one too many absinthe drips. He pressed a hand to the damp brick to steady himself and swallowed down a flood of acid in his throat. The sounds of revelry and jazz wafted down the alley from Bourbon Street. The air was hot and sweet, saturated with humidity, liquor, and the smells of spicy food.

David sucked in a sharp breath against the bile rising in his throat. Brianna had his files now, the bitch. Panic flooded him. Briefly, he wondered if she would negotiate. If she would consider a cut of the money he’d taken to give them back again.

He put his forehead against the brick and breathed deep. Fuck no, she wouldn’t negotiate. He knew that. He’d tried once before when he’d sensed she was as sick of working for Rivera as he was.

But Brianna was tough, and she wasn’t caving. And now he was out here with his dick swinging in the wind. He had no guarantees without those files. The money wouldn’t do him a damn bit of good if he was dead.

It had taken years to build the dossier. It was his protection, his assurance that Rivera wouldn’t send anyone to kill him. So long as he had the files, he was safe. Or so he’d told himself—except that he hadn’t quite believed it enough to live out in the open under his own name.

He should have set up an online backup, but he’d been too worried it would somehow fall into the wrong hands. He didn’t want evidence of Rivera’s crimes—and his by extension—sitting on a server somewhere just waiting for the Feds to find it.

It was different if he traded it for immunity, but to have the Feds get all the info without him having it as a bargaining chip?

Not happening.

Goddamn it!

Right now, he almost wished he’d taken the chance. If he had parked those files somewhere online, he wouldn’t be standing here and cursing himself six ways to Sunday. He’d only be a simple download away from replacing the evidence, but instead the files were gone and he was as vulnerable as a virgin in a whorehouse.

He should have moved to a new location by now. That was the second dumbass thing he’d done. He’d stayed here when he should have gone south and kept going until he nearly fell off the tip of South America. He was tired of doing Rivera’s dirty work, tired of being the brains behind the financials and getting nothing in return. Hell, Rivera hadn’t even recognized how valuable an asset he could be.

But David had gotten the last laugh when he’d skimmed a cool ten million for himself out of the Florida operations. He wasn’t greedy—Rivera was worth far more—but he wanted his due.

Yeah, he’d run Evie’s business into the ground in the process. Maybe he shouldn’t have done it. Her paltry earnings were only a drop in the bucket of his ten mil—but it had gotten him what he wanted faster than if he’d waited another few months to skim the money out of Rivera’s operations. Simply put, he’d had no choice if he wanted his freedom. And he wanted that far more than he’d wanted anything else.

David shook his head again. It wasn’t too late for him yet. Rivera probably thought he had him between a rock and a hard place. But Rivera didn’t know a damn thing about him if he believed that.

There were other kinds of backups. Other ways to hide information. David just had to go and sweet-talk Evie one more time. A much more difficult task this time around, not only because she was pissed at him but also because Brianna Sweeney was on his ass.

But desperation had a way of making a man do whatever it took. He would get those files back again.

And then he would disappear for good.

CHAPTER THREE

EVIE FROWNED AT HERSELF IN the mirror as she turned this way and that.

“You look gorgeous, Evie. Now let’s get moving.”

Evie turned to her cousin with a sigh. “It’s a lovely dress, but I’m not quite sure it’s appropriate for an evening at the lake.”

What she really wanted was to pull on her faded jeans and a T-shirt, but Julie wouldn’t hear of it.

As expected, Julie scoffed. “Please. We’ll be at the pavilion—and the other girls will be dressed up too, you’ll see.”

Julie smoothed a hand over the denim mini she wore. She’d paired it with a silk tank and a pair of pink platforms, and she looked gorgeous. Julie was petite and cute, whereas Evie was tall and not so cute.

Evie tugged at the hem of the dress. It was a pale pink color with wide straps and a skirt that was a hair too tight. And short. The three-inch heels Julie had talked her into wearing didn’t help either. “It’s a bit short, don’t you think?”

Julie shook her auburn ringlets. “No. It looks amazing on you! That dress has never looked as good on me. Blush is so not my color.”

Evie sighed and gathered the tiny purse Julie had insisted she carry. “This really isn’t me, Jules. I’m a chef. I work in hot kitchens all day and I wear comfortable clothes.”

“You aren’t a chef right now,” Julie pointed out. “Think of it like you’re on vacation. Everybody gets dressed up on vacation, right?”

“Yes, but I don’t feel like I’m on vacation.”

Julie huffed. “Is this about Matt Girard and what happened back in high school?”

Evie felt a tiny pinch in her chest. “Of course not.”

Julie looked militant. “Good. Because that was high school, Evie, and we aren’t there anymore. No one gives a good goddamn that you slept with Matt our junior year or that he bragged about it. Half those girls would have dropped their panties in a New York second if they’d thought he’d give them a lay. Still would.”

Evie’s skin was hot and she wasn’t quite sure why. Because Julie was right, and she really didn’t give a shit what people thought about her these days—her reaction in the salon notwithstanding. She wasn’t sixteen anymore, and she couldn’t be hurt by whispers and rumors.

No, her issues with this town were the same issues she’d always had—the ones where she felt like there was a box she was supposed to stay in and she just didn’t want to. Aside from that, her only problem today had been coming face-to-face with the boy she used to love and remembering the way he used to make her feel.

“Fine, I’ll wear it. Let’s go.”

“Excellent,” Julie replied. “Besides, you look hot—and you want to impress Matt, don’t you?”

Evie’s stomach bottomed out. “Why would I want to do that?” She waved a hand. “He’s old news. Besides, he’s not coming, remember?”

Julie laughed, her dark eyes sparkling. “Right. Didn’t you see the way he was looking at you today? He’ll be there.”

“He wasn’t looking at me any way. We were just talking.”

Julie shook her head. “Girl, I think the heat in those kitchens has gone to your head. Matt Girard is just about the hottest thing on two legs, and he was definitely looking at you with interest. He wants in your panties again, trust me.” Julie grinned. “And if you’re smart, you’ll let him.”

Evie felt as if her cheeks were six shades of fuchsia. The last time she’d let a man in her panties, she’d lost her damn restaurant. And though the thought of Matt there made her body tingle in ways it hadn’t in a very long time, there was no way she was going to repeat the mistakes of her past. They might not be teenagers, and she might not give a damn what anyone said these days since she was no longer vulnerable, but sleeping with Matt was just a bad idea all around.

Her feelings for Matt had always been a giant tangle, like a ball of Christmas lights buried in the garage all year, and she really didn’t want to start sorting them out again.

“He won’t be there, Jules. Mark my words.”

Julie sighed. “Fine. But he will be in town for a few days, so do yourself a favor and don’t push him away when he comes around. You definitely need to get laid.”

Evie shook her head. “Maybe so, but he’s the wrong man to do it.”

Julie snorted. “Well, I can promise you one thing. If he looks at me that way, I’m not saying no.”

“Go for it,” Evie said, though a little twinge of jealousy speared into her at the thought.

“There’s always Jimmy Thibodeaux, if you insist on saying no to Matt. He’s been asking after you since he got back.”

Evie frowned. Jimmy had been one of the worst back in high school after Matt had left. Always calling her Easy Evie and grabbing her ass. She’d hated him then. She didn’t much care for the idea of him now since she’d heard he hadn’t changed much. Thankfully, he’d been away in Montana on a hunting trip for most of the month and she hadn’t yet had the dubious pleasure of running into him again.

“I’ll pass.”

Julie shrugged. “Probably best. Jimmy’s not been quite right in the head lately. He pulled a knife on Ginny Temple a couple of months ago.”

Evie’s heart somersaulted. “What do you mean?”

“She said something about his hunting dog crapping on her lawn and Jimmy waved that knife around like he was some kind of avenger. But nothing came of it.”

Evie shook her head. Damn crazy Cajun redneck. She hadn’t missed that about Rochambeau at all. “And you were seriously suggesting I should sleep with him?”

Julie’s mouth turned down. “Of course not! I was kidding. Geez, you’ve lost your sense of humor lately.”

“It hasn’t been a good few months, Jules.”

“Which is why I said you should get laid. Take your mind right off it. But no Matt and definitely no Jimmy.” She patted Evie’s arm. “We’ll find someone.”

“I’d rather we didn’t.”

Julie grinned. “We’ll see. Now let’s stop talking about it and get going.”

Evie’s little sister looked up from her position in front of the television as they walked through the living room. Evie’s heart twisted at the look on the girl’s face. Evie had been home a month now, and Sarah was still sullen and withdrawn.

Not that she could blame the kid. There was ten years difference in their ages, and Evie hadn’t exactly been around for the past few years. No, she’d been off doing her own thing and calling home on occasion rather than making an effort to be a part of her little sister’s life. She hadn’t thought of it much at the time, but being home and seeing the effects—well, it made her feel rotten every time she saw that wary look on Sarah’s face.

“Where are y’all going looking like that?” Sarah was curious, but her tone said she couldn’t care less.

“It’s a party.” Julie put her hands on her hips. “For adults.”

Sarah snorted. “Yeah, I figured that.”

“I don’t have to go,” Evie said, though Julie made a noise when she did. “Is there something you want to do tonight? We could go for pizza, or maybe a movie?”

Sarah turned back to the TV and pressed the channel button. “I ate pizza for lunch. And there’s nothing at that lame theater I want to see.”

Evie sighed. “Mama’s at the Moose Lodge for the evening. Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”

Sarah’s eyes flashed. “I know where Mama is. She’s been going to bingo every week for the past four years. Not that you would know that.”

Julie bristled. “You need to lighten up, little girl. Your sister’s had a bad time of it and she could use your support.”

Sarah shot to her feet. “Yeah, well why do I have to be nice to her when she’s never thought twice about me and Mama? Went off to that fancy cooking school and forgot all about us. Now she’s back and thinks we’re supposed to care? Like hell.” Sarah tossed the remote onto the couch and stalked toward her bedroom.

Julie’s dozen or so bracelets clinked as she popped her hands on her hips again and stared after Sarah. “That little brat. You want me to go get her and make her apologize?”

Evie shook her head, even as she swallowed the lump in her throat. “No, forget it. She didn’t get mad overnight, and she won’t get un-mad that way either.”

“Your mama’s been too indulgent with her. She would’ve paddled your behind for acting that way, no matter how old you were.”

“Mama’s busy, Jules. And I doubt Sarah acts that way toward her. Me, on the other hand…” She sighed. “Maybe if I had been here, she wouldn’t be so hostile. I can’t really blame her for not trusting me.”

Julie snorted. “Don’t kid yourself, girlfriend. She’s a teenager. Brattiness is practically a requirement.” Julie tossed her hair over her shoulder and peered up at Evie. “C’mon, you ready to go get laid? That’ll certainly help your mood, I promise.”

Evie laughed, though inside she still stung from Sarah’s rejection. But there wasn’t much she could do about it. Even if she stayed here, she’d get nowhere with the kid. Sarah would hide in her room until Mama came home later. “God no. But I’ll go out to the lake with you and have a beer or two. Then I’m coming home. Alone.”

Julie rolled her eyes. “Your loss. Especially when Matt Girard shows up.”

“He’s not coming, Julie.”

“Bet he does. And when I win, you have to cook your famous gumbo for me.”

Evie rolled her eyes. “He won’t.”

Julie looked smug. “We’ll see…”

* * * * *

Rochambeau Lake had a split personality. One side—the side with picnic tables, charcoal grills, and a big pavilion—was clear and calm. But the farther you went across the lake, moss-draped cypress trees crowded together like shadowy sentinels and the lake became a bayou. Gators swam deep in the cypress, down the long winding fingers of murky water that branched and stretched for miles throughout the parish. Snakes coiled in the trees overhanging the water, sometimes dropping in on unsuspecting anglers.

Evie couldn’t see the people splashing in the dark, but she heard them laughing. Crazy to go swimming in the middle of the night, even if it was hot. A flash of murky water and the black S-curve silhouette of a snake flowing toward her were the most vivid memories of her last foray into the bayou.

Evie shuddered. She wasn’t getting into—or onto—the bayou ever again. She’d never been particularly squeamish, but that afternoon when the snake had fallen out of the tree and into the little canoe—which she and Julie then proceeded to overturn in their panic—had seared itself into her memory.

Just then, Jimmy Thibodeaux reappeared with a beer and a wine cooler, and Evie gritted her teeth. So much for avoiding Jimmy. He’d made a beeline for her the minute they arrived and he hadn’t let her out of his sight in the fifteen minutes since. He’d been nothing but polite, however, so she couldn’t exactly get away from him without being rude.

And she wasn’t prepared to be rude just yet. She kept thinking of him pulling a knife on Ginny Temple, but she didn’t think he was crazy enough to do something like that here with so many people around. The other guys would tackle him if he tried it.

Evie craned her neck, looking for Julie, but her cousin had slipped into Steve LaValle’s arms and didn’t look as if she was slipping out again anytime soon. She didn’t think Julie had meant to leave her with Jimmy, but that didn’t change the current situation.

“I know you said beer, but I thought you might like this better.” Jimmy handed her a wine cooler and sat down on the bench beside her. “I know how you ladies like foo-foo drinks.”

Evie’s jaw felt like it might crack. “Thanks.” She scooted down the bench as much as possible. The crowd closed to hide Julie and Steve from her view.

Damn it.

She turned and tried to smile politely at Jimmy. He wasn’t bad-looking, with his dark hair and dark eyes, but she’d never liked him. He was loud, brazen, and a bit too macho. Always had been. If she had to hear another story about him bagging a gator—or a moose in Montana—she’d probably scream.

“So,” Jimmy said, his hand skimming across her bare knee and up her thigh. “You back in town for good?”

Evie pushed his hand away and kept smiling. There wasn’t an ounce of friendliness in it, but she knew Jimmy was too dumb to see it. No, he leered and groped like they were back in high school and she was still Easy Evie. More than anything, it made her mad. Livid.

“Nope,” she replied through clenched teeth. “I’ll be leaving again soon.”

She didn’t know that for sure, but it was definitely the plan. The sooner, the better. She felt a pang of guilt when she pictured Sarah’s sullen face, but that was life. Her life dictated that she had to get out of Rochambeau or go crazy.

“That’s a shame. Maybe we could get together before you go.” He leaned in a little more, his fingers skimming the side of her breast.

Evie shot to her feet, and Jimmy barely managed to catch himself before he fell into her vacant seat. “No, thanks.” She said it politely when what she really wanted to do was sock him. “I’m not ready to start a relationship.”

“Who said anything about a relationship?” Jimmy blinked up at her, clueless as usual. But there was something in those eyes, something cold and mean. It made her shiver. “You got time for sex, ain’t you?”

Warning bells rang in her head as she faced him down. Her smile could have cut glass. Maybe she should have socked him anyway. “Oh darn, I took a vow of celibacy two days ago. Look, there’s my cousin.”

She spun on her high heels, thankful she didn’t trip and make a mockery of her grand exit, and walked away without waiting for an answer. She didn’t turn around to look at Jimmy, but she could feel his eyes on her as she stepped into the pavilion. She’d pissed him off, that was for sure.

Evie breathed a sigh of relief as she skirted the makeshift dance floor where couples gyrated to the music someone played using an iPod and two great big speakers. She didn’t think Jimmy would pull anything, but she liked having a crowd around her just in case.

She searched for Julie, finally spotting her again. Julie leaned back against Steve, her head on his shoulder, her lips tilted up to accept a lingering kiss.

By the looks of it, Julie wasn’t going to be willing to leave just yet. Julie had probably had sex with Steve a thousand times, but they still had to go through this ritual-courting thing first. They got together, broke up, then made up a few days later with wild monkey sex. This looked like a monkey-sex night, but there was a protocol to follow. Why they couldn’t just admit they were hot for each other and go for it, Evie would never understand.

Evie set the wine cooler she’d nearly forgotten she was still holding on top of a table as she skirted the crowd. She’d go hang out in Julie and Steve’s corner until they were ready to leave. If she were lucky, it’d be a matter of minutes before they couldn’t keep their hands off each other and wanted to go back to Steve’s place. Before they did, she’d get Julie’s keys and drive herself home.

“I think you lost your drink.”

Evie knew that voice. It slid over her like hot silk and she spun to find Matt Girard standing behind her, holding the bottle she’d just ditched. Why did her heart skip the second he showed up? And why did he have to look so delicious?

“I didn’t lose it.”

He stood there in faded jeans and a dark T-shirt that molded to his hard pecs and biceps. But it wasn’t his clothing that got her attention so much as his eyes. There was something in them, something she didn’t remember seeing when he’d been seventeen. He’d been part of this crowd long ago, much more than she had, but he no longer looked like he belonged—in spite of the longing looks some of the women were casting in his direction.

His gaze dropped over her before rising again, slowly, and her body reacted as if he’d brushed his fingers over her. There was something hot, sharp, and thrilling in that gaze—and she was way more susceptible to it than she wanted to be.

Once, she would have given anything for him to look at her like that. Now, she wasn’t certain she’d survive the experience.

“Great dress.” His voice was silky.

Evie swallowed. She was tingling, and that wasn’t a good thing. The last time she’d tingled over this man, it had not turned out so well. “Thanks. I think.”

He grinned. “It’s definitely a compliment.”

Evie crossed her arms and tried to look cool. “Thought you weren’t coming tonight.”

“Now what made you think a thing like that?”

Her blood slogged like molasses in her veins. “I believe you said ‘probably not’ in response to Julie’s query.”

His teeth flashed. “Yeah, but that’s before I knew you’d be here.”

“What do you want, Matt?” Her heart thrummed like she was sixteen again.

His gaze dropped once more. “Maybe I’d like to see what’s under that dress.” His voice sounded low and sexy. It pooled in her belly and sent hot waves of need spiraling outward.

“Forget it,” she said with a conviction she didn’t quite feel. “As I recall, the last time didn’t turn out so well for me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

“You said that earlier.”

“I did.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “So why’d you come then? I heard you the first time.”

He sighed. “Evie. Jesus.” He raked a hand through his hair, and her blood hummed at the ripple and flex of muscle. “I just got back from the desert. Life out there is… unpredictable. It makes a man think. And I’ve decided that I don’t like feeling like a shithead for something that happened ten years ago. I want to clear the slate.”

Evie let out a breath. She’d been so hurt; then she’d been angry. But it was a long time ago and she couldn’t hold a grudge forever. Even now, she recognized that most of her feelings about the incident were still tied up with having her love so cruelly flung back in her face. The other stuff, while definitely unpleasant at the time, hardly mattered anymore.

“We were kids, Matt.”

“I hurt you.”

She didn’t flinch from his gaze. “You did. But I’m not sixteen anymore. And like I said today, it was my fault too. I asked you to do it. And I told a couple of my friends about it, so it wasn’t just you telling the boys.” She shrugged with a lightness she didn’t quite feel. “What happened was probably inevitable. The guys thought I was easy. The girls who were jealous said I was a slut. They made my senior year difficult in some ways. But what hurt the most was never hearing from you again.”

There, she’d said it. She’d told him what really hurt, and she’d given him a window into her feelings back then. He’d have to be an idiot not to know, but it was always possible he hadn’t.

“I should have called you.”

The music changed, the beat slowing. Evie took a step backward instinctively, but Matt caught her hand and held it tight. She tugged once, then stopped. They faced each other across a few feet of space. Around them, couples began to slide together, fitting into each other.

Evie’s pulse beat harder. Her skin sizzled where they touched, his big hand engulfing hers, his palm calloused in a way that shocked her. He was a Girard—rich, entitled—and he had a workman’s hands.

“One dance.”

Her insides melted a little more. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

But what she really wanted to do was say yes.

His eyes were bright. “Why not? We’re adults now, Evie. No one’s getting hurt here.”

He said it like it was so easy, but was it really? Wasn’t she still vulnerable on some level? She was down on her luck right now, feeling like a loser, and here he was, the same gorgeous, cocky, beautiful creature he’d always been.

Except, no, he was more than that, wasn’t he? There was something behind his smile now. Something dark and sad. Pain flared in his gray eyes and then was gone so quickly she wondered if she’d imagined it.

It shocked her. She suddenly wanted to know what had happened to him. She’d heard about him being held captive by terrorists. How could he not be affected by something like that? Of all the things she’d expected Matt Girard to do with his life, putting himself into danger had not even occurred to her. He had everything. Why would he want to risk his life that way?

She remembered when his mother had died. He’d been twelve. Mama had taken her to the wake out at Reynier’s Retreat. There were so many people crowding the beautiful rooms of the mansion. The house was heavy with sadness and thick with grief, and it had scared her. She’d escaped to run down the wide lawn. She’d known where to find Matt. He’d been curled inside the hollow of a tree they’d found a few years before.

He’d been dressed in a black suit, his dark hair slicked back carefully, his gray eyes wide and wounded as he looked up at her. Her heart had lifted into her throat then. She’d only been eleven, but she’d felt something in that moment that rocked her world—and would continue to rock her world until she was sixteen and shattered by his casual cruelty.

But not that day. That day, she’d slid into the hollow and sat down beside him. When she’d put her arms around him, he’d turned his face into the crook of her neck and wept.

Evie sucked in a breath. How could she walk away from him now, knowing there was something behind those eyes? He was hurting again, and she didn’t know why.

“One dance, Evangeline,” he said softly when she hesitated. “Make a soldier’s night. I just got back from the desert a few days ago. I’d like to dance with a pretty woman and forget about that hellhole for a while.”

Evie swallowed. “That’s not fair.”

He grinned. “Because you can’t say no now?”

She nodded.

“Good for me then.”

“Just one dance and we go our separate ways, got it?” Because she didn’t want to feel this tangle of emotions again. This tiny blossoming in her heart that said she was going to be in so much trouble if she didn’t shut it down quickly.

“If that’s what you want.” His voice was rough.

He took her other hand then, ran his palms up her arms to her shoulders. Little sparks of sensation swirled in her belly, lighting her up like the Fourth of July. He pulled her into his arms right there on the edge of the dance floor.

Evie braced her hands against his chest, pressed back when he tried to bring her closer. It was already overwhelming to be so close to him. To feel his heat and hardness next to her body.

To feel everything she’d once wanted so much.

“I don’t bite,” he murmured. “Unless you want me to.”

“Hardly.” But heat flowed through her at the thought. Evie closed her eyes. This was insane. Why had she agreed? It was like she’d stepped back in time and gotten caught in all her girlish dreams.

She was in Matt Girard’s arms, dancing with him in public. Poor Evie Baker and the rich senator’s son. The boy most likely to succeed and the girl who would never amount to anything. What a pair.

She should have refused, no matter how much she ached for him. No matter how much history flowed between them.

But he’d trotted out that returning soldier line and she’d caved like a fallen soufflé.

She should walk away right now, but she couldn’t seem to make herself do so. Instead, she tried to keep distance between them, stood stiffly in his embrace with her hands on his shoulders until he grasped her arms and twined them around his neck. “At least look like you’re having fun.”

“What if I’m not?”

He laughed. “Pretend.”

They swayed to the music without talking. His body was so hard, like he’d been carved from marble. He was lean and lethal, a finely honed military machine. From the hard contours of his shoulders to the flat planes of his abdomen, there wasn’t an ounce of softness anywhere on him.

His hands were in the small of her back, caressing her as they moved. She became acutely aware of her breasts pressing against his chest. When she tilted her head back to look up at him, his eyes were intense. She turned away even as a thrill shot through her.

“I’ve missed you, Evie. I didn’t realize how much until I saw you today.”

“Don’t lie.”

“I’m not lying.”

A bead of sweat trickled between her breasts and her skin grew hot. She’d forgotten how steamy Louisiana nights could be. Why did these morons still party at the lake? They weren’t teenagers anymore, and they had houses.

“We haven’t spoken in ten years. I hardly think you missed me that much.”

Matt’s hands slid across her back, leaving a trail of flame in their wake. “I said I didn’t realize it until today. That’s the truth. You were always honest with me, Evie. I liked that. Needed it.”

Evie snorted, more to cover the riot of sensations inside her than anything. “You couldn’t have liked it that much. You used to sit on me until I cried uncle.”

Matt laughed. “Yeah, you really knew how to piss me off back then. But you were my best friend when we were little.”

“Until you left private school and started going to Rochambeau Junior High. Then I was persona non grata.”

“Hardly. But you were a girl, and I needed to get in good with the guys.”

“And the other girls.”

He gave her that pretty grin of his. “Yeah, that too.”

As if he’d ever had an ounce of trouble in that department. She remembered his first day in public school, how thrilled she’d been to have him there where they could hang out together—and how jealous she’d been when he’d started paying attention to other girls.

“We go back a long ways, don’t we?” Her arms around his neck relaxed a little, until it felt almost natural to be dancing with him like this.

“Yeah. It’s kinda nice, isn’t it?”

Her body was singing and zinging with sparks. “It is, in a way. In other ways, it’s not so great.”

He looked puzzled. “How do you mean?”

Evie sighed. “Geez, Matt, you aren’t that clueless. It was fun while we were kids. I adored you—and then it changed as I got older and realized what boys were for. But it didn’t change for you, and that set me up for a lot of angsty nights discussing you endlessly with my friends.”

“You discussed me?” He looked puzzled and she wanted to pinch him. Men.

“Of course. It’s what girls do. We like a boy and we obsess about it. About what he said, what he did, how he looked at us. Does he like us or not? Things like that. I wanted you to like me as a girl, not as a buddy. And you never did.”

“I did.” Her heart did a little skip that it shouldn’t have so long after the fact. “But I tried not to. I didn’t want to mess up what we had.”

“We didn’t have anything by then. You’d been ignoring me since I got breasts.”

His gaze dropped to her chest and she automatically stuck a finger under his chin and tilted his head up again.

His grin was not in the least apologetic. “Hey, you mentioned them. They are magnificent, by the way.”

She refused to feel an ounce of pleasure over that comment. “I did indeed, but that wasn’t an invitation to ogle. Focus on my eyes, Girard.”

“Such pretty eyes. So blue they’re almost purple.”

Evie rolled said eyes. “Flattery? After all this time? Care to tell me what’s up?”

His expression changed, growing quietly serious. “I wish I could.” He gave his head a little shake. “I’ve seen a lot of bad shit in this world, Evie. You’re soft and sweet and you smell good.”

There was a lump in her throat. “It’s just perfume. You should smell me when I’ve been picking crabmeat out of shells all day. Or after a long shift on the line, standing over a hot grill—”

“Evangeline.”

Evie blinked up at him. “What?”

“You gave me one dance. Do we have to talk about crabmeat and grills?”

Heat slid into her cheeks. “No, I suppose not.”

He slid his hands to her hips and pulled her tighter against him until she wanted to whimper. “Good. Because I want to remember this the next time I’m on an op.”

Evie dropped her gaze from the heated intensity of his. They moved together silently for a few moments. And then she spoke. “I heard you got shot. Did you really?”

“Yes.”

Her eyes flew up again and her heart pounded. “Where?”

“A flesh wound in the side, nothing life threatening. Hurt like hell though.”

She shook her head. “I can’t understand how you ended up in the military. It’s not what I thought you’d do.”

His eyes glittered. “And I always knew you’d do something with cooking.”

She didn’t miss that he’d deflected her comment, but she smiled anyway. “How could you know that? It wasn’t like I ever cooked a meal for you when we were swinging from trees or sneaking up on Christina with crawdads.”

“No, but you talked about food a lot. About the texture of cupcakes, the correct sweet-to-tart ratio of lemonade, and the heat index of your mama’s jambalaya. And then you went to work out at Charlie’s that summer before my senior year. I brought Jeanine Jackson on a date there, remember?”

Evie had to stifle a groan. “God, how could I forget? I dumped a pitcher of sweet tea down her shirt. But that had nothing to do with cooking.”

Matt laughed. “No, it sure didn’t. What did she say to you again?”

“I think you bitch is about right. Or some variation of that phrase.”

“No, I mean before that. Before you ‘tripped’ and lost control of the tea.”

Evie sighed. “She gave me a dirty look and told me not to talk to her boyfriend if I wasn’t taking his order.”

“Was that it?” His brows drew down as if he were thinking back. “I thought for sure it must have been something worse.”

“I didn’t like her tone.”

Matt snickered. “Sounds about right. You never did back down from a fight.”

The song ended then and Evie took a step backward. Matt’s grip on her tightened, but then he let her go, his hands dropping to his sides. Evie swallowed. “Thanks for the dance. It was nice.”

His gaze was so intense she wanted to look away, but she didn’t. “It doesn’t have to end here. I’m home for a few days. I want to see you again, Evie.”

Her heart ricocheted around her chest. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

He shook his head. “You keep saying that to me, chère, but your eyes say something different.”

She clasped her hands together and took a deep breath. “I’ve always been weak where you’re concerned. But too much time has passed and there’s too much drama when you’re involved. I’ve got enough going on in my life without adding you to the mix.”

His expression sharpened. “Are you seeing someone?”

She wished she could say yes, wished it were true just long enough to make him go away. And she didn’t, because she didn’t want him to go away.

Geez, way to be strong, Evie.

“It doesn’t matter. Besides, you’re leaving in a few days. What would be the point in spending any time together?”

“I think you know the point.” His voice was a deep, sexy growl, and she felt an answering throb in her belly and her sex.

Impulsively, she stepped forward and squeezed his hand while she gave him a peck on the cheek. He turned his head and their lips met, but the contact was too brief as she backed away again, her heart hammering in her throat and ears.

“Goodbye, Matt.”

Evie turned to go just as the lights in the pavilion snapped out. She stumbled to a halt as the crowd gasped. Scattered headlights illuminated the area, but not enough to see more than a few inches.

A car backfired, and Evie nearly leapt out of her skin. Someone screamed, and then a chorus of screams erupted when the car backfired again. The crowd surged, knocking her off balance. A hand wrapped around her arm and tugged her up against a hard chest.

“We have to get out of here.” It was Matt’s voice in her ear and she turned her head, prepared to ask him why—until the car backfired again and she realized what was really happening.

That wasn’t a car. It was a gun.


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Hot Mess

PROLOGUE

Hopeful, Texas

TEXAS SUMMERS MELTED ALL the good sense a man possessed. That was the only explanation for why Sam McKnight had taken Georgeanne Hayes and driven up toward Hopeful Lake. He hadn’t intended to do it at all, but since he’d gotten back home on leave from the Army three days ago, he’d noticed one thing in this town that had changed dramatically: Georgie Hayes.

“You home for long?” Georgie asked.

He turned the car—an old truck he’d borrowed from his mother—onto the dirt track that ran around the south side of the lake. It was nearly dark now, the sun a glimmer of a memory on the horizon.

“Just a few days.”

“I’ve missed you, Sam.”

He shot her a grin. “I missed you too. Your whole family,” he added. The Hayes family had always been more of a family to him than his own. Her brother was his best friend in the world—which meant he should not be thinking of Georgie as anything more than the annoying little kid she’d always been. She used to follow him around whenever he was at her house, her barely concealed crush almost embarrassing to witness. He’d ignored it, which hadn’t been difficult to do when she’d been twelve and he fifteen.

But now she was eighteen—and impossible to ignore.

He could feel her pouting in the silence that followed. God, she’d changed. In ways he still couldn’t wrap his head around.

“I was hoping maybe you’d missed me the most,” she said softly.

“If I’d known you’d turn out like this, I might have.” Shut up, Sam.

Because he knew, as sure as he knew his own name, that he was not what Richard Hayes Sr. had in mind for his little princess. Georgie was going to the University of Texas where she’d study something suitably refined—interior design, perhaps—and marry the star quarterback.

He was just a soldier home on leave—and he had nothing to offer besides a healthy libido and a few stolen nights of passion.

“It was inevitable. Mama was Miss Dallas, you know.”

Yeah, he knew. But that didn’t mean he’d ever thought of Georgie as anything more than Rick’s little sister. Yet here she was with curves in all the right places, an impressive rack, and the most gorgeous chocolate-brown hair that tumbled in waves over her shoulders and fell all the way to her ass.

He found a place to park and turned off the engine. His heart pounded in his chest as he turned to look at her. What the hell was he doing again? He needed to drive straight back to town and forget every dirty thought he’d been thinking about her since she’d walked into the bowling alley an hour ago.

She gazed at him with eyes that he felt like he could drown in. Green eyes, like springtime in the country.

“I’m eighteen now.”

“I know.”

She slicked her tongue over pretty pink lips. “Then maybe you’ll finally kiss me.”

He could only stare at her for a long moment, his brain warring with his dick. She was still his best friend’s baby sister, and he had a duty to protect her just the same as Rick would if he were here. Sam had driven her out here, but only because she’d asked him to.

Dumbass. You know exactly why she asked, and you also know why you did it.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea, Georgie.”

She unclipped her seatbelt and moved toward him. “I am. I want to kiss you, Sam. Hell, I want you. I’ve wanted you since I was thirteen.”

He swallowed hard. His voice, when he spoke, was hoarse. “You don’t mean that.”

She slid up close and put her arms around his neck. “Like hell I don’t. Oh, I didn’t know what I wanted at thirteen. But I do now. I want you, Sam. I want you to fuck me.”

“Christ, Georgie, don’t talk like that.” His hands spanned her ribcage. He intended to set her away from him, but somehow he wasn’t managing it.

And Georgie knew it.

“Why not? Does it turn you on?”

Did it turn him on? Shit, he was harder than an ice cube in Siberia. “I’m not here to stay. You know that, right? I gotta leave in two days and go back to the Army.”

“I know.”

“You asked me if I was home for long.”

She sighed. “Small talk, Sam. I know you aren’t staying. But I want you anyway.”

He shouldn’t do it. He knew he shouldn’t. He should start the truck and drive back toward town. But he wasn’t going to. He was weak and, from the moment she’d walked up to him looking like this, he was lost. With a groan, Sam lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her.

CHAPTER ONE

Twelve years later…

“I’M SORRY, DR. HAYES, but we can’t give out that kind of information.”

Georgeanne gritted her teeth in frustration. She’d been getting the same answer for two days now. Military bureaucracy at its finest. She gripped the phone and tried to keep her voice calm. “Sergeant Hamilton has not formally withdrawn, but he’s not been to class for the last three sessions. Surely you know if he’s been deployed.”

The woman on the other end didn’t miss a beat. “I’m not allowed to give out that information, Dr. Hayes. We don’t discuss our personnel with unauthorized persons.”

Georgeanne sighed and pressed her hand to her forehead. “Fine. Can someone just submit a withdrawal form on his behalf? It will save him getting an F, which will affect his GPA.”

And if she knew anything about Jake Hamilton, she knew for a fact he didn’t want that. He was dead set on graduating with honors and applying for Officer Training School. If it came down to it, she’d submit the form herself. It was against policy, but she’d argue for an exception in this case.

“I’ll see what we can do.”

After the niceties were finished, Georgeanne hung up the phone and suppressed the urge to scream. If she were at home alone, in her little Alexandria townhouse, she might do just that. But she was currently sitting in a coffee shop in the Pentagon concourse, waiting for her class to start.

The military did a fine job of encouraging its members to go to school, gave them plenty of money for tuition, and provided space on military installations around the world for universities to teach classes and offer degree programs. The only issue for most of her students was time, since they also had very demanding jobs.

Which was where her concern for Sergeant Hamilton had come in. This was the third course he’d taken with her, and she’d never known him to miss a single session without first informing her of any temporary duty he might have. Not that he couldn’t have had an emergency, but when he missed the third class in a row, she’d begun to wonder. It just wasn’t like him to be irresponsible.

If he didn’t show up tonight, it would be the fourth time. Two weeks of class was a lot in an eight-week term. Not only that, but finals were next week, and if he didn’t come tonight, he’d never be prepared. She’d e-mailed him a couple of times now, and she’d even called the number he’d put on the information sheet she collected from every student at the beginning of the term.

There had been no reply to her calls or her e-mails, which seemed very odd.

Georgeanne frowned over her coffee. Jake had often come early to class and joined her here for something to drink. She had an open-door policy for students and, while he hadn’t needed much help with assignments, he seemed to like to talk to her about the books they read. Since she enjoyed teaching literature, she welcomed the rare student who got really excited about the material.

The last time she’d seen Jake, he’d been sitting on a bench in the Pentagon Metro. She’d walked over to talk to him before the train arrived. He’d seemed a bit preoccupied, but she hadn’t thought too much about it since her students were adults with busy lives.

When the train came, he did not get on. He’d told her he was waiting for a friend so they could go out to a bar in Crystal City. The last Georgeanne had seen of him, he’d been talking to a dark-haired man with a manicured beard. Georgeanne had waved again as the train pulled out. The man standing with Jake turned, his hard gaze meeting hers. He’d looked angry, threatening in a way that shocked her. She’d snatched her hand into her lap and turned her head, breaking eye contact.

And then she’d been angry with herself for reacting that way. She was a grown woman, independent, and she didn’t like that a man had made her feel unsafe just by looking at her angrily.

But then she’d gone home, taken a hot bath, immersed herself in a book, and forgotten about Jake and his friend.

Now Georgeanne checked the time on her phone, and then she gathered her computer and purse and made her way down to the basement where her class was being held. Two and a half hours later, she retraced her path through the Pentagon and down to the Metro station that lay beneath the building.

Jake had not come to class, but then she hadn’t really expected him to. As she stood in the station with the hot air blowing through the tunnels and ruffling her hair, she decided that tomorrow she was calling that woman at his unit and trying again.

She knew she should just leave well enough alone, knew that the military did what they wanted when they wanted. Though they could have shipped him off in the middle of the night for some sort of duty, he wasn’t in the Special Forces. He worked in a general’s office as a low-level administrative assistant. Not typically the kind of guy to disappear without notice.

Georgeanne yawned and stepped forward as the rush of air intensified ahead of the next train. She was so ready to take a hot bath and climb into bed with a good book and her cat. The sad state of her life these days, she supposed.

A bright light shone from the tunnel as the train fast approached. The station wasn’t crowded at this time of night, but as Georgeanne waited on the platform, someone jostled her. Hard. It was so surprising that she didn’t realize at first what was happening. It was as if she were tipping forward in slow motion. It took a moment to realize she was falling.

Georgeanne screamed as the darkness below the platform yawned up at her.

* * * * *

Staff Sergeant Sam McKnight stood in front of a townhouse on a shaded Alexandria street and took a deep breath. It was early morning and the sun was shining bright. The sky already had that hazy look that meant they were in for another humid day in the DC Metro area. It was hotter than blazes, but not quite as hot as Texas. Or as hot as where he’d just returned from.

Texas might be hot, but the Arabian Desert was hotter. He could say that for a fact now. He looked down at his uniform—crisp BDUs—and wondered if he should have saved this visit for another time, when he could show up in jeans and a T-shirt and look halfway like the guy Georgie would remember.

But he’d just gotten back to the States recently and he was looking forward to seeing an old friend—at least he hoped Georgie was still his friend. He hadn’t known she was in DC until he’d called Rick just a few days ago.

“Could you check on her for me, man?” Rick asked. “I think the divorce messed with her head. She seems sad. Won’t come home to Texas, insists on staying in DC and teaching college classes.”

Sam frowned. He had no idea what kind of reception Georgie might give him. He hadn’t seen her since she’d married Tim Cash six years ago. Before that, the last time he’d seen her was when she’d been naked in the front seat of his truck and he’d nearly taken everything she’d offered. He’d had the good sense to stop, but he wasn’t sure she’d ever forgiven him for it.

“Sure. But you’re her brother. Why don’t you just call her and ask how she is?”

Rick blew out a breath. “I call her every week, but she never says anything. She avoids my questions about Tim and says she’s fine.”

Sam fixed his gaze on her door. Birds chirped in the trees overhead as he steeled his backbone and prepared to ring the doorbell. Hell, he wanted to see Georgie. He just wasn’t certain she wanted to see him.

When he’d heard she was marrying that dick Timothy Cash, he swore he wouldn’t go to the wedding. But then the invitation had arrived, and though he’d replied no, he’d flown home at the last minute and walked into the reception, compelled by some force he hadn’t quite understood.

He had never forgotten the sight of Georgie in her wedding dress, or the way it had somehow managed to jab him right in the chest and make him ache for days. He hadn’t seen her since that day six years ago.

Sam took a deep breath and stepped up to the door. He’d just joined the Hostile Operations Team, the baddest-ass military outfit on the planet. He was not scared of a little girl from his hometown just because she somehow twisted him up inside.

No fucking way.

Sam jabbed the doorbell and waited. No one came. He jabbed the bell again and stepped back to look up at the house. A curtain moved in a window above. He didn’t know if that meant she would come to the door or not, but he wasn’t going away now that he knew she was home. Georgie couldn’t ignore him forever.

It took almost five minutes, but he heard movement inside. And then the door whipped open and Georgie was standing there, staring at him with the most God-awful, wounded-looking eyes. Jesus, had he put that look on her face? Or had Tim really hurt her that badly?

Sam wanted to drag her into his arms and hold her tight. “Hello, Georgie.”

She blinked. And then a slow smile appeared. It wasn’t a bright smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. “Hey, Sam.” Her gaze slid over him. “Get lost on your way to work?”

“Naw.” He stood there looking at her, just drinking her in and feeling that same jab in the chest he’d felt six years ago. Why? That’s what he didn’t get. She was just little Georgie Hayes, his best friend’s pain-in-the-ass baby sister.

You keep telling yourself that, stud.

She stood there in a stretchy tank top and what he’d been told were yoga pants, her body lush with those curves that had nearly done him in twelve years ago. Her green eyes were deep and mysterious, and her brown hair was piled on her head in a messy knot. She looked adorably rumpled, and he had a sudden thought that maybe she wasn’t precisely alone.

Which jabbed him in the chest a little bit harder than before.

She held the door open wide. “Do you want to come in?”

“That would be great.”

She stepped back and he entered, shutting the door behind him. Her foyer was dark and cool and he stood there like an idiot, waiting for her to say something. He figured if he was interrupting something, she might not let him in. On the other hand, he didn’t really know what Georgie would do these days.

She turned without speaking and he followed as she walked down the hallway. Sam frowned when he realized she was limping.

“You okay, G?”

Her shoulders stiffened momentarily. “Fine. I fell and got a little bruised.”

He didn’t know why, but that made his hackles rise. She’d been divorced from Tim for months, and while Tim was a class-A prick, Sam had never known him to be violent. But what if Georgie was seeing some guy who was?

Sam would kill him, that’s what.

Georgie entered a bright kitchen at the back of the house and walked over to the counter. “I was just coming down for coffee. You want some?”

“Sure.”

Sam stood there with his Army-issue beret in his hands and watched her move. She was stiff, but still so graceful. She grabbed two delicate-looking white cups and saucers from her cabinet. Georgeanne Hayes was Texas money, debutante balls, exclusive sororities, and country club all the way. She knew which fork to use, what to wear to any event—and she used bone china for her morning coffee.

He was nothing but a poor kid from a broken and dysfunctional family. The Hayeses had looked out for him as much as they were able, but he’d pretty much known from the time he’d been about thirteen that the military was his future. It guaranteed him a way out of Hopeful when nothing else would. Georgie’s father had talked to him once about college, about helping him apply for student loans and getting him a job to pay the money back when he was through.

Sam had been too proud to accept that kind of help. And too embarrassed to admit he didn’t think he was college material. His daddy grew angry over the time he spent with the Hayeses, accused him of “putting on airs.” Well, he wasn’t putting on airs, dammit, and he’d forged his own way in life. Maybe he wasn’t college educated, but he could damn well do things his father couldn’t.

For that matter, he could do things that Rick and Mr. Hayes couldn’t either. Not that they needed to know how to breach a steel door, rescue a hostage before the clock ran out, or hit a bull’s-eye blindfolded. But he could, and it made him proud.

Georgie fixed the coffee and pushed it at him over the counter. “Cream and sugar?”

“No, thanks.” He took the delicate cup and saucer and held them without drinking.

Georgie fixed her own and then looked him directly in the eye. “Did Rick send you?”

He wasn’t surprised at her directness. “Of course he did. But I’m here because I want to be. It’s good to see you, Georgie.”

She sighed, her shoulders slumping just a little. “I’m sorry, I’ve just been under some strain lately. I’m glad to see you, Sam. Glad you’re looking well. Rick told me you were in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was worried about you.”

Her concern made a lump form in his throat. “Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for thinking about me.”

She looked directly at him in a way he wasn’t quite accustomed to from her. “It’s been six years, Sam. I didn’t think I’d see you again after all this time.”

He shrugged. “I never doubted it. The military kinda does that to a guy.”

“You’ve been gone a long time.”

“It’s what I signed up for.”

She closed her eyes and tilted her head slowly to either side, stretching her muscles. He tried not to focus on the creamy skin of her neck while she moved so sensuously. He’d once had his mouth on that skin.

“So what did Rick say? Check up on Georgie because I think she’s gone off her rocker?”

Sam snorted a laugh. “Not quite. But yeah, he’s worried about you.”

She came around the island and headed for the family room. When she settled on the couch, tucking her knees beneath her, Sam didn’t miss the way she grimaced. He sank onto a chair opposite.

“I’m doing okay,” she said. “Tim and I just grew apart. It wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever been through, but the divorce was final almost a year ago now. I’ve moved on.”

He searched her face for signs of strain. “Rick thinks you should go home to Texas.”

She blinked at him. “And do what? Attend country club gatherings with my mother? Join the Junior League?” She shook her head. “I like DC. And I like what I do, so I’m staying. The last I checked, I was all grown up, and that’s one of the perks.”

Man, no wonder Rick had asked him to talk to her. Georgie wasn’t about to be pushed around. Unlike when they’d been kids. He was three years older than her and that made a huge difference at a young age. Now, not so much. “Didn’t peg you for a college professor.”

She shrugged. “I always wanted to be a writer, so the English degree was no stretch. Turns out I enjoy the teaching more than the writing, so here I am.”

“I’m sure you’re great at what you do. The kids must love you.”

She laughed. “They aren’t kids, Sam. Didn’t Rick tell you?” When he shook his head, she kept going. “I teach in the adult education program. My students are men and women like you. Right now, I’m at the Pentagon two nights a week, at Bolling AFB two nights, and Quantico some weekends.” She laughed again and took a sip of her coffee. “Enough about me. Tell me about you. What are you doing in DC?”

He couldn’t tell her about HOT. That wasn’t authorized. Now that he’d in-processed, he was pulling duty out at their smoking new training facility on a military base in Maryland. Getting to know the guys he’d be working with, the routines, everything. HOT had only moved to DC a few weeks ago now. Before that, they’d been down at Fort Bragg.

“Just got here for a new assignment. When I called Rick, he told me you were here.”

She sighed. “Tim took a job in DC about two years ago. I followed him, of course. Left a good job at the University of Texas, too.”

Sam leaned forward. He wanted to touch her, but he wisely refrained. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out, Georgie.”

She swallowed. And then she shrugged, as if it were nothing. “Sometimes it doesn’t. Lesson learned and all that.”

Sam set the coffee down on the end table. He knew about marriages that didn’t work out. He couldn’t imagine Tim Cash screaming at Georgie the way his father had screamed at his mother though. Couldn’t imagine Georgie crying and begging for another chance. The idea of her crying over that dickhead made him sick.

As if she’d just remembered why he’d spent so much time at her house as a kid, her expression changed into something that looked too much like pity for comfort. “Oh, Sam, I didn’t mean—”

He stood abruptly. The one thing he couldn’t stomach from anyone was pity. “I have to get to work, Georgie. I just wanted to stop by and see how you were.”

She looked up at him, her eyes bright. He hoped those weren’t tears. If they were, he was sunk. Georgie Hayes crying always brought out his protective instincts. She bit her lip and looked away again. “Of course. But can I ask you something first?”

A wave of tension rolled through him. He had no idea what the fuck she might ask. But he couldn’t refuse her when it seemed such an easy thing on the surface. “Anything, G. You can ask me anything.”

CHAPTER TWO

GEORGEANNE COULDN’T BELIEVE THAT Sam McKnight was standing in her house, looking so damn handsome and perfect and remote that she wanted to scream. When she’d been thirteen, he’d been everything she’d ever wanted in a boy. Three years older than she, he hadn’t been interested in the least. But he’d given her a lot of angsty nights dreaming about him.

He’d spent a lot of time at the Hayeses’ house. His parents didn’t have much money, and they all lived in a run-down trailer in the middle of a field about six miles from town. She remembered one summer when Sam had stayed at their house from the day school let out until right before it started again. Her parents hadn’t minded. Rick was happy to have his best friend around, and Georgeanne was happy to gaze blissfully at Sam over the dinner table every night.

She remembered when his parents divorced, too. He’d been sixteen, and he’d grown tight-lipped and sullen. He and Rick spent hours playing their guitars and sneaking Dad’s beer from the pool-house fridge. By then, she’d been a love-struck thirteen-year-old. She’d spent hours writing Mrs. Georgeanne McKnight in her diary. And she’d followed him around, asking questions, trying to get him to notice her.

He had, but never as anything more than Rick’s annoying little sister. He’d treated her exactly as Rick had treated her. Except for that one extremely memorable time when she’d been eighteen. Holy smokes, what a night that had almost been. She could still taste the disappointment and humiliation of him pushing her away as if it were yesterday.

She’d been burning up for him, wet and ready—and he’d stopped right before he’d gotten to the good part. Her fault. Shame still burned inside her when she thought of it. She only hoped it didn’t show on her face.

Right now she’d blundered when she’d started talking about divorce and relationships not working out. Sometimes it wasn’t so simple. Sometimes people grew to hate each other, and sometimes they dragged their kids into the hell they created. Sam had been torn between parents who viciously despised each other and who used him as a weapon in their war. He’d suffered, and she’d known it on some level, even as a thirteen-year-old.

Georgeanne swallowed the lump in her throat. She was on edge, emotional, and a big part of it was due to seeing him again. Six years, and he still had the ability to make her heart speed up. My God. She licked her lips.

“I… I was just wondering if you knew how I could find out if a soldier has been deployed. I’ve tried his unit orderly room, but they won’t tell me.”

Sam’s brows drew down and she knew he was thinking not only about what she’d asked him, but also about why she wanted to know. She didn’t know why she’d tossed it out there, except that Sam was in the Army and maybe he knew how these things worked. Clearly, she didn’t.

“Why do you need to know if someone has been deployed?”

That wasn’t what she’d expected. She shifted on the couch, her aching muscles protesting the movement. She’d nearly taken a dive onto the tracks last night, but a man standing near had caught her and yanked her backward. They’d both fallen, and she’d bruised her hip and side in the process.

She had no idea who’d bumped into her, but she was eternally grateful for the man who’d seen it and grabbed her in time. She was never standing so close to the edge of the platform again. Even if she was last on the train, she was standing far back until that baby stopped.

Sam was still gazing at her with a look of bafflement on his face.

She shrugged. Her initial thought was to tell him it was none of his business, but they weren’t kids anymore and she had nothing to hide. Besides, she’d asked him for information and he had a right to ask questions in return. “I have a student who stopped coming to class. It’s unusual.”

Sam only stared at her. And then he shook his head. “Not for an active-duty soldier, it isn’t. Things come up, sometimes at a moment’s notice.”

She could feel fresh heat creeping into her cheeks. Hadn’t she thought the same thing herself? “He worked admin in General Porter’s office.”

Sam frowned then. “Porter’s part of DARPA. Maybe the guy had to go somewhere for a test.”

She’d been working with the military for over a year now, and the acronyms still went over her head sometimes. “DARPA? What’s that?”

“It’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They work on technological projects designed to advance military capabilities around the globe. Real cloak-and-dagger stuff.”

Georgeanne shivered. Jake worked on cloak-and-dagger projects? “Sounds very secretive.”

Sam shrugged. “It is. But what I just told you is the kind of thing you’d find on Wikipedia. The projects are classified, but not the existence of the agency or their basic mission.”

Georgeanne frowned as she studied the coffee in her hands. She was being silly. Jake had been sent somewhere, and it was far more important to him than the possibility of a less-than-perfect GPA. “So he could have just gone away at a moment’s notice?”

“Very possible.”

Yet she couldn’t forget that last night in the Metro when he’d been talking to that man who’d given her a vaguely uneasy feeling. “I guess I can’t verify that in any way.”

“Probably not.” After a moment, Sam sighed, his rigid stance relaxing a hair. “Give me his name and I’ll see what I can find out. I’m not promising anything, but maybe if I ask the right people, I can find out when he’ll be back at least.”

“That would be amazing. Army Sergeant Jake Hamilton.”

Sam slapped the beret against his leg. “I really have to go, G. I have to get out to Maryland before the traffic gets too bad.”

Georgeanne dragged herself up, wincing as she put weight on her leg. “I appreciate you checking into this for me.”

Sam’s expression had turned hard, as if he wanted to punch something. It disconcerted her for a moment, but then she realized it was just his protective instincts coming out. No bully had ever bothered her for long with Sam and Rick around.

“You need to take a hot bath and relax.”

She smiled. “Did that last night. I imagine the bruising will only get worse before it gets better.”

Sam shoved a hand through his hair, which was sort of senseless since it was cropped so short. It was completely sexy on him. As were the muscles. Georgeanne forced herself to concentrate on his dark, glittering eyes. Put those muscles from your mind, girl.

“How did you fall?”

“Someone bumped into me in the Metro. I went down hard.” It was the truth, though she left out the part about nearly falling into a train’s path. Sam wouldn’t hesitate to call Rick about it, and then Rick would call their mother. Cynthia Tolliver Hayes would be on the next plane to DC. Georgeanne suppressed a shudder. She loved her mother, but the woman would suffocate her if she showed up.

Sam took a card from his pocket and wrote a number on it with the pen sitting on her coffee table. His tanned fingers were long and strong, and she found herself shivering involuntarily as she watched him write. Then he straightened again and she tried to force her mind away from his hands.

Hands that had once caressed her so sweetly she’d nearly cried. He’d slid a finger into her wet folds, stroked her until she’d sobbed his name. Her body clenched with the memory, even now. It had been far too long since she’d desired a man, far too long since she’d felt anything remotely like need flare deep inside her.

But right now if Sam McKnight asked her to strip naked and lie back on the sofa, she’d do it in a heartbeat.

“Call me if you need anything, Georgie.”

She tried not to swallow her tongue. If she needed anything. Gawd almighty.

She took the card, and then they stood there awkwardly for several moments while she wondered whether she should give him a friendly hug. How did you hug a man you’d once wanted with every ounce of desire in your body? A man who was currently making you zing with sparks you hadn’t felt in a long damn time?

“Goodbye, Georgie.”

Her heart turned over, but she managed to smile. “Bye, Sam. It was great seeing you.”

“You too.” He hesitated so long she thought he might say something else, but then he turned and walked back down the hallway. She listened to the door snick closed behind him, and then she cursed herself up one side and down the other.

Way to go, Georgie-girl.

* * * * *

Sam prowled around HOT headquarters like an angry lion. He didn’t know why he was so worked up over Georgie needing to know about a soldier. But he was. He could still hear the way she said the guy’s name, with such concern, until it twisted up inside his brain and made him want to dig it out by any means possible.

Jake Hamilton. She’d said he was just a good student she was concerned about, but she sounded almost fond of the guy. And that didn’t sit quite right with Sam, though God knew he didn’t have even the ghost of a reason to care. He’d given up that right a long time ago.

Georgie was off-limits to him. Always had been, even if he’d nearly fucked it up once.

He could still taste her sweet mouth, the nectar of her pussy on his fingers, the drumbeat of hot desire that had pounded in his brain until he’d been nearly mindless with the urge to slide into her body and give them both some sweet relief.

But then she’d whispered that she was still a virgin—that she’d saved herself for him—and he’d known he had to stop. How could he take what she offered with a clear conscience, knowing he could never give her more than a few stolen nights? Georgie had convinced herself she was in love with him when all he wanted was sex. If she’d been anybody else, he might not have cared. But she was Georgie, and he knew he couldn’t break her heart like that.

Aside from that one incident, she was like a sister to him. He’d spent long summers at her house, pretending not to notice her following him around like a lovesick puppy, and he’d grown to care about her. Hell, he cared about all the Hayeses. Rick, his mom and dad, and little Georgie. They’d given him shelter when he’d had none, given him a place to be a kid when his house was nothing but a battleground.

That was why he’d do whatever he could for any of them. So if Georgie was concerned about Sergeant Hamilton, then Sam would do his best. And he wouldn’t feel a pinch in his heart over the way she said the guy’s name or the blatant concern on her face.

He walked back inside the offices where his new squad was located and plopped down at the desk he’d been assigned. There was nothing on it yet but a computer and some binders containing mission briefs.

“Yo, Knight Rider, you got everything you need?”

Sam looked up to find Kevin MacDonald standing over him. Big Mac was the second-in-command of their squad. No one else was around right now except Billy “The Kid” Blake, who sat hunched over his computer, fingers flying as he worked to crack some kind of code or write a program. Or, hell, maybe he was hacking into China or something.

Sam had no idea since that wasn’t his thing. Weapons, that was his deal. Just give him some guns or explosives, and he was good to go.

It had definitely crossed his mind that the Kid could find Jake Hamilton. If Sam could ever manage to ask him about it. Sam was still new enough that he wasn’t quite sure about these guys yet. He’d been training with them pretty hard, and he knew they were all brilliant at what they did. He had no doubt his ass would be safer than all the gold in Fort Knox when he was out on a mission with HOT.

But that didn’t mean he felt comfortable enough to ask for information he wanted for personal reasons.

“Yeah, man. Doing great,” he answered.

Kev sank into a chair opposite. “So, you go see your friend?”

“Before work.” He tapped his fingers on the desk. What the hell. If he didn’t at least float the idea, he’d never know. “She teaches college classes at the Pentagon. Says one of her students is missing. An active-duty guy.”

Kev frowned. “Probably a short-notice deployment.”

“That’s what I told her. She isn’t convinced, and no one will give her any information.” He leaned back in the seat, bouncing it a little bit. “The guy works for DARPA. Nothing unusual in a short-notice assignment.”

Kev shrugged. “Ask the Kid. He could locate the record in half a minute. If it’s classified, that’s the end of it. But maybe he had emergency leave or something. At least then you could tell her not to worry.” Kev grinned. “Or maybe you want the guy to stay gone? Give you a chance, right? Is she pretty?”

Sam couldn’t find his voice. Was she pretty? Hell, yeah. Pretty, and so fucking sexy he could grow hard thinking about her. But he wouldn’t. He had too much self-discipline for that.

Keep telling yourself that, ace.

He cleared his throat. “She’s like a sister to me, dude. I grew up with her and her brother.”

“Ah.” Kev stood. “Well then, different story. Hey, Kid, got something for you,” he called. Then he winked at Sam and strode out of the room.

Sam glanced over at Billy Blake. The guy was looking at him quizzically. “What you need?”

* * * * *

Georgeanne decided she needed to get out of the house. She had no classes today, but that still wasn’t an excuse to lie around and do nothing. Besides, sitting at home, all she could seem to think about was Sam standing in her living room and the mixed-up tangle of emotions she’d felt from the moment she opened the door and saw him on her threshold.

It was early on an August day, and the humidity was already approaching unbearable. Still, Georgeanne forged onward until she reached her favorite café, ordered a latte, and took a seat in the corner where she could watch people go by. She’d been there for about a half hour, scrolling through e-mail on her laptop, when a man sat down across from her.

She looked up in surprise. The café wasn’t full and there were plenty of other tables. “Hi,” he said, smiling broadly. He was dark eyed, dark skinned. His smile did not reach his eyes.

“Can I help you?” She infused her voice with her best frosty tone, learned at the feet of her debutante mother, and waited for him to take the hint.

“You’re pretty,” he said.

“Thank you, but I’m not interested.”

He reached for her hand, gripping it in a surprisingly strong hold. Georgeanne tried to jerk away, but he held her tight. Her heart hammered and her stomach bottomed out as a wave of bitter acid flooded her tongue. She opened her mouth to yell for help.

Before she could say anything, the man leaned forward, his eyes gleaming with malice. “Your lover lied to us, Dr. Hayes. We are not amused. If you don’t wish to fall again, you will do what we ask when it is time.”

He let her go and shoved back from the table. Georgeanne sat there with her heart in her throat, her skin flushing hot. Her lover? What? She wanted to call out and tell him he had the wrong person, but the man was gone.

And then a river of ice poured down her spine as the rest of his words sank in. Last night hadn’t been an accident. Someone had actually tried to push her into the path of an oncoming train. Bile rolled in sickening waves in her belly.

Georgeanne sucked in a breath and then another and another as she tried not to hyperventilate. Cold fear gripped her hard, shaking her until her entire body trembled uncontrollably. She darted her gaze around the coffee shop, but no one seemed to be interested in her. Hastily, she grabbed her things and shoved them into her bag with hands that shook so hard she could barely perform the task. She wanted to go home and lock her doors and not come out for a week.

The day was bright, the streets filled with tourists and residents alike. She told herself no one would approach her again as she hurried out to the street. But she walked quickly up the road, though her sore hip ached. She wanted to be inside her house where she could lock the doors and windows, where no stranger could grab her like he had the right. Where no one could threaten her.

She reached her street, hurried up her steps, and put her key into the lock with trembling fingers. Once inside, she let out a shaky sigh. She set her purse on the table near the door and walked back toward the kitchen and family room. A glass of ice with some vodka and tonic—heavy on the vodka—was just what she needed right about now. Then she could think again.

But when she walked into the kitchen, fear clutched her heart in a cold fist. Her insides liquified. The back door was wide open.

CHAPTER THREE

GEORGEANNE WAS NOT ONE to fall apart. She’d been raised to be gracious, strong, and flexible in all things. Her mother was pure Texas steel and her father had more grit than a beach. But this was not the same as dealing with a surly waiter or a pushy car salesman. This was dead serious and far outside her area of expertise.

The instant she saw the open door, she ran back through the house, snagging her purse along the way, and then out the front door. Standing on the street, trembling, she whipped out her cell phone and called the first person she could think of.

Sam answered on the third ring. His voice was warm and gravelly, and she wanted to wrap it around her like a blanket. He told her very quietly, his voice as strong and hard-edged as a diamond, to go to a neighbor’s house and wait for him. She didn’t even consider disobeying.

Once she was at her neighbor’s house—a lovely woman with two toddlers who usually chattered nonstop about babies, diapers, and things like potty training and teething—she began to realize what she’d done. She’d called Sam instead of the police. Why had she done that?

Sissy brought Georgeanne a cup of hot tea, her pretty face bordering on terrified. “I’ve been telling Don we need to install an alarm system.” She picked up her cup, her fingers trembling. In the background, her toddlers screamed along to something on the television. “What if someone tried to break in here when it’s just me and the girls?”

Georgeanne willed her thumping heart to beat a little slower. “I’m sure I must have left the door unlocked,” she said, wanting to calm Sissy’s fears as much as her own. “Someone could have just walked right in. Or maybe I didn’t push it all the way closed and it worked itself free while I was gone.”

Sissy chewed her lip. “That’s possible. And it’s not like we’ve had a rash of break-ins. Still, I’ll feel better once we get that alarm. Maybe we should call the police, just in case…”

Georgeanne smoothed a hand along her jeans. She’d thought about that too, but Sam just seemed like the right person. “I already called my friend. He’s a badass military guy, so I know he’ll make sure everything is fine. If he thinks someone broke in and I should call the police, I will.”

Sissy nodded. “That sounds sensible. It’s not like the police don’t have enough to do, right?”

“Right.”

But there was a downside to calling Sam, and Georgeanne had been thinking about that too. What if he told Rick? Oh mercy…

The phone chose that moment to ring and Georgeanne jumped at the blare. Sissy snatched it up and started filling her husband in. Georgeanne sat there, clutching the cup in one hand, and went over everything in her mind from the moment she’d left the house until she returned. Had she left the door unlocked? Could it have swung open from the pressure when she closed the front door?

And what did that mean for Belle? After the incident in the coffee shop, her fight-or-flight response had been so tuned that she’d ran without stopping to look for her cat. She put her head down and sucked in a breath.

She wanted to go back right now and check for Belle, but she knew better. All she could do was wait for Sam to arrive while asking herself a zillion times whether she should have just called the police instead.

Within a half hour, someone banged on the door. Georgeanne and Sissy both jumped, but then Sissy got up and went to answer it. A moment later, Sam entered the room and a wave of relief washed over Georgeanne. She didn’t even hesitate before getting up and flinging herself into his arms.

He seemed stunned at first, but then his arms tightened around her. “You’re fine,” he said softly. “And Belle is fine too. There’s no one there.”

She sucked in a shaky breath and pushed herself back to look up at him. He was blurry.

“You’re sure? She’s really okay?”

“Yes, she’s okay. She was hiding beneath the couch.” His dark eyes gleamed hot, and she knew he was suppressing something. She’d always known when Sam was shoving his feelings deep and twisting the screws down on the lid.

“I want to see her. Now.”

“Sure.”

Georgeanne thanked Sissy, and then she and Sam went next door and into her house, which he’d locked up tight before coming over to get her. Just to be sure, he checked everything again while she cradled Belle in her arms and stroked her soft fur. Belle purred as if nothing had happened. Georgeanne was weak with relief. Belle had been her companion through all the crap with Tim, and she couldn’t imagine life without her sweet cat.

Finally, Sam joined her in her office, which was in the front of the house. “You need to pack a bag, Georgie. You aren’t staying here.”

Her heart twisted in her chest. She wanted to do exactly as he said, and yet she’d learned a hard lesson with Tim. Never give your power to a man. Never let a man control you. She had to be strong and face her fear. Just because someone had scared her didn’t mean she needed to flee. “I’m not going to run away because of a man in a coffee shop.”

She’d told Sam what the man had said to her, but he hadn’t yet addressed it. He stepped forward, and she realized again just how big and hard he was. In spite of herself, a little flame leapt and curled in her belly. Sam McKnight. Still so handsome. Still so remote.

And still not interested in Georgie Hayes.

Not that she needed to be worrying about that right now, but it was somehow easier to concentrate on Sam and all her latent feelings than on the fact someone had threatened her just an hour ago.

“I wasn’t giving you a choice. Get packed.”

Something in his tone rubbed her the wrong way, making her think of days long ago. “I’m not twelve anymore, and you can’t tell me what to do. I have a life, a job.” She squeezed Belle, who started to squirm. “And my cat. I can’t just leave.”

“Take the cat with you. But you are leaving, Georgie. One way or the other.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

His eyes glittered with determination. “It means I’ll throw you over my shoulder if I have to.”

Georgeanne swallowed. She had to be sensible about this. Had to know she was doing the right thing. “Give me a good reason, Sam. Make me believe this isn’t just you being overprotective because you think you owe Rick something.”

He swore then, soft and low. “All right.” He put his fists on his hips, his legs spread apart. “You need to pack a bag, Georgie, and you need to come with me right now. Because I found Jake Hamilton for you—”

“You found Jake?” She’d nearly forgotten about Jake over the last couple of hours.

He nodded, his expression firm and unhappy at the same time. Dread took up residence in her gut.

“He’s not coming back, Georgie.”

“Something happened to him?” Her voice was little more than a whisper. She’d known it. Somehow, she’d known.

Sam nodded. “Yes.”

Her eyes filled with tears and her legs just sort of collapsed underneath her. She found herself sitting on a chair, looking up at Sam through a haze of tears. “I don’t understand.”

He’d been a young Army sergeant working on his college degree. He’d been an intense student, a good student. She remembered him sitting in her class, always on the front row, always asking questions and taking diligent notes. He’d been the kind of person she would have said would go a long way because he was determined to do so.

Sam came over and hunkered down in front of her. He brushed the tears off her cheeks. “I need you to trust me, Georgie. I need you to pack some things, pack the cat, and come with me.”

She sucked in another breath and tried not to lose it. “I have no idea what’s going on. Do you think what happened in the coffee shop was related? Was that man talking about Jake?” She had no idea why anyone would think Jake had been her lover, but right now that was the only thing that made sense. And that thought chilled her to the bone. Jake worked for a secret agency and now he was dead.

And someone had threatened her—worse, they’d actually pushed her last night.

Sam looked fierce. “I don’t know, but we’ll find out.”

She shook her head. “I don’t see how. Jake’s gone, and I don’t know who that guy was. Or why he thinks I know anything.” She pulled in another deep breath. “I didn’t do anything, Sam. I don’t know what’s going on and… and I’m scared.”

He squeezed her hand. “I know people who can figure this out.”

She knew she should ask more questions, but she was just too upset. And she trusted him. That was the bottom line. “Where are you taking me?”

“Somewhere safe.”

That wasn’t an answer and he knew it. And while she might have no choice in this, there was one place she didn’t want to go. “I won’t go to Texas, Sam. I can’t—”

His fingers caressed her skin again and she found herself wanting to lean into him, wanting him to keep touching her until the sadness went away. How could her body light up when he touched her even though she was feeling so many other things right now?

“I’m not sending you to Texas. I’m not letting you out of my sight. You’re coming with me, and we’re going to a safe house in Maryland.”

“You won’t leave me?”

His smile was tender, reassuring. “No, I won’t leave you.”

She looked down at her lap, unable to meet the intensity of his gaze a moment longer. “All right.”

His hand dropped away, and she found herself wanting to cry out, wanting to ask him not to stop.

“Good. I’m sorry about Sergeant Hamilton, Georgie. But I won’t let anything happen to you. You can count on that.”

“I know it.” Impulsively, she reached out and ran her palm along his jaw. She’d been aching to touch him. His eyes darkened, becoming hot pools she wanted to drown in. “I trust you, Sam. Completely.”

He caught her hand and pulled it away from his skin. “You can trust me with your life, Georgie. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can trust me with anything else. I’m not that good, believe me.”

* * * * *

The car ride was silent. Or would have been if not for the incessant meowing of Georgie’s cat.

“You know something, Sam?” Georgie said, and he started at the sound of her voice breaking into his thoughts when the cat had almost become white noise to him.

He shot her a glance. “What?”

“Maybe I don’t want you to be good. Maybe I want you to be as bad as you can be.”

Sam gripped the wheel of his truck and stared straight ahead. Jesus. “Don’t say shit like that to me, Georgie. You know I’m not going there.”

She snorted. “Boy, do I.”

“Georgie—”

“No, don’t you Georgie me. When you stopped that night…” He could feel her looking at him, her eyes boring an angry hole into him. He told himself she was reacting to everything that had happened to her today and taking it out on him. This wasn’t really about something that had happened twelve years ago. It was just a convenient target.

“When you stopped that night, I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I wasn’t sexy enough or special enough for you. And that hurt.”

“Of course you were,” he bit out. “But you’re Rick’s little sister and I was the wrong guy for a lot of reasons. I stopped because you were special.”

“You were the one I wanted.”

He swallowed hard. “I couldn’t do it, Georgie. I couldn’t do it and look Rick in the eye ever again. Or your parents.”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. “You know who was my first?”

“Goddamn it, I don’t want to know.” His voice snapped in the interior of the car. Even the cat went silent. Sam closed his eyes. He did not lose his temper. Not ever. But she made him forget all the vows he’d ever sworn to himself.

Georgie folded her arms over her chest. “Fine. But you know what you need to remember right now? Here it is, so put it front and center in that brain of yours and keep it there. I’m not your sister, and I’m not a kid anymore.”

Sam sat there in stony silence, uncertain what in the hell he could possibly say. No, she wasn’t his sister. But it was safer for him if he thought of her that way. He wanted to keep her in a safe place in his head, but in the space of a conversation she’d gone and thrown her grappling hook over the walls he’d erected and climbed right over them.

She thought he had trouble remembering she wasn’t a kid anymore. No, what he had trouble remembering was that he was no good for her. Because damn if he didn’t want her. He wanted her every possible way he could have her.

But she wasn’t his for the taking. She was too good for the likes of him. Even if he wanted something more than a few nights of sex with her—and he in no way thought he did—he owed the Hayeses too much to drag their daughter into the kind of life he led. Now that he’d joined HOT, his already crazy life had just gotten crazier. His deployments would be more specialized now, more dangerous in many ways. With the Rangers, he’d done plenty of dangerous things—jumping into enemy territory in the middle of the night and engaging in pitched battles with enemy forces while trying to take—or defend—ground.

But HOT, like Delta Force, was about a hundred levels up. Their missions were top secret, highly focused, and extremely sensitive. Right now, most of their resources were bent toward catching Jassar ibn-Rashad. The new Freedom Force leader had escaped a mission to capture him just a few months ago now. Two men were killed in that op—Marco San Ramos and Jim Matuzaki. Sam was one of the replacements, and he felt it keenly. The other guys didn’t talk much about what had happened in the desert, but everyone knew. The entire squad was captured, and Jim and Marco were executed when no one would talk.

The rest of them would have been executed too, except that another HOT squad managed to get them out. Sam hadn’t gone out on an op with them yet, but it could happen at any moment.

Now, however, he had Georgie to worry about. When the Kid had found out that Jake Hamilton had been dragged out of the Potomac only a few days ago, Sam’s blood ran cold. Right after that, Georgie called him, terrified, and Sam bolted out of HOT HQ like someone had aimed a flamethrower at his ass.

Sam’s phone rang and he glanced down at it sitting in the console. A HOT code flashed on the screen so he picked it up and answered with a clipped “McKnight.”

“This is Captain Girard, Sergeant. Everything okay?”

Sam’s gut hollowed. His CO calling him couldn’t be a good thing at a time like this. “Yessir. Just have to take care of something personal, sir.”

“Big Mac told me about your friend. She okay?”

Sam glanced over at Georgie, who was now staring out the window. Mad at him, no doubt. “I think so, sir. There was no one in the house, but the back door had been forced.”

Georgie swung around to look at him, her eyes wide. Yeah, he hadn’t told her that part. And she was gonna give him hell over it.

“Circumstances have changed somewhat, Sergeant. It seems as if HOT is officially involved in this case now. You’ll need to bring her here, and then we’ll make sure she gets somewhere safe.”

Sam gripped the phone tight. Jesus, if HOT was involved, there was most certainly a foreign component. The military did not operate inside US borders except under very specific and well-defined circumstances. This was not one of them. And that made Sam’s blood run just a little colder. What the hell had Georgie gotten herself into?

“I need to do this, sir. I’m responsible for her.” Because Rick would kill him if anything happened to Georgie. Hell, Sam would hand him the gun and beg him to pull the trigger.

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone. “Fine. But you’re coming here first. Understood, soldier?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Sam replied. The connection ended and Sam put the phone down again with a sinking feeling in his gut. If HOT was a part of this thing, the level of severity had just taken a quantum leap.

He glanced over at Georgie. She had her lower lip between her teeth. “You didn’t tell me about the door.”

“Didn’t want to worry you.”

She frowned. “I was already worried, Sam.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t want to add to it.”

She let out an exasperated breath. “Always trying to protect me, even when I don’t want it.”

He flexed his hands on the wheel. “You want it this time, Georgie. Believe me.”

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what that means?”

He shook his head slowly. “Nope. And don’t ask again, because I can’t. It’s not my decision.”

“Does this have anything to do with Jake’s death?”

“I think it has everything to do with it,” he said softly.

Georgie turned her head and stared out the window. She didn’t speak again.


Want to read more? Get your copy here:






Hot Package

CHAPTER ONE

Two Days Before Christmas…

OLIVIA REESE WAS IN TROUBLE. Big trouble. And it had nothing to do with the fact it was nearly Christmas and she was spending it all alone. Unlike last year, when she’d been wrapped up in Billy “The Kid” Blake’s arms. That was the first Christmas in a long time where she’d been happy and filled with thoughts of the future.

She pushed away memories of slick skin, hard muscles, and utter bliss, and pulled in a deep breath. Then she scrolled through the documents on her computer one more time. She’d been working for Titan Technology for the last few months, in their PR department, and she’d bought the company spiel—hook, line, and sinker. She’d seen the test results for their revolutionary weapons guidance system, and she’d put together the package to convince Congress why Titan should supply the next generation of targeting systems to the Army.

Her eyes blurred as she reread the results she was seeing onscreen—the real results. Everything she’d been told was a lie. Everything she’d believed and everything she’d worked to sell. She’d thought she was helping to protect men like Billy, warfighters who put their lives on the line for this country every day.

A chill went through her then, because if this sale went through, she’d be helping to dig their graves instead.

Olivia put her hand to her mouth and sat there with her heart in her throat, imagining Billy fighting in some war-torn country, depending on this equipment to save his life. And when it failed…

A noise in the outer office forced Olivia’s head up. It was late and dark in the company’s offices in Arlington, Virginia, but she’d stayed behind to catch up on some work after the Christmas party earlier that day. Tom Howard, the company president, had informed everyone they were to take the next week off in celebration of their certain victory when Congress reconvened in January.

They had the votes, according to him, and the deal was sewn up. The project was a success and everyone had been jubilant. There’d been champagne and much laughter. Olivia had joined in the fun, though she’d thought it was inviting bad luck even though Titan had outpaced all their competitors. Unless someone else invented a whole new system over the holidays, theirs was the best.

Except that it wasn’t.

Olivia began to shake as voices filtered through the empty office. On instinct, she ejected the CD and stuffed it in her purse. It had come from Alan Cooper, Titan’s head of development, and she still couldn’t figure out why he’d sent her such a thing. Unless he hadn’t meant to.

But it had been in a holey joe envelope in her inbox, clearly marked for her.

Olivia’s belly churned as she ducked down behind her desk. She told herself it was silly to hide when she had every right to be there, but some little voice in the back of her head insisted. Two shadows moved past her office. She could see them flaring on her wall through the windows. She’d shut her office door, so unless they’d seen the light from her screen before she’d put the computer to sleep, they would have no idea she was here.

The time she’d spent with Billy hadn’t been long in the scheme of things, but she’d learned a thing or two from him. And one of those seemed to be a healthy paranoia about people’s motives and capabilities. She hunkered under her desk and waited for what seemed like hours. The office remained quiet and she finally came out, grabbed her purse and coat, and tiptoed to her door.

Olivia opened it quietly and listened, though it was hard as hell to hear anything over the pounding of her heart. She hurried through the office, keyed herself out of the security locks, and stepped into the outer lobby of the building that housed Titan Technology’s offices. A security guard looked up from the desk and nodded at her.

“Ma’am,” he said as she walked by. He called out again when she didn’t stop.

Olivia spun around, her mind racing. “Yes?”

He pushed the book on the counter toward her. “You forgot to sign out, ma’am.”

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” Olivia marched over to the counter and signed her name on the appropriate line with trembling fingers. The guard checked the entry against her badge and then nodded.

Olivia hurried through the frosty parking lot. She got into her car, locked the doors, and glanced up at the windows to Titan’s offices. Someone stood in the window, and she shuddered uncontrollably. It might be nothing. Probably was nothing. But if anyone wanted to know who had just left the building, all they had to do was check the logs.

* * * * *

It was starting to snow. Billy Blake listened to the excited chatter of the waitresses as he sat at the bar and nursed a beer. Two days until Christmas and it looked as if DC might get a white one after all. It didn’t happen often, unlike back home. Billy thought of Sky Mountain, of his aunt and uncle’s log cabin decorated for the holiday with twinkling white lights and a giant tree in the front window. His cousins would gather there on Christmas Eve and the whole family would drink hot chocolate, eat Aunt June’s famous crispy goose, and sing carols around the piano until midnight when they would each open one present.

Then they would go to bed and arise much too early when one of Billy’s nephews or nieces couldn’t wait another minute to see what Santa had brought. Aunt June would fix French toast and coffee and the fun would begin again.

Billy wished like hell he could be there. But the Hostile Operations Team had an important mission coming up and there was no time to go home for the holiday. There hadn’t been time for the past four years. Aunt June tried to hide her disappointment whenever she called to ask each year, but Billy knew. Aunt June was his mother’s sister and she’d always treated him like her own. From five years of age, he had been. She and Uncle Jerry raised him when his mother dropped him off one day and never came back. He loved them both and missed them most of all at this time of year.

Billy shoved the beer away and tossed some bills on the bar. He’d thought he might like sitting in a noisy bar rather than in the quiet of his home where he could think about his family—or, worse, about the way he’d spent last Christmas lost in the delectable body of Olivia Reese—but he’d been wrong. He stood and shrugged into his jacket and walked outside. The snow was fat and soft and it was accumulating fast on the grass and the rounded lumps of vehicles. It was melting on the pavement for the moment, but that wouldn’t last when the temperature dropped after midnight. If the Department of Transportation wasn’t out with the salt trucks, this would be a helluva mess in the morning.

Billy wasn’t afraid of a little snow driving. Growing up in Vermont, you learned real quick. But no one could drive on ice. It was best to stay home and wait for the thaw, or risk getting plowed over by some idiot who thought a four-wheel drive meant he could go where he wanted no matter the weather.

Billy dusted snow off the windshield of his Tahoe and climbed behind the wheel. It wasn’t a long drive to the little house he’d rented but he was glad for the beast of a truck that would get him down the tiny lane. It still amazed him that you could be right here in the midst of a sprawling suburbia that stretched between DC and Baltimore, and yet still manage to turn down a road and find yourself in the country.

He liked that. He swung the Tahoe onto his road and flipped on the fog lights so he could see through the swirling snow. He’d gone about a mile when his headlights flashed on the shiny form of a car sitting sideways in the ditch. They’d taken the curve too fast, no doubt, and slid into the ditch before they could correct course.

Billy sighed and brought the Tahoe to a stop, grabbing a flashlight from the glove compartment before getting out and walking over to the car—a BMW 328i that still looked pretty new. There was no one in it so he went back to the truck and started down the road again. His headlights illuminated the dark form of someone walking up ahead. Hands shoved in pockets, hood up, head down, the person could have been a man or a woman if not for the skirt that ended a couple of inches above the back of the knee.

The woman wasn’t doing a good job of walking, no doubt because she was wearing a pair of high heels. When she realized he was behind her, she tried to move faster. And then she stumbled off the road and down into a wide field that led nowhere. Billy shoved the truck into park and got out. The woman was trying to slide into the treeline at one side of the field.

“Hey,” he called out. “You need some help?”

It was a stupid question, but he figured she was scared and didn’t need him chasing after her. She stopped and turned and he spoke again as snow dissolved against his face and chilled his skin.

“Can I give you a ride somewhere, ma’am? Or you can use my phone to call for help if you prefer.”

She began to move toward him then and he breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t really wanted to chase some strange woman into the trees, but he couldn’t in all conscience have left her out here to freeze.

She had trouble moving up the slope and he went over to give her a hand. It was pretty dark, but her pale coat stood out like a beacon in the reflected light from the Tahoe. He gripped the flashlight in one fist but resisted the urge to shine it on her.

She grasped his hand with gloved fingers and he tugged her up the slope until she was on a level with him. She was shorter than he was—no surprise since he didn’t encounter many women who were six-two—and small-boned. He looked down at her feet, wondering how on earth she’d managed to run toward the woods in those heels, and realized she’d lost the shoes. She was standing barefoot in the snow on a freezing Maryland road and that sound he heard was her teeth chattering.

Billy swore. On instinct, he swept her up into his arms as if she weighed next to nothing. She gasped and he opened his mouth to apologize for surprising her and to reassure her that he wouldn’t hurt her.

But then she laughed and he stilled as that sound dove down beneath his skin and curled around his soul. He knew that laugh. Her hood had fallen back now and he peered down into a face he’d never thought he would see again. She’d ripped his guts out when she’d left. Not that he would ever let her know it.

“Olivia?” His voice was cold and distant. And filled with shock.

“Hey, B-billy,” she said between chatters. “I w-was just c-coming to s-see you.”

CHAPTER TWO

“YOU SHOULD HAVE CALLED FIRST.” Billy stood next to a fireplace, poking the fire up higher, his face in profile to her as he worked. Olivia sat on his couch, wrapped in a blanket, a mug of hot coffee in her hands as she tried to thaw out.

“I didn’t think you’d answer,” she said softly. “Or maybe I thought you’d changed your number.” Her teeth chattered on the last word, but she wasn’t certain now whether it was adrenaline or cold. Probably both.

But she knew he hadn’t changed his number. These days, with unlimited nationwide calling on cell phones, why would someone like him change a number when he was just as likely to move again in the near future?

Billy turned and sank down on a chair across from her—as far away as he could get, she supposed, without leaving his own house—and glared. Her heart turned over and she asked herself again why she’d come. Why she’d thought for one minute he could help her. This problem was bigger than he was. Way bigger. But she had nowhere else to turn.

She needed Billy’s advice. But first she had to get through the pain of seeing him again, the sizzling attraction even now fizzing in her veins, and think about what had happened tonight.

“How did you find me?”

She didn’t like admitting this part, but there was no getting around it. “A favor from a friend.”

“A favor from a friend.” He said it darkly and she swallowed. Special operators typically flew under the radar. Their real lives weren’t necessarily cloaked in secrecy, but the HOT guys didn’t exist in the real Army. If you wanted to find them, you had to know someone. And if he thought about it he’d know she could have only talked to a handful of people.

It had been sheer accident that she’d run across Matt Girard and Kevin MacDonald in the Pentagon one day a couple of months ago, but Matt had told her where Billy was living. He’d probably thought she might go see Billy, but she hadn’t been able to do it. She’d held onto the knowledge of where he was like an old blanket she couldn’t part with. She knew that all she had to do was find the courage to pick up the phone, or make a drive out to Maryland.

Of course she never had.

Billy scraped a hand through his dark hair and swore softly. “Never thought to see you again, Livvie. You made it pretty clear that was your wish.”

He was the only man in the world who could call her Livvie and get away with it. The sound stroked down her skin like a caress, made her remember things she’d rather not.

“That wasn’t my wish at all.”

She’d been scared. And maybe a bit stupid. Not that she was telling him that, but she’d thought it often enough over the past few months. She’d rashly given him an ultimatum and all he’d said was that they needed to talk when he returned from the mission he’d been going on. He hadn’t said he loved her and she knew he wouldn’t choose her over HOT.

She hadn’t said those words either, but she’d certainly felt them. She hadn’t wanted to be the first to open her heart, but in that moment when he’d looked at her coolly and told her they would talk, she’d known what was coming. And since she knew what it was like to doggedly hang on to a man who didn’t love you, she’d known what she had to do. She’d vowed long ago she would never beg a man for his heart.

Her flighty mother was still looking for love, still choosing the wrong man and hanging on tight until he dumped her and went for someone younger and prettier and less neurotic.

Olivia’s insides twisted tight. Yes, she’d walked out on him. But he hadn’t come looking for her either. He’d returned from his mission and she’d been gone. She’d taken the job with Titan and moved to DC. He’d never called her.

Billy’s dark eyes bored into her and she knew he wasn’t about to open up the Pandora’s Box of emotion that lay between them ever again. So far as he was concerned, it was another mission; over and done and move on to the next one.

“You didn’t come here to discuss the past. What gives?”

Olivia gulped down the acid rising in her throat. It had seemed like a good idea to seek him out, but now she wasn’t so sure. What if he told her to get out once she spilled her story? “I need your help, Billy.”

His hot stare didn’t waver. “My help.”

She pulled the blanket tighter and swallowed. After she’d left the office, she’d been planning to go straight home and shut herself away for the night. Tomorrow, everything would make more sense. But as she’d pulled into the parking garage of her building, she’d felt the hair on the back of her neck start to crawl. It was probably nothing, but no way was she getting out of her car and walking over to the elevator knowing what she had in her purse.

“Someone sent me something and I’m not sure what to make of it.”

He didn’t say anything and she tumbled on nervously. “There were these files I shouldn’t have seen.”

Now his eyes gleamed with interest. If there was anything that lit Billy up like a Christmas tree, it was computers. And sex.

Jesus. Olivia closed her eyes and tried to shove away the image of a very naked and very hard Billy Blake hovering over her in that last thick moment before he plunged into her and rocked her world like no other man ever had before or since. Just last year, they’d been tangled together on the couch in front of the Christmas tree, nothing but the colored lights illuminating their skin as they made love. She hadn’t put up a tree this year because she hadn’t wanted to remember. Billy had the small tabletop tree from his aunt, she noticed, but it wasn’t plugged in.

Though it probably had everything to do with her arriving unannounced and nothing to do with painful memories.

“Go on,” he said.

“I work for Titan Technology now,” she said, spilling the details of her job over the past few months. “We’re about to get approval on a weapons guidance system for the Army.”

Billy nodded. “Mendez has mentioned Titan. It’s real revolutionary, what they’re doing. It’ll help a lot of our soldiers.”

Olivia was sweating now. She pushed the blanket away and sucked in a breath as tears pressed the backs of her eyes. Dammit, she wasn’t going to cry. She never cried. Not even when she’d told Billy to choose her or HOT and he’d chosen HOT. She’d watched him pack up his duffel, stared dry-eyed as he swung it over his shoulder and shot her a dark look.

“We’ll talk when I get back.”

But she’d known he’d made his choice. He’d walked out and she’d still not cried. She’d shook. She’d poured a shot of tequila. She’d watched a sappy movie on television and passed out after one too many shots. But she’d never cried.

“That’s the thing,” she said now, looking into the eyes of the only man she’d ever loved. “If what I saw is real, it won’t help anyone. It’s a lie, Billy. Nothing but a lie.”
His jaw tightened. “You better tell me everything.”

* * * * *

Since the minute he’d put her in the truck and brought her to his house, he’d been having a hell of a time concentrating on anything but the sight of her creamy skin. Her tights had been wet and ripped and she’d stripped them off in the bathroom before coming back out here in her skirt and turtleneck sweater. The sweater might cover her completely, but it was little better than the skirt because it emphasized the gorgeous curves of her full breasts.

Breasts he’d licked and sucked and touched many times in the six months they’d been together. His dick hardened as he remembered the way she’d writhed beneath him, her blonde hair spread over the pillow, her pink lips parting to gasp his name as he took her over the edge of pleasure and into something that had only existed between the two of them.

He’d fucked women before and since Olivia Reese, and none of them tangled him up inside the way she had. The way she still did. He was reeling as much from her presence as from the tale she told.

A tale that shocked and angered him the more she went on. She sat on his couch with her head bent and spun out a story that tightened his guts into knots. If Titan was falsifying their results in order to get a lucrative contract, then a lot of people could be hurt when the technology didn’t deliver as planned.

“Someone sent you a disc,” he stated, his voice as cool and emotionless as he could make it.

She looked up at him. “Yes. But I don’t know if it was an accident or not.”

“What did you do with it?”

“It’s in my purse.” She reached for the bag she’d set at her feet and dug out a CD-ROM.

Billy took it from her and grabbed one of his laptops from the desk. Then he inserted the disc and waited for it to open.

“Holy shit,” he breathed when the information spilled across the screen.

“It’s Alan Cooper’s notes,” she said. “He’s the head of development for Titan.”

Billy clicked another screen. “He has some screen shots here of test results. And then his notes that say the information was falsified.”

Billy shoved a hand through his hair. It was pretty damning stuff. But there was no hard evidence here, just an engineer’s notes. And without hard evidence, there was nothing to indicate this wasn’t simply one disgruntled employee’s attempt at giving the company a black eye.

“What are we going to do with it?” She sounded so hopeful, as if she trusted he had all the answers.

Billy sat back and blew out a breath. “Livvie, this isn’t good enough.”

She blinked at him, her green eyes wide and wounded. Dammit, he wanted to haul her into his arms and comfort her. Not happening.

“But those are Alan’s notes. I don’t doubt it. He has a certain shorthand he uses in his phrasing, and that’s consistent.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s circumstantial. The screen shots are all for the results they’ve presented to Congress.”

“So there’s nothing we can do.” There was an edge of anger to her voice.

“Not precisely. We need the real research, Liv.”

“Then we need Alan. He’d know where to find it.”

Billy turned back to the computer and clicked through a few more screens. At the end of the last screen was a typed note. Dig deeper. It’s all there.

He turned the computer and showed her the screen. She put a hand over her mouth. “My God. But why didn’t he just copy the real information and send it to someone who could do something? Why me?”

Billy started to reach for her hand, thought better of it. What kind of brush fire would he be igniting if he touched her again?

“I imagine he couldn’t get to the real information. Where is Alan Cooper right now, Liv?”

She blinked. “He went on vacation a couple of days ago. To St. Thomas.”

“St. Thomas.” Billy didn’t believe it for a minute. “Who told you that?”

She hesitated for a long moment. Her voice, when she spoke, was a whisper. “Tom Howard.” She bit her lip. “Oh God, Titan will be ruined if this goes public.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think Tom…?”

Hell, he thought a lot of things. But nothing he was willing to speculate on just yet. Billy closed out the files and called up the internet. He’d hacked into a lot of networks in his life. It was his specialty on the team. Well, one of his specialties. They were all multi-talented in HOT.

“You got a VPN?”

Her forehead scrunched up. “A what?”

“Can you log into your email remotely?” Most companies needed their employees to be able to log into email from other locations in order to get stuff done, so they used a Virtual Private Network to do it. It extended the company’s private network across the internet using gateways and kept it secure. Mostly secure, he amended.

“Yes.”

He handed her the computer. “Here, try it.”

She reached for the keyboard and typed in a web address and a remote login. Then she looked up at him. “I’m into my email. There’s nothing unusual.”

“Let me see what I can do.”

She turned the computer back to him and he monkeyed around a bit with her account. He ran a few programs that allowed him access beyond her account, but there was nothing much to see. Titan Technology wasn’t stupid and they had their important stuff locked away on a secure LAN.

“We’ll need to go to your office and dig.”

She swallowed. “All right,” she said, getting to her feet with a resigned sigh.

He reached for her wrist, circling it with his fingers. He regretted it immediately. Her skin was hot and soft and his throat tightened. He let her go as if her touch stung.

“Not tonight. It’s snowing too badly and your car’s in a ditch. Not only that, but I need time to get credentials.”

“Credentials?”

He gave her half a grin to cover his discomfort. “I assume there’s security? A 24-hour guard and some sort of badging system?”

“Yes. During regular hours, we badge in and out. After hours, we have to sign the log as well.”

“I’ll need your badge to clone the RFID and to work up a passable duplicate with my information.”

“I don’t understand why.”

“I have to hack the system… and it can only be done from inside.”

She looked grim. “My badge is in the car. When I slid off the road, I left everything but my phone and purse. I keep the badge in the door pocket so I don’t accidentally forget it at home.”

He stood. “Give me your keys and I’ll go get it. Anything else you need while I’m out there?”

“Not unless you can find my shoes in the snow.”

“Maybe. Doubt it though.”

She folded her arms beneath her breasts. He tried damn hard to keep his eyes focused on her face rather than let them wander down over that tight sweater and every sweet curve she possessed.

She pushed past him and went to dig in the coat she’d set on a chair nearby. He couldn’t help but let his gaze slide down to the rounded form of her ass. The red skirt she wore was every bit as tight as the sweater, hugging her hips and ass before ending about two inches above her knee.

She turned, her pale blonde hair swinging into her face as she did so. She’d gotten it cut since the last time he’d seen her, but he found that he liked it on her. It just touched her shoulders, so pale and silky that he wanted to shove his fingers in it and tilt her head back for old times’ sake. And then he wanted to plunder her sweet soft mouth until she moaned and clutched his shoulders.

“Billy?”

He shook himself out of his reverie and stared at her hard. “Yeah?”

She came forward with the keys in her hand. “You seemed a million miles away there,” she said softly. “Is everything okay?”

Hell no, it wasn’t okay. Olivia Reese was standing in his living room, needing his help, and all he could think about was stripping her naked and losing himself in her body again. He didn’t have time for this.

“Yeah, fine.” He held his hand out so she could drop the keys inside without any finger brushing, but of course she set them in his hand gently, her fingers touching his palm and sending a lightning bolt of sensation sizzling through him.

He jerked his hand back and closed his fingers around the keys. “It’ll take me about fifteen minutes, maybe more depending on the road.”

“All right, but if you aren’t back in half an hour, I’m coming after you.”

His mouth twisted as he let his gaze slide to her feet. “Barefoot?”

“If I have to.”

He recognized the stubborn tilt of her chin. “I’ll be back. Don’t run away, Olivia.”

Her cheeks flooded with color and he knew he’d scored a direct hit. It didn’t make him feel any better though. “Billy, I…”

He backed away and reached for his coat. “Forget it, sugar. I shouldn’t have said that.” He shrugged into his jacket and went over to the door. “Make yourself comfortable while I’m gone. There’s some leftovers in the fridge, a few beers. Whatever you want, take it.”

She stood there staring at him with those wounded eyes and her arms folded tight. He felt like an asshole. “Thanks,” she said.

“You bet.” He opened the door and slipped out into the frosty night. The snow was still coming down, a bit harder now, and he stood on the porch and breathed in the cold air, willing it to cool his temper and his libido both.

Since that was damn near impossible, he went and got into the Tahoe. Then he took out his phone and made a call. “Hey, Big Mac,” he said when Kevin MacDonald answered. “Got a situation.”

CHAPTER THREE

OLIVIA STOOD IN THE MIDDLE of Billy’s living room with her arms still wrapped around her for a long minute after the door closed behind him. It was almost like déjà vu, watching him walk out the door. She shook her head and went into the kitchen to fix more coffee. Out of curiosity, she opened the fridge. Billy wasn’t the typical bachelor in that he actually had food and not just pizza boxes. Not only that, but she knew he could cook a decent meal.

Something he’d learned from his Aunt June. Olivia sighed and pushed her hair behind her ears. She wasn’t quite as cold as she’d been before, but she sure would love some pants—or at least another pair of tights—to keep her legs warm. And dammit, how was she going anywhere with no shoes? The pair she’d lost in the snow weren’t expensive, but they’d been broken in and comfortable.

She knew that she couldn’t fit into anything of Billy’s. But she could wear his socks at least. She went down the hall, opening doors until she came to his bedroom. Even if it weren’t the only bedroom, she’d know it was his by the duffel lying on the foot of the bed. She stared at the familiar sight and felt a pinch of something deep inside. Typically, the appearance of the duffel indicated an impending operation.

She closed her eyes, remembering how it had felt for him to kiss her goodbye and then not see him for weeks at a time. They’d only been together six months, but that six months had been punctuated by a lot of absences. She was familiar with the signs of departure.

She went into the room and opened drawers until she found his socks. Then she grabbed a pair of the thick socks he wore under his combat boots and tugged them on. They went halfway up her calf, and while she might look silly wearing them, she felt warmer already.

By the time she’d fixed the coffee, Billy was back. Snow glistened on his dark hair and eyelashes and his cheeks were red with the cold. He glanced down at her feet but didn’t say a word. He tossed her badge on the coffee table—but no shoes—and took out his cell phone.

“Big Mac,” he said after a moment, and she knew he was talking to Kevin MacDonald. “I’ve got the badge. Standard RFID. … Yeah, shouldn’t be too difficult to clone.” He shoved a hand through his hair and stood quietly for a long moment. “Copy. See you in the morning, then.”

He tossed the phone down and blew out a breath and she could tell that brilliant mind of his was working overtime. Warmth surged through her. He had every reason to despise her, but he wouldn’t let that stand in the way of doing a job.

She curled her legs under her and sipped her coffee. “I really appreciate your help, Billy.”

He stood there, so tall and hard and masculine. A lean military machine just waiting for the go order. It made her shiver in a new way.

“And here I thought you hated what I did.”

Heat crept into her cheeks. She’d known, hadn’t she, that when she came to him, there were still things simmering between them?

“I don’t.”

“You tried to make me choose, Olivia.”

She tilted her head back and looked up at him. “And I lost, didn’t I? You didn’t even have to think about it.”

He didn’t answer the question. “If you care about somebody, you don’t put them in that position. You don’t make them choose like that.”

Her heart beat hard. “You don’t get to say whether or not I cared about you. Only I get to say that. And I was scared of losing you.”

“You wanted to control me.”

She closed her eyes and pulled in a breath. “You won’t ever see my side of it, so why are we going there? It’s been over between us since you left for that last mission, and I know I’m to blame for it.” Her eyes snapped open again. “But so are you, Billy Blake. It takes two to have a relationship. And you weren’t ever going to give me more than a warm body in my bed for a few weeks at a time.”

“We were together for six months. How in the hell do you know what I was going to give you if we’d been together longer? I said we’d talk, but you weren’t there when I got back. You ran away, Olivia. Like a brat who didn’t get her way.”

She hated the way those words sounded on his lips, but how could she argue? She had run away. And part of her had regretted it since.

“I was leaving the Army and you knew it. What did you want me to do? Hang around and wait for you to come back every few weeks? I had resumes out, and you knew I could get picked up anywhere. But you never said a word about what came next. It was like you just thought I would be there, no matter what.”

He glared daggers at her. “You were planning to leave the Army when we met. Why would I think you might need my input on a decision you’d already made?”

She gripped the mug tight. “Well, gee, I don’t know, Billy. Maybe because I thought we had something but I wasn’t ever really sure where you stood. You never said.”

His hands clenched into fists at his side. “I kept coming back. To you, Olivia. I spent every day I had stateside with you. And that meant nothing to you.”

“It did mean something. But I wasn’t sure it meant anything to you.”

“Jesus.” He shook his head. “Forget it. It’s been too long and there’s no sense raking over the past. You made your choice and we’ve both moved on.”

Her eyes stung with frustrated tears. “Yes, we’ve moved on.”

He turned away from her, all stiff military precision. “Good, great, end of story.” He went over to the dining room table at one end of the long room and grabbed another computer. Then he powered it up and retrieved the disc Alan had sent her.

“What are you going to do?”

He sat on one of the chairs across from her. “Send it to HQ.”

“What about security?” She knew he was a great hacker, but there had to be others equally as good.

“This is a secure satellite link. Not a problem.” He popped the disc in and his fingers flew over some keys. Then he sat back and waited for a few moments. When he was satisfied, he ejected the disc and closed the computer. “Mendez will get some engineers on this. Anything we can learn from here might help when we break into Titan tomorrow.”

Olivia shivered. “I’m not breaking in. I work there.” It was semantics, sure, but she didn’t like to think in terms of doing anything wrong. It made it easier mentally.

“We’ll start searching for Cooper too. If he’s in St. Thomas, we’ll get him.”

“You don’t think he is?”

Billy shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t think so. But if we’re lucky, whoever’s behind the plot to sell faulty equipment to the military doesn’t know either.”

Olivia hated to think of what could happen to Alan Cooper. Or to her. “What if someone knows what he sent me?”

Billy’s eyes darkened. “No one’s getting to you.”

“But going back there tomorrow…”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Who said you were going?”

“I assumed—”

He got to his feet now. “Hell no. You’ll brief me on the layout, but you aren’t going. It’ll be me and one of the guys.”

Anger flipped to life in her belly. “I realize this is what you do, but you won’t get the information without me. Even with a fake badge and the codes, it won’t work.”

“Sweetheart, you’d be surprised about the places I get into.”

“I’m sure you could tell me but then you’d have to kill me. But I’m telling you, Billy Blake, that you won’t pull this off without me. Alan’s office is in a secure area, and though you can hack into it, you need me—a recognizable employee—to watch your back. There won’t be that many people working on Christmas Eve, but those that are there will know you don’t belong. If you’re with me, I can make it believable. Not only that, but if you look lost for even a second, you’re toast. So face it, sugar, you need me to guide you and to watch your back.”

Her pulse was pounding with adrenaline, both over standing up to Billy and over the idea she had to help him break into Alan’s office. Yeah, there was a risk that someone knew Alan had sent her a disc. But that didn’t mean they knew what was on it. Or even that it was potentially volatile. She’d been afraid to go home tonight, but she’d walk into Titan’s offices tomorrow with a trained military fighting machine at her side. That was a no brainer.

Billy’s jaw hardened. “I don’t like it, but you have a point. We’ll go in together—but only if my CO approves it.”

She tilted her chin up. “He will.”

“Don’t be smug, Livvie.”

She wanted to tell him she’d do whatever she damn well pleased. But the truth was that it was growing late and she was tired. There was no going home tonight, not with her car in a ditch and the roads snowed over.

“Look, I’ve been working long days and I’m tired. If you give me a pillow, I can sleep right here.”

“You aren’t sleeping here. You can have my bed.”

She tried not to let her throat close up at the thought of sleeping in his bed. Surrounded by sheets that smelled like him. Oh God.

“You don’t have to give up your bed for me. Besides, I fit on this couch better than you.”

“I have a sleeping bag,” he told her. “And I’m not arguing with you. Grab one of my T-shirts to sleep in. We’ll hit Wal-Mart in the morning and pick up some jeans and shoes for you.”

She got to her feet and stood there staring up at him. He was so close. For a moment she wanted to reach out and slide her fingers along his jaw. But she had no right. Not any longer.

Her gaze slid past him to the small Christmas tree sitting on a table near the window. He still hadn’t plugged it in. She knew his aunt had sent it to him years ago when he’d first joined the military. Every year, without fail, he dragged it out. Because his aunt would ask and he wouldn’t lie to her. He’d told Olivia that last year, the first and only Christmas they’d ever spent together.

“You’re a good guy, Billy,” she said, and meant it. And then she left him standing there and went down the hall to his room, closing the door softly behind her. She leaned her head against it and told herself it would be okay. Billy would help her out. And she wouldn’t fall in love with him ever again.


Want to read more? Get your copy here:






Dangerously Hot

CHAPTER ONE

Hostile Operations Team Headquarters
Near Washington, DC

“FUCK ME,” KEVIN “BIG MAC” MACDONALD said on an exhaled breath.

He was the only one who’d spoken, but the expression on the other guys’ faces echoed the sentiment. Colonel John Mendez stood before the team, hands on hips, face grave. Mendez was a throwback Army officer, the kind who ate nails for breakfast and took no prisoners. Not one man in this room had ever dared to disobey an order from him.

Well, maybe one. Matt “Richie Rich” Girard had done it, but he’d nearly lost his career in the process.

“That’s right, son,” Mendez said, giving Kev a hard look. “Al Ahmad ain’t dead.”

Matt swore. Kev could only clench his fists in his lap and pray he didn’t break something. HOT went after terrorists. It’s what they did, what they lived for. Al Ahmad was a terrorist. A low-life fucking evil bastard who liked to hurt people.

He was supposed to be dead. It hadn’t been more than a few months ago now that they’d gone after his second in command, Jassar ibn-Rashad. That mission had gotten fucked up six ways to Sunday, and they’d lost two good men in the process.

Kev swallowed. God, he still missed Marco. Marco San Ramos had been his best friend, the guy he’d gone through boot camp with. Kev wouldn’t have made it this far if not for Marco.

Thoughts of Marco inevitably led to Marco’s wife. Lucky. Kev squeezed his fists tighter, trying to keep himself from going down that mental road.

It was no good. He always thought of Lucky. Always felt the guilt and regret roiling away in his gut. Goddamn he was an asshole, thinking of his best friend’s wife.

Widow.

Yeah. Wife, widow, what the fuck. He wasn’t allowed to think of Lucky, not like that, but he hadn’t ever been able to turn it off. Not since the first moment he’d seen her, before she ever belonged to Marco.

“If I don’t get out of here, take care of Lucky. Promise.”

“You’re getting out. We’re both fucking getting out.”

“Promise anyway.”

“Yeah, fine. I promise.”

Some promise. Lucky hadn’t spoken to him since they’d shipped Marco back in a casket. She’d left the military, taken Marco’s military life insurance, and gone to Hawaii.

“We’re going after him,” Mendez was saying. “This time, we’re getting that bastard.”

“Yes, sir,” Matt said for them all. “What’s the plan, sir?”

Mendez eyed them very deliberately. He was a wily bastard, but Kev knew there wasn’t a better soldier in the whole damn Army. “We need someone who can ID him, someone who can get close enough to do so.”

Kev’s blood ran cold. He told himself there was no reason for it, no way Mendez would want to bring in an outsider. But Al Ahmad was a tricky bastard. Unlike other terrorists, he didn’t like to make videos and broadcast them to the world. Because of that, few knew what he looked like. There were sketches, always sketches, based on intel they’d collected here and there.

And then there was Lucky’s debrief. The only person who’d gotten close enough to see his face and survived.

Mendez’s eyes were cool and penetrating as he swung his gaze toward Kev. “We need someone who got close once before. We need Lucky San Ramos.”

Kev felt like he’d been sucker punched. Matt looked at him, and he knew the horror was written on his face. Goddamn.

The two new guys—Sam “Knight Rider” McKnight and Garrett “Iceman” Spencer—looked confused. The others glanced at each other, faces grim. Kev’s gut twisted into knots. He’d been the one who’d gotten Lucky out the last time. The one who knew what that evil bastard had done to her.

He’d lost Lucky, thanks to Al Ahmad. Given her to Marco and walked away. Because he knew he couldn’t be what she needed then, and Marco could. Because Marco loved her, and Kev owed Marco too much to let one woman stand between them.

Coward.

Kev sat immoveable, like a block of granite. How was it cowardly to let a woman go because you couldn’t be what she deserved? Because all you wanted was to have sex with her until it burned you up and you could move on to someone else?

Because a man like him didn’t do forever and happy ever after and all that bullshit. It didn’t exist. Not in his world. He might have been tempted to think so once, when he was much younger and far more naïve, but he’d learned in the hell of his childhood that love—or what passed for love in his family—was often a brutal thing.

“She’s out now,” Kev said, focusing on the problem at hand instead of the nightmare of his past. “And it’s been two years since she’s seen Al Ahmad. How do we know he hasn’t changed his face? Hell, how do we even know it is Al Ahmad? What if someone in his organization is trying to make us think he’s alive? Ibn-Rashad might be yanking our chain.”

Mendez’s expression didn’t change. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t necessarily a good sign. “Good questions, Sergeant. But trust me, if we didn’t have confirmation at the highest levels, we wouldn’t be here now. Do you think HOT goes out in the field for nothing, son? You’ve been here long enough to know better.”

He leaned forward then, two broad hands on the desk in front of him. “We need Lucky, and we’re getting her back. One way or the other. We can do it nice, or we can do it hard. But since my mama always said you get more flies with honey, I’m sending you after her, son. Go to Hawaii and convince her to come back. Or I’ll make her come back.”

Acid roiled in Kev’s stomach. He wanted to stand up and wrap his fists in the man’s perfectly starched collar. But he wouldn’t do it. Not if he wanted to keep his ass and his job. Not if he wanted to remain a part of HOT—which he did because he damn sure couldn’t imagine a different life than this one.

No, there was only one thing to say. Only one thing he could say, even though it about killed him to do it. He stood and snapped a salute.

“Sir, yes, sir.

* * * * *

December
North Shore, Oahu
Hawaii

Lucky flipped the surfboard upright after she paddled to shore and stepped out onto the sand. It was a typically beautiful Hawaiian day—or it would have been if she hadn’t just spotted the man standing cross-armed at the top of the shore break. For a second, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. There was no way that Kevin MacDonald was standing up there waiting for her.

But the mirage didn’t fade, and her heart reacted with a crazy rhythm that made her head swim. Part of her wanted to turn around and race back out to sea. Part of her wanted to march up to him and plant a fist in his handsome face.

And part of her wanted to wrap her arms around him and hold him tight.
Lucky hardened her heart and lifted her head. She wasn’t running, damn him. She thought he’d given up. The phone calls had ceased months ago, and even though it had made her ache deep down, she figured he’d finally gotten the message.

Looks like she’d been wrong.

She clutched the board tighter to her side and climbed the sharply sloping beach at Waimea Bay.

Kev stood impassive, arms crossed, chewing gum like he had no cares in the world, aviator sunglasses reflecting her wet form. Like he belonged here. Like he showed up every day and watched her paddle out to sea before turning and shooting the pipeline back to the beach.

Except he didn’t look like he belonged at all. A white T-shirt stretched across his broad chest, tapering down to disappear into the waistband of a pair of faded, loose-fitting Levi’s. His only real nod to beach culture was a pair of flip-flops, or slippahs, as the Hawaiians called them, and she knew it must have given him pause to don them. Kev was usually a cowboy- or combat-boot kind of guy.

Fresh anger flared to life inside her. But before she could speak, he said the one thing guaranteed to make her listen. Guaranteed to make her wish she were dead.

“Al Ahmad’s back.”

A cold finger of dread slid deep into her belly, tickled her spine, threatened to turn her knees to liquid. Al Ahmad.

He was supposed to be dead. She’d slept at night because he was dead. Because he could never come for her. Never force her to listen to that lovely, evil voice ever again.

“And what’s that mean to me?” she asked. She didn’t bother to ask how the bastard was still alive. If Kev was here, then he just was. It wasn’t debatable.

But she wasn’t about to let Kev know just how horrified that information made her or how much she wanted to sink into the ocean and never come out again.

“We need you, Lucky.”

Her breath seized in her lungs. “No way in hell,” she said hoarsely when she could talk again. “I’m not on active duty anymore.”

As if that had anything to do with it. When she’d been active, she’d wanted to be a part of the Hostile Operations Team. She’d gotten her wish when she’d been assigned to them for interpreter duties. It wasn’t the excitement of full-blown ops, but it was important.

She’d been so idealistic. Though women weren’t allowed to go on missions, she’d wanted to be the first. She’d hoped she’d get the chance to train hard and save the world, but she’d learned just how unsuited she was for that task, thanks to Al Ahmad.

“We could reactivate you.”

Lucky clutched the surfboard harder, the urge to gut him with it burning into her. He stood there so casually, threatening to upend her world as if it were nothing. Threatening to drag her back into that life when it had nearly destroyed her. “Mendez wouldn’t dare.”

“You know he would.”

Lucky slicked back her wet hair with one hand, hoping it didn’t shake, and bent to remove the ankle strap anchoring the surfboard to her leg. She didn’t have to look at Kev to know he was following the movement of her leg as she thrust it to the side to reach the strap.

She could feel the burn of his gaze on her skin, just like she always had. And it made her sick to her stomach. Angry. How dare he make her feel anything.

Especially now.

She hardened her heart. She wouldn’t do it. She couldn’t do it. She owed them nothing. She’d done her time, and she’d gotten the hell out. She straightened and lifted her chin. “Get someone else. You’ve got any number of people who can interpret for you.”

Those firm lips turned down in a frown. “It’s more than translation. We need you on the inside.”

Her heart thumped. “I’m not in that business anymore.”

As if she ever had been. Her stay with Al Ahmad had not been planned. His people had grabbed her at a market in North Africa when she should have been out of their reach. They’d proven she wasn’t. That none of them were.

Day after day, she’d thought her life was over. Day after day, he’d toyed with her. Poisoned her mind.

Broke her.

She faced Kev head-on, a current of defiance growing inside her with every second. No way in hell was she letting them shatter her carefully reconstructed life. It didn’t matter that Al Ahmad had resurfaced, that she damn well wanted to nail the bastard to the wall with a rusty railroad spike.

If she were a different person, a braver person, she would take this chance. She’d get close enough to kill him herself. And then maybe she could forget how weak she was. How needy. How malleable she’d been in his hands. She’d fought him, but not hard enough.

Kev pulled the sunglasses from his face and tapped them against a muscled forearm wrapped in ink. “This is too important. It’s you we need. No one else.”

Lucky had to remind herself to breathe when faced with the full effect of blue eyes and silky, dark hair that was much longer than Army regs allowed. But Kev was a Spec Ops soldier, and that made the rules different for him.

Women, as she knew from firsthand observation, couldn’t help but fling themselves in the path of Kevin MacDonald. Which was precisely why she’d been determined not to do so when they’d first met a couple of years ago. There’d been something between them, some spark, but she’d never found out what it was. Because as quickly as it ignited, it was gone.

It still hurt, remembering the way he’d held her so close when he’d gotten her out of Al Ahmad’s compound, the way he’d seemed so intent upon her. He’d kissed her. The one and only time he’d ever done so.

Even now, her lips tingled with the memory. Her body ached with heat.

But it had been nothing more than a beautiful lie. When she’d looked for him afterward, when she’d expected him to come to the hospital to see her, it had been Marco who came instead.

And now Marco was dead, and she had no right to feel anything but grief. Yet that didn’t stop her belly from churning at the sight of Kevin MacDonald.

He watched her with an intensity that both unnerved and angered her. How dare he walk back into her life looking like something straight from a Hollywood movie set and calmly inform her that her world was about to be turned topsy-turvy?

Again.

She picked up the surfboard and started up the beach. “Go tell Mendez to reactivate me,” she called over her shoulder. If they wanted her back, they’d have to force her. “If he could do it, he’d have done it already.”

“Aw, sweetheart, don’t be like that,” Kev said in that Alabama drawl of his, and she stopped short, swung around as fury lashed into her.

“Don’t you dare call me that!”

He held up both hands, backed away a step. “It’s all right, I can take a hint. No sweet nothings.” He dropped his hands to his sides, but not before sliding the sunglasses back into place over those beautiful eyes. “But you and I both know Mendez could reactivate you with a phone call. Don’t make it happen, Lucky. Help us out, you’re done. Get recalled to duty, and God knows what comes next when this is over.”

Hell, yes, Mendez could do it. She knew that. But it would take slightly longer than one phone call.

“Tell him I’ll think about it,” she said, but she wouldn’t do anything of the sort. Yes, she’d love to get Al Ahmad. But she’d like to live even more.

“He’s dangerous. You know that better than most.” He seemed to hesitate for a second. “Marco would want you to help us get him.”

Lucky whipped the surfboard in an arc and let it go. Kev leaped backward as it crashed to the ground. He stumbled and fell against a coconut palm, the fronds shaking with the impact.

“Jesus Christ,” he yelled. “What’s the matter with you?”

She was shaking. “Don’t you ever tell me what Marco would want. Invoking his name won’t get you anywhere with me.”

Kev looked solemn. For the first time since he’d started talking, she felt like she was seeing the real him. The man who’d called her almost nightly for months, trying to make sure she was all right. That Marco’s death hadn’t killed her too.

“We all lost him, Lucky. We all miss him.”

Tears boiled near the surface. Fury ate at her like battery acid. He had no idea. No idea.

Of course she missed Marco. And yet she’d been so wrong for him. She’d tried hard to love him the way she should, but loving anyone after what she’d been through with Al Ahmad hadn’t been easy.

The guilt of her failures ate at her. She’d been doing a good job of forgetting out here in the sun and surf, of moving on and accepting her life, and Kev was wrecking it all.

“You let him die out there.”

It wasn’t what she’d meant to say, but she couldn’t call the words back now that she’d released them. Kev looked as if she’d slapped him. She knew Marco’s death wasn’t his fault, but that hadn’t stopped her from blaming him—blaming all of Marco’s team—for what had happened.

She should apologize, but her throat seized up.

Kev’s jaw tightened. “That’s not fair, and you know it. Marco died doing the job. It’s a risk we all take.”

Yes, she knew it. And it was the thing that kept her awake at night sometimes, thinking about Marco, about Kev, wondering if he was still alive or if he’d met his end in some dank, lonely, war-torn country the way Marco had.

But she couldn’t say any of that. They stood there staring at each other until Kev took something from his pocket. He held out a card.

“I’m at the Hale Koa. Call me when you’ve thought about this.”

She still couldn’t speak. How could she say all the things she needed to say? The things she’d bottled up for so long? How could she ever explain where it had all gone wrong?

He didn’t put the card away. She wanted to leave him standing there, but her feet seemed stuck in the sand.

“Take it, Lucky.”

She snatched the card from his grasp with a growl. Then she picked up the surfboard and trod up the beach, feeling his eyes on her back the whole way.

CHAPTER TWO

“SHE’S GONNA RUN,” Kev said into his government-issued cell phone. He was sitting at a shrimp truck parked beside Kamehameha Highway, finishing off a plate of shrimp, macaroni salad, and white rice. He’d chosen this location because it was across the street from the road leading out of Lucky’s neighborhood.

She lived in a small beach community on the North Shore. Her house was a tiny rental that sat upon tall blocks and had jalousie windows that opened to let the sea breeze in, and her car sat under the house, a beat-up blue Jeep with the top down. He’d been sitting here for the past hour, watching for that Jeep. It had not yet made an appearance.

But he knew it would. He knew it like he knew his own name.

“I won’t argue with you,” Matt said. “Besides Marco, you knew her better than anyone.”

“Yeah,” Kev replied, ignoring the sting of those words in his gut. He’d let her go, dammit. Let Marco have her. And now she hated him.

Of course she did.

“Just keep an eye out. Do what it takes to bring her in.”

“Copy that.”

They hung up again and Kev pushed the plate aside, his gaze focused on the street. He was still trying to process everything he felt at seeing Lucky again. He hadn’t seen her in months now, not since he’d gone to her and Marco’s house for a barbecue late one afternoon shortly before they’d deployed to the desert and the ill-fated mission to get ibn-Rashad. Kev had made it a point not to refuse invitations from Marco, though he’d wanted to refuse every one.

That last time, he hadn’t gone alone. He’d taken some chick that he’d picked up in a bar earlier. She’d been half-drunk, half-dressed, and completely horny for him.

He’d paraded her in front of everyone like she’d been someone important in his life even though it made him vaguely disgusted with himself to do so.

But Lucky had seen through the act. She’d glared daggers at him half the night. Which, perversely, he’d found gratifying. As if she cared about him. As if she weren’t married to Marco but was instead still just one of the gang, frowning at him and giving him a hard time over his choice of female companionship.

Which, God knows, he didn’t have a great track record with. The trashier the female, the more flagrantly he flaunted her in front of his friends. Give him a gal with a serious penchant for short skirts and too much makeup, and he was all up in that business.

Even though it turned him off on some level. Blood will tell, his mama had always said. And he figured since he had the wrong kind of blood, he might as well embrace his heritage.

Except, God, he remembered holding Lucky close after he’d broken into Al Ahmad’s compound. Remembered the sweetness of her lips, the beauty of her face—swollen with tears—and the hard surge of tenderness in his gut. He’d wanted her then. Wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life.

A frightening prospect for someone who knew what it was like to have everything ripped away in a moment. His life had changed irrevocably when he’d been sixteen, and he’d vowed not to need anyone ever again.

He’d done a good job of that until he’d met Lucky. She’d gotten under his skin somehow, and he hadn’t liked the way it made him feel. So he’d walked away before he could fuck it up.

Kev sat up a little straighter as a blue Jeep pulled up to the main road. His heart thumped as he got a look at the woman in the driver’s seat. Oh yeah, she was running all right. He could see the suitcases piled in the back seat. The trouble with an open-top vehicle was that it revealed all your secrets. Lucky wasn’t making a grocery run.

Kev trotted over to his rental and unlocked it. A second later, he was behind the wheel and pulling into traffic. Surprising how much traffic there was on the North Shore. It wasn’t as bad as Waikiki, but it was still damn congested. The sun shone down, and the ocean sparkled off to his right. Hawaii was frigging beautiful. He wanted to spend more time in the sun, but it looked like his stay was going to be of relatively short duration.

Traffic crawled toward Haleiwa, the town where he’d take the turn that led through the center of the island past the Dole Plantation and back over to the H2. Then it was down to Honolulu.

He couldn’t see Lucky’s Jeep, but he wasn’t particularly worried about losing her. There was only one way off the island—one quick way—and he had no doubt she was headed for the airport. Sure, she could pay someone in a fishing boat to take her to a different island, but even then she’d have to fly back through Honolulu on her way out.

No, she was headed to the airport. She knew she needed to act quickly, and she probably hoped to catch him off guard. Probably figured he’d gone back to his hotel to await her call.

Traffic thinned out in Haleiwa as people went to other beaches or headed into the funky shops and restaurants in the beach community where more than one television show had been filmed.

Kev started up the long incline between pineapple fields that led to the center of the island. Three cars in front of him, Lucky’s Jeep moved steadily along. When they reached the fork that went toward the H2 or down into another community, Lucky headed toward the H2. Soon they were rolling down the highway and heading east.

Kev stayed as close as he could manage without alerting her. When they reached the airport, she stopped in long-term parking and unloaded all her bags. Too many bags to mean she was coming back.

Kev parked the rental nearby and rubbed his fingers along the bridge of his nose. Goddamn, he hated this. Hated everything about it. But he had a job to do, and Lucky already despised him enough that one more thing shouldn’t matter.

* * * * *

Lucky disliked abandoning her Jeep. She took another fond look at the beat-up vehicle and then pocketed the keys with a sigh. She’d find a cop inside and give the keys away, saying she’d found them. It was all she could think to do in the time she had.

Kev wouldn’t wait long at the Hale Koa before he began to get suspicious, and she intended to be off the island by then. She turned away and started to arrange her luggage so she could at least get it as far as a trolley.

“Hey, great. You’re all packed.”

Her head snapped up to find Kev sauntering toward her as if this was the most normal circumstance in the world. Her stomach fell into her toes and blood pounded in her temples. Had she really thought she could lose him? Really?

“What the hell are you doing here?”

As if she didn’t already know.

He thumbed the loops in his jeans, oh so casually, but his stare didn’t waver in intensity. “I’m here to catch a flight, same as you.”

“Great,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “You can give me a hand with this luggage. Then we can say a tearful good-bye at the gate.”

One corner of that delectable mouth turned up in a grin. “’Fraid not.” He jerked a thumb in the direction he’d just come from. “Got a rental over there with my stuff. Also got two plane tickets to DC. First class.”

Her belly did a swan dive into a pool of acid. “DC? Why?”

He came closer, and her heart kicked up a notch. Why did this man look so damn good in a white T-shirt and faded jeans? And why did she have to notice?

“We’re based there now. HOT’s moved up in the world. No more Army bullshit to deal with. Just missions now. And freedom.”

“Freedom? How can you call what you do freedom? You’re tied to the Army whether you think so or not.”

His eyes sparkled in the light shafting down between the gaps in the structure. “We’ve gone deep black. We’ve got money, equipment—Jesus, things you can’t imagine. It’s different now.”

She felt light-headed—and not all of it was from how close he stood. “It’s not different. You still risk your life. You could still die out there, same as Marco.”

The glitter in his eyes dialed down a notch, and fresh guilt assailed her.

“Yeah, I know. But we’ve still got it pretty damn good. And we do important work. You know we do.”

The lump in her throat was elephantine. She closed her eyes, saw her husband’s face—and then she didn’t. All she could see was Kev. Damn it.

“I don’t want to be a part of this,” she said, forcing the words past the tightness. “I don’t want to go back to that life.”

He reached out as if to touch her, but his hands fell to his sides, and she knew he’d thought better of it. “I know. But we need you. Al Ahmad—” He broke off, looked over the top of her head as if he were staring at something only he could see. Then he made eye contact again, and her blood roared in her ears. “He’s dangerous. You know that. And he has to be stopped. You’re the only one who can positively ID him.”

Her head swam. “He could have changed his face. He’s vain, but not so vain he wouldn’t make that sacrifice if it was needed.”

Kev nodded. “He could have. But he can’t change his voice.”

She drew in a deep breath. That insidious voice still played in her ears sometimes late at night.

“I know this is a lot to ask of you. I know you hate us—hate me—but we need you. It’s important.”

She wanted to hang her head. And she wanted to step into his embrace and slide her arms around his waist the way she once had. That single, too-brief time when he’d held her after getting her out of Al Ahmad’s compound. It had been everything she’d wanted—and everything she’d feared.

And it hadn’t lasted nearly long enough. She’d thought he would be the one to come to the hospital when they put her in for observation. But he hadn’t. Marco had.

“I don’t hate you.”

His eyes glittered. “That’s good,” he said after a long moment.

The note of caring in his voice was her undoing. “Why didn’t you come to see me?”

She wanted to recall the words the instant she said them. It was weak, and she hadn’t meant to show him any weakness.

He didn’t ask what she meant, and she realized that he didn’t have to. That he knew. His gaze dropped to her arm and her heart fell. He knew what was there beneath the long-sleeved cotton shirt she wore, the crisscross of Xs that rode up the inside of her arm to her elbow. They’d faded to silvery-pink lines now, but they would never go away.

“I couldn’t bear to see what he did to you.”

She hugged herself instinctively. The other arm looked exactly the same. And then there were the scars on her abdomen and back. She still felt such a mix of emotions over what Al Ahmad had done to her. Rage. Shame. Guilt.

“It’s just skin,” she said. “It heals.”

But she felt ugly, damaged. And his rejection had only made those feelings worse.

“I know.”

Anger surged inside her. She glared at him. “How can you ask me to go back, knowing what he did to me? How can you think I would want to?”

His handsome face creased. “I think you want him dead. I think you’d do anything to make it happen.”

It was a direct hit and utterly true. Since earlier on the beach when she’d reacted from her gut, she’d been thinking about this mission. About Al Ahmad. About how much she wanted him dead and how, if she didn’t help HOT get him, she’d have to live in fear of him coming after her.

Because he would, sooner or later.

“You’re right,” she said softly as the wave of her anger broke against the shore and receded.

“Then come to DC. Help us nail him.”

Her heart thumped. Adrenaline surged through her veins, left her trembling and cold in spite of the bright, hot day. She wanted to rewind the clock, wanted to go back to that fateful day when she’d first been assigned to HOT and ask for another tour of duty instead. Anything to stop the boulder that tumbled down the hill toward her.

Except there was no way to avoid the boulder. Nothing to do but trust that HOT could get the job done this time. Because if they didn’t, she didn’t know what her life would become.

Lucky sagged beneath the weight of her decision. She had no choice. It was this, or run away and live in fear every day of her life. She’d taken Marco’s name when they’d married, but that would not protect her forever. Al Ahmad would find her.

But she had other reasons to worry too. There was her mother, her stepfather and half sisters. What if Al Ahmad figured out who they were? He would kill them too, simply because she cared about them.

She couldn’t let that happen.

Lucky swallowed the lump in her throat. “All right. I’ll come.”

CHAPTER THREE

A SENSE OF UNREALITY FILLED Lucky as she stepped off the plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in the early morning hours. DC was not where she’d expected to be when she’d headed down to the beach with her surfboard yesterday morning, but here she was, walking off a plane and feeling a bit shell-shocked. For one thing it was nearly Christmas, and it would definitely feel like winter outside, unlike in Hawaii.

There, in spite of the Christmas lights and trees and decorations, it was easy to ignore the approaching holiday because it was always hot and sunny. Here, not so much. The lights and trees on the concourse seemed to jump out at her and hammer her over the head with the idea it was almost Christmas. In just a couple of weeks, she was supposed to head to Montana to be with family. She’d tried to get out of it, but she feared if she didn’t go, her mother would drag her stepfather and the triplets to Hawaii.

Which was something Lucky did not need. Dealing with the cheerfulness—and downright alien-ness—of those five was not something she wanted to do on her own turf. In Montana, she could suffer a few days and then be on her way home again.

They passed down the escalator and into the baggage claim area. Kev grabbed a cart and they stood to wait for her luggage. Not his, of course. He’d traveled with carry-on only, which told her a few things. First, this trip had been last minute. Second, he hadn’t been expected to stay for long. Third, Mendez knew she would come.

Of course he did. The bastard. John Mendez was one of the toughest career soldiers she’d ever run across. She had a lot of respect for him. And a lot of fury too. Especially now. He would use whatever tool for the job it took, and to hell with the consequences.

She was a tool. She knew it, and she’d come willingly. No backing out now, chickie. No, whatever the consequences, she was here.

Kev stood with his arms folded and stared at the baggage carousel as if he could will it to start moving. He was so quiet, so enigmatic. Always had been. All he’d ever done had confused her. Once, she’d thought he was interested in her, when she’d first arrived at HOT. He’d smiled and flirted, and she’d flirted right back.

But then came North Africa and Al Ahmad, and everything had changed. Lucky bit the inside of her lip. She’d been so uncertain of herself after that. She’d married Marco when what she should have done was run far and fast in the other direction until she could get herself together again.

It hadn’t been fair to Marco. Or to her.

Dammit. Lucky pulled in a deep breath and swore she wouldn’t cry. Not now.

She looked up at Kev and realized he was frowning. “You okay?”

“Hell, no,” she bit out. “I was minding my own business, surfing and having a good life, and then you showed up and ruined it all.”

A good life. That was a lie.

“I’m sorry.”

“You aren’t. You’re following orders and there’s nothing else you would prefer. If Mendez told you to leap from the top of the Capitol, you’d ask him how soon he wanted it done.”

Cool blue eyes stared at her. “I am following orders. You know that I have to. You’d do the same thing if you were still in. There’s no choice. But I do care.”

He took a step toward her, loomed over her while her heart kicked up a beat. Something flashed in his eyes then, and she realized there was a whole lot more emotion burning deep inside Kev’s soul than she’d given him credit for.

“I’m pissed as hell that Mendez is bringing you back in. I want nothing more than for you to be back in Hawaii, doing whatever you want, far away from HOT and everything we stand for.”

Lucky swallowed. She could smell the anger rolling from him, could feel the heat of his body so near hers. He smelled good, like sunshine and water, and she wanted to close her eyes and drink him in.

His anger shocked her. And touched her.

“I’m sorry for what I said about Marco. About his death.” Her voice was soft, strained. She should have said this before now, but she hadn’t been able to bring it up again. “I know you loved him too.”

Now he was the one who seemed stunned. His jaw flexed. “Yeah, I did. If I could have taken his place out there, I would have.”

Her heart thumped hard. She touched him, nearly withdrew when the sensation of skin against skin was almost too much. She didn’t like touching people when she could avoid it. In the months after she’d returned from North Africa, it had been everything she could do to work up to touching—and being touched—by Marco.

She swallowed. She’d gotten much better about touching, but it wasn’t something she went out of her way to do. This touch was almost sensory overload. Her nerve endings leapt to attention, her skin blazing hot. It was everything she could do not to jerk away and tuck her hand beneath her armpit.

“Don’t say that, Kev. He wouldn’t have wanted that at all.”

“No, but I do. If I could have given him back to you—”

His voice choked off as the buzzer rang for the baggage carousel. It lurched to a start, and Kev moved away from her, going to stand near the mouth of the carousel as the first bags began to disgorge. Lucky stared at his broad back, pulled in one deep breath after another.

The thought of Kev dying out there the way Marco had… She shuddered. It wasn’t right, not for any of them, and yet it was what these men risked every time. They put their lives on the line to protect this country, and most people would never know it. Marco should have had a hero’s welcome, but he’d come back in a lonely casket met at Dover by an honor guard. And then he’d been buried quietly at a ceremony featuring as much of HOT as could come to the funeral, and her.

No, it wasn’t right, but it was what they’d signed up for.

Lucky wrapped her arms around herself. Marco had deserved so much better than that. Than her.

She sniffed and waited for the jumpy sensation beneath her skin to ebb. Finally, Kev hefted her bags from the carousel.

When he came over to her, he was frowning again. “You got a coat in here? That sweatshirt won’t do you much good outside.”

She ran her hands over the soft material and frowned. “I have a jacket. Nothing thick though.”

He led them off to the side, away from the crowd. “Which suitcase?”

“It’ll be fine. We’re going to get into a car, right? The heater will warm me up.”

“It’s just as easy to get the jacket now.”

She sighed. “Fine. I think it’s in the red one.”

Kev set the suitcase on the floor, and Lucky bent to unzip it. After rummaging around for a few moments, she came up with a wrinkled jacket that said U.S. Army on it. She didn’t know why she’d kept the damn thing, but she stood and put it on before zipping the suitcase closed again. Then they were rolling out of the airport and into the parking deck.

The air was a shock to her system after the months in Hawaii. Her breath frosted and her fingers grew stiff in the chill air. Kev led them to a white pickup where he slung her bags in the back and then started the engine. It took a while for the heater to finally feel warm instead of frigid, but by then she didn’t think she would ever get warm again.

Soon they were on the road, and Lucky turned her head to look at the endless buildings and land. That was one thing about living on an island—you got used to seeing ocean just about everywhere you looked. To see land—endless land—was strange after the last few months.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked after they’d passed several miles in silence.

“My orders are to bring you to HOT HQ. After that, I don’t know.”

“And where is HQ?”

“Not far.”

She hugged herself and sniffed. “HOT has come up in the world.”

He shrugged. “You know that Mendez has been trying for years. He finally got someone to say yes.”

Lucky scrubbed a hand through her hair and yawned. She never slept well on a plane, and last night had been no exception. “I don’t think anyone could say no to that man for long.”

Even her, apparently. It hadn’t escaped her attention that she’d pretty much caved in to precisely what Mendez wanted within hours of being told.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Kev said quietly. “He was bringing you back one way or another. This way, you have more control.”

She snorted softly. “Some control. Yesterday I was surfing and contemplating my day, and now I’m here. The power of Mendez.”

Kev’s fingers tightened on the wheel. “We’re gonna get Al Ahmad. This time, we’re getting him.”

“I sure hope so. Because I won’t come back again.”

Kev glanced over at her, his expression fierce. “You won’t have to. Believe me. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make sure that bastard is good and dead this time.”

Her heart skipped a beat. And then a current of anger whipped through her. “Don’t you do anything stupid, Kevin MacDonald. I buried one of you already. I won’t do it again.”

His eyes flashed with some emotion she couldn’t read, and then he was staring straight ahead again, his knuckles white on the wheel. Lucky closed her eyes and leaned her head back. She didn’t know why she’d said that, but Marco and Kev had been inseparable when she’d first met them. They were like brothers instead of best friends, their pasts so similar it was spooky. They both had deadbeat dads, both had drunk mothers. Neither of them was in contact with their family.

She’d thought they would always be tight, but then she’d entered the picture and everything changed. Marco tried to pretend it hadn’t, but he’d known it too. Kev pulled away from them both after they married, though he still accepted invitations and then showed up with wildly inappropriate women. He never stayed long, always slipping his arm around whatever trashy babe he was with and saying something about how he had to get her home. Lucky had hated thinking of him taking those women home and undressing them, caressing them in ways that made her throat dry. It hadn’t been any of her business, and yet it had bothered her anyway.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid.” His voice broke into her thoughts and she opened her eyes. His profile always caused that little hitch in her heart. Strong lines, handsome lines. She wanted to press her mouth to his jaw and work her way around to his lips.

It was a disconcerting thought to have, and she shifted in her seat, uncomfortable.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“What happened out there with Marco… He didn’t do anything stupid. He was just the one who got picked. None of us knew what would happen to him and Jim.”

Her throat ached. She’d spent so much time blaming herself. What if she’d caused Marco to screw up? What if he’d been preoccupied with her and the things that had being going on between them?

Matt Girard had told her everything that happened, but she’d still vacillated between helpless fury and self-blame.

She cleared her throat. “I talked to Karen Matuzaki a few times after… She moved back to California, you know. She and the kids moved in with her parents so she could go back to school and finish her degree.”

Karen had gotten Jim’s Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance, same as she’d gotten Marco’s. It was a substantial amount of money, but not enough to live on for the rest of your life. She’d talked to Karen a few times, and then over the last couple of months they’d only e-mailed once in a while. She’d taken it as a sign that Karen was moving on and coping with her new reality.

“I’m glad to hear she’s all right.”

“As all right as anyone can be after losing her husband and the father of her children.”

Kev sighed. “Yeah,” he said softly.

They lapsed into silence. Lucky closed her eyes. She was so tired. She hadn’t slept on the plane, and her gut was churning with stress. She had no idea what Mendez expected from her, and while the prospect of getting anywhere near Al Ahmad was ulcer inducing, she was determined to do the job and get out quickly. Yeah, she’d wanted to run at first—but all night long all she’d thought about was that evil, slimy bastard and the things he’d done to her. The way he’d affected every day of her life since.

He had to die. And she would do whatever it took to make that happen.


Want to read more? Get your copy here:






Hot Shot

CHAPTER ONE

Three years ago…

JACK HUNTER RESISTED THE URGE to shrug. He’d been lying in this position for six hours now, waiting for Athenasios Metaxas to emerge from the safety of his private retreat on this remote stretch of beach in the Caribbean.

Nick Brandon lay beside him, eye to his spotter’s scope, searching for signs of the target. Jack rolled his neck and squared his eye over the lens again. All he had in his crosshairs were a few windows. There were lights on inside, but the only movement he’d seen had been a maid.

“No sign of the target,” he reported.

“Copy,” came Kev MacDonald’s voice over the earpiece.

Jack sighted down the scope again and dialed two mils to the right on Brandy’s instruction. They were 750 yards away, which was closer than they liked to be, but the terrain was such that this was the best location. Nowhere else had a visual of the entire rear portion of the house.

It was a full moon. The light shone down on the gleaming stucco of the villa, illuminating the pool and patio area. At the end of a long dock, a sixty-foot yacht lay at anchor. The yacht was dark.

Metaxas had been sailing the Caribbean for the past week, but now he was here and scheduled to meet with several men—terrorists—who’d traveled from the Middle East and were due to arrive tonight via helicopter. The helipad was lit but empty.

Jack pulled in a breath, his finger resting beside the trigger. He was patient—you had to be patient to be a sniper—but this was one op where he couldn’t wait to pull the trigger.

Because HOT wasn’t going to let that meeting happen. Metaxas had been a thorn in their side for years, but he’d recently taken his dirty dealings up a notch. If this deal was allowed to take place, a whole lot of bad people would be getting shiny new weapons with which to kill innocent civilians.

Not happening.

“Movement,” Nick said.

“I see it.”

A moment later, the rear doors slid open and a woman walked outside. Waves of blond hair cascaded down her back, shining almost white in the moonlight. She was wearing a bikini that barely covered her tits and ass, and she had on high heels that made her legs look a mile long.

“Jesus,” Nick breathed.

“Yeah.” Jack didn’t typically lose his head over a gorgeous woman, but even he had to admit that this one was put together in ways designed to make a man drool. Just another brainless bunny attracted to a rich man and doing everything she could to keep him interested.

“No. I mean, yes, she’s hot—but that’s not it. We got a problem here.”

Jack took his eyes off the scope and turned to look at his spotter.

Brandy glanced at him. “You don’t recognize her?”

“Should I?”

“Dude, that’s just about the hottest fucking pop star in the world right now. Haven’t you ever heard of Gina Domenico?”

Jack sighted down the scope again, focusing on the woman’s face. Christ Almighty on a cracker, they so did not need this right now. If he dropped Metaxas and his guests tonight, even with the maid and other household servants present, it wouldn’t be huge news. It would be a blip on the radar. An interesting tidbit mentioned on the evening news and quickly forgotten in most quarters.

If he dropped the bastard while a fucking American pop star was a guest, it’d be all over the news within hours—if it wasn’t trending on Twitter sooner. And while no one would connect an arms dealer’s death to HOT or the American government, the attention would be magnified a thousandfold if Gina Domenico was involved.

“I’ve heard of her,” he bit out. He’d more than heard of her. His wife had loved Gina Domenico. Hayley had bought all her CDs and played them incessantly. His heart burned with thoughts of his wife. After her death, he’d never wanted to listen to another Gina Domenico song in his life. He’d shredded the CDs and smashed Hayley’s iPod.

The woman on the patio pranced on her high heels toward the pool, hands on hips. Then she put a hand to her forehead and whirled around again. She marched over to the lounge chair where she’d set a bag and fished out a cell phone.

Double fuck.

“What’s going on there, Hawk?” It was Kev “Big Mac” MacDonald’s voice calling him by his team name. “Report.”

“Complication. Gina fucking Domenico just walked out of Metaxas’s house. She’s standing by the pool right now.”

“Goddammit,” Kev said. “Stand down until I report this.”

“Copy.”

Nick continued to take readings of the wind speed and direction, and Jack continued watching Gina through the scope. He knew who she was, but he hadn’t paid any attention to her before. Hayley hadn’t been the sort of woman to buy celebrity magazines or watch tabloid television. Jack recognized the star now that he knew who she was, but until Nick had said so, he’d just thought she was the latest hot blonde fucking Metaxas.

And wasn’t she? Didn’t matter if she was a pop star or not. There was no other reason for her to be here.

“Shit,” Nick groaned.

Jack didn’t answer, but he heard it too—a helicopter slicing through the night and getting louder as it got closer.

The helicopter swooped in over the ocean and set down on the pad. The door to the house opened and Metaxas swaggered outside. He went over and sat at a table while the maid hurried out with a tray containing food and beer. Someone flipped a switch and more lights came on, illuminating the pool and the blonde. She put her phone back in her bag and sauntered over to where Metaxas sat. He dragged her onto his lap and kissed her.

She pushed him away, finally stumbling to her feet and tugging her bikini back into place while Metaxas laughed. She did not look happy as she marched back over to her bag and tugged out a robe, belting it around her waist with almost furious movements.

But Jack couldn’t worry about her. The helicopter’s rotors slowed as three men emerged from the craft.

“Seriously need some guidance here,” Jack growled into the headset. “Tangos on scene.”

Jack didn’t think he was going to get an answer at first, but Kev’s voice came over the earpiece. “You’re cleared. Get it done and get out.”

Thank God. Jack’s heartbeat slowed to a crawl as he watched the three men walk toward the patio where Metaxas sat. He stood and held his arms out, saying something in welcome. Gina picked up her bag and started for the door. Jack wanted to wait until she went inside, but he couldn’t take the chance that the men would follow her.

“One mil to the left,” Nick said.

Jack turned the dial. The crosshairs lined up perfectly on Metaxas’s head. Jack pulled in another breath—and then squeezed the trigger on the exhale when his body was perfectly still.

Metaxas dropped like a stone. Jack sighted and fired three more times, dropping the other tangos as they tried to run.

Gina Domenico screamed. And then she grappled with the door handle, yanking open the door just as two of Metaxas’s bodyguards came rushing out. One of them grabbed her by the arm and jerked her around when she tried to run past him.

“Shit,” Jack said. And then he made a decision that shocked even him. He hadn’t had any feelings since the moment he’d gotten the news that Hayley had hydroplaned her car on the way to work and smashed into a tree.

Strike that. He hadn’t had any feelings for anyone but her and their unborn baby since then. But this woman had meant something to Hayley, and he couldn’t walk away from that. What would she think of him if he did? Hayley’d had a heart bigger than anyone he’d ever known. She would never leave anyone to suffer if she could help.

“Big Mac, we can’t leave her with those people. Metaxas’s men will think she was involved somehow.”

“We can’t help that.”

Jack could hear her screaming, even at this distance. And then the man holding her slapped her so hard her head jerked to the side.

“They’ll kill her. You know it as well as I do. And that will mean a media field day when the press gets hold of this.”

“We can’t go in,” Kev said. “It’s not authorized.”
Beside him, Nick was still feeding him information. Because Brandy knew he was gonna take the shot. Two shots.

And his spotter was with him.

The man hit her again, knocking her head back the other way. Jack dropped him, and then he dropped the other one. Stupid sons of bitches. If they’d had any sense, they’d have gone inside and stayed away from the windows. Who walked outside, saw four dead bodies that had clearly been shot from long range, and then stayed out there while the unknown assailant was still around?

The helo pilot spun up the rotors. Jack took aim and placed a round in the engine. The helicopter sputtered and coughed. It wasn’t going anywhere tonight.

“Goddammit, Hawk,” Kev said over the headset. And then he huffed out a breath. “Get to the extraction point double-quick. We got company coming.”

He sighted down to the patio again. Gina was gone. If there were more men inside, he didn’t know, but he’d given her a chance at least.
“Copy,” he said as he and Nick started to break down the gear.

* * * * *

Gina didn’t bother with her suitcase. Everything important was in her beach bag anyway. She ran through the house until she hit the garage. The maid was screaming and crying somewhere behind her, but Gina wasn’t hanging around to see what happened next. Athenasios had more men in his compound, and it would only be a matter of minutes before they arrived. And she didn’t want to try to explain why she was still alive when their boss wasn’t.

She’d heard the crack of a gun in the night, and then she’d turned around to see Athenasios on the ground with his head split like a melon and his guests dropping one by one in succession.

And then the bodyguards had come outside and one of them had grabbed her, shouting accusations and threats. Her face still hurt where he’d hit her. She had enough personal experience getting hit to know she’d be bruised tomorrow.

Gina hurried over to the closest car—a Mercedes of some sort—and yanked open the door. Athenasios kept the keys in his cars while they were garaged because he said no one would dare to steal from him.

And this wasn’t stealing, she told herself firmly as she pressed the button to start the engine. This was borrowing from a dead man.

But she had to get out of here. She didn’t know who had shot Athenasios or why, but she wasn’t sticking around to find out. She’d discovered during her weeklong journey on his yacht that he wasn’t quite the nice Greek industrialist he claimed to be. She’d wanted to escape before now, but there’d been nowhere to go when sailing across an ocean.

God, she’d been so stupid. She’d thought a man like Athenasios could protect her, that his power to keep the media away and give her a much-needed respite from the spotlight was a blessing.

Instead, it had been a curse. She’d been trapped, and now she would be dead if she didn’t get away.

The garage door cranked up slowly and she jammed the gas before the door was all the way up, just sliding under it with enough clearance to get out. Gina whipped the car around and shoved the gearshift into drive. Then she was bolting down the driveway and out onto the road.

She had no idea where to go, but she hoped she’d stumble onto civilization if she drove far enough.

The full moon helped illuminate the road, but it was twisty and turny and her heart pounded as she navigated the hairpin curves. And then she caught a flash of headlights behind her and her stomach fell to her toes.

Athenasios’s house was remote. While she supposed it was possible that someone was simply out for a drive, she wasn’t betting on it. Either some of his men had come after her, or whoever had shot all those men was after her too.

Maybe it was a kidnapping attempt. Her blood froze at that thought. There had been threats against her, but that was pretty much expected when you were as high profile as she was. Tears pressed against the backs of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She’d just wanted to escape the fishbowl of her life for a while. Just a while, dammit.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Regina—that’s what her mother would have said if she were still alive.

Gina stomped on the gas and whipped the Mercedes around corners like an IndyCar driver. Thank God her manager had made her take that defensive-driving course a few months ago. If she made it out of here alive, she’d kiss Barry for that.

Trees overhung the road, obscuring her vision. The headlights did their job, but it wasn’t as good as when she’d had moonlight too. Behind her, headlights flashed through the trees from time to time. If the car wasn’t following her, then she should have left it behind when she sped up.

But they were coming for her. Gina pressed the pedal down again, hoping she was better at navigating these curves than they were.

Up ahead, a dirt track led off the road and into the trees. Part of her said to keep going, but part of her said she had to get off the road and hide. At the last second, she whipped onto the track. The car bumped and thumped against the ground until she slowed down. Gina had to turn off the lights, even though it would mean she couldn’t see. Slowing to a crawl, she tried to navigate her way farther off the road. Once she was out of sight, she rolled the window down, listening for the sounds of another car. It was screaming up the incline and she swallowed a knot of panic.

Gina stopped the car and waited. Finally, the other engine roared by and kept going down the road. She made herself breathe slowly, in and out and in and out, but her heart still pounded hard. She would have to wait here for quite some time before it would be safe to go.

Though maybe this track went somewhere. She turned on the parking lights and drove slowly down the road. And then the front wheels dropped from beneath her and she realized too late that she’d hit a ditch.

She put the car in reverse and tried to back out of the gully, but the wheels spun wildly.

Gina dropped her head to the steering wheel. Now what? Tears flowed freely, and that made her angry. She wasn’t a quitter, dammit!

She sat up, determined to try again—and a bush with eyes appeared in front of her. A wave of fright washed over her, immobilizing her. And then she frantically grappled for the power button on the window.

But the bush moved toward her—and the window wasn’t going up.

CHAPTER TWO

SHE DIDN’T SCREAM. Jack found that intriguing because he would have bet his right nut that a woman as pampered as she was would scream. He had his hand on the door and she was frantically trying to raise the window.

Then she hit his hands with the heels of hers. He grabbed her wrists and held her hard.

“Miss Domenico, it’s okay. I’m not here to hurt you.”

She blinked those green eyes of hers. They were shimmery with tears. Silvery tracks streaked down her cheeks, and he knew she’d been crying. But she hadn’t screamed when he’d materialized in front of her. The ghillie suit he wore was designed to make him disappear in terrain such as this. He could have stayed hidden, but she’d driven right toward him. And then she’d gotten stuck.

Maybe he should have left her, but he could hear Hayley’s voice in his head, telling him he had to help. In spite of the fact he and Brandy had split up because they’d been taking fire, in spite of the fact he was late to the extraction point, in spite of it all. If her being here at this moment wasn’t a sign from the universe, he didn’t know what was.

“Wh…who are you? If it’s money you want, my manager will pay.”

He blinked. And then he realized what she meant. Ransom. She thought he was here to kidnap her.

“Miss Domenico, I’m not interested in money. I’m here to help you.”

“Y…you are? Who sent you?”

How to answer that one? “The United States Army, ma’am.” It was close enough to the truth, and maybe if she thought he was one of the good guys, she’d calm down.

She didn’t look too happy with the information, though. In fact, he’d swear she’d just cringed. He let her wrists go and she sank back into her seat.

“The car’s stuck, ma’am. You’ll have to come with me if you want to get out of here.”

“I’m wearing a swimsuit and high heels.” Her eyes widened. “Oh wait, I have flip-flops in my bag.”

He had emergency gear in his rucksack, including a Mylar survival blanket. If he could get them somewhere hidden, he could take care of them both long enough for help to arrive.

“I’m afraid you have no choice, ma’am. If you stay here, they’ll find you eventually. If you come with me, I’ll get you out safely.”

She chewed her lip as she looked at him. He knew he looked strange, like a bush with a face—though even his face was darkened with greasepaint. The only thing that made him look human would be his eyes and the flash of his teeth when he spoke.

“You still haven’t told me your name.”

“Jack Hunter.” He cleared his throat. “My wife was a big fan.”

“Was?”

And there it was, that twist in his heart that still caught him unaware sometimes. It’d only been eight months, so it wasn’t unexpected—and yet it hurt.

“She died, ma’am.”

Her breath hitched. “Oh, I’m sorry.” She reached for the handle and opened the door. And then she stood and dragged her beach bag with her. Swiftly, she changed her shoes—but she didn’t leave the old ones behind. He would have told her not to because it was positive ID she’d been in the car, but either she’d thought of that or she just loved her shoes.

She fixed him with a determined look. “All right, Jack Hunter. I’m ready. But you have to call me Gina, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am. I mean Gina.” He pointed to the east. “That’s the direction we’re going. About six miles, and we’ll come out on a beach with sea caves. We’ll hide there until help arrives.”

She swallowed. “Sounds fun.”

He cocked his head as he stared at her, but then he decided she was making a joke. The word that kept swirling in his brain when he looked at her was tough. It was turning out to be a surprise. She was tougher than he’d thought she would be. Smarter too, he’d bet.

“Then let’s go.” He hadn’t taken but a few steps when she called out.

“I can’t see you. You disappear.”

The ghillie suit. He turned back to her. “We can’t turn on any lights, I’m afraid.”

He thought about asking her to hold on to his suit, but it was possible pieces of the camouflage would tear away. There was only one solution he could think of.

“You’ll have to hold my hand.”

He stretched out his hand to her and she placed hers inside. He felt a jolt of awareness throttle through him. It was shocking to his system after all this time. He hadn’t wanted a woman since Hayley died—and he still didn’t, goddamn it—but for the first time since then, sexual awareness reared up and reminded him that he hadn’t lost the ability to feel desire.

Jesus H. Christ.

He wanted to let her go, but a tremor passed through her and he knew he couldn’t. He’d said he was here to help, and by God he was going to help. Even if he had to suffer from the things her touch was doing to him.

* * * * *

Gina did her best to keep up with Jack. When she stumbled, he slowed, and when they reached any obstacles, he helped her through. She’d lost count of how many times his hands had spanned her waist, but she hadn’t lost sight of how sparks had zinged through her every time. She kept telling herself it was nothing when in fact it was terribly disconcerting.

She’d learned a long time ago that sex was a weapon people often used against each other. And she really should have remembered it when she’d made the decision to date Athenasios Metaxas. He’d come to one of her concerts in Greece a couple of months ago, and he’d been so handsome and suave—and he’d commanded such power over his domain that he’d made her feel safe.

Until this past week when he’d shown his true nature. He’d wooed her with such meticulous attention to detail that she’d thought he was a dream come true. His brother had given her the creeps, always staring at her, but Athenasios had seemed perfectly normal.

He’d flown to wherever she was staying, wined and dined her, and behaved like a perfect gentleman. He’d called her—not too often—and told her how lovely she was and how much he enjoyed her company. And then he’d asked her to go sailing in the Caribbean with him.

She’d agreed.

That’s when she’d discovered he wasn’t a dream at all. He was brutal and thoughtless and he believed women were his for the taking. Her included. He hadn’t raped her—she couldn’t call it that—but he’d forced the issue when she wasn’t quite certain she was ready to take that step with him. Then he’d started making plans for her life as if he had every right to do so.

Gina shivered as she remembered how helpless she’d felt, how trapped.

“You okay?”

She looked up at the dark blur that was her companion. If he hadn’t been holding her hand, she would have thought he wasn’t there at all. He spoke quietly, and she pitched her voice low when she answered, remembering that he’d told her it was okay to talk so long as she was quiet.

“Fine. Just tired. And a mosquito bit me. Guess I missed a spot with the bug spray.”

He chuckled. The sound warmed her. He’d been amused when she’d pulled bug spray from her bag and doused herself.

“Sorry to laugh. It’s not funny.”

“No, I don’t mind. You have to laugh at something, right?”

“You amaze me with how calm you are about all this.”

She waved a hand. “Oh, I hike through the woods in a bikini and a robe all the time. It’s especially fun when running away from madmen.”

“Yeah.”

She bit her lip. “I guess if you’re with the Army, you must know something about what happened back there.”

“I do. But I’m afraid I can’t tell you about it.”

“I was there. I saw it. Someone shot Athenasios and the men who arrived by helicopter. And then they shot the bodyguards.”

“You really need to keep those details to yourself when you get home.”

“Trust me, I don’t want anyone knowing I was anywhere near there when it happened.”

“Wasn’t he your boyfriend?”

Her hand tightened on his, but she quickly made herself relax. She couldn’t pretend Athenasios had been a good person when she knew better. In many ways, he’d been no different from the men her mother had dated who’d hit her when she was a teenager. “Not really. Our relationship, such as it was, was definitely ending just as soon as I got away from him.”

“Too bad you didn’t leave sooner.”

“I tried. He wouldn’t let me.”

He didn’t say anything for a long moment. “It’s good you’re out of there. He wasn’t a nice man.”

“No, I know it now. I suck at picking men, apparently. It’s a family trait, passed down from mother to daughter.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Gina sniffed. She liked the comforting feel of his hand on hers. Especially when he gave her a little squeeze of support.

“Would you tell me about your wife? Unless it’s too painful.”

He didn’t say anything for a long while. She didn’t know why she’d asked, except she’d wanted to think about something other than the fact she was currently on the run from Athenasios’s men—and who knows who else.

“We were high school sweethearts,” he began, his voice a little rusty. “I joined the Army after school and we ended it, but I found that I didn’t like being without her. So I went back and married her a couple of years ago. She was a vet tech.”

“She wasn’t easy to forget.”

“No.” He pulled in a breath. “Still isn’t. Hayley was on her way to work during a bad storm when her car hit a patch of water and hydroplaned out of control. Broke through a railing and landed upside down in a creek. The impact killed her, which was a good thing because the creek waters were rising. She was scared of drowning, so I’m glad she didn’t go that way.”

She squeezed his hand convulsively. “Oh Jack, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, it’s fine. The counselor said I have to talk about it. It was eight months ago. She’d have been in the hospital having our baby right now.”

Oh God, this did not get any better, did it? Gina swallowed the lump in her throat. He spoke so calmly, but she knew it had to be killing him inside. She didn’t know him at all, and yet she hurt for him.

“I’m sorry is so inadequate, but it’s all I know to say.”

“It’s all anyone can say. What else is there?” He was quiet for a while as they trod through the woods. She noticed that he stopped and listened every so often. But there was nothing out here other than typical night sounds. She tried not to think about snakes or spiders—or heaven knows what else liked to hang out in tropical jungles.

When he spoke again, though he was always so quiet when he did, the sound startled her. “Hayley loved your music. Drove me crazy listening to your albums. I haven’t listened to any of your songs since she died. Don’t want to hear them.”

“I understand.”

Some of her songs came from a deep well of pain and insecurity inside, and she was especially proud of them. But others, the ones her manager always pushed her toward, were big splashy numbers with thumping beats and killer dance moves. Those were the ones that had made her popular. But she wouldn’t ask which songs Hayley had liked more. Maybe it was best she didn’t know.

She’d been wanting to make a change for a while now, but every time she tried to get her way, a phalanx of music company executives and flunkies came down on her hard. So did her manager.

“Star power sells, Gina.” “The kids love the dance numbers.” “You’re outselling Beyoncé now—do you want to fuck that up?”

Maybe she did. Hell, she didn’t know what she wanted, but she knew that she wasn’t satisfied lately. As someone who had everything she could ever want, she felt guilty for complaining.

So she mostly didn’t. Except sometimes, dammit, she wished she could have something more. Something that couldn’t be bought.

Up ahead, it seemed lighter out, and she realized they were approaching the edge of the woods. The sound of the ocean swelling against the beach reached her ears and her stomach twisted. What was waiting for them out there?

“Will we make it out of here alive?” she whispered.

“That’s my plan. Don’t worry, I’ve been in tougher spots than this and here I am. Metaxas’s men are amateurs, and that’s an advantage for us.”

They skirted the edge of the woods for a while, until he determined they were where he wanted them to be. They emerged from the woods and hurried along a cliff face until he found the caves he was looking for. Gina hesitated in the entrance.

It wasn’t a cave so much as a nook carved into the rock. Once she climbed in there with him, they’d have to stay close together until they were rescued.

He turned to look at her after he slung his rucksack down and stowed the rifle he was toting. And wow, it was some rifle. She hadn’t realized everything he’d been carrying when they’d been in the woods. But now the moonlight illuminated more than she’d seen before.

“Why do you look like a bush?”

His teeth flashed white. “Camouflage. No one notices another bush, right? Helps me get close enough to the target.”

Target. Gina gulped as fresh understanding dawned. “Are you the one who shot those men?”

The light in his eyes dimmed a little. But then he nodded. “That’s my job.”

Her heart thudded. He’d shot four men in the blink of an eye. And then two more when that bodyguard had been slapping her around. She should be horrified, and yet…

“The last two… Were they part of the job too?”

His gaze was steady. “No.”

She dropped her eyes from his, unable to look at him for the worry she’d let too much show in her face. Fear, gratitude. Awareness.

“Thank you.” Her voice was soft, her throat tight.

“You have to get inside now, Gina. I know it’s not a lot of room, but you’re safe with me.”

She looked up then, let him see what was in her eyes. She’d never trusted anyone so quickly in her life. But she knew, inherently, that she could trust him. “I know I am.”

He held his hand out and she took it, her skin sizzling with the contact. They stared at each other for a long minute—and then they went inside and sank onto the sand together.

CHAPTER THREE

THEY SPENT THE HEAT of the day in the small cave. It went back far enough that they could get out of the sun, but it was narrower at the rear and they had to sit side by side, bodies touching as they watched the ocean swells rolling in. They couldn’t see the beach from where they were since they’d had to climb up a little bit to reach the cave.

Jack had removed the bush—aka ghillie suit—and sat beside her in a muscle-hugging black T-shirt, military camo pants, and boots. Gina was aware of him in ways she’d rather not be.

But he’d wiped the greasepaint from his face with a cloth, and her breath had caught at what was under there. A day’s worth of stubble adorned a face that would have looked good on an action-film poster. His hair was blond, his eyes piercing blue, and the hint of a dimple in his cheek when he smiled was enough to make her heart thump.

Not that he smiled much. He’d opened up his pack and given her an energy bar and some water, which he’d told her to conserve. They’d sat in companionable silence for a long while, and then she’d dozed, waking when it was broad daylight to discover that she’d fallen asleep against him and that he’d put his arm around her so she would be more comfortable.

She’d apologized, but he’d shrugged and said it was no big deal. Though she hadn’t intended to, she fell asleep again, and when she woke this time, it was dark. She blinked at her surroundings, but then it all came back to her, and she pushed away once more from the solid mountain that was Jack Hunter.

“You feeling okay?” he asked.

Gina sat up and stretched. Her face throbbed where Athenasios’s thug had hit her, and she was a bit sore after hiking through the woods in flip-flops, but she was alive and that was something.

“I’m okay. A bit stiff.”

“When the moon sets, we’ll get out of here for a bit. Go for a swim. The saltwater will help.”

Gina was doubtful, but on the other hand, she’d love to stand up for a while. A shaft of moonlight shone into the cave, and she turned her head this way and that, trying to relieve the stiffness in her neck.

Jack swore softly, and then she felt his hand on her chin. He was gentle, but she flinched anyway.

“I won’t hurt you.”

“I know.” And she did know it, but he’d surprised her.

“You’re starting to bruise. I’ve got a cold pack.”

He turned to his rucksack, and she marveled at all the things he had in there. It wasn’t huge, but it carried an arsenal of supplies, weaponry, and medicine. And condoms. Her eyes widened as he set some of those aside for a moment.

“Wow, you really are prepared.”

He glanced at her over his shoulder. “A bit of everything in here.”

“Including condoms.”

He grinned. “They’re for keeping ammo dry. You’d be surprised.”

“I guess I would.”

He pulled out a bag that he squeezed and shook. When he handed it to her, it was cold.

Gina put it to her face, wincing a little as she did so. “Thanks.”

He was putting stuff back in the pack. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop that from happening.”

Her heart contracted at the regret in his voice. He cared and she liked that. No one cared much about her as a person so much as they did about her status and money.

Stop. That’s pitiful, and you aren’t pitiful.

Damn straight. She’d never been pitiful and she wasn’t going to start now. Poor little rich girl. She was self-made, but money came with heartaches of its own. She’d learned that lesson only too well, but she still wasn’t going to whine.

“You saved my life. I’d be pretty ungrateful if I was angry because someone hit me first. Wouldn’t be the first time it happened.”

He grew still. “What does that mean?”

She was embarrassed she’d said that much—and then she thought, What the hell? He was a stranger to her and it no longer mattered. Maybe they wouldn’t make it out of here anyway, no matter what he said. Why keep pretending?

“It means I didn’t have a dad. It means I had a mother who changed boyfriends like most people change socks. It means that some of them were angry, and some of them lashed out.”

“Jesus,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “It was a long time ago. I’m over it.”

“If it helps, I’d shoot those men for you if I could.”

She laughed, though maybe she shouldn’t. “I almost wish you could.” She pulled in a breath and shifted the Mylar blanket he’d given her earlier over her body. “The worst one was a guy named Randy. He was a soldier. He liked to drink and slap women around. Mom first, then me. And then one day he had a bulge in his pants when he was hitting me—and I just knew I had to go.”

“Christ, Gina.” He sounded horrified, and she liked him even more.

“Nothing happened. I ran away that night, and that was it. The end of Regina Robertson and the beginning of Gina Domenico, though it took a lot of years of hard work. I slept on streets sometimes, in bus stations and dodgy apartments…” She shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“I don’t mind.”

“No selling your story to the tabloids later, all right?”

It was his turn to laugh. “Sweetheart, my boss would hang my ass from the spire of the Capitol if I did such a thing. Even if it wasn’t against my moral code, it’d be career suicide—and this is all I have now.”

She hated how lonely he sounded. She reached out and put her hand on his. His skin was warm, and once more that sizzle of lightning flooded her. “I was kidding, Jack. I know you won’t go to the press.”

He didn’t move for a long moment, and then he turned his hand and ran his fingers against her palm, softly, sweetly. It was as if he’d touched the heart of her, because her entire body grew tight with anticipation.

“What made you choose the name Gina Domenico?” His voice was soft, and she knew he was deliberately moving on. Getting her away from the awkwardness of what she’d just told him.

“My mom always called me Gina, so that was easy. And then I saw a story about an Italian artist named Domenico something-or-other.” She laughed. “I can’t remember his last name, but I never forgot Domenico. It sounded foreign, classy, and I decided that would be my stage name.”

“It worked for you.”

“Definitely.” She wanted to whimper when he dropped his hand away. “What about you, Jack? How did you end up here?”

“I joined the Army because I wanted adventure and a paycheck. Here I am.”

She sensed it wasn’t the whole story, but she had no right to push him. “Here you are. Good for me.”

His gaze dropped to her mouth and sparks snapped in her belly. It shocked her that she wanted to lean into him, press her mouth to his, and feel his heat and strength. After the last week with Athenasios, it surprised her that she could want that kind of closeness with any man right now.

He pushed away from her and crawled toward the mouth of the cave. Then he shot her a look over his shoulder. “Moon’s nearly gone. Want to get out of here for a bit?”

“Sure.” She crawled out of the cave and stood up. Jack walked away from her as if he couldn’t stand to be near her for a moment longer. She tried not to let it bother her as she strode down the beach and stopped at the edge of the water.

But it did.

* * * * *

Living in a tight cave with this woman wasn’t exactly easy. Or comfortable. Jack shifted for the millionth time that day, trying to relieve the pressure of a hard-on. Last night he’d had to get out of the cave before he did something stupid. She’d been looking at him with wide, trusting eyes, and he’d found himself wanting to kiss her.

It pissed him off. And scared him too.

He hadn’t wanted a woman since Hayley died, and now he was stuck in a tight spot with a woman who was miles out of his league by anyone’s measure—and all he could think about was stripping her out of that damn bikini and burying his aching cock in her body.

Shit.

She stirred against him and he knew she was waking. It was almost dark out, and soon they could get outside again. He couldn’t wait. Except, after they’d swam and exercised a bit last night, it had been chilly in the cave and they’d ended up huddling together for body heat since they couldn’t have a fire. The Mylar blanket was meant for one, so if he didn’t want to freeze, he had to get under it with her.

Her robe was pitiful protection against the cool night air, so he’d wrapped his arms around her and let her burrow.

They talked, but no matter how much they said or how many things they discussed, his body stayed in a perpetual state of arousal. He couldn’t wait for HOT to find them. He’d sent a signal, but he had to be careful with the electronics in case Metaxas’s men were also looking for them.

“Hey,” she said.

He looked down to see her smiling up at him. He liked her smile. “Hey yourself.”

She shifted away from him and he let out a small sigh of relief. When she touched him, his entire body lit up like a beacon. He’d been thinking about that for a while now, and he knew it had to be because it had been so long since anyone had touched him. His heart might be dead, but his dick wasn’t, and this was the first time since his wife died that he’d actually been close to a woman.

A soft, sensual, lovely woman with a body that had no doubt fueled a million masturbatory fantasies. He had to remind himself who she was, because when he looked at her, all he saw was a beautiful, tough, somewhat insecure woman who hid a core of vulnerability beneath a worldly exterior.

“I guess the Lone Ranger hasn’t arrived to save the day yet,” she said.

“No, not yet.”

“But the evil villain hasn’t arrived either, so we’re doing all right.” She frowned. “How are we on food?”

The food was meant for one, not two, but he hadn’t told her that. He just kept dividing it up and telling her it was all right.

“We’ve got a couple of days yet.”

“Will they find us? Your guys, I mean.”

“Yes.” He had no doubt HOT would come. If they weren’t here yet, it was because there’d been some serious shit happening after they’d taken out Metaxas. The gunrunner basically owned this part of the island, and his people controlled access via the public road. As for the water approach, well, that was a bit trickier.

But Jack’s guys would come.

She stretched her arms out in front of her. Her robe gaped open and the bikini top showed the swell of her breasts to perfection. Jack deliberately looked elsewhere while his dick throbbed a little more than before.

“I would love a shower and some coffee.” She looked down at her body. “And some more clothes.”

“Yeah, that would be nice.”

Her robe slipped a little more and… fuck. Was that a belly-button ring? He hadn’t noticed it before because she’d been covered up. And when he’d looked at her through the scope, it hadn’t been her belly he’d been concentrating on.

She looked up and caught him staring at her. His first instinct was to look away, but he didn’t. He just… didn’t.

“You’re a good guy, Jack,” she said softly.

“Not really.” He sounded gruff.

She pulled her robe closed and sat with her arms wrapped around her middle, and that one gesture ripped through him.

“Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to be uncomfortable with me.”

“But I am.” Her head was bowed. “And not for the reasons you think. That look you gave me just now… I think it causes you pain.”

He blew out a breath. “Yeah. It’s been… There’s been no one since Hayley died.”

She looked up, her eyes shiny. “I think that’s sweet and sad and wonderful. And I’m really sorry, Jack. Really.”

There was a lump in his throat. “I know.” He shook himself and pushed up to crawl toward the opening. “I think it’s safe to go for a swim now.”

He stepped out of the cave and didn’t look back. Right now he needed a dip in the ocean. It wouldn’t be cold enough to douse this flame, but at least it was a start.

* * * * *

Gina slipped into the cool water and immersed herself. When she came up again, she could hear Jack swimming nearby. It was dark, but the moon was out and the stars were plentiful. After the first night, Jack had realized they were fine if they stayed in the shadow of the rock. The moon gave them light, but it didn’t pick them out for anyone who might be looking.

Still, he’d warned her it was a risk. But it was a risk they had to take because staying in that cave certainly wasn’t easy. Gina floated on her back and thought of the way he’d looked at her. A shiver drifted over her, but it wasn’t due to being cold. She’d thought he wasn’t interested in her at all—in fact, she’d felt terrible for being attracted to him—but then he’d looked at her with such an expression of raw hunger that she’d grown instantly wet.

She’d closed the robe because her nipples were hard, not because she’d been upset that he’d been looking. Now her nipples hardened again, spiking against the fabric of her top. She let a hand drift up and over her breasts. Another shiver rippled through her.

She sank beneath the water again, only this time she stayed down, forcing her mind to go blank, her thoughts to drift away. When she surfaced, she wasn’t alone.

“Jesus, Gina,” he said, his voice a hiss because his strictures about talking loud still applied. “I couldn’t see you at all.”

She slicked her hair back from her face. “Sorry.”

“I thought something happened.”

Her face grew warm. “Nothing happened. Clearly.”

She was watching him so intently that when the next soft swell bumped into her, she didn’t let it roll over her the way she should have. Instead, she let it carry her forward until she had to put out her hands to stop herself from crashing into him.

His skin was warm, hard, and slick beneath her touch. The muscles were defined… and suddenly tense. His hands went to her waist, steadying her.

“Sorry,” she said again. It was such a small sound. A useless sound.

His fingers flexed against her waist. And then his hand slid up her ribcage, around to the tie of her bikini top. Her heart fluttered like a frantic moth. She wanted him to untie it so badly.

But he didn’t. He simply traced his finger along the line and she wanted to whimper.

“It’s okay, Jack,” she said. “Do it. I want you to do it.”

“Do what, babe?”

“I want to be your first after…” Because there was something sweet about this man, something vulnerable, and she ached for him. “God, I’m sorry if that sounds insensitive—”

He dragged her against his body—his very hard, semi-naked body—and fused his mouth to hers before she could finish her sentence. His tongue met hers and her body shuddered as hot need washed through her.

He put his hands under her ass, and she wrapped her legs around his waist, moaning when his cock slid against the thin fabric of her bikini. He was big, hard, and she flexed her hips, sparks tingling deep inside her as the bundle of nerves in her clit rubbed against him.

Oh, she wanted him inside her. And yet she knew how difficult this must be for him, how emotional. She wanted to tell him she understood, and yet she was certain he wouldn’t want to hear it. That she would sound like she was patronizing him.

She lost herself in the kiss, moving her body against his, her excitement rising, her pussy aching, the tension inside her spinning tighter and tighter.

He seemed to know what she wanted and he began to flex his hips, moving his body against hers. His hand moved, and then she felt a finger slide beneath her bikini. When he encountered the slick heat of her, he groaned.

“You’re hot for me,” he said against her cheek.

“I know. Please, Jack, do something about it. Or if you’d rather not, stop now and leave me here to cool off, okay?”

He pulled back to look at her, his eyes searching hers. “Leave you? Fuck no.”

He started moving toward shore, still carrying her, and then he set her down and pulled her up the beach, grabbing his clothes on the way. He’d stripped down to his underwear to swim, a pair of black briefs that cupped his perfect ass.

When he got her inside the cave, he laid her down on the Mylar and stripped off her wet bikini. Then he warmed her with his mouth, licking her salt-drenched flesh until his hot mouth closed over one nipple and she clutched her fingers in his hair, gasping at the intensity of the pleasure.

“Please,” she begged, her fingers twisting in his hair. “Please.”

He reached for his pack and pulled out a condom package—thank God for those condoms—and ripped it open with his teeth. She helped him sheath his cock—and then he pushed into her slick folds, sliding deep inside her until they both let out a moan.

He held still for a long moment and she began to think he might be having second thoughts. But it was dark in the cave and she couldn’t see his eyes. She reached for him, ran her fingers over his cheek, his lips, and then down over his chest.

He shuddered once, and tears sprang to her eyes as she wondered what that shudder was about. Was he regretting this? Angry with himself? With her? But he was still hard, still deep inside her, and when she shifted against him, arching her hips up to him, trying to increase the friction on her most sensitive places, he made a noise that might have been a groan or a protest.

But then he started to move, and everything else fell away…


Want to read more? Get your copy here:






Hot Rebel

CHAPTER ONE

“REPORT.”

“Nothing happening.” Nick Brandon squeezed one eye shut and sighted down the scope of his sniper rifle. “No sign of the target.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” came the frustrated reply over the comm. “Where the fuck is this bastard?”

A bead of sweat trickled down Nick’s neck. He ignored it since it was only one of many that had soaked the cotton of his T-shirt and made him damp beneath the desert ghillie suit. Discomfort was part of the job. Ignoring it was a necessary survival skill.

“Wish I knew.”

Hell, yeah, he wished he knew. He’d been in position for days now, in a bombed-out building in one of Qu’rim’s distant towns. The fighting still raged in this war-torn land, in spite of the fact they’d neutralized Al Ahmad months ago. It had eased up for a while, buoyed on the reforming spirit of the new king and his promises to the people, and then it fell apart again as other factions took advantage of the Freedom Force’s confused and fractured leadership to fill the void and continue the civil war.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much to the rest of the world if there weren’t a giant fucking uranium mine in the middle of the conflict. At least it was heavily guarded by an international peacekeeping force, but that was small comfort when it was still technically in a war zone.

Now that the Freedom Force was regaining strength, the whole fucking thing was a fresh nightmare. But this mission, if it went well, would help to stifle their regrowth, at least for a little while.

“Checking with HQ. Hold tight, man.”

“Copy.”

Nick sighed as he put down the sat phone and rotated his neck to pop out the kinks. His spotter looked up from the floor where he’d taken a few minutes to catch some sleep. It was odd to think of doing this job without Jack Hunter, but Jack was on assignment elsewhere these days. Being married to a pop star changed a guy’s life, apparently.

Though if Jack were still here, Nick would be the spotter instead of the sniper. He liked being the sniper.

Dexter “Double Dee” Davidson rubbed his hand over his head. “Man, what a dream.”

“Did it involve naked girls and swimming pools?”

Dex grinned. “Not quite, but that would’ve been a good one too.”

Nick scanned the area once more. A donkey meandered down the street on one end while a woman in full burka shuffled along on the other. He focused on the woman, watching her sharply for a minute before deciding she was exactly what she appeared to be. Her face was hidden behind the burka, but she didn’t move like a man. She had a basket slung over her shoulder that seemed to contain a few meager dates and some rice so far as he could see. She was clearly hurrying to get out of the street before anyone noticed her.

This town was about half-inhabited anymore, but the ones holding on were determined to stay and make as normal a life as possible in the midst of a war. It would be far more convenient if no one were here at all, but war wasn’t about convenience.

Nick watched the woman until she disappeared down the street, and then he sank down against the wall and pulled water out of his pack. He took a sip and then capped it and put it back.

“Why don’t you take a nap? I’ll watch for our tangos for a while.”

Nick yawned. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Dex lifted his scope and crawled into position in the opening in the wall. Nick had just closed his eyes, looking forward to twenty minutes or so of uninterrupted shut-eye, when something rumbled deep in his chest.

He opened his eyes again, certain he was imagining things. But Dex was peering intently at something.

“Trucks,” he muttered. “Mile away, coming toward us.”

Nick scrambled back up. “Could be our guy,” he said, sighting down his own scope. It was the first interesting thing to happen in days now, and his adrenaline spiked as he imagined completing this mission and bugging the fuck out.

“Can’t tell yet.”

They waited, watching the trucks that bristled with armed men—and then the column turned and drove north. Far in the distance, Nick could see a dust cloud making its way south. More trucks, no doubt.

His heart thumped with excitement. “I think this is our meeting. But they aren’t coming to the town.”

Dex was busy with calculations. “Almost twenty-eight hundred yards when they converge. Damn,” he breathed.

“We’ll make it.”

“Dial seven mils to the right,” Dex said. “Fucking wind.”

“On it.”

The two columns moved closer together.

“Long shot,” Dex said.

“I got it, Dex.”

“I know.”

The two columns converged after what seemed like hours but in reality was only minutes. Sand swirled, obscuring the men for a long moment before finally settling. Men got out of the vehicles and ranged into the open. Nick searched for the target. The man was a new lieutenant in the Freedom Force and rumored to be pulling the strings in this quadrant of Qu’rim. Not to mention, he’d been rebuilding the shattered network of terrorists and giving them a cause to unite behind.

“Found him,” Nick said, satisfaction rolling through him with the sharp sweetness of an orgasm. Not quite the same sensation, but damn close. The second-best feeling in the world, he decided.

Dex double-checked the deck of cards they carried that had the names and faces of the men they were hunting. This one was young—and American-educated, which left a bad taste in Nick’s mouth.

“Yep, that’s him.”

Nick’s finger hovered over the trigger. He had to sight this one carefully, had to take the shot when he was fully ready. The man had no idea he was being targeted, so there was no need to rush. When the wind was right, Nick would squeeze the trigger. The shot would fall long and fast before it finally arced into the head of the target. It was critical he get this right.

Once it happened, they had to break down and get the hell out fast. Nick let out his breath, ready to squeeze on the exhale. Another split second and this bastard was going down—

The man beside the target dropped just as Nick’s finger tensed. He jerked, but it wasn’t his bullet that had hit the other man. He hadn’t even fired—but someone had. He sighted the target again, but the men in the group had realized something was happening. They went berserk, shouting and running and throwing the terrorist leader into an armored vehicle before Nick could get a clear shot.

“Goddammit!”

Dex echoed him at the same moment the report of a rifle rang back to them over the distance. Of course someone else had taken a shot. They both knew it before they heard it.

The mission was a bust. Nick scanned the area around their hideout, looking for signs of another team. Who else could have come after these bastards if not another government with competing interests?

But if there was another team, they were damn good, because he and Dex had been in position for days and they’d never gotten wind of anyone else in the area other than a few locals.

Damn, that had been a beauty of a shot. It was almost impossible, in fact—and yet another sniper had made it in the split second before Nick could make his. He could admire the skill even if the bastard had fucked up the mission.

Half the column of men had slammed back into their trucks and sped away. But another group, a small group, was heading toward the town with assault rifles and antiaircraft missiles.

“Copy,” Dex said into the sat phone before ending the call he’d just made to their team. His eyes were filled with determination when he looked up at Nick. “Extraction point moved due to enemy fire. We gotta bust our asses if we’re gonna make it.”

They broke down the equipment double-quick, stowing the weapons and shouldering the gear. They had a head start, but not a long one. They’d have to move from this building and keep moving while the enemy combatants searched for them. And they needed air support if they were going to make it out.

Nick’s comm link crackled for the first time since this mission had gone to hell. “Need that firebird, Flash,” he grated before Ryan Gordon could speak. Jesus, this mission had been plagued with bad luck from the start. In the past few hours, a dust storm had interfered with their primary comm and sent them to backup. And now this.

“Called it in. HQ says it’s coming. What the fuck happened?”

Flash and the team were a couple of miles away, waiting for Nick and Dex.

“We got company, that’s what. They took out the opposition commander. Our guy got away.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. No sign of our shooter or his team.”

“Don’t worry about them, Brandy.” It was Kev “Big Mac” MacDonald. “Get the fuck out and we’ll let HQ sort it out.”

Like Nick would do anything differently. But, yeah, if he got a glimpse of this asshole, he’d take the chance.

“Birdie’s ETA is fifteen minutes. You guys all right?”

“Yeah,” Nick said as he and Dex busted out the back door of the building they’d been haunting like ghosts and made for the next zone they’d set up.

The sun was setting, and long shadows lay across the desert landscape. The heat of the day still shimmered on the horizon, and the sounds in the town were subdued. A goat bleated somewhere. Nick’s head jerked up as something moved to his left. But there was nothing and he kept running.

Dex made it first and burst into the building they’d scouted days ago. There was always the chance someone had taken shelter in the past few days, but the building was abandoned and the chances were slim.

Dex headed for the long bank of windows at the rear and hunkered down inside the wall. Nick could hear shouting coming from outside now. It was still a few streets over but moving closer.

The door they’d come through just a few seconds ago shot open, and both men raised their weapons automatically.

A woman in a burka stood there, silhouetted against the setting sun. Nick wondered if it was the same woman he’d seen earlier, but then he realized this one didn’t have a basket like the last one had.

“Fuck me,” Dex breathed softly at the sight of a rifle cradled in her arms.

The woman ripped away the face covering and tipped her chin up, and Nick shook his head as if to clear a mirage.

“Not just now, boys,” she said in perfect English. Or as perfect as a Southern accent could come to it, anyhow. “We’ve got a company of tangos on our heels, or hadn’t you noticed?”

* * * * *

Victoria wished it weren’t two against one, but she’d lost her spotter three days ago when the dumb bastard had tried to suggest she was only good for one thing—and that thing hadn’t been shooting.

She hadn’t shot Jonah, but she’d wanted to. Turned out it hadn’t been necessary since he’d gotten himself killed by a Russian mercenary on the way here during a dispute over God knows what.

Whatever. It wasn’t her problem. She’d called it in. If the boss wasn’t happy, that’s what he got for hiring military rejects and Rambo wannabes in the first place.

She didn’t bother to wonder where that put her in the catalog of hires. She already knew what she was and why.

The two men were staring at her as if she’d materialized out of thin air. Which, for their purposes, she nearly had. She’d shadowed them for days now, and she knew they were Army Special Ops. She hadn’t seen their faces, but now the setting sun arrowed into the room and picked them out where they had their backs to the wall and guns drawn.

Both were dark-haired, muscled, and sported several days’ beard growth. One had his jaw hanging open. But the other…

Recognition hit Victoria like an unexpected encounter with a bat. She knew that face. Knew that mouth, the hard curl of those lips as he’d hurled insults at her during the few weeks they’d spent as competitors at the Army Sniper School. He’d been the only one there who’d had the ability to get to her, to rattle the smooth surface of her calm. And he’d done it again and again. Where the other guys tried to cozy up to her, he’d done nothing but push.

In a way, she supposed she should be grateful. He’d made her remember what she was there for, that she’d been determined to graduate and earn her right to be an Army sniper.

She would have done it too, had things not changed.

Victoria pushed the door shut and rushed over to the tattered rug that lay on the floor between her and the men.

“Don’t just sit there looking stupid,” she snapped. “Help me get this trapdoor open.”

The one she didn’t know stood as if to obey. The other one—Nick Brandon—shot a hand out and stopped the guy from moving.

Victoria shoved a stray lock of hair from her face and sputtered. “You’re going to let them find us just because you’re pissed, is that it?”

“You took the shot.”

“Damn right I did.”

Nick unfolded himself and got to his feet, his hands flexing on the case slung over his shoulder. “You took the goddamn shot, Victoria. But you shot the wrong motherfucker.”

She jerked at the trapdoor, levering it up with a grunt. Sweat rolled down her face. She wanted to rip the burka off entirely, but she still needed the damn thing. If this shit went south, it would provide a measure of protection that her assault suit wouldn’t.

If they looked under the burka, however…

“So you do remember my name. And for the record, I didn’t shoot the wrong guy. I shot the one I was hired to shoot.”

Nick’s face twisted darkly. “You still shot the wrong guy. And for the wrong fucking reasons.”

She shoved the trapdoor until it fell with a thud. “How do you know what my reasons are?” She slapped her forehead. “Oh wait, I forgot. It’s easy for you to be self-righteous, isn’t it? Preacher’s son who shoots people for a living. How’s that working out for you, hot stuff?”

The other guy’s gaze had been swinging back and forth between the two of them. But now he put his hand on Nick’s arm. “Dude, I don’t know how you know this chick, but I think she’s right. We need to get inside there and wait this one out.”

The sound of machine-gun fire rolled through the streets, closer than before. Typically, the Qu’rimi opposition wasn’t that organized, but this group was taking orders from someone new. And that person had a plan.

“Yeah,” Nick said, tilting his head to listen.

Victoria huffed a breath as she swept her hand toward the darkened stairs into the cellar below. “Be my guest, boys.”

“You first,” Nick said, his hazel eyes lasering in on her, gleaming hot.

Victoria shrugged as she tossed her gear into the hole. “Fine. Just be sure to hook the rug on the door on the way down.”

Nick’s eyes narrowed. She knew he didn’t have clue what to do with the rug at this point—and they didn’t have time for him to figure it out when she already knew.

“Dex can go first then.”

The other man shrugged and came over with his gear, tossing it into the opening. When he was down in the hole, Nick passed the rest of the gear to him. And then he climbed halfway into the opening before he stopped and glared at her as if he didn’t trust her.

Victoria sniffed. “Make room, asshole, or I can’t follow.”

“How do I know you intend to?”

She blinked. “What do you think I mean to do? Wave the scumbags in and show them where you are? How do you think that’ll go for me once they discover I’m not a Qu’rimi woman?”

He grunted before lowering himself farther into the opening. He was almost at the bottom when she spoke.

“Stop right there,” she said as she grabbed the trapdoor and folded it over so he could prop it up. Then she snagged the rug and went about fixing it over the door. Once she was certain it was in place, she had to lower herself onto the floor and slide into the opening.

Nick was still there, still holding the door up so she could shimmy beneath it. The opening was tight and she found herself wedged against him suddenly, the hard press of his muscles making her jump and tingle in all the wrong places.

Or right places, depending on who you asked.

“Jesus,” he muttered as she dropped, her body sliding against his.

“Let the door go,” she urged. “Slowly.”

He went the rest of the way down the ladder, letting the trapdoor sink behind him. The rug, though tattered, had a heavy weft and would lie flat.

The cellar was surprisingly cool for a dirt hole carved out of the desert floor. They were near an oasis here or it wouldn’t have been possible, but the bedrock was solid and allowed the villagers to dig cellars in order to store vegetables and water.

The room wasn’t big, and the only thing preventing it from being completely dark at the moment was the glow stick the man named Dex had broken.

The ground rumbled and dirt showered from the ceiling. Victoria clenched her hands into fists. God, she hated this part. Being buried alive was bad enough, but buried alive with this man…

Nick’s head was back, his eyes on the ceiling as the dirt stopped falling. His skin glistened in the dull glow of the light. She let her gaze slide over him, cataloging the chiseled planes of his cheekbones and nose. And those lips.

Dear God, she could never forget those lips. She’d hated them and adored them all at once—and hated them even more because she’d been weak enough to want to feel them against her own.

At least she hadn’t allowed that indignity before the end.

“How did you know this was here?” he asked, not looking at her, his voice a low rumble in the dark.

“Part of the job. I’m surprised you didn’t know it. Or maybe you’re not as good as you like to think.”

His gaze snapped to hers and she found herself swallowing, which wasn’t easy considering her mouth was as dry as the sand covering the desert over their heads.

“At least I’m here for the right reasons.”

He sounded cool and judgmental, and it pissed her off even though she knew she shouldn’t let him get to her. He couldn’t know what her reasons were or how right they were to her.

“Of course you are. I’m just here for the fun. What girl wouldn’t want to be trapped in a cellar with you two jerks while a bunch of jihadists tromp the ground over her head?”

“Hey,” Dex said, “I didn’t say a damn thing. Leave me out of your pissing contest.”

“The one you let get away,” Nick growled, “will prolong this conflict and cost American lives. How does that make you feel?”

Victoria tilted her chin up as fresh heat flooded her. She knew precisely who she’d let get away. And it still made her sick inside.

“And I say the one I shot would have done the same thing. There are no easy choices out here, and you know it.”

“I work for an organization that knows what they’re talking about. Who do you work for?” He took a step toward her, though they were already close due to the tight proximity of the cellar.

She wanted to back away, but she wouldn’t show that much weakness. And she wasn’t telling him anything, either.

“Whoever it is,” he continued, “they don’t give a fuck about what’s right or just, do they? Guns for hire never do. It’s all about the money and who can pay to get what they want. You shot an opposition commander of no consequence. You let the terrorist get away. And that’s the fucking truth of it, Victoria, so save the rationalizing for some other dumb ass who might believe it.”

His words hurt, but she wasn’t going to let him know it. She reminded herself that she was here for Emily, and she was going to do whatever it took to get her sister back. Besides, Victoria’s name was already sullied in the eyes of the United States Army. What was one more transgression?

She was hot on Emily’s trail, thanks to Ian Black and his business. She started to tell Nick to fuck off, but there was a burst of gunfire overhead and the words died in her throat. The three of them cast their eyes to the ceiling and gripped their weapons.

There was a sudden thump on the trapdoor and Victoria’s heart lodged in her throat. Any second, the door would lift—and they’d be caught in this hole like rats.

CHAPTER TWO

NICK PULLED HIS SIG AND prepared to shoot. Behind him, Dex did the same. Victoria yanked an HK submachine gun from her bag and rocked back into a fighting stance. Above them, booted feet thumped and scraped, and men called to each other in Arabic.

Someone was going to realize the floor was hollow in that one spot, and when they did, all hell was going to break loose. Nick forced his heartbeat to slow, his breathing to deepen. Calm sank over him like a soft blanket. This was what he did, what he’d trained for. If those bastards came down here, he’d fight until he couldn’t fight anymore.

He glanced at Victoria, wondering how she was going to handle this. It still stunned him that she was here at all. A fucking mercenary. A gun for hire. How had that happened? Why?

She’d been incredible at the sniper school, one of the best shots in the whole damn class. They’d gone head-to-head more than once in competition, and it was often a draw as to who was better.

She’d been so fucking good, but then she’d disappeared one day. The instructors never remarked on her absence. Plenty of people washed out, but he’d have never guessed she’d be one of them. Not many women were allowed in, so the fact she’d been there at all had already made her special. Which was why he’d had a hard time believing she’d failed.

The trapdoor began to lift, a slice of daylight shining inside. Dex stowed the glow stick, and the light inside the cellar winked out. The door moved another inch—and then Nick heard the distant whine of a jet engine.

Air support.

The jet rocketed toward them, the engines screaming as it approached. The trapdoor closed with a thud, and booted feet pounded across it and faded into the distance. Who knows where the tangos were going or why, but they’d clearly decided this hole wasn’t worth exploring. Nick let out a long breath and lowered the Sig. He couldn’t see his companions, but he knew they must have done the same. Another moment and the glow stick reappeared.

No one spoke. They made eye contact and nodded at each other. And then Nick went over to join Dex against the wall. They sat on the floor and pulled water and food from their packs. It was no use trying to use the comm just yet.

Victoria was still standing and watching them, her eyes wide and innocent-looking in a way that was incongruous with the submachine gun resting against her leg. Nick motioned her over and gestured at the food.

She cast one last glance at the trapdoor over her head and then came over and sank onto the dirt floor.

“That was close,” she said softly.

“Yeah.” Nick handed her an energy bar.

Her fingers touched his when she took it, and his skin tingled with the contact. Her eyelids dropped to shutter her gaze from his view.

She opened the bar and took a bite, lifting her gaze to his once more. “Thanks.”

He shrugged. “If you hadn’t showed us this cellar, we’d have had a shoot-out up there, I think.”

In the distance, they could hear explosions and gunfire. Victoria turned her head as if she could see the fighter jets above them.

“Now that’s a nice touch,” she said.

Nick calmly took a bite of his own energy bar. “Yeah, guess you don’t have air support on tap with your outfit.”

“No, we definitely don’t.”

“What happened to you?” he blurted, unable to hold it in any longer. “You had a promising career, and you threw it all away to do what? Become a mercenary? What the fuck, Victoria?”

Her lips thinned and her rain-gray eyes flashed. She still had the head covering on, but he knew that her hair beneath the cloth was a deep, rich red. Or so he hoped anyway. What if she’d changed it?

“Maybe I didn’t have a choice, Preacher Boy. Did you ever think of that?”

He tried to let the jibe roll off him, though surprisingly it irritated him when she said it. Yeah, his dad was a preacher, and yeah, he’d had a pretty strict upbringing because of it. Nick had been accustomed to being teased growing up because of his father’s holier-than-thou lifestyle. But he’d stopped defending himself on that score since the only people who jabbed him about it were simply trying to get under his skin.

It didn’t usually work. Until now.

Still, he focused on what she’d said—that maybe she didn’t have a choice—and ignored the rest. “You failed the course.”

Her eyes widened. Color blazed in her cheeks. “I did not fail.” She waved a hand. “I’m not discussing this with you. As soon as it’s clear out there, we can go our separate ways and you can believe whatever you want to believe.”

“Go our separate ways? No fucking way. You’re coming with us.”

Dex merely grunted. Nick was perfectly aware that the other man had been watching them with the kind of fascination most people reserved for reality shows.

Victoria blinked. “Why would I do that? I have my own people, you know.”

“I don’t think so. Where’s your spotter? Where’s your backup?”

“Where’s yours? All I see is two of you.”

“Our team is out there. About two miles away, and if they have to come blast us out of here, they will.”

She lowered her gaze. “My spotter got shot a few days back. I’m on my own until I return to HQ.”

Somehow, he didn’t let his jaw fall open. “You took that shot without a spotter?”

She shrugged. “Obviously.”

Of course it wasn’t impossible to do—but it was more helpful with a spotter than without. He didn’t know five people who could have made that shot, but she’d done it—and she’d done it alone.

He was more intrigued than he cared to admit. She’d disappeared a little over three years ago, and now she was here in the middle of a war zone, fucking up his mission.

“Unless you’ve got a team out there, you’re coming with us.”

“I don’t think so,” she snapped. “I did my job and I’m done. Soon as it’s safe to leave, I’m going my own way.”

He should let her go. What did he care? But then she’d just fucked up his mission, and he wasn’t inclined to be nice about it.

“There’re a whole lot of tangos out there, and we’ve got help. Do you?”

The flash of her eyes gave him the answer. That and the fact she’d come here alone and made this shot without a teammate to take shifts or watch the scope while she rested. God knew this job was dangerous at the best of times, but what she was doing was practically suicidal.

“I’m just a poor Qu’rimi woman, trudging between villages. No one’s going to bother me.”

“But if they do, you’ve already pointed out that it’s obvious you aren’t Qu’rimi. What then?”

She ripped a piece of the energy bar off. “I’ve been working this way for two years, Preacher Boy. Where were you then, huh? I made it this far without your help.”

“Yeah, well, now you got it. So stop bitching and let’s work together to get out of here.”

Of course he had an ulterior motive, but she didn’t need to know it. He wanted her in HOT’s control because then they could question her more closely, find out who she was working for. Mendez wasn’t going to be happy about this mission, and Nick would really like to have the person responsible when the colonel blew his top.

Victoria chewed. He thought she might be on the verge of agreeing, but then another explosion rattled the ground and dirt showered down from the ceiling. Instinctively, Nick lunged for her and rolled her beneath him while Dex dived flat as well.

The ground shook again, and debris fell over them. Beneath him, Victoria was small and solid and warm. She’d tucked her head into his shoulder, and her breath tickled his neck. His heart thumped with adrenaline, but then there was another sensation rolling through him.

The electric hum of attraction buzzed in his veins. He’d always felt that hum when he’d been near Victoria, though he’d never acted on it. She’d always had her hackles up around him, and he’d never quite known why. They’d had some intense competitions on the range, but off it, he’d been perfectly willing to let the hostility subside.

She hadn’t.

Her hands were wedged between her body and his, her palms flat on his chest. Her fingers curled—once, briefly—and then straightened again. Her breathing was shallow and quick, and she made a whimpering noise—again once and briefly. The shaking stopped a few moments later, and Nick lifted himself slightly.

He could only see the top of her head. The head covering had gone askew, and red hair peeked out. He didn’t know why it made him glad to see she hadn’t changed the color, but it did.

“You okay?”

She nodded. And then she lifted her head and those eyes slammed into his. His heart sort of stuttered.

“I’m fine. A little bruised, maybe. But fine.”

His gaze dropped to her mouth. Such a pretty, pink mouth. If he lowered his head just a little bit, he could kiss her. What would she taste like if he did? What would she do?

Her hands curled into fists. And then she pushed. “You can get off me now.”

He was strangely disappointed by that statement, but he rolled away and pushed himself upright again. Victoria sat up and tried to right her head covering. The black burka was shapeless and no doubt hot, but he understood why she wore it. She probably fooled a lot of people dressed as she was.

Hell, she’d fooled him—and that pissed him off. He now realized that the woman he’d seen in the alley with the basket had been Victoria. He’d confirmed she was a woman, but he’d never thought she was a military operative. It wasn’t within the Qu’rimi psyche to allow women in their military, and he damn sure hadn’t expected a mercenary.

Lesson learned.

His lips pressed together. It wasn’t a mistake he would make again. Another mistake he wouldn’t make was letting her go when they left this cellar. Like it or not, she was going with them.

* * * * *

Victoria dragged in a shaky breath as she smoothed the fabric over her body. She didn’t want to look at Nick. She could feel his presence like a promise—or a threat—and she didn’t like how he affected her. When he’d rolled her beneath him, it hadn’t exactly been sexy. For one thing, there’d been the prospect of the ceiling crashing down and burying them alive. For another, he’d launched himself at her with the intent to protect her, so he hadn’t exactly taken her down to the floor gently.

And yet her body insisted on shuddering beneath his, and not because she’d been scared. Once the shock of the situation passed, she’d become aware of all his hard angles pressing into her. He was big and strong, and her body was so deprived of contact it had decided to wake up and say howdy. She could still feel the thrum of excitement bubbling in her veins—and it pissed her off.

Why him? Why now? She didn’t have time for this shit.

She gave the head covering one last tug and raised her gaze to Nick’s. Her heart flipped and she ground her teeth together.

“We’ll move out in an hour,” he said. “As long as it stays quiet.”

She could only nod, though it annoyed her to appear to be agreeing with him. Because there was no way she was going with these men. It might be nice to have someone at her back, but it was a risk she couldn’t take. If the Army got hold of her, who knew when or if they’d let her go again? She hadn’t exactly endeared herself to the United States government over the past few years.

But when you were desperate, you did desperate things.

She was only glad her grandfather wasn’t alive any longer to see what she’d become. He would’ve died of shame to know that both his granddaughters were considered security risks at best and traitors at worst. Gramps, who’d fought in Korea and earned a Purple Heart—and then gone on to Vietnam in the early days and earned another one.

He’d been so proud of her ability with a rifle—but he’d never envisioned this, she was quite certain.

There were so many things he hadn’t envisioned. His death from cancer. Her and Emily being sent into foster care. Emily’s descent into drugs and drinking and her fascination with a man who led her down the wrong path.

Victoria rubbed her hands over her arms as if to warm herself. God, she’d been searching for so long, but she was finally getting closer. Ian had told her just a few days ago that a white woman had been seen in one of the terrorist camps. That didn’t mean it was Emily, but how many white women could there be in the Freedom Force training camps?

Victoria bit the inside of her lip and turned away from the two men. She was so furious with Emily, even now, and so scared at the same time. Ian had promised he’d help find her sister, but it’d been nearly two years since she’d started working for him, and she had yet to get a glimpse of her wayward younger sibling.

There’d been calls, but those had ceased six months ago. Emily’s phone rang, but no one answered. It had been nothing but hints and possible sightings for months. This mission to shoot the opposition commander had been the closest she’d ever come to the man who’d poisoned Emily’s mind against her family and her country.

Zaran bin Yusuf. She’d stared at him through her scope today, her blood boiling with helpless fury—and then she’d shot the man who’d come to betray him when what she’d really wanted to do was kill Zaran herself.

But if he was dead, what would happen to Emily? It wasn’t a chance Victoria was willing to take. Besides, the money had been on shooting the other guy, and if she’d fucked it up, Ian wouldn’t have been very understanding about losing the bounty.

No one spoke much in the next hour. Victoria went and huddled against the wall, sipping water from her pack and watching the two men as they checked their gear and made plans. Dex was tall and muscled, like Nick, but he didn’t make her heart thump the way Nick did.

She thought back to sniper school and her first glimpse of him. He’d been cool and arrogant, so certain of his superiority. He’d been there when she’d arrived, and he’d been the one tasked with showing her to her room. He’d walked in front of her, silent and hulking, and she’d followed along with her heart in her throat and her brain chattering in fear that she was going to fail.

Not many women were admitted, but she’d been determined to be one of the few who made it through. And then Nick had reached her door. He’d turned and looked down at her with that superior glare that made her feel so small inside. He hadn’t said anything rude or inappropriate, but she’d decided then and there that she was going to beat him before it was all over. She was going to beat them all. And she would have if Emily hadn’t run away with a man bent on war against the United States.

“Time to go, Victoria,” Nick said, and she shook herself from her memories to find him standing over her and holding out a hand.

She put her palm against his and let him pull her up. Her skin tingled, and she jerked her hand from his as soon as she was standing. Then she shouldered her gear and went over to the trapdoor. After extinguishing the light, Dex went up first, raising the door carefully, his weapon at the ready. It was dark out now and he disappeared above them, his booted feet scraping over the floor.

“Clear,” he said a moment later.

“You go,” Nick said from behind her.

Her skin prickled at the proximity of his body, but she went over and scrambled up the ladder and into the room above. Lights from the town shone in the distance, providing them with some ambient light. Her eyes picked out Dex, and she realized he’d donned night-vision goggles. Nick emerged from the hole in the ground with his goggles in place, and she let out a frustrated sigh. Those were something she didn’t have at the moment. She’d lost them when she’d lost her spotter.

She still had her night-vision scope, but what good was it to her now? And how was she going to escape these two when they could clearly see her every move?

Nick touched the side of his head. “Flash, you copy? … Yeah, we’re here. Been in a cellar. … Coming in and bringing company. … Over and out.”

“They still in position?” Dex asked.

“Roger that. We’ve got to move quick though. There’s a brigade of enemy fighters headed this way. They could cut off our escape route if we aren’t fast enough.”

The three of them pulled weapons and moved silently through the abandoned building. When they reached a door, Nick motioned to them to hang back while he scouted the perimeter.

Victoria’s heart hammered as he disappeared, her breathing quickening. She strained to hear any sound—and then she had to bite back a squeak when he reappeared, his dark form looming suddenly in the door. She didn’t realize she’d stumbled back until she felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Easy,” Dex said from behind her. “It’s okay.”

“I know.”

But it wasn’t okay, because time was running out and she needed to disappear.

“Clear,” Nick said. “Let’s go. And Victoria…?” he added as she started to move.

She stopped and looked up at him. The NVGs and assault gear made him look like a high-tech killing machine. “What?”

“Don’t make me shoot you.”

CHAPTER THREE

THEY RAN THROUGH THE TOWN, keeping close to the buildings so they’d remain in shadow until they hit the open desert. The scent of jet fuel and exploded ordnance hung in the air, and the town was quiet. After the chaos of battle, most people would stay inside until morning. A good thing for Nick and his companions as they moved toward the rendezvous point.

They passed a burnt-out armored vehicle, its shell still smoking. Whoever had been in that thing hadn’t made it out. A little farther along, there were bodies strewn across the road where the jet’s bombs had hit and the scent of burning flesh still permeated the air. There was no movement, however, and the three of them passed silently and quickly.

Nick glanced at Victoria. She forged ahead with a hard look of determination on her face, her rifle slung across her chest and ready to fire.

He’d told her he would shoot her back there, but he wasn’t so sure he would have. Still, he didn’t trust her. No matter that she’d shown them the cellar, she’d still shot the wrong dude earlier and fucked up the mission. She had an agenda that didn’t match HOT’s, and he wasn’t about to forget it.

They crested a dune and hurried over the other side before stopping to get their bearings. He could hear Victoria and Dex breathing a little harder, and he knew the pace had been punishing. But they had no choice.

Dex took out a scope and scanned the desert below. “Shit,” he breathed.

Nick’s gut clenched. He knew what Dex would say before he said it.

“Enemy on the road. No indication they’ve spotted us.”

“Fuck.”

This was what he’d been hoping to avoid when they’d left the safety of their hideout. “We’ve got about twenty minutes to cross the valley before they’re in a position to cut us off.”

The valley was long and narrow, and there was only one way out at this end. If their adversaries reached the mouth first, Nick, Dex, and Victoria would be trapped.

“Then let’s rock ’n’ roll,” Dex said.

Victoria merely nodded her agreement.

They started down the slope, angling away from the enemy as much as possible without losing sight of the objective. The opposition soldiers were moving relentlessly toward the mouth of the valley, but there was no indication the enemy had any idea the three of them were racing toward it as well.

Sweat rolled down Nick’s face and neck. He could feel it inside the ghillie suit, dripping down his torso and soaking his T-shirt. A glance at Dex and Victoria told him they were equally as miserable. In the quiet of the night, the steady hum of dozens of engines drifted to him. These opposition fighters were tough and angry, determined to wrest control of the government from the king and his officials.

But it was more than that. So many of the militants were also radicals, and more than one terrorist group had seen a grand opportunity to get involved in Qu’rimi politics. The Freedom Force had been severely weakened with the capture of Al Ahmad—but it’d had a surprising resurgence in strength over the past year. It was once more becoming a threat to the stability and security of the region.

And the woman running beside him had only aided their cause today. That pissed him off and made him even more determined to find out her secrets.

The three of them ran hard for twenty minutes before reaching the mouth of the valley. He calculated that the enemy forces were about five minutes behind them as they ran onto the trail and burst through the gap. Nick wouldn’t feel any relief until they connected with the rest of the team, but this was a major obstacle down.

A few minutes later, Victoria cried out and came to a stop. Nick pulled up and turned back. Dex followed.

“What’s wrong?” Nick demanded.

Victoria limped toward him, waving a hand. “Twisted my knee. And I’m spent. I can’t run another second.”

“We’re almost there. Half a mile to the extraction point. You can make it that far.”

She found a rock beside the trail and perched on it. “No, I really can’t. It hurts too much.”

Nick shifted his pack and took a step toward her. “Then we’ll carry you. I’ll start—”

“Take another step and I’ll shoot you.” Her rifle was still slung over her shoulder, but she was holding a Sig pointed right between his eyes.

Fury exploded in his gut. “What the fuck, Victoria?”

“Two can play this game, babe,” she said very coolly.

Her eyes glowed through his NVGs, making her look demonic. The determined look on her face said she meant the words she’d spoken. He didn’t doubt she’d shoot him if he ignored her instructions.

“We just helped you escape a bad situation, and this is how you repay us?”

She shrugged. “I helped you too, don’t forget. And I told you I wasn’t going with you. You’re the one who insisted. But I’m not in the Army anymore, and I make my own decisions.” She flicked the gun. “So this is where we part company. You can be on your merry way, and I’ll be on mine.”

“Fuck you.”

She stood and put both hands on the gun as she faced him. “Don’t test me, Nick.”

He wanted to. Not more than a few hours ago, they’d lain on a floor together, her body pressed tightly to his, her breath hot against his neck. She’d made him think of things he’d never had with her. Things he wanted.

Clearly, she didn’t feel the same.

“You’re a traitor, you know that?”

Her chin lifted a notch. “So I’ve been told.”

“You could have done so much for our side. But you chose this life instead.”

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” she said. “I’m unmoved. Now go, and be glad I don’t disarm you both and leave you here for the Qu’rimis to find.”

He snorted. “You realize if you shoot me that Dex is going to drop you, right?”

He didn’t have to look to know the other man had a weapon on her.

“I think you like yourself too much to make me shoot you. You’d rather live to fight another day.”

He clenched his fists at his side. Rage rolled through him in hot waves. He’d let down his guard with her, and he shouldn’t have. Just because she was soft and vulnerable beneath him back in that cellar.

“No, I’d rather live so I can find you again. Because I will find you—and I’ll make you pay. You can count on that.”

“You can try.”

He took a step back and then another. He’d wanted to bring her in to HOT, but they didn’t have time for this shit right now.

“Come on, Dex. Let’s find our ride.”

The two of them backed away from her and then turned and started running down the road.

“You have no intention of leaving her there,” Dex said as they jogged along.

“Nope.”

But when they doubled back and tried to sneak up on her, Victoria was gone. Nick cursed a blue streak.

“Man, we gotta go,” Dex said. “If we aren’t to the rendezvous point in fifteen minutes, it’ll fuck everything up.”

“Yeah.” Nick cast one last look over the area where they’d left Victoria not more than two minutes ago, amazed that she was gone. The NVGs didn’t pick up a heat signature anywhere.

She’d disappeared, just like three years ago.

* * * * *

Ian was waiting for her in Baq. Victoria was bone-tired as she entered the house where her boss was headquartered. The guard watching the door was someone new, but she’d given her information and waited while he called it in. A few seconds later, she was walking into the cool interior of the nondescript house and yanking the burka off. She dropped it on a chair along with her gear and continued through the room.

Ian came out into the hallway and let his gaze slide over her as she approached. He was a good-looking guy, big and dark and intense, but there were no sparks between them. At least not for her. She’d never been sure about him, but then he’d never attempted anything so maybe he didn’t feel a thing for her either.

“You made the shot without Jonah. Good job.”

She stopped when she reached him. “If that Russian hadn’t killed him, I would have,” she said coolly. “He was an asshole.”

Ian shrugged and turned back toward the room he’d emerged from. “Sometimes we can’t be picky in this business. But nature has a way, right?”

“I guess so.”

Victoria followed him into the room and flopped onto a chair. She knew she looked like hell. A week in the desert with no shower—and the last day spent on the run—had done a number on her hair. Not to mention the lingering odor of sweat that clung to her. If Ian noticed, he didn’t let it show. He simply sat at his desk and continued to flip through the maps and papers there.

Victoria tried not to let her impatience show, but she couldn’t help the burst of air that rushed from her when Ian continued to sit there so calmly. He looked up, his blue eyes piercing hers.

“You wish to say something?”

Victoria leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. “I wanted to kill that bastard, but I didn’t because of my sister.”

He eased back in the chair, the leather creaking. “We’re not talking about Jonah anymore, I take it.”

“You know we’re not. You promised me if I did this job, we’d find Emily. That Zaran bin Yusuf would lead us to her. So where is she? When can I see her?”

Ian’s expression didn’t soften one bit. “It’s complicated.”

“Bullshit!” She shot to her feet and stalked toward the desk, slapping both her hands down on it as she faced him. “You promised, Ian! You swore if I protected that asshole, if I made sure the opposition didn’t kill him, we’d find her.”

Ian’s mouth was a grim line. “It’s not up to me. I told you that from the beginning.”

Victoria swore. Tears of frustration knotted in her throat. “How do you do this? How do you justify working for those bastards when you know what they want to do?”

It was the first time she’d voiced her fears. That Ian was actually taking money from terrorists—which meant she’d been working for them too.

Maybe Nick was right when he called her a traitor. She was trying to save her sister, but that didn’t stop the sick feelings swirling in the pit of her stomach.

“I’m nonpartisan, Victoria. So long as the money comes in, I don’t care who pays me to do the job. And I don’t ask questions when it does.”

She sank onto the chair again and rubbed her hands over her face. She was tired and heartsick and worried.

“I just want my sister back. I’d take money from the devil himself if that’s what it took to find her.”

“Go take a shower. Get some rest. I’ll see what I can find out.”

She stood to go, but then she turned back to him. Her stomach was still churning over the idea that maybe it was a terror organization pulling his strings. She’d never wanted to know before. And maybe she didn’t now, either.

Ian was looking at her with an expression of sympathy on his face. It was the first time she’d seen that emotion coming from him.

“Go, Victoria. Don’t come back for at least eight hours—or I won’t tell you a damn thing.”

* * * * *

“The outfit she works for is called Black Security.”

Mendez dropped a folder on the metal table at the head of the room and stood there looking about as pissed as Nick had ever seen him. Which was never a good thing for anyone.

The rest of the guys shifted in their seats. It’d been a long few days, and no one was very happy at the moment. The mission had been a total bust, and apparently they had Black Security to thank for it.

Nick suppressed a yawn. He hadn’t slept eight hours straight in days now. They were at a forward base in Qu’rim, near Baq, where the Qu’rimi army trained under the tutelage of US troops. The base was a temporary facility run and maintained by the US, and HOT had their own bunker where a few of the individual teams came and went. They’d gotten the message this morning that Mendez was flying in. Not a good sign. Nick had known instinctively that it had everything to do with the mission in the desert and Victoria.

He hadn’t been wrong.

“Victoria Royal has been working for Black for two years, and in that time she’s had sixty-eight confirmed kills. We’ve known about Black for some time, but he’s mostly gone after targets unimportant to us. Now he seems to be working for someone who wants to protect the Freedom Force.”

Nick’s gut knotted.

“Someone is feeding Black—or the Freedom Force—intelligence,” Mendez finished.

Around the room, the guys all sat up a little straighter. And Lucky MacDonald, their lone female operator, looked utterly furious. Considering what she’d been through to put a stop to the Freedom Force, he didn’t blame her. They’d all thought it was a done deal with the capture of Al Ahmad, but the organization was like a hydra. Cut off one head and more sprang up. None as powerful as Al Ahmad had been, but still nothing to dismiss lightly.

“A mole?” Garrett “Iceman” Spencer asked.

Mendez’s lips flattened. “Probably. Someone in the CIA is giving information to whoever pays Black. Or maybe to Black himself. We don’t know.”

No one said anything at first. They all knew that when Gina Domenico had been in danger, someone in the government had suppressed the information that the man who’d kidnapped her baby and lured her to the Caribbean was still alive. Metaxas had come to DC and abducted her before they’d known—and he’d almost killed Jack Hunter in the process.

But HOT had never learned the traitor’s name, a fact that hung over their heads like a guillotine blade on a fraying rope.

“Someone told Black we were targeting Zaran bin Yusuf,” Nick said. “And he sent Victoria to stop us.”

Mendez turned dark eyes on Nick. “Almost, but not quite. They had intel that the opposition commander intended to have bin Yusuf killed. He was Royal’s target instead.”

Nick blinked. “Why didn’t we know that information?”

Mendez’s gaze was steady. “We did, son. But we couldn’t take the chance that he’d screw up and bin Yusuf would walk away, now could we? The mission was still critical.”

Mendez turned away without waiting for an answer. “As it is, he escaped anyway.”

Nick didn’t bother to protest that it wasn’t his fault. It was. Victoria had been there, right beneath his nose, and he hadn’t known it. She’d been setting up for a shot as difficult as his—but she’d fired first… and changed everything.

Dex looked over at him and frowned. Nick gave his head a small shake. He didn’t think Dex planned to tell the colonel it wasn’t their fault, but the guy was still new enough that maybe he did. Dex leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest, looking as pissed as anyone in the room.

“Good job identifying our mystery sniper, soldier,” Mendez said, spinning around and pinning Nick with another look. “Without that, we’d still be in the dark about what was going on.”

Nick blinked. Was the colonel screwing with him?

But no, everyone was looking at him and nodding their approval. And he felt like shit inside because he’d let her get away. Jesus.

He should have rushed her when he had the chance and to hell with the pistol in her hand. She might have hesitated. He might have surprised her enough to get the gun from her before she shot him. But he’d been so pissed he’d walked away, giving her the chance to escape before he could double back and take her by surprise.

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

But the words stuck in his throat like barbs.

Mendez sat at the table and flipped open the folder. “Victoria Faith Royal. Twenty-five years old. Single. Red hair. Gray eyes. Her sister is Emily Hope Royal, twenty-three years old, blond hair, brown eyes. Emily has a history with substance and alcohol abuse. But then she began seeing a man a few years ago who helped her get clean. This man came to the US from Qu’rim to learn engineering but dropped out of school after a couple of years and started hanging around a mosque. He became radicalized.”

Mendez paused and looked up. Nick felt himself leaning forward, hanging on the colonel’s every word.

“Emily converted to Islam and went to Qu’rim with this man. We think she may have married him, but we don’t know for certain. Once here, he became active in the Freedom Force. He was a minor player, but with the collapse of the organizational structure and the subsequent resurgence, he’s become someone to watch. In short, he was our target.”

Nick felt as if someone had sucker punched him. This was the reason Victoria had left the Army? She’d said that she hadn’t failed. But her sister associating with known terrorists must have been too much for the Army to take.

“Jesus,” Ryan “Flash” Gordon said, echoing what they all had to be thinking.

It was a tangled web of relationships worthy of a soap opera. But far more dangerous.

“Is that why Victoria left the Army?” Nick asked.

Mendez glanced down at his papers. “Though there was never any evidence she sympathized with her sister or bin Yusuf, she was thought to be a security risk. She was offered a desk job with no access to classified information, but she refused. Subsequently, she was discharged.”

Nick shoved a hand through his hair and frowned. Victoria’s sister ran away with a terrorist, and now Victoria was in Qu’rim, working for an outfit that seemed to be protecting the very organization her sister’s lover—or husband—was part of.

Nick thought of how she’d threatened to shoot him, and fresh anger swelled. He’d let her get the jump on him because he’d believed her to be on his and Dex’s side, however temporarily. She’d needed them to escape the opposition fighters, but what if she’d run right into the arms of the Freedom Force once she’d disappeared? It made Nick’s blood run cold and his stomach tighten.

Mendez slapped the folder closed and Nick jumped. All eyes went to the colonel.

“I have an assignment for you, but I’m going to warn you this doesn’t come from the top. If anyone wants out, he or she can get up right now and walk out the door, no questions asked.”

The colonel paused for a long moment, but no one made a move. He cleared his throat. “Good to know.” Mendez leaned forward, hands folded one on top of the other, and let his gaze rove across the room. “We’re going after Black and his team. I want to know who’s paying the bills over there, and I want to know what their end goal is. Most importantly, I want Victoria Royal. She’s the key to whatever’s going on—and I want to know what that is.”


Want to read more? Get your copy here:






Hot Ice

CHAPTER ONE

DR. GRACE CAMPBELL LET OUT A YELP as a hand settled on her shoulder.

“Easy, tiger.”

She spun in her lab chair, her heart pounding a million miles an hour. She’d been lost in her research, double-checking all her findings as she prepared her paper for presentation at the World Health Organization conference taking place in a couple of weeks. It was extraordinary research, and she needed to be absolutely clear on how nations could prepare for a health crisis that had the potential to kill millions.

Tim Fitzgerald smiled down at her in that familiar, easygoing way he had.

“You scared me to death,” she said, pressing her hand to her heart as if that would slow it down.

“I could tell. Any idea what time it is?”

Grace blinked. The last she’d looked, it had been almost five p.m. “I don’t know… six?”

Tim shook his head, his smile indulgent. “Try a quarter to eleven.”

Her stomach fell as she processed the information.

“Crap.” Grace started to break down her equipment, stowing the slides and shutting off the microscope. “I’ve missed the party. My mother will kill me. My father…”

She shuddered to think of what her father would say. Senator Preston H. Campbell III did not appreciate his children missing events they’d promised to attend. Especially when they were campaign events and he was in the process of seeking funding for a go at the presidency. He hadn’t formally announced his run, but he’d intended to tonight.

And she’d missed it.

“It’s all over the news that your father is running for president,” Tim said as if on cue, and her stomach tightened a little more.

“It’s not really a surprise, is it?” She tried to keep her voice light, but inside she was a mess of nerves and emotions.

“Not a surprise, maybe, but still big news.”

He didn’t say what she knew he was thinking: the profile of the lab was about to become a lot more public as the media swarmed on everything Campbell related. Which could be good news or not-so-good news.

She thought of her research and tried to calm the churning in her belly. She really should have eaten more than a donut this afternoon.

Tim helped her gather her things—purse, laptop, umbrella—while he chatted amiably and walked out of the lab with her.

She badged out, then started fumbling for her car keys. She wanted them in her hand before she stepped outside the building.

“You already missed the party. Want to get a drink?”

Grace blinked. Her eyes were tired and she realized her glasses were still perched on top of her head. She’d put them up there to look through a microscope. Now she pulled them back into place and stared as Tim came into focus. She’d been at Magnolia Laboratories for six months, and he’d never paid her much attention other than the usual polite colleague chitchat.

But her father had just announced he was running for president.

As the only unmarried Campbell daughter, she was a prime catch in some circles. On her own, she couldn’t attract the attention of any man, much less one who looked like this one. Tim was tall and good-looking, with brown hair and warm brown eyes. He even had a tan, heaven bless him, which was pretty rare for a guy who spent his time bottled up in a laboratory.

“I, uh… I can’t tonight,” Grace said, swearing under her breath for stammering. She wasn’t ten anymore, and she no longer had a horrible overbite thanks to modern orthodontia. But she was still plain and, well, mousy, when compared with the dazzling light of her three sisters.

Three married, successful sisters.

Tim was frowning now. “Come on, Grace. One drink. How about it?”

She ran through the possibilities. They went for a drink, it was nice, he kissed her good night, they started to date, maybe he’d come to some family events with her, they’d get engaged, and then…

No. Just, no.

If he’d asked before tonight—if he’d asked at any time in the past six months before her father announced he was seeking the presidency, she might have said yes. God knew it had been a long time since she’d had a man in her life, and while she didn’t necessarily believe she had to have one to be happy, she would admit that sex was a whole lot more fun with someone else than by yourself with a vibrator and a steamy romance novel.

“I have to decline,” she said with that hint of steel she’d learned from her mother. “Another time perhaps.”

Tim’s frown got darker before it suddenly eased and he was smiling again. “Great, another time. Saturday?”

“I’ll, um, check my schedule and get back to you.” Because she didn’t want to tell him no here and now and he suddenly propose a different date. Maybe she didn’t want to tell him no at all. She was just pathetic enough to admit that until she explored all the possibilities in her head, she didn’t want to push him away. What if it was just a coincidence that he’d asked her out tonight of all nights? What if her father’s bid didn’t really result in much media attention for her and Tim still wanted to go out with her?

His grin was broad. “Excellent. Now wait right here, and I’ll get my things so I can walk you to your car.”

“That’s really not necessary—”

“I insist, Grace.”

She fumed as he turned and walked away. She really did not like a man telling her what to do. She’d spent a lifetime under the thumb of her father, and while she loved him deeply, she hated how he ordered everyone’s life as if he had the right. She was almost thirty, and she didn’t need to be told what to do.

Still, she waited for Tim because in her head she could hear her mother saying that he was only being nice and that it was gentlemanly for him to walk her to her car in the dark, rainy night. She’d lost count of how often she’d left the lab late at night and walked to her car alone. There was security at the gate, and no one was getting into the parking lot undetected. But apparently, because Tim had suddenly offered, she had to wait.

And wait.

When he didn’t return after ten minutes, Grace snorted and turned to walk out the door. The rain was coming down steadily and she opened her umbrella and started walking toward her car. There was a nip in the air now that September had arrived. It was still warm during the day, but evenings were getting a little cooler. She suspected once this rain moved out, it would be even chillier.

Her heels clacked on the pavement as she walked. Her car was a white gleam beneath the streetlights. There were still cars in the parking lot, so she wasn’t the only one working late. She hit the button to unlock her car when she was still a few feet away.

A shape materialized out of the darkness. A tall man, hooded. Menacing, but then that was probably just her imagination.

“Hello, Dr. Campbell,” the man said.

Grace stopped, her stomach churning. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”

The man took a step forward until the light gleamed down on him—and the pistol in his hand. Her blood turned to ice as her brain started sending danger messages to her body.

“I work for someone who would like to talk to you.”

“I, uh…” Grace fumbled with the keys in her hand, finding the panic button to her BMW’s alarm and hitting it. The alarm shattered the night with its high-pitched blaring. The man whirled, startled.

Grace took that opportunity to run in the other direction. She dropped the umbrella and sprinted for the building, but her high heels didn’t allow her to move very quickly. She kicked them off as she ran, stumbling and cursing—and then she collided with a body.

The body was solid, the arms going around her, and she fought and kicked like a madwoman. It took a few seconds for her mind to process what was being said to her.

“Grace, what the hell’s the matter? It’s me. It’s Tim. You’re okay, Grace. You’re okay…”

* * * * *

“Fuck you, Melissa!” Garrett Spencer yelled into the phone at the same moment his ex-wife hung up on him. He slammed the cell phone onto the table, uncaring whether he shattered it into a million pieces or not.

And then he’d picked it back up, prepared to dial her sorry ass up again and tell her she was a fucking bitch and a whore and no way in hell was she keeping him away from his daughter, that he’d fight her for custody and to hell with the agreement, when he looked up and saw his teammate standing in the locker room where they kept their gear, watching him with a heavy frown.

“You okay, Ice?”

Garrett put the phone down again, more gently this time, and dragged in a deep breath. Threatening Melissa would do him absolutely no good, and he knew it. Hell, his attorney had told him the same thing. And he wasn’t stupid, even if Melissa pushed his buttons like no one else ever could.

He’d made the bad decision to fuck her repeatedly nine years ago, and then he’d made the decision to marry her so he could be a father to the child they’d created when they got stupid and careless with the birth control.

But he loved Cammie more than he loved anything else in this world, and while he might regret ever marrying her mother, he damn sure didn’t regret her. He shoved a hand through his hair and yanked on the ends in frustration. What a fucking life he’d made for his baby girl with a mother like Melissa.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a relationship gone wrong.”

Ryan “Flash” Gordon looked at him with one arched eyebrow. And then he laughed. “Relationship? Didn’t know you did those, Ice. So far as I can tell, you fuck anything that moves—but only once.”

“Yeah, well. How do you think I got that policy?”

He’d never told the guys about his marriage—and the spectacular disintegration of it—because he didn’t like to talk about Melissa. It made his blood boil and he didn’t particularly like the way that made him feel. Out of control. Manic. Ready to fucking kill someone.

Flash walked over to his locker and took out his pack. They’d just returned from a mission a few days ago, but there was always another one on the horizon. Everyone checked and double-checked their gear in their downtime.

“You want to talk about it?”

Garrett snorted. “Like bestie girlfriends? Hell no.”

Flash shrugged. “Whatever, dude. Just offering to listen if you want to vent.”

“Nah, I’m good. But thanks.”

He knew Flash was only being nice, but he just couldn’t talk about Melissa. It made him feel stupid. Like a failure. Not because his marriage had failed, but because he had a beautiful kid out there in the world with parents who couldn’t stand each other. He never said anything bad about Melissa to Cammie, but he knew his ex filled their daughter’s head with negativity about him. It hadn’t made Cammie hate him yet, but God knew he feared it as she got older.

She was still too young to understand most of it, but she often cried about things Mommy told her about him. All he could do was tell Cammie that her mother was wrong and prove to her that he loved her. But holy fuck, he often wanted to wrap his hands around Melissa’s throat and squeeze. It was gut-wrenching to hear his child crying on the phone to him when he could do nothing about it.

Garrett slipped his phone into his pocket as he stood. Best thing he could do right now was hit the weights. He was stripping out of his clothing so he could put on workout gear when Matt “Richie Rich” Girard appeared in the locker room.

“Hey, guys.”

Flash and Garrett acknowledged him before he turned to Garrett. “The colonel needs to see you, Ice.”

Garrett started buttoning his shirt again. He had no idea what the fuck Colonel Mendez could want with him, but it was just fucking icing on his shit cake today. Mendez was tough, secretive, and wily as hell. And if he wanted to see you alone, there had to be a reason. Garrett thought back to that stupid bar fight he’d gotten into a couple of days ago—after a call from Cammie—and gritted his teeth.

He’d known responding to that posturing asshole who’d called him a pussy was a stupid thing to do, but he’d done it anyway because he’d wanted to punch something. And it had been damned satisfying to hit that guy.

“Any idea what it’s about?” Garrett asked as he joined Richie in the hall and they started walking toward Mendez’s office.

“I’ll let him tell you.”

Fuck—that was never a good sign.

Richie knocked on the door and then swung it open when Mendez’s gruff voice replied. Garrett followed his team leader inside and stood at attention. The colonel stood and came around his desk. He was tall and muscular, his hair always cut in a high-and tight, the salty gray making him look older than he probably was. Hell, not that it was a problem for him, Garrett imagined. If George Clooney had a twin in the Army, this guy could be him.

But that was as far as the resemblance went. George seemed like an amiable kind of guy—hell, he’d even been Garrett’s idol for his stance on marriage until he’d decided to get married—but Mendez was the kind of man you never underestimated if you were smart. Amiable on the surface, but ice-cold the deeper you went.

And they called him Iceman rather than Mendez. The irony.

“How you been, son?”

“Fine, sir,” Garrett replied, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“Heard you got in a fight in Annapolis.”

Shit. Garrett’s insides clenched just a little. “The midshipman called me a pussy, sir.”

“Did he indeed?” Mendez folded his arms and leaned back against his desk. A deceptive pose if ever there was one.

“He did, sir. He suggested the entire United States Army was filled with pussies who had no other options in life but to become ground pounders, sir. The smart ones went into the Navy, according to him.”

“I see.”

Garrett resisted the urge to close his eyes. Fighting with Naval Academy cadets was not the wisest course of action, that’s for sure. But the middie hadn’t been in uniform, at least. Not that it would have stopped Garrett in the mood he’d been in.

“Sergeant, when a midshipman calls you a pussy, just smile and tell him that you are what you eat. Got it?”

Garrett nearly choked. “Uh, yes, sir.”

Mendez waved a hand. “At ease, soldier.”

Garrett relaxed his stance and met the colonel’s eyes. He would have sworn he saw a gleam of humor there, but then the colonel reached down and picked up a folder from his desk.

“You have an interesting background. Football champ in high school, scholarship to the University of Georgia, great freshman season on the team—and then you dropped out and joined the Army.”

Garrett swallowed. Of course Mendez knew his history. He’d known that from the beginning. No one got into this outfit without a thorough background check. Garrett had chosen never to discuss his marriage with his team when he’d arrived in HOT a year ago, but he didn’t kid himself that the colonel didn’t know. Of course he did.

“I had a wife and child to support, sir. College football doesn’t do that.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Had he hoped to be a college football star? Hell yes. Had he coveted the Heisman and an NFL career? Of course he had. What football-playing college freshman didn’t?

But then he’d met a hotter-than-hell psychology major who was two years older—and the rest was history.

Mendez cleared his throat. “Your mother teaches Junior Cotillion. Tell me about that.”

Garrett blinked. If this wasn’t a strange turn of conversation, he didn’t know what was. “Sir?”

“Cotillion. What is it? And did you go?”

Garrett felt his brows drawing down. But what the colonel wanted to know, the colonel was going to know. Though Garrett also knew damned well that Mendez already knew the answers to both those questions.

“Cotillion, sir, is where young Southern boys and girls learn how to be gentlemen and ladies.”

“Dancing. Which fork to use. Polite conversation. Proper behavior. That sort of thing?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And did you learn these things as well?”

“I’ve attended more Cotillion classes than any kid alive in Paris, Georgia, sir. I guarantee you that.”

Because when his mother needed another boy for the dancing or needed an extra set of eyes on the students, he got dragged into it. He could “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” his way through a fricking White House dinner if he had to, and all without using the wrong fork or saying anything inappropriate.

Mendez was grinning and Garrett felt his ears growing hot. Yeah, he was a big, muscular, tattooed, tough soldier who could mince his way through a waltz and use a fish fork with aplomb. Of course, it was a ridiculous mental picture for anyone who knew him now as opposed to when he was a child.

He blew things up when required and patched up his teammates when necessary. He hadn’t waltzed since his wedding reception. And these days, he microwaved his meals or got takeout that came with plastic forks. Or sporks. No etiquette necessary with those.

“So if you were to suddenly be thrust into the presence of a United States senator and his family, you wouldn’t make an ass of yourself?”

“Uh, no sir, I don’t believe so. Anything is possible though.”

Mendez did laugh this time. Even Richie looked a little astonished. But the colonel quickly got himself under control.

“I need you to be utterly perfect, soldier. I need you to dredge up every bit of politeness and etiquette your mama drummed into you, and I need you to use it. You got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

What the fuck?

Mendez pulled a photograph from another pile and handed it to him. Garrett stared at the woman, memorizing her. The first thing he noticed about her was the black-rimmed glasses. The second was her eyes. They were brilliant blue, fringed in dark lashes. They were filled with intelligence… and haughtiness, as if she knew she was smarter than everyone else in the room. Her hair was dark brown and pulled back from her head, probably in a bun, and her skin was pale, as if she spent a lot of time indoors.

She wasn’t precisely beautiful. But she wasn’t unattractive. She looked to be about average weight judging by her face, but he couldn’t really tell since the photo was cropped at her collarbone. Maybe she was stacked with curves. Or maybe she was bird-thin. No idea what lay beneath that glimpse of creamy skin in the vee of her shirt.

“That’s Dr. Grace Campbell,” Mendez said. “She’s a genetics researcher at Magnolia Laboratories. She’s also the daughter of Senator Preston Campbell. He just announced his run for the presidency a few days ago.”

Garrett hadn’t paid much attention to who was running for president just yet. It wasn’t important until election year so far as he was concerned.

“She’s working on something… sensitive,” Mendez said after a long pause. “And the night her father declared he was a candidate, she was attacked at the lab.”

Garrett’s head snapped up, his gaze crashing into Mendez’s. He didn’t like the idea that this woman had been assaulted, even if she did look like she thought she was smarter than everyone else.

But he liked it even less that she was working on something sensitive.

Genetics scared the hell out of him. Had ever since the day his parents came home and said the word leukemia in connection to his brother. Why Ben had gotten cancer and not him was something he’d never understood. It’d killed Ben, but here he was, going strong. It still terrified him every day that Melissa might call and tell him Cammie was sick.

Researchers had sequenced the human genome, they could tell you whether you were more susceptible to things like cancer because of your genes, but they couldn’t really do a fucking thing to stop it from happening when it came right down to it.

“Is there a connection between her father and the assault? Or her research and the assault?”

Mendez lifted both eyebrows as if he was surprised Garrett had gotten that far on his own. Jesus, he was really going to have to stop being such a moody dick and start acting like he had a brain. Fighting with middies wasn’t helping him impress his commanding officer in the brain department, that was for sure.

“Good questions. No one knows the answer to that. Yet. But the senator has… requested protection for his daughter, especially since she’s due to make a speech at a WHO conference in Rome next week.”

“Wise of him.”

“This is where you come in, Ice.”

Garrett blinked. “Me?”

He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like this. At all.

Mendez’s gaze slid between Garrett and his team leader. “HOT’s missions have changed as we’ve gone deep black. We have money and access we didn’t have before. We also have a reputation—and there are certain members of Congress who have been made aware of our existence, because without them we have no funding. Senator Campbell is one of these men. He has personally requested HOT to provide protection for his daughter.”

“Sir, wouldn’t the Secret Service be better suited for the task?”

“The senator doesn’t think so. He wants us. And I am in no position to refuse.” Mendez straightened and walked over to the window. “Nor do I want to. There’s something going on over there”—he was looking west, toward DC—“and I’d really like to know what it is.”

He turned back to them.

“Ian Black disappeared without a trace. And he shouldn’t have. We should have been able to track him at the very least. But we couldn’t. Explain that one.”

Garrett didn’t say a word. Neither did Richie. The colonel was talking about the mercenary they’d gone after in Qu’rim recently when Nick “Brandy” Brandon had gone undercover and tried to ferret out the secrets of Black Security. Brandy hadn’t found any secrets, but he had found a girlfriend. Victoria Royal was now a contract sniper for HOT, her Army record cleared, her sister rescued from terrorists and rebuilding her life here in the States. A fucking beautiful story, except for the fact Black had gotten away.

“And then there’s still the fact that someone protected Stavros Metaxas when he turned up in DC and almost killed Hawk. I want to know who is leaking information to terrorists and who is protecting arms dealers. If I have to fucking send my guys to guard an entire stadium full of heiresses, I will.”

Mendez’s dark eyes flashed, and Garrett knew he was screwed.

“Brush up on your table manners, Ice, because you’re about to become arm candy for a senator’s daughter. Do what you have to do keep her safe. You don’t need to be her lapdog or take any bullshit if she tries to give it to you. Charm her if you have to. And above all, don’t fucking touch her for anything other than her safety, you got that?”

Garrett snapped to attention. “Sir, yes, sir!”

CHAPTER TWO

GRACE STOOD IN HER FATHER’S OFFICE in the Senate building and gaped at him. Through the window, she could see the Capitol dome. It always looked so stately, so surreal. It made her throat tighten up when she thought of what it stood for. And it made her proud that her father—her family—had served this nation for so many centuries, all the way back to her Revolutionary War ancestors who’d persevered against what must have seemed insurmountable odds.

But right now her throat was tight for a different reason.

“I’m sorry—did you say security detail?”

Her father was a tall man, robust, and deadly serious. He loved his family with all his heart, of that she had no doubt. But he was just so… so much larger than life, and so forceful that he sometimes terrified her.

Right now, he was looking at her from across his desk—the desk that had been his grandfather’s when he’d been a senator and then his father’s when he’d been governor—his blue eyes as serious as a heart attack, as she and her sisters used to say.

“Yes, sweetheart, I did.” He’d steepled his hands in the pose that used to annoy her so much as a child because it indicated a lecture was coming. It still annoyed her because she didn’t like lectures any better now than she had then.

“Before you start—”

“Sit down, Gracie.”

His voice was firm and deep, and she did as he commanded before she could stop herself. And then she was mad that she’d done it.

“Your mother is worried. I’m worried. We aren’t going to let you run around town with some madman after you and no one there to help if it happens again. And then there’s the WHO conference—we can’t let you go to Rome alone and unprotected.”

Grace swallowed. She didn’t say that she wasn’t planning on going to Rome alone—she was going with colleagues—because it was absolutely no use once her father had made up his mind. Besides, what had happened the other night had been frightening.

After she’d run headlong into Tim Fitzgerald in the parking lot, he’d hustled her back into the building and called security. A sweep of the area netted them nothing. Who the man was or how he’d gotten past the gate was a mystery.

She would have wondered if she’d imagined the entire incident if not for the fact she could still see the rain and lamplight glinting off his gun when she closed her eyes. She’d been terrified, and she knew she was lucky the car alarm had startled him enough for her to get away.

The past couple of days, she’d barricaded herself in her house with her best friend, Brooke. She felt safer with Brooke there, and Brooke hadn’t minded staying with her. Grace still went to work, but she left before dark and she was home, inside, doors locked, before the sun went down.

Security had reported the incident to the police as a matter of course. There was nothing they could do when she didn’t know who had tried to grab her. Her father, however, had different ideas.

“It’s too soon in the election cycle for any of us to be entitled to Secret Service protection, but never fear, we’ve hired a private firm. They’re sending over a man”—he looked at his watch—“who you’ll be meeting in about ten minutes. He’ll be with you twenty-four seven.”

“Daddy,” she began, her lungs squeezing with the effort to breathe, but he held up his hand to silence her.

“I’m not taking no for an answer, princess.”

She cringed a little at the childhood endearment as he reached into his desk and then slid a folded sheet of paper across to her. She was too old to be her daddy’s princess, but she didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop. The nickname made her feel inadequate somehow, though she knew that wasn’t what he intended. To him she was a princess, just like all her sisters.

She laid her hand on the paper, her heart kicking up. But she didn’t unfold it.

“What is this?”

“A headline.” The lines in her father’s face had settled into a worried frown. She didn’t like that look. She’d never liked that look.

Grace took a deep breath and lifted the top of the sheet. Presidential Candidate’s Daughter Creating Potential Bioweapons in Lab—Where Is the Line on This Kind of Research?

Grace gritted her teeth as fear and anger swirled inside her. Yes, she was working with viruses—and yes, she’d stumbled on some pretty damning evidence of what could be done with the viruses she’d been manipulating, but her research was done to help people, not hurt them.

She’d only told a couple of colleagues about her most recent findings—and none of them would talk to the media since they all wanted to protect their jobs—but this headline cut too close to the bone for comfort.

“It’s not true.”

“Of course it’s not.” Her father tiredly rubbed his hand across his eyes. “But when did that ever stop the press from printing the most sensational headline possible?”

“Daddy…” She sucked in a pained breath. “I’m sorry. This won’t reflect well on you, will it?”

“No, it won’t. But I’ll tell them what I always do—my children lead their own lives and make their own choices. You’ll have to field some attention, I’m afraid, but then all of us do these days.”

Yes, she knew it was true, especially after his announcement the other night. The night she’d missed.

“I’m sorry I missed the party,” she said softly. “I lost track of time, and—”

“What’s done is done.” Her father stood and came around the desk. He perched on the corner of it, one leg dangling as he leaned toward her. “Gracie, be good for this man. Accept the security detail, and allow him to do his job. Your mother will sleep better at night.”

She dropped her gaze to her lap. She hated the idea of having some strange man around, always there, watching her and being a part of her life. Since she’d been a kid they’d always had help—nannies, cooks, gardeners, drivers, et cetera—and she’d always wanted to escape somewhere and live alone for a while.

She used to hide in the closet with her books and a flashlight until someone invariably found her and made her come out again. She hated being around so many people all the time. She liked her privacy, and that was one of the best things about growing up and becoming an adult. She had her own space—a town house in Alexandria—and she could sit by herself and read all the books she liked. It was heaven. Even Brooke understood it because Brooke was an introvert too.

But to have a man—a strange man she didn’t know—with her around the clock, in her space? Pure torture.

“I will,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.

Her father patted her cheek. And then he straightened and pressed a button on his desk phone.

“Please send in the man from the security firm.”

* * * * *

Garrett sat on the chair across from the senator’s secretary and tried not to fidget. He’d arrived at nine a.m., as requested. He was wearing a suit, which he hated, and a tie, which he also hated. The tie was knotted in a double Windsor, and it was perfect. It should be, considering how seriously his mama took manners and class.

He cleaned up nicely, but he didn’t like it. After the past few years in the Army, and the last one with HOT, he was used to living life a bit more on the edge.

Damned Cotillion lessons. He’d never guessed they’d get him in trouble someday. His mama always said they’d save his ass, not string it up for him.

“This way, Mr. Spencer,” the secretary said, standing and walking over to a polished mahogany door. She waited until Garrett stopped, and then she gave him a quick smile before she opened the door and announced him.

A gray-haired man stood beside a chair, his hand on the shoulder of the woman sitting there. The man looked stern, but the woman looked cold and haughty. A twinge of dislike filled him. He knew her kind—born with a silver spoon and unimpressed with anyone she deemed beneath her.

The superior look on her face reminded him too much of his ex. Melissa hadn’t been rich, but she’d definitely been haughty. He’d found that a challenge once—all the way up until he’d had her spread-eagle beneath him and screaming his name.

He didn’t like haughty. Not at all. It made the hairs on his neck prickle in warning. He’d be nice to this woman all day long, but he wasn’t taking an ounce of bullshit aimed at making him feel inferior to anyone. He got that nearly every day from his ex-wife, and that was more than enough.

The senator walked forward and held out his hand. He gave Garrett a quick once-over, his gaze taking in Garrett’s size and the cut of his suit, no doubt. He nodded once and then clasped Garrett’s hand in a strong grip.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Spencer.”

Mr. Spencer. It sounded so strange rolling off a senator’s tongue, as if he were a fellow congressman or something. He was Sergeant Spencer, or Iceman, or Garrett. Gary to his ex-wife because she knew he hated it.

“Pleased to be of service, sir.”

Senator Campbell was looking at him intently. “You’ve been briefed?”

“Yes, sir.”

He’d been briefed all right. Rule number one: keep the senator’s daughter alive. Rule number two: keep your hands off her. Rule number three: don’t let her know you’re a military special operator.

That last was particularly annoying. He was a highly trained military machine, and he was being pulled from more important duty like protecting the world from terrorists and nut jobs, instead being sent to babysit a spoiled rich girl. She’d been attacked, and she probably needed protection, but it was the kind of protection the police or the FBI could provide.

Having HOT do it was kind of like using a sledgehammer to hang a picture. It worked, but it was overkill.

Garrett understood why Mendez had skin in the game, why he thought he might get something he wanted out of the exchange, but Garrett didn’t have to like it. It was politics and posturing, nothing more. Mendez would have a powerful man in his debt after this assignment, but Garrett would be the one suffering through the day-to-day tedium of watching this woman.

He didn’t care if she was a researcher at a medical laboratory—she still looked like a spoiled rich girl to him. Her nose was in the air and her hands were clasped on her lap, her knuckles turning white.

“This is my daughter, Grace,” the senator said, turning to include her. She hadn’t moved a muscle. In fact, she appeared frozen in place.

But a moment later she rolled into motion as if she hadn’t been staring at Garrett with disdain. She stood with fluid movements and put out her hand for him to shake. He took it gently, because one did not grip a lady’s hand the way they gripped a man’s, and gave her a light squeeze.

“Ma’am.”

Her hand in his was soft and small—and cold. Of course she was cold. She looked like ice wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Her blue eyes were glacial and her pale skin was snow-white. She was an ice queen, all cold and hard and buttoned up tight.

She was taller than he’d expected, probably five-eight or so, and average build. Nothing to write home about, though it was hard to tell because her dress was shapeless. He had no idea why women wore dresses that didn’t hug their curves, but they did. She did. An A-line dress, as he knew only too well from listening to his mama. He’d never liked the damn things.

She also wore a scarf at her throat and a chunky bracelet on her wrist. Diamond studs winked from her ears.

“Please, call me Grace,” she said, speaking for the first time. Her voice was a surprise, all husky and throaty, as if she’d just rolled out of bed—or spent hours slamming back whisky in a bar before climbing on a table to dance the night away.

It was an incongruous image perhaps, but the smokiness of her tone surprised him. And sent a tiny tingle of awareness sliding down his spine and into his groin.

Fucking great.

“I’m Garrett, ma’am. Or Spencer if you prefer something more formal.”
She hesitated, and he wondered if she was considering something like Jeeves instead. “Garrett is fine.”

She smiled, but it didn’t seem very genuine. It wavered at the corners, as if she were forcing it. His dislike flared.

I don’t want to be here any more than you do, lady.

The senator walked over to his desk and picked up an envelope that he then handed to Garrett. “Here’s a key to the town house. And there’s an armored car waiting outside for you.”

Grace’s smile had faded completely. In fact, her jaw now hung open. “A key to my house?”

Senator Campbell gave his daughter a stern look, no doubt because she sounded so offended that a lackey like Garrett would dare to have a key. “It’s a Campbell house, princess, and yes, the man needs a key of his own.”

Grace was having none of it. “I pay rent every month like any other tenant would do—”

“You pay rent because you wanted to.”

Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. Her knuckles were white again. “It’s my house. My space. You promised—”

“Princess.”

Princess, indeed. But that one word stopped the words from flowing. She still looked upset. Her pale skin was now flushed, the pink glow in her cheeks making her look more alive and less, well, frosty.

“You agreed to let the man do his job. So let him do it.”
She’d agreed. Fucking fabulous.

Her head bowed a fraction. “Of course.”

“Here’s a copy of her schedule.” Senator Campbell handed him a folder.

Garrett didn’t open it. There was plenty of time for that—plus he didn’t like the way Grace’s shoulders suddenly sagged. As if she were sinking under the weight of her father’s authority.

Then he shook himself mentally. Her daddy called her princess and ordered up military security for her—and Garrett felt sorry for her? No, she just didn’t like that she was about to be curtailed in her actions. That she had a keeper to answer to for the foreseeable future.

Jesus, this job got more and more exciting every damn second.

The senator went to his daughter and gave her a quick squeeze. “I have a vote on the floor in half an hour. You’ll be safe with this man, princess. Do as he says and all will be well.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Your mother and I will see you tonight at the benefit.”

Grace’s eyes were flat, distant. But her smile returned. Her fake, forced smile. “I look forward to it.”

She looked up and met Garrett’s gaze then, her expression resigned and a touch annoyed. Well, she wasn’t the only one who was annoyed. Not by a long, long shot.

* * * * *

Grace’s heart beat a little faster than usual as she strode along beside the man who’d been sent to play guard dog for her. He was tall and, my God, broad like a football player. His hair was dark brown or black, and his eyes were a shocking gunmetal gray that had looked upon her with what she was certain was barely disguised disdain.

He’d drawn the short straw when it came to this assignment, apparently. She could just see the guys at the security firm now—tough, lethal men standing around a table and all declaring there was no way in hell they wanted to squire a pampered senator’s daughter around town.

Though really, that was ridiculous, because why would they care? It was money and a job and she didn’t think they stood around and drew straws for assignments. Then again, what did she know about personal security and the kind of people who worked in it?

When they reached the door, he put a hand out to stop her before she could walk through.

“I go first from now on,” he said, his gaze serious as it raked over her face.

Grace tried not to focus on the way his hand spanned her arm or the way little bolts of lightning raced beneath her skin where he touched her. It was a warm day out, and while she was wearing sleeves, they were thin. His warmth seared her.

“Very well,” she said tightly, because she didn’t know what else to say.

He pushed the door open and stopped, scanning the street as he slipped on a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Then he turned and nodded at her and she walked out the door to join him.

A car pulled up to the curb, a big black Cadillac Escalade that she recognized as one of her father’s. A man got out as they approached and spoke with Garrett. They shook hands and the driver walked away, toward the Senate office building.

Garrett opened the back door for her. She got inside and took out her phone while he walked around to the driver’s side and got in. Then he hit the locks and the clack of them startled her a little. It was just like being a kid again in some ways. She’d had no control over what she did then, or who went with her, and she’d hated it.

She wasn’t an idiot, and she knew why she needed this man with her now. But she didn’t like it because it made her uncomfortable. She didn’t like strangers, didn’t do well with them, and it bothered her that she felt so awkward. She spent more time thinking about what she should say, or could say, when all she wanted was to be left alone.

The worst kinds of hired help when she’d been a child had been the talkers. Those people who wouldn’t stop talking, even when she had her head buried in a book. She just wanted silence, but they thought they had to occupy her at every turn. She was slightly ashamed of herself for being unable to engage with them back then, but those days were long past. She could talk now when she had to, could fake it for the cameras and the public appearances when necessary.

Garrett Spencer didn’t say a word as he pressed the gas and the car began to move toward Constitution Avenue. She thought she should be happy he didn’t talk to her, but she found it somewhat disconcerting.

Grace scrolled through her e-mail, intent on focusing on her job and her life and forgetting that she’d just lost a major portion of the control and independence she’d worked so hard for.

It’s temporary, she told herself. Only temporary.

And necessary. She had no desire to meet the man who’d held her at gunpoint ever again. She wanted him found and then she wanted her life back.

Until then, she had to deal with this dark, silent distraction of a man in the front seat of her daddy’s armored Escalade. Her stomach sank just a little at that notion.

She’d intended to go to work after her meeting on the Hill with her father, but her bodyguard appeared to have other ideas. When she realized he wasn’t headed for Bethesda, her heartbeat kicked up and she could feel the flush staining her skin. She thought about that copy of her schedule her father had given him and cursed herself for not demanding to see it then and there.

“Excuse me, but I think you missed the turn.”

His mirrored gaze flicked up to the rearview, back down again. “I didn’t miss anything. We’re going to your home. You’ll stay there until the event this evening.”

Shock filled her that he could so easily override her wishes. And then anger swelled inside her. “I beg your pardon? I didn’t agree to that. Turn around now and take me to the lab.”

He was silent for a long moment. Then he glanced at her again, a polite smile on his handsome face—though she could see a muscle flexing in his jaw. “Not happening… princess.”

Grace couldn’t contain her gasp of outrage. Fresh heat flooded her cheeks. “You work for my father, and you will not speak to me with disrespect—or I will have you fired.”

One eyebrow quirked up as he glanced at her again, and the heat of embarrassment rolled through her. My God, she sounded like a spoiled child. That definitely wasn’t the tone she’d been going for. But she couldn’t help it.

She could hear her mother in her ear, her cultured tones dressing down anyone who crossed her. Her mother sounded elegant and refined when she did it. Grace sounded like a hoity-toity bitch.

Still, she was pissed. Red-hot anger pulsed in her veins. In spite of the coolness of the car, sweat beaded between her breasts, under their curves. Her ears and scalp were hot too.

“You want to get me fired?” he drawled. “Go for it, cupcake. I don’t think it’ll turn out the way you expect, though. Your father wanted the best—and he got it when my firm got involved. I’m here to stay until the danger is over, whether you like it or not.”

She sat back and crossed her arms over her breasts. Her heart pounded and her pulse throbbed. She hated confrontation, hated it with a passion—and yet she wanted more than anything to wipe that look off his face.

She sniffed in disdain. “Cupcake? Really? Don’t they teach you anything about sexual harassment where you work? Or is that a bit too much for your muscle-bound brain to process?”

He snorted a laugh. “Why don’t you tell me what you really think, Grace?”

Her name on his lips was even more shocking than when he’d called her princess. She wanted him to say it again so she could see if the same shiver slid along her nerve endings, and that only made her mad.

“I think you’re a jerk.”

He yanked his glasses off and met her eyes in the rearview. The effect of those gray eyes in his tanned face made her heart pound for a very different reason.

“Come on, honey. You can say it. You think I’m an asshole.”

“Right now, yes. Five minutes ago, I just wished you’d go away and leave me alone.”

He flipped on the signal and made a turn. Then he glanced at her again. “You don’t want me here, and I don’t particularly want to be here. But this is the job, and if we’re going to get through it, we’re going to do it my way. You might as well get used to that now. I don’t need you to like me. I don’t need you to talk to me, or bake me cookies, or any other damn polite thing you might think you need to do for the hired help. All I need is for you to do what I tell you. And what I’m telling you is that we’re going to your house, and we’re staying there until this benefit tonight. After the benefit, we’re going back to your house and not leaving again until morning. I don’t fucking care if you have a problem with any of that, but if I have to put my ass on the line for yours, the least you can do is trust my judgment.”

Grace could feel her jaw slip open as he talked. She closed it with a snap when he finished his little speech. And she felt more than a bit angry and chastened all at once. Because he was putting his butt on the line for her.

“You believe in laying it all out there, don’t you? Cards on the table?”

“Yes, I fucking do.”

She shook her head. “You really have a mouth on you. Does your employer like you talking to clients like that?”

“My employer probably says worse.”

She sniffed—and sounded prissy as hell doing it, dammit.

Garrett snorted, but she lifted her chin and ignored him.

“The English language is filled with words that would get your point across just as well—and not be so offensive in the process.”

As if she never swore. As if she’d never said fuck in her life—well, she hadn’t done it often, that’s for sure, but she’d definitely been angry enough from time to time.

“Yeah, but they’re so hard to remember with this muscle-bound brain of mine. Best to stick to the basics, don’t you think?”

Grace decided not to answer that. She turned her head and looked out over the Potomac as they crossed into Virginia. She’d had bodyguards before, when she was a kid and her father was running for reelection or introducing a particularly polarizing bill and receiving death threats, but she couldn’t remember any of them acting like this one. Though if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have done it around a teenager.

“I don’t think you like me much,” she said. “And I’m fairly certain I don’t like you. But I guess we’re stuck together for the foreseeable future. I think this will work best if you don’t talk to me unless you have to.”

“That’s good with me. Just follow my instructions, Grace, and we’ll get along fine.”

His eyes sparked as he glanced at her in the rearview, and that same shiver of anticipation as before slid through her when he said her name.

Somehow, she didn’t think they were going to get along at all.

CHAPTER THREE

GRACE CAMPBELL LIVED IN A FEDERAL-STYLE town house in Alexandria, Virginia. In fact, she was one street over from where Sam “Knight Rider” McKnight’s fiancée, Georgie, had her town house. Small fucking world. Also damn helpful because it meant the guys were close by. Georgie had given them enthusiastic permission to set up a headquarters there so they could monitor this mission.

Not all the guys, because Mendez didn’t think it required the whole team to watch one spoiled rich girl, but Knight Rider, Flash, and Chase “Fiddler” Daniels were there at the moment. Snipers weren’t required yet, so Brandy, Victoria, and Dex were elsewhere, along with team members Matt, Kev, Lucky, and Billy the Kid.

Garrett made Grace wait in the car with the doors locked while he checked out her place. There were no signs of forced entry, and no one in the interior, so he retrieved a fuming Grace from the car and ushered her inside. She left him standing in her entry and stomped up her stairs without saying another word.

He almost laughed. But he couldn’t laugh because he was too focused on the roundness of her ass—and then, when she got high enough, he could see up her skirt to the blue lacy panties beneath.

Shit.

He did not need a hard-on, and he definitely didn’t need it over this woman. Snotty thing.

Except a little twinge of guilt pricked him because he’d been a dick first. He was on edge from his last conversation with his ex and the tearful call from Cammie just last night, and he’d snapped when he shouldn’t. None of that was Grace’s fault, but when she’d told him in that prissy tone, after being so icy to him in her father’s office, that she’d get him fired if he didn’t do what she wanted, he’d fucking lost it.

He shouldn’t have done that. He put a hand on the back of his neck and rubbed as he took out his phone and dialed. Knight Rider answered on the first ring.

“Hey, man, in position. Location secure, Princess upstairs sulking.”

Sam laughed. “Princess? Thought we were calling her Camper.”

They always had code names for the principals, and Camper had fit because of the last name. Except that it didn’t anymore.

“Trust me, she’s a princess. With a scepter up her ass and everything.”

“Damn, dude, maybe Mendez should have picked one of us for this assignment.”

“He should have. Except I’m the only one who knows which fork to use in the event someone serves a fucking trout. Thanks, Mom.”

Like the guys would ever let him live that one down. It was now common knowledge that his mother was an etiquette expert—and he’d been her star pupil. Well, Richie Rich knew which fork to use too, but his sister and brother-in-law were part of the Washington scene, and there would be too many questions if he showed up with a senator’s daughter when they knew he was engaged to his hometown sweetheart.

So that left Garrett.

“Yeah, who knew, Fancy Pants?”

Garrett rolled his eyes. If the guys had their way, they’d change his team name from Iceman to Fancy Pants in half a second flat. He wasn’t about to let that happen.

“I’ll fucking rip your balls off and shove them down your throat, McKnight, if you don’t stop calling me that.”

“Yeah, yeah, all right. Too sensitive, man. And hey, if you can find the time to teach me to waltz when we’re done, Georgie’d be grateful.”

In the background, he heard a feminine voice sing out. “Stop teasing him, Sam.”

“You got a delivery for me?” Garrett growled.

“Yep. Flash is bringing your tux and suitcase over later. I’ll call you first.”

Garrett finished the call and then loosened his tie and yanked it from his collar. Then he shrugged out of the jacket and tossed it on a chair in the living room. Posh living room with a velvet couch and silk Louis-the-something chairs. His mother had tried to impress fashion and decor on him, but he’d drawn a line. He could tie his own ties—bow or Windsor—and he could pick out a suit and shoes. But furniture was a nonstarter.

His own came from a local cheapo shop because if it was going to get beat up in military moves, he wasn’t investing in anything nice.

There was a piano, and fresh flowers in a vase on a library table that was artfully stacked with books. Knowing Grace Campbell’s type, she’d probably read every last one of them.

He walked through the living room and into the dining room complete with gleaming mahogany table and chairs that were definitely antiques. Fine art graced the walls, but he had no idea what they were beyond landscapes and still lifes.

The kitchen was big, with stainless steel appliances, white cabinetry, and gray marble countertops. Definitely the latest and greatest for this woman.

He rolled up his sleeves as he prowled the rest of the downstairs. There was a den with at least a sixty-inch television on the wall, and a library lined with leather books. Rich people. His mother would have died to see this place. And she’d have been right at home too, pouring tea and chatting like the fucking queen of England.

He’d started back toward the front of the house when he heard a scraping sound coming from the rear entry. There was no peephole on this door, and he already knew it was shaded from the windows by a portico lined with vines.

He slipped his gun from his shoulder holster and went over by the door. It rattled and scraped—and then it flew open and someone stepped inside.

Garrett lunged.

* * * * *

Grace was halfway down the stairs when she heard the scream. She’d gone up to change into yoga pants and do her workout, but she’d come back downstairs to get a bottle of water. The scream had her running toward the kitchen. She slid through the door to find her bodyguard with his arm wrapped around her best friend’s neck and his pistol against her temple.

Brooke looked utterly terrified.

“Let her go!”

Garrett glanced at her—and released the woman in his arms. Brooke’s face was pale, her eyes wide as she stood there and gulped for breath. Grace strode over and wrapped her arms around her friend. Brooke’s nose only came to Grace’s boobs, so it was kind of awkward, but she dragged Brooke away from Garrett and made soothing noises.

“I’m all right,” Brooke said, her voice muffled in Grace’s cleavage.

Grace let her go and stepped back. “Sorry.”

Grace linked her hand with Brooke’s and faced the glowering beast in her kitchen. The handsome glowering beast.

Oh dear God.

He’d removed his jacket and tie. His sleeves were rolled up and he’d unbuttoned the first couple of buttons of his shirt. She saw ink. Lots of colorful ink. And a scowl that made her gulp when she raised her gaze to his again.

“You didn’t tell me you were expecting company,” Garrett growled at her. He slipped the pistol into his shoulder holster and glared at her.

“She has a key, for God’s sake. I didn’t think you’d attack someone with a key!”

“Unless I know they’re coming, I’m stopping anyone from getting to you. That’s the job, cupcake.”

Grace felt Brooke stiffen at the ridiculous nickname. Grace had decided to ignore it since she was pretty sure he did it to get under her skin. Brooke laughed softly, which Grace found a little shocking. Brooke was supposed to be offended on her behalf, but she broke free from Grace’s grip and walked over to Garrett.

“I’m sorry I surprised you like that, but I didn’t know you were here. I’m Brooke Sullivan, Grace’s best friend.”

Garrett took her hand in his, and Grace felt a little twinge of something she couldn’t name. Irritation perhaps?

“Nice to meet you, Brooke. I’m Garrett. And I apologize for putting a gun to your head.”

Brooke laughed that sweet tinkle of a laugh she had that meant she was putting on the flirty. Or maybe Grace just imagined the flirty. But she thought Garrett probably liked Brooke a whole lot more than he liked her.

For one thing, he was smiling now. And it transformed his face from handsome to oh-em-gee panty-melting. Since when did she like big tough guys with tattoos anyway? She was all about refined men. Men who wore suits but who didn’t talk like a sailor on shore leave. Men with educations and prospects, not men who wielded guns for a living.

Snob.

Grace sniffed. She wasn’t a snob, dammit. She just knew what kind of man she liked. Not that men had been thick on the ground in her life lately, but there was always hope.

Not for the first time, she wished she was little and cute like Brooke. If she looked like Brooke, she might get more attention. Instead, she was tall and plain, and that just didn’t excite many men.

She thought of Tim and his newfound interest in her and grimaced. Maybe she should have accepted his invitation after all. Who cared if it was because of her father’s announcement?

“So, Grace didn’t tell me she was getting a bodyguard.” Brooke threw her a look over her cute little shoulder. Grace resisted the urge to stick out her tongue, but only barely.

“Daddy sprung him on me. I couldn’t say no.”

“And why would you want to?” Brooke practically purred.

Grace folded her arms. “Trust me, I wanted to. He’s mean, for one thing. And he has a dirty mouth.”

“Dirty mouths are the best.” Brooke’s voice had dropped an octave.

Grace rolled her eyes. “Oh for heaven’s sake, stop that.”

Brooke laughed. Garrett was looking at her with interest now, a mischievous smile still on his face.

Both of you,” Grace added with a twinge of something very like jealousy.

Garrett’s eyes snapped to hers, cooling marginally as they did so. His expression settled into something much less friendly when he looked at her.

“Whatever you say, ma’am,” he drawled in that Southern voice of his. But then he turned back to Brooke and his expression softened. “I’m sorry I scared you. I only hope I wasn’t too rough.”

The way he said the word rough sent liquid heat sliding through Grace’s bones.

“Not at all,” Brooke said. “You weren’t rough at all.”

“Brooke,” Grace snapped, and her friend jerked toward her. “Help me pick out something for tonight, okay?”

The sunny smile was back on Brooke’s perky face. “Of course.”

She sauntered toward Grace, her attention off of Mr. Dirty Mouth for now.

“I’m thinking the LBD with pearls. Classic!” Brooke sailed right past Grace and continued toward the stairs.

Grace turned to follow—but not before she gave Garrett her best “stay away from my friend” glare. And not before he put his hand to his lips and blew her a kiss. She was certain it was a kiss off—but it still made her heart pound in ways she wished it wouldn’t. She ran up the stairs after Brooke, determined to shut Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sexy out of her head for a while.

When she got upstairs, however, Brooke was standing in front of her closet, bouncing up and down.

“Oh my God, Grace, where did your father find him? Wow, that man is smoking hot! Lucky girl.”

Grace frowned. “I don’t feel so lucky. I feel caged.”

“Aw, honey, I’m sorry.” Brooke came over and tugged her down on the edge of the bed. “I know you hate crowds and strangers, but really, this one is so fine. Oh, those tattoos—that chest! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little fun for a change?”

Grace blinked at her. “Fun? I thought you wanted him! Are you really suggesting that I should…”

She couldn’t finish the sentence. Brooke’s eyes were twinkling. “I can’t remember the last time you had a date, and now you’ve got a man in your house for what I can only assume is around-the-clock protection.” She frowned. “There won’t be another one coming to take his place, will there? Shift work?”

Grace shook her head. “He’s staying here, in the house with me.”

“Hot damn!”

“Brooke, for heaven’s sake, he had a gun to your temple! Shouldn’t you be a little less understanding about all this?”

“Oh, that wasn’t pleasant, I’ll grant you that—but it’s over now and he’s here to protect you.” Brooke’s expression turned stern. “Which I am glad for, Grace. You don’t have any idea who tried to grab you—or why—and what if they return? Your father is very high profile right now—and you’re a target.”

“So are my sisters.”

“Not like you, sweetie. Your sisters live in different states, but you’re right here.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“It wouldn’t if a man hadn’t accosted you in a parking lot a few nights ago. And he called you by name. That’s not a random mugging.”

“No, I know it’s not.”

Brooke giggled suddenly. “You ever see The Bodyguard? Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner? So romantic!”

Grace gave her a light slap on the arm. “No, I haven’t. And this isn’t romantic!”

Brooke fell back on the bed and put an arm over her forehead. “Girl, you have to see that movie—when he carries her off stage, oh… swoon.”

“Brooke, this is not a movie. That man down there is ill-tempered and foulmouthed. And he doesn’t like me at all!”

Oh dear, that last had sounded like a wail. Brooke sat up, blinking.

“He doesn’t like you? How is that possible? He doesn’t even know you!”

“He thinks he does. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a spoiled daddy’s girl—and God knows what else he thinks.”

“Oh.” Brooke frowned. And then she got a gleam in her eyes that Grace recognized. “You used the Helena Voice on him, didn’t you?”

Grace groaned. “Yes, God help me, I used my mother’s voice on him. He didn’t take it very well.”

“I’ve told you that Helena Campbell is the only person on earth who can pull that off. You shouldn’t even try it.”

“I didn’t mean to! It just came out. And he deserved it, by the way. He was high-handed and arrogant.”

Brooke burst out laughing. “You’re doing it again, sweetie. So prim and scandalized.”

Grace wanted to punch something. “I can only be me, Brooke. I’m doing the best I can.”

Brooke got up and patted her on the shoulder before heading for the closet. “Well, let’s find something that will showcase some of your more appealing assets.”

Grace followed her. She knew what Brooke was up to and she wasn’t sure she approved. “There’s nothing in this closet that’s going to turn that man’s head. Nor do I want to, I should add. He’s not my type. At all.”

Brooke stopped and stared at her. Then she laughed. “Not your type? Tall, hot, and handsome? Packing heat and muscle on a fine body and willing to use all of it to protect you? Oh, sweetie, if that’s not your type, you need to get yourself checked out.”

Grace’s heart thumped. “He’s pretty to look at, I’ll grant you that. But he’s here to do a job—and he’s not interested in me any more than I’m interested in him.”

“Ye of little faith. Let’s see what’s in this closet, shall we?”

“Nothing that magical, I promise.”

Brooke pointed at her. “And you’re wearing your contacts tonight, like it or not. No arguments, chica. Those baby blues are going to shine.”

“Bossy today, aren’t you?”

“I’m PMSing. Don’t mess with me.”

Grace couldn’t help but laugh as her friend started flipping through dresses. An hour later, they had the perfect outfit.

Brooke dusted her hands as if she’d just performed magic. “I have to get to the shop, but I’ll come back and do your makeup later. What time is this thing?”

“Cocktails at six.”

“Then I’ll get here at four thirty. That will give us an hour before your sexy bodyguard has to get you in the car.”

* * * * *

His clothes were delivered later that afternoon by a grinning Flash. Garrett only frowned as the man walked into the foyer and dropped his suitcase.

Garrett took the bag with his tux and hung it on a hook by the door. “What’s got you so amused?”

“You. Playing house with a senator’s daughter.”

Garrett walked back toward the media room where he’d been following the news. Flash followed.

“Not playing house,” Garrett said, sinking down and grabbing the remote. “Just making sure our princess doesn’t get grabbed by the baddies.”

Flash flopped into a silk chair, legs sprawling. “Man, since when do we have to play bodyguard for Washington power brokers and their kids? Our place is in the field, taking care of business, not here.”

Garrett thought the same damn thing. “Agreed. But the boss wants this done, it’s getting done.”

Flash sighed. “We’ll have your back tonight. I think it’s a whole lot of effort for nothing, but whatever.”

“Who’s driving us?” Because he’d discussed it with his guys and they agreed that one of them should play chauffeur while he rode in the back with Grace. Just in case something happened, he needed to be able to react—and he couldn’t do that if he was driving Miss Daisy around town.

“I am.”

Garrett nodded. “Good.”

They chatted a bit more, about tonight and then about nothing much, and Flash left. Garrett put on ESPN and watched a rehash of a football game from last week. He scrolled through his messages—nothing from his ex, thank God, and nothing from Cammie. That last bothered him, but Cammie was in school and she wasn’t allowed to text during class.

Eventually, he went to the guest room he’d commandeered—Grace hadn’t reappeared since she’d taken her cute friend and gone upstairs a few hours ago. The friend—Brooke, she’d said—had left a while ago now. She’d been flirting with him after the misunderstanding in the kitchen—shit, he could still wring Grace’s neck for not informing him she had a friend with a key to the house—but when she left, she hadn’t said anything other than she’d be back at four thirty to help Grace get ready.

He wasn’t disappointed she’d stopped flirting. She was cute, no doubt about it, but he found himself strangely uninterested. Not to mention he had no time for distractions right now. And she would be a distraction. If he bedded her, it would get awkward, because these days he was a one-and-done kind of guy. Not a lot of women appreciated that, he’d come to find out.

But he just couldn’t maintain interest. After his disastrous marriage with Melissa, it was no doubt a gut reaction to anything that smacked of a relationship. He had too much going on in his life to deal with yet another woman in it.

He took a shower and put on his tux, then went down the hall to Grace’s room—he knew it was hers because of the locked door and the classical music in the background—and knocked.

“Yes?” she called.

Her voice slid down his spine like whisky-infused honey. “You okay in there?”

“Fine, thanks.”

“Your friend come back yet?”

The doorknob twisted, and then she was standing there, most of her body hiding behind the door. Because she was wearing a silky robe and probably nothing else. His groin took that moment to decide to spark to life.

Her blue eyes were wide, and she wasn’t wearing glasses for once. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head, and her neck was long and graceful. He wished he could see what kind of curves she had. She’d been wearing some kind of stretchy pants earlier, but she’d had on a billowy T-shirt and he couldn’t quite tell what was going on with her body.

He hadn’t forgotten that flash of her panties earlier, or the long legs as they’d climbed the stairs. At first glance, Grace Campbell seemed a little ordinary. But the more you looked at her, the more interesting she got.

“She’s on her way. I’d appreciate it if you don’t accost her this time.”

She sounded so prim. It grated on him—and thrilled him in some ridiculously odd way as well. He had a sudden urge to slant his mouth over hers and knock the starch right out of her.

“Not planning on it, cupcake.”

Her brow furrowed. “Why do you insist on calling me names like that? It’s insulting. I have an MD—and I graduated near the top of my class, by the way.”

“I like the way your nose wrinkles when you’re pissed. Makes the job more interesting.”

She blinked at him, and then her throat moved as she swallowed. “Well, stop. I don’t like it.”

Garrett laughed. “Not happening… cupcake.”

She actually stomped her foot. Her face turned a delightful shade of pink. “You are… a…an ass!”

“You aren’t the first woman to think so,” he told her very seriously. And then he gave her a little salute before turning and strolling down the hall and back down the stairs. He didn’t know why it amused him to irritate her, but it did.

Her friend arrived a short while later, and the two of them stayed in her room. Flash arrived about fifteen minutes before it was time to leave.

“Did you see the news?” he asked as he came inside.

“No, why?” He’d been watching football because he loved it and because it made him think of when he’d been younger and the world had seemed to be his for the taking.

Flash picked up the remote and switched it to a news channel. Helicopter footage of a building was on the screen. There were people gathering at the gates of the building, and security barricading the entry. The headline was sensational—and sent a chill down Garrett’s spine.

Presidential Candidate’s Daughter Works at Top-secret Lab; Are They Creating Bioweapons?

The reporter talked about Magnolia Laboratories, how they were a private company focusing on research, and how they’d received grants and private money to experiment with viruses. And then there was a picture of Grace, but not a white-coated lab picture. In this one, she was with her parents—and the president of the United States. It had clearly been chosen for the sensational nature of the story—a candidate’s daughter with connections in high places who also worked in a research laboratory that just might be on the verge of killing off the entire planet.

The reporter went on to speculate—along with her experts—on the nature of the work the lab was really doing and on how quickly a virus could spread out of control if accidentally released.

Then someone suggested this was why they couldn’t elect Senator Campbell to the presidency, because he would have control of a dangerous bioweapon through his daughter. The conversation disintegrated from there.

“It’s not true!”

Garrett spun around to find Grace standing just inside the room, her pale skin flushed and her hands clenched into fists at her side. Garrett felt as if someone had slammed him over the head with a two-by-four.

Grace Campbell was wearing a black dress that hugged her breasts and flared into a full skirt over her hips. The dress was strapless and she wore a pearl choker. Her hair was piled on her head, curls escaping to drape artfully over her shoulder.

She walked into the room, her tiny purse clutched in both hands, her long legs eating up ground as she moved. Her ankles were slender and sexy in a pair of shoes with black straps that wrapped around them and buckled right over the bone.

He had a sudden urge to remove those straps with his teeth. And then spread her legs wide and lick his way up to the center.

Shit.

“My father has nothing to do with my research—and I’m not a monster!” She was staring at the screen, her eyes filled with anger and hurt. Her friend came up beside her and put her arms around her.

“You know what these people are like, Grace. This isn’t the first time your father’s been in the lion’s den, and it won’t be the last. They’re going to harass him—and your family—for the next few months. And if he wins the nomination? Look out.”

Grace turned to her pint-sized friend. “I know. Dammit!

Garrett’s eyes widened. He didn’t think Grace Campbell cussed, but he rather liked it that she did.

Flash coughed. “I’ll go get the car.”

Grace’s gaze landed on him as if she’d just now realized he was there. Which she probably had. She looked confused and a little wary.

“This is Ryan Gordon, Grace. He works with me and he’ll be our chauffeur tonight.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Flash said, holding out his hand.

Grace didn’t move until Brooke nudged her. Then she took Ryan’s hand and murmured a polite hello. Flash left with a look aimed at Garrett. Then Garrett stood there with Grace and Brooke and didn’t quite know what to say. She was still staring at the TV, her face screwed up in a frown. He didn’t like the wounded look she wore at all.

“Maybe you should cancel,” Brooke said, frowning.

“I can’t.” Grace pulled in a deep breath. And then she smiled. He wasn’t fooled by that smile. He didn’t think Brooke was either. “It will be fine. I’ll be fine. Besides, I can’t miss it. Mother and Daddy are expecting me.”


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