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ANTI HERO “Thrilling, suspenseful, sexy as hell. Skye Warren can simply do no wrong.” – Book Bellas Nate Gaines knows he's no hero. After losing his team in a fiery betrayal, he left the army. Now he works for cold hard cash. And the girl he loves? She's better off without him. Until her story makes her a target. Then he'll protect her. He'll kill for her. He just won't let himself fall for her again. That would be dangerous, for both of them. WARNING: Contains an inked military man, a plucky reporter on a mission, and explosive chemistry!

FOREWORD I loved writing the sexy, swoonworthy Nate! I’m thrilled for you to meet him in Anti Hero. As a free bonus, On the Way Home is included for you to read once Anti Hero ends. That changes the percentages, but don’t worry – both Anti Hero and On the Way Home are full-length novels, so you’re not missing anything. Anti Hero is action-packed, with plenty of explosive chemistry! Enjoy the ride…

Chapter One The ceiling fan turned above her, barely moving the hot summer air. Sweat dampened her nightgown, but she didn’t push the comforter off. Even the daylight touching her skin was too much. She wanted to be hidden, in the dark. That was how she’d been living for the past month. Heavy footsteps came up the stairs, too heavy to be her grandmother. Diego. She kept her gaze on the ceiling even when the door opened. Silence. Then a sigh. The chair beside her bed creaked. “Abuela says you aren’t eating,” Diego said. Without looking she could envision her brother’s skin, darker than hers from hours spent outside smoking pot and drinking with his friends. His long lashes were too pretty for a boy. He got them from their mother. His cold gray eyes made up the difference. Those came from their father. Tucked into his waistband would be the red bandanna that marked his gang’s color. Outside the house he wore it bigger, wrapped around his forehead or neck. Moving it down was supposed to make him more like her brother, but it didn’t work. “Not hungry.” “She’s making your favorite. Posole.” She already knew that because the scent of spices filled the house. Maybe a month ago she would have been in the kitchen, writing in her journal at the dining room table while her mouth watered. Now her stomach felt like lead, still and solid. It didn’t want any food. And she didn’t want her brother. “Go away.” Another sigh. She glanced over and saw that he’d put his fingers together, his face turned sideways. She could study his hard features and wonder when he’d gotten that scar at his eyebrow. His face was so familiar to her, but different too. His eyes squinted, and for a moment she thought he might actually mention it. The thing they didn’t talk about. The reason she was cooking herself beneath the covers. The moment he’d chosen his gang over his family. No, that wasn’t right. He’d chosen the gang over his family the moment he’d worn that red bandanna. Instead he said, “Do you remember that flood?” Back when they’d been living closer to the border, a flood had dropped millions of gallons of rain on the small south Texas town. Water had crawled up the sloped lawns, past the weeds and concrete saints. Then it crept inside the houses, turning the thin carpets to sludge. Higher and higher, until Sofia and her family had taken refuge on their patched roof, homemade quilts wrapped around them and the contents of their pantry in plastic bags beside them. Most days Daddy had come back from the factory too exhausted, too angry to do anything but eat the plate Mama made for him and go to sleep. That was better than the days he came home drunk. Then his anger came out in shouts and fists. The flood had transformed him, if only for a week. As he looked at them huddled together with whatever they could carry, fear ripe in his eyes, he’d seemed to grow taller. A few houses down the neighbor had a small boat he set traps with. The engine had broken, but they used slats of broken fence as oars to scout the neighborhood, making sure everyone had gotten out, that they had fresh water and enough food to last until authorities could evacuate them. They all had sunburns when they finally got in the boat to meet the helicopter that had landed a

mile away. Daddy’s hands had been ripped apart, bloodied, filled with splinters. Sofia didn’t want to remember that, didn’t want to remember the time before the crash, when her parents were still alive. She didn’t want to remember huddling with her big brother, believing he’d keep her safe. She didn’t want to remember anything. But the fear she felt ripped through the numb veil that had protected her. There was something else there too. Pride. “The puppy.” Diego made a rough sound. “The damned puppy. How did it even swim that long?” She didn’t bother to shrug. The second day her father had spotted a puppy paddling through the window, fur slicked to his body, movements slow. They had guessed he managed to sit on some of the furniture for a while, so he hadn’t been swimming nonstop. But he didn’t know how to get out. Afraid breaking the window would scare him away, or hurt him, their father had swam through the murky water to the back door, then through the house, past anchorless sofas and kitchen tables, soggy picture frames and broken glass, to pull the puppy out. The puppy had come to stay on the roof with them for the next two days, living on cheese crackers and peanut butter. The newspapers had called her dad a hero. “You should eat,” Diego said, glancing at her. She had hardly looked in the mirror. What would he see? Her split lip. Bruises. Bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep. He looked back at his hands. They were large hands, like her father’s. Not bloodied and splintered. He hadn’t been a hero.

Chapter Two Present day Sofia hung up from another fruitless phone call, another dead end. She rubbed her eyes, so tired of hitting her head against the nearly impenetrable wall named Senator Stephen Moreland. His finances were tied up so tight she couldn’t even see a crack. Assuming there was anything to find. She knew there was. She’d been researching political finance since she started at the Daily two years ago. She had interned under a reporter who went to the Washington Post. And the number of secrets on this campaign was unprecedented. He was dirty. She just had to prove it. “That bad, huh?” Remy plopped down in her chair with a sympathetic expression. As a fellow reporter, she knew how much it sucked coming up empty. Their desks faced each other, so when she wasn’t looking at her monitor, she saw Remy, who sported a new look every week. Today her sandy-blonde hair was tied in an intricate braid, with colorful strands of hemp sewn through. Her army-green raglan shirt read Department of Redundancy Department. Sofia tossed her phone onto her cluttered desk. “That was the third aide who never knew Moreland owned property in Austin.” “You think he’s telling the truth?” She drummed her fingers on the desk. “Probably.” The aide had asked her out for coffee twice, once when she’d cornered him at a taco stand and again on the call just now. If he’d had any information to give, he would have used it as bait. As desperate as she was, she probably would have taken it. Moreland had disclosed his campaign finances by the book. At least some of his personal property was public knowledge—the private jet, the hotel in Boston. It was here in Texas, near the southern border of the country, that his interests got murkier. There was more money, secret money, and she was determined to find it. Sofia tapped her pen. “I need to find out what goes on during those trips. That’s where he’s vulnerable. I’m tempted to drive over there and look around.” The frequent trips to Mexico under the guise of drug control or anti-trafficking reform were bizarre. What was he going to do, have a thoughtful conversation with drug lords and convince them to stop? There were no press ops of him shaking hands with leaders or smiling at children on these trips, either. Everything was hush-hush. Remy frowned. “You know I love your determination, sweetheart. That’s what makes you a great reporter. Best one I know. But this guy…he’s dangerous.” “This coming from the girl who meets her sources on the streets,” she said absently, her mind focused on the files Rick had uploaded. Budget cuts meant they’d lost most of their support staff, including the last archivist who loved to comb old newspapers. Instead she had resorted to free labor—an intern who worked at the university’s paper. She emailed him an assignment. He uploaded the files into the Daily’s servers via VPN. Scooting forward in her chair, she found the files in the network folder and dragged them onto her desktop, sighing when she saw they’d take ten minutes to copy over. The tech infrastructure here was outdated, old-school. Forget the cloud; they had servers the size of entire rooms in the basement. She’d take the files home, look them over tonight with a cup of instant noodles.

Was this what her social life had come to? “I’m serious,” Remy said. “It’s one thing to do a report on the state of his campaign finances. It’s another to go snooping around in his private life.” Except this article would actually be about campaign finance, the true state of his campaign finance, including kickbacks or unsavory connections. And Sofia had spent too much of her life trembling, running. Hiding. She wouldn’t hide this time. Nate had taught her to be strong, even though he wouldn’t believe it. God, Nate. That slight smile, the ever-present scruff. The colorful ink covering his muscled body. And of course, the laid-back Southern-boy charm. They had been together for three glorious months before everything had imploded. She might have believed his don’t give a fuck attitude if she hadn’t lain naked next to him, draped over his chest while she talked about the injustices she covered at work. His heart had raced, whole body tense and ready for combat. He cared, all right. He just didn’t want to. Beside her laptop, her cell phone flashed a message to the screen. A voice mail had been left. Cell reception was spotty in these old buildings. It hadn’t even rung. Excitement beat in her chest as she checked the phone number. Not Nate. Of course not. She tried not to be disappointed. While Remy picked up a bomb-shaped stress ball from her desk, Sofia listened to the message. Static sounded in her ear, and she winced. Her mood didn’t improve as she heard the stuttering voice of her landlord, Ernie. It sounded like he got even worse reception than she did. Only a few words pierced the noise: “When are you coming…right away…” The hair on the back of her neck prickled. She called him back, but it went straight to his voice mail. “That was weird.” Remy missed the catch, and the stress ball rolled beneath the heavy metal desk against the wall. Her gaze sharpened. “Who was that?” “My landlord.” “Panty-smelling guy?” “I wish you wouldn’t call him that,” she muttered. “Oh come on, he accidentally takes your laundry out of the dryer, not noticing the lacy panties that don’t belong to him?” Yeah, that had been awkward. Sofia maintained that nothing inappropriate had happened—but she’d still thrown the entire load of laundry away when he’d returned it. “I think he wants me to come back to the apartment.” “Booty call,” Remy said. She made a face. “Don’t be like that. He’s never called me at work before. I hope everything’s okay.” “Right, I’m sure there’s a plumbing emergency.” Remy pitched her voice high. “Sofia, my faucet was so lonely without you. Won’t you unclog it for me?” Sofia chucked a pen in her friend’s direction. It bounced off a two-year-old calendar on the wall and clattered to the floor. The file transfer was only at eighty-two percent, so she’d have to wait another minute at least. Remy just laughed. “You’re the one living with him.” “I live above him, not with him. And I love my apartment. It has a sunroom, and I can afford the

rent. If he comes on to me…again…I’ll just shut him down.” “That’s sexual harassment.” Eighty-nine percent. “The only one sexually harassing me right now is you.” “Whatever, he’s a creep.” “He’s not a creep. He’s just…” What was he? He had this way of cringing with every word he spoke, as if he was afraid of a rebuke at any moment. His gaze tripped over every corner of the room, unable to meet hers. Okay, he was a creep. But a nice one, and Sofia wasn’t afraid of him. Maybe she felt a little bad for him. And she really liked her apartment. “I can deal with him,” she finished. Remy rolled her eyes and turned back to her monitor. Sofia didn’t blame her friend for her concern. Remy worked the crime beat, where she spoke to battered women and victimized runaways every day. She expected the worst from people. When they went out for girl’s night, Remy didn’t just keep an eye on their drinks, she guarded everyone’s, on the lookout for sneaky hands and dissolving pills. And God save the man who tried to take home a wasted girl on Remy’s watch. She was Austin’s own warrior princess. How long had it been since they’d gone out? Too long. They sat across from each other all day at work, then went home and worked some more. Not exactly glamorous, but it was hard to get excited about the club scene. Had she ever been? The frat boys who called her senorita as if it was so clever. Her black hair and tanned skin weren’t even rare. On Austin’s east side, every girl looked like her, but she didn’t belong there either. There she was a commodity, to be sold and traded. She tried to forget those times. A shiver ran down her spine, memories like a cold finger. She’d tried to hide her past from Nate, but he was smart. He’d figured out the gist when she’d flinched away from his touch. And then he’d been careful with her. An incredibly masculine man, powerful, rugged—and he’d touched her with absolute gentleness. Soothed her until she learned how to find pleasure in his arms, found release in his roughness. She wasn’t supposed to think about Nate. The folder blinked on her laptop screen. The file transfer was complete. She shut the laptop and tucked it into its bag. “Do you think we should go out more?” Remy stared at her blankly. “Out where?” “I don’t know. To have fun.” “You know what would be fun? Not poking a shady politician and risking your neck.” “Very funny.” Sofia stood and stretched. “You could come hang out at my place and look at these articles with me.” Remy’s gaze flicked toward their editor’s office. “Not tonight.” Curiosity tugged at her. “Is Andre giving you a hard time?” He was the quintessential newspaper editor, which meant he yelled a lot about deadlines and copyedits and budget cuts. But he was passionate about the truth. He was also one of the few people who knew about her suspicions of Moreland, besides Remy. Remy’s smile felt forced. “Nothing I can’t handle.” Sofia would let it go for now, but she made a mental note to take Remy out soon for drinks. Maybe getting hit on by rowdy drunk guys would do them both good. They could run a competition for

who got the cheesiest pickup line. She swung her laptop bag over her shoulder and headed to Andre’s door. He looked up from his computer, though his fingers continued typing for another beat. His chestnut hair was askew, shirtsleeves rolled up, eyes bloodshot—so, business as usual. “What’s up, Reyes?” “Is it okay if I cut out early? Something’s up with my apartment.” “No problem at all. Just stay late the next five nights and we’ll call it even.” “I wish you were joking.” “Me too,” he said, waving her away. “Now go see what sunlight looks like and report back tomorrow.” With a wry smile, she left the office. All editors were hard-asses. She figured that was part of the job description. But now that she thought about it, he had been on Remy’s case more than usual lately. Maybe there was something going on between them. Wouldn’t that be scandalous? Definitely girl’s night. She’d get answers then. The Daily’s offices took up the top floor of the old, three-story building. Escalators brought her to the ground floor, which was bustling at the height of the afternoon. The sunlight blinded her, burning her eyes. Her sunglasses were probably on her desk. She hesitated, debating whether to run upstairs and get them. The bus was already idling on the opposite street corner. At any minute, the driver would shut the door and pull away from the curb. Her apartment was only a twenty-minute walk, not much for the pedestrian-friendly city, but her laptop bag cut into her shoulder. She wanted that bus. Damn it. She dashed to the corner. A heavy stream of pedestrians filled the sidewalk, but she darted through, jogging the last few feet as the crosswalk sign flipped to the white hand. Through the large, reflective windows, she saw the bus driver reach for the door lever. Swearing under her breath, she raised her hand to grab his attention. Too late. The doors swung shut, and the bus started forward with a high-pitched whine. She stopped, watching the orange stripe along the bus streak across her vision and disappear. Damn. Adjusting the strap of her bag so it mashed her shoulder at another angle, she turned toward home, ready to walk. A large boom rocked the earth. She tripped from the shock, crashing against the white-hot pavement. For a moment, she lay there stunned. Had she been hit by a car? In degrees, her hearing returned, bringing with it the shouts and screams of people as bewildered as her. She levered herself up, lurching unsteadily as she looked back and found the source of the blast. The bottom right corner of the Daily’s building was gone, unveiling burnt metal servers that opaque windows and concrete cornices had once blocked from view. Melted metal and exposed rubble formed a grotesque sculpture. Andre. Remy. She ran toward the building, the laptop bag flapping painfully against her hip. Yanking it off her neck, she let it fall onto the sidewalk and kept running. People were fleeing from the building, a current too strong to fight through. From ten feet away, she stood, jostled by terrified survivors exiting the building and horrified to realize there was nothing she could do. There was a human wall blocking her entrance, and even if she could get past it, what then? The sounds of sirens in the air spurred her to action. Farther down, a side door opened, and a handful of shock-blind people tumbled out. She ran for it, yanking open the metal door.

Someone caught her arm and pulled her back. “You can’t go in there.” “My friends.” She struggled with him, tugging at her arm until he caught her up in a binding bear hug. He was a stranger to her. Barely human—just a flash of wide brown eyes and the white squiggly letters of a Keep Austin Weird shirt, but she melted against him for a second as he squeezed her tight. He was only trying to keep her safe. They were both helpless here, fallen leaves buffeted by the wind and snagged on each other for a moment’s consolation. She pushed back with a hoarse, angry cry. Anger toward the nameless, faceless people who’d done this, because she didn’t believe for a second that an explosion in Austin’s newspaper was an accident. Anger at herself for not being able to help. And anger at her terrible, selfish relief. I was almost inside. Almost. Two police cars screeched their way to a stop in front of the building. The cops began forcing everyone back, away from the building. Like an animal to slaughter, she bumped against the people around her but ultimately moved where directed. Everyone was talking—to their neighbor, to themselves—but it all filtered through the sludge that was her brain. She was trembling, inside and out, chilled in places she’d barely been aware of. Only a few seconds had passed, minutes maybe, but everything had changed. She was hypersensitive now, wincing from a slight breeze and stumbling over every crack in the sidewalk tiles. If she hadn’t gotten the phone call, if Andre hadn’t told her to go, she would be crushed beneath rubble, burning, dying… Oh God, her friends. It looked like the blast had happened in the data center —maybe a loose wire had triggered the explosion. Although she suspected something more sinister. She didn’t know the extent of the damage, couldn’t know how the structure of the old building would hold up. Andre might want her to take pictures. To pull out her camera, her laptop, anything, and start recording. Give the Daily the scoop on its own downfall. She couldn’t do that, not even for Andre, even though he deserved her loyalty, because one thought stayed with her: she could be dead right now. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that she might still be in danger. In this business, twenty-four years old was more than old enough to be jaded—and suspicious. There were a million reasons to explain why the Daily’s offices were just blown to bits, hundreds of high-profile stories, so many of her colleagues inside. It probably had nothing to do with her or her story, but it might. Don’t make assumptions. She still held out hope that her friends would be fine, that the firemen piling out of trucks would pull them from harm. Her stomach turned over. She couldn’t help them now, whether they were injured, in the capable hands of the doctors. This would be her promise to Andre, to fulfill her obligation to her story. Breaking free of the pack, she backtracked to where her messenger bag lay askew on the sidewalk. The laptop had slid out, exposed, but the blast must have distracted any would-be thief from picking it up and walking away with it. If she hung around until the cops sorted everything out, her electronics would be confiscated. She would be held and questioned. It would all take months to sort out, if ever, giving Moreland time to cover any tracks that were left. Wait, she didn’t know that Moreland was responsible for this. Another hunch, useless without evidence or corroboration. Slinging the bag over her shoulder, she slipped around the corner. She needed to regroup. To catch her breath. At the next corner, another bus lurched forward, preparing to enter the stream of traffic. She ran right in front of it, waving wildly at the driver, who frowned and jerked the bus to a halt. She pounded on the door. After a moment’s hesitation, the heavyset driver swung the lever.

“We’re not taking on any more passengers,” he said. “There’s been an incident.” An incident. That was one word for it. “Please. I just need to go a few blocks. I need to get home.” After a brief pause, he nodded. She hopped up the tall steps and fell into the first empty seat as the bus lurched forward. The seats were mostly empty. Only an older woman in one of the rows and a young man with spiky hair in the backseat. Neither seemed interested in her or upset at all. They probably didn’t even know about the explosion yet. Her entire axis had shifted, but these people had only heard thunder. She studied the colorful route lines on the placards above the seats. This wasn’t her usual route, so it was going to take her farther away before circling back near her apartment. Her hands trembled as she smoothed her black pencil skirt. Her white button-down shirt and patent pumps were a little more formal than what Remy or the other guys at the office wore, but Sofia had always had a thing about professionalism. Ambition, Nate had called it, and it hadn’t been a compliment. She’d missed him over the past few months, but right now it felt deeper, sharper, as if a scab had been ripped off, her old wounds open and raw. She could have been dead, never to see him again, never to hear his voice. Fumbling in the pockets of the bag, she pulled out her cell phone. His number was still there. She’d never brought herself to deleting it. The phone rang and rang. “Pick up,” she muttered. “Where are you, Nate?” She was sure she’d hit voice mail and even thought she heard the little click as it transferred, but then his voice came on the line, as rough and deep as it was in her dreams. “Sofia?” “Nate,” she breathed. Just hearing his voice warmed her, and she was so very cold. “Why are you calling?” Abrupt, maybe even annoyed. Even that couldn’t dispel the comfort she took from him. Though it did remind her that they hadn’t parted on good terms four months ago. Why was she calling? Because I almost died. Because you would have been my last thought. “I missed you,” she said. He made a rough sound. “You were the one who told me to take a hike.” She hadn’t meant it that way. They’d argued about his job, about hers. He’d wanted her to step back, stop taking everything so seriously, and she’d wanted him to start giving a damn. She’d wanted him to stop hiding. Except now he’d removed himself from her life, so far hidden she’d probably never see him again. She’d spent the last four months pretending it was for the best. “I shouldn’t have said what I did. I don’t…I don’t know what happened to you over there.” In Afghanistan or wherever other need-to-know places he’d been. “I can’t fix it, Nate. I thought I could, but I can’t.” She was stripped bare, the words tumbling forth before she’d had time to analyze them. They were an apology, a confession, and a plea all wrapped into one. Considering what had just happened, this wasn’t the most important thing to talk about. Then again, maybe it was. All the things she couldn’t say before. Last words to a man she’d loved. The man she still loved. There was a rustling sound, and she imagined him pushing aside papers on his desk, maybe running his fingers through his hair. “It was wrong of me to expect you to fix it,” he said. “I think I’m just too broken for a relationship. You deserve better, anyway.”

She almost laughed. Something caught in her throat, but she was afraid it was a sob instead. Well, what had she expected, calling him after something like that? It was like drunk dialing, only instead of liquor, she was hopped up on fear. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.” “Sofia?” His voice had a new edge. “Is something going on?” He would hear about the explosion on the news. Would he have worried about her? Yes. She knew that with certainty. They’d had their share of problems, but when he’d looked into her eyes, when he’d been buried deep inside her body and soul, she’d never doubted how much he cared. At least now that she’d called, he wouldn’t have to worry. “I just wanted to hear your voice,” she said. He was quiet, and when he spoke, his voice had gone husky. “I missed you too, Sofia.” Tears sprang to her eyes. She’d wasted the past few months, so anxious about the future that she’d lost the present. Now it was too late. She couldn’t involve him in this, whatever it was. He was Special Forces, whispered a traitorous voice in her mind. And a private investigator now. He had access to resources. Hell, he was a resource. But this was dangerous—obviously, considering what had just happened—and she couldn’t live with herself if she got him hurt. Besides, he’d made his disdain for her causes very clear. She was on her own. “I’ll see you around,” she forced out. “Take care.” “Wait. Sofia—” She hung up, shutting her eyes against the impulse to call him back, to tell him everything and beg for his help. He was probably cursing her at the other end. Ring and run, that was what she’d just done. Starting something she couldn’t finish. But she couldn’t regret it. It had been really nice to hear his voice. I’ve missed you too, Sofia, and the way he spoke her name reminded her of a hundred summer nights, his raw voice repeating it with every thrust, Sofia, Sofia, Sofia. They’d been wild and unstoppable then, with nothing covering their bodies but sweat and the scent of sex. He’d worshipped her, and she’d soaked up his feral passion, and everything had been wonderful and perfect until it wasn’t anymore. This bus route circled half of downtown before stopping a block from her apartment building. There was no sidewalk here, just a smooth black gravel street that faded into the grassy ditch on either side. She walked the uneven edge of the pavement, trying to formulate a plan in her head. A shower sounded tempting. The explosion hadn’t touched her, but she felt tainted—dirty. Hot, scalding water sounded like heaven right about now. She’d make it quick, then load up her laptop and check her usual sources for news about the explosion. See if some terrorist group had claimed the attack. It would almost be a relief if someone did, because then she would know. But if the attacker was still unknown, she could look for connections, see if anything led back to Moreland. And if it did? It would mean a solid lead for her story and the sickening confirmation that her friends’ injuries —maybe even their deaths—were on her hands. The houses in this neighborhood were small, three and four bedrooms crammed into a thousand square feet. She’d toured a few of them when they came up for rent, but they cost five times what she paid. Her apartment building only had three units. The bottom floor was occupied by Ernie, who’d inherited the building from his parents. She rented one of the top-floor units, and the other one had been empty since the bachelor had gotten married and bought a house in Round Rock. The whole thing felt surreal. The day was bright, warm with a slight breeze. A few houses down, a flag hanging by the front door waved in the wind. So goddamned normal, just like this

morning, right before the explosion. She stepped in the small foyer, which contained the main stairwell for the units. Ernie’s door was off to the right. So often it opened right as she started up the stairs, and she had to conclude that he watched for her out the window. But today it was already open, revealing the small table in his foyer piled high with mail. Then she remembered the phone call, the one that might have saved her life, even if that had been unintentional. For that reason alone, she should be nicer to Ernie, but she wasn’t sure she had the energy to deal with him after what had happened. Still, he’d called for some reason. Rapping on the door, she tilted her head to see inside. “Ernie? You there?” Her laptop was calling her name, those files that might somehow explain what had happened this morning. And when Ernie got on a roll, he could spend twenty minutes telling her about his day before she could extricate herself. Something kept her from going upstairs. A sense of urgency in his voice on the phone. The strangeness of his door being left open like this. Or maybe those were excuses and what she really needed was human contact, validation that she was really alive. As she nudged the door open and tentatively stepped inside, the irony assailed her. She and Remy had accused him of practically stalking her, but here she was entering his home uninvited. The reminder of Remy sent a fresh slice of pain through her belly. She peeked into the living room, recognizing the brown leather couches, the large-screen TV from the few times she’d been here before. “Ernie?” No sign of him. Damn. Well, she’d tried, and she wasn’t comfortable snooping any farther into his apartment. She turned to leave when something caught her eye. Through the kitchen door, she saw a shoe. An old Converse sneaker that she’d seen plenty of times on Ernie’s feet. Only this time, it was pointing up. Dread snaked down her spine. On lead feet, she crossed the small dining room. Ernie was lying on the kitchen floor, his eyes closed and a dark stain spread across his gray T-shirt. A small cry escaped her as she knelt to check his pulse. Nothing. She fumbled for her phone, about to dial 9-1-1 when she heard the creak. She stilled, frozen with horror. Then another one, this one directly above her. Someone was inside her apartment.

Chapter Three Nathaniel Gaines rubbed the two-day-old scruff he hadn’t realized he’d accumulated. This client e-mail was killing him. He’d never been one for diplomacy, but his filter seemed to be getting worse. Certainly, he couldn’t write what was in his head: I’m sorry your wife is cheating on you with her personal trainer. And hairstylist. I’m sorry you bust your ass at work while she shows the tits you bought her to other men. I’m sorry that, from what I can tell, you’re a coldhearted bastard, which is why she looks elsewhere for a little affection. And most of all, I’m sorry I picked the lamest job I could find and still use my godforsaken training, but it turns out that private detectives are really just the worst marriage counselors in the world. Maybe he should carry business cards for a divorce lawyer. Or maybe he should lie and keep them blissfully unaware, if he gave a damn about his clients. Luckily, he didn’t give a damn about much. Joining the military had hardened him. Leaving had turned him to fucking stone. Except when it came to Sofia. He couldn’t lie to himself about her. He really fucking cared about her. And that phone call. What was that about? As he’d so rudely pointed out, she’d been the one to break things off. Nah, that was bullshit. The truth was, she’d pushed him, wanting more, wanting things he could barely name, much less deliver, and he’d let her walk, because that’s what he did. The soldier, who put his work before his own fucking life. He had no business messing with Sofia; he couldn’t promise her the future she deserved, couldn’t even be honest with her about where he spent his nights. But she’d called and he was helpless to resist the pull. If she wanted to start things up again…hell, to hook up for just a night… he’d be at her front door with fucking bells on. Dishonorable, but the God’s honest truth. Of course, she hadn’t asked him out or propositioned him. I’ll see you around, she’d said. And her voice had been strange. He couldn’t put his finger on how she’d sounded. Nervous, maybe? Shaky. Scared. He didn’t like it. He liked the confident Sofia, the one who went down on him with a wicked smile, who called his bullshit when she thought he should care more. He’d only seen the scared Sofia a few times before, when he first touched her. When she thought he would hurt her. Fuck. The thought of swinging by to check on her wouldn’t let him go. He’d done a lot of stupid shit in his life; he really didn’t want to add stalking his ex to the list. Still, he could just drive by. He wouldn’t have to actually talk to her. Make sure she was okay, that no asshole other than him was hassling her. He’d heard the ding of the Austin Metro service in the background. Why was she on the bus at this time of day? The whole time they’d been together, she’d put in long hours at the paper, then come home and worked some more. At first it had been fine. A workaholic—convenient, because she didn’t question his crazy hours. As they’d grown closer, they’d made up for the long hours at work by staying up late together, sweating and panting and talking until the sky turned pale blue. But she kept wanting him to give a fuck, and he’d lost all his fucks in that godforsaken desert, so here they were. It wouldn’t be stalking. Okay, it would be, but he was officially a private detective, after all.

That was basically a professional stalker. His secret job, his real profession, wasn’t much better. He’d just see if she’d made it home okay. If they started talking and she invited him inside…hey, it could happen. Showing up emptyhanded might be awkward. Maybe he could pick up flowers on the way. Goddamn it. This was exactly what he was trying to avoid. This desperate yearning ache that always left him cold and disappointed and, once upon a time, laid up in the hospital with a blasted kneecap. Okay, so the last part wasn’t likely to happen with Sofia, but it illustrated the point. He’d once thought he was invincible, that if he believed and fought and cared enough that the world would bend to his will. All that had gotten him was twelve months of physical training before he could walk again and a Dear John discharge letter from the army. A soldier wasn’t much use with a bum knee. Thanks for your service, now get lost. He leaned back in his chair, running his hand through his hair. Damn, it was long. When had that happened? Shaggy and curling up at his shirt collar. He must look like a bastard. All the more reason Sofia would tell him to take a hike. But he was definitely going to see her. Before leaving the office, he loaded up his Sig. He didn’t usually carry it during his day job and never on a freaking date. There was really no good reason to now, except for that tremor in Sofia’s voice that he just couldn’t shake. Nate had known he wasn’t good company for a woman when he got back. He was too fucked up, both mind and body. But then he’d seen Sofia. One look at the determination in her gorgeous brown eyes and he’d been gone. Even seeing her skittish about his size, his touch hadn’t turned him away. From somewhere deep he’d found the strength to be gentle, to go slow with her. He had earned her trust. She deserved that much from him. Usually it was the guy who got weird about commitment, but in this case, she’d gotten nervous. Wondering whether they had a future, wondering if a guy like him even had a future. He didn’t blame her. No, he knew it was for the best when she walked away. Except now she had called him, sounding small, sounding scared. He would go to her and destroy anyone who had made her feel that way. He just wasn’t sure he could let her go a second time.

Chapter Four Ten years ago Sofia pressed her hand over her mouth, fighting the nausea that came only at night. For weeks the numbness had cocooned her, and she hadn’t known to be grateful. Little by little, the real world had poked holes in her paper walls. First a strange pang in her stomach she finally realized was hunger. Then the suffocating heat of her clothes, her blankets, the scalding showers. Pain came last. She longed for the numbness to return, but she couldn’t make it. Abuela was glad that she was eating again and leaving her room. But she didn’t know about the pain. One night Abuela had found her throwing up in the middle of the night, so Sofia had had to put up with more doctor exams. She wasn’t pregnant, thank God. Hadn’t picked up any diseases, either. She supposed she should be grateful, but she couldn’t be, not as she retched into a bowl, knowing she’d already vomited all of it for the night. The TV helped distract her, late-night shows that numbed her mind. Books where girls had evil twins and handsome teachers. Right now she had none of that, the lights off, a ceramic bowl clutched in her shaking hands. Scuffs and scratching noises from the door startled her. She held the bowl harder, until her knuckles hurt, listening. What if they had come back? They would eventually. Her stomach clenched. Of course they would. It would never be over. There was no place to hide in the house. They would find her bedroom easy. Break the flimsy lock. Abuela was a heavy sleeper, and anyway, she couldn’t protect her. She grabbed her quilt and scooted to the floor, in the two-foot space between the Goodwill couch and the wall. All she had was her bowl as a shield, eyes wide in the familiar room. The door swung open, throwing moonlight across the vinyl floor. A long shadow drew closer. No no no. Saying no didn’t help. Tears leaked out of her eyes. A stumble. Then a thump as the body landed on the couch where she had just been. “I know you’re there, hermanita.” Relief poured over her, cool water on a sunburn. Even though she hated Diego. Even though he sounded drunk, which could end with shouts and fists. “Go away.” An unsteady laugh. “Go fucking where?” Back to your friends. To red bandannas. “I don’t care.” “Yeah, I guess you don’t,” he said flatly. There was silence as they both sat in the dark, her tucked into the corner beside the couch, hands around her knees. She imagined him sprawled out the way Daddy used to look, head resting back, tired and angry. Drunk. His voice was quiet, barely loud enough to hear. “I fucked up.” It was enough to make her peer around the arm of the sofa. He wasn’t sprawled back. His head rested in his hands. It shouldn’t matter to her that he looked sad. She hated him. At least, she was supposed to hate him. Part of her did. “I know I fucked everything up,” he continued, low and hoarse. “I’m sorry, Sofia. So fucking sorry.” Emotions were like hot oil in a pan; even from far away they could spatter and burn. She ran

her hands over her shins, trying to brush it away. Failing. “Doesn’t matter.” Another laugh. “Nice try. You know how much Dad would kick my ass if he was alive?” “When he was drunk.” When he was drunk he’d hit anyone. Quiet. “Yeah. When he was drunk. I’d deserve it this time, though. Deserve a lot worse than that.” She didn’t really disagree. In moments of anger, she thought about maybe punching him. Kicking him. The way she couldn’t do when it was happening. Just as fast the anger would change, and she’d be huddled on the bathroom floor, eyes leaking, heaving into the toilet. She set the bowl down on the carpet and crept out from the corner. He didn’t move while she sat beside him, leaving a foot of space. “Should have protected you,” he mumbled. “Those fuckers…those hermanos…they’re not my family.” She didn’t have anything to say back. Or maybe she had too much to say. Hate, love. He was her brother. It was his gang who had violated her, with their cruel smiles and red bandannas. Yes, she hated him. Even if he was sorry now. But if she had to sit on the couch, awake in the middle of the night, it was better not to do it alone.

Chapter Five Instead of pulling into the extra carport like he used to, Nate parked down the street. A habit from his job. Stay out of sight. Blend in with the surroundings. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Like that white unmarked van beside the curb. It meant nothing. This was a pretty safe-pocket neighborhood despite its proximity to downtown. No reason to think anything was wrong. I just wanted to hear your voice. What if she was in trouble? No, it was just a stupid phone call. He told himself that even as he sped up, weaving through the wooded lawns so he’d be less visible on his approach. Man, he was going to feel like a chump if he showed up at her place only to find her in bed with some guy. He’d found so many of his clients’ wives that way, he almost expected it. But if there was even a chance she needed his help, if she were hurt… He couldn’t even consider that. His head pounded; his throat went dry. Skill only got a soldier so far. Beyond that, he’d learned to trust his instincts, and they were going haywire. A sunny day in a pleasant neighborhood, and everything was still, as if even the squirrels and the birds were in hiding, the whole street holding its breath. He paused behind a large oak, scanning the entrance and windows. A shadow moved behind the blinds in the bedroom. His mind could easily picture her gorgeous body, skin always bronze, dripping wet after a shower. Or had that shadow been someone else? Her patio and the one beneath it were identical, but unlike the bottom one, the vertical blinds to her patio were open, as usual. He’d always given her a hard time about that, how she’d give the neighbors a show if she padded to the kitchen for a drink of water in the middle of the night. There were no neighbors now, only him. And the person walking across her living room wasn’t wearing an oversize longhorn T-shirt. He was dressed in all black, with a matching ski mask. Nate knew what fear felt like. He’d belly crawled through the bug-infested jungle, watching bullets plunge into the mud beside his head. He’d been tied up and beaten in a shit-brick hut. As they brought a bat down on his knee, he’d thought I’m going to die here and he had come to terms with that. It was what a soldier did; he felt fear and pushed through it. None of those experiences prepared him for the sight of an armed intruder in Sofia’s apartment. His brain went fuzzy red with rage for a split second, his whole being consumed with the need to attack. Right the fuck now. He didn’t care for himself. They could fill him full of lead, and through the pure force of his fury, he’d live long enough to strangle them personally. But Sofia would be up there. She could get taken hostage or caught in the cross fire. He couldn’t risk it. If they were at all smart, they were keeping a watch on the main entrance to the building and on Sofia’s door. Maybe it was dead bolted, and he couldn’t shoot through that without risking shooting her. Neither could he pick the lock without getting himself shot through the door. The best entrance was a surprise attack through the patio. Beside the stacked patios, yellow hydrangeas trailed up the sides. He’d climb the trellis that started from the bottom and hope it held his weight. At the base of the trellis he paused, hearing a faint sound from inside. He cocked his head. A

muted scream of pain followed. Female. Sofia. And it was coming from the first floor. There was no time to analyze why the hell she was downstairs instead of up. Judging from the distance of the scream, she was farther inside the lower apartment, not near the patio door. He shot through the patio door, aiming toward the ground, and then kicked in the rest of the glass. Pushing through the blinds, he took in the scene. Sofia was on the ground, holding the side of her face. Another man lay beside her, wounded or dead. A man dressed in black stood over her, armed. A single tap to the head and the armed man went down. Sofia shrieked, but his attention was diverted when another asshole thundered down the stairs. Retrieving the knife from his boot, Nate ducked behind the divider wall and waited. The man rushed into the kitchen, and Nate grabbed him by the neck, sticking him in the back. The liver, he judged based on the height. A fatal blow. The man choked on his own vomit, and Nate let him slide to the floor, turning him over and straddling his neck. “Who sent you?” he demanded. The man’s eyes were already rolling back in his head. Damn. He hadn’t meant to kill this one, at least not so soon. Not when he still needed information. He shook the man, and the bastard’s eyes slowly focused on him. “That’s right. Who sent you?” “Fuck you,” he spat. “Come on, I’m trying to help you here. We can do this easy or hard. Easy means I end this quickly. Hard means I let you bleed out. That pain you’re feeling now? It only gets worse. Now tell me who sent you.” “I don’t know anything, I swear. They don’t tell us anything.” Far too late, panic entered his eyes, but Nate hadn’t been lying about the pain. He’d seen enough men die this way—too many men. Nate cocked his head. The soft sound of booted footfalls came from upstairs. A third intruder. He looked at the man beneath him with pity. “Wrong answer.” A smooth cut sliced open his throat and put him out of his misery. Despite Nate’s threat to make him suffer, he’d never been comfortable with animal abuse. During the scuffle, Sofia had crawled into the corner. Now she huddled against the refrigerator, her cheek already swelling. Goddamn it. That son of a bitch had hit her. Now he wanted to kill the fucker all over again. The fear in her eyes wrenched his gut, but he couldn’t focus on that now. He handed her his Sig. “Anyone comes in here that isn’t me, shoot ’em.” She stared at the weapon, nostrils flared. Finally, she took it with a tight nod. Good girl. Not sparing another second, he cleared each room in the downstairs apartment and then made his way upstairs. He only had his knife now, but on a good day, he was more lethal this way. And this would be a good day. Blood pumped fast and hot through his veins, imbuing him with speed and strength. Rage tightened his vision. They came after his girl? The last thing they’d see was his face, bidding them good night. Simple as motherfucking pie. The third man was searching her closet. He didn’t even detect Nate’s approach until the knife was resting against his jugular. Nate used his free hand to lock the man’s elbow behind his back. “Your friends are dead,” Nate murmured against the man’s ear. The acidic stench of urine suffused the air as the man wet himself. Nate chuckled softly. “Tell me what you know, and I might let you live.” “I can’t… I don’t… Please, I don’t…”

The man babbled incoherently. Nate let the knife cut into his skin, just a nick. “Now, now,” Nate said. “This is important. I need you to focus. You can do that for me, right?” “I don’t know anything. They just paid us to bring them the laptop.” “And?” Nate twisted the man’s elbow. “And the girl,” he gasped out. “Leave her body. Take a picture.” A picture for proof of death. His girl, dead. Rage blackened his vision. Nate forced himself to calm. “Tell me about the man who paid you. Who is he?” “I swear I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Disgusted, Nate shook his head. Dark impulses tugged at him. He could make this man talk. Nothing was more persuasive than pain, and Nate knew how to apply it. But Sofia was waiting for him downstairs. Lovely, pure Sofia who shouldn’t be anywhere near this. With a clinical blow to the man’s temple, he knocked him out. Dragging the bulky man downstairs, he felt the first twinges in his knee. The pain couldn’t touch him now, flying high on adrenaline, but if he pushed too hard, the joint was liable to give out. He forced himself to slow down as he returned to the kitchen and tossed his charge into a kitchen chair. Sofia was waiting where he’d left her, her back against a corner, clutching the gun. He hated that she saw him as a killer now, the way he saw himself, but he couldn’t focus on that now. The bruise on her cheek had swelled, making his blood burn hot. Her bright, fear-stained eyes watched the man’s head loll back in the chair. Nate crouched over the man who’d been on the floor since the beginning, blood staining his shirt. He vaguely recognized him as her landlord—what was his name, Ernie? He was always sniffing around Sofia’s skirts. He touched his fingers to Ernie’s pulse: dead and cooling. Well, he wouldn’t need his belt then. Nate removed it quickly and twined it through the back of the chair, binding his unconscious captive’s hands behind his back. He stuck the top of the chair underneath the lip of the counter for good measure. The intruder probably wouldn’t wake up for hours, but if he did, he’d be trapped. When he turned back, Sofia held out a circle of duct tape. For reasons unknown, speech was beyond him at the moment. He raised an eyebrow. “For…” She bit her lip. “For a blindfold. If you wanted.” Jesus. Her eyes were wide as saucers as he took it from her and tied it around the man’s head. This had to be freaking her out, but she kept up just fine. But that was Sofia, capable and so damn gorgeous she made his heart squeeze painfully. He had the trained ability to shut off his emotions and become this violent machine. She didn’t have that—just an innate sense of right and wrong and a courage that continually stunned him. Even after what she had been through, she wanted to fight for other people. He bound the man’s ankles to the legs of the chair for good measure. The homemade binds would keep the man contained until police arrived. He stepped back and surveyed the man. Black Tshirt, black cargo pants. No identification. He may not have been the highest quality, but there was no doubt he’d spoken the truth—he was a paid mercenary. In Sofia’s closet, a paid mercenary. Using the kitchen phone, he placed a call directly to his buddy on the Austin police force. The man had been Special Forces before Nate’s time, but the respect was mutual. They’d had an off-therecords understanding, with Jed providing information when Nate needed it and Nate following up on leads when Jed’s hands were tied up with red tape. “This is Lieutenant Commander Patterson.” The answer was clipped.

“Jed. It’s Nate.” “Nate.” His voice sharpened, detecting the thinly veiled violence in Nate’s voice. “What’s wrong?” “I need some uniforms over here.” He rattled off the address. “A few men down. Another one’s my gift to you. They broke into Sofia’s place. Assaulted her. Killed her landlord.” “Shit.” There was rustling. “I’ll put in the call, but it may be a while.” Seriously? “I’ve got a prisoner in fucking leather bondage and duct tape. Not to mention a few cooling bodies. Let’s make this sooner rather than later.” “I hear you, but we’re drowning. Code fucking red. Haven’t you heard?” “Tell me.” Nate’s blood ran cold as he listened. An explosion at the Austin Daily, where Sofia worked. He stared into her fathomless dark brown eyes across the few feet of kitchen tile that separated them while Jed told him all about the blast that could have killed her. That darkening bruise on her cheek was nothing compared to what a bomb could do to her. He had no idea what had happened to make her a target, but he was going to keep her safe. He didn’t take his eyes off hers when he spoke. “Jed? I’m leaving the prisoner for you, but when your guys get here, we’ll be gone.” “You need to remain there. Someone will need to take your statement—” “This is my statement, Jed. These fuckers were in her apartment. Her motherfucking closet. And now you tell me they bombed her work? I’m not letting her stick around to give them a third shot at her.” The line was quiet a moment; then Jed said, “Yeah. Okay.” And yeah, okay because Jed knew who Sofia was to him. Which meant he also knew that Nate wasn’t going to let a damn thing happen to her. An explosion at her work and three mercenaries in her home? Jesus. He hung up the phone. On impulse, he strode over and pulled her into his arms. He was dirty and she was clean, but he couldn’t resist holding her tight, breathing in her hair and feeling her pulse beat beneath soft skin. Her breath came in rapid puffs against his shirtfront. Alive. She was alive. And yeah, he was trembling; he could own that, because if he hadn’t been here, if he’d never seen her again, he’d have lost it. So much for pretending he didn’t give a damn. Every cell in his body was attuned to her—her safety, her fear. His concern for her was all-encompassing, leaving him…exactly where he’d always avoided. Open. Vulnerable. She turned her face up, her gaze searching his. He had no idea what she saw there, but it made her cup her palm against his jaw. It was clenched tight, but at her touch, he loosened a fraction, at the proof that she wasn’t afraid of him after what she’d seen him do. “Is this why you wouldn’t tell me?” she whispered. Towards the end, she’d tried to get him to tell her about his time in the army. Things that he was careful to avoid speaking about, even thinking about, things that only surfaced occasionally in his dreams. He had refused, of course. The reason why they sent trained killers out into the world was so people like her could be safe and ignorant in their beds. She might have thought she wanted to know, but he wouldn’t wish that knowledge on anyone. It was the same reason he’d never told her about his moonlighting gig—the black ops work he still did on the side. Even though the omission had meant he’d never be truly open with her, had

maybe caused the rift between them that made her walk. Yes, this was a glimpse of what it had been like, skimming the surface of death and darkness and the despair that he really was a coldhearted bastard. He turned her question around. “Why didn’t you tell me about the explosion?” She flinched. The irony didn’t escape him that he expected her to confide in him while he kept his past locked up. But that was ancient history and this was her life at stake. Nothing was more important than that. “It doesn’t feel real.” Her brow lowered in confusion. “I was right outside. I watched it happen, but it doesn’t seem real.” He understood that. The first time he’d watched three of his buddies blown to bits in an IED explosion, he’d kept expecting to see them in their bunks. When they’d assigned other soldiers to their beds, Nate had started a cafeteria brawl with one of them, as if he could punch the truth of the matter right out of him. Didn’t work though. It sucked to care. Sucked a lot, and Sofia cared more than anyone he knew. He couldn’t find the words to tell her it got easier, couldn’t lie to her when she seemed so small and fragile in his arms. After the fight, his commanding officer had looked at him with knowing eyes, when Nate hadn’t even understood why he was so pissed off. As punishment, he’d been assigned to scrub the decks for a week, but the labor had been exactly what he’d needed to get his head on straight. Something to keep busy and be useful. That was all he could offer Sofia. “Go pack a bag,” he said. She blinked slowly. “Why?” “We’re getting out of here, at least for tonight. Until I can figure out what the hell’s going on and how to keep you safe.” He braced himself for her objections. She would want to talk to the police, give a statement. Have them protect her instead of her bastard ex-boyfriend. But the argument never came. She simply went upstairs to do as he asked. He followed her, humbled by her blind trust in him and unwilling to let her out of his sight. She packed quickly, bringing only a backpack with clothes and toiletries and a messenger bag. “Your laptop in there?” he asked, nodding toward the bag. She glanced down. “Yeah, why?” Because she’d almost been killed for it. “Do you always bring it with you to work?” “Sometimes. I’ve got a desktop there, but I wanted to bring some files home. The images can get pretty huge, so it’s fastest to download them directly to my laptop.” “Well, that’s what the men were after.” That and a snapshot of a hole in her head, but he didn’t think that part needed elaboration at the moment. She frowned, lifting the flap to peek at her laptop. “I don’t know what would be valuable. A bunch of newspaper clippings that are publicly available.” “Hmm. We’ll look through it when you’re safe.” He kept her behind him down the stairs and across the lawns to his car. Most likely those men were it. Three would have seemed like plenty to kill an unarmed young woman. But he wasn’t taking any chances. He gestured her into the driver’s seat. She raised her eyebrows in surprise but threw her bags into the passenger seat and sat behind the wheel without complaint. It warmed him that she seemed to trust him still, even after seeing what

he was capable of. Then again, she’d never balked at following his orders—at least in one area of their relationship. He handed her the keys and watched while she turned on the ignition. “I’m going to scope out the van I think they came in. Most likely no one’s in there or they would have bolted when the shooting started, but just in case, I want you to stay here with the engine running. If anyone approaches the car that’s not me—” “Run them over?” He felt a grin tug at his lips. “I was going to say hightail it out of here, but that works too.”

Chapter Six Sofia tried not to stare at him. He hadn’t told her what he’d seen in the van, but it wasn’t good. He’d radiated tension when he got back to the car and ordered her into the passenger seat. Now his attention was on the road as they crossed a single-lane suspension bridge. The rich hues of ink spilled from beneath his sleeves, the worn fabric of his shirt clinging to packed muscle. The light brown hair on his face had grown longer than she was used to, and she knew that it would leave marks on her private places if they had still been together. He didn’t turn as he spoke. “Give me your phone.” Part of her wanted to refuse him, but clearly he knew what he was doing and she was out of her depth. Besides, he was pretty attractive when he got all commanding. Comforting too. After the terror of the explosion and then the intruders in her house, it felt damn good to have him there. When she handed over her iPhone, he popped out the SIM card, rolled down the window of his Trans Am, and tossed it over the side of the bridge. So they couldn’t be tracked. She wasn’t trained the way he was, but she’d paid enough attention as a reporter and watched enough action flicks to follow what he was doing. He handed back the phone, and she slipped it into her bag, though it was just a fancy hunk of silicone now. She wondered if she could still get at her contact list. That was the only thing of importance here anyway. Everything else was on the Daily’s servers—or on her laptop. The laptop she’d almost died for. She shuddered, forcing her thoughts away. The events at the Daily and at her apartment were still unreal, and she preferred them that way. Reality was horrifying. This quiet bubble with Nate— this was where she wanted to stay. All of her was cold, the chill settled deep in her bones and icing all around her, so that she watched the world through a cracked-crystal lens. The distance was a good thing. A safe thing. Like watching the blades of a lazy ceiling fan turn, tucked beneath heavy blankets. She couldn’t afford to break down right now. That would be for later, when Nate wasn’t so close, so…intense. He had barely spared her a glance, but she got the impression that he was finely attuned to his surroundings, including her. He was handling this situation with a capability she’d never doubted but hadn’t seen firsthand. It was her problem, and he was fixing it. She wouldn’t make this harder by sobbing in his car. His hair was longer now, the ends glowing orange in the waning daylight. She wanted to touch it, to run her fingers through it. To see if he’d let her lead his body with a fistful of it the way he’d once done with her hair. Probably not, though. He didn’t submit, and damn if she didn’t like him that way. Not to mention the fact that his stubbornness had probably saved her life today. “How’d you know to come see me?” she asked softly. He slanted her a wry glance. “You know why I came.” And maybe she did know. She’d dithered on the phone, too afraid to ask for comfort from the man she’d kicked to the curb. But he had understood the implicit invitation, the barely banked need for reassurance after seeing the explosion. Of course, instead of a hot shower and hotter sex, he’d shown up at her door, guns blazing. Her hero, even though he hated that word. The trees grew denser, the lanes more narrow as the old car wound higher into north Austin. Not toward downtown, where first response teams would be dealing with the aftermath. Not toward

his small office in a historic south Austin house and his apartment upstairs. “Where are we going?” she finally asked. “A friend’s house.” She pondered that a minute. His tone didn’t exactly invite conversation, but although she was willing to be a passenger in this, she needed to understand what was happening. It was part of her innate curiosity, something Nate enjoyed in certain, more carnal pursuits, but which had ultimately been their downfall. She was always asking questions, always grasping, always reaching up the goddamn ladder, when he had chained himself to the bottom rung in some sort of protest against the world. “I thought we’d go to your place.” He shook his head. “The phone call. You called me after the blast. Even if they didn’t know about our…past relationship, they could pull the phone records and find out about me.” “And your house,” she finished quietly. “Oh, Nate. I’m so sorry. I really didn’t think—” He snorted. “You are not going to apologize for getting attacked by hit men. Of course you didn’t plan for that. No one would have.” Well, maybe not most people, but he seemed pretty well prepared for all contingencies. That was different, though. He was different. She was sure it had never even occurred to him not to help. Risk his life to protect her. Drop everything he had going on to keep her safe. Anything she needed, of course, of course. No wonder she’d fallen for him so hard. It was only real life that had gotten in the way. The old engine struggled up the steep hills until finally he turned off onto a small, dark road. A little way down, the headlights illuminated a one-story house, but she wasn’t fooled by its height. This was a luxury neighborhood, where even a shack would sell for half a mil. He cut the engine. “Your friend lives here?” His laugh was soft but rich in the darkness. “Don’t think I know any rich people? I know plenty of them. They pay me to spy on their wives.” “You did not bring me to a client’s house.” She hoped not. He got out, pulling her bags out from his side. “Nah, an old army buddy. Who’s done real well, obviously. I’m just keeping an eye on the house until tomorrow.” She followed him to the two wide front doors, metal with rivets spread across them for industrial decoration. He unlocked the door, then disabled an alarm system interface that looked more advanced than her laptop. Inside, the living area was a huge open plan. Sleek modern furniture was slung across a smooth, dark wood floor. The house was thin, probably conforming to the steep, rocky land it sat on. The back wall was almost entirely glass, showing off the view—miles of hilly treetops sprinkled with the occasional light from another expensive home. “Wow,” she breathed. Really well had been an understatement. “Right?” He fiddled with the thermostat, and the AC kicked in with a soft whoosh. “That’s what a little private security work can get you.” Private security, sure, but she bet this guy had contracts with the government. Black ops. “You could probably work for your friend,” she said. Heck, he’d been given the keys to the guy’s house—literally. That showed trust. He gave a short laugh. “I don’t need that kind of headache.” Of course, because he didn’t want to protect her. Didn’t want to protect anyone. What he really meant

was that she was the headache. And he didn’t need her. He’d proven that much when he’d let her walk away.

Chapter Seven A flat-screen TV stretched over the southern wall. Stung from Nate’s words, she wandered across thick planks of glossy dark wood and found the remote. I don’t need that kind of headache. “At least thirty people have been reported injured as a result of the blast that shook the Daily newspaper offices this morning, two in critical condition. There are no reported fatalities at this time.” Sofia watched the solemn expression and emphatic gestures of the newscaster. Laura Meade. She’d met her once at a media awards dinner a year ago. Her impression had been large hair and deep red lipstick, though they looked almost ordinary on the TV screen. She’d known early on that TV wasn’t right for her. Her shaky hands now seemed to confirm it. She could write about dark things from the safety of her desk, but she couldn’t be in the action with perfect nails and a tight smile. Except now the sanctity of the office had been violated. Warm hands closed around her shoulders, and she jumped. Nate squeezed gently, then ran his hands down her arms. She was shocked to feel the heat of him, shocked to realize how cold she’d gotten. He sat down and pulled her into his lap without a word. Are you okay? Everything will be fine. He didn’t give her false platitudes. He’d been in a freaking war zone. He knew she wasn’t okay. He knew everything might not be fine. Who was in critical condition? “I want to call Remy.” Even without seeing him, she knew the slight motion. No. But she needed to know what was happening. “I won’t tell her where I am.” “They came after you,” he said roughly. “I could have lost you today. Don’t tell me I have to risk you again. Not now. I won’t fucking do it.” And she realized she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t okay. She turned in his arms, looking up at him. Her forehead touched his, their breaths mingled. He gripped her sides so tightly she thought there’d be bruises, and that was fine. Bruises meant pain. Pain meant life. I could have lost you today. She could have lost him too. “Nate,” she murmured. He made a wordless sound, a denial. “I know you don’t want this, but I have to—” His words cut off abruptly, as if he couldn’t help himself. Warm lips. Searing tongue. His kiss came quick and forced, pushing her mouth open, claiming what she’d taken away. Just as suddenly, he shoved her back, pushing her onto the sofa. She panted, staring into the dark turmoil of his eyes. The TV filled the space between them. “The Austin Police Department have issued a statement confirming the pinpoint of the blast as the data center of the newspaper. No terrorist organizations have taken responsibility for the attacks.” “No one’s going to,” she whispered quietly. Nate’s expression hardened. “You know who did it.” “Not for sure.” “Someone came after your laptop after destroying the Daily’s data center. They’re after information that you have. They’re after you.”

She shivered. “I’m working on a big story.” “Of course you are,” he said flatly, running a hand through his unruly hair. This had been the argument between them, how she had cared so much. How he had cared so little. At least, he pretended not to. She could have lived with that, but she couldn’t have lived with him keeping her locked up like some fragile bird. She had already been locked up once. She wouldn’t go back, for anyone. Not even him. “And you won’t stop.” It wasn’t a question. She swallowed hard. “This is everything to me.” “Jesus, Sofia.” Walls came down over his brown eyes, his expressive lips, the long scruff on his face. He was closing off to her again, and it was her fault. She couldn’t pretend otherwise. They were at an impasse, again. They’d been here before. If she didn’t have this drive to find justice… If he didn’t care so damn much about her getting hurt… “Thank you,” she whispered. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t fucking start.” “Why not? You saved my life.” Tears filled her eyes. He made a low growling sound. “Fuck no. We’re not doing this. I’m not some godforsaken hero. And you’re sure as hell not helpless.” She struggled to hold back the tears, her lower lip trembling. “I know that. But those men. It was too much like— I thought—” He stood up and swung away from her, his muscles rigid, vibrating. “If your brother weren’t dead, I’d fucking kill him again. He wasn’t a fucking hero. And neither am I.” Her brother had died protecting her. She didn’t want Nate to die. This was how they’d broken up before, Sofia wanting Nate to care, to believe in something. Nate wanting her to quit the paper, quit fighting. Quit caring like him. She stood up stiffly, feeling broken all over again. The scrapes from falling on concrete, the bruises he’d left on her hips. Nothing hurt as deeply as seeing the regret on his face that he’d kissed her, held her. “You don’t have to watch out for me,” she said. “Yes, I do,” he said grimly, and it sounded more like a threat than a kindness. Guilt churned her stomach. “I’m really sorry.” “We’re not back to that, are we?” He stood up and turned away from her. “Someone can damn well apologize for using up three of my bullets, but that someone isn’t you. Now come over here. Let’s take a look at your laptop and see what’s so valuable.” Swallowing past her hurt, she turned off the TV and followed him to the kitchen—an open space without break from the living room. He spun a simple oak chair around and straddled it, casual. Maybe even professional. Nothing like that urgent kiss. That wouldn’t happen again. She had to remember that this was only temporary. Very temporary if his friend was coming back tomorrow. They’d figure out a game plan, and then she’d be on her own again. Alone again. She pulled out her laptop and set it up on the thick oak table. He watched while she booted up and typed in her password. The desktop appeared, with the background picture of a long, winding stream wedged between two vertical rock faces. It was a pretty panorama of the Shoal Creek park, no people in the picture, but suddenly she remembered exactly what they’d done on the day they’d taken

the picture, and from the heated look on his face, he did too. It was a public park but lush with trees and rock formations. Not very populated either. They had splashed in a shallow bend, him in shorts only and her in a bikini, slipping over the rocky bottom until he’d decided to see whether the current could be used to good advantage. He’d spread her folds with slick fingers, letting the water rush across her clit. She’d come hard, her shouts echoing off the rock faces. That had been fun and games, though. Not like now. Now she watched the scruffy line of his neck as he swallowed. Her gaze slipped down his arms, his waist, admiring the angles that made up his body. When naked, he was all straight shadows and swooping lines, as if he were charcoal-drawn right in front of her and filled in with breath. He didn’t think he was a hero, didn’t even like the word, but God, his patriotism, his passion was written on every inch of his skin. The stars and stripes on the side of his torso, the eagle on his biceps. The Army Ranger shield on his back with intricate scrollwork, the names of his fallen team members scripted amid the scars on his body. He should have seemed bulky, his large frame on the almost dainty chair, but he moved with grace, even when his knee was bothering him. It was bothering him now. His thumb was absently running over the fabric of his jeans. The events of this afternoon must have aggravated his injury. She wanted to ask him to elevate his leg, to take off those constricting jeans and have her massage away the swelling, but he wouldn’t agree to any of that. He liked to pretend that nothing could hurt him, that nothing could touch him. No man was an island, but he’d built a pretty impressive moat. She met his eyes and found he’d been watching her. He’d seen her check him out and the desire in her eyes. His voice had gone hoarse when he said, “Show me where you keep your work files.” “It’s all in here. It’s organized by the topic here and then split into research, photos, and the actual articles within.” She flipped through a few of her more recent articles to illustrate, then turned the laptop sideways so he could take over. “How do you back this up?” “I don’t, really.” She stood and rummaged through the freezer, pulling out a bag of frozen peas. “I know that’s not good, but I use the Daily as my backup. If my laptop crashed, all the important stuff would still be on their servers.” “But if the servers at the Daily were to become…unavailable, this would be the only copy left?” She frowned, tearing off a few paper towels. “Well, maybe. But only certain files. Other reporters would keep their stuff on their computers.” “So this has to do with one of your stories. And in your gut, you already know which one. Tell me.” Damn. She did have a few open projects, as usual. The exposé on the city park permit forgery was getting dicey. But her gut had lasered in on the Moreland case pretty much as soon as she’d seen the smoke rising. That was the only story big enough to warrant this magnitude of violence, though it still shocked her. She’d stepped on a land mine, and her friends had suffered the blast. While intellectually she understood that she wasn’t responsible for the actions of criminals, regret tasted bitter in her mouth. “Senator Moreland. I think he’s dirty.” “Dirty how?” “Drugs. Human trafficking. Really bad stuff.”

He whistled. “The guy who’s running for president? That Moreland?” She returned to her seat, pressing the paper-towel-wrapped bag of frozen peas against his knee. He looked up in surprise, the look in his eyes unfathomable. They were inches apart; she lowered her voice. “That one.” He gently took the bag from her. “How long have you been investigating into him?” She opened her mouth to answer just as he pressed the makeshift ice pack to her face. She winced at the soft pressure, the soft rebuff of her care. He wouldn’t let her take care of him now. She’d lost that right when she’d lost him. “Only a couple of months,” she answered, her voice coming out husky. “I thought I’d been careful, framing every interview from the campaign finance angle so no one knew I suspected more. Not careful enough, though.” He turned back to the laptop, leaving the bag in her hands. Fingers flying over the keyboard, he quickly found the right folder and began reading the contents of her latest research notes. Page down, page down, fast even if he was only scanning, and she knew he was soaking up the information. She’d seen him do it before with his own private investigator work, glance at a report and pick out the pertinent information when she would need to pore over it, to sort and weigh all the parts in her mind before coming to the same conclusions. Even though she knew it to be false, she still occasionally fell prey to the don’t-give-a-fuck exterior he portrayed. It was in moments like this, when he was too engrossed in his work, that he forgot to cover his tracks. Moments like in her apartment, fighting with the ferocity of an avenging angel, that she could see him as he really was. He closed her research notes and clicked over to the photos. The most recent ones were the articles the intern had scanned for her. They flashed on the screen, unreadable at the smaller size, some diagonal and a few upside down. If there was anything special, it would take some time to figure it out. More than a night. The newspaper clippings gave way to documents. “Those are all public records,” she said. “Anyone could have ordered them.” “But no one else did, I’m betting. Only you.” And look what it had done. She turned her face away as he clicked through the rest of them. How many people had been harmed in that blast? And Ernie. She would have to live with that. “Why are these files so big?” She glanced back, where he was looking at the file list of photos. “I have no idea. A lot of times the images we use for the paper are big. I wouldn’t even pay attention, but they take a long time to download.” “Yeah, if there are photographs going into print, they’re probably high resolution. But these are just scanned newspaper images. Grainy too. Though even if they were high resolution, it wouldn’t explain these numbers. A whole application would be this size. Or a lot of data.” She sometimes forgot, too, that he’d had pretty advanced training as a member of the army’s Special Forces. The physical training was at the forefront of her mind—how could it not be with that hard body? And more recently, his precision handling with weapons, his gun, his knife. The duct tape wasn’t exactly professional combat equipment, as far as she knew, but he’d seemed pretty comfortable restraining a prisoner as well. He also knew his way around technology. More than her, that was for certain. “Is there a way to see what the data is?” she asked. He opened a console window and typed. Text and symbols flashed on the screen. “Nah. It’s all

just bytecode, not readable text. I know a guy who might be able to figure out what’s in here though. I can send these files over to him. The network here is secure, and we can trust him.” It seemed to be a question, so she nodded. He knew a lot of guys. The house, the tech stuff. He was a walking problem-solving shop, and he wanted to pretend he was just some shoot-the-shit slacker? She could have laughed, it was so ludicrous. Instead she kissed his cheek. The bristle was long enough to tickle her lips instead of abrade them. His breath caught. “It’s getting late. You can hit the sack while I send this off.” She swallowed her disappointment. He still wanted her; she knew that. But he was pushing her away. “Think it’ll be okay if I grab a shower?” “Sure.” He nodded to the right. “The bedroom’s that way.” “Okay.” She was curious about the sleeping arrangements, whether there were multiple guest rooms or if they’d use the same one. But it seemed likely she’d get rebuffed at the moment, with him typing furiously and already focused on the task at hand. Grabbing her backpack from the floor by the entrance, she headed down the hall. And was shocked to find there was only one bedroom here. A very large master bedroom with an almost equally large bathroom. Prompted by her damned curiosity, she poked her head into the main area. “Is there another bedroom on the other side of the house?” He didn’t look up from his work. “It’s set up as an office.” “So, wait a minute. This house, which probably cost more money than I’ll ever make, has only one bedroom.” He grinned as he glanced up. “Hey, don’t look at me that way. I didn’t buy it.” I don’t need that kind of headache. No, he wasn’t interested in black ops or high-paying secret jobs. He wasn’t interested in her. She had to remember that. And maybe it was for the best, because a job like that would be dangerous. Those moments in her apartment proved that much.

Chapter Eight The shower was big enough to fit five people, with two showerheads and a line of smaller nozzles down each side. It was distracting actually; she was used to the small, rather forceful spray that came out of her little nozzle at home. Eventually, the warm water worked its magic, loosening her muscles and turning the blood pumping through her veins to sludge. She wished Nate would join her. He wouldn’t. Not in the shower, not in bed. Despite the one-bedroom situation, she was sure he’d attempt to wedge his long body onto the small square-edged leather couch in the main area. He may have shown up ready to defend her, but he didn’t want her again. Leave it alone, Sofia. Except the curiosity had caught hold of her. That little hitch in his breath when she’d kissed his cheek. She remembered that same sound from before—when she kissed his mouth, when she kissed his chest, when she kissed the tip of his cock. It meant he was hard and ready and wanting, so why did he push her away? For the same reasons they’d separated, most likely. The damned real world again, intruding. This wasn’t the real world, this luxurious friend’s house with its granite sinks and oak rafters. She didn’t even feel real, just wispy and half-formed, like she could rinse away down the drain if she didn’t hold it together. She recognized the signs of shock in herself. Her chest felt tight, her muscles aching, everywhere. She needed sleep, but she was way too wired. If she lay down, she’d only replay the horrible scenes she’d been trying to block out. The spray of dust when she’d turned her face toward the explosion. The crack of the intruder’s fist against her face. The splatter of blood against the cabinets as he’d fallen. No. She wanted to feel alive, proof that this wasn’t some sort of waking dream, walking around after she was dead without even knowing it. She wanted to feel her breath, her body, instead of just floating above them. She wanted Nate. Stepping out of the shower, she gave herself a cursory pat down, knowing he appreciated the shine of her wet skin. He liked to lick each droplet of water from her, working his way down and then teasing her that she kept getting more wet, not less. He was sitting where she’d left him, at the kitchen table in the large open space. He rubbed his palm over his jaw in that way of his, the one that said he was stressed and tired and needed release she was ready to provide. They both needed this. She crossed the wood floor. It was chilly beneath her feet, the cold shooting up her legs, pebbling her skin, and making her nipples hard before she’d even reached him. He turned as she approached. His whole body tensed, eyes dark and threatening. “What are you doing?” She would live if he rejected her. At least that was what she told herself. Instead he felt like some vital part of her she needed back. A deep breath after being underwater for so long, strands of sunlight through the surface her only source of warmth. “We were always good at this part,” she whispered. Lines formed between his eyes. He kept his gaze glued to hers, eyes dark with intensity. “It’s not a good idea, Sofia.”

“Why not?” “If I touch you, I may not be able to stop.” He was so careful with her. Once, careful had been the only way she could let a man touch her. He’d been the one to teach her pleasure. The one to teach her trust. The one to show her that rough could feel good too. “Then don’t stop.” “You don’t know what you’re asking for. These months without having you, without—” His voice broke on a rough sound. Without what? Her mind flinched away from the thought of him with someone else, but he might have moved on. He might have only come to protect her, his heart taken by someone else. Someone with more courage than her. “Did you…move on?” she asked softly. His eyes darkened. “Move on? I haven’t touched anyone else, Sofia. I can’t touch anyone else. I can’t even look at anyone else. I’m yours, whether I’m with you or not.” Then she couldn’t wait anymore. She ran her fingers through his hair, finally touching the satiny strands. Using her grip on his hair, she tilted his head up. Maybe she’d been wrong about his ability to submit in bed, because he followed her tacit order and looked his fill. His tongue slipped out along his lips, and she knew he was imagining tasting her, sucking her. Hell, she was imagining it. Already slick and ready for it. His voice had dropped. “I can’t take advantage of you. You’re tired and scared and—” “I’m not scared of you.” He wasn’t anything like those men, those red bandannas. She stepped into the circle of his arms, his breath, and felt warmer than a hundred hot showers; she felt whole. He thought he wasn’t a hero? God, he couldn’t stop protecting her—even from himself. She wanted so badly to lose herself in him, to be as she was in bed with him—nothing but a woman being loved by a man. No complicated life drama, no dangerous men out to kill her. Just a stream of groans and shudders and kisses all along the rough-haired skin of his body. “I want what we had before,” she whispered. His eyes closed on a groan that sounded like pain. “Sofia…” A flicker of concern pierced her haze. “Is it your knee? Is it hurting bad?” His laugh was raw. When his eyes opened, there was a feral gleam. “You think a busted knee is going to keep me from you? I could break every bone in my body and still fuck you just fine. I could be broken to shit, but I could still make you come with just my tongue.” Her body turned liquid at the memory of his tongue against her folds. “Then why?” “It’s my heart that won’t survive you, gorgeous.” She barely had time to process the words before he was moving, a blur of masculine skin and muscle. In a flash he was standing over her, around her, and his knee seemed to be working very well as he backed her against a wall and shoved his leg between hers. “Do you need to come, Sofia? Is that the problem? You only had to ask. I’ll always take care of you.” His hands roamed her slick skin, one cupping the back of her neck, the other sliding in a sinuous curve down her breasts, her hips, and curling back up to where his leg spread her open. The first touch of his finger was like the gong of a bell, reverberating through her body. She’d expected their physical connection to center her, to bring her back into her body, but just the opposite was happening. She was floating away, becoming all sensation. He added another finger, still lightly stroking her sex, gently probing. Though her body clamored for more, faster, now, she clutched his arms and submitted to his languid pace. The longer

he spent on her, the harder she would come. The more he touched her, the faster she could forget. Finally he slipped one finger inside, then two, teasing the entrance. “Tight,” he said, nipping at her earlobe. “So fucking tight.” She moaned in response. His breath puffed cool against the damp skin of her neck. “Haven’t you been working yourself with that toy? I know how much you liked it.” Her breath caught. The purple one that reached right to her G-spot. He’d bought it for her when they’d first been together, when he had taught her about pleasure and all the ways she could find it. With his fingers, his mouth. With the thick toy as he leaned over her, thrusting it inside her until she came. He sucked her nipples the whole time, whispering how sexy she was, how wet. It had been weeks of orgasms, her body strung out, before he’d finally made love to her. But the plastic was too hard, too impersonal after they split up. Now his fingers slipped deeper, seeking the same spot within her. And finding it. Ohhhh, her hips bucked into his hand. He stroked her there with the same maddeningly slow rhythm. Just one leisurely caress followed by another while she was frantic and urgent and whimpering into his mouth. “Well, Sofia? Have you been using it?” “No,” she moaned. “Just the…the vibrator.” The little bullet-shaped vibrator pressed to her clit would get her off quickly. Her climax was never as hard as with the purple toy—or with Nate. Just a moment’s relief before bedtime. “I like that one too,” he said, and his thumb found her clit. He didn’t play there, just rested his thumb as his fingers worked inside her, and the dual pressure pulled her up on her toes, drew her whole body up tight. “I want—I want—” “What is it? If you don’t ask for it, I can’t give it to you. Do you need to come?” She babbled. “Oh God, I do. I need to come. Please, please. Make me come.” “That’s good, gorgeous.” The appreciation in his voice was warm and rich. “That’s my girl.” Then he dropped his head and sucked on her nipples. He knew exactly what she needed, playing her body, winding her tighter until she broke apart, spilling wetness onto his hand, clenching around his fingers, and grasping at his long, silky hair, as she distantly heard his muttered encouragement, yeah, that’s right, take it. He brought her down slowly, letting her cling to him, caressing her quivering muscles to soothe her. He was always this way, seeing to her needs first, usually multiple times, before he’d tell her he couldn’t take it anymore and then guide her to her knees or spread her legs to take his pleasure. She reached for the buckle of his jeans, but he pushed her hand away. She froze. Had she misjudged the entire thing? If he truly wasn’t interested in her and she had pushed him —but no. Her fingers had brushed against the hard ridge of his cock through the denim. His desire for her felt as strong as ever, only sharpened now, hurting her now. Maybe, maybe…she started to slide down the wall. On her knees, she could please him, and oh, how eager she was to lose herself that way. She fumbled at his zipper until he caught her wrists. For a second, she wasn’t sure what he would do with them. He seemed unsure, as well. Maybe hold them above her head and direct the whole thing himself—and yes, that was fine with her too. But he released them and turned away, breathing hard. She reached out her hand, saw that it was shaking, and let it fall. This was how it had been when they were new, when she’d been scared of sex, when he’d been scared of hurting her. They’d moved past this, hadn’t they?

Maybe they had to start over. “Nathaniel?” she asked. Her voice was shaking too, the tremors running deep into her soul. The silence was tense with unspent arousal and an anger she couldn’t understand—didn’t want to understand. “Ask me again.” His voice deepened into a growl. “What?” “Ask me again, any other night, any other day when you didn’t almost die three times before dinner.” She rocked back on her heels, letting her head fall against the wall. Oh no. Oh Nate. She was using him and worse—worst of all, he knew it. He understood the blissful refuge she found in his body and the way she had demanded it to chase away the pain and fear of the day. And he’d let her. She couldn’t think about that directly, didn’t want to know what it meant that he would let himself be a warm, hard body to get her off while refusing any pleasure for himself. The tears wouldn’t be held back then. They poured over her cheeks, fast and copious because they’d been inside for so long. Her friends were gone. The Daily was gone. Her whole life—gone, gone, gone. There weren’t any sobs; she was one tight mass of useless woman, just clenched and hopeless and grieving. “Breathe, Sofia,” he said, low and lilting. He pulled her into his arms, rubbing her back in slow circles. “Breathe.” She sucked in a sharp lungful of air, but that only made it worse. The space between them smelled like Nate and sex, and that was all wrong. This wasn’t refuge, it was cowardice, taking her pleasure from a man who would give and give and give until he had nothing left, and then just walk away like he didn’t care, as if he expected nothing better than that anyway. That was what he had done for the army, and then they had turned him away. Rejected for the injuries he’d gotten during service. She had done the same thing, the same horrible thing, and the tears came even faster, her breath nothing but choked apologies. I’m sorry I used you. I’m sorry I let you go. I’m sorry, sorry, sorry… “No, gorgeous,” he murmured, holding her tighter. It was only when he really crushed her that she felt she could breathe again. “Don’t be sorry. I’m here. I know. I know.” And every soft I know replaced her hollow apologies, because he did know. He knew what it was like to see friends hurt, the horror and the helplessness and the traitorous relief that at least she was still safe, even though they weren’t. She felt his erection, thick and painful against her hip, but she understood. It was just a physical reaction, like her tears. She couldn’t control her body; she couldn’t control a world intent on hurting her. But she could choose this. She could choose him, and so she clung to his body as she cried, tethering herself to a mast while the storm ripped and clawed all around them. He rocked her body and stroked her hair until her eyelids felt puffy and far too heavy to ever stay open. She drifted in that place, knowing no harm would come to her so long as he held her and wishing this moment could last forever. She was already asleep, she thought, when she heard him murmur, “I missed you so much.”

Chapter Nine Remy stared into her Styrofoam cup. Was gray an appropriate color for coffee? She gulped it down, too exhausted to go searching for the vending machines again. All the hallways looked the same, and last time it had taken her twenty minutes to find her way back to the waiting room. Not that it had mattered. Nothing changed. Not in twenty minutes, not in ten hours. The answer was the same. We can’t disclose that information. When the nurses’ shifts changed, she’d convinced the new head nurse that she was Andre’s girlfriend. It had felt like a lie, how she’d sometimes make up stories to get some information for an article. Really, she’d been lying most of her life. But this had been kind of the truth, wasn’t it? She didn’t do labels, but this was the closest thing she’d had to an actual relationship in a long, long time —maybe ever. He would have taken her out on dates too. He’d asked, repeatedly. But she’d insisted on sticking to hurried sex in his office under the guise of getting in trouble. It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Men got to have office affairs without repercussions or expectations for more, so she wanted that too. Plus, it was more convenient that way. She could get information from him in that post-orgasmic stupor. And since he never saw her outside work, he’d never question all the terse phone calls that came in at odd hours. But now that she was faced with losing him, she wished everything had been different. That she’d agreed to go catch a movie with him instead of locking the door and crawling under his desk for an illicit blowjob—even if it had made both of them hot at the time. She wished she’d never snooped in his contact list for anonymous sources. That she’d never set the ball in motion that had resulted in the explosion at the Daily’s offices. Her phone buzzed. She glanced at the large NO CELL PHONES sign on the wall as she pressed the CALL button. She hardened her voice. “What the fuck was that?” The voice on the other end made her shiver. “Your friend was getting too close.” Sofia. Her throat tightened. “Where is she?” “We took care of it.” Oh fuck. Had they killed her? Or just threatened her? Remy’s eyes burned with tears, but she wouldn’t let them fall. She’d shed enough of those in her lifetime to grow a new skin, thicker this time. Sofia’s old boyfriend, a soldier, had lost friends, teammates, in the line of fire—she wasn’t so different. “Then why are you calling me?” “I have another job for you.” She didn’t know why Moreland called her himself. Or why he didn’t bother to disguise his voice. But then, that was power. That was hubris. He didn’t have anything to fear from her, and he knew it. He held all the cards. He had her sister. Allison, where are you? Her heart twisted. “No more. We agreed.” “You don’t get to decide that, young lady. But if you do everything you’re supposed to, this will be the last one.” She listened to his oily voice give her instructions, the last meeting before she’d get Allison back. How messed up would she be after years of abuse? But Remy couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t focus on anything other than getting her back. A nurse peered around the corner, frowning when she saw the cell phone in Remy’s hand. Remy

put her hand over the mouthpiece. She barely cared anymore. They could all go fuck themselves. As if any of the little rules ever helped, as if they saved any lives. What Remy was doing would save her sister’s life. The nurse’s lips were still pursed with annoyance. “Your friend’s awake. If you want to see him.” “Yes. I do. Please. Thank you so much.” She hit END on the phone, not bothering to say goodbye, and went inside. The room was small, but at least it was private. Andre was hooked up to so many tubes, she was afraid to touch him. But when his eyelids struggled open, she recognized the same brilliant intelligence that had drawn her to him. Only then did it fully hit her, how much she loved this man and how close she’d come to losing him. “Andre,” was all she could say. Her vision blurred and finally, unstoppable, the tears fell. “It’s okay, Remy. I’m okay.” He sounded surprised to see so much emotion from her. She knew he thought she didn’t really care about him. Hell, she had thought so too. “I’m sorry I was so…you know.” She wiped her cheeks. “But I’m going to make this right between us. I want us to be good. Like we should be.” His shaky laugh ended on a groan. “You’re killing me here.” She took his hand, one of the few parts of him not bandaged, and laid her damp cheek against it. He cupped her face. Pressing a kiss to the center of his palm, she said, “I just have one more thing I need to do. Then I’m all yours.” This would all be over soon. One last job. Oh God, Sofia, I’m sorry. Remy would make this right. She’d make Moreland pay.

Chapter Ten It was the dream again. He couldn’t see much, just shadows and the occasional glint of yellow teeth and the whites of some fucker’s eyes. They kept asking questions, but he couldn’t hear them over the rat-tat-tat beat of his heart. He couldn’t answer either, his mouth too swollen to form words. It felt full of metal, but that was only blood. His blood. He was losing too much. He’d seen enough men die to recognize his own fate. When the bat had shattered his knee on one leg and his femur on the other, his odds of escaping had dropped to near nil. Three days of no food and little water hadn’t helped. At least his team was safe. Every time their lips formed the phrase where are they, all he heard was they’re safe, they’re safe. He’d die with that thought, and it would be worth it. But they weren’t asking now. There were only shadows in front of his eyes, sinuous as smoke. He couldn’t hear them either. Usually they talked and laughed right outside, while the stink of cheap cigarettes drifted in through the barred windows. His feet were losing circulation, tied too tight to the legs of the chair. His eyes burned; his neck ached. He waited in the quiet, wondering if they’d given up on him. If they’d left him to a slow death. Damn. Twigs crunching on the ground drew his attention. Guess they were back. The sound cut off as quickly as it started, like putting a shell to his ear and then pulling it away. Why would they bother with stealth in the middle of nowhere, on land they controlled? Faint scratching came from the roof. Unless it wasn’t them. Who would come in through the goddamn roof? His own team, come to save him. Relief poured through him, cool and sickly sweet. Jesus, he would get out of here. Even if he ended up dying in some military hospital in Germany, he’d be out of this place. Lying flat, lights low, his arteries flooded with painkillers—yes. It sounded like heaven. Only, wait. How long had it been since his captors had left him? Hours? Days? It hadn’t seemed that long, if he was only just now wondering about abandonment. It was a problem, because time came and went, folded over under the weight of the pain so he couldn’t be sure where the creases had been. Had his team already neutralized the threat? Or were they walking into a trap? And he couldn’t do jack shit. Just sit and wait for the scene to play out with his hands literally tied behind his back. Light scuffs on the concrete floor came from behind him. They moved swiftly and softly. One went to the window, back against the wall, peering out. The second to the door, same position, ready to pounce. The last circled him. His commanding officer, Master Sergeant Josh Parrish. A father, a husband, a mentor—his friend. “Hang on, buddy.” Josh cut through the ropes, inadvertently digging into the cuts on his ankles. He hadn’t meant to talk, but a low groan came out anyway, an animal sound that raised the hairs on his own sweat-soaked neck. “Sorry, man. Sorry.” There was genuine remorse in Josh’s voice as he worked at the ropes. He probably blamed himself for Nate’s capture. But it wasn’t his fault. Nate had understood when the black copter had lifted off without him. He’d played evasion games for two days before getting himself captured. He had never had any illusions about what this was. It was war, his life forfeit as

soon as he’d enlisted. In the distance, he heard a sound, a high-pitched whine. Aircraft? His team had most likely come in a copter, same as the one they’d brought in before. It would be waiting at some rendezvous point a few miles away. So why was the sound getting louder? “No, it’s a trap,” he tried to yell, but it came out all in a jumble. All they saw was the tortured man flailing and screaming at them, and they thought he’d gone crazy. “We’ll get you out of here,” Josh said fiercely. Jesus, no no no. His broken mouth wouldn’t form the words. The first missile missed them, hitting somewhere outside the earth and rocking the ground beneath them. The second was a direct hit. That was all that registered, the crumble of the stone wall where it stood, the pressure as Josh threw his body over Nate’s. Nate couldn’t move, his hands still tied and his body still broken. He could do nothing but call out hoarsely as his friends died all around him and right on top of him.

Chapter Eleven Nate woke up with a dry throat and a pounding heart. Jesus, the dream again. His knee pounded too, and he wondered if he was still half-asleep, one foot in the past where his knee was still split into two hundred parts and buried underneath a ton of rubble. But no, he was awake and it still hurt like hell. Had he pulled an all-nighter, watching for some scumbag husband to emerge from a prostitute’s hotel room? Had he stormed some terrorist cell’s shithole apartment looking for intel with his team? He shifted slightly, becoming aware of a soft warm weight in his arms. Sofia. Not back in that hellhole, not on a job. Yes, this was what he wanted. His knee still ached with a vengeance, but even so, he felt his muscles relax. He could breathe again for the first time in months, because Sofia was beside him. He knew the feel of her, the faint scent of sex that she wore like a perfume that drove him crazy. His fingers would smell like her, taste like her. He would have made her come and come and come, until he’d been ready to burst, and then buried himself inside. That was about how he felt right now— about to blow. Actually his erection felt painful…constricted…because he was wearing jeans. Oh shit. Now he remembered. He hadn’t come last night. She’d been sexy…and vulnerable. So he’d gone to bed hard, which explained the extreme case of blue balls this morning. A light sound floated in through the bedroom door. Had that woken him? He tensed. But then he heard the beep from the fancy cappuccino maker in the kitchen and figured no bad guy would be quite so ballsy. Not to mention no one could get through Ford’s security system, at least without grade A explosives. Which meant there was an emergency of another kind. The need to get Sofia out of here before his player of an ex-teammate Ford spotted her. He straightened the sheet over Sofia’s leg, then stood and tugged on his T-shirt. Sofia blinked up at him sleepily. “Come back to bed.” That look hit him like a ton of bricks every time. Her big brown eyes framed by long lashes were enough to make any man weak at the knees, but the emotions there slayed him. Not beneath the surface, right in the open—unafraid. They made him want to do stupid things, make promises he couldn’t keep. But one question always curbed that impulse: what’s a stunner like you doing with a slacker like me? So he kept his needy shit to himself. No one wanted to hear it anyway, least of all himself. The swelling on her cheek had gone down, the bruise nothing more than a faint scuff on her cheek. Just a blemish, like the first swipe of dark paint on white—at once stark and slight—and it made him burn with rage. At those faceless, nameless men for hurting her. At himself, for walking out on her so that she was alone and defenseless. And he was going to leave her again. He turned to see Ford’s tall, imposing silhouette in the doorway. “Isn’t this cozy?” he said with a smirk. He kept his voice bland. Not possessive as hell. “You’re back.” Ford looked sharp in black fatigues and combat boots even after a long night on a plane, but then, that was why he got paid the big bucks. That and his sharp team of security experts, which was what Nate needed to talk to him about. He leaned against the doorjamb, the diagonal of his body more shadow than form. He ran knowing eyes over Sofia’s barely covered body. “Looks like I missed the fun. I figured you had

something naughty in mind when I got your call last night, but I had no idea you were bringing me a present. She’s lovely.” Nate suppressed a growl and glanced back at Sofia, who was still rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She had to have been exhausted after being nearly blown up and shot at yesterday, not to mention being manhandled by him. Though she was clearly curious about Ford and hadn’t missed the familiarity there. Or the innuendo. No, scratch that. Ford didn’t do innuendo. Just a Mack truck of sex, and Sofia’s dark bronze eyes were seeing too much—things that weren’t even there, at least not anymore. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.” He didn’t care if it was rude to order Ford out of his own fucking room. He owed Nate a whole stack of favors, and Nate was going to collect on a few of them today. Besides, if he looked at Sofia with those hungry eyes for one more second, Nate was going to lose his shit. Ford grinned, completely at east. “Don’t stop on my account.” “Out.” He put up his hands in mock surrender. “I’m going, I’m going.” Once he was gone, Nate tossed Sofia’s backpack onto the bed. “Take your time getting ready. I need to talk to him.” Sofia raised her eyebrows. “A present?” He shrugged as if it didn’t bother him. “He’s a dick. I called to let him know we were crashing at his house.” Not waiting for a response, he left the room and gently shut the door behind him so she’d have some privacy. Ford was waiting for him with a cup of something caffeinated and potent. Nate swallowed it, embracing the scalding heat down his throat. At least it distracted him from the ache in his knee. He forced himself to walk without a limp to the table. Ford was a friend, but he wasn’t the kind of person to show any weakness. He slung himself across one of the tiny kitchen chairs. “Jesus. Did you have to stare at her like that?” Ford gave an exaggerated sigh. “I didn’t know you were possessive, Nathaniel. Why’d you bring her if you aren’t going to let her play?” He kept his expression blank. “I told you in the message. Some shit went down; we needed a safe place.” “Care to elaborate on this shit?” Ford could be a thorn in his side, but he was damned good at operations. Nate was counting on that. “Sofia works at the Austin Daily.” His friend’s eyes sharpened. “The explosion. It’s all over the news.” “Yeah. And when she went home, there were three professionals in her apartment. I took two of them out. The third is in APD custody.” His gaze flitted down to Nate’s knee, but thankfully he didn’t comment on it. “So, you brought her here for a little slumber party. What’s the plan now?” “I was hoping you could tell me. I want your firm to protect her.” “While you bow out gracefully?” His smile was wry. “As gracefully as I can with a fucked-up knee. That’s why I need you to do it. I’ll hire you if I have to.” Ford rolled his eyes. “You know I can’t take your money after the number of times you’ve

covered my ass.” His grin widened. “In more ways than one.” Great. All he needed was Ford coming on to both him and Sofia, like a threesome was the answer to their security problem. Nate set the mug down, leaning forward and looking him right in the eye, a meeting of the minds. “This is important to me.” “Hmm.” “And like you said, you owe me.” Ford looked speculative. “When’s the last time anything was important to you?” His psychobabble intuition made him a good boss at Maven Security. It had also made him a great soldier, back in the day. They’d met in Nate’s first tour, Nate fresh out of training, Ford commanding and mysterious. They had kicked ass in the field and gone wild when they’d had leave. Getting blackout drunk, having threesomes. It had been more than a hobby; it was a survival mechanism. A release valve for when he’d seen too many things—and done too many things. Ford had made a respectable business back home, but he’d never quite abandoned his party ways. And now Nate had made it worse by bringing Sofia here. Except he would rely on very few people to protect Sofia, and Ford was unfortunately at the top of the list. “Will you take the job?” he asked. A soft sound alerted him to Sofia coming out of the bedroom, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Her satin black hair was pulled behind her head in some sort of braid, but strands escaped the confines, framing her face. She sat across from him. “Shouldn’t I be consulted if I’m going to be left with strangers?” She looked soft and pretty. Like prey. Nate knew how the world worked, how cold it could be, how harsh. Sofia would be used up, hurt, killed—but he wasn’t going to let that happen. “No,” he answered curtly. “I’d like to hear what she has to say,” Ford drawled, a wicked glint in his eyes. That fucker better not lay a finger on her. Nate would make that clear enough when Sofia wasn’t in earshot. “You can hear what she has to say when I’m gone.” Sofia’s dark eyes blazed. “Where are you going?” She was a mix of strength and fear. Her strength was what had attracted him. Her fear was natural, considering what had happened. Which was why he’d find the fuckers who’d threatened her and put them down. “Ford specializes in personal security. You’ll be safe with him while I figure out who’s behind this while you’re here.” “Why can’t I come with you?” Her eyes were clear, guileless. He loved that about her, but he never really knew what to do with it. Like holding a priceless vase; he could marvel at its beauty, but his first instinct was to put it out of reach, away from his clumsy hands. He tried to explain. “I wouldn’t be able to focus if you were with me—” “Why not?” “Yeah, Nathanial,” Ford drawled. “Tell us why you can’t focus when she’s around.” He scowled at Ford, then turned to Sofia. “They’re after you, not me. They’ll be on the lookout for you.” “What are they going to say, aim for any dark-haired girl in Austin? That would be half the female population.” If she thought she didn’t stand out in a crowd, she was more naive than he’d realized. “A gorgeous young woman with a press pass from the newspaper just bombed, asking pointed questions

about campaign finance reform,” he corrected. “I doubt there’ll be a crowd of people all doing the same thing.” “Nate.” Sofia leaned forward, eyes intense, and he was startled for a minute, caught by how he must have looked to Ford just a minute ago, seeing his reflection in the woman he loved. “This is my story. I didn’t give it up when a more senior reporter came sniffing around, and I’m not giving it to you either.” He was impressed…and quietly, deeply terrified. She wasn’t going to quit. Her curiosity, her unquenchable sense of justice—they were going to get her killed. She would die, and he would be helpless to protect her. Like his teammates. “This isn’t up for debate,” he said roughly. “You’re staying here.” “You can’t make me,” she said. At the stubborn expression on his face, her eyebrows rose. “That’s kidnapping.” “Only if you try to leave,” he said reasonably. Sofia made a frustrated sound and pushed away from the table. Ford smiled into his coffee cup, the bastard. Nate needed to figure out some way to convince Sofia to stay here. Her own safety was apparently not important enough, but to him… God, to him it was everything. She was everything. How could he let her march into a land mine? She thought he was worried about kidnapping? He didn’t give a fuck about anything but keeping her safe. He struggled for the words, which always, always failed him. He was good with his hands, in combat or in bed. But he couldn’t say the things he wanted in just the right way—that was Sofia’s strength. Her articles exposed corruption and shone light on people working for positive reform. She spent her time making things better, while his only skill set was tearing them down with violent efficiency. She focused on the future while he was chained to the past by a wound that would never heal. Frustrated, he ran a hand through his hair. His cell phone buzzed on the kitchen table. He flipped it over. Tony, his computer guy. He’d prefer to take the call in another room, but aside from the fact that there almost were no other rooms in this cavernous house, his knee felt swollen and completely stiff. He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes as he answered the phone. “Yeah.” “Know any travel agents?” Tony always cut right to the point. “Should I?” “You’ve got an itinerary, real detailed. Expense reports. Pages and pages of the stuff.” Nate leaned forward. “Mexico?” “Bingo. The scanned images of those reports were layered underneath the original images.” “What kind of knowledge would it take to pull that off?” “This is some advanced level tech. High encryption, the kind the NSA doesn’t want to admit they can’t crack. That’s why it took me all night.” “So we’re looking at a pro.” “A pro? There’s only a few people in the country who could have rigged this. But there’s something else in here, an Easter egg. Looks like this was set to unlock all by itself in seventy-two hours.” “Shit. What happens in seventy-two hours?” Sofia looked at him, dark eyes full of worry. Worry, because some shit was likely going to go down. And the person who had left this thought they might not survive. He spoke into the phone. “Thanks, man. I owe you one.”

“You know I’ll collect. I’m sending you the embedded images now.” The call ended. Both Sofia and Ford watched him expectantly. Damn, if he weren’t careful, these two could end up ganging up on him. Then he wouldn’t stand a chance. Though if he was honest, he realized he was already lost. By the time he filled them in on the contents of the files, Sofia had commandeered the laptop, scanning the files with her reporter face. He wouldn’t admit it, but her reporter look was the sexiest of all. He loved her bedroom eyes and her sweet smile, but when she focused on a story, she took his breath away. Forcing his attention to the screen, he saw locations on maps in Mexico. He suspected the DEA might be interested in this, but Nate was more concerned with getting Sofia out of this mess—not pushing her deeper into it. Sofia clicked through the maps until she found a series of sepia-toned photographs with a young Moreland standing with groups of men, shaking hands and smiling. Always the politician, even before he’d run for office. If there’d been illicit pictures, she would have expected them to be from Mexico, doing whatever shady dealings she expected from him. Or maybe in his headquarter offices in NYC. Instead these were clearly set right here in Austin, the rolling hills behind them, the iconic 360 bridge still under construction in one of them—giving her a timeline, at least. “You recognize any of them?” he asked her. She shook her head, squinting. “One of them…maybe. No. Damn it, I don’t know.” There were a few men in the pictures, some of them blurry, some of them already old two decades ago. One man was young, possibly younger than Moreland, with thick glasses and a striped shirt. He looked like more of a computer geek than a shady drug dealer. Nate bent close to her. “Who uploaded these files?” “My intern,” she said absently, studying a photograph of two men, Moreland and another man in slacks and a buttoned shirt. Then she looked up. “You think he was the one who added these other images? But why would he need to hide them? Why not just put them next to the other files he uploaded?” He just shrugged. “Someone did.” She still seemed skeptical. “He doesn’t have any ties to the campaign. He goes to school fulltime, works in the library, and does research for me a few hours a week. I don’t see why he’d do this.” “I just had a great idea,” Ford said. “Why don’t you find him and ask?” Goddamn it, no. He needed to keep her safe, to wrap her in layer after layer of glass and plastic and metal until no one could ever get at her, to hide her with darkness and shield her with apathy, so that no one could hurt or corrupt her—not even him. “I’ll go find him,” he said, turning to Sofia. “You stay here.” “He’s not going to talk to you. He doesn’t know you. And like I said, it’s my story. I’m going. Besides, no one will recognize me on campus.” “Actually,” Ford said. “You’ll blend in just fine with the students. He’s the one who’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. Especially with that beard. And his wild hair. I swear he looked more civilized in Macedonia.” Nate didn’t know how to stop this. They were talking, but he couldn’t hear a thing. This was the eerie quiet, when he wondered where everyone had gone. And later there’d be a high-pitched whine, the signal too little and too late. He might as well tie his hands behind his back too. They were going

out in public. He’d do his best to protect her, but there was that chance, that horrible fucking chance that it wouldn’t be enough.

Chapter Twelve Ten years ago After the flood they had moved to Houston, where their father had found work at a construction company. Her mom had cleaned an office building downtown. They had a small apartment instead of a house, but things had been okay. Then the car accident happened. A drunk driver. Diego had been seventeen then. Sofia, thirteen. They had gone to live with their grandmother in San Antonio, the three of them bound mostly by grief. Diego had gotten involved with the gang early on, but he had still lived at home. Sofia had still pretended they were a family, instead of just leftover people. Survivors. All that changed the night that Diego went to a party, flirting with some girl from the wrong side. His own gang brothers had decided to teach him a lesson using Sofia. She tried to block out the memories, but they still came to her at night—sweaty bodies and urgent grunts and red bandannas. She survived that too. The sound of drunk shouts came from outside the window, making her jump. She curled up in her closet, underneath the hanging dresses and jeans, beside the tennis shoes she wore for track. A tall silhouette filled the doorway. Diego. “I can’t,” she said urgently, panicked. Panting. “I can’t. I can’t.” Silence. Then, “They won’t touch you. I won’t let them.” They had already touched her. He meant they couldn’t touch her again, but she didn’t see how that was possible. They’d been willing to hurt her even when he had been one of them. What protection would she have when he had tried to leave the gang? There was only one way out; he knew that. And then what would happen to her? Some kind of blast came from the front yard. A small yelp escaped her. It wasn’t a gunshot, she didn’t think. But she knew they were armed. Maybe an explosion. A fire? Oh God. He handed her something. Moonlight from the window glinted off the blade. “Take this.” “I can’t,” she repeated, praying for the numbness to come back. “Fucking take it.” He ran a hand over his head. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I need you to have this. And lock your door after I leave. I already called the cops, but they may not get here in time.” He’d called the cops? That wasn’t something anyone did around here. Even her grandmother had taken her to the free clinic when she’d seen her bruises. The people there had called the cops anyway, but Sofia had just shook her head. She didn’t know them, couldn’t recognize them. A lie, but it would keep her alive. Except that her brother couldn’t live with what had happened to her. So he’d told the gang he was leaving. Even though he still had the gang tattoos across his chest. Even though he still wore the red bandanna tucked into his jeans. You could take the boy out of the gang, but not the gang out of the boy. For two days he’d sat around the house with a bottle of Jack in one hand, his gun in the other. Sofia hadn’t known what to say to him. Abuela had pretended nothing was wrong, cooking all their favorite meals until the fridge overflowed. Now it was midnight, and their reprieve was over. “What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice shaking. “I’ll hold them off long enough.” She blinked, fear creeping up like rising water, drowning her. “They’ll kill you.”

He laughed. “How else was I going to die, hermanita? From someone else’s gun. Better than mine.” Her throat clenched. “Stay here. With me.” “In the closet? They might come through the door. If it happens, I’ll shoot for the biggest, toughest assholes and hope the rest will scramble like cockroaches. I don’t want you near that.” Upstairs wasn’t far enough away. “I’m scared.” “No matter what. They’re crazy fuckers, but they aren’t stupid.” Hot tears streamed down her cheeks. “You’re the stupid one if you’re going to go down there alone.” His voice softened. “I know, Sofia. I’m stupid and I’m crazy, but I’m your brother. This time I’m going to act like it. Lock the door behind me.” He dropped the knife on the carpet beside her. Then he turned to leave, the red bandanna in his jeans a streak of color against the dark, blurred by her tears. She watched him go, her heart a hard knot, knowing that would be the last time she saw him. And no matter what he had done before, he was a hero now.

Chapter Thirteen Nate didn’t speak to her as they drove to campus. Actually he hadn’t said much since he’d come out of the bathroom looking like a different man, his beard shaved and hair trimmed short. That way he could walk around campus without standing out, Ford said. The man must be blind. Nate’s cool blue gaze felt like a spark, sharp and hot. The rest of his six-foot, muscled body was the thunder that followed. He would never blend in. Sofia had been struck by electric lust the first time she’d seen him—digging through the trash, no less. She’d wanted that trash. They were both looking for a scoop, him for a client and her for the paper. The mayoral candidate that year had been hiding some serious money from his ex. They’d gotten together almost immediately and managed to track down the bank accounts. She had broken the story and gotten all the credit; he refused to take any. He always refused. Once they’d been hanging out at his office and a client had come by to pay his balance. Personally, instead of sending a check or giving a credit card number over the phone, because he wanted to thank Nate. You saved my marriage, the man had said. Nate had looked pretty much the way he looked now, his eyebrows drawn low and lips set in a straight line. As bold and flat as a Keep Out sign tacked on a chain-link fence. She never understood why he was unhappy then, but she understood this time. He wanted her to stay behind. Stay behind while he worked on her story. Wasn’t going to happen. There was a time she’d been too afraid to fight her own battles, when she’d had to hide in the closet, clutching a knife. She wouldn’t be that girl again. She couldn’t be that girl, because the thought of living in that dark place made her palms sweat, her heart pound. Some days it felt like she had escaped the chains of her past. Other days it felt like she had one foot stuck in that closet. He parked in a garage on the fringe of campus. “Do you have an address for this guy? A dorm number?” “Matt works in the undergraduate library. We talked about that when he came in for the interview. It’s how he knows how to access all the archives.” “You’ll talk to him, and then we’ll get the hell out of here.” Sofia blinked into the bright daylight as they emerged from the garage. “Don’t tell me you’re worried about something happening. There’s a million people here.” “There were people at the Daily.” Her eyes closed at the reminder. God. She forced herself to swallow. She needed to focus, to figure this out. It was part of the restitution to her friends. It was also the way she was going to stay alive. The explosion at her office had been suspicious. The attack by armed mercenaries at her home had been too damned close. Only Nate’s timely presence had saved her. Now she had to do her part to save herself. When she’d regained her composure, she said quietly, “They have no way of knowing I’m here.” He pulled her into the stairwell. His gaze pierced hers. “I need to tell you something. To…to make a deal with you.” His words were weighted down with something she didn’t fully understand. They pulled at her,

dragging her to the precipice, as if she could tumble right into his bottomless eyes. Had she ever seen him so open, almost pleading? No, never, and she couldn’t deny him. It didn’t matter what it was. Though he wouldn’t agree, she was his. Before he’d even saved her life, she was his. He looked grim. “I know the odds are they don’t know you’re here. But still, it’s a risk, and that makes me… I don’t like it.” She nodded, because this much at least she understood. He was scared. Not for himself but for her. He didn’t think he was a hero, but he threw himself in front of every threat. He protected her with his whole body. “I’ll be careful.” She was scared too, because if something happened he would be the first to fall. Her insides felt like they were made of Jell-O, shivery and see-through. He was just the opposite, carved in ice, the cold leaking from his skin. “Anything could happen,” he murmured. “You could be spotted. Someone could tip them off. Our best bet is to get in and out.” She waited, knowing there was more. This was Nate on a mission, sharp and focused. “I want you to promise me that we’ll leave as soon as we talk to him. Five minutes and we’re gone. Off campus and back to Ford’s place or wherever the hell we go, but somewhere safe.” “Five minutes?” She could spend thirty minutes interviewing someone, hours following a lead. Days and weeks cracking open this story. “Five minutes.” His eyes were dark with urgency and frustration and something else—worry. His body tensed as if preparing for rejection. He wanted her to say yes but expected her to fight. “Okay,” she said softly. He took a minute to process that. She heard his soft exhale—relief. “Let’s go,” he muttered, leading the way outside. He walked quickly, so she could barely keep up, and she knew he was counting down the minutes before the timer had even started. They found Matt at a deserted information desk on the second floor. They had never met in person, just exchanged e-mails, but she recognized him from his picture in the staff listings. He had a book open and headphones in. Nate fell back as they reached the landing, letting her approach on her own but staying within sight—and probably earshot too. She rapped on the desk. Matt looked up and then did a double take, yanking the headphones out. “You’re okay.” Her heart thumped painfully. There was so much pain and fear and hope tied up in that one thought. I’m okay. And she wanted to stay that way. He came around the counter, reaching out as if to embrace her. At the last minute he stopped, but she wanted that contact, the connection with her job and her friends. She stepped forward and hugged him. After a second, he squeezed back. “Have you heard anything?” she asked, unable to voice their names: Andre. Remy. He shook his head. “Only what they’re saying on the news. They’re not releasing any names yet. Some bullshit about sorting out identities and notifying the families, but I think they can’t figure out what’s going on themselves.” Her heart sank. “I need to talk to you about the Moreland files.” “Who’s he?” He nodded to Nate, who lounged in the corner. Not relaxed—tension wound through him like a coiled spring. He saw their wariness and returned it with a bland regard. Who was he? She wasn’t sure she even knew. Her hero. Her lover. “A friend.” She turned to Matt. “We can trust him.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded. “What do you want to know?” He had to be twenty or so based on his college record, not far off from her twenty-four years, but he looked young to her. His face was smooth, his torso thinner than hers. How had he gotten all tied up in this? It was only supposed to be a few hours for college credit. He’d always seemed a little immature to her, kind of goofy, but now he was solemn. Judging by his distrust of Nate, he understood the stakes. There were two chairs behind the curved information desk, though it was clear from the deserted hallway that there was no need for two people. Probably not even one. She sat in the chair beside him, lowering her voice. “The files you uploaded the night before. Can you tell me about what was in them?” He nodded. “The articles from his early campaigns. The campaign documents.” “Right, the documents.” She tried not to sound too eager. “Where did you get them?” He looked confused briefly. “From the FEC disclosure database. Where you told me to get them.” “Did you…add anything to the files? Any other documents? A secret file?” He blinked. “A what?” Damn, probably not then. If he hadn’t added those layers, who had? She pointed at the ancientlooking monitor on the desk. “Show me where you got them. Can you pull them up here?” “Sure. It’s public record.” The filed documents were public record, the ones that were vague and convoluted and missing half the cash. Instead of going to the SEC website, he logged into the school’s network and pulled up his student storage drive. It was organized much like hers, separated by story. Moreland’s file was at the top, the most recent, and he clicked it open. She scanned the list of files—and their sizes. Too small. These weren’t the same files that had been on the Daily’s servers. She sat back. “Are you sure you didn’t change these files before uploading them?” “No. I dragged them directly from here.” “And no one was around when you did that?” He looked worried. “There’s usually a few folks around at night when I go. No one I talked to. What are you talking about, secret files?” “Other images were embedded in the files you left there.” She stopped herself from saying what exactly was in them, but he seemed to understand. “You found it. The scoop.” Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know if you weren’t the one who put it there?” His lips pressed together. Finally, as if divulging a secret, he said, “I recognize the look in your eyes. I did work for my high school paper all four years. I know what it feels like to find a scoop, even if mine was only about the gym teacher banging the cheerleaders.” She gave him a sideways glance. “That’s a pretty big scoop.” “I know.” His eyes sparkled a little. He liked catching her off guard, taking her low estimation and flipping it upside down. “Okay,” she conceded, and it meant okay, I’m sorry I didn’t take you seriously; I do now. The truth was that she barely knew him. She remembered a quick interview in Andre’s office when he’d been hired. Then mostly she e-mailed him instructions and got back the research she needed the same way. He considered her. “Besides, if you’re here asking questions and you’re not injured, then either

you helped cause the explosion…or you know who did.” “You shouldn’t be so quick to rule out the first possibility. Just because I’m a Latina doesn’t mean I can’t participate in a terrorist plot. Don’t make assumptions.” “It wasn’t because of that.” She raised her eyebrow. “It wasn’t only because of that.” He grinned. “Also because you’re pretty.” Nate snorted; she hadn’t realized he’d come closer, almost behind the desk with them. “Really?” he asked. “You’re going to hit on my girl while I’m in the room?” Matt’s expression of surprise rang patently false. “I thought you guys were just friends.” “I hadn’t thought you were stupid. Until now.” But there was no heat behind Nate’s insult. Matt had clearly disarmed him as much as he had her. There was no subterfuge here…nor were there any answers. He hadn’t been the one to embed those receipts. She looked to Nate. He had taken over the mouse, clicking through a few of the files aimlessly. He stood. “Nothing. They could have been added after the fact, while they were on the server. The question is who would have access to it.” “Anyone. Everyone who worked at the Daily. Our folders didn’t have individual permissions like the university’s drive. The real question is who knew the images would be there. Who would care?” “Someone who wants to bring Moreland down,” Nate said. “He’s the key.” Only she couldn’t find him. She slid her glance to Matt, who was watching them avidly. He only knew the cover story, that she was looking into the campaign finance aspect. Surely he suspected it was more than that now, but she wasn’t going to fill in the blanks. Telling him would only put him at risk. In fact, her presence here might put him at risk. No one knew she was here, but if they found out somehow…if they showed up on campus, guns blazing like they’d done at her apartment… “We’ve got to go. Thanks for your help. Don’t talk to anyone.” Matt looked surprised. Nate just softened. He seemed to understand her fear; he’d been trying to warn her all along. He took her hand and led her toward the stairs. “I know how you can see Moreland.” Matt’s voice came from behind them and wrapped around her throat like a vise. She stopped. “Five minutes,” Nate muttered. She didn’t move. Couldn’t move. This was the man who’d hurt her friends. “Where?” “Right here. Well, the next building. He’s giving a speech on campus tonight. Kind of a modified town hall setup where students can submit questions about the war on drugs. The event is called Building a Better Future.” Her fingers twitched, almost pulling out of Nate’s hand, but he tightened his grasp. There was no question that she would go. All that remained was to convince Nate. Nate, who hated her job and the strain it put on their relationship—she could have laughed. Right now it was putting a strain on their survival. She turned to look at him. His mouth was tense, little lines indenting the newly shaved skin around his lips. His eyes were the worst. Frustration bloomed brightly, but beneath that, at the very root, was worry. He wanted to keep her safe—was that so bad? Was that so wrong? No. He was right. She was the wrong one. “I’m going.” Her friends. Her story. The entire sum of her life minus one Nate-shaped piece. “I have to.”

Rejection didn’t always come with a shove; this time, he simply let go of her hand. “Nate.” Her voice was tremulous. That was how she felt, shaky and uncertain. He ran his hand through his hair, but there wasn’t enough of it left. “I can’t do this.” “Do what?” Even though she knew. He couldn’t deal with her need to follow the story. He couldn’t deal with her breaking her promise. He couldn’t deal with her. His voice was raw. “I either have to protect you or not. I can’t stay…in the middle. Standing by while you put yourself in danger and then just watch it happen.” She couldn’t even deny it. Confronting Moreland, even in a public setting, was dangerous. She had to do it, had to take this chance for her friends, for herself. To prove to herself that she was capable of confronting evil, not forever stuck in that closet. But how could she ask Nate to stay? It didn’t matter. He was leaving. He was only standing in front of her, waiting for absolution before he left. Waiting for her to become a different person. “It’s okay,” she said. “I understand.” She repeated the words under her breath as he turned and walked away. It was better that he was safe, away from this, but his anger sliced her open. She watched his newly trimmed head and broad shoulders leave through the tall glass windows. I understand. I understand. Though she didn’t, really. If he were a different sort of man, it would make more sense. But he had once trained and fought with one of the most elite forces in the world. The motto of the Army Special Forces was To Free the Oppressed. He had sworn to that—he’d lived it. What had changed him so much that he couldn’t even understand her need to do the same? “I’m sorry,” Matt said. He seemed really upset, genuinely remorseful. “I didn’t think he’d leave.” “No, I’m glad you told me. He’s just…” Hurt. She’d hurt him. “Pretty intense. I really didn’t mean to make him mad.” “He’ll be fine.” He left. He left. He left. “So tell me about this town hall speech.” Matt filled her in on the campus chatter about the speech, and she pretended to listen. Damn it, this was important. But he’d left. Should she have listened to him? Gone after him? It was too late to change her mind now. Had he gone back to Ford? She had half a mind to drive up there. No idea how to find his house, but still. Matt’s voice cut into her thoughts. “So, does that sound like a good plan?” She blanked. “What plan?” “Going down to the rec center. Some friends are meeting up there.” He pressed his lips together, apologetic and a little embarrassed. “Or we could go somewhere else, if you wanted.” “No, that’s okay,” she assured him. “I should get back.” She extricated herself before it got even more awkward, moving along the shelves, gaze turned towards the tall windows. The sunlit courtyard outside the library somehow looked sinister without Nate. Shadows shifted in the corner of her eye, around a shelf of books. Her heart skipped a beat. Was someone following her?

Chapter Fourteen A hand on her wrist. Her breath caught. She whirled to face Nate. “You didn’t leave,” she said, trying to hide her relief. The look he gave her was reproachful. “Of course not. I’m taking you back to Ford’s place. And that’s where you’ll stay until whoever set that explosion, whoever really set it, is behind bars.” Or dead. That was the implied alternate in his tone. “I can’t,” she said. “You are.” “He’s speaking tonight. I won’t get another chance like this.” He scowled. “Absolutely not.” “I never got a chance to meet him,” she said. “To ask him a question and look him in the eye while he answers. This is my chance to do that, to finally know for sure if he’s guilty.” “He’s a politician, Sofia. A professional liar.” “I’ll know if he’s telling the truth about this. You can be there too, to read his body language and tell me if I’m right. I know you have experience with interrogations.” He flinched, but it was gone so quickly she couldn’t be sure. His face was impassive again, soldier at the ready. “It’s dangerous,” he said flatly. “All I did was go to work, and it was dangerous. I went home, and it was dangerous. If I’m going to die anyway, I might as well fight first. Do something I believe in and—” Whatever she was about to say tumbled into his mouth as a moan. His lips had captured hers, his body holding her up against a shelf, the cool metal slats pressing into her. She resisted for a moment, pure shock and a small amount of indignation holding her stiff. But his tongue stroked hers in the same rhythm his fingers and his cock had used on her so many times. Her hands found his hair, tightening and tugging with nowhere to go. He pulled back only long enough to say, “Don’t even talk about that. You’re not going to die. Over my dead body. And you’re not going to see Moreland tonight.” Exactly what she was worried about, but he was kissing her again, forcing her to forget all the practical, fearful reasons why she didn’t want him involved. Instead she felt his tongue teasing hers, his hands roaming over her ass, and a hard cleft pushing up against her core. She tore her mouth away to suck in a breath. “God,” she cried. “Oh God.” “Yeah.” He pushed her into an empty room, leaving the light off. It was so wrong like this, rushed and dirty in a study room where they didn’t even belong, but the frantic hands and panting breaths were just right. She needed to know he was as crazy about her as she was about him. She needed to know that the King of the Slackers was a facade but this—this was real. She tried to buck against him but only succeeded in knocking against the door. “Shh, someone will hear,” he muttered and then tugged her jeans down her legs. And then pushed two blunt fingers into her wet heat and searched and probed until he found the sensitive bundle of nerves. She moaned, and she couldn’t keep quiet. He latched his mouth over hers and stumbled, taking her with them. He fell back on the couch, catching the brunt of their fall together. With his hands on her hips, he centered her over him, settling the ridge of his cock against her wet, pulsing sex. She gasped at the contact of his rough jeans on her sensitive clit. It was too much; she needed to get away. Except when he held her down with both hands and thrust upward with his hips—more pressure and ahhh, just right.

And still, she pulled away from the pleasure. It scared her, how much she craved it. How much she needed it. “What’s wrong, gorgeous?” he murmured, lids low with arousal. “I don’t…” she whispered. “Tell me what to do.” Make me, make me. His lips firmed. “Oh, gorgeous. There’s so much pain inside you.” All the pain centered at her core, where she had been violated, lost. Where she had been found again. Her knees barely brushed against the rough fabric of the sofa. She was suspended on top of him, riding the waves and helpless against its whims. “You don’t need me to hurt you,” he said roughly. “Yes,” she gasped. “Do it.” Her past always crept up on her in these moments, strangling her pain, tainting her pleasure. Her brother had given his life for her, but she’d never really be free. Nate was a hero, but even he couldn’t save her. He did the opposite of what she wanted, letting his hands fall back. “You hurt enough already. More than you ever should have. Give it to me. Hurt me instead. Dig your nails into me. Mark me, gorgeous. Fucking scar me.” Impossibly she found herself obeying him, reaching for him. Her hands and mouth were touching him, grasping him, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to feel every part of him, to feel the core of him, and he was seated just perfectly. She palmed his heat through his jeans, clumsy and harsh. He loved it, groaning against her lips. With a few flicks of the zipper, she pulled him into her palm, stroking the velvety shaft and swirling her thumb through the wetness at the tip. Hard, like he wanted. Rough, like she wanted. He bucked against her with an urgency that made her hot. It was a warning: soon, no time left. This had to be more than a handjob—she owed him that—so she sank down to the floor between his knees. “Fuck.” His words came in staccato bursts of breath as he hauled her back up. “Need to be inside you. That gorgeous little pussy is all wet for me, isn’t it? So fucking hungry.” He paused with the tip of his cock nudging at her entrance, her legs spread over his thighs. His eyes were glazed with lust. “Sofia?” She sank down around him, her eyes falling shut. “Yeah,” she breathed. Though she didn’t really understand the question, she knew the answer. Whatever he wanted—yes. Could she please him, keep him this time? God, she would try. Her body slackened by the pleasure of being filled, she set up a languorous pace, a roll of her hips combined with a swivel down. It was the last part that made his breath catch, and in a matter of minutes, his thighs were trembling beneath hers. His cock was always so impossibly hot. The first time she had touched him, she’d thought he felt feverish. But it was a sex fever, the sweetest delirium that made him call out her name. He let her rock over him until he reached his breaking point; then he grasped her hips and thrust up to meet her. Her mouth opened on a gasp and caught there, frozen with the sharp sensation. He reached someplace inside her that twinged as the soft head of his cock breached it. She shuddered every time, unable to tell the difference between good or bad, pleasure or pain—there was only Nate. His cock filling her up. His mouth enclosing her nipple. Her body was entwined with his, and they moved in a rhythm too intimate to name. It was a language for bodies alone, the rasp of his tongue against her pebbled nipple, the slippery scratch of his hair against her thick clit, the clenching and pulsing inside her as she came and then he did. She

rode out the final notes before collapsing on him. He stretched out the orgasm, pumping again once, twice into her before his cock slipped out of her and she felt a final spurt of hot liquid against her thigh. Sated, she remained over him in a sensual sprawl. A soft thunk shuddered through his body as his head hit the wall behind him. “You’re going to kill me.” His low baritone had been run through a shredder, sliced apart and missing pieces. Sex, he meant. Or maybe their relationship. That was what he meant, but still she shivered at his words, as if they were a premonition. She could really kill him. His involvement in this mess would only lead to him being injured or worse, and Jesus, now she understood why he’d gotten so damn upset when she’d talked about dying. It made her crazy to think of him at risk. She had always wanted him to care more, like he must have in Special Forces, except that job was rife with danger. A private investigator was one of the safest jobs he could have. She understood, suddenly, the appeal of the laid-back attitude. Don’t care; don’t bother. Don’t get hurt; don’t watch your loved ones get hurt. Lifting her head, she took in his lowered lids, his flushed lips. “You can go,” she said quietly. “I mean it. This isn’t a guilt trip or some kind of trick. This isn’t your fight.” Despite his disheveled state, his voice was even. Steady as a rock. “It is my fight. I should have stayed and fought for you. Not just now at the library. Back then, when you wanted me to get off my ass and do something with my life.” Guilt turned her stomach. “It wasn’t my place.” “No.” He put a finger over her lips. “You need to do this. I understand that.” Her throat tightened. She had wanted him to step up, and he had. “You’ll let me go see Moreland?” His expression became grim. “With me, Sofia. Always with me.” “But—” “You have to do this, and I have to stand beside you. You have to trust me to do that.” She nodded, knowing that protection was part of him. He was a hero, whether he admitted it or not. She wondered how long that promise extended. Only while she was in danger? Only while Moreland was a threat? He’d let her walk away once before. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave again.

Chapter Fifteen Matt slung himself into the small chair, spinning a few times before settling his elbows on the desk. So that was Sofia Mendoza. She looked younger than he’d thought. Prettier too. The pulled-back hair and small smile in her staff photo painted a different picture—more ambitious, less kind. It had been weird working for a person he hadn’t met, but those were the dues to be paid. A campus interview with a tired recruiter confirmed he had a brain between his ears. Then a quick tour of the Daily’s offices to sign the internship paperwork, but Sofia had been out on an assignment. So he’d put his hours in at night when he wasn’t at school or working in the library or at the university newspaper, hoping to get noticed. Not like this, though. His mom had freaked when she saw the news. The cell phone towers in Austin were jammed for hours the afternoon of the explosion. She was in tears by the time his phone actually rang. It had taken thirty minutes to calm her down and another hour to convince her he wasn’t going to drop out midsemester and fly home. Then Sofia showing up at his work…it had thrown him. He still felt bad for lying to her. He glanced at the alarm clock. Eight o’clock. She would be at the speech right now. He had time to catch her and confess, but how well would that go over? I think my girlfriend might have been the one to doctor up those files. Oh, and she’s not really my girlfriend. I’m just kind of in love, but I don’t even know how to find her. He’d broken his confidentiality agreement and his credibility as a reporter for what? All so he could get laid. He really hadn’t meant it that way, but he had to admit, that’s what he’d wanted. Though the sex hadn’t happened. Maybe she hadn’t been the one to tell. He couldn’t imagine why she had. If she had information, why not just tell him? Something stirred behind the door. He turned to see something small and brown dart across the floor. “Goddamn it, Jimmy.” He followed the gerbil into the closet, but the rodent was safely hidden under the mountain of dirty laundry. The girls in a room next door kept the gerbil in a cage, even though they weren’t supposed to. Matt privately agreed with the rule for precisely this reason. Whenever the gerbil got loose, which it inevitably did, it took days to catch him. One time he’d found Jimmy when he’d been tidying up. The days-old Cheetos bag on the floor had been heavier than it should—and wriggly. He still had nightmares about that. “Hey.” The low voice came from behind him, and he whirled. “Shit. You scared me.” There she was, her blonde hair in a braid, her hands shoved into her jeans pockets. She smiled uncertainly, the effect less brilliant than usual but somehow more poignant. He knew he’d been stupid as to show her his work and share details, but damn. When she looked at him that way, like the whole world was in front of her, he felt something open up inside him. He loosened, and the freedom in that was almost better than sex. Almost, because he still really wanted to have sex with her. “I worried about you,” she said. For a minute he wasn’t sure what she meant. Of course she knew about his job at the Daily because he’d told her about it. Bragged, actually. “Oh, the newspaper. Yeah, I wasn’t there. It’s really

tragic though. I’ve been watching it on TV.” She made this strange little shrug, almost fatalistic, stepping over the shambles of the room to the thin, clear window. Something was off about her. Every day she looked brand-new—different clothes, different hair. The same soul-tugging eyes. But today the change was more palpable. Melancholy shrouded her. He wanted to rip it away and find out what would make her smile, laugh. Did she ever laugh? He took one step toward her. “I need to talk to you about that. Did you… That day you looked at those articles and pictures. Did you change them? Add something to them?” She turned back sharply. The look in her eyes was soft, though. “Why would I do that?” “There was some information on them, in back of the documents. I didn’t add them so I thought maybe…maybe you did.” A sigh. “That was a mistake.” “So you did change the files?” He shook his head, mystified. This was like some kind of conspiracy-theory level shit. It was almost exciting to be a part of it, but he didn’t understand. “Why?” She looked away. “I wanted to help her. But I can’t.” More puzzles. “Why didn’t you send them to the Daily yourself?” “He’d know it was me,” she said flatly. “I guess he already did.” “Who?” “I have to go.” “Wait, we need to find Sofia. We have to tell her—” Her gaze sharpened. “Sofia is alive?” The skin on his neck prickled. Had he told her his boss’s name? Was it listed on some org chart on the Daily’s website? Obviously she knew more than she was telling him. She must have sought him out because of his internship at the Daily. That stung his ego, but then he’d always known she was too good for him. “She came by earlier,” he said. “Where is she?” “Probably long gone by now.” A lie, but he couldn’t be sure she was on Sofia’s side. “Oh.” She seemed to lose interest then, glancing instead to his rumpled bed. Of course he knew it was a distraction. She’d never had sex with him before. Hinted, yes. Made him lust after her, dream about her. But she’d never touched him. Stepping forward, she reached her arms around his neck. What if he was imagining things? Maybe she hadn’t done anything wrong. Or maybe he was just thinking with his dick. He let his hands fall on her waist, eager to feel her slender form, comforted by her warmth. He’d been chilled ever since hearing the news, but her mouth on his and her knowing hands on his body was just the balm he needed. They fell back onto the bed, her body small beneath his. She paused, blinking up at him. Tragic eyes, he thought, and then mocked himself. He should have been a poet, not a reporter. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she whispered. He froze, because this was their thing. The first thing she’d ever said to him was I didn’t mean to hurt you as she’d dropped a book on his head in the library. She hadn’t hurt him this time. In fact, he couldn’t really feel anything.

Only when he looked sideways did he realize why. The needle in her hand. He’d been too fucking horny to even register the prick. His gaze found her face again. Tragic eyes. Regretful, guilty eyes. He found his voice, hoarse and thready. “Why?” She pressed her lips to his, soft and chaste. “They want me to kill you, but I won’t do that. I’ll keep you safe.” He fell onto his side, and the world went black.

Chapter Sixteen Anticipation and a packed auditorium raised the temperature backstage. From the shadows, Nate watched the sound and lighting people check and recheck the systems. They had already scoped out the shitty little greenroom where Moreland should be. His heart rate was steady, breathing even and deep. His body recognized this as a mission. He was one man instead of a team, but he took this as seriously as any mandated operation, because Sofia was here. “You ready?” he murmured. Her hand shook slightly as she curled her hair behind her ear. “I’m good.” She wasn’t good, but he wasn’t going to argue with her. He had one job, and one job only—to make sure that she stayed alive. The thought of her hurt made him rip and bulge into some sort of Hulk, but that wasn’t safe. No, safest for her was the analytical intellect, the strategist, the soldier. The exits were mapped—in his head anyway. His not-exactly-legal concealed handgun was in one boot, his KA-BAR in the other. There were plenty of unknowns, but they all factored into the equation that only had one possible outcome: they’d both get out safely. Except whatever weapons came at them, Sofia had that hardest fight. She had to get that slimey politician to give up a secret, a lead—something. And she was nervous. He could feel her worry shimmer in the air around them. Older, more experienced reporters had tried to penetrate the Moreland wall. They had failed. But he believed in her. “You’ll get him.” She gave him a sideways glance. “How can you sound so sure?” “Because this is what you were born to do.” To push, to fight. To put herself in danger, if that meant protecting someone else. It was what he loved and hated about her. It was the reason he’d let her walk away that first time, but he didn’t think he could do it again. *** Sofia’s eyes scanned the crowds. “Where is he?” Moreland still hadn’t shown up and the speech was scheduled to start in minutes. “He’ll come.” Nate sounded sure, but what if the whole explosion and resultant press storm had him spooked? He might blow off the speech. “He could be halfway to Mexico right now on another shady aide mission.” “That’s the thing about egomaniacal assholes,” Nate murmured. “They think they’re above the law. He won’t get spooked. He’ll come.” Even the event organizers were starting to sweat as the minute hand leaned into the twelve. A sudden clatter from the hallway behind the stage sharpened her attention. With three minutes to spare, Moreland arrived. Flanked on both sides by suited men, bodyguards and advisors both, he radiated geniality and confidence. Her stomach turned over. “And I said to him, ‘Governor, how can we expect these kids to be on time to class if I don’t make it to my own speech?’” Nervous laughter met his question. They couldn’t be falling for this self-aggrandizing, name-dropping bastard, could they? But they were. Everyone backstage had frozen in place, wax statues of awe and admiration, as a female aide powdered his nose and straightened his tie.

His salt-and-pepper hair and grave brown eyes were striking, that was for sure. Sofia could see how they might be handsome if she had passed him on the street, without knowing about the invisible blood staining his hands. Blood of her colleagues. Blood of her friends. Nate’s hands were on her upper arms, restraining her. Confused, she glanced back. His face was dark. “Not like this.” A whimper escaped her, part fear, part frustration. She fought him—stubbornness and determination filling her with a strength equal to his. And then his hands tightened on her arms, almost bruising. His brown eyes sparked with heat. Then his hold didn’t feel confining as much as protective. She let her body fall against him, and he caught her in a tight embrace. “Shhh,” he soothed. “You’ll get your interview.” She gave him a wry smile. “Reporters, always angling for the interview.” His eyes filled with something almost soft. Affection? Love? He brushed his thumb over her bottom lip. “Not you, Sofia. You were always in it for the right reasons, always willing to fight for people who needed it. I didn’t stand a chance around you.” Warmth suffused her cheeks, and she looked away, uncertain. They’d done this once before, and it had nearly broken her to lose him then. Could she survive it a second time? Her gaze turned to the backstage, filled with lights and other equipment. And two stone-faced guards watching the crowd while Moreland spoke. “How will we talk to him?” she asked, cursing herself for a coward. She should have been able to look Nate in the eye, to tell him she wanted him. Tell him she loved him. The fact that she couldn’t said more about her fear of intimacy than it ever did about his profession, his heroism. She’d wanted to leave her childhood in the past, but it was following her around with this story. Or maybe she was the one who couldn’t let it go. When she chanced a glance at Nate, he still had that gentle look in his eyes. “We’ll be waiting for him.” Then his head lowered. His mouth touched hers, and she lost all sense of time and place. She wasn’t backstage, desperate for answers, on the run for her life. She was only heat and sensation, the sum of parts that touched Nate—her mouth, her hands. Her breasts. He backed her up against the wall, and she stumbled over thick cables. He steadied her until she leaned back, opening to him. He was a drug, her drug, and she felt her limbs go lax with every inhale. Suddenly, he was gone. His hand caught hers. Awareness returned in bright flashes of light. Applause. Cheering. The guards had stepped onto the stage now, still off to the side but flanking Moreland. Which meant they weren’t watching backstage. Nate caught her hand, and they dashed into a greenroom in the back. He shut the door behind them. “Did they see us?” she asked, breathless. “I doubt it,” he said, pushing her deeper into the room, half-hidden by a rack of suits. “He wouldn’t still be talking if they suspected anything.” She touched her lips, which still tingled. “Is that why you kissed me? To make them think we were two horny college kids?” His lids lowered. “I kissed you because I wanted to.” Heat raced through her veins. “He might not come back here.” Nate glanced at the lighted vanity and the spread of fruit and cheese. They weren’t exactly

Hollywood, but the university could draw big-name speakers. “He likes to think of himself as a celebrity. He’ll come.” She twisted her hands together, then forced them to her side. She was a reporter for the Daily, an award-winning newspaper. And this was the story of a lifetime. She’d felt that from the first time she looked at Moreland. Maybe only someone with her past would have been that suspicious. A deep breath. Maybe this story had always been meant for her. “So we wait.”

Chapter Seventeen The look of surprise on Moreland’s face was gratifying. The guns that his thugs pointed at them, less so. Nate stepped in front of her smoothly, palms up. Unarmed. “Gentlemen,” he said, that goodold-boy twang thicker than usual. “We don’t want any trouble.” “I just have questions,” Sofia added, pleased that her voice didn’t shake. Moreland’s shrewd eyes took them in quickly. He nodded to the men who looked more like thugs in suits than an official security detail. “I don’t think these two are any threat to me.” She lifted her chin and stepped beside Nate as the thugs reluctantly shut them inside. “Senator Moreland, I’m Sofia Reyes with the Daily. Do you mind if we record this conversation?” “The Daily. I heard about the unfortunate events, of course.” He gave her body a slow perusal. “Glad to see you made it out fine.” She felt Nate tense beside her. He wouldn’t like any man checking her out, but Moreland’s gaze felt especially slimy. She gave private thanks that he stayed silent, letting her run the interview. She was grateful for that. And she was grateful that he was here. His presence gave her strength. “I must object to the recording,” the senator said with a genial smile. “This isn’t a formal interview, after all.” Reluctantly she nodded and tucked the recorder in her pocket. She would play by the rules even if he didn’t. “Senator Moreland, you spend a great deal of your travel time in Mexico. Is there a reason for that focus?” His smile didn’t slip. “We share almost two thousand miles with the country. Of course our relationship is important to our well-being as a nation.” A very nice sound bite. “But your stance on immigration has been strict. In fact your opponent described it as extreme.” “Good fences make good neighbors. Mexico is a beautiful nation, but they’re suffering from a variety of social issues.” His beady eyes didn’t break contact with hers. “Drugs. Prostitution. Violence.” Her breath caught at the warning in his words. He was threatening them, even while his words could be printed and look like a concerned politician. Fear rose up in her chest, but anger too. This was what she’d become a reporter to fight, the kind of corruption she had once seen at the lowest level. And he was the top. It was time to stop playing nice. And the truth was, one of the male reporters at the Daily would have opened with this line of questioning. “Is that why you visit Mexico every other month? To confirm that prostitution and violence are still present?” A flash of rage ripped across his face. “Young lady, you have no idea what you’re stepping into.” “My newspaper was bombed for the data we had. Data about your trips. Whatever this is, I’m already deep. I’m already a part of this, and I’m not going to let it go.” His eyes narrowed; then suddenly he relaxed. His moods changed quickly, from screaming in anger to smiling at his supporters. That was part of what made him so dangerous. Now he turned to Nate and gave a genial smile. “You look military.” “Special Forces,” Nate said, his voice taut. “Then you’ve seen what it’s like in these third-world countries. The poverty. The danger. It’s no

place for a woman to visit.” Her teeth ground together at the blatant sexism, but she was gratified by Nate’s terse reply. “Women already live there.” Moreland leaned back, looking pissed. “So they do. And I do whatever I can to help. There are limitations, of course. My first priority is to my country.” “Help?” she asked softly. “Is that what you call it? You’ve been documented with ties to Antonio Lopez, a known cartel leader.” His expression turned pinched. “Those photos were taken a long time ago. And I met with him to see if I could convince him to stop. You go public, that’s what I’ll say.” And that was what he’d say about the hidden photos, the ones that showed him with men in Austin. Of course, she hadn’t figured out what they proved. Something bad or he wouldn’t have been willing to kill. Something bad enough that he wouldn’t be so sure he could convince everyone with his denials alone. She needed to figure out what they meant. She wouldn’t find that in the greenroom of the auditorium, but she might get something. A clue. A damned lead. Her chances were better now that he was riled up. “Senator, even speculation can derail a presidential campaign.” “I have not confirmed nor denied my candidacy,” he spat at her, the words practiced. She had expected that, but she hoped he wasn’t expecting this. “Won’t you miss your hillside mansion if you have to live in the White House?” His nostrils flared. “What do you know about that?” “It’s under an umbrella corporation, but I traced it back to you. It looked like a beautiful place on Google Earth, but I’m not sure why you’re keeping it a secret.” She paused, then went for the kill. “Or, for that matter, the warehouses in East Austin.” The pause felt thick with his anger, an animal backed into a corner. “My privacy is extremely important to me,” he finally said, his voice low. “My private investments are none of your business.” He turned to Nate again. “Maybe you should keep an eye out for your girl. Like she said, she’s already in deep. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to her. I wouldn’t want her to end up as one of my…investments.” The threat couldn’t have been more blatant if he’d spelled it out in neon letters. Nate made a low growling sound. “She’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of it.” Sofia could feel him holding himself back, and she prayed he’d keep it in. The guards outside would shoot first and ask questions later if Moreland ended up hurt. “You do that,” Moreland said, his words oily. He snapped his fingers, and the guards stepped inside. “Show these two out.” One of the guards started to reach for them, but Nate smoothly stepped in front of her. Whatever the guard saw in Nate’s eyes, he chose to step aside.

Chapter Eighteen They made it outside the building, Nate tense beside her. He had always been careful with her, always made sure to stand closer to the street when they walked together, always silently swept a room before they entered it. And that had been before the bomb. It made sense that he would be more careful now, but she felt something more. Maybe it wasn’t even Nate. Maybe it was in the air around them, the crackle of danger that she hadn’t been able to register outside the Daily’s office that day. “Nate,” she murmured, her voice shaky. He grabbed her hand and sped up, moving them along the shadows of the large auditorium. “Exiting to the north,” he said. She blinked, struggling to keep up with his long strides. “What?” He glanced back at her. “Almost there.” Only then did she realize he was speaking into some kind of communication device. Had he been wearing it the entire time? Then their conversation probably had been recorded after all. Moreland had been careful enough with his words that it wouldn’t matter. “Two minutes to the meeting place,” Nate said. The urgency in his voice made her breath catch. This was more than being careful. He thought something would happen. And then something was happening. All she heard was a pop. A gun? Another explosion? Then a rush of sound, and she realized it was a car zooming by them. She barely had time to register that before Nate pressed her flat against the brick. She saw a flash of glass, of a smooth metal barrel, and then the bullets came. Nate was shouting something. Pieces of brick pinged into her hair. “What’s happening?” she managed to say in a rush of breath. “Moreland,” Nate said shortly. It shouldn’t have surprised her, but it felt like a shock. It was one thing to know he was dirty, to suspect him, and to feel the whiz of bullets by her ears. “Why?” she said numbly. “We didn’t get anything.” “Doesn’t fucking matter,” he muttered, pushing away from her body, moving them deeper into the shadows. “We’re digging and that’s enough for him to get rid of us.” Get rid of them. She swallowed hard. There was fear there, for herself. More than that she felt fear for him. What had she gotten him into? Nate pressed a hand to his ear, listening. When he turned to her, his expression was grave. “Our backup is pinned down. We have to cross this green to the east.” She understood that if there were any other way, he would suggest it. If he believed this was their only route of escape, then it was. Even if that meant running right into the cross fire. “On your mark,” she said, her voice only a little wavery. He nodded. “Whatever happens, don’t fucking stop.” He meant if he got shot, she could keep running. She’d never leave him behind like that, but she didn’t bother arguing. She just nodded, because the sooner they ran, the sooner they’d get across. His gaze took in her features as if memorizing her. “I never should have let you leave.” Her mouth opened in surprise. Before she could form a response, he took off running, pulling her behind him. She stumbled first and then found her footing. Spongy grass sank beneath her feet. They made it halfway across the green before the shots came again. Clumps of mud shot up at

her almost as fast as the bullets, and she twisted her ankle. The ground padded her fall, but she still felt the impact in her brain, her vision a whir of lights against darkness. She heard Nate swear. Then his hand was lifting her. The world turned upside down, a firm shoulder beneath her stomach. They were moving again. Running? He was carrying her. No, his knee. It was too much for him to run, for him to support her weight as well as his, but he hadn’t asked. He’d just acted like the hero that he was. Impossibly he moved so much faster, even with a permanently injured knee, even with her weight, than she’d been able to run behind him. Dark blades of grass blended together in a long glistening streak. Then they were on pavement again. She felt it in the burst of speed. A car door opened. She barely had time to register the world turning right-side up again before she was pressed into the backseat. Nate murmured to someone. Directions? Orders? Then the vehicle jolted forward, pulling away from the bullets, from the men out to get them. “We clear?” Nate murmured, and she knew he was still talking to someone else. She didn’t hear the response, but she felt it in the relaxation of his body. Her hands were shaking. Her whole body was shaking. “How can he just— At a university!” “I know, gorgeous,” he said, running his hands along her arms, warming her up. “He’s a fucking maniac. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. Instead he felt along her ribs, her hips, her legs. Making sure that she was still in one piece, because God, she didn’t feel like it. “You knew, didn’t you?” she asked. “That’s why you didn’t want me to come. You knew what he’d try.” “I suspected. If he was as dirty as you thought he was, if he knew you were digging, he’d be desperate enough for this.” “He’s escalating,” she said, a strange numbness creeping through her. The explosion had been huge, but easily explained as a terrorist attack. Lots of different factions and people would be interested in waging retaliation against the Daily. A newspaper wasn’t worth its salt if it didn’t make enemies. People had been injured, but no one killed, thank God. But the people shooting at them, there’d been no terrorist group to blame, no excuse for a dead reporter. Everyone would know that whatever her story, she’d been the target. And still he’d attempted to have her killed. Was he that smug that he’d never be caught? Or was he just insane? “If you get a clear shot, take it,” Nate said as he pulled an earpiece out. “I’m going dark.” She narrowed her eyes at the easy way he operated. Of course she knew he’d been in the military. She’d had no doubt that he’d been incredibly competent and, yes, dangerous. This felt like more than old habits, though. This felt fresh. She had known this man before. At least she thought she had. Now she stared at him through fresh eyes, realizing things he’d never told her. “You never left, did you?” she breathed. He gave her a glance, a little wary. “What?” “You’re in black ops,” she said, accusing. “With Ford, I bet.” He turned and looked out the window, at nothing but black. No answer. That meant yes. “Why? Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded. “Why put you in danger?” he said as if this wasn’t a revelation. As if this didn’t change everything. “The PI thing is a cover, and it was better that you believed it.”

She still couldn’t believe he’d kept this a secret from her. And she couldn’t believe that she, a reporter, hadn’t figured it out before now. But then, he was damn good at his job. And she had been blinded by love. Shock still resounded inside her, coloring everything he’d ever said or did. Every moment he came to her late at night, slipping into her bed when she was already sleeping. Every bruise and cut he’d ever gotten while they had been together. “Why a PI?” she asked because it was all she could manage. A large shoulder lifted. “It lets me snoop around, ask questions, go into places I’m not supposed to be. People find out I’m a PI, they assume I’m there to dig up dirt on a cheating wife. That’s familiar to them. Safe, even. Unless they’re the wife.” She didn’t laugh. “So all this time,” she said slowly, “none of it was real?” In the dark interior of the car, she couldn’t see his expression, but she could feel the gravity. “I did real jobs. That’s how the cover stays solid. A few angry husbands and wives coming to my offices, a money trail, keeps it legit.” “And the rest of the time?” “The rest of the time I was working with Ford.” She turned away, staring blankly out the window. Feeling more alone than she had even after the blast. A soft touch on her arm. “Hey,” he said gently. “You were wrong about one thing. Everything with you was real, Sofia. If you believe anything, believe that.” She stared at his shadowed profile, not sure whether she could trust him. Not sure that she could trust the feelings inside her—the respect for what he did, the fear that he would be hurt. The love that surged up even stronger. “You were wrong about one thing too,” she finally said. “What’s that?” “Moreland did give us something. He told us what he’s shipping.” I wouldn’t want her to end up as one of my…investments. “Women.”

Chapter Nineteen Sofia thought they’d go back to Ford’s house, but instead they checked into a low-rent motel in the west side using a fake ID and cash. She wouldn’t have looked twice at the fake IDs. She’d known he would have them as a private detective. She would have looked twice at the bag of military-grade guns and other supplies. Because she hadn’t known that he was working with Ford in black ops. Still a soldier, after all. The place smelled musky, but it was clean enough. She stared into the darkness, listening to the sound of running water. She imagined rivulets running over dusky skin and hard-packed muscle. Heat speared through her—and worry too. Years of being in the army had made Nate ruthlessly efficient. He could soap up and rinse off in a matter of minutes, so the fact that he’d been in there for half an hour was telling. It meant his knee was hurting him. She’d been tempted to go in with him, to run her hands along his slick skin, to get on her knees and make him forget his pain. But he wouldn’t like her seeing him this way. Hurt. Weak. At least that was how he’d see it. The truth was, he was incredibly strong. God, how could he not be hurting? He’d held her in his arms. He’d run with her. She might be slender, but she was a grown woman. And his knee had never healed fully—would never heal fully considering it had been shattered and left to fester for days before he got free. It was a miracle he could walk. It was a miracle he was even alive. And he’d almost died today. Because of her. Because of the work she loved so much. It had been her dream as a child, to expose the injustices she saw around her, to shine light into the darkness. Except Nate was her light in the darkness. How could she risk him? How could she give him up? The fact that he was black ops didn’t change the fact that he could die. She’d already known he could defend himself, but could he defend her against an army? The faucet squeaked as the water stopped. Nate’s shadow blocked the light as he dried off his tall, broad body. The sliver of light went black. The door opened. She felt more than saw him move across the room. Stiff. Slow. Metal springs creaked as he slid into bed beside her. Naked. It was impossible for her not to know he hadn’t put on clothes. He wouldn’t have had any that were clean. And she could feel the heat of him emanating beneath the sheet. And still, he didn’t reach for her. Did he think she was asleep? Did he want to keep his pain a secret, even now, in the dark? Part of her wanted to give him that space, but the pull was too strong. Too acute. Her body moved without her knowledge, covering the distance between them, moving her palms to his furred chest. In the light he had tattoos that proclaimed his love for his country—his love for her. In the dark he was purely man—soft skin over hard muscle, gentle movement as he breathed. “Sofia,” he muttered, a warning. Except after what they had been through, she felt like being reckless. Her lips met the indent beneath his shoulder, in that place where his muscle crested. “Nate.” A shudder ran through his body. “You could have died today.” Her heart clenched, because she knew what he wanted. And she knew she couldn’t give it to him.

When she had first met him, she’d still been a junior reporter at the Daily. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed no matter how many crap assignments Andre had given her. He’d given her some pagefiller assignment on the groundbreaking ceremony for Dawson Tech’s new building. She was supposed to write about how great Dawson was, about the glossy building design, about the fancy ultra-natural landscaping. Fuck him, Nate had said in that Southern drawl he got when he was extra pissed. Give him two fucking sentences about the new building, then write whatever the fuck you want. That’s what she’d done, using the groundbreaking as a springboard to a think piece on sexism in the booming Austin tech industry. She’d held her breath with Remy, waiting to hear what Andre was going to say. He hadn’t called her into his office that time. He’d come out with a printout of her article, copyedited in red pen—he was old-school that way. And he’d said, You aren’t fired, Mendez. Just make sure this happens again. “Do you remember the groundbreaking article?” she murmured. He made a coarse sound. “I remember the other news outlets picking up your story like it was their fucking idea.” She laughed silently. He was so protective of her. And she loved that about him. Only then did she remember, a flash of light in the dark, where she had seen the man in the picture on that hidden file. The one that had been worth blowing up a newspaper data center, worth invading her apartment. Worth killing her over. Mark Dawson. A younger, grinning Mark Dawson. Her body tensed, wanting to investigate the lead immediately. But then Nate would come with her. His knee was already bothering him after their sprint. He’d already been shot at, endangered, because of her story. Because of her. She wanted to comfort him the only way she knew how, the only way that would work. Her lips found his shoulder, his chest. Her hands worked over the ridge of his abs, lower. “I want you too much,” he said hoarsely, his voice a rough caress in the dark. “I couldn’t be gentle with you. I couldn’t…stop.” He didn’t need to move for what she had planned. She pulled the sheet down, moving between his legs. She heard his breath catch, felt the hitch in his body. “Let me,” she whispered. He groaned. “Fuck, gorgeous. You ruin me.” His words ricocheted through her body. She was ruining him—and she’d have to leave him. That was the only way to keep him safe. Not tonight, though. Tonight he was hers. She put her fists around his cock, already thick and throbbing beneath her touch. He rocked into her hands, thrusting upward. She slowed her strokes, bending down to kiss the tip of his cock. A low growling sound rent the air. “Suck me, gorgeous. Take me in that sweet mouth. I need you.” Still she teased him, letting her tongue lap the satiny crown, resisting. Then his hands tangled in her hair. With a grunt he pulled her down. She opened her mouth as he slid inside, leaving the salty proof of his arousal on her tongue. Powerful hips thrust up in small increments, his control strained, thigh muscles trembling beneath her palms. He found the rhythm he wanted, and in those melodic moments she found the surrender she needed. It was a joining, a fight, pulling her close even while he stole her breath. Every moment they had spent apart tugged her scalp, his hands in her hair. And every sweet moan and helpless grunt drew

her back to him. She only had time to register the slide of his crown as he left, the absence of him, before he flipped her over on the bed. She turned quickly, landed softly, the front of her body cradled in sheets warm from him. His hands spanned her hips, fingertips bruising; then her hips were in the air. He shoved a pillow under her, his movements jerky. Her hands opened and closed against the sheets, grasping nothing. “Nate?” “Let me,” he said roughly, mirroring her request. How could she deny him? She could refuse him nothing, not even when he mounted her from behind, his cock a thick presence at her entrance. His thrust forced a sharp sound from her throat, both protest and retreat. “Too much,” she gasped out. “Wait.” He pulled back out and pushed in harder, faster. “Can’t,” he grunted. “Can’t stop.” She squeezed her eyes together, forcing hot tears onto the bed. It wasn’t the worst pain she’d ever felt, wasn’t close to the foreign burn of strange men, the flash of red bandannas. But God, somehow it hurt the most. As if she could feel every sting of betrayal, of violence, that was buried deep inside the man behind her. He pushed his own darkness into her, and she took it, she took it—she reveled in the jagged edges of it. His fingers dug into her hips, pulling her back as he thrust forward. She couldn’t have controlled this any more than she could have made the ocean stay still. He moved her as soundly, as surely as nature itself, and she floated on the force of him. She didn’t know how long she drifted that way, her body impaled on his, around him, holding whatever shape he gave her. All she saw was darkness, all she heard was the slap of flesh. All she felt was him, his weight and presence surrounding her, his need lapping at her skin. Her orgasm swept over her in a rush of arousal. The word climax lost meaning. There was no shape to her, no beginning and, God, no end. Her inner muscles vibrated in helpless response. She came for minutes, for hours, the whole damn night while he fucked her from behind like a machine. No, not like a machine. A machine would be mindless, unfeeling. He came apart behind her, holding on to her like she was the only thing that could put him back together. His emotions filled the shadows of the room, enemies lurking in every innocent corner, danger an intimate companion. When at least he came, he roared with both pain and pleasure, with a haunting release that reverberated through her, a rare and precious peek into the heart of a man. Not just any man. This man. This soldier. This fighter. This jaded hero who wanted to stop caring, but he just couldn’t. A lesser man would have turned away from the world, would have crumpled under the weight of his injuries, his loss. But Nate cared about his country, the people in it, so deeply. He couldn’t stop, just like she couldn’t stop loving him. Breaking up hadn’t changed that. Nothing would. But how could she be with him, when it put him in danger? She needed to go after Mark Dawson, needed to nail Moreland now more than ever. How could she risk Nate’s life? Her brother had died for her. She wouldn’t let Nate die too.

Chapter Twenty He woke her in the night, his lips on the back of her neck, his body hard and wanting behind her. His large hand slipped down her stomach before he touched between her legs. She was already wet for him, already soft with desire. Her hips rocked into his hand, begging for more pressure. Coarse fingertips circled her clit until she sobbed her release. He started to climb over her, but she stopped him. “Wait.” His eyes on her were hot as she left the bed, naked, and crossed to the black bag of weaponry and equipment. She bypassed the guns and ammo and knives. She’d been looking for handcuffs, but rope would have to do. When she stalked back to the bed with the twine of black rope in her hands, he gave her a devastating grin. “You want me to tie you up?” God, yes, please. Her body turned liquid at the thought of being at his mercy. Except she needed something else more than pleasure. She needed redemption. “Something like that,” she said, straddling his large body. Maybe he didn’t worry because he was so much stronger than her. Or maybe it was just a testament to how much he trusted her, but he didn’t stop her from tying his wrists to the bed frame. Instead his lips captured her nipple, sending sparks of desire to her core. It was a knot he had taught her, the couple of times they’d gone out on Lake Travis. Then she leaned back, examining his muscled body, all tied up. She would have wanted him to tie her up, but she couldn’t deny the beauty this way. His arms were a work of art, his chest broad and strong, his waist tapered with tight muscle. “Fuck, you’re gorgeous this way,” he muttered, studying her body. A blush heated her cheeks, probably all the way down to her breasts. Her nipples tightened under his heated gaze. “You know I care about you.” He stilled beneath her. “God, Sofia.” She hesitated, feeling torn. “I think I love you.” A grunt, a recoil, as if she’d punched him in the stomach. “You’re telling me this now, when I’m tied up.” Without answering, she bent and pressed her lips to the center of his chest, then down his abs, until she reached his cock. A single kiss to the tip, licking the salty pearl away. An apology. A goodbye. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Fuck, fuck. Don’t be sorry, gorgeous.” His eyes darkened, arms straining against the bonds. But she’d tied them tight, using knots he had shown her. He wouldn’t get free. “I love you too. I’ve been going fucking crazy wanting you. Always half a second away from going to your house and begging you to take me back—or fuck, from tying you to the bed.” That made her smile. “It would have been good that way. Better than this.” Then she backed up off the bed. Awareness seeped into his hot gaze. “What are you doing?” “I have to go, and I can’t…I can’t let you get hurt.” “Jesus, Sofia. You think if you take one wild risk after another that you’ll stop being that girl in the closet, that victim? Do you? That if you take down enough fuckers like Moreland, you’ll finally win?” She blinked, somehow not surprised that he had her figured out. She’d whispered her darkest

fears to him under cover of night, naked in every sense of the word. It didn’t change anything. “I’m sorry.” Nate’s eyes burned. “Because you’ll always be that girl, Sofia. But the thing is, I love that girl. She fucking survived. She’s beautiful and strong. And I need her to stay alive, so stay with me.” It always came back to that, the way he had wanted her to choose between him and the paper, the way he’d wanted her to back down from a fight. Except how could she truly be strong if she was always afraid? “I’m sorry,” she repeated softly, meaning it this time. He must have seen the determination in her eyes, because he fought the rope with a curse. “Don’t do this, Sofia. Don’t fucking do this to me.” She turned and got dressed, ignoring his cursing and the ominous clanging of the bed frame against the cheap wall. But she knew this was the best for him. That made it easier for her to slip out of the room, locking the door behind her. *** Then it was just a matter of walking to the closest bus stop. She felt a little bad about taking his cell phone, but he’d thrown away the SIM card in hers. He would be able to track his phone eventually, but she hoped she’d be done before then. The first call she made was to Remy. Voice mail. “Remy, it’s me. Where are you? Shit’s getting crazy.” Moreland is dirty, and I think I figured out the link he doesn’t want us to find. It has something to do with Dawson Tech, and I’m heading over there now. That was what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t be sure they weren’t listening. She couldn’t risk endangering her friend before she knew Remy was safe. “Be careful,” she said before hanging up. Then she called Andre, who picked up on the second ring. “Who is this?” “Sofia Mendes.” “Fuck,” he said. “Where the hell are you?” “I’m on the move,” she said, not sure how much to give away. “Well, get in here,” he barked. “They found men at your apartment. One dead. One in custody.” “I can’t come in yet. There’s something I have to check out.” “Fuck, Sofia. I already thought you were dead once. Come straight here. We can get you protection.” Not against this. “I’ll call you when I know more.” He swore again. “Is Remy with you?” Her blood went cold. “No. Was she injured in the blast?” “That was me, laid up in the hospital. She came to visit me; I remember that much.” A heavy pause. “And then she fucking disappeared.” I wouldn’t want her to end up as one of my…investments. Was that what had happened to Remy? She hadn’t been on the Moreland story, but she had sat across from Sofia. Maybe it was open season on anyone who even knew her. Or maybe Remy had actually found a clue, something that connected Moreland to the explosion. The bus pulled up to the curb, its interior gleaming dully against the night. “I have to go,” she said, interrupting his protests. “I’ll be careful.” On the bus she used the phone’s browser to look up the article she had written for the Daily. There was a quote from Mark Dawson. I do whatever I can to help women advance in technology, within limits. My first priority is to my company, of course.

Christ, he even talked like Moreland. How had she not seen it before? Unfortunately, there was no shortage of men who used bullshit doublespeak. And then the tech article had been a few years ago. She’d seen no connection on the surface between a rich tech CEO who drove a Tesla and a senator who had dirty ties to Mexico. Clearly there was something deep, something dark, between them. The bus took her toward the outer edges of downtown, the stop abandoned and dark. There weren’t even streetlights leading into the night. A cab could have brought her closer, but she couldn’t risk being seen. Birds hooted from shadowed trees. Small shuffles in the gravelly terrain told her rodents were awake. Judging by the size of one possum, its eyes bright, some of those rodents were as big as dogs. She shivered, walking faster. Would Nate have gotten free? She’d only been gone thirty minutes, at most. He’d be furious with her, but he’d be safe. Her footsteps sounded loud by the time the glass building pierced the horizon, its glass windows glinting in moonlight. Crunch, crunch, crunch. She moved farther away from the road, where coarse brush at least hid her steps more than the rocky ground. As she rounded a hill, the parking lot came into view. Empty, of course. Not many workers in the office in the middle of the night. So what did she expect to find? She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. This was what Andre had taught her, to follow the clues no matter where they took her. And it was what Nate had taught her, to give them two sentences and then write whatever the fuck she wanted. This was her story. Whatever was happening, it was coming to a head. With Moreland in town, with his inventory at risk, this was her best chance to find out the truth. And if she didn’t find out, she would forever be in limbo, the threat looming over her head. She would have failed her mission as a journalist. In some way, she felt that she would fail Nate too. He’d fought for freedom on foreign soil. This was her part, fighting crime and corruption right here in America. Maybe if she actually did this, she would be equal to him. Maybe she would be worthy of him. Worthy even after what had happened to her. She circled the building, expecting to search through trash bins to find anything. But then, this was her work. It wasn’t always glamorous, but at least no one shot at her. Voices drifted to her over the sound of her own breath. She froze. Part of her wanted it to be a trick of the wind. Another part of her knew that this was where something would happen. This was the link he was hiding. Now she would find out why. Quietly, quietly, she crept closer, still tucked behind dense foliage that surrounded the building, part of the design’s tribute to nature that would have been the focal point of her article on the groundbreaking, if she hadn’t changed it. More voices. Her stomach formed a tight knot. The person speaking wasn’t Mark Dawson. It wasn’t even Stephen Moreland. Oh God, it almost sounded like…Remy. Her friend. Her fellow reporter. How was this possible? Horror crept into her veins, and the gentle hillside breeze felt like zero degrees. “I told you to take care of him,” said a male voice. Moreland? “And I did,” Remy said. “He’s not going to talk until the shipment is gone.”

“If you’d done what you were supposed to, he wouldn’t talk ever again.” Who were they talking about? Dawson? They spoke faster and harder, as if in anger. An argument? Damn it, she needed to know. Sofia crept closer, heart beating so loud she could barely hear anything. “She’s still out there,” came another male voice. “Don’t worry about her.” Remy. “I’m not worried,” Moreland said. “This is the end of the line. No more shipments. No more bullshit. No more nosy little reporters who don’t know when to quit.” “And the last job,” Remy said. “Of course.” That sounded like it was said with a smile. Sofia’s chest constricted with pain, with betrayal. There had been fear that Remy had been hurt. And there’d been a sliver of hope that she’d actually uncovered some clue, on the trail as one of the best reporters Sofia knew. But the fear and the hope had turned into anger. Remy was working for them. She needed to call Nate. She should call Andre. She had to— A click from behind her. Something hard pressed against her head. “End of the line,” came a voice she distantly recognized as Mark Dawson. “Guess you really don’t know when to quit.”

Chapter Twenty One Sofia had a lot more sympathy for Nate as she twisted her hands. Her wrists ached from pulling them against the tight ropes, her skin on fire, rubbed raw. They had left her in some kind of large shed with equipment that was hard to make out in the dark. Maybe riding lawn mowers. Which meant there might be clipping shears somewhere in here, but she couldn’t move an inch. Her hands were tied behind her, so tight she already felt pins in her shoulders as they went numb. More black rope tied her ankles to the chair legs. Remy hadn’t been able to meet her eyes. How long had she been here? An hour. Maybe two. Oh Nate, I’m sorry. Sofia wasn’t sorry that she’d left him tied up. She had no doubt that if he’d come with her, he would be tied up too. Or maybe they’d just have shot him on sight. There had been more men with Dawson, hired guns like the ones who had invaded her apartment. No, she was sorry that she’d ever walked away from him. It had only been a few months apart, but they could have spent that time together. It would have been worth it, even knowing there’d be heartache at the end. He hadn’t liked her job, but she would have stood her ground. She would have, if she hadn’t been so determined to prove something to herself, to the world, after what had happened to her. Not just another broken girl. Not a victim. And now she was tied up in a warehouse, so she’d lost that fight. And she’d lost Nate. A scratch came from behind her. Oh God, that was all she needed, some kind of possum or rat who wanted to nibble at her feet. It could be something worse, something bigger. Like a coyote. The Hill Country was still largely wooded out here, with deer crossings commonplace. And where there were deer… That was kind of the point of the ultra-natural landscaping. How ironic that she’d ended up in a place to care for those native shrubs, the ones she was supposed to write about. The sound came again, louder this time. More of a long drag against the cement floor. It seemed to drag along her spine. Her heart pounded, beating up into her throat, almost pulsing in her eyelids. She’d already been held at gunpoint, threatened, tied up—nothing else should make her afraid, but she still felt like a teenaged girl hiding in the closet. Her gaze darted over the bulky shadows until a slender silhouette formed. “Remy,” she gasped, part in relief, part in anger. “I’m so sorry,” Remy whispered. “I never wanted you to be hurt.” Maybe she’d wanted Remy to deny her involvement, despite what she’d heard before, because Sofia’s gut clenched in disappointment. “How could you?” Something glinted in the dark—a knife? Remy knelt in front of her and tugged at the rope around her ankles. “I told you not to go after Moreland.” “And you knew that I couldn’t stop.” The other ankle now. “Well, you have to now. They won’t tie you up next time.” Sofia waited while Remy circled to cut her hands free. Then she stood and backed up. “You have to know I won’t. How did you get involved with them, Remy? Is this about money?” Remy made a dismayed sound, maybe insulted. “It’s a long story.” “I’ve got time.” Especially since Moreland had taken her phone. A sigh, and Remy’s shadow sat down on a box of undetermined contents. “My sister.”

The image of Diego’s face flashed through Sofia’s mind, that red bandanna he wore until the very end. “I didn’t know you had a sister.” “Allison was older than me. We were close when we were little. Then she got older, got messed up with a fucked-up crowd. Drugs. Sex. That kind of thing.” A sick feeling settled into her stomach. This sounded too close to Sofia’s story, a parallel. She sat down beside Remy. “What happened?” “Spring break. Cancun. And she never came back.” “Oh my God.” “My parents pretended that she’d run away, maybe met a boy and lived a life of sin and alcohol. That way they could judge her, while still believing she had chosen that. But I knew something worse had happened to her.” “That’s horrible, Remy. I’m so sorry.” Remy shook her head. “You don’t understand. I told her to go. She had wanted us to spend time together that week. But I’d been pissed at her for spending so much time with her friends lately. I told her that if she loved her friends so much, she should go with them.” And so Remy blamed herself for what had happened to her sister. “It wasn’t your fault,” Sofia said softly. “I told her I didn’t care about her!” Sofia looked down, swallowing hard. She had always felt guilty for the way her brother had died, even though he’d done it to protect her. And he’d felt guilty for what his gang brothers had done to her, even though it wasn’t really his fault. They were all just adrift, at the mercy of the dark forces around them. Except that Remy was helping them. “Moreland is mixed up with human trafficking,” Sofia said, putting the pieces together. “I started tracking her down as soon as I got into college. Spent every break in Mexico, learning the language, making contacts.” A rough laugh. “Part of me wanted them to take me too, because then at least I’d know what happened to her.” Sofia knew how the guilt could make you reckless, how you could almost want the pain, believe you deserve it. Maybe that was how she’d ended up in this warehouse, after all. “Then I tracked it to Moreland,” Remy said. “I was already graduated by then, working at the Daily. I begged Andre to give me the story, but he thought it would seem like favoritism.” Sofia gasped softly. “Because you were together.” Remy looked away. “Together. I guess you could say that. Not that it helped me in the end. Not that it helped him either. He was hurt in the blast, did you know that?” “Shit.” “Yeah. And it’s my fault, because I should have nailed Moreland when I had the chance. Should have shot him in the fucking heart.” “Why didn’t you?” Sofia had always wanted to play by the rules, had believed in them like Nate had once believed in them—with an idealism that was destined to break. But Remy had always had a dark streak in her eyes, a determination that Sofia knew to take seriously. “He has my sister,” Remy said softly. “He has Allison.” Her throat tightened. “Are you sure?” “There were…pictures.” A rough sound. “He said if I did things for him, I could get her back. I thought I could do it, that I could keep everyone safe and save her too. That I could still nail him when it was over.”

Sofia ached with the knowledge that her friend had been up against so much, facing it alone. There was anger still, a sense of betrayal. But she knew that she’d have done the same to save the people she loved. “Where are they now?” “I don’t know,” Remy said, her voice dull. “They think I’m on my way to the Daily to spin some bullshit story about Moreland’s wonderful speech. Every time he says this is the last job, but it never ends.” “He’ll never give her back,” Sofia said softly, gently, but her friend had to know. Allison would be the smoking gun that would put Moreland away forever. “I know that, but there’s a shipment coming through tonight. I don’t know where it is, but if I can find it, if I can get the girls away from him, that might be the leverage I need to get her back.” And to expose him as a monster. “Do you have a car?” “Why?” “I have a few places we can check. Some warehouses owned by the same shell corporation that owns that mansion in Austin.” Remy gasped. “You didn’t tell me there were warehouses too.” “I didn’t realize we were working on the same story,” Sofia said in a dry voice. “I checked them out, but they were empty. I bet they aren’t empty now.”

Chapter Twenty Two Nate cracked the last piece of wood on the metal door. The bedpost split in half, splintering across the thin carpet. That gave him enough slack to wrench one hand from the loop. He’d managed to split the cheap frame in two before using the door as a reverse hammer. The rope fell onto the floor. Fuck, he had taught her that knot. He grabbed the hotel phone and made a call to Ford’s secure line. “She’s gone.” “What do you mean, gone?” his friend asked. “They took her.” Nate grimaced. “She left. Tied me to the bed. Took off with my phone. I need you to track it. And send a motherfucking car for me.” Only the sound of quiet laughter answered him. “Tied you…to the bed…” He waited, furious that he’d let her get away. Or maybe he was more furious that she had sprung the L-word when she’d been about to leave him. Again. “She could be in danger,” he ground out. “So if you could pull your head out of your ass, maybe?” “Sorry,” Ford said, not sounding sorry. “I’ll send a car for you. And clothes?” “I have clothes,” Nate growled out before hanging up the phone. Then he packed his gear and headed out the door. Someone from the next room peeked out their blinds. Clearly they’d heard him rip apart the bed frame like the fucking Hulk. He stalked the nearest bus route until he found the driver who’d picked her up, though he couldn’t remember her stop. It had taken him long enough that her trail was cold. Hopefully Ford came through with the fucking trace. Ford didn’t just send a car. He came himself, pulling up alongside where Nate had started walking toward campus. The tinted window rolled down, revealing the grinning bastard. “I think I’m in love,” the bastard said. Nate opened the door and slung his body inside. “She’s taken.” He might be pissed at her, but that didn’t mean he was giving her up. Even if his friend was fucking kidding. But he couldn’t be sure, because anyone with half a brain could see how amazing Sofia was. He could still feel her body above him, breasts hanging with dark nipples, hair spilling around her shoulders. Her eyes had been a fucking siren’s, calling to him. He’d almost come just looking at her. And when she’d left him there, her determination like goddamn armor around her slender body, he hadn’t been any less turned on. Ford handed over a new phone. “They turned your phone off, probably thinking we can’t track it that way. But since it’s yours, it’s got a separate signal.” “So where the fuck is she?” He was having a hard time ignoring the black panic, imagining Sofia in danger, in enemy hands. Hurt, abused. The way she had been before. “Some warehouses on the east side. My intel doesn’t show anything, but we’ll go directly there. I have two other teams en route, but they’re farther away than us.” At least Ford knew how to run a fucking op. “I’m going in.” He couldn’t risk waiting for the woman he loved. I think I love you. He was going to make her pay for that in the most delicious, depraved ways he could think up. Ford gave him a sideways glance. “You’re too close to this.” “I’m going in,” he ground out. At least Ford stopped arguing, communicating with his teams via radio. He’d pulled them back from other cities when he realized shit was going down tonight, but they were still an hour out. Too

long. “Fine,” Ford finally said. “We’ll go in together.” “No.” He couldn’t risk his friend getting killed, especially without backup. He knew the risks when he went in, but that didn’t mean Ford had to take them. “You wait for your team.” Ford snorted. “You can’t have it both ways. Either we both wait or we go in together.” This was the part Nate hated most about black ops. At least with his cover, the PI gig, he got to work alone. Relying on his teammates, having them rely on him, took him back to that fucking hut every time. He imagined her tortured body. All that gorgeous tan skin he’d seen just hours ago—broken, violated. They couldn’t wait, not for any reason. If it took him back to the hut, so fucking what. They parked two miles away and armed themselves to the teeth. Anyone who got between him and Sofia was going down. Anyone who laid a finger on her? Down. Simple as that. Ford communicated their plans to the rest of the teams before going dark, so they could go in silent. The warehouses were long abandoned, signs faded and fallen, the alleys strewn with old debris. That was the point, for someone as dirty as Moreland. Seclusion. Secrecy. This was how he operated. The first guard Nate came across didn’t see him coming. Nate had him in a headlock, knocked out, then gagged and tied, before he could let out a shout. Ford gave a curt nod and left to repeat the procedure as many times as necessary. A window clouded with grit gave them a clear view of exactly why Moreland needed that secrecy. Women, just like Sofia had said. Nate had always known she was a fucking amazing reporter, but the fact that she’d blown open such a dark operation was a new level. And it might have gotten her killed. He scanned the bodies huddled along a wall, most naked, some with dirty rags. She wasn’t there. “No visual,” he murmured, barely a breath, as Ford joined him from his perimeter check. “Four down,” Ford murmured back, meaning he’d taken out four guards patrolling the outside. “I’m counting five more inside. Plus a guy I don’t recognize.” Ford took in the girls against the wall with a curse. “Looks like, what? Thirty of them? Jesus fuck.” It complicated things because they couldn’t allow them to be hurt. Sofia was the most important things in Nate’s mind, but he knew the captive women had just become the priority. Without a visual on Sofia, they had to act on what they could see. He sent up a small prayer to the God he had long ago turned away from that she would be safe in the meantime. “Should we wait for your teams?” Ford ran a hand over his face, clearly shaken by the sight of those women tied up. “We don’t know what could happen in the meantime. What they’ve already been through.” Extracting one woman would have been risky enough, but thirty? “They’ll be safer with backup.” Ford studied them, his expression grim in the dim glow of the grimy window. “You’d have gone in for Sofia. We don’t know these women, but they don’t deserve anything less. We go in.” Nate nodded, knowing he would back up his friend regardless of his decision. The same way that Ford had been willing to back him up. There were some benefits to having a team. In a matter of minutes, they worked through a takeover strategy. Nate would enter through the

front, taking down two of the men and drawing fire away from the women. He’d have the element of surprise, but he’d be vulnerable that way. Ford would use the back entrance, taking down the remaining guards with stealth. Then he’d usher the women out of the building and attempt to secure them near the SUV until backup arrived. “Ready,” Nate said, his mind focused on his task. He couldn’t think about Sofia, couldn’t worry what was happening to her. Ford deliberated for one second. Then he nodded. “Five seconds.” He disappeared around the corner, and Nate took his position near the front entrance. In ops like this, making the plan took longer than actually executing it. Everything happened in a matter of seconds, the entire action over in minutes. His brain reverted to the old flip-book style of processing, slowing down everything to snapshots. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. The burst of light when he opened the door. Splatter of red as one guard went down. Whizz of bullets as he took aim. The second guard went down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ford take down the last two guards. Exactly as they’d planned. Everything executed with precision, just as he’d been trained, just as he’d known they were capable of. Except for the unknown, the unexpected whine of an aircraft when his team was there to rescue him. The blast. No unexpected sounds came, no blast. “This way,” Ford said, taking charge of the women. They huddled away from him until Nate pulled off his mask. “We’re here to help.” Whatever they saw in Nate’s eyes, they must have decided to trust them. They ran out the door, following Ford while Nate took up the rear. The last girl huddled in the corner, clearly not won over. His blood whipped through his veins, some latent sense telling him they were running out of time. He crouched near her and put his hand out. “I’m not going to hurt you, I swear.” She shook her head, wrapping dirty arms around herself. Fuck. The sound came to him as the whimpers and padding footsteps of the other girls died away. The whir of a vehicle stopping near the front door. He could only pray that Ford had gotten the other girls far enough, because backup had arrived. He had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t Ford’s backup, but more of Moreland’s men. They must have been dispatched when the men bleeding out on the ground stopped responding. “We have to go,” he said urgently. The girl curled in on herself, lost to him. He realized that he’d have to pick her up, physically remove her. He hated to touch her against her will, but it was life or death. She fought him, scratching, screaming, and he knew that whatever stealth he might have had was gone. He hefted her into an awkward carry, while she struggled to get free. He was halfway to the exit when he felt something sharp blast his shoulder. Stumbling, he dropped her. “Run,” he managed to gasp. At least she obeyed that much. The last thing he saw was the flash of her hair through the door. Pain seared him—fuck, he was hit. Nate forced himself to turn over and shoot toward the front, blind and desperate to give them a few more seconds to safety. Two men surrounded him. Maybe he could have taken them, maybe not.

With his shoulder on fire, he didn’t have a shot. The first kick to his stomach took his breath away. The one to his back hit his kidney, and he saw black spots. He managed to swipe the guy in front of him with his leg. The next boot met his face with an audible crack, and he knew he was going to die here. His only hope was Ford’s backup teams, but by his internal clock they still had another fifteen minutes. His knee hadn’t been recently shattered this time, he hadn’t been starved, but he had fought enough to recognize defeat. In that godforsaken hut, he’d accepted death. Even welcomed it. Sofia’s gorgeous face flashed in front of his eyes, and he knew he wouldn’t accept this. Fuck no, he wouldn’t die. Not while he wasn’t sure she was safe. Not while she was in this world. He would fight for every single fucking second with her. His entire body screamed in pain as he pushed up on his hands. The guy went for the easy kick —right to his stomach. Nate was prepared for it, gripping the leg and twisting hard. The man screamed, but underneath Nate heard the snap of bone breaking. The other guy was on top of him in a matter of seconds. The smart thing would have been to whip out his gun and shoot him, but these guys assumed that because he was wounded, he’d be an easy kill. They were the kind of fuckers in the hut, the ones who enjoyed inflicting pain. Nate would show them that he wasn’t easy. He whipped his elbow into one guy’s eye socket, eliciting a hard grunt. Then he got a knee in the groin and gasped his own pain. The sound of a car pulling up whispered through the warehouse. More reinforcements for these fuckers? Except they tensed, as if they weren’t expecting company. And Ford’s teams would still be ten minutes away. So who had come? Who was unaccounted for? The assholes on top of him were clearly just as curious. They backed away, ducking behind some empty crates like fucking cockroaches. Nate blinked through the sweat and the blood, struggling to focus on the open door. And then he saw her, like some kind of fucking mirage. The object of his dreams, the woman he loved. Sofia. He wanted her to be fake, because God, fuck, she couldn’t be here. Her gaze met his, and he knew she was real. Horror filled those gorgeous dark eyes. “Oh my God, Nate.” “No, Sofia. No!” He was too late. It was happening again. He saw it happening in sharp, vivid increments—the men behind the crates finally pulling out their fucking guns. Sofia’s attention on Nate’s body, his injuries, his weakness. This was like before, when he’d been unable to warn his team, when they’d gotten caught in the cross fire while trying to rescue him. Sofia was here, rushing to his side, about to be hurt because he couldn’t protect her. Worse than death, seeing Sofia hurt. He couldn’t, wouldn’t let it happen. From somewhere deep, he found enough strength to drag his broken body upright. His knee may as well have been hit with another fucking hammer, because it felt shattered. His body was in pieces, but his heart was finally whole. He launched himself on top of Sofia. Surprised, she went down under him. He was her shield, the only form of protection he had left to offer. There were loud bangs, gunfire, and he prayed he

would be enough.

Chapter Twenty Three Sofia pushed at the heavy weight, but Nate was pure muscle. It took all her strength, all her effort, just to move him sideways. Then her hands were running over him—his beautiful face, already bruised, broken, his arms, his chest. Searching for a bullet hole, because she’d heard those shots. She found it in his shoulder, an entry through the back, no exit. “Oh God,” she whispered, tears clouding her vision. “Nate, Nate, Nate.” He groaned. “Fuck, Sofia.” Men in black shirts and cargo pants had invaded the warehouse suddenly, milling around her. They surrounded the two men who’d jumped out from behind the crates. The ones Nate had protected her from. Ford approached, his expression grave. “How is he?” “Strong enough to kick your ass, asshole,” Nate said, his words slurring together. “Don’t you dare die on me, Nate. I’m serious.” His grin was lopsided, as if he were drunk. “You’re gorgeous.” “He’s punch-drunk,” Ford said, sounding amused. “Probably a concussion. We need to get that bullet wound checked out though.” Instead, Nate pushed himself to sit. He glanced over at the men who were being disarmed, their hands behind their heads, facing the ground. He made a growling sound. “I ought to feed those fuckers their own dicks. They tried to hurt you.” “You can’t kill them,” she told him. “We need their help to find the women.” Ford gave her a small smile. “We’ve already got them.” Only then did she realize Remy wasn’t with her. “Remy…” “Your friend?” Ford nodded toward the back exit. “Think she was looking for someone. My men have them covered. They’re safe. And an ambulance is on the way.” Relief swept through her, and she turned to Nate. “Don’t move.” “So bossy,” he murmured. She ran her fingertips over his lips. “Hush now.” “Not gonna let you tie me up again.” The laugh that came out of her was part happiness, part worry. She needed him to be okay. I think I love you. That was what she’d told him in the motel. Bending her head, she whispered in his ear, “You’re my hero, Nate.” His hazy eyes focused on her. “That’s right, gorgeous. Not gonna let you go, either.” His lids closed, and she gasped. “Nate. Nate!” Ford knelt beside her, pressing two fingers to Nate’s neck. “Passed out. This fucker survived the worst. He’s not going to let this get him.” She heard the anxiety beneath the steel and realized Ford was nervous. That made her nervous, but also glad that Nate had friends—coworkers, technically—who cared about him that much. Dipping her head, she pressed her forehead to his cheek. “Hold on, Nate. Just a little longer.” Time passed in shuddering stops and starts, her breath attuned to his. She didn’t know how long she knelt like that, but eventually Ford placed a hand on her back. Paramedics had a stretcher beside her, ready to pull Nate away. She stumbled moving out of their way, her legs numb. She held his hand on the way to the ambulance, keeping him warm, keeping him company as best she could. He was still unconscious when they wheeled him into surgery, taking him away from

her. Her head rested in her hands, her dark hair creating a curtain. The scent of stale coffee drifted close, and she looked up. Remy was standing there, holding out a small Styrofoam cup with gray liquid. Sofia lifted an eyebrow. “Is that coffee?” “I know it tastes like shit, but it’s better than nothing.” Conceding the point, Sofia took the cup with quiet thanks. One sip, a grimace. Another sip. It was better than nothing. She needed something to stay alert, because Nate might be in surgery for hours. The coffee settled into the right parts of her brain. “Did you find her? Your sister?’ Remy’s face fell. “No. I showed her picture to the girls, but they hadn’t seen her.” She set the coffee down and stood to—what? Hug her? They didn’t have that kind of friendship, and Remy stepped back. “I’m sorry,” Sofia murmured. Remy looked away. “I knew it was a long shot. Anyway, I just came to say goodbye. I might be going away for a while.” Only then did the uniformed officers register. They hovered at the entrance to the waiting room, watching Remy like they expected her to make an escape attempt with old magazines and a watercolor painting. Sofia blinked. “They can’t lock you up. You were doing those things under duress. He blackmailed you. Moreland is the culprit here.” “Oh, they have him in custody. He lawyered up fast, but the evidence is mounting. It will be a while before they sort it out. I’m not going to withhold what I know and leverage a deal, though. I figure the more I cooperate, the better chance they have of actually finding her.” Sofia took a moment to consider that. “You’re a hero, you know. I don’t care what they say. You did what you thought was right.” Remy looked down before meeting her eyes. “Your intern might not agree with that.” “What?” “I’m sure he’ll tell you about it. Maybe even get a byline out of it. That’s not the point. The point is that you’re the hero. I knew if I gave you the link to Dawson, you’d dig until you found the truth. And that’s what happened.” So Remy had been the one to encrypt those hidden photos. Sofia may have found out the truth, but only with help—from Remy, from Nate. God, Nate. Stay strong for me. Remy turned to leave but paused. “Just do one thing for me. I let my past fuck up my future. Don’t make the same mistake, okay? Not with Nate.” “I won’t,” Sofia whispered, but she didn’t know if she’d get the chance to make things right. He might hate her after she’d left him at the motel, he might blame her for getting him shot. He might never wake up.

Chapter Twenty Four The world swam in blacks and blues, a mix of pain and grief. He wasn’t sure what was real and what was dream—his team around him, broken flesh. Sofia’s gorgeous body, bruised and battered. He fought the heavy tide, but it only pushed him deeper. “Nate? I’m here.” He knew that voice. Sofia. He wanted to talk to her, to tell her that he loved her. Again and again, he wanted to whisper his love, his praise, his fucking devotion. Except he couldn’t open his eyes. A rough groaning sound met his ears, and he realized that was him. “Are you hurting?” she whispered. He felt something soft and warm on his hand, his arm. Her touch. More, he demanded. She responded with a kiss to his cheek. Yes. Again. This time she didn’t answer, and it was enough to make him struggle. He forced his eyes open, the light searing him. His eyelids weighed a fucking ton, but he was determined to see her. The world blurred in a miasma of beige and black. How drunk had he gotten? Not drunk, he realized. Shot. Sofia’s face formed over him, those dark eyebrows and darker eyes, those gorgeous full lips he loved to claim. There were circles too, shadows of worry. How long had she been awake? Was she eating properly? Fuck, he wanted to take care of her. “Sleep,” he croaked. “I know,” she murmured, feathering her fingers over his brow. “You’ve been sleeping for days now. I’m so glad you’re awake, baby.” That wasn’t what he meant, but her hands felt amazing. “Don’t stop.” The corner of her lips turned up. “The nurse is here.” He didn’t want the nurse. “Want you.” She bent her head. “Dirty boy.” He grunted, yes. “She needs to check on you now that you’re awake. I’ll be right here the whole time. I’m not leaving, okay?” That was the last thing he heard before the waters dragged him down again. He fought, but there were monsters there too, tentacles thick and strong, holding him underwater. Don’t leave, Sofia. I need you. I love you. When he woke again, the room was empty. He studied the white walls and beeping machinery. Still in the hospital. And he felt like shit. Guess that was what getting shot and then kicked with boots did to a guy. Except where the fuck was Sofia? The door opened, and he tensed with anticipation. Ford strolled in, carrying a tray with two coffees and a white paper bag. “Sofia,” Nate demanded. That just made him laugh. “Fuck you right back.” He slung himself into the chair beside him, looking like some giant in a dollhouse. “Sorry, man, you’re stuck with my ugly mug.” Nate grunted his disapproval. Ford sent a glance down to Nate’s shoulder, which was exposed, the white bandage fresh from

this morning. “You got pretty fucked up.” He really wanted Sofia. The bullet in his shoulder had fucked him up pretty good, like Ford said, but the kicks to his kidney had him spitting blood for the past week. Only Sofia’s gentle hands had kept him sane. So where was she? Ford fiddled with the remote control and turned on the TV. He switched channels until Nate did a double take at the screen. Dressed in a sweater and skirt was the girl who had stolen his heart, the girl he wanted by his side. Sofia. “Why didn’t you wait for the cops?” the man in a suit asked. They were sitting in upholstered chairs, a fake fireplace behind them. He vaguely recognized the set from a national news syndicate that Sofia used to watch. Sofia learned forward, her dark eyes earnest. “We knew that Senator Moreland had public support. Any allegations would be met with red tape and lots of press. Meanwhile the traffickers who worked for him would have time to go underground. The most important thing was recovering those women while we had the chance.” Fuck, she was gorgeous. Sofia had always maintained that she wouldn’t be good as a TV reporter, that she was too shaky. And he had felt her shake in those moments in Ford’s house after the shooting in her apartment. She wasn’t shaking now. Her hands were still, her voice clear. The interviewer was looking at her with awe—and more than a little bit of desire. Nate narrowed his eyes at the fucker. “She looks good,” Ford commented, taking a sip of his coffee. “Go to hell.” “She called me, you know. Worried that you’d wake up while she was gone. I think she hasn’t left your bedside except to do the interview.” Damn. He couldn’t stay laid up in this hospital bed, making her sleep in that uncomfortable metal chair. “Get me out of here.” “No can do, buddy. Sofia’s orders.” He grunted. “You owe me.” Ford gave him a look. “You’ve been calling in a lot of favors lately. Lucky for you that you had racked up so many over the last ten years. I’ll probably owe you until the day I die.” Damn right. “Where is she?” Okay, so he turned a little caveman when he got injured. Ford chuckled. “She’s at the news station. You wanna surprise her? Because you can fucking surprise her.” Surprising her sounded good, because he hadn’t forgotten the rope and the motel room. He needed to pay her back for that. More than that, he needed to tell her that he had let her push him away because he wasn’t the man she needed. He hadn’t been whole before, but he was now. It still made his heart freeze in fear to think of her in danger, but he’d be by her side as much as she would let him.

Chapter Twenty Five Sofia held out her arms while the tech removed the microphone wire from her sweater. The interviewer’s name was Brian James, an award-winning journalist who had pursued her story. She had finally relented, even if it meant leaving the hospital for a day trip, because she needed the truth out there. He conferred with people off the set, the illusion of a comfy sitting room stark against the hollow warehouse. A series of articles she’d written would debut in the Daily starting on Sunday, thanks to Andre. But there was something to be said for the directness, the accessibility of the television. Moreland had attempted to deny everything, but the evidence and public opinion turned against him. Pundits flooded the political talk shows denouncing him, declaring that they had always known something was wrong. Dawson had gotten further in his denials, claiming that he’d only been a contributor to Moreland’s campaign. Until a search warrant had uncovered a half-dozen women in the basement of his Austin mansion. “Great interview,” Brian said, removing his suit jacket. “Thanks. That means a lot from you.” He had a decade of experience on her, and she looked up to him. He gave the tech a look, and he hurried away with her microphone. “Do you want to grab a drink? It helps me unwind after the tough stories.” Her eyebrows went up. Was he asking her on a date? “I’m sorry, but I need to get back to the hospital.” “Back to Nathaniel Gaines.” “Yes, back to Nate.” He nodded, a slight smile on his handsome face. “If that ever changes, be sure to look me up.” “Don’t hold your breath,” came a voice she recognized. She whirled to see Nate standing there. A blink and he was still there. Not an illusion. She glanced back, but Brian was already walking away, a knowing glint in his eyes. He followed the sound guys out of the room, leaving them alone. “What are you doing out of bed?” she demanded. He glared at the door where Brian had just left. “That fucker.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re going to pull your stitches out.” His gaze met hers, dark and intent. “I had to see you.” “I was going back in an hour!” “An hour was too long.” He glanced at the chair where she’d sat for the past hour and a half. “You were brilliant, by the way. Smart, passionate. Fucking gorgeous.” Heat flooded her cheeks. “You saw the interview?” “You really thought Ford would keep me in the hospital?” “I had hoped so, yeah.” That lopsided smile. He took a step forward, and she backed up. Another step and her legs were touching the interview chair. “What are you doing?” she asked. He held up a loop of black rope. “Turnabout is fair play, gorgeous.” Her jaw dropped. “We’re in a public place.” “I think what’s his face got the message loud and clear. We won’t be disturbed.” “His name is Brian James, and he’s an award-winning national journalist, because this is a TV station!”

Nate glanced at the cameras, which had gone dark when Brian signed off. “You worried about a sex tape leaking out?” For a minute she couldn’t speak, shock and lust warring within her. “No,” she managed. “I’m not worried about a sex tape, because we’re not having sex. Not here.” He studied the plush chairs with a critical eye. “You’re right. Too soft. You need something hard.” With that he took her hand and dragged her around the back wall of the set, into the dark cavern that the fake back created. Then his hand was on her jaw, cupping her, lifting her chin so that he could sip at her lips. His tongue teased the seam of her mouth until she went slack, letting him in, letting him back her up against the metal frame that formed the wall. She melted against the cool ribbed metal, relishing the hard heat of him in front of her. Her body flamed with want, with need, the musky male scent of him triggering every feminine instinct. His large hand drifted up her stomach, raising her sweater and exposing her bra. His thumb worked over the fabric, peaking her nipple. She gasped into his mouth, wanting more. Wanting exactly what he said: something hard. She needed him. He pulled her wrist behind her back, and she froze. “Nate?” His head lifted, revealing lust-drenched eyes. He pulled her other hand behind her back and worked the rope around her wrists. “Yes, gorgeous?” “What are you doing?” “Making something clear.” The knot tightened, holding her arms back. The position pushed her breasts forward into his chest. He looked at them with appreciation and pure carnal hunger. He ran one fingertip along the edge of her bra before tugging it down, exposing her pale flesh and tight nipple. It was hard to swallow, even harder to form words. “Making what clear?” He captured her nipple between his thumb and forefinger, rolling until her hips arched into him. His gaze remained direct on hers. “I let you go once. That was my mistake, but it’s over now.” Her breath caught. “O-over?” “Over. You’re mine now. That means it’s my responsibility. My right.” He bent and licked her nipple, the slick texture of his tongue making her gasp. “My privilege to keep you safe.” Her moan was the only answer she could give. “You want a fucking house in the hills?” he breathed against her neck. “You want a mansion? I have a pile of money sitting in the bank, because I never wanted anything. Only you.” His other hand pulled her skirt up, and then he groaned as his fingers felt bare skin. “Thigh highs. Fucking thigh highs. You know how hot it makes me when you wear these.” “I thought about you when I put them on,” she whispered, but he’d been in a hospital bed. Too weak to do anything sexual yet, at least that was what she’d thought. Turned out he could dominate her with just a look. Especially when he got on his knees. “Your knee,” she said weakly. He ignored her, pushing her skirt higher. You think a busted knee is going to keep me from you? I could break every bone in my body and still fuck you just fine. I could be broken to shit, but I could still make you come with just my tongue. He’d said that to her once, and he was proving it now. He’d been shot, beaten. He’d been to the brink of death, but he was here, making her body shudder and clench. Blunt fingers pushed aside her panties, finding her wet. “That’s right,” he murmured. “Give me

something to drink.” A shiver ran through her. God, how she must look. Her breasts were exposed, her arms tied behind her back. The metal wall held her up, and then he bent his head. The first lick brought her to her toes. The second made her cry out. “Louder,” he muttered against her clit. “I want that fucker to hear you scream my name.” “Oh God,” she sobbed, because it felt so good. She needed to be quiet, but he was licking her in the fast, insistent way that made her go crazy. Then his lips fastened around her clit, sucking her hard. Her wordless sound echoed back to her. “More,” Nate demanded, sliding his finger inside her to the hilt. Her muscles clenched around him, holding him in, until he worked another finger inside. Then he stroked, finding that magic place, teasing her clit. She rocked her hips against his face, moaning, begging. He’d been right when he said she needed something hard. He knew that about her. It had shamed her at first, but he had taught her to accept the pleasure where she found it—under his calloused hands, around his thick cock. At the edge of his teeth as they grazed her clit. The hint of danger brought her orgasm to the surface, and as pulses overtook her body, she screamed his name.

Chapter Twenty Six A sound jarred Sofia from slumber. She didn’t even remember falling asleep. The book she’d been reading lay askew on the pillow. The lamp cast an eerie glow against the dark window. Another sound, this one clearer. The scuff of a shoe on hardwood? It was barely there, maybe a whisper, but she felt something else. A presence. Her skin prickled with awareness that she was no longer alone. Her phone was charging on the side table, but who would she call? She knew from experience that 911 wouldn’t reach her in time if someone were truly inside her house. And Nate had to go dark during his missions, both for her safety and the safety of his team. Her gaze darted to the closet, that deep part of her wanting to hide. To turn the flimsy lock as if that would be enough. Except she was through being that girl. She was stronger now—and infinitely more powerful. Nate had given her that. Thinking of him firmed her resolve. In a smooth move, she rolled out of the bed and pulled the Sig from the side-table drawer. Her feet spread apart, her breath even. Only her heart betrayed any emotion, pounding through her veins like a war drum. She took aim at the door as it eased open, casting a shadowed arc on the floor. A man dressed in black stepped inside, combat boots on his feet, clearly armed based on his gait and the bulk at his sides. His broad shoulders and powerful chest tapered to a lean waist. The hard look in his eyes spoke to violence, to the capacity to kill. Sofia dropped her arms and swore. “I could have shot you.” She had wanted to learn to shoot, but Nate had taken it one step further. He’d insisted that she be able to draw her gun in any situation at any time. And he liked to test her to drive his point home. Their training was dangerous and spontaneous and ridiculously sexy. “Bulletproof vest,” Nate said with a lopsided grin. In two strides he was in front of her, his hands cupping her face, his forehead pressed to hers. “Besides, you still had the safety on. We talked about that.” She tried to hold on to her anger—what if he’d been hurt? But all she felt was relief at the feel of him, the familiar musky scent of him. Relief and desire as her body fell under his thrall. “I missed you.” “Me too, gorgeous,” he murmured. She shoved the gun back into the drawer. “Well?” “This is off the record, right?” That earned him a raised eyebrow. “Do I have to tie you up again?” A dangerous glint entered his eyes. “I’d love to see you try.” With slow, careful movements, he took off his jacket, then his bulletproof vest. He hadn’t been joking about that, at least. “But don’t worry. I’ll tell you about our confidential op.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied his stiff movements. “Oh God, you’re hurt.” He gave her a scowl, which proved she was right. She helped him take off the thin black T-shirt and gasped at the bandages that circled his ribs. When he’d left two days ago the skin had still been yellow, almost tinged green, the aftermath of vicious bruises. Now it looked like he’d been injured even worse. “It’s only a fracture,” he said.

“A rib fracture is a big deal!” “Three ribs, technically.” The sound she made was a mixture of frustration and grief. “Oh, Nate.” He sat down, unable to fully hide his wince. Then he tugged her down beside him on the bed. “It was worth it. We found them.” Her heart seemed to expand. The lamp highlighted the scruff on his face, the exhaustion around his eyes, the pain in his body—all of which spoke to his heroism. Though it didn’t make him comfortable to discuss, he no longer denied it either. “Tell me,” she said softly, her hand in his. “There were more than they thought,” he said grimly. “There were forty women in the hold. Two hostiles died in the exchange, four are sitting in FBI interrogation rooms right now. We also recovered the hard drives before they could wipe them.” Bittersweet hope tightened her throat. Those hard drives would mean they could find the women who were no longer being held by the human traffickers—the ones who had already been sold. “Thank you.” He glanced at her. “Allison was there.” Remy’s sister. “Oh my God, that’s amazing. She’ll be so glad.” “She didn’t want to see Remy. Refused, actually.” “Oh,” Sofia said, swallowing past a lump in her throat. Remy had been reluctant to accept a deal. About as reluctant as the district attorney had been to prosecute a member of the press and the circus act that would have followed. In the end Remy’s testimony had helped put away the big fish, and they’d settled on a plea for probation. Remy still blamed herself for her sister’s abduction. And Andre still hadn’t hired her back, leaving the desk empty months later. “She doesn’t blame Remy, does she?” Nate shook his head, his eyes haunted. “I don’t think so. The women…they’ve been through a lot. They’re different now.” She rested her cheek against his shoulder, knowing that he understood that difference better than most. He’d been tortured, hurt. He had believed he would die in that jungle. And he would never be the same because of it. Not only his knee had been shattered in that horrible place. But he had pieced himself back together, made himself into someone stronger. Someone who had saved all those women. It wasn’t only strength that won a fight. His bravery, his heart. That honor that refused to be knocked down. “I know it must have been hard for you.” To see those women, she meant. His silence acknowledged that. Then, softly, “It will be hard for you too.” He knew where she’d be tomorrow and the days following, as the women were released from FBI custody. Some of the women would want to return to their families, to piece together some sense of normalcy. Other women would want to tell their stories, and the world needed to hear them. For truth, for bravery. For every girl who had ever huddled in a closet. “Tomorrow,” she said softly. Despite the amazing things Nate and his team had accomplished, there were more women to be rescued. More dragons to be slain. There was always another fight on the horizon. That knowledge didn’t fill her with desperation like it had before, but with hope. He nodded in agreement, turning her face to his. Every kiss he gave her was different, some

hungry, some commanding. This one came with infinite tenderness, with never-ending promise. “Tomorrow,” he agreed. “As long as you’re with me, I can face anything.” It wasn’t only the outside world that they had to fight. It was the fear they had inside, every time he left for a secret op, every time she pursued a story for the paper. He brushed his thumb over her cheek, wiping away a tear she hadn’t known she’d shed. “As long as you’re with me, gorgeous, I have a reason to fight.” *** Thank you so much for reading Anti Hero! I hope you love Nate and Sofia! As a free bonus book, On the Way Home is included for you to read next. That changes the percentages, but don’t worry – both Anti Hero and On the Way Home are full-length novels, so you’re not missing anything! Here’s what it’s about… Clint For eight months I’ve been deep under cover as a special operator in the Army. On the plane ride home, all I want is a hot shower and a long sleep. But a Dear John text message leaves me stranded. I need a ride and a place to stay, and the pretty stewardess is more than willing. Della It’s supposed to be a simple trade—the passenger in seat 34B for my sister. But the sexy soldier is more than I can handle in all the best ways. He trusts me, but I can’t save him. No one can. Sometimes trouble has a way of following you home. And you can read the full book absolutely free! Turn the page to begin…

Prologue Three plants lined up in a row on my windowsill, framed by the butterfly curtains Caro had made. My science-fair experiment was going to test how well plants grew under harsh conditions. That meant depriving them of water, of sunlight. And I just couldn’t do it. I was supposed to choose which plant would live and which one would die. It felt mean. Now all the plants were the same size, and I had no idea how to explain that in my report. Frowning, I tried to remember what the teacher had said, something about the difference between the result and the conclusion. I bit my lip. This was important. I’d told my teacher I wanted to be a nurse, and she hadn’t laughed. She said I better learn science if I was going to be a nurse, so I wanted to get this right. A crash came from outside, and the pencil fell out of my hand, clattering on the desk. Caro had been painting her nails purple, but now she stopped halfway through. She put a finger to her mouth. Shhh. She pressed against the door, trying to listen to the conversation. She always got to listen, and I had to do my homework. I wanted to hear too. More shouts came, but they were too muffled to understand. Georgia was out there, with the grownups. Ever since she had turned seventeen and started her secret job at night, she got to be out there when they were fighting. Georgia got to be in the living room and Caro got to listen at the door, but I was supposed to finish my science report. It wasn’t fair. The sound of someone getting slapped made me wince. “I’m going out there,” Caro said. Her face was as serious as I’d ever seen her. She didn’t even look as scared as I felt. “Whatever happens, don’t come out, okay?” I nodded quickly. My stomach felt like it was tearing itself up inside. Besides, I didn’t want to go out there anymore. Shouting was okay, but hitting hurt. A lot. Caro stepped forward and gripped both sides of my face. It made me tense even though I knew she’d never hurt me. Her gaze was steady on mine, clear as a sunny day. “I’m serious. When I walk outta this room, you lock the door behind me. No matter what you hear, you don’t come out. Promise me that.” I swallowed. “Okay. I promise.” She stood by the door another second. It got all quiet outside, the silence so loud I could hear it buzzing in my ears. Then she slipped into the dark hallway. I followed her to the door and turned the lock inside the knob. I knew it wouldn’t really hold someone back, but usually no one came to our room. My heart thudded in my chest. I could feel its beat all the way out to my fingers and toes, like the way your whole body thumps when a car with loud music rolls by. Caro wasn’t here to stop me anymore, so I pressed my ear to the door. Couldn’t hear anything, though. Maybe she had calmed everyone down. She did that for me too, holding me at night if I had bad dreams. There was a voice again, but it wasn’t shouting. Low, like from a man. Papa? Or the person who came to visit us? A door slammed. Maybe he was gone. We’d be okay again, I was sure of it. At least until he came back. I opened the door to see. A shot rang out, so loud in my ears, like an explosion. It made me go cold and still. Frozen. I’d never heard a sound like that so close, never inside our house. Only sometimes I heard it far away, from another street, while Caro would rock me in bed. Then the sirens would come.

It was the sound of a gun. “Caro,” I shouted, running into the living room. At first all I could see was chaos, like how you spin and spin and then throw up. Everything was blurry. There were men here, lots of them. Papa was here and men wearing suits. I didn’t care about them. But then I saw Caro. She was okay! Relief let me breathe again. She was leaning over something, kneeling on the ground. Thick brown hair was spread all around. I’d seen that hair brushed and brushed. Georgia had such pretty hair. Dark red liquid was matting the strands, pressing it close to her head like clay. I stepped forward. “Caro?” She only cried harder, and I knew. I felt pain, harder than any slap I’d ever gotten. “Georgia?” I whispered. My oldest sister didn’t move. She lay on the floor with her eyes closed and Caro crying over her. I stood on the other side of the room, but it felt even farther away. On the other side of the planet. All I heard was the shot, so loud, ringing in my head like a bell. One man stepped right in front of me. He was smiling as if he’d just found something great, but I didn’t trust that smile. I didn’t like it. He bent down on one knee, at eye level. “What’s your name?” he asked. Caro! Georgia! I wanted to run to them. I should be with my sisters, but I couldn’t move. Especially when the man put his fingers under my chin. His eyes were cold and gray, like silver. His mouth moved, and I saw him speak more than heard him. “I know your mother’s preference for geography,” he murmured. “Georgia. Carolina. So what’s your name, little one? Texas? Montana?” When I didn’t answer, he laughed. “It’s okay. You’ll tell me eventually.” The ringing cleared from my head, leaving only my teacher’s voice. Results are what happened. The conclusion is what it means. I knew then that my sister Georgia was dead. And it meant nothing would be okay ever again.

Chapter One Clint I could be comfortable strapped into a Chinook, with full body armor and another hundred fifty pounds of equipment on top of that. I could HALO down to a cross-fire insertion, no problem. But flying coach on a standard commercial airline was killer. Everything seemed tiny, as if I’d walked onto a display version of a real airplane. Due to the design of the plane, the rows on this side only had two seats. My buddy James had taken the window seat, but the aisle didn’t give me room to stretch. My legs were folded like a pretzel to fit into the small amount of legroom. My head cleared the headrest by almost a foot. My body jutted into the aisle, but there was nothing to do about that without pushing into James beside me. The pretty stewardess walked by, her hip brushing my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. Della, her name tag read. She was slender and careful, but that didn’t matter when I was taking up half the aisle with my shoulder. “My fault,” I managed to say. It came out more like a rumble. The lightest whisper of cloth, her blue uniform against my fatigues. A wisp of heat and a faint smell of peaches. It was too much. As if I were goddamned Sleeping Beauty, my dick woke the hell up. She smiled then, and it was way too late to pretend I wasn’t getting hot at the sight of her. Jesus, those lips. And the little upturned smile, the one that said she knew exactly what I was thinking. Well, maybe not exactly. No way were her thoughts as desperate as mine. Eight months away from the States had taken its toll, with not even enough time or energy to beat off with regularity. No privacy, either, but then we didn’t care about that. You couldn’t be fastidious in a godforsaken jungle. They send a bunch of eighteen-year-old testosterone junkies into the wild, what else is gonna happen? There’d been a time we’d all go into a firefight, walk out with no bullet holes, then head back to our bunks and jack off like we were synchronized swimming. Not this time, though. After our first two tours in Afghanistan, James and I got picked up to work as part of a joint task force. Guess we impressed somebody. We couldn’t even drink back then—at least, not legally—but we were handed some of the most lethal weapons and secretive recording equipment in use. Since then we had continued to fight, but not on any sanctioned battlefield. Our ops were secretive and lethal and mostly not even acknowledged by the US government. We lived and worked in the darkest parts of the world, then came home on leave so we could remember why we did it. My twenty-third birthday had come and gone, spent with some of the most disgusting human beings I’d ever met and had to pretend like I was their new best friend. I shuddered just remembering some of the things I’d witnessed, unable to do anything without blowing my cover. I’d seen some bad shit in my life, but nothing compared to those sights. When I closed my eyes, I could still see those young girls. Way too young. I wanted to wash myself off just for being around that, even if we had taken it down in the end. Mission accomplished. Go home. So it was a real fucking surprise when my body was suddenly interested in the sweet-smelling,

hot-as-hell stewardess. “Can I get you something?” she asked. “Water? A soda?” Suddenly my mouth was dry. “No, thanks.” She smiled again. God, she really needed to stop that. “I think I can rustle up some pretzels if you ask nicely?” Nope, wasn’t doing that. “I could use some pretzels,” James said from beside me. Really? “Nah, we’re good. Don’t worry about us.” “All right. You boys let me know.” She sauntered off, leaving both James and I staring. Man, that skirt hugged her so nicely… “What the hell was that for?” James said. “She would’ve come back.” “And then what, asshole? You’ve got Rachel.” “And you’ve got… what’s her name? Chelsea.” “Yeah,” I lied. I’d been lying for a few weeks now, ever since I’d landed at the base in Germany where I could check my messages. Dear Clint, I’m sorry to tell you like this but… A Dear John text message. A remote control breakup. It had happened to enough of our friends that I knew what the reaction would be if I told people. Pity, from the guys who could still look at me. Avoidance from everyone else, as if the condition of being dumped was contagious. So I hadn’t told anyone, not even James. And hell, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. Me and Chels had a good thing going. Maybe not good, but it wasn’t bad either. And separation was always hard. For all I knew, we’d patch things up right away and then I’d be glad I never told James, who would’ve given her a hard time after that. She was probably going to pick me up at the airport, just like we’d planned, and here I was checking out another woman. The eight months had done a number on both of us, that was all. We’d work it out. I glanced down the aisle at the stewardess—Della—who had bent to speak to another passenger. “The point is, she’s doing her job. She doesn’t need us bothering her.” “Hey, you were the one groping her.” “With my shoulder?” “And flirting,” James added. “I was not flirting.” I would have known if I’d been flirting, right? And I definitely hadn’t done that. She was working. The last thing she needed was two horndogs using up her time or ogling her. “And stop looking.” “That’s your argument? There’s nothing wrong with looking, man. It’s harmless. You think when our girls are back home, they don’t look?” I did not like where this conversation was going. One of the main reasons to send a Dear John letter, as opposed to waiting until I got back, was for another guy. It pinched something in my chest to imagine Chelsea moving on that quick. I turned my irritation on my best friend. “Do you actually hear yourself talk?” “I stand by my assertion. I don’t care if Rachel checks out some hot doctor at her hospital. Long as she saves up the horniness for when I get back.” “Yeah, okay. You write that on your anniversary card.” “Shit, it’s my anniversary?” “Hell if I know.” We were quiet a moment. James was probably working out the dates in his head, trying to figure

out if he needed to pick up a present from the airport gift shop. Me? I pretended to be asleep. Shut my eyes, even when the stewardess came back this way. But I could still see her long legs and black heels, and I had to admit: I was peeking. I couldn’t help it. There was something about her… the way she moved… so alluring… “She walks like a stripper,” James muttered when she’d passed us by. My eyes snapped open. “I am seriously going to punch you in the face right now.” “What? I didn’t mean it in a bad way. It’s a good walk. A good, professional walk.” “Your nose will be broken, and then you’ll have to explain to Rachel why it’s broken.” “Okay, I’ll stop. But only because Rachel would freak out. She worries about me.” James said the last part carelessly, but I still felt it like a blow, as if he’d beat me without even trying. Rachel did worry about him. A lot. It was a point of contention between them, but also a sign of how much they cared about each other. Had Chelsea worried about me while I was gone? Hardly. “Hey…” I cleared my throat. “How do you and Rachel reconnect when you get back home?” “You really want me to answer that question?” “Besides sex.” “What else is there?” “Nice. I mean… hell, I don’t know. The emotional connection.” James narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Are we secretly on Oprah? Look, man. The emotional connection is the easy part. You like a girl, you spend time with her, you get closer. That’s the connection. And the sex doesn’t hurt. Well, unless you want it to.” “Ha-ha,” I said, but unease speared through me. It sounded so simple when James spelled it out. You like a girl, spend time with her. I’d had that with Chelsea once, hadn’t I? I couldn’t remember. Leaning over, I looked forward and back. The aisles were clear. No sign of Della or any other flight attendant. Frustrated for reasons I couldn’t explain, I settled into my seat—as well as I could— and closed my eyes. One thing you learned in the army was how to sleep, even if you were uncomfortable, anytime, anyplace. Not this time, apparently. But I kept my eyes shut and pretended.

Chapter Two Clint “Shit.” The low word snapped me out of sleep. I went on high alert, my body recognizing the stress in James’s voice before I was fully awake. My hand went to my back, where a handgun had been stashed for most of my time undercover, a shitty substitute for a bona fide holster. But my waistband was empty. In fact, I had no gear at all. I was on a plane. Wiping my face, I demanded hoarsely, “What’s wrong?” “Trouble,” James murmured with a nod to the front. The plane. We were on the plane, and the first place my mind went after trouble was Della. If Della was in trouble, I was going to… what? I jolted out of my seat, pushing back the people who had stuck their heads into the aisle to see better. There was Della, kneeling in the aisle, holding someone’s head in her lap. “Back up,” I snapped to the man who was leaning over Della’s shoulder for a better look. He’d been sitting beside the woman who was currently on the ground, but he was of no use. After handling many medical emergency situations in the military, two things were clear to me immediately: one, the older woman was in anaphylactic shock, and two, Della was an asset. Worry filled her eyes, but she was calm and breathing steady. No panic, though the same couldn’t be said for some of the people around us. I heard James behind me, clearing the seats nearby to give us room. Della looked at me. “She has a medical exception for her EpiPen.” That’s right. Needles wouldn’t be allowed except in extreme cases. As the stewardess, she would know about them. “Do you know where she keeps it?” “It’s not in her pockets. I already checked.” That was the most common place to store it for easy access. A quick search of the purse didn’t reveal anything. Shit. Even kneeling on the seat, digging through her bags, I could feel the tightness of the space, closing in on me. I forced myself to stop and think. If she were sitting down… She might have kept an EpiPen in her pocket, but if it poked her uncomfortably in the tight quarters…she might have stuck it into the seat pocket in front of her. I reached my hand in and pulled it out. “Got it. Can you apply it?” In response, Della held out her hand. As soon as I handed it over, she bit the lid off with her teeth and injected the woman in the thigh. I recapped the EpiPen while Della gently rubbed the injection site, something that would help the medicine disperse faster. Della kept the woman on her side with her breathing passage cleared while I took the pulse. It was slowing as I counted, down to safer levels. However, the woman was clearly still out of sorts, her breathing evening out but her eyes glazed. “Let’s get her to the front,” Della said. “There’s a seat free in first class. We’ll be able to recline her there.” I carried the woman to the front and then left her in Della’s care, along with another stewardess who met us there. Another man stepped forward to help. The air marshal. Nothing designated him so, but I could tell he was packing from his stance and the grim set of his mouth. Seriously late to the party. I shook my head but let him pass. Fall asleep on the job? I figured both the stewardess and the

marshal had received rudimentary first-aid training and could at least support the woman until we landed. So I made myself scarce and returned to my seat. “Everything okay?” James asked. “She had an EpiPen. Seemed okay, but…” But what the hell did I know? She’d definitely get checked out by a doctor on the ground. My time in the army had taught me that human life was both incredibly strong and infinitely fragile. I had seen a man move a Humvee to get his friend out from under it. They both lived. And I had seen a guy die in a bar fight during shore leave. A single punch to the head, landed wrong on the concrete floor— lights out. I had learned not to take anything for granted, even the relative safety of American soil. The rest of the flight continued without incident. The departure took a little longer than usual as they first escorted the woman off the plane. She was long gone with paramedics by the time I walked through the gangway. Della was still there, speaking with another stewardess off to the side. I hoisted my bag on my shoulder and kept walking. “Talk to her,” James muttered from beside me. “Not a chance. I have Chelsea waiting for me, remember?” And based on my rapid pulse and dry eyes, the time away had messed me up more than I’d thought. I was in no condition to be around a woman, neither the one I’d just met nor the one I’d left behind. James snorted. “I didn’t say take her into the bathroom for a quickie. Just talk to her.” I shook my head, at both the man’s way of speaking and his suggestion. So, I’d felt a little attraction for someone. No big deal. As James had said in his own way, we were away a long time. It was normal to look. But if I went over to speak to her, it wouldn’t be as a passenger on her plane. It would be as a man interested in a woman. I just kept walking.

*** James swept Rachel up in a bear hug and gave her a searing kiss. I turned my head away out of respect, though I saw plenty of people stopping to stare. They looked pretty great, I had to admit. Great enough that I felt the absence of someone in my own arms acutely, like a knife in my side. Despite some of the crude things he said, I knew James was head over heels for this girl. Rachel had a hug for me too. “You been staying out of trouble?” “Pretty much.” Aside from the two gunshot wounds that had been patched up in the field. James had sewed up one of them. “This guy’s a hero.” James grinned. “He even saved someone’s life on the plane ride over.” I rolled my eyes. “Don’t listen to a word he says.” “Oh, don’t worry. I don’t.” But Rachel was looking at her boyfriend with pure affection. It didn’t go unnoticed by James, who pulled her in for a longer kiss. “Let’s get out of here,” he murmured, low enough to be for her ears only. I shifted on my feet, feeling like an intruder. The terminal was bustling with people meeting loved ones. Emotion all around, battering me like little pricks, more painful than stitches in the jungle. I felt Rachel look at me, heard her soft whisper. Not the contents, but I could guess where this was going. “Hey, man, you need a ride?” James delivered the offer casually, but we all knew what was at stake. The last time we’d met in the airport, Rachel had been standing beside Chelsea. Wasn’t gonna happen. That wasn’t disappointment sinking in my gut, was it? Guess I really had

thought she’d show up. I’d sent her my itinerary, just in case. What a shmuck. “I’m sure she’s on her way,” I said, lying through my teeth. “Don’t wait up for me.” Rachel looked worried. “You sure?” James mostly looked impatient—no doubt to take Rachel home and get busy. And why not? The guy deserved his R & R. No point in holding them up just because I was having woman troubles. “Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m a little worried,” James said. “But not because of Chelsea.” I knew what he meant. He meant he didn’t like Chelsea. He also meant I was a walking target if anyone found out about the memory stick in my bag. No way was I gonna check in luggage with that little piece of intel. But no one knew I had that list, and I would keep it that way. “Well, don’t be,” I said. “Seriously, you guys are chilling in a cold-ass airport just to hang out with me? I must look better than I thought.” “Fuck you,” James said with his usual friendly nature, but in his eyes I saw the warning. The data on that stick could make a lot of powerful men nervous. The kind of men who asked questions with their guns and made inquiries with C4 explosives. It had been risky to even keep the damn thing. When I’d told my commander about it, he’d quietly told me to lose it. But the potential reward was too rich to pass up. This was national-security stuff. This was domestic security stuff, the kind of thing that kept children safe and off the streets. All of that compared to my life. I had figured out a long time ago how little it was worth. So I had defied a direct order. And I would have to identify a high-ranking official, someone I could be sure wouldn’t turn around and sell the information, someone with enough of a fire under them to actually pursue the list through the proper channels. “I’ll call you,” I said in concession. I definitely wanted James’s help on this. That was the reason I’d told him about it. Best friends. Blood brothers. I could count on him to have my back. He nodded. “In that case…” “Yeah, yeah, get out of here.” I didn’t have to tell them twice. After another hug from Rachel, they disappeared into the crowd. Damn. After searching baggage claim and the pickup circle outside, I had to admit Chelsea wasn’t coming. The area was sticky and hot with the exhaust of all the idling cars. Everywhere I looked there were happy, tearful reunions. Bags going into cars. Kisses across the seat before the car pulled away. No Chelsea. I tried calling again. Voice mail. After the beep, I said, “Hey, Chels, it’s me. I’m at the airport. I got your message, but I… I was hoping you could come pick me up. We could talk… or not. Call me?” Shmuck. I crossed the little intersection to where a sign indicated cabs would stop. Unfortunately there were no yellow cars lined up. Nothing at all. It seemed weird in such a busy airport, but maybe a bunch of planes had just arrived. Or maybe I was in the wrong place. But traipsing all over the airport at this moment felt suddenly… impossible. Whatever survival mechanism that sustained me through the mission had subsided, leaving me tired and broken. My legs felt like jelly, way too wobbly to support my overlarge frame. I sat—or collapsed—on a bench and dumped my duffel bag beside me. Hopefully a cab would pull up. My eyes fell shut. I’d definitely found sleep in the middle of worse situations. It wouldn’t be

appropriate here, of course, but I didn’t care about that anymore. It was beyond me to care. Sleep didn’t come. I heard the soft squeal of breaks in front of me. Instead of a yellow car, it was an older model black truck. The window rolled down, revealing the flight attendant from the plane. Della. She raised her eyebrows. “Hop in, soldier.” Scrubbing a hand over my face, I looked left and right. Everything was just as I’d thought. People meeting loved ones. No sign of Chelsea. “What?” I said, mostly stalling. “I said get in. I’ll take you home.” I shifted on the seat, wishing my brain wasn’t filled with cotton. Was she hitting on me? I mean, clearly she was trying to pick me up, but was she also trying to pick me up? She was gorgeous, and I hadn’t even looked in a mirror in days. Mostly because I wouldn’t like what I saw. There was no reason to think she was interested in me that way. As if to confirm it, she added, “Look, I can take you wherever you need to go. I don’t feel comfortable leaving you here when you look like roadkill.” Right. So she wasn’t interested in me that way. Even so, if she were a man and I were a woman, the situation would not be entirely safe. But in this case, I was a giant fresh out of combat, and Della was a tiny little thing. Even if she did drive a big truck, I doubted she would turn out to be a serial killer. Stranger things had happened, but considering the sadistic assholes I’d just tangled with, it was a risk I could take. My phone screen was still blank. No returned called. No texts. I let out a breath. “Do you know where the cabs line up? I saw the sign for here, but…” “They moved that to Terminal C. It got too crowded around here so they split it up. You would’ve had to follow the signs from the gate.” And I hadn’t done that. I’d gone with James to the car pickup area, expecting Chelsea to be here. Hoping she’d be here, the same way she’d been here the last time I’d come back from overseas. That was probably stupid, but this last undercover thing had been rougher than I’d expected, rougher than I could have expected. The final weeks of army training were supposed to be tough. The training for spec ops was supposed to be tougher. But nothing had prepared me for the sight of kids being used. Nothing prepared me for not being able to do a damn thing to help them. Instead I had to gather evidence, to shoot the shit with the scum of the earth and laugh about it. So yeah, I’d played the fool here, and the pretty stewardess got to witness it. “I’ll chip in for gas,” I said. She smiled. “You don’t have to do that.” I pulled open the door, tossed my duffel bag to the backseat and climbed in. “I have a girlfriend.” It wasn’t the smoothest delivery. Nor was it strictly true, considering I’d been dumped. But I needed to talk to Chelsea before I really knew what was going on. I needed closure. And I wouldn’t take the chance of leading Della on that something could happen. She deserved better than some strung-out army grunt on the rebound. Grimacing, I chanced a look. She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. “In that case, I’ll let you chip in for gas.”

Chapter Three Della He was silent for the first five miles we drove. Once he told me what part of town he lived in, he’d shut down. It might have been insulting, the way he barely spoke to me, how he refused to make a move. Even if he did have a girlfriend waiting for him. What was I going to do about her? His eyes were closed. Was he sleeping? But no, I could feel his presence vibrating through the air in my truck. It had been like that in the airplane too, his vitality like waves that could lap at my cheeks. His large body swayed gently with the motion of the truck. That relaxed pose was a facade, something that would fool a lesser fighter into thinking he was unaware. But I had plenty of experience with men’s bodies. I knew how they looked when stalking their prey. I knew how they looked at the height of climax. This man had been through hell and back, and I knew that look too. Cuts marred his tanned cheek and neck. Something had made a gauge at the back of his neck, leaving a scab still puffy with irritation. Heavy shadows marred his eyes, almost as heavy as a bruise, dark slashes beneath his golden lashes. Kind eyes. I had learned to recognize those too. A bright sign for a drive-up fast food place passed us by, and I exited the freeway. “Where are we going?” he asked, his voice husky with exhaustion. “Figured you could use some lunch. You look hungry.” More than hungry. He looked like he needed… everything. Food. Sleep. Even air itself. If I’d met him a different way, I would have wanted to give him those things, to care for him. To protect him. Which was funny, considering. He shook his head. “I’m okay.” “Come on. It won’t bite.” I maneuvered the truck beneath the small overhang carport and rolled down the window. “When’s the last time you ate, anyway? I know they didn’t serve lunch on the plane.” “I had coffee…” He scrubbed his face with a hand. “A few hours ago.” “Proving my point, soldier. A big boy like you needs nourishment.” He gave me a strange look, as if he couldn’t figure out if I was flirting with him. Maybe when he figured that out, he could tell me, because even I wasn’t sure. What I did know was that I couldn’t fight him. Despite the obvious toll his trip had taken, he was alert. His fists were huge, his muscles clearly defined beneath the army-green shirt he wore. No, the only weapon I had against him was sexuality. What else was new? “I’ll take a burger,” he conceded. “And whatever’s the biggest soda they have.” Yeah, he’d probably take an IV injection of caffeine if they had one. He was battling sleep bigtime. But he needed rest. Caffeine wouldn’t be good for him. It wouldn’t be good for my purposes either. I leaned out the window and ordered three burgers and an extra-large lemonade. He raised his eyebrows at the change in his order, but he didn’t complain. Naturally submissive. I could tell these things, often after speaking with someone for a minute. That wasn’t conceit talking. In my old job I

only had a minute to figure a guy out. That skill helped in my new job too. Girlfriend or not, he wasn’t immune to me. He thought I was looking at the menu, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw his gaze, hungry and a little desperate, on my body. The blue airline uniform was stiff and unappealing, but he made me feel like I was dressed in silk. Not even the cheap, gaudy kind, but something luxurious. His voice was gruff when he spoke. “So… how’d a nice girl like you end up in this dirty business?” Surprise forced all the air from my lungs. “What?” I managed to get out. He nodded toward the badge still stuck to my chest, the one with gold airplane wings and the name Della. “Charging fifty bucks to check in a bag. Holding us hostage during layovers. It’s practically highway robbery.” “Oh.” The air suddenly liquefied again, rushing into my lungs like a waterfall. His brows drew together. Was that concern? God, it had been so long since anyone had worried about me. No, it had never happened. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Bad joke.” “Don’t apologize.” I tried to smile. “You’re right. They’re pretty evil about it. But I have to admit, they’ve taken good care of me.” The pay sucked, but the health benefits were stellar. No risk of getting raped or killed, for example. That definitely improved my well-being. “That’s good.” The sleepiness had drained from his eyes, leaving only a piercing intensity that seemed to see right through me. I shifted in my seat and looked away. Point one for soldier boy. “Did you always want to fly?” he asked softly. A knot formed in my throat, and I swallowed around it. Point two. I may not come out the winner in this match. But then, that was the point, wasn’t it? Dmitri thought I was going to die on the mission he’d given me. Maybe so, but I’d go down fighting. “Yeah,” I said, just as quietly. “I always wanted to get away. No one can touch you in the sky, right?” He caught the steel in my voice. His eyes sharpened into blades; they cut me open. I bled onto the steering wheel, all over the console beside me. All the while thinking touch me, touch me, touch me. A lifetime of bartering with my body had left me broken inside, unable to tell the difference between lust and affection. Or maybe I could always tell the difference. That was why it hurt so damn much. A knock on the window startled me. I let out a small shriek, then blushed, embarrassed. Warmth covered my hand, and I looked down to see his larger hand over mine. Comforting me. Drawing in a breath, I pulled away. There would be time enough for that. He’d touch me plenty more places before we were through. Every one outside my body, but nowhere inside me. I wouldn’t let him touch me there. I paid for the food and rolled my window up. The business of brown paper wrapping and straws were the distraction I needed to pull myself together.

*** We got back on the road quickly. I watched with some fascination as he scarfed down the burgers, the sight of his throat swallowing strangely compelling. Or maybe not so strangely. I knew my tastes in men ran to the perverse. But I was used to dealing with smaller men, ones with slender hands and hips. The kind I could lock between my legs until he convinced me to let him go. Clint would be nothing like that. He had enough power in his pinky finger to level me. And the thought of all that power being wiped away… My stomach turned over.

But it wasn’t a guarantee he would die. He could defend himself—better than I ever could. And I was well-accustomed to do-or-die situations. As in, I did what Dmitri said or my sister died. “You want one?” Clint held up a foil-wrapped burger. Shaking my head, I put the truck in gear. “No, thanks.” “Are you sure? A big girl like you needs nourishment.” His low voice was teasing, and despite myself, I smiled. We both knew he outweighed me by a hundred pounds, but the low tenor of his voice when he called me a big girl told me he wasn’t talking about my size. He was talking about sex. But playfully. Without the hint of coercion I was used to. Damn. And did he have to be so cute? I didn’t want to find him adorable. I didn’t want to like him at all. This would be so much easier if he were a sleazeball like Dmitri. My phone buzzed in my purse, and I pulled it out. Well? One word and my heart plummeted. Dmitri. He wanted to know if I’d gotten the man named Clint Adams, the one who’d been sitting in seat 34B. Uh, yeah, I had him, but Dmitri had neglected to mention that man would be in combat gear. Clearly he was in one of the military branches, which made him extra dangerous. It also meant he served his country, and I had a lot of respect for that. Enough respect to let my sister die? I texted back one-handed at a red light. Working on it. Because I didn’t have this all worked out. In a few minutes we’d arrive at his house, where his girlfriend would no doubt be. Not a very good girlfriend, I thought with some disgust, since she hadn’t bothered to come pick him up. But I could hardly be jealous, considering. At least she wasn’t going to get him killed. “You okay?” he murmured. “Yeah, sure.” “Because you seem a little… agitated.” I glanced down and realize I’d been gripping the steering wheel so hard my knuckles were white. Yeah, I was agitated. I’d done a lot of crazy shit for Dmitri, but this one definitely took the mafia cake. What would happen if I just started driving toward Dmitri’s safe house right now? Obviously the guy would notice a detour into the seedy part of town. I needed Clint immobilized, unconscious, and that was impossible with him alert and powerful and studying me from across the truck. He seemed to lean away from me, almost trying to make himself small. Which was ridiculous. That would never work, as big as he was. He filled the whole cab, right up to my face, where I breathed in his musky scent. My skin tingled whenever he looked at me—all the time. Whenever I was in sight of him, I felt his gaze on me, hot and surprisingly sweet. “I thought maybe you’d changed your mind about driving me.” He shrugged. “You don’t know me, but I’d never hurt you.” I blinked, incredulous. He thought I was scared of him. God. God. I couldn’t do this. My throat closed up. “I know,” I managed to say. And the strangest part was that I did know he wouldn’t hurt me. How many men could I say that about? Only him. “But if you wanted to pull over somewhere, I could call a cab. No problem. I don’t mind.” I just shook my head. Stupidly, tears were forming. Why couldn’t he stop being nice to me? I wanted him to hit me, to fight me. I wanted him to tear me down or submit to me. This good-guy angle was too much for me, like a dream I didn’t know I’d had.

Your sister needs you. With pure will I forced myself to calm. Why was he affecting me like this? That was a problem I hadn’t expected when I’d reluctantly agreed to do this. But I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out shakily. I glanced at the screen of my phone. It had gone dark. “I was just looking up a map. But you can tell me where to go.” He directed me off the freeway and through a network of streets without any other kind words, to my relief. We finally pulled up to an aging apartment complex. Despite the obvious wear on the buildings, tall trees provided shade over the cobblestone walkway. A cat sat licking his paw on one of the flower beds. It was a quaint place, both rustic and comfortable—kind of like the man himself. He handed me a couple of bills. I split them with a slide of my fingers. Two twenties. “This is too much,” I protested. “Nah. It should be more, considering the gas and the food. And your time. That’s all I have on me.” “Clint, I can’t take all your money.” Something flickered in his eyes. Was that pain? “How did you know my name?” Shit. I’d given myself away. But instead of feeling broken up about it, I was glad. Glad he’d caught me. Glad he’d stay safe. “The flight roster,” I whispered. “You always memorize it?” he asked jokingly. “Because of the incident,” I forced out. “I had to make an incident report for the woman on the plane. So I looked up your name.” He seemed to accept that explanation. He reached for his neck and pulled out a set of silver tags. “Army Sergeant Clint Adams, at your service.” My gaze lingered on those two flat pieces of metal. As if I’d voiced the request, he pulled the chain over his head and handed it over. It was heavier than I’d expected, and warm from his body. I ran my thumb over the lettering. Adams, Clint F. “F?” I asked. “Fitzgerald.” His cheeks turned a faint pink. “An old family name.” He volunteered so much. Not just his name, rank and serial number. He gave me his history, his kindness. He gave and gave and gave until I felt sick with how much more I would take from him. I ran the chain over my hand, tangling my fingers through the beaded metal as if it was his hair. Then drawing up tight, capturing us both. He started to speak, then stopped. Then started again, seeming hesitant. “You were amazing, you know. Smooth under pressure. Not everyone could have reacted that quickly.” I had a lot of experience administering needles to convulsing people. Though mostly that was my sister going through violent withdrawals. What did that make me? Not amazing, that was for sure. An enabler, probably. But I couldn’t stand to see her suffer. I did anything to get that needle from Dmitri, and then I used it to give her a few hours of peace. That was my old life. My new life, as a flight attendant, was supposed to be about making an honest wage. But nothing was ever that simple. “I appreciated your help,” I said. “Listen, what I said before about having a…” He glanced behind him, toward the faded door to his apartment building. His expression was torn as he cleared his throat. “I really appreciate the ride.” What had he been about to say? It was probably better that I didn’t know. I don’t actually have

a girlfriend. And oh, by the way, do you want to come have sex? I didn’t want to see him lie to me just so he could bang me later when his girlfriend wasn’t looking. I didn’t want him to invite me up to an empty apartment while I ignored the signs that he didn’t live alone. That was the sort of dick move I’d expect from any other guy—but not him. Even if it would help me hurt him, I didn’t want to hate him. “Take care, Della,” he said finally. “Take care,” I repeated softly. He hefted his bag and shut the door. My muscles tensed, straining to go after him. Not because of the way he affected me, but because I needed him. My sister’s safety depended on him. For years I had done everything in the name of her safety. But I watched him walk away, with no plans for how to get back in his life.

Chapter Four Clint It physically hurt to walk away from her. Crazy but true. I wanted her to drive me away from here and the confrontation no doubt waiting for me inside my apartment. But at least Della could be comfortable now. She had been downright squirming by the last five minutes. She probably had a million things to do, and none of them were to babysit my tired ass. I stalked up the sidewalk and stepped inside. The door to the building led to a dim hallway. I kept my head down, gaze trained on the thinly carpeted stairs… and almost tripped over the box blocking the hallway at the top. Sure enough, the entire landing was full of stuff. My stuff. Fuck. There were about seven large cardboard boxes. My bicycle. She’d put my TV out? Jesus. Annoyed now, I slung my duffel bag on top of everything and picked my way across the wreckage. That was just my luck. James got to go home and snuggle up with his girl. I was climbing over all my worldly possessions as if it were rocky terrain on enemy territory. I raised my hand to knock, and the door opened. She looked… seriously pissed. “Hey, Chels.” “Don’t ‘Hey, Chels’ me. It took you long enough to get home.” Seriously? “Well, I hadn’t arranged a ride. I thought you’d be picking me up.” “Did you not get my text?” Jesus. Suddenly I felt like the dumbest of dumb-asses. I should’ve taken the Dear John texts more seriously, but I hadn’t wanted to. It was easier to pretend everything was okay, even when she wouldn’t answer my calls, even when she hadn’t shown up at the airport. Easier to pretend she hadn’t just poured salt on the very real wounds currently aching all over my body. But those black-on-white words had felt unreal somehow, as if the world had gone sideways while I was tucked away in the darkest corner of the world. I kept waiting to wake up and find everything how I left it. My gut tightened. But clearly she was serious about breaking up. Her expression was more derisive than anything else. “Yeah, I got your text,” I said tiredly. “But if you’re so keen on breaking up, why are you still in my apartment? More to the point, why is all my stuff in the hallway?” “Oh, your apartment. Is that how you’re gonna play this?” And I definitely wasn’t going to say, I thought we could work it out. Because regardless of what delusions I’d been harboring on the flight over, I didn’t want to work it out anymore. Maybe it was meeting Della. Maybe it was the shock of seeing all my shit piled up like trash. Whatever the reason, I was finally on the same page. It was over. “Well… yeah. I mean, I’ve been paying the rent, so…” She laughed. “Great. So this is about money now.” “What? No. I mean, I told you I didn’t mind you staying here, and I never asked you to chip in.” “But you’re asking now, right? You’re going to hold it over me?” Frustration rose up like acid. “No. Shit. I’m not trying to hold anything over you. I’m just trying

to catch up here. And maybe get a few hours of sleep somewhere in this forty-eight-hour period.” “You can take your stuff and go somewhere else. I’m the one who’s been living here for the past six months. Not you.” “But…” I shook my head. My stomach churned with nausea, threatening to eject the three burgers I’d had on the way over. “My name’s on the lease.” She flinched. “Are you going to kick me out?” How did I end up the bad guy here? I felt like some sort of asshole stalker, bothering this girl when she clearly didn’t want me here. Except… this was actually my apartment. But maybe she had a point. She’d gotten settled here, and I hadn’t. Obviously. I looked around at my stuff, coming up around my legs like quicksand. Always the drifter. Always the reject. This place was supposed to be some kind of stability for me. I’d gotten the lease and paid it in full, knowing I’d be gone. And when Chelsea had roommate troubles and asked to move in, it had seemed like another step in the right direction. Putting down roots. Making a home. But… hell. A heavy weight inside my chest felt all too familiar. Her expression said it all. You’re not wanted here. “I’m not gonna make you leave,” I said gruffly. “I’m not gonna do anything to you. Can I just leave my stuff here for a couple of days? I don’t have another place lined up.” She shook her head firmly. “No way.” Suddenly understanding clicked into place, like a vice around my lungs. “You got some guy here, don’t you?” “Of course not,” she said. But the furious blush on her face said otherwise. “He may not be here right now, but he comes around, right? Just tell me this. Was it before or after you sent that text?” Her mouth set in stubborn lines I was familiar with. Before. That was the answer she didn’t say. Fuck, it shouldn’t hurt. It shouldn’t feel like a knife in my back that she’d been cheating on me. I swayed on my feet and leaned against the doorjamb. A fucking fight when I thought I was safe. I never could get used to that. A softy. A sucker. A punching bag for anyone with a bone to pick until I got big enough to defend myself. She stepped forward, her expression softening. Her hand extended. “Clint…” “Don’t worry about it,” I said. Back the fuck off, I didn’t say. Yeah, so I wasn’t exactly over it. I’d get there, but at this second I felt like the world’s biggest chump. Sure, you can live with me. No, you don’t have to pay any rent. And okay, go right head and fucking cheat on me while I’m getting shot at, why don’t you. “Clint, do you—” “Just go.” I gestured roughly for the door she still held. “I’ll figure something out. Not your problem.” She had the gall to look wounded. But at least she did what I said, so I could slump against the rail and look weak without her seeing. We’d never had the kind of crazy love that James and Rachel had, but I always thought that wasn’t for me. I was perfectly fine with something safe and predictable…until it wasn’t anymore. Focus, soldier. And now I had to figure out where to put a bunch of stuff. In storage? How fast could I get another apartment? I’d be extending myself with rent on two places, but hell, I didn’t really have a choice. Kicking Chelsea out was something I wouldn’t do no matter how mad I was. And I wasn’t

exactly relishing the thought of sleeping where she’d fucked some other guy anyway. She could keep the bed. I climbed back over the boxes and stopped short at the top of the stairs. Standing at the bottom was Della. “Hi,” she said meekly. She had her arms wrapped around her chest, hugging herself. From her expression she would have preferred to be anywhere but here. And God, I wanted that too. Humiliation poured through me, molten lava that left only charred earth in its wake. She had heard all of that, everything. She knew exactly what Chelsea had done while I’d been overseas. Being cheated on and dumped had been pretty terrible. Knowing the pretty flight attendant had witnessed the whole thing made me want to punch something. Like my fucking TV beside me, for starters. “What are you doing here?” My voice came out raw, as if I’d been partying last night and then spent the morning hunched around the ceramic bowl. Instead of what I’d really done, which was spend over twenty-four hours on a series of connecting flights to get back to a place that wasn’t my home anymore. She held up a set of dog tags. “Thought you might need these.” “Right.” And I’d left my identification with a virtual stranger. Excellent. I couldn’t catch a break. Pushing myself forward, I made it down the stairs. When I grasped the tags dangling from her hand, she tightened her grip. I raised my eyebrow in question, connected to her through the light metal. “What’re you gonna do?” she murmured. Damn her sweet Southern accent. “Haven’t figured that out yet.” She peered around me. “Got a lot of stuff?” “Enough.” Maybe if I was short with her, she’d leave me the hell alone. “I was thinking…” Her lashes lowered before her lush brown gaze met mine again. “I was thinking you could stay with me.” Or maybe not. I grabbed the back of my neck and squeezed, hoping it would dislodge the hundred-pound weight pressed there. Didn’t help. “Stay with you,” I repeated hollowly. She shrugged. “You’ll have somewhere to put your stuff while you find another place.” I made a noncommittal sound. “And what’ll you get?” Her gaze dipped down, sliding along my chest and lower, lower, to where I’d suddenly begun to harden. Fuck, that was hot. Incredibly, impossibly hot to see her look at me like I was a slab of meat and she was a goddamned lioness. And I wanted to get eaten—oh, I surely did. Had wanted that since I’d first caught a glimpse of her walking toward me down the airplane aisle. But I was a fucking mess, my heart ripped out and hung up to drain. And physically too. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months. Though the bruises on my torso were mostly healed, the graze of a bullet kept me hopped up on painkillers even now. If she was looking for a good time… she should look somewhere else. “Della… I appreciate the offer. Seriously appreciate it. To be blunt with you, my situation is fucked up right now, and I don’t want to pull you into this.” She stepped forward, bringing our faces mere inches apart. If I leaned a little ways, we would be kissing. “Hey,” she murmured, “the offer wasn’t made lightly. I know all about fucked-up situations, and if I could make yours a little easier, I’d consider it worth it.”

I should say no. I knew that. I should lug all this stuff to some monthly rental storage place and then bunker down in a cheap motel that smelled like smoke and worse things. But here was a beautiful girl offering to solve all my problems, and damned if I could resist.

*** Della lived in a small white house with a wood porch swing. Honeysuckle climbed up the pillars and filled the air with a sweet scent. Her neighborhood featured lush green grass and not a fence in sight. A palm tree sagged in the front yard, clearly in need of trimming. But otherwise the house looked no worse for her absence. The porch light lit the steps in the waning evening. “Nice place,” I said. She glanced back at me, her smile almost sad. “Thanks.” I rocked on my heels, disconcerted by the sense of unwelcome. As if she wanted me to leave. I got that from her sometimes. One minute she’d be checking me out and inviting me over. The next she’d withdraw, leaving only the shell of the pretty girl behind. I couldn’t figure her out. But then again, my brain had stopped functioning sometime this morning. Right now I was running on fumes. Oh, and lust. My attraction for her had only grown with the realization that I might actually get to act on it. I just hoped I didn’t pass out in the middle. Boy, I sure knew how to impress a girl. She flicked on the light, revealing a comfortable dining room connected to the living room. Pointing to an open space between them, she said, “Not much privacy, but you can put your stuff there. There should be enough room.” “If you’re sure…” The corners of her mouth lifted into a grin, a real one. “Backing out already, soldier? Where’s your follow-through?” Damn, I liked it when she teased me. When she emerged from that shell and bared herself in that way, hints of humor and light. “I’ll go get my stuff from the truck. But just to be clear, I’m paying to stay here.” When she pursed her lips, clearly prepared to argue, I shook my head. “Let’s plan on a week, and we’ll figure out the fair rate for that.” Her eyes grew clouded, darkened by some secret she hadn’t yet revealed. “A week ought to be just long enough, soldier.” If only I knew why it sounded ominous, more like a threat than a promise. I put the boxes and my bicycle in her garage, ignoring the unease in my gut. I flashed back to when she’d pulled up in front of me, offering me a ride. If the situation were reversed, if I were a woman and she were a man, maybe I’d better be careful. But considering the circumstances, that kind of wariness felt silly. Even exhausted and mildly injured, I was a trained soldier. While she was… a beautiful woman. One who could find a date in any bar in town. The fact that she’d dragged my sorry ass home was pure charity. The hot water in the shower found every bruise and open cut, burning before soothing away the sting. The walls seemed to sway in front of my eyes. I had a faint hope I wouldn’t slip and crack my head open. It would hardly be good behavior for a guest. But I stepped out of her small, steam-filled bathroom without incident. At least the steady spray had done its best to pound out the knots in my shoulders. I wanted to dive directly into bed, but instead I slung on sweatpants and a T-shirt, the fabric clinging to my still-wet skin. The duffel bag wasn’t outside the door where I’d left it. Someone was humming. The sound was low and melodic, whispering beneath my skin and raising goose bumps in its wake. It sounded almost familiar. Not a song I’d heard before, but it

filled a space inside me, as if I had been waiting to hear it. I followed the haunting sound to the bedroom, where my duffel bag had taken up residence in an antique-looking chair against the wall. Della was pulling down the comforter from the bed, such a sweetly domestic movement that my chest grew tight. She stopped humming. Her smile appeared shy. “You can sleep in here.” I took another step into the room. White walls, white sheets. Dark brown knotted wood flooring. “Is this your room?” “Of course not. I’m across the hall.” That sense of reversal washed over me again, the way a man might make a woman feel safe, the way he’d reassure her he wouldn’t take advantage. She was doing the same for me—making me feel safe. Assuring me she wouldn’t require me to have sex with her, which was really ironic considering I’d give anything to touch her. Or be touched. The way she was so competent everywhere, so thoughtful and caring…it made me think she’d mess me up. Not physically. Emotionally. She’d touch me just right. It wouldn’t matter where on my body or with what part of hers. It would be the quiet assurance, the focused affection that would undo me. I’d had my share of sex before, but I’d never had anyone turn down the sheets for me to sleep. “Who usually sleeps here?” I asked. She glanced around at the bare walls and frilly curtains. “No one, I guess. It’s a guest room. Although…sometimes my sister stays here.” Her lashes veiled her eyes. “You can stand in for her.” My feelings toward Della were decidedly unsisterly. “Where is she now?” Those brown eyes met mine, and the pain in them stole my breath away. “I don’t know.” “Shit. I’m sorry.” Her lips pressed together. Shadows moved over her slender throat as she swallowed. I got the impression she was trying to get herself under control, and I regretted my line of questioning. Wasn’t it enough that she’d opened her home to me? She’d given me her trust, and I’d gone and dredged up painful thoughts. She shook her head. “It’s not your fault. That’s the thing about family. They’re connected to you, even when they’re not.” “That sounds…really good.” Her gaze sharpened. “Do you have brothers or sisters?” “No. No family.” I hesitated. “I grew up in a group home.” Sympathy flashed through her eyes. “That must have been hard.” “Not too bad.” I hadn’t minded the repetitive meals or the small beds. I had minded the older boys who tried to take advantage, but I learned how to fight dirty even as a child. Then I got big, and no one had managed to best me since. She stepped closer and placed her hand on my arm. Just there, the lightest touch of fingertips to my forearm. I felt the impact like a blow, electric rain on my skin, a form of torture I never wanted to end. “I’m sorry.” Her voice had dropped low. There was an undercurrent there, something I couldn’t figure out yet. As if she wasn’t apologizing for my past… Then what? I wanted to decode her. As if she were an encrypted message we’d picked up from insurgents. But unlike the enemies I worked against, I would never use that knowledge against her.

My throat felt dry. “What if I don’t want to sleep alone?” She smiled, the hint of mocking almost soothing. “Soldier, you look like you’re about to fall asleep standing up. You don’t have the energy to do anything but sleep.” Yeah, sex was probably out of the question. I had a semi being in the same room with her, but just because I had the equipment didn’t mean I should use it. Two days of no sleep had left me strung tight. And despite my exhaustion, I didn’t expect that to change anytime soon. Every time I closed my eyes, I was back in that fucking warehouse. She began caressing me, so light I almost didn’t notice it. Except for the way I hardened to full mast. And damn, that was clearly visible beneath the fleece fabric of my pants. But she wasn’t looking between my legs. Her eyes were trained on mine. “It’s more than just being tired, isn’t it?” she whispered. I swallowed thickly. “Yeah.” “Do you want to talk about it?” “I can’t.” It was classified, for one thing. But even if I could’ve shared it, I never would’ve told her about the things I’d seen. There was no reason to give her nightmares too. Though judging from the shadows in her eyes, she had her own nightmares. “Lie down in the bed, soldier.” “Della?” “That’s an order.” Fuck, why was that so hot? I couldn’t help the streaks of lust that ran through me. Couldn’t do anything but obey her. Was it the tiredness making my skin overly sensitive? The slide of fleece against my skin, the embroidered eyelet duvet beneath my palms. The world felt more textured, more vibrant when she was in it. The bed creaked as I climbed on, and I looked back, waiting to see if she’d follow. She did, thank God. I breathed pure relief while she placed a knee on the bed, her eyes dark and implacable. Her face was all shadows, but I could see her clearly in my mind. The polite smile she’d given me on the plane. The more playful one through the window of her truck. And then she was in front of me, where I still couldn’t see her smile—but I could feel it, curved and wicked when it met my lips in a kiss.

Chapter Five Della What was I doing with him? I should leave him alone. I should call Dmitri right now and tell him where to go. Hell, I could even tie Clint up before Dmitri got here, a pretty little package. Though Clint wasn’t little. Not at all. It was like climbing a mountain just to straddle him. And when I got there? The air was thin at the peak. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t feel anything except an irrational sense of triumph. The man could kiss. For just a moment, when my lips touched his, he froze. A sound vibrated from deep in his chest, rumbling surprise over the hills and valleys of his pecs. I didn’t know why he should be surprised. With a body like that, he would attract the attention of any girl with a pulse. The way he seemed to put everyone else’s comfort above his own would seal the deal. I nipped at his bottom lip and reveled in his answering groan. “Honey,” he muttered, and that alone, the endearment, was enough to make me clench. Just a shimmy of my hips would be enough to center me over him. I’d push the thick cloth of his sweatpants aside and then I’d be riding him, taking us both to oblivion. But something held me back. A conscience? He was exhausted. I could see the redness of his eyes and the shadows underneath. His body reacted with a sluggish lust, eager but far too gone. That was okay, though. I could do all the work. I was used to that. His chest was broad. Open plains for my lips to roam. Amber waves of grain, I thought with a private smile. He was the all-American boy, my soldier. Sometimes you had to make a choice. Dmitri loomed in the back of my mind with his orders and his threats. Right now I chose this. I licked his nipple until it was a tight, puckered nub. The sound he made was pure masculine pleasure, and that’s what I chose. “Do you like that?” I purred. “No… Yes… You don’t have to…” His pecs bulged, muscles sharply cut, and I used that angle to bite him. He jerked beneath me but did nothing to protect himself. So damned trusting. Way too sweet for the likes of me. “Who said that was for you? Maybe I just want to play.” He groaned. “Oh God. Della.” My name on his lips made me wet. Oh, who was I kidding? I was already soaking my panties. Just looking at him had done that. Scenting his musk and feeling his presence. The man had the body of a god but the fragile mortality of a man. His heart thumped steadily beneath my palm. I pushed myself up, straddling his hips. I should get him off quickly and be done with it. No, I should leave him alone right now. But instead I wanted to stay and take my time. It was the kind of sexual play I dreamed of, alone, at night with my vibrator in hand. Wonder of wonders, he seemed to be getting off on it. The man was clearly alpha on a battlefield. He got wary looks from the other men at the airport—even they understood the sensual power he radiated. But here, between my thighs, he liked it when I teased him. “Are you too tired, soldier? Should I let you rest now?” His hips jerked. Oh yes, he liked being teased. “If you want,” he panted. I took mercy on him and lifted my shirt over my head, baring my breasts. It was an embossed

invitation, written with calligraphy and overlaid with vellum. Do what you want with me. I’m yours for the night. He looked. It practically left a trail of fire over my pale, exposed skin, that’s how hotly he looked at my breasts. But he didn’t touch. His hands lay at his sides, twitching once and then lying still. Letting me call the shots. My finger trailed down his chest, winding a lonely path down the furred skin. Golden-dark hair made a trail for me to follow, an arrow pointing where I needed to go. Even his hip bones formed a V, showing me the way. I scooted my knees back so that I straddled his legs. His thighs were wider than his waist had been, bulging with muscles that had helped him defend and invade, protect and conquer. He was a warrior in every way—even the way he trembled with restraint. It would have been so easy to flip me over and shove himself inside me. Other men would have done so. Lesser men. His lips parted. His lids were low with hunger. “Della?” “I’m here.” Here was my fingers tugging down the elastic waistband, letting his cock spring free. Here was circling his cock with my thumb and forefinger, a slight grip that propped him up more than stroked him. Here was a lick from the base of his cock to the tip. “Oh fuck.” My lips curved into a smile, but I didn’t let that stop me as I covered the head of his cock with my mouth. The underside met in a ridge that I teased with my tongue. He was already salty, already damp with his own seed, so I licked it off until he tasted like nothing at all. “Baby, that feels so good. Oh Jesus. Let me… let me…” He didn’t finish asking for permission, so I didn’t give it. Whatever he wanted, it wouldn’t be better than this. His hips were already jerking up, shoving his cock roughly into my mouth, a helpless response to pleasure. I paused long enough to tell him, “Don’t come yet.” Then I took him deep, sliding my lips down his wide cock as far as I could. I pulled back and tried to go deeper the next time. I was still plenty far from the dark hairs at the base of his groin. He was just too big to take all of him. Not only long, but also thick, as if all that physical training had also exercised his cock. I imagined dirty drill sergeants and mandatory repetitions and somehow felt even more turned on. This man pushed every one of my buttons. Even exhausted and temporarily homeless, he was the most alluring man I’d ever met. If he ever actually tried to seduce me, I’d probably melt into a puddle. That was me, the Wicked Witch of the West, destroyed out of a misguided sense of loyalty to my sister. My sucking fell into a rhythm we could both recognize: the rocking of sex and the sea, the moonlit tides guiding my head as I bobbed up and down. He grunted on every downward slide, the same way he would if he was plunging into my pussy. “Come here.” His voice was hoarse like gravel. “Turn around. Let me lick you.” Oh, good boy. He’d managed to bring himself to ask. And I wanted to reward that kind of initiative, I really did. I was sure he’d be talented in that arena. My sex clenched at the thought of his eager tongue lapping away. But despite the haze of lust around us, I remembered why he was here. Tomorrow I would betray him. He’d never again look at me with both desire and tenderness. He’d never look at me at all.

If nothing else, I could give him this. I leaned back, resting on his legs. My lips felt swollen from sucking him. My nipples were tight with arousal. “You don’t give the orders around here. Now, you’re going to lie there and take your lumps like a good solider. Got it?” Something dark flashed in his eyes. I thought he might refuse. “Yes, ma’am,” he said curtly. My whole body went rigid, aching to ram something. Ideally, him. I wasn’t alone in that reaction. God, he was so turned on. I watched his cock twitch with intense fascination. My cunt clenching and his cock flexing. When they finally slid together, it would be a violent intercourse, and that made me want it even more. Would he fuck you if he knew why you’d lured him here? No, and he wouldn’t let me suck him off either, but I wasn’t about to tell him anything. I put my finger to my mouth and got it nice and wet. His eyes widened. He knew what was coming next. His body tensed, a reflexive move to keep me out. I could have punished him for that, but I decided to reward him instead, with my mouth on his cock again. He should learn to protect himself. Even if it was too little, too late. I licked and sucked his hot cock, making sure no inch of skin went unloved. He would be damp with my saliva, coated completely. I hoped the air was cool against wet skin when I pulled back, a sharp contrast to the heat of my mouth when I engulfed him. However it felt, he seemed to enjoy it. He groaned so loud it filled the air, a kind of roaring despair that reminded me of my order to him. Don’t come yet. And this man could obey orders. It became a challenge between us, to see if I could get him to come without giving permission. I recognized that it wouldn’t be quite fair that way, but I didn’t care. I licked and sucked and nibbled at him. I slid my fist up and down his length. I sneaked a finger down against his puckered hole and pressed inside. He shot up from the bed, shouting incoherently. Then, “God. God. That feels… I don’t know. Ahhh, baby.” It was only when I went deeper that he gripped the sheets, almost tearing them in his fervor. “Come now,” I whispered, so quietly he might not have heard me. But then he was coming, with a tortured cry and hot spurts of seed onto my tongue. I swallowed him down, drinking the come and nuzzling his softening cock until he slumped back to the bed. He was breathing hard, but his eyes were closed. His limbs were sprawled as if I’d knocked him unconscious. And maybe I had. He made a soft sound, almost a worrisome sound. I brushed my hand over his forehead. “Shh. Rest.” Then I gently pulled his sweatpants up over his cock. I settled the blanket around his waist. And I tucked him into bed with a kiss to his forehead. The whole time, he barely moved to help me. His breathing evened out. His eyes opened once, focused on me, and then the lids slammed shut once again. By the time I left his room, he was already asleep.

*** I wouldn’t be able to sleep anytime soon. My body was a jumble of nerves—arousal and guilt and fear forming a Molotov cocktail inside me. I headed to the kitchen for a small cup of tea. My hands trembled as I prepared it, the cup rattling against the dish until I set it on the table. The house was fifty years old. Caro didn’t understand why I’d picked this one when I could

have had a newer one for the same price. She didn’t see the value in original hardwood floors and a wide, plush lawn. The house had character, and that made it a home. A place where I could get comfortable and put down roots. I’d been waiting my whole life to put down roots. But then, Caro was comparing it to whatever mansion Dmitri had kept her in. No doubt it had glass tables and expensive artwork and guards with machine guns. He liked to think he was highbrow. I had actually been glad when he upgraded from head gangbanger to major crime boss. He’d hooked up with some other guys and started dealing bigger. International business opportunities, he’d said with a smirk. He had started to travel more and released his hold on me and Caro. The only problem was, Caro wouldn’t let go of him. She wanted that lifestyle. As sleazy as he was, she wanted him. Sometimes that pissed me off. Those days I’d think about cutting her loose. But most of the time I remembered that neither of us had chosen to go with him. We had been thrown into hell together, and I was the only one who had escaped. She was my sister. I wouldn’t let her down. My phone rang, startling me. Tea sloshed over the rim of the cup as I set it down with a thud. My gaze snapped to the dark staircase. Would he hear? I grabbed the phone from the table and slipped out the back door. The ambient sounds were louder here—singing crickets and rustling leaves and the soothing hum of nighttime. “Hello?” I whispered. “Della, it’s me.” Relief made me feel faint. “Caro! Oh God, I’ve been so worried about you. Are you okay? Where is he keeping you? Did you get away?” “Oh Sis, you’re so dramatic. I’m fine. I’ve always been fine.” I shook my head, feeling tears sting my eyes. “You haven’t been using?” A pause. “I can handle myself.” Some of my worry came out as anger. I preferred it that way. “And I suppose you can handle Dmitri too?” “Of course.” She giggled in a flirty way that told me Dmitri was right beside her. “He’s a man, Della. You know as well as I do how to handle them.” Yeah, I had believed I could handle men. Men like Dmitri. Dancing at his club until I could figure out something better, something safer. Except he hadn’t wanted to let me go. He hadn’t wanted to let Caro go either, and she hadn’t put up a fight. Even when he had contacted me with his horrible proposition, I’d thought I could handle him. Give him what he wanted so he’d leave my sister alone. But this entire thing was getting out of hand. “Put Dmitri on the phone,” I said. “I thought you didn’t like him,” she said with a smirk in her voice. “You said you weren’t going to talk to him and neither should I.” “And look how well that turned out,” I snapped. I forced myself to calm. It wasn’t Caro’s fault. She didn’t understand. I had to believe that, because the alternative, thinking that Caro really wanted a man as thoroughly disgusting as that, made me hate my sister. Dmitri was the scum of the earth. He was the dirt underneath my bare feet. “I have some business with him.” Caro made a dismissive sound. “You with your job. Working crazy hours, and for what? Fifty K a year?” Less, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. “Some of us have bills to pay.”

“And you wonder why I stick with Dmitri. No rent, no electricity or whatever the fuck. It’s just a good time, okay? So stop being a downer.” There was rustling, and her voice became muted. “She wants to talk to you.” In the pause, I knew the phone had been passed to Dmitri. Even the energy over the airwaves felt different. Or maybe the difference was inside me—tension and fear. I hated being afraid of him. “Hello, love,” he said in that oily way of his. “Let my sister go,” I said without preamble. He laughed. “She doesn’t want to leave. You heard her. I treat her very well.” “All the crack she wants, right?” “Of course not. That stuff is expensive. I don’t waste more than I have to on a dirty whore.” “I hope she heard you,” I hissed. “You know me better than that,” he said mildly, and he was right. I knew exactly how careful he could be. He hadn’t started working with that international cartel by accident. His brutal reputation had preceded him. He was known widely for despicable acts against both the criminals he worked with and the innocent people around them. Acts like this one. “Do you have the package?” he asked. I rolled my eyes. “You mean the human being you asked me to sentence to death?” “Caro was right, you are dramatic. You aren’t sentencing anyone to death. That’s my job.” “What does that make me, the mailman? No, thank you.” “Are you trying to defy me, sweetheart? We both know that doesn’t work out well. For you, for me. For your sister.” “If you hurt a single hair on her head—” “I won’t start with her hair. No, that wouldn’t do. Her fingers would be the best place. Those pretty nails she keeps painted because she thinks I’ll keep fucking her if she does. I’ll take a pair of pliers and tear each one out of the soft skin, one by one.” “Stop.” I felt sick. The images were all too real in my mind. Other girls who’d disappeared for weeks. Their bodies were found later in a back alley or in the river. The police would come around with pictures of them from the morgue, their eyes dull and lifeless. Do you know her? they would ask. Sure, I saw her around. She danced here too. But we weren’t close. No, I don’t know who killed her. She didn’t have any enemies. Lies. Dmitri was our common enemy. As soon as we stepped out of line, we’d end up like them. Everyone knew it. Even the police knew it, after a while, but they still couldn’t stop him. Powerless and small, I couldn’t stop him either—but I would keep my sister safe. “Please, leave Caro alone. She hasn’t done anything to you. Let her go, and I’ll take her place. I’ll come and do…” I swallowed hard. “Whatever you want.” There was a weighted pause. “What an offer, sweetheart. You’ve managed to surprise me. I can’t say it’s not tempting. Unfortunately, business is business, and I need that passenger. Please tell me you’re going to deliver him soon.” “I couldn’t—” I scrambled to think of a believable excuse, something that would keep Dmitri from storming my house tonight but wouldn’t piss him off enough to hurt Caro. “He asked me out on a date, though. I’m seeing him tomorrow. I’ll get him then.” “Where is he now?” Dmitri sounded cross.

Why did Dmitri want this guy so badly? “He went to stay with a buddy of his. From the military. And by the way, it really would have helped if you had told me about that.” It felt like a sick joke, like getting some kind of guardian angel sent down to help me, my own person G. I. Joe. But helping me was the last thing he would do if he knew the truth about me. And no matter how strong or how fierce, no single man could go up against Dmitri’s resources and win. “What does it matter? He is a man, yes? You know what to do with them.” His voice was mocking me, not only from Caro’s words earlier but also all the times he had seen me onstage. Back then he’d been the owner of a strip club that dealt in drugs, and then guns, out of the back rooms. Oh, and flesh. He’d pull any of the girls back there if a customer flashed the right amount of money. The first time it had happened to me, I’d fought the asshole customer. And lost. Then I’d paid the price when Dmitri taught me a lesson afterward. “You’re despicable,” I said through gritted teeth. “Yes,” he said amicably. “Which is all the more reason for you to give me what I want. Someone is going to die tomorrow. I’d prefer it was your new boyfriend. But if he’s not here… if I’m very angry… there’s a young woman in my bed as we speak, just waiting for me to wrap my hands around her neck.” “Don’t touch her!” The hollow sound of his laughter sent chills down my spine. Then the line went dead. I stared at the screen of my phone until the backlight went off. A second later it dinged with an incoming text. There was an address from the same unlisted number as the call. Fabulous. I had the package. I had the destination. So why couldn’t I make the delivery? Because an innocent man will die. But I’d stopped believing in innocence a long time ago. I didn’t really care that he was innocent, that he fought for his country, that he probably helped little old ladies across the street like a goddamned Boy Scout. The truth was, I didn’t want him to die because I liked him. Really liked him. And that was the kind of mistake that could get me killed.

Chapter Six Clint I woke up to the smell of pancakes and bacon. My stomach grumbled and rolled, a little earthquake underneath my abs. I hadn’t eaten much on the flight from Germany. Before that it had been hospital food while they dug shrapnel out of my arm. And before that it had been knockoff MREs. Not even the regular nutrient-dense stuff the army had; this was cheap imitation they served security personnel at the warehouse where I’d been undercover. In short, I was fucking ravenous. But I made a pit stop in the bathroom and grabbed a hot shower, determined to feel human again. Besides, Della had invited me into her room—the least I could do was not look like a slob. I found her in the kitchen, sunlight streaming through the propped-open window above the sink. Her blonde hair was pale gold, limned with light. She looked like a goddamned angel, and for the first time I wondered if I really did need to hook up with one of the military’s counselors. But if Della were some PTSD-induced delusion, I didn’t really want to know. My training had taught me to move lightly, all two hundred and sixty pounds of me, so I shuffled on purpose so as not to scare her. She turned to look at me, and her smile nearly stopped my heart. Mercy. My hand actually went to my chest and rubbed absently, trying to relieve the ache. “Hey, soldier,” she said with that Southern twang that drove me crazy. “How’d you sleep?” “Like a log. Thanks again for letting me stay the night.” Something flickered in her expression. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you need.” Damn, I wanted to stay for a long time. But there was a hesitation in her voice that told me she wasn’t comfortable with the idea. “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to call up my buddy from the plane. Maybe crash on his couch.” Even though I felt bad for interrupting James’s reunion, I was running low on options. And though he might grumble, I knew he wouldn’t leave me hanging. We’d been through hell and back together. “No! Please stay.” Her expression smoothed out. Her eyes filled with sensual light. “I’ll make it worth your while.” I studied her. This girl was throwing off mixed signals like crazy. Her words and actions had been nothing but welcoming. And I sure as hell wanted her—more than her bed, I wanted her body. I wanted all of her. I just couldn’t ignore the shadows in her eyes. It was clear my presence here was making her uncomfortable, so I should leave. Today. And hope she’d agree to meet me for a date after that. “Look, Della. You’re a beautiful girl.” She looked alarmed, but I was done wondering where we stood. At least she’d know how I felt about her. “I know we just met, but I really like you. I want to keep seeing you after this.” “Keep seeing me after…?” She seemed cautious. What had made her so cautious? “I want to take you out. Be with you. I’m not asking for a commitment, but I’d at least like to see where it goes. You mean more to me than a place to crash.” Emotion washed over her face, faster and more riotous than I could read. She turned back to the stove and flipped a pancake. She was withdrawing from me, but I let her go. If there was one thing I’d

learned in my life, it was to ask for what I wanted, and I wanted her. But I wouldn’t push her either. I’d put my offer on the table. Now it was up to her to accept it or tell me to go. “Sit down,” she said, her voice muffled. She didn’t turn or look at me as she bustled to pull plates down. “Breakfast is ready.” I could be obedient when I had to be. In order to get pancakes, for example. And these weren’t ordinary pancakes. She placed a plate in front of me loaded with a full stack, diced peaches, and cream that looked loose enough to be hand whipped. On a side plate were two eggs sunny-side up and two strips of glistening bacon. “Mercy,” I muttered. She smiled, and the corners of her eyes crinkled, letting me know this one was real. “Figured you’d be hungry.” “Starving.” I waited until she’d gotten a plate with a single pancake and a side of scrambled eggs before eating. I slathered the pancakes with warm maple syrup until they were heavy and thick. The first bite was pure sex on a fork, and I couldn’t stop the groan that came out of me. My eyes met hers, and heat sparked between us. Jesus God, she was going to be the death of me. I cut another bite—three pancakes deep—and made sure to grab peaches and whipped cream this time. Even better. “You like it?” she asked, a half smile playing at her lips. The little minx. “I wasn’t planning on rushing you, I swear, but I gotta know… will you marry me?” She laughed, the sound lighting up the air around us like glimmers in twilight. I wanted to make her laugh over and over, until those shadows never entered her eyes again. Her expression dimmed. “You really should know more about a girl before you ask questions like that.” Yeah, that was true enough. I had always been quick to fall for girls. I looked big and tough, so they figured they could jerk me around and I wouldn’t get hurt. And sure, I had muscles. Moving shit, I could handle. But getting cheated on and lied to… that kind of stuff ate away at me. “Why did you pick me up?” I asked. For a second she looked stricken. Then she smiled, a dark, wicked grin that made my body heat. “Because I have plans for you, soldier.” Yes, ma’am. I focused on eating the delicious breakfast she’d made, finishing off my plate and swiping the rest of the bacon right off the pan. She ate a quarter of her pancake and a whole cup of tea, making me wonder if she worked at keeping her slender figure so she could move through the aisle easily. Or maybe she just liked looking that way. I sure as hell liked how she looked, but it had nothing to do with the circumference of her waist. She was sexy as hell—her curves, her hollows, and everything in between. Even her eyes were sexy, the thick lashes and knowing glint. She moved with an effortless seduction…and I remembered what James had said about her walking like a stripper. Everything in her house spoke of wholesome Southern charm, but her innate sensuality… those shadows in her eyes… “What did you do before you were a stewardess?” Her eyebrows rose. “Picked up guys at bars, I guess. Grocery stores. The usual places.” “Nice deflection.” She shrugged.

And normally I’d let it go. It wasn’t my style to pry, especially in this situation with a beautiful woman who was setting her boundaries. But it felt like some crucial piece of the puzzle, the cinch in the middle when I’d only begun to work at the edges. “Seriously,” I pushed as gently as I could. She ran her fingertip over the top of her cup, swirling once, twice, and my body tightened. Her gaze met mine. “Fine, you caught me. I’ve never picked up a guy before you. They always came to me. After work.” Her laugh was hollow. “Before work. During work.” My stomach clenched, imagining all those guys hitting on her. Not taking no for an answer? Those fucking shadows in her eyes. “Sounds rough,” was all I said. Her expression twisted into something like a smile but far too painful to be one. “I was a stripper, Clint. And whatever else they wanted me to be. Okay?” She stood abruptly, her chair scraping against the hardwood floors. Her hands were shaking as she gathered her cup and the plates and went to the sink. I sat there, processing. I supposed it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It wasn’t, really. James was pretty fucking perceptive when he wanted to be. So, she was a stripper. And whatever else they wanted her to be. I could guess what that was. I could also guess how horrible it must have been for her. Her pain and humiliation filled the air in the small, sunlit kitchen. My fists were clenched, imagining whatever asshole had made her feel this way. People probably figured a soldier would be violent, but not me. I’d rather keep things calm and avoid a fight—no one had to get hurt. But right now, if that guy was in front of me, I’d pound him into the floor. Over and over again until his face was so disfigured everyone would know he was a monster inside as well as out. The water ran and dishes clinked, and I knew I was hiding from her. Keeping my reaction in check as I remained at the table. She had retreated, but now I was retreating in my own way. I followed her to the sink. Her body tensed, telling me in clear terms to stay away. She was used to shutting guys out. I should respect that, but I also knew that staying away from her now would be the greatest insult. She’d take it as a rejection—which was clearly all she expected. She’d spit out the truth of her past and thought I would judge her for it. I rested my hands lightly on her hips, giving her time to pull away or tell me no. She stayed very still, not moving. The only sound in the room was the rushing from the faucet. By slow degrees, the tension in her body changed from fear to awareness. “You okay?” I asked softly. “Why?” she asked bitterly. “Looking for a private dance?” “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” She laughed bitterly. “That’s where you’re wrong, soldier.” God, she was a contradiction. She invited me in and then glared at me for being there. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe I didn’t want to figure it out. That would mean acknowledging that I should leave her alone. I didn’t want to leave her alone. She felt so warm in my hands, so slender and supple. I kept remembering her mouth on me— glorious, hot—and I desperately wanted to return the favor. I couldn’t imagine her tasting anything but sweet. That was her, the Georgia peach, splashing on my tongue. But maybe the sugar would be balanced with feminine musk. She turned wary when I least expected it, undertones of earth and darkness to balance out her smile.

“I really should leave,” I said, my voice hoarse, my offer desperate and halfhearted. She turned in my arms. Her eyelids had lowered, the sunlight bathing her face in a sensual glow. “Stay. I’ll make it worth your while.” I wanted every wicked thing her husky tone offered, but I wanted even more. I pulled her off balance, so that she tumbled against my chest. Then I held her close, her cheek lined up to my heart, her arms around my waist. Something shifted inside me and locked into place. When she was touching me, holding me, it felt like everything would be okay. Yeah, my cock was hard for her, but I could have stayed like this forever, feeling her breasts rise and fall, arms wrapped around her strong and vulnerable body. She took my hand and led me back to the bedroom. I knew it was a power play, a way for her to regain control of the situation, and I let her do it. When she snapped at me to undress, I obeyed her again. I would have followed her to the ends of the earth in that moment—and fallen right off the sepia waterfall like one of those old-time maps. I stood there, naked, with my hard-on thick and heavy in front of me. My cock had been at halfmast since I woke up, knowing I was in Della’s house, hoping I’d get to fuck her today. That blowjob had been so amazing and so cruel all at once, giving me endless pleasure without a drop of hers. “Get on the bed,” she ordered. I gave her a sideways glance. Her expression remained stern and unyielding, and my body responded with a predictable tightening. I’d always had a thing for powerful women. “Face up or face down?” I asked mildly. She had expected me to refuse. Now her surprise had nowhere to go. “Face up,” she murmured. “I want to see that beautiful cock pointing at the ceiling.” That beautiful cock definitely liked the idea of being watched by her. It throbbed with painful arousal as I climbed onto the bed and lay on my back. My time in the army had demolished any sense of modesty I might have had. Even before then, in foster homes, we were typically operating with too many kids to a bathroom. I didn’t get embarrassed. I wasn’t scandalized to have flashed my bare ass to a woman I didn’t know well. Except when I turned to look at her, the heated approval in her eyes warmed me from the inside out, turning my blood to molten desire and making my cheeks flush. She smiled. “You like this.” I grunted my assent. “No, I mean, you really like this. Being told what to do in bed.” The thought jolted me more than her command had done. Did I like being told what to do? Probably any military guy had a bit of a masochist in him. Physical training could be brutal, and the political maneuvers and mind games were even worse. But that was my professional life. Not my sex life. Slowly shaking my head, I said, “I like being with you. I’m not too particular on how we do it.” Her grin was knowing. “Whatever you say. It just so happens that I am particular, so you won’t mind if I run things, will you?” I snorted. Oh yeah, she could control me six ways to Sunday. “Whatever you say,” I repeated. Her eyes flashed with pleasure. I thought she shivered, even though she had on her clothes— unlike me. But then she straightened, reverting to the aloof vibe I didn’t buy for a second. She crossed the room and climbed onto the bed beside me. My cock perked up, pointing to the ceiling exactly as she’d ordered it to. Neat trick. I wondered what else she could make me do. Her nails scored over my thigh, abrasive and ticklish all at once. I tensed. She pushed my thighs

apart, and after the briefest hesitation—Jesus, this was hot—I spread my legs. Kneeling between them, she propped her chin on her fist and examined me. I felt like an object. An interesting, beautiful object. A zing of desire traveled straight down my cock and into my balls. She tapped her chin. “Let’s see what we’re working with here.” We would be working with a spent cock if she kept looking at me that way. My body was ready to explode and she hadn’t even touched me yet. It came to me then, how dangerous she could be. Great sex was one thing. Falling for a girl was something else. Both at the same time might be the blow from which I wouldn’t recover. Her forefingers lined up on either side of my cock, running from the base to the flared head. There may as well have been a ruler in her hands. The little smile on her face didn’t let me feel too nervous about how I measured up. Her fingers slid back down, dragging the skin, making me gasp at the sensation, flesh pulled taut and exposed. Then her thumb brushed right over the tip. “Ahh, God. Not there. Not yet.” My body trembled with the force it took to stay still and flat on the bed. “Did I touch a nerve?” she asked with feigned innocence. “Every single one,” I muttered. She laughed. “I like your honesty.” Hmm, who appreciated honesty? People who had been lied to. Or people who were lying. I filed that away for future consideration. “Honestly, I want to see your body. I want to touch you.” The words came out hoarse, but I didn’t care. The throbbing erection between us already gave away how much I wanted her. Her gaze was considering. “All right, soldier. Let’s play a game.” My stomach sank. Why did I get the impression I wasn’t going to like this? Or maybe I’d like it too much? “The game works like this. I’ll ask you a question. For every one you get right, I’ll take off an article of my clothing. Whatever you see, you can touch.” “And if I get it wrong?” Her hand grabbed my balls before I could slam my legs shut. She twisted, and I jerked against her—then froze. Though she wasn’t squeezing tight enough to injure me, I was definitely sweating the pressure. If she had been really hurting me, I could have dislodged her. There were a hundred ways to do so. But I wouldn’t risk her getting hurt. And more importantly, I wanted to play this game. Whatever you can see, you can touch. Hunger was a fierce ache in my gut, to see all of her, to touch her everywhere. “If you get it wrong,” she said mildly, “then you get punished. You’re in the military. I’m sure you’re used to punishments.” She hadn’t released the vice on my balls, and I was panting now. “Sure, I can scrub the floor by hand if you want.” “That’s not a bad idea.” Her eyes sparkled with wicked intent. “Bent over and naked. It’s a very vulnerable position. It’d give me great access to your ass.” Jesus. My heart rate kicked into double time. What was she going to do with my ass? “Uh—” “Shhh, don’t worry about that. Because I know you’re going to be a very good boy, aren’t you?” I swallowed hard. “Yes, ma’am.” As if those were the magic words, she released me. I slumped back onto the bed, relieved and massively turned on. Unnaturally turned on, as if she had sprinkled pixie dust on my overdue cock. A blowjob—even a glorious one—wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a long, hard fuck. And then I needed

to do it again, and again, until we were both slippery and sated and blissed out on pleasure. “First question. This one has three parts—name, rank, and serial number.” Surprise ran a live wire through my body, but I managed to hide the worst of my reaction. It was like getting kicked in the gut and falling back into three weeks ago, neck-deep in the cartel, under constant threat of discovery and torture. I told myself she had just seen too many action flicks. This was her way of getting to know me. Or maybe she just wanted a little rough play in the bedroom. Okay, judging from the way she twisted my balls, a lot of rough play. “Clint Adams. Specialist.” I rattled off my serial number, ignoring the twinge of unease. This was hardly confidential information. Any old girlfriend would have had access to that information if she’d looked at my papers. Of course, Della wasn’t my girlfriend. And there was too much intent in her eyes for me to write off her interest as random curiosity. “Your turn,” I said gruffly. “Pay up. Let me see you, sweet girl.” With a smirk, she slipped off her socks. “Here you go.” The little cheat. I gestured with my hand. “Pay up. Let me feel them.” Her gaze turned worried. “You aren’t going to tickle me, are you?” “Of course not.” I waited until she sat scooted sideways and slid her foot into my palm before adding, “Unless I don’t like your question.” She tried to yank her foot away, but I wouldn’t let her. Her stern expression didn’t fool me. I wanted to kiss the little line between her eyebrows, smooth away the stress on her forehead. I wanted to shove my fingers inside her pussy and rub her clit until the only expression on her face was rapture. I couldn’t touch that part of her, though. Only her feet. So I focused on them, tugging her so that she was fully reclined, both her feet in my hands. They were small feet, delicate feet to match the rest of her body. Still, I knew how much she must stand on them with her job. I pressed hard against the insole with my thumb, thoroughly enjoying the soft moan she emitted. I took it as a challenge and caressed her foot from the tips of her toes to the curve of her heel, teasing out more sexy sounds. “Enough,” she gasped, and I wanted to argue. I wasn’t nearly done with her feet, but I wanted to see other parts more, so I released her. She struggled to get her composure back, and I did nothing to help her. Seeing her primly walking down the aisle had turned my crank, but watching her eyes roll back and those plush lips part —yeah, I was getting more of that. Even if it meant playing by her rules. Even if it meant breaking them. “Next question?” I prodded. “How…how long? How long have you been in the military?” Shit, another probing question? She chose that moment to probe me—literally—in the shadowed cleft beneath my balls. I strung up tight and let out a strangled sound. She’s distracting you. Protective instincts knew what was up, but god-fucking-damn it, she was really good at distraction. Really good when her forefinger teased the puckered hole, threatening to push inside but pulling back instead. I didn’t know if the tightness in my chest was relief or disappointment. “Three years,” I ground out. Her next question came immediately. “And before then?” “Two items.” Only when she sighed and nodded did I say, “Before that I graduated high school. Foster parents asked me to leave since they weren’t getting money anymore, so I enlisted. Been there

ever since.” She nodded as if I’d confirmed something she suspected. I didn’t want to think about what that might be, so I tugged on the soft, stretchy hem of her shirt. “Off.” “Ooh, so you do know how to give orders.” She winked, and I made a low growling sound I hadn’t even known I was capable of. Sure, I’d ordered a girl around before. I’d spanked her ass before, but only if she asked for it first. Sex had always been a respectful and obliging sort of exercise—one that ended in an orgasm, so who was complaining? She pulled off her shirt, exposing the pale expanse of her chest and abdomen. A black lace bra covered her breasts, though it enhanced rather than restricted my view. I waited with my breath locked up tight. Reach back, undo the clasp. “Let me see those pretty tits,” I gasped. She grinned. “I love how eager you are.” So of course she did the opposite thing. Of course she wiggled on the bed and scooted out of her denim shorts, revealing a matching pair of black panties that made my mouth water. The glimpse of her ass made my fingers twitch to touch it—and I could now. I could run my hands along legs that went on and on. Her skin was like silk and the edges of her lace panties as rough as sandpaper. The contrast made me greedy. I slipped two fingers underneath the hem, wanting more, needing her, and she dug her nails in where my thigh met my groin. “Bad,” she said imperiously. It might as well have been a rolled-up newspaper slapped on my nose. Humiliation warred with arousal. Goose bumps spread over my skin like wildfire, like rain. I was alternately set ablaze and then doused, left chilled and damp and ready to begin again. With Della, sex became a battle. She fought for every inch and set up barricades around herself so that I’d have to fight too. She drew out every combat instinct I had learned over the past three years —and before that. In the system, you learned early on about simple brute force, about bullies who would beat you up just because they could. I could overpower Della with a twist of my wrist, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to do what I did on an op: infiltrate her defenses and strike when she least expected it. “God, Della,” I groaned. “Give me more.” “Then earn it, big boy.” “Ask me a fucking question,” I demanded. Anger pulsed in my erection, hungry and dangerous. I wanted her to refuse just so I could go over the edge. What would happen next? In every other situation I would back down, I would do what she wanted, but this wasn’t every other situation. Della wasn’t like other women I’d been with. It was almost like she wanted me to get mad at her, and my dick was happy to oblige. She pulled back at the last minute. I imagined the doctor trembling at this moment, afraid of the monster he had created. Pretending she still had control in the form of a question. “What did you do there? The place you just came from? What did you do?” Jesus fuck, what did I do? I killed people, that’s what I did. I shot them or slit their throats or choked the life out of them. Is that what she wanted to hear? Is that what she got off on? The op had been messy as hell and no less bloody than a battlefield, but we’d won. Almost a million dollars in arms confiscated on its way into the US and twenty of their men currently in custody. As for the rest, they were going to turn their remaining guns on each other in the age-old blame game. So why did she fucking care?

“I did my job,” I said, reaching for the scrap of lace that connected her bra in the front. She jerked out of reach. “Not good enough.” “It’s the fucking truth. Those were the rules of the game.” It was almost an out-of-body experience as I launched myself after her and grappled her onto the bed. I never did stuff like this. I would never hurt a woman, but she winced before I loosened my grip on her wrists. She panted beneath me, her eyes shooting sparks. “The rules are whatever I say they are. And that answer wasn’t good enough.” I snarled—that was the sound that came out of me. She was a witch who had turned me into an animal. I would howl at the moon and stamp my paw in frustration. My dick hung heavy beneath me, bobbing, aching to be inside her. I could nudge her legs apart and push in. I could feel her hot warmth around me even with her shouting no. She wouldn’t say no. I tightened my grip on her arms, fury running through my body like a physical pain. “Do you want me to share classified information to play your fuckin’ game? Do I have to violate national security just to fuck you?” “So what if you do?” she asked, her voice haughty and breathless. Reaching behind her, I yanked at the clasp on her bra. No finesse, just power. I heard the sound of metal snapping and stretching as the hooks came undone. The straps cut into her arms, leaving white lashes down her skin that faded by the time I threw the bra across the room. She didn’t fight me, even though I broke the rules. Or maybe she just knew me well enough, even in this short amount of time, to know I would follow them after all. “I infiltrated a criminal organization, an international arms dealer.” That was for the bra. I pushed my fingers into the front hem of her panties and squeezed my fist tight. When I pulled my arm back, the lace came with it. Now I owed her another belated answer, so I gave her the next logical step. I gave her details. “They were in Russia. I was in Russia until two weeks ago. We brought down the organization, their shipping channels. We took their supplies and froze their accounts. They’re dead in the water.” Her eyes widened, but I was too far gone to think about how a civilian might be afraid. I was too pissed off to care if she wanted to back out. She was naked now, but even without clothes she was only a blur. Pink and cream and a strip of blonde hair down her sex. I plunged two fingers inside her pussy, rough and vengeful. “I didn’t—” She looked stricken. “You didn’t say I could touch you here? Why, because I can’t see it? Deep inside where you’re so wet and swollen for me, I can’t see it, but I can feel it.” Her eyes were wide. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I laughed, the sound hollow and mournful in my chest. “You didn’t hurt me.” God, she was so slender beneath me, so fragile. “You can’t hurt me.” “Clint, stop. You aren’t like this. This isn’t you.” I’d never disagreed with her more. In that moment I could only see her skin and the blood of my enemies. I could only see rare moments of kindness and senseless violence. I lived on this line every goddamned day. This was my life. This was me. “I tell you what, sweetheart. I’ll give you one more answer for free, before I fuck this pretty pussy of yours.” I twisted my fingers inside her, rubbing the pad along her wall until she cried out. I wasn’t sure she could even hear me anymore, and maybe that was for the best. “What I said before, that’s only what the US government knows about. There’s something else, something they don’t want

to know about, something no one can know about.” “What?” Her eyes were glazed, and I brushed my thumb over her clit to make it worse. “That’s right. It’s dangerous and it’s technically illegal and it’s mine. That’s who you’re fucking right now. A goddamned traitor.” Even though I had done it for the good of the country, that was what I’d be labeled if shit went south. The list could start an international conflict that would mean more bloodshed. My commander was bound by a million and one restrictions not to act on that list, not to even acknowledge its existence. The only person who knew I had this list was James. I would figure out some way to get the list into the hands of the right officials. Of course, it was supposed to be a secret. It pissed me off that I had confided in this woman, that I’d let her lead me around by my dick. It pissed me off that she pried into things she shouldn’t know about, shouldn’t care about. It pissed me off that she kept secrets from me. So I made her pay for it by pushing inside her without any warning, by stretching the walls of her pussy with my cock until she gasped and clenched and shuddered in my arms. “Clint. Oh, Clint.” Jesus, she sounded sad. It made me want to hide her away and cheer her up. It made me want to drag her to my cave and dress her in furs. I settled for giving her an orgasm, angling my cock to hit that spot that made her moan. I thrust inside her, my hips pistoning like mad. Her hot flesh wrapped around me like leather pulling tight. That was how I saw her: dark and slick and rising from the ashes. So wet without any barriers—no condom. Shit. But she couldn’t have pushed me away at the moment. Nothing could have torn my cock from her thirsty, gripping cunt except her soft cries of ecstasy. Even then I kept going, grunting on every downstroke—harder, deeper, around the moon and back again. I managed to pull out right before I came in a splash on her belly, come pooling in her navel, creamy and white, a milky reflection of all that I’d lost.

Chapter Seven Della This was bad. Very bad. If last night’s blowjob had been a mistake, the amazing sex today was a disaster. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Dmitri would do to him. All I had were whispers, gossip that had passed through the back room at the club. Fingers cut off. Burn marks. Torture. I had managed to forget all that when it was only my sister’s life on the line. After all, whatever Dmitri would do to a man, he would do worse to a woman. Before I’d gotten on that plane, I’d known the deal. Bring the passenger in seat 34B, and my sister would be released, safe and sound. “You okay?” I jumped. The previous passenger of 34B was looking at me with concern. And he was holding a hammer. The door to the garage was open behind him, giving me a clue as to where he’d gotten it from—his own boxes. I just didn’t know why. “Uh… what’re you doing with that?” I asked. He hefted the tool in his hand. “Figured I’d check out that loose step on your front porch.” My eyebrows shot up. “My what?” I had expected him to check something out, but not my loose step. Isn’t this what you wanted? This way, I wouldn’t have to have sex with him again. And I could be assured that he would stay for a while. But the problem was… I kind of wanted to have sex with him again, right the fuck now. Earlier had only been a taste. Through some combination of sympathy and ordinary lust, I wanted this man in my bed. The other problem was I wasn’t sure I wanted him to stay anymore. If he stayed, Dmitri would get him. If he stayed with me, he was going to die. “You mind?” he asked. At my confused look, he added, “If I check out your step.” I shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He headed onto the porch with a rusted red toolbox. I followed, too intrigued to ignore what he was doing. And what was he doing? Paying his way? Looking after me? I didn’t know what it meant that he’d noticed a problem in my life and decided to fix it. But it filled me with a strange and unfamiliar warmth. Or maybe that was just lust. His ass did look amazing in those jeans as he knelt to examine the steps. “You find the problem, doctor?” I asked. He glanced back and smiled. “Nothing a little nailing won’t fix.” I laughed out loud. “You were waiting to say that, weren’t you?” “When you get a chance, you take it. Hang tight. I gotta grab some of that spare wood I saw in the garage.” He headed around the side of the house, and I watched him go, my smile fading. When you get a chance, you take it. That was exactly what I had with him: a chance. It felt like I was holding opportunity in my bare hands, white-hot, burning the skin right off my palms. The calculating part of my brain was telling me to use him like the hammer and nails he held. Nothing but a tool to get my sister back. But I had never been all that analytical. I had wanted all three plants to live in my science

experiment. I wanted the same thing here, but instead of three plants there was me, my sister, and Clint. I wanted us all to get out of this alive. Clint came back around the house with a piece of wood under his arm. “You want to help?” A wave of shyness washed over me. I had no idea where it came from. I hadn’t been shy since I was twelve years. I was forced to get over any sort of modesty then. I gave up my dignity too. But Clint gave a little of it back to me with every gentlemanly gesture. “What do I have to do?” I asked. “For starters, this.” He tugged me in for a quick kiss. The warm day had already coated him in a thin layer of sweat, and his nose left dampness on my cheek. I wriggled away, pretending to mind. But the truth was I loved the clean-sweat smell of him. I loved that he was making himself useful around the house even though he didn’t have to. I loved everything about him, and it was getting harder and harder to pretend he wouldn’t hate me if he knew the truth. He held up the hammer, as if for me to take it. But when I grabbed for it, he pulled it out of my reach. “Repeat after me,” he said in a serious voice. “I promise not to smash Clint’s thumb.” I rolled my eyes but complied. “I promise not to smash Clint’s thumb.” He let me grab the hammer’s handle, but he didn’t release the other end. His gaze met mine. “And I promise to make more of my amazing pancakes for Clint tomorrow.” My breath caught. If I did what I promised Dmitri, Clint shouldn’t even be here tomorrow. I should turn him over tonight. I had to force the words out, and even then, they only came out as a whisper. “I promise to make more of my amazing pancakes for Clint tomorrow.” How could I keep that promise when my sister needed me? Instead of relinquishing the hammer, Clint used it to pull me close. I fell against him, my free hand landing on his broad chest. God, he was so solid. I leaned into him and breathed deep. Would I remember his scent long after he was gone? That thought hurt my heart. But the thought that I might forget hurt worse. Clint’s gaze was faintly knowing. “I promise to tell Clint if I’m in trouble.” My eyes widened. I released the hammer and stepped back. How did he know I was in trouble? “What?” He sighed, looking aggravated and guilty at the same time. He ran a hand over his hair, cut military short. “Sorry. I pushed too far?” “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I lied. Those soft eyes asked me to open up. “If something’s wrong, if someone’s hurting you, maybe I can help.” Acid burned me up inside. Oh, he could help, all right. He was my sister’s ticket to freedom, only it meant he’d end up hurt. End up dead. That wasn’t supposed to matter to me. I’d seen enough people pass through my life not to care. Only Caro should matter anymore. “I don’t want your help,” I said too sharply. Because it was true. I didn’t want him to help with this. I wanted him to be safe. He sighed but didn’t push. When he handed me the hammer this time, there were no more demands, no more empty promises. He positioned the board and held the nail in place. “Go ahead,” he said, nodding toward the nail. I bent down and lined up the hammer. Then with a careful, firm swing I landed the hammer directly on the nail. I didn’t smash his thumb, because at least this promise I could keep.

He took over the rest of the work while I watched from a few feet away. His body gleamed in the sunlight, sweat dripping down his neck, his arms. His body was a contrast of beauty and roughness, of taut muscles and fading bruises he must have gotten overseas. He’d been beaten and shot at over there, but he probably felt safe back on American soil. Only, he wasn’t. I had to look away. I blinked into the sunlight, which streamed through the tree above me and around the roof of my house. The Victorian was old and falling down in parts, and I couldn’t love it more. When things broke, I patched it up the best I could. I had been been struggling to save up money, but it wasn’t nearly enough to hire contractors or even handymen. That’s it. The money. I wondered how much it would take to buy Dmitri off. Immediately I dismissed that as the stupidest idea I’d ever had. No amount of money was going to keep Dmitri from going after Clint, especially if he knew the guy was staying at my house. And if I waited too long, Dmitri would send someone sniffing around and find him here. I couldn’t sit around waiting for that to happen. But what if I showed up and convinced Dmitri that I never got Clint to give me the time of day? I could say the guy went home with a friend from the army. I didn’t know who and I didn’t know where. At least that would give Clint a fighting chance to get away. And as for getting my sister back… maybe Dmitri would take the money. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had to pay off Caro’s debts. I’d sure as hell rather do it with my life savings than with Clint’s life.

*** I slept uneasy that night, alternating between glaring at the open bedroom door and squeezing my eyes shut against what I had to do tomorrow. My body was curled into a ball in the center of my bed. Even completely still, I felt dizzy with the weight of my guilt. Whenever I reached out, I found sheets so empty and chilled they left me numb, as if I were floating on a slate of ice with only cold water around me. There was no one to blame but myself for my current lonely state. I had suggested that we sleep apart tonight, him in his guest room and me in my room. Being the gentleman, he had readily agreed. I loved and hated that he was a gentleman. Eventually I slipped into an uneasy dreamscape, a dark and shadowy place in my subconscious. There was a large city with gold pavement and emerald walls. And fire, angry and wild in front of me. Dmitri’s slimy voice boomed around me, demanding the broom of passenger 34B as payment so I could return home. But all I found in the witch’s fortress was Clint wearing that crooked smile of his. And when I returned to the Emerald City, when I pulled back the curtain— I woke up in bed, drenched with sweat and panting. My heart beat a million times a minute as I tried to calm down. The dream had been stupid and obvious, but it managed to solidify my feelings on the matter. I wasn’t going to bring Clint to Dmitri. I wasn’t going to watch him melt as if he were some kind of witch, because he wasn’t. That was the most fucked-up part of all, how sweet he was. How trusting, even though he’d clearly seen the worst humanity had to offer. I’d seen the same things, only I knew better than to trust strangers, even if they had a pretty smile and a white house with a wraparound porch. Monsters came in all shapes and sizes. They wore custom designer suits and stewardess uniforms. They gave you a job as a stripper or went down on you to help you sleep, but those were just part of the lure. Because when you had learned to trust the monster, when you let your guard down, that’s when you got eaten.

When I woke up again, it was morning. Sun streamed through my white sheer curtains, and birds sang outside my window. I had loved the quaintness of the house when I first moved in. It had felt like a memory I’d never had, a chance to rewrite history. Only now the sweet, homey feeling felt perverse, even grotesque. The universe knew exactly how little I deserved this kind of life. No wonder it had all gone to hell. I got ready quickly, throwing on a pale blue polka-dot sundress because it was easy. My hair went up into a quick bun, because the last thing I wanted to do was give Dmitri the impression I had primped for him. My task today would be awful, and I’d rather get it over with. The sizzle and scent of bacon drew me downstairs. Clint stood in the kitchen wearing worn-looking jeans that hugged his ass, a loose army-green T-shirt, and bare feet. Two white straps wrapped around his waist and tied at the back. I recognized my apron and let out a startled laugh. “Hey, Martha Stewart.” He turned back, grinning, pretending to be offended. Then he saw me, and his smile faded. He stayed like that, spatula in hand, eyes on my face, lips pressed together. Shit. My heart stalled in my chest. I heard it from beneath the floorboards instead, the telltale heart, and I wanted to blurt out all my sins. He saved me from doing so, by saying, “You look really good.” My hand went to my falling-down hair in a self-conscious movement. “I’m a mess and you know it.” He shook his head, wearing a half grin that seemed more bemused than anything. As if I were the one missing something. His gaze was considering. “Every time I look at you, I see a new side of you.” His face screwed into a deprecating expression, as if he knew exactly how cheesy his words were—but couldn’t help himself anyway. “Every time, I think you can’t look any prettier than that, but then you do.” I blushed like a maniac, my cheeks burning so hot I had to look away. This was flirting, the way I tried to hide my smile and failed. These were practiced movements I had learned a long time ago. I had used them on countless customers and—to my eternal shame—on Dmitri, once upon a time. But they had never come out naturally. I’d never understood why a girl would twirl her hair on her finger or bite her lip, until now. It felt as natural as breathing to flirt this way, to scoot closer while huddling in on myself. “You hungry?” he asked in a low voice, and I knew he wasn’t talking about food. The tension pulsed in the room, igniting my desire and alerting me to his. Normally that would be a scary situation. Something to worry about or something that would pay my bills. Now I wanted to push him up against the counter so he had nowhere to go. I wanted to yank down those jeans and pull up his shirt—but I’d leave the apron on. I liked things twisted. I wanted a man as strong and capable and fearless as him, but I wanted him at my feet. “I can’t stay,” I said with genuine regret. “I have some errands to run this morning.” “Oh.” He glanced back at the pan of bacon. Scrambled eggs were already split onto two dishes. “You sure I can’t tempt you?” I stuck out my tongue. “You always do.” God, who was this girl? It was like I’d reverted to a sixteen-year-old girl, making faces at guys in the hallway between classes. At least, that was how I guessed it would be. I’d never been to high school, only taken GED courses by mail. I had never been sixteen either—not really. I’d gone from little girl to jaded woman in the blink of an eye. Clint loaded the bacon and toast onto the plates and brought them to the table. “Just a few

minutes,” he said. He knew exactly the effect he had on me, the bastard. “You can tell me your plan for the day.” Just like that, all the fun flirtiness evaporated. I did sit down at the table, because walking away from this meal he’d made would be downright criminal. But I couldn’t help feeling like this was my last meal. It made the eggs taste rubbery and the bacon like charcoal. He took a bite but watched me curiously. “The food okay?” “It’s great,” I lied. The sound he made was noncommittal. “Are you okay?” “Of course.” I forced a smile. “Just a little tired, I guess.” “Yeah, I guess you have to unwind after all that travel. Jet lag times a thousand.” His voice sounded so sympathetic I actually winced. “It’s nothing compared to you. I mean, you were… fighting people. And also traveling. If anyone deserves to relax when you get home, it’s you.” Now he looked worried. About me. My words had come out too fast, and he knew something was wrong. “You don’t really have to tell me what you have planned for the day,” he said quietly. “I’m not going to pry.” My stomach twisted with self-hatred. I wanted the floor to swallow me up. I wanted to die. He should kill me, really. That was what soldiers did to the enemy—and I was definitely his enemy. What would he do if I told him the truth? I imagined the disbelief on his face, the disillusionment. I imagined his hatred and felt bile rise up in my throat. My fork clattered to the table. “I really do have to go.” “All right.” So fucking agreeable. He stood when I did, and it pissed me off. “Stop being a gentleman.” His eyebrows shot up. “Pardon me?” I snorted. “I’m serious. Stop it. It’s…annoying.” Was that hurt in his eyes? Great. Someone just shoot me so I could stop being a crazy person, one who kicked puppies and wounded sweet soldiers. Well, odds were good that Dmitri would shoot me today. “Look,” I said. “I’m sorry. Just… do me a favor and don’t answer the door while I’m gone. In fact, stay inside, okay? No fixing the porch step until I get back. Got it?” “Got it,” he said, his expression unreadable. “I’m serious, but I’ll be back soon. Like a couple hours at the most.” And if I wasn’t back by then, there was a decent chance that I wouldn’t be back at all. I didn’t want to think about what that would look like, but my mind was a heartless bastard. How long would Clint wait here before he figured out I was gone for good? Would he call the police or just leave? Ugh, now I was planning my own funeral. I turned to go upstairs and grab my purse. He caught my hand, his fingers ensnaring mine. He wasn’t holding me, not forcefully, but I still swung back as if he’d locked me down tight. When I turned to face him, he pressed a kiss to my lips, sweet and questioning. He cared about me. The certainty sank into my bones, building me up in a way I didn’t deserve. Shit. When had this happened? Hundreds of passengers, thousands of them, and I had to fall for the one I was supposed to kill. “See you soon,” I forced out, stepping back. It was only hurry that made me run up the stairs. Not guilt. Not shame that I couldn’t even meet his eyes. Not sadness that made me avoid the kitchen when I left the house, not looking for him at all. I walked down the freshly repaired porch step, got into my truck, and drove away. It wouldn’t do any

good to fall for him. There was no point in dwelling on what might have been. After plotting to kill him, even if I hadn’t known him yet, I’d pretty much given up any right to a relationship with him. But I’d try to save him if I could. I might just die trying.

Chapter Eight Clint Della was hiding something. I’d figured that out pretty quickly, but hey, everyone was entitled to their secrets. She’d let me into her home, but she still deserved her privacy. So I really had no fucking explanation for why I’d stowed away in the bed of Della’s truck. There was a fifteen-minute ride during which I berated myself for being every kind of moron, for being a creepy-ass stalker. She should call the cops on me. This was the behavior that could make the news alongside a special expose on the effects of warfare and PTSD. And maybe they had a point. I really had to wonder if my head was on straight as I huddled beneath a tarp. Of course following her was wrong, but I’d just seen something in her eyes that I recognized: fear. I needed to find out what—or who—she was afraid of. Even if that made me a nut job. Even if she’d kick me out of her house, and her life, if she knew what I’d done. The vehicle slowed as she turned into a parking lot. I tensed, wondering where we were. The ambient traffic sounds were the same as they’d been. We hadn’t gone too far and we hadn’t turned off on any dirt roads. We were off some random city road. Brakes squeaked as we stopped completely. The window whirred as it rolled down. “Good morning,” said a voice over an intercom. “How can I assist you today?” The bank. She’d gone to the fucking bank. I raged at myself all over again. You stalker. You creepy fuck. She let you into her home, she trusted you, and you repay her by following her when she runs legitimate errands. “I’d like to check my balance,” came Della’s voice. “One moment, please.” After a pause, the teller stated a balance of a few hundred bucks in checking and a little over eight thousand dollars in a savings account. Not a bad nest egg. Creepy. Stalker. “I’d like to withdraw eight thousand,” she said. And just like that, the warnings were pinging all over again. Something was wrong here, seriously wrong. Eight thousand bucks in the bank was good stuff for a girl who clearly lived modestly and worked hard. She had a house and a truck. All signs pointed to fiscal responsibility, but she practically runs away from breakfast and withdraws all her money? No. This girl needed help. I waited with very little patience while she completed the transaction. I wanted to bust out of the bed of the truck and get some answers. I wanted to demand she let me help her. But that would only terrify her right now. I needed to know more about what I was dealing with. I also needed a little backup. As we got back on the road, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed James. He picked up on the second ring. “Yo.” “Hey, man.” Suddenly I felt sheepish. Okay, sure, we told each other everything. But I hadn’t forgotten how crazy this made me look. It looks crazy because it is crazy, man. “How’s Rachel?” “She’s good. Better than good. Now why are you calling me from a fucking wind tunnel?” It was pretty loud in the back of a truck when it was going forty—no, fifty—miles per hour. We had clearly picked up speed, which meant she was heading somewhere else, away from home rather than toward it. Another innocuous errand? Or did she have a plan for her life savings?

“I have a situation,” I confessed. “With the data?” he asked, his voice on high alert. “No. Shit, no, I haven’t even had time to think about that. I’ve been…distracted.” “Ohh, that kind of distracted.” “Don’t say ohh, jackass. It’s not like that.” “What is it like then?” he asked in a mocking tone, clearly not buying it. As well he shouldn’t, since he was on the right track. “There’s this girl.” I ignored the smug sound over the phone. “Actually, you know her. Sort of. It’s the stewardess from the plane. I needed a ride and then Chelsea kicked me out and—” “Wait a minute. Chelsea kicked you out? But it was your apartment.” “I know. It’s a long story. Well, no, it’s not a long story. It’s a short one. She asked me to leave and I did. I had no desire to sleep in the bed where she’d fucked another guy.” “Aww, shit.” “Yeah, I know. But Della was there. She’d given me a ride, and I ended up going home with her.” “You fucking dog.” Genuine approval rang in his voice. “Yeah, well. It’s been great. She’s amazing and I’m more comfortable at her place than I’ve ever been in my life.” Oh yeah, and I’m falling for her. Hard. “So what’s with the SOS?” “I think she’s in trouble. She’s not telling me much, but the way she looks sometimes…it’s like that moment when the shooting starts. You realize there’s a very real chance you will die in the next ten minutes, and there’s not much you can even do about it. It’s just random chance at that point. You think, I’ve been lucky so far, but maybe it’s run out now. That’s what I see when I look in her eyes.” “Well, shit. Between the data and this, you sure do know how to find trouble.” It did seem to be an unfortunate trend. And it had all started with that damned data. My commander had wanted me to make the list go away, but I couldn’t do that. A split second decision had changed my life. I still didn’t regret keeping it. Too many lives could be saved with that information. No matter what fallout happened, I would never regret trying to get it into the right hands, because it was the right thing to do. “Look,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going down, but I might need your help. I just wanted to let you know.” “Whatever you need, I’m there. You know that.” “Thanks.” I hung up the phone as we pulled onto a gravel road. The truck bounced along the road, and my head slammed into the metal side. “Ouch,” I muttered. Hopefully Della wouldn’t have heard that. And wouldn’t notice the extra weight she was dragging. She pulled off to the side, rocks crunching beneath her wheels. She stopped the vehicle, and everything went still and silent. Gradually I heard the sound of birds and…. a distant brook. We had definitely left the city and gone into a rural area. The door opened and closed. Footfalls grew quieter as she walked away. I counted to sixty before letting myself sit up. Shit, that hurt. My neck was cramped from being jolted against metal ridges for a dozen miles. Della was nowhere in sight, but it was clear she’d followed the trail that went through the trees. At some point there was big ranching type of fence that was locked shut, with no call box. She must have stepped between the wooden posts and

continued on foot. Behind the truck was only open, empty countryside. Once assured I was alone, I slipped out of the truck bed and into the trees. From there it was easy to track and catch up to her, moving silently through the brush as she walked along the path. Her head was down. Her posture looked… scared? Defeated? Fuck. Where was she going? She had her purse, which presumably contained the money she’d withdrawn. Was she going to bury it? Was this the ultimate lack of trust in the country’s banking system, that she was going to bury her money rather than store it in an account? I wished that was true. It would be a relief to know that she was crazy and not me. I had come up with half a dozen scenarios for the situation Della was in, and most of them I could handle myself. First on the list was paranoia on my part. Maybe nothing was wrong. Maybe she wasn’t afraid. And maybe my PTSD was projecting all over her. That one scared me because of its implications on my sanity. But at least that one would mean Della was safe. Safe from everyone except me. There were other, more mundane options, like an abusive ex. Just let him try and touch her. I’d beat the ever-loving fuck out of him, and then I’d really feel relieved. Neither she nor I would be crazy, and a violent bastard would get what he had coming to him. I wouldn’t even call James for anything like that. It would be just one-on-one. I’d show him what it felt like to be hit by someone stronger than him. But the last option… Jesus, the last option seemed to be the right one. I had the awful suspicion that I was dealing with something much worse than PTSD, much bigger than an asshole ex-boyfriend. And as I came to the clearing where the woods stopped, I knew that was the right answer. Can I take Criminal Hideouts for $500, Alex? Yeah, this place was bad news. And Della had gone inside. I wanted to shake her for being so reckless. I wanted to tie her up until she explained how she knew these people and why she’d come here. I had to focus instead on breaking in and hoping their security was god awful. I really wished I’d brought my gun.

*** The place was way out in the country, but it was clearly built for a rich-ass homeowner. Unlike Della’s lush green lawn and flower bed of daisies, this place had neatly trimmed hedges that would rival a castle in freakin’ England. The house itself was a sleek modern structure that looked out of place in the countryside. The whole setup screamed I have money and power. Please someone suck my dick. Pathetic. Two guards stood on either side of the door. They were also pathetic, one half-asleep and the other playing on his phone. I took out the guy on his phone first because he was closer. By the time he had slumped against the wall, unconscious, I had the other guy in a choke hold. He twitched and then went still. I wished I had zip ties to bind their hands, but I had to settle for using their belts in a rough tangle that would come apart when they woke up and worked at it. But at least I had guns. I tossed the semiautomatic weapons into the hedge nearby and kept both pistols, one in my hand and the other tucked into the back of my jeans. I had no intention of shooting anyone today, but more importantly, I had no intention of getting shot. And Della is somewhere inside. The place was poorly guarded. Or maybe I was just used to the stringent security protocols we’d used when I was undercover. Part of my role had been a security consultant. Ironically, I’d

helped the assholes beef up their security. But since I also knew their routines, their access codes, their procedures, I’d disabled them easily when the time came. I made it inside the building and saw Della before I heard her. There were several layers of glass between us, as well as an atrium and a garden center beneath oversize vaulted windows. She was talking to some guy in a suit. A guy I immediately wanted to punch, on principle. That was crazy. I was never violent. PTSD, motherfucker. Because now I could have pummeled this guy even without confirming he was an exboyfriend, even without knowing he had ever been an abusive one. Just for hugging her and watching her body go tense from twenty feet away. I slipped closer, still careful to move silently. Getting caught now would probably just land me in prison, and I still wouldn’t have the information I came for. “The money,” I heard her say, “If you’ll just take the money and give me my sister back.” He said something I couldn’t make out. “I can’t give you that.” Her voice sounded agitated. What was he asking for? More money? Sex? I took a risk and slid along the wall, close enough to hear him say. “I don’t want any more fucking excuses, Della. I know what you’re capable of.” “Not that.” She sounded determined now. “I’ve never done that, and I’m never going to.” Shit, what was he making her do? Should I come out now and just beat the guy to a pulp? From a tactical point of view, it was the stupidest idea I’d ever considered, and yet my hands curled into fists, hungry for his face. “Caro will be disappointed to hear that,” the asshole said. “Especially when I take it out of her flesh.” “Don’t you fucking touch her. Where is she? Let me see her.” “Oh, she’s a bit… tied up. But I’ll tell her you dropped by.” “You’re a monster.” He chuckled. “A monster? So dramatic.” His hand trailed down her cheek, making me tense. “She likes this monstrous side of me. There was a time you did too.” Her angry gaze shot fire at him. “I never liked a damn thing about you.” “Well, then perhaps you’re very good at faking it. Yes, that must be right.” Now her hands were fists, tucked at her side. “Give me back Caro. Let her go. This is more money than she can possibly give you.” “You think I can’t get that much for her? You’re probably right, smart girl. As fucked up as she is, and with that pesky drug addiction, she wouldn’t be worth more than a thousand. But if I were to rent her out, by the night or by the hour, I’m sure I could make that much.” Della swung at him, and he caught her arm. They exchanged words too quietly for me to hear. From their body language, I understood that Della had not given him everything he wanted— but she was capitulating for now. She turned to leave, her movements jerky. She tried to hide the swipe at her cheek, but I saw the glistening trail. He’d made her cry. And I was going to make him pay. It seemed that he was letting her leave, so I waited for her to walk away. Once I was alone with this asshole, we’d have a little one-on-one talk. Yeah, I knew I should talk with Della first. But I couldn’t wait for that, not when I was already inside his house, not when I’d seen him put his hands on her.

But when I would have stepped out of the shadows, he turned and walked over to a place in the wall. Frosted glass separated from the slate-tiled wall beside it, and a woman stepped out. I couldn’t see much of her—except her blonde hair. If you’ll just take the money, and give me my sister back. Was this the sister? And she was being held for some sort of ransom? Not for money, though. What did he want from Della? The man put his arm around the woman’s shoulder and led her back inside the room she’d come from. The frosted glass shut again and looked like a decorative panel in the wall. My body tensed. It would be so easy to go after them, to smash the guy’s face in and take the girl. Except I had dealt with enough hostage situations overseas to know how sticky they could get. I didn’t even have transportation for her once I got her. Plus there was no telling if she’d go with me willingly. He was the devil she knew, and I was a stranger. Captives got weird ideas about their captors sometimes. We studied that shit during training, how to withstand physical torture and mental manipulation. I could’ve taken someone whaling on me all day and all night. But watching this girl in trouble, seeing Della scared, feeling helpless in this situation I didn’t understand yet, that was the true torture.

Chapter Nine Della My hands were still shaking as I pulled into my neighborhood. I hated that Dmitri could still affect me this way. I wanted to be tough. No way did Clint start shivering in the middle of some important battle. No way did tears track down his cheeks. Fuck Dmitri and his ridiculous house. No, it was a mansion. He had let me wander around for a while. I’m sure it amused him to see me lost and afraid. I had felt him watching from the walls. And then at the end. Bring the package to me by tonight or you’ll receive a package of your own tomorrow morning. There were a hundred things that could mean, and all of them were horrifying. My sister’s body parts, mostly. Or maybe just a picture of her dead body. Or an official visit from some dirty cop on his payroll, offering me fake condolences that they’d found my sister in some ditch. I turned into my driveway and got out. My neighbor was on her porch, and I almost waved before I realized it wouldn’t do any good. But she must have heard my truck, because she stepped onto the lawn and crossed over. “Hey! Della!” “Good morning,” I said, wincing at her cheery tone. Damn, I wasn’t in a good headspace to play the friendly neighbor. Even if Katie was sweet and pretty. Exactly the kind of girl Clint should end up with. I should probably introduce them, but I already knew I wouldn’t. Because that was the kind of girl I was—in other words, not a very nice one. “I heard you leave earlier this morning. I was just watering my plants.” She gestured back toward her porch, where a huge assortment of potted plants overflowed. Katie was legally blind, although she could make out shapes sometimes if the lighting was right. She had a great support system of family who came by. Must be a family of lawyers or something, because the guys wore suits, jackets missing, shirts rumpled like they’d had a long day at the office. Sometimes they’d wave hello. One even offered to check my mail while I was away, which I had declined because who knew what crazy shit Dmitri might send me? “I had some errands to run,” I said, clutching my purse tighter. I should have known a deal like that wouldn’t work. In fact, I did know, but desperate times and all that. Even back then, as a small-time dealer, he’d been pretty flush. I had made more money as a stripper on a single night than a full week as a stewardess. Multiply that times all the girls who worked there, and Dmitri had been making a lot of dough. That didn’t count the money he made dealing drugs or guns. An uneasy expression crossed Katie’s face. “Actually, I hope you don’t mind if I just… I wanted to…” There was this pause that could have been anything. Maybe Dmitri really did send me something horrible and one of his thugs had managed to beat me here. That seemed unlikely though. The thought that really stuck with me was, what if Clint had already met Katie? Maybe he’d ignored my warning to stay inside. I could just imagine him, shirtless, fixing some random broken thing on my house. And Katie wandering over with a glass of lemonade. Fuck. But then Katie did something strange, and all my thoughts evaporated. When she left home, she had a walking stick that helped her get by, but she didn’t use it just

outside the lawn. In the bright sunlight, she could see well enough. That was what she’d told me, and it seemed to be true as she stepped right up to the bed of my truck. She leaned over, looking in, her blue eyes not focused on anything. “Katie?” I asked. She reached inside. Her hand groped the plastic tarp there, making me wonder where that had come from. It was mine. I had used it to cover the antique sofas and brand-new mattress I’d bought after moving in. I usually kept the tarp in the garage so it wouldn’t fly away if the wind kicked up on the highway. But there it was, in Katie’s hands as she pulled it up and over, like a magician doing a reveal. “Do you see anything?” she asked, a hint of anxiety in her voice. “No… Katie, what’s going? Is everything okay?” I took the tarp from her then, because it was clear that something was not okay, but holding the dirty old piece of plastic wouldn’t help anything. She let me take the tarp and pointed into the bed of the truck. “You’re sure nothing’s there. No one is… there. Where did you go, exactly? Did you see someone back here?” I looked inside at the metal floor of the truck. There were an old pair of boots I used for gardening and a few odds and ends that proved I wasn’t very tidy. But certainly not a person, which was what her words implied. “Katie, there’s only you and me here.” And Clint in the house. But I left that part off. The less people who knew about him, the better. Especially if he suddenly disappeared. She was reaching over the side of the truck, trying to feel around at the bottom. Her arms didn’t quite reach. “Sweetie?” I asked, uncertain and a little bit scared. What if being alone in that house, with visitors only every other day, had made her a little unhinged? All that solitude sounded like bliss to me, but then I’d been cursed with an overabundance of contact from an early age. “I thought I saw something,” she finally confessed, stepping back on her heels. “I can’t make things out too well. There are barely shapes, much less faces. But this morning when I was watering my plants, hidden behind that one azalea with the wild branches, I heard something from your house. I thought it was you, so I almost said hello, but then I noticed how fast it was moving, real low to the ground. And wider than you.” A shiver ran through me. “Lower and wider, huh? Maybe it was an animal. Like a dog or a cat.” “Maybe,” Katie said, her voice doubtful. Doubting the idea of an animal or doubting herself? It must be tough to not know what you saw, to be afraid of shadows that would never become clear. I glanced back into the bed of truck—which was definitely empty. Whatever Katie had or hadn’t seen slinking around my truck this morning was gone. The tarp was pretty heavy in my arms, so I rolled it into a rough ball and walked it over to the garage. When I returned to the truck, I said, “I’m sorry,” even though I wasn’t sure what for. Because Katie had been worried. Because she’d been wrong. But mostly because I really had to go inside. After the awful meeting with Dmitri this morning and this strange scare, I was ready for a hot bath and a long nap. Preferably with a sexy soldier to keep me company during both of them.

*** My anxiety level rose when I searched the house and found it empty. “Clint,” I called from the central living room, but only silence answered me. I’d specifically ordered him to stay put, and he’d defied me, which pissed me off more than anything else. But I was also worried about him. What if Dmitri had sent some guys and picked up

“the package” himself? There were no signs of a struggle, and I had to believe a trained soldier could at least put up a fight, even if they had sent three or four guys. And even if they had caught him by surprise. The other disconcerting thought was that he might have returned to that bitch he’d been with. The one who had ditched him when he’d just come back from a long deployment, right when he’d needed her most. If she’d met him at the airport, he wouldn’t have looked twice at me. He wouldn’t be at my house right now. He’d be safe. Or at least, safer than he was now, disappeared to some mysterious place. I forced myself to sit on the couch and keep a book open, even though I had no idea what the pages said. Was he okay? What if he’d just run to the store? Should I call the police? The irony was enough to knock me over. I did fall, partially, staggering off the cushions and up the stairs. Clint’s faded green duffel bag was still sitting in the guest bedroom. His toothbrush was still in the bathroom. There. He wouldn’t have gone too far without his stuff. Unless he hadn’t gone willingly. But I couldn’t think like that. I should go downstairs and have a cup of tea. And wonder what Dmitri was doing to my sister right now. It was killing me that I hadn’t seen her. Hadn’t spoken with her since that phone call. We weren’t even close, really. Not since we were kids. Things had gotten tense when we were both working at the club, and Dmitri knew how to play our sibling rivalry to the fullest. Next thing I knew, Caro was stepping onto the stage during my dances and giving my regulars a free ride. Anything I said got twisted as if I was the one making trouble for her. When Dmitri left to make his big deal overseas, I’d been so relieved. Let’s get regular jobs. Regular lives. We still have each other. Only Caro had been pissed at getting left behind. She had something going with him, which I suspected meant he fucked her whenever he wanted and ignored her the rest of the time. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that she’d hooked up with him again as soon as he was back in town. The surprise had been the “delivery” request, along with the thinly veiled threat to my sister. I couldn’t let her die. Even if she’d gotten herself into this. Even if she should have known better. God, sometimes it killed me that she knew how awful he was but she still went to him. Despite all that, I couldn’t let her get hurt. Clint’s bag was sitting against the wall, zipped up and unassuming. I remembered what he’d said that night in bed with me, about the list he had. I’d been out of my mind with lust, teetering on the edge of the sharpest climax of my life, but I’d heard him. It wasn’t hard to figure out that Dmitri wanted that list. What if I gave it to him? It seemed like a long shot, about as long of a shot as the eight thousand bucks had been. Dmitri would probably shoot me on sight once he found out I knew about the list. And he wasn’t the kind of man to leave a loose end alone. And Clint would definitely be a loose end. You think he just left something that important lying around? I didn’t know where he’d leave something like that. If I ever came across something that volatile, that dangerous, I’d run the hell away from it. I didn’t seek out trouble, but it had a way of finding me, like burs that stuck to my feet as I walked through the forest. They stung me on contact and left little pricks in my skin even when I pulled them out. Are you going to violate Clint’s privacy now? Clint’s privacy was the least of my worries. His life… now that was a big worry.

My decision made, I glanced behind me at the empty hallway and knelt in front of the bag. The zippers weren’t locked. No precautions had been taken, which led me to believe Clint was trusting in general. Either that or he just trusted me. Neither idea sat well with me. Passport. Dog tags. Some paperwork from the US Government with cryptic-sounding words. If I’d had any doubts about his military status, they were settled now. This man was a soldier, a member of the US Army, a goddamn hero. I should be doing my part to protect him, not drag him into this. He dragged himself into this. It would be a relief to believe that, but he hadn’t written the orders to send himself overseas and fight some faceless cartel assholes. Assholes like Dmitri’s associates. There were stacks of clothes, plain T-shirts of worn cotton and jeans. The familiar scent of him—musky and comforting—wafted up from the fabric as I pushed it aside. I didn’t deserve that comfort. At the bottom of the bag I found a few books, some history books and a well-worn copy of the Bible. That raised my eyebrows. A religious freak? They would come by the strip club some nights, passing out pamphlets and telling us we’d go to hell. But Clint hadn’t seemed particularly religious. He’d been living with that other girl without being married to her. And he’d taken my confession of being a stripper with more grace than most guys would. I opened the book, surprised anew at the highlights and underlines and unreadable scribbles in the margin. This Bible wasn’t lip service to a childhood commandment. He had read this. He’d studied it. I opened to a random highlighted line: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That one was highlighted, and I snorted. Yeah, that was true enough. I had no moral high ground to stand on, but I saw guys in the club who did. Doctors and professors and politicians who’d talk a lot of shit about cleaning up society; meanwhile they’d be sneaking in through the back door to buy drugs and a pair of girls for an hour. We were dirty, all of us. Except Clint, I suspected. And another: For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city. My smile slipped. Wouldn’t that be fabulous? A savior. My own personal GI Joe with an army to back him up. It was too good to be true. Wasn’t it? Clint may be a member of the army, but I wasn’t sure he had many people in this city. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to protect me from an attack, and he sure as hell wouldn’t be able to protect Caro. And if he knew what I’d done, he wouldn’t even be with me anymore. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. Now there was an idea. Confess my sins to Clint and be healed. If only it worked that way. I had deceived him. I’d plotted to kill him. I would still, most likely, lead him to his death. This kind of truth couldn’t set me free; it was a prison, one built with the ironclad knowledge that I deserved his scorn. I slammed the Bible shut and practically threw it against the wall. It thudded and fell to the ground. Fuck. Swallowing hard, I forced myself to glance into the bottom of the bag again. My heart pounded as if I might find snakes or grenades or something else as equally awful as that Bible.

The only thing left was a dark velvet box about the size of my palm. There was no chance he’d keep some computer disk thing in a jewelry box. I was just snooping now. But I thought of that girl Chelsea and imagined him getting down on one knee. Even though it seemed a little big for a ring. But she didn’t deserve a necklace either, or anything at all. I hated the thought of him looking through the jewelry cases, picking something out for her while she’d been here fucking some guy. It made me a hypocrite to be pissed about what she’d done to him, cheating on him and abandoning him and kicking him out of his own apartment, but I couldn’t help it. You’re just snooping now. No good intentions. I had no good intentions, only an illicit curiosity for a man I couldn’t really have. A man who was fiercely loyal. What would it feel like to be loved by him? I opened the box to find out. A medal stared back at me. It did more than that. It punched me in the gut and stole my breath. It shone a spotlight on all the horrible, degrading things in my life, including agreeing to help Dmitri kill this man. The one who had earned this. “It’s a Purple Heart.” The words came from the doorway, and I whipped around, almost dropping the box in my panic. I managed to grab hold of it and ease the lid shut. I set the velvet box in his bag gingerly— as if anything would help now—and stood up. “I’m so sorry.” I bit my lip, forcing the tears back. My throat grew tight. “God, I’m sorry.” “Why?” His expression was bemused. For conspiring to kill you. “For looking through your stuff.” He shrugged. “You were probably wondering where I went.” Then I heard the soft rumble of tires and glanced out the window. I had a clear view of the driveway now that I was standing. A dark sedan, an older model, pulled out and drove away. I looked back at Clint. “Who’s that?” Please don’t say Chelsea. “My friend James. You might remember him. He was on the plane with me.” Thank you, Jesus. “Oh,” I said, way more casually than I felt. “I didn’t know you had plans.” “I didn’t. Something came up, and I couldn’t leave a note. Sorry about that.” “You don’t have to apologize to me.” In fact, I really wish you wouldn’t. “But that doesn’t give me a right to look through your stuff. I just… Shit, I don’t have an excuse.” He smiled slightly. “Don’t worry about it. I’m not super secretive anyway. More of an open book. Only problem is it’s a pretty boring story.” I glanced back at the open duffel bag, hesitating. “I’d like to hear it anyway, if you don’t mind. All of it, your whole story, but also how you got that medal.” Fear thumped as if we were going back in time, as if I’d been his girlfriend and gotten a call with bad news. “You were injured? You have to be injured to get that, right?” “Yeah.” He huffed a laugh. “Kind of a morbid requirement, if you ask me. But they don’t ask me. They just hand those things out like candy.” I walked up to him, and there wasn’t any artifice in me. It felt strange to approach a man without wanting anything from him—not money, not leniency. It felt naked. I just wanted to be near him. My hands went up around his neck, and his settled on my waist. We flowed into that kiss like water in a cool brook, slipping and sliding and glinting in the sun. There was no better feeling

than the touch of his tongue against mine. I pulled back, missing the heat of his mouth immediately. My gaze met his, and I shook my head slowly. “You can try to make it seem small, but I’m not buying it. They gave you this medal because you’re brave and strong. And even if you didn’t have it, I’d already know that about you. You’re the most noble man I’ve ever met.” Something flashed in his eyes, hard and almost bitter. “Noble, huh?” “Yeah. And loyal. And kind.” I hesitated. In some ways it felt like spilling my darkest secret. But something compelled me to say it anyway. “I haven’t known a lot of kind men.” Clint reached up and curled a lock of hair behind my ear. Then he stroked a hand down my temple, my cheek. My neck. “That why you’re letting me stay?” “I don’t know,” I said honestly. I wasn’t sure if I kept him here because I liked him or so I could deliver him to Dmitri, which just went to show how fucked up I was. Love or kill. There was no in-between in my world, no gray area. Only absolutes. I thought he might ask me more questions and demand some answers this time—Lord knew he deserved them. Instead he bent his head and kissed me again, featherlight and painfully sweet. Ahhh yes. And when he pulled my body flush against his, I knew exactly what to do. I couldn’t give him my loyalty. There would be no medal waiting for him at the end of this. But I could give him my body—my tongue and my pussy and all the roughing up his cute ass could take. Reaching around behind him, I squeezed the hard cheeks of his ass. He clenched them in response, which made it almost impossible to press my fingers in. Unless I used my nails. He made a sound like a yelp—of surprise, of surrender. “Jesus,” he said against my mouth. I smiled, not breaking the kiss. I wanted to kiss him with smiles and frowns and everything in between. I would fuse myself to him with glue made of sexual pleasure alone, because that was the only thing I knew how to make. “You like a little pain, soldier?” I whispered. He didn’t answer, and I thought he wasn’t going to. That was okay. In some ways it was a rhetorical question. I’d already noted his excitement, the throbbing of his cock when I squeezed a little too tight. But when he did respond—Lord, that was sweet. “I’m not sure.” In halting words, he said, “Sometimes when I’m beating one out, I’ll squeeze my… my balls. Real tight. I don’t even realize I’m doing it until I come.” The mental image of him laid out on a little cot, his body too long and strung up with selfcontained lust, was enough to make my body shudder for him. I imagined his eyes shut tight and his fist shut tight and his hand closed tight around his balls, everything coiled and tense and painful until he climaxed in long, ropy sprays. “What else?” I asked, surprised I could still talk. My voice was husky with a breathlessness born of desire, but I knew he liked me this way. I knew because his eyes widened and his whole body went still. There was a part of me that wanted a repeat of last night, where I pushed and poked and prodded at him until he lost control. Then he would flip me over and fuck me. He’d make me come. There was a thrill in winding up a man, then letting him stomp around on the ground like a toy monkey with a drum set. It was a cold kind of power. But a greater part of me wanted to give him orders that he’d follow. To hurt him and please him and control him in a way that wasn’t cold. It was so damn hot I might incinerate just from thinking about it.

“I pinch my nipples sometimes,” he said, and I almost came on the spot. It took two deep breaths to get myself under control. Then I said, “Show me.” All calm and collected, as if I watched men strip for me every day. I was the one who stripped, who bared myself. With every other man, in every other way. But Clint took off his shirt and tossed it on the ground. He gave me a nervous look, as if I might stop him now. As if. Then he looked down at his chest and pressed a nipple between his thumb and forefinger. “Is that how you usually do it?” I asked. “That soft?” “No, I—” His cheeks colored a deep shade of plum. Like the head of his cock must be. “Harder.” I pinched his other nipple. “Like this?” He made a strangled sound. “Della.” It wasn’t technically an answer, but I let it slide. Or maybe I didn’t, because when I twisted his nipple, it felt a little like punishment. Especially when he sucked in a sharp breath and closed his eyes. That was fine with me, though. I could look at the length of him, from the broad shoulders to the tapered hips to the thighs so lovingly encased by old denim. Oh, and his cock. The erection had grown to impressive proportions beneath his fly. He’d have to be careful with that zipper on its way down. “Take off your pants. And your underwear, if you’re wearing any.” The look he gave me was filled with desperation. For me to go easier? Or harder? It didn’t really matter. I’d never had this much control over a man this strong. It was heady, intoxicating. Was this how people felt when they shot chemicals into their veins? I’d tried it a couple times and only felt dizzy and sick. This, though. This was a miracle. He stripped and waited for instructions. What a good boy. What a big boy. I knelt in front of him, ignoring his murmured, halfhearted protests. You don’t have to. Let me… But this wasn’t for him, not really. I wanted to taste his cock, so I did. Salty. Earthy. I wanted to watch him squirm, so I licked the crown of his cock and the slit on the top until he was panting and humping my mouth. It should have been degrading for him, humiliating the way those paid sex acts had always been for me, but he just looked so beautiful. He looked like an angel with his body rippling and shaking, and I couldn’t help but admire him. “I can’t stop,” he said in a half shout. I wondered idly if Katie could hear him. Part of being a good neighbor was not making a lot of noise, so I pulled back. I undressed slowly, loving his gaze on me and the little moans he made as the air whispered over his damp cock. My panties came off last, and I folded them so that the little wet spot I’d left would fit right on his tongue. “Bite down,” I said, and he did, with a little sucking noise that told me he tasted my arousal. He drank it down. “And keep your teeth together. If those panties fall out before we’re done, you’re going to be in trouble.” His hips rocked forward. He nodded his agreement, gaze unfocused and glazed with arousal. Most of the fabric hung over his chin, only the dampest part in his mouth, held there by his teeth. It was another thing that could have seemed silly, pink lace hanging from his lips. On him it just looked obscene, as if he’d torn it off some unsuspecting girl’s ass. As if he were a wild animal, a wild sex animal who ripped undergarments on a rampage. I found a condom in the side table and rolled it on him. “Put your hands behind your back.” He did as instructed and scooted into the V of my legs when I perched on the bed. “Now fuck me.

Good and hard. Fuck me until I come, but don’t let go of those panties. And you don’t get to come until I do.” It took him a little while to get his cock lined up. He didn’t have his hands to help guide him in or position my hips. And I certainly wasn’t going to help. The height didn’t quite match up, but that only made it sweeter. I could sit there with my legs spread, half reclined on the bed. Meanwhile he had to bend his legs in an awkward angle and nudge at my swollen pussy lips. Even once he was lined up, I knew he was holding back, afraid to slam into me, afraid to get the angle wrong and hurt me instead. I suppose I could have reached down and helped, but I did something else instead. I pinched his nipple. And then when he made a little groaning sound—a sound that had my pussy clenching around the tip of his cock—I pinched him even harder. I even used my nails a little, grinding them into his skin until he had no choice at all, until his hips bucked and he was fully impaled inside me. It took him by surprise, ending up inside me. It must have felt good, because the muscles in his neck corded and his eyes rolled back. He almost dropped the panties then, but he managed to catch them—by the curl of his tongue, I thought. He sucked in a breath and practically chewed on the fabric as he struggled to hold on. Watching him fight and clench and wriggle in sensual torture was the hottest thing I’d ever seen. I felt electrified, current running all over my skin in a sexual barbed wire I couldn’t get out of. So I did the only thing left to me: I reached my fingers down and circled my clit. I played with myself until my pussy released hot liquid, bathing his cock. Even through the condom, he felt that, his body tensing. The muscles in his arms were particularly bulging. He must have been working hard to keep his hands behind his back. I slapped the side of his ass. “Move, soldier.” A furious sound emerged as he pulled away and pushed back in. He was so fucking close to coming. The plum color suffused his cheeks again—and yes, it did match the head of his cock. It was hurting him to hold back, but this was one pain I wouldn’t regret giving him. I eased up on my clit so I could last longer. I made him fuck me for fifteen more minutes, sometimes changing the angle so that I backed away from my orgasm. All the while, I pinched and flicked and licked his chest, drawing him ever closer to climax. The sounds he made grew frantic and tortured. He begged me with incoherent sounds, muffled by my panties, his message clear. I need to come. Please let me come. On one particularly vicious stroke of my nails down his chest, the choked sound was mournful. I’m already coming. I’m sorry I disobeyed you. Forgive me. When he could open his eyes, I gave him my sternest look. “You couldn’t even help yourself, could you? Just rutted like a dog until you came, not thinking about me at all.” I could have sworn his cock twitched inside me, even softening as it was. He loved this shit, and God help me, so did I. He turned and opened his mouth, letting the panties fall to the floor. His voice was raw. “I couldn’t hold back.” “On your knees, then. I’ll just have to teach you how to please a woman. And not with that selfish cock of yours.” When he knelt by the bed, it reminded me of prayer. But he wasn’t asking favors of a disinterested God, wasn’t reading his tattered Bible right now. I pressed his face into my pussy and made him lick up the mess he had made. I came three times that way, imagining his tongue forming ancient words of communion and demise. Confess your sins, he would say, and I rode his face to a blinding orgasm. Pray for each other, he would say, and I yanked his hair until he groaned, sending

vibrations through my clit. By the time my legs cramped from staying open that long, he was hard again. I bent him over the side of the bed and started playing all over again.

Chapter Ten Clint I watched her sleep, her eyelids moving as she dreamed her way through an afternoon nap. Pretty sure I was the creepy guy in this scenario, sitting on a chair in the corner, elbows on my knees, watching her. Like when I’d followed her in the truck. I was becoming a full-fledged psycho, and I had to wonder if it was related to my recent mission. I’d heard of it happening to guys. They passed the psych evals, then went home and dragged their wife behind a couch to take cover from an imaginary grenade. Not me, though. You never think that will be you. But as I sat there, I couldn’t have told you if I was going through some kind of stress hallucination. Was there really a threat to Della? Or did my mind make that up because that was how it viewed the world now—through violence, through fear? I stood and kissed her cheek before settling the blanket tighter around her. She sighed softly and curled her hands into fists beneath her chin, childlike. Della and I had fucked for hours, literally. The last time she’d come, shaking and shuddering beneath me, she’d drifted off to sleep almost immediately. I’d still had my dick inside her, hard, primed to come, but I’d pulled out. Didn’t want to disturb her. I hoped she slept for a long time, deep and restorative. The sleep of the dead. That was what my foster mother used to call it. If another guy had told me he was worried about going off the deep end, I’d have told him to call the counselors at the VA. Make an appointment. Don’t do anything rash. Keep a cool head. You know those things are the safe thing to do, the smart thing. But I was too wired to fight, too certain this was true. Something bad was going to happen, and it would happen soon. I heard the distant buzz of my cell phone from the guest room. I left Della to sleep, shutting the door behind me. James’s grinning face flashed on my screen. “What did you find?” James was all business, which told me it was bad. “Had to trace it through a bunch of shell corporations. Fucking money trail. They put up a lot of roadblocks just to find out who owned that land.” “Pretty suspicious.” “Yeah, especially when one connection kept showing up. Dmitri Ozerov.” “Fuckin’ A.” I could almost hear James’s nod over the line. He’d been my contact when I was undercover. I was in the field, puffed up and acting like some kind of badass. Didn’t have access to my laptop or anything. That was what James was for. I’d feed him information, which he’d pass on to the higher-ups. He’d also clue me in about the people and their businesses so I’d be able to work them better. We both recognized the name Dmitri Ozerov. Not a major player compared to the guys we took down, but when you were talking about international terrorism affiliations, everyone was trouble. “That must’ve been who I saw,” I said. “Didn’t get a close look at him, but I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway. We got a recent photograph?” “I’m sending you one now, along with a domestic rap sheet. Lots of shit going on here.

Drugs. Guns. Flesh trade.” There was a weighted pause. “How’d your girl get mixed up in all this?” She’s not my girl. I wasn’t sure that was true. She felt like mine, even if I shouldn’t get involved that fast. Shouldn’t fall that fast. I’d always fallen fast, and that was before I met Della. She was too damned perfect, like my wet dreams and deepest hopes come to life. “I don’t know,” I admitted to James—and admitted to myself that I didn’t know her at all. Just saw her sexy little swagger and the mixture of wonder and fear in her eyes. She was a contradiction, and I wanted her, all of her, no part left undesired. “What’s next?” James asked. It was something he’d said to me on those untraceable phone calls while I was undercover. “Find out the connection.” Another pause. “Snoop around on Della. Don’t you think that’s…” Creepy? Yeah. “Just do it. I think this whole thing is going to come down on our heads.” “Wait, you don’t mean the list, right?” I shrugged, suspicion a tight knot in my chest. She doesn’t owe you loyalty. No, but I wanted her to. “I just think it’s a little fucking suspicious that my life consists of Pop-Tarts and late-night television for twenty-one years. Then suddenly I’m in possession of a criminal list and I happen to meet a beautiful girl with ties to some arms dealer.” “I don’t know, man. People run into trouble all the time. Doesn’t have to be related.” “No, but I want you to find out how she knows him. How often she sees him.” Whether she’s fucking him. But that would be implied. If there was any information like that available, James would pass it on. He always had before. “You ever heard of imposter syndrome?” James said with his usual attitude. “Means you don’t think you’re good enough to deserve something. So maybe you fuck it up on purpose because then you’re back in your comfort zone.” “Thank you, Dr. Phil. Are you finished?” “Not really, because I’m saying if she gets wind that you had her investigated—” “This isn’t an imposter-syndrome thing. It’s not a PTSD thing.” I’m not fucking crazy. “There’s a threat here. I saw him with her, okay? She wasn’t happy to see him.” “All right. Okay. If you say that’s how it is…” “I’m saying so,” I said firmly. “Anyway, you’ve seen Della. It’s not stupid to question why she’s with me. She’s a ten and a half. Would you really think I deserve her?” “Hell fucking yes,” James said, as serious as I’d ever heard him. “If anyone deserves to find a nice, beautiful girl to fuck all night, it’s you.” Shit. My chest panged with some feeling I didn’t recognize. My throat tightened, and I had to end the conversation. “Find out the connection, okay? I need to know what I’m working with.” So maybe you fuck it up on purpose because then you’re back in your comfort zone. After hanging up, I went to my open duffel bag and picked up the hard case inside. Flipped it open. Stared at the purple ribbon and glinting gold and wondered if it would ever mean something good to me. All I remembered was blood and fear and the certainty that I was going to die. Shrapnel had gone deep into my arm, splicing the nerves and spilling dark liquid down the front of my gear. Smoke and dust and sweat turned the air into a solid material, one I struggled to breathe. William and I weren’t friends. I had barely recognized him as another operative with the shaggy hair and long-ass blonde beard. He’d looked otherworldly like that, pale eyes, pale skin. He’d fit right in.

At the end, when we’d gathered enough evidence to convict and the military force arrived to shut them down, I was supposed to get out. It was too dangerous to stick around, in case the terrorists made me for a spy. But then someone had suspected William, which was of course a valid concern. They tortured him a little. Some burns. Bashed his knee in. Kicked him around until he stopped opening his eyes. My choice was to take him with me or leave him to die. So I’d taken him with me and disobeyed a direct order to do it. Didn’t that beat all? Disobeyed an order and got a fucking medal. I couldn’t get over that. It made me feel like I’d been doing the right thing when I kept that data to myself. It had come from William, with a whispered warning about two days before he’d gotten himself tortured. Don’t trust anyone with this. Turned out to be good advice. He still hadn’t come out of his coma, last I heard. I hadn’t trusted anyone since then either, except James. And Della. I didn’t want to be making a mistake with her. Whatever we had going—the sex, the chatting over coffee in our pjs, the fixing up her house—I wanted it to be real.

*** Before heading outside, I tucked my pistol into the waistband of my jeans and tried not to think about what that meant. I just didn’t know what I was dealing with, whether this guy Dmitri would come over drunk and waving a gun around like some deranged ex-lover. Or maybe the next time Della went to see him, he wouldn’t let her leave. The point was, until I knew what I was dealing with, I wanted to be prepared. So when I stepped onto the porch and heard rustling in the garage, my skin prickled in warning. I lifted my chin, like an animal scenting danger. I didn’t smell the chemical tang of explosives or the gasoline of Humvees, though. There was just honeysuckle and a crisp summer scent. Silently I moved off the porch and through the grass. The back of the garage provided more cover, so I circled around. A quick scan of the street told me no new vehicles had arrived. Whoever this was had come on foot. I paused, listening. There was nothing for a moment, then a quiet shuffle of something being moved and set down carefully. It destroyed the possibility of a raccoon rummaging through her trash bins, which I already knew were stored inside. After a beat I pushed inside and pointed my gun at the intruder. “Hands where I can see them.” The person jumped in surprise, then slowly lifted her arms above her head. She was standing near the trash bins—not near my boxes. Not looking for the list. She had dark blonde hair and a small stature, but I didn’t let my guard down. Danger came in all shapes and sizes, including attractive women. Including attractive women like Della. “Turn around,” I said. The woman turned slowly, her expression calculating. Her eyes were a deep blue—and focused on me like a hawk’s. “Oh, it’s you.” I raised my eyebrows. “We met before?” “No, but I’ve seen you around.” She smiled, but it didn’t seem friendly. More like she’d thought of a joke only she knew. “I live next door. Your friend knows me as Katie.” I flicked my gaze behind her. “There a reason you’re going through her trash?” “Just doing my job.” She didn’t lower her hands but pushed her right hip out. “Shield’s in here if you want to see it.”

Fuck. Her shield? Then she was some kind of LEO—shorthand for law enforcement officer. Police? FBI? It didn’t fucking matter, because if a LEO was on the scene, things were about to get a whole lot stickier. It could have been a trap to pull me closer and let my guard down, but she was too matter-of-fact. And the way she spoke to me, it was as if she knew about my training. I suspected she had a guy who ran background checks and gathered intel for her the same way James did for me. After months of being undercover, I could recognize that in someone else. All the same, I said, “Turn around. Hands on the wall.” I kept the gun pointed at her until I pulled the identification out of her pocket and read it. Then I lowered my gun and held out the badge. “Good to meet you, Agent Katherine Porter.” Her lids lowered, telling me she’d caught the sarcasm in my words. Good. At least whoever they’d sent to mess with Della wasn’t an idiot. “Good to meet you too, Specialist Clint Adams. Now you want to tell me what you’re doing here? And don’t tell me you’re doing your job. I’ve already checked. There are no other agencies supposed to be here.” “I’m not a fucking agency. I’m a random guy bumming a place to stay.” “Random, huh?” Yeah, I had to admit that was seeming less likely as time ticked by. “What do you got against Della?” I asked, not really expecting her to tell me. “Nothing. We know she cut ties to Dmitri, or at least tried to.” “Oh good. I guess you’ll be on your way.” Agent Porter made a sour face. “Her sister, however…” Her sister was being held for ransom, as best I could tell from the conversation I’d overheard. That was some bad shit. The FBI could definitely help. Or they’d make it worse. One or the fucking other. “If Dmitri Ozerov is your target, then why don’t you go arrest him?” “You of all people know it’s never that simple.” Oh yeah. Gather evidence. Sit back while innocent people get raped and killed. Tell yourself it would pay off in the end even though William was still in the hospital and the people they arrested would probably plea bargain out. Being the good guy was a regular old good time. “I still don’t know what you expect to find in Della’s garbage bag.” Besides my used condoms. Goddamn FBI. They were worse than a nosy old lady. She shrugged, a polite way of saying mind your own business. “Has Ozerov contacted her while you’ve been here?” I ignored her question—for now—and scrubbed a hand over my face. “Un-freakingbelievable.” Though I had to admit, the one good thing about this was I knew I wasn’t crazy. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” Agent Porter said matter-of-factly. Damn it, I didn’t want to agree, but I needed information. Might as well go along with it. And I really had nothing to lose here. Except Della. “Fine,” I said. “She went to visit him.” “I knew it! Goddamn it. They lost her tail.” I gave her a look that told her exactly how impressed I was with the FBI right now. “I can give you the coordinates and some background info I found about the owners, tracing back to Ozerov. That gonna be enough?” “Unfortunately no.” She took a deep breath. “I’d get in trouble for disclosing this, but I’m going to hold up my end of the bargain. The truth is, we can probably bust Dmitri right now if we wanted to. Nothing major but it would be enough to put him behind bars for five years, and my

supervisors would take that much to get him off the streets.” “But?” I prompted. “But they need a bigger fish. Ozerov thinks he’s hot shit but the truth is he’s always been small time. Never made much of a mark on the global stage until recently. Something changed. We think he got an accomplice.” “It’s not Della,” I said flatly. No goddamn way. “We don’t think that,” she said quickly. “But we need to find out who it is, and she’s our best in.” “She’s not your in,” I said, all my bitterness pouring out of me. Della’s secrets. This woman’s cool deception. “You’re not going to use her for this.” From a distance, I heard the screen door slam. I stiffened, and so did Agent Porter. I managed to tuck my gun in the back of my jeans. A few seconds later, Della rounded the corner looking drowsy and gorgeous. Confusion flickered on her face before she smiled. “Hey, guys. I see you two met.” “Yeah, uh, I was just out here and—” Agent Porter cut me off. “It’s my fault. I must not have been counting my steps right, because I was standing here trying to get into your garage and he came to see if I was okay.” I glanced at her curiously and saw her eyes staring off into space. Aw fuck, that was low. Pretending to be blind? Very low. She had the sympathy angle. Plus Della wouldn’t even know she was being spied on. Della was gracious about the supposed mistake and even offered to help escort “Katie” back to her porch. I managed not to roll my eyes until they were out of sight. The whole incident had been hugely illuminating, not only because of what Agent Porter had divulged. Also because I could see Della as the sweet, easy mark that she was. She had a lot of world-wise vibes she put out, warning people away, almost threatening with that smile sharp as a knife. But she was too trusting to really play the game—and with a sinking feeling, I realized I was too. We wanted to think the best of everyone instead of assuming they’d fuck us over if they could. Della had made that mistake with her neighbor. And I had made that mistake with the pretty stewardess who offered me a ride home.

Chapter Eleven Della It was almost a relief seeing Clint’s face dark and untrusting. Even the hint of hurt I saw in his eyes, as if I’d wounded him, felt right. Like a punch to my gut—losing my breath and knowing I deserved it. Now he’d demand answers, and I felt almost at peace. He’d know. He’d hate me, but he was already figuring it out without my help. He was putting the puzzle together, when I hadn’t even known he had any pieces. After helping Katie into her house, I returned to mine. Walked right past him despite the soft clatter of dishes in the kitchen. I sat down on my couch, the one I’d been so excited to find at a resale shop with plush rose-gold cushions and maple-wood inlays, and felt out of place in my own house. Felt out of place in Dmitri’s gleaming mansion too. I travelled the whole world feeling out of place, because where I really belonged was back in the seedy strip club downtown. Or huddling in the room I shared with Caro while my sister got shot in the living room. Stealing from her boss, they said. Me and Caro would go work for them, make things right. Little girls in a strip club. That wasn’t right. When Clint came back inside, he was holding something. My cream-colored teacup and matching plate with its gold trim. Steam rose from the top of the cup. He set it down in front of me, and I stared at it. Just stared. It looked like a puzzle. My teacup, my tea. Put right in front of me. “No one’s ever made me tea before,” I said, my voice hoarse. He looked at me strangely—torn. Torn between anger and pity. My stomach turned over. I felt sick, and I took a sip of the tea he’d made to calm myself. Stronger than I usually made it, and had he added honey? So strange to think of someone else’s hands preparing a drink for me, to comfort me. He let me drink half the cup before he spoke. “I know about Ozerov,” he said, and my hand started to shake so badly that the cup rattled against the saucer. I set it down on the table, pushed it away. “How’d you find out?” I asked. That seemed like the easiest question. Better than how soon are you going to leave and never come back? Or are you going to call the police? I had to convince him not to. Dmitri would lose his shit if the police came sniffing around. I’d seen him dump ten thousand dollars’ worth of drugs in the river when he got questioned once. Another time, the police had dragged him down to the station for questioning. The girl in the makeup vanity next to me disappeared the next day. Didn’t matter if she’d really ratted him out. Didn’t matter if my sister had really stolen from him. Another girl ended up dead, and nobody cared. But I care. And I wouldn’t let that happen to Caro. “Followed you,” Clint said. “Hopped in the back of your truck when you went upstairs and followed you into that place.” Holy shit. My first thought was that he was pretty damned stealthy. That must come in handy for his military stuff. My second thought was to wonder why he’d cared enough to see. Was he just bored? Or one of those controlling type of guys who thought I was going to cheat when I tried to buy tampons from the corner store? “Must have been exciting,” I said in a dull voice.

His gaze sharpened. “Exciting? No. The ball game would have been exciting. That was something else.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you went there like that. Talk about a fucking lion’s den.” I jerked back, stung. “You don’t know the situation. And you don’t know me.” “So tell me. That’s what we’re gonna do now. A little getting-to-know-you session.” I hated the hint of mocking in his words. I’d done this. Turned him from a sweet, caring guy into this one, who cursed and intimidated me. He looked about two seconds from walking out that door, and I almost didn’t care. Except that my heart would break. Except that you still need to do what Dmitri told you to. Sometimes you had to make a choice. My sister’s life or Clint’s. For once I didn’t know which one I’d pick, but I opened my mouth and told him everything. Even if he’d die, at least he’d die knowing. It was the least I could do. “Dmitri owned the strip club where I worked. Where I was—” I choked on the words a little. I’d barely admitted it to myself, much less to another person. “Where I was forced to work. First in the back rooms. Then when I looked old enough, I moved to the front.” “How old?” he asked sharply. “Sixteen when I started dancing. With makeup and stilettos you can’t hardly tell the difference.” “And the back rooms?” I pressed my lips together, unable to say much. Not because I didn’t want to cooperate or because he didn’t deserve the whole truth. Just because I was held together by a thread here, and his derision would feel razor sharp. “Ten,” I said, looking away. “I was ten when I first went to stay there.” “Jesus, Della.” “And the plants died. That’s what I thought about at the beginning. I had three plants, and all of them must have died without anyone to water them. I had worried over having to pick one to live and one to die, but in the end, they all died.” He stared at me like he had no fucking clue what I was talking about, but that was all right. None of this really mattered. This wasn’t why I’d followed him off the plane. “Grew up,” I said, forcing myself to continue. “Got my GED by mail. Left Dmitri. I told him I was never coming back to him. I thought he might put up a fight, but he didn’t really.” “You and Dmitri, were you ever…” He didn’t finish. The distasteful expression on his face told me what he thought of the idea. I feel the same way. “For a little while. First he was with Caro. She’s older than me. She filled out faster. Then, I don’t know. I guess he got bored or just wanted to start trouble. He came to me and…” I laughed, the sound hollow. My insides were all hollow. Numbness had spread from the inside out, leaving only a shell, the story of my life like the faint ocean sounds you hear inside. “He said I was saving her.” “What the hell’s that mean?” That was one choice in my life that had been easy. Her or me. “I knew he hit her sometimes. Hurt her. He said if I let him touch me, he’d leave her alone. I thought it would make her life easier.” Clint’s eyes narrowed, and in the slits, I saw fires burning. Rage directed at Dmitri, and those flames were enough to warm me. Even if I’d probably get consumed by them in the end.

“But she didn’t see it that way. She thought I wanted Dmitri to pay attention to me because he’d give me money and jewelry. I didn’t want his money.” It suddenly seemed important that Clint understand that. That he believe me about this. “I never wanted him.” “Okay,” he said softly. All the indignation drained out of me, about as quickly as it had come. “All I’ve ever wanted is to get away from him. Caro too.” “But you left without her,” he said, almost proudly, like he was happy I’d gotten myself out at any cost. Even sacrificing my sister. I didn’t want to make that choice a second time. “I couldn’t make her go. I thought it would be okay, maybe. Since he let me leave. Figured he might hit her one too many times and she’d get fed up and leave too. I even got this house as soon as I could afford to, so there’d be room enough for both of us.” “She never came.” He stated it as a fact. “No. Not even when Dmitri left town to do his business shit. She found some other guy to live with. Other parties and drugs and whatever else. I don’t even know. I barely saw her anymore. I tried to tell myself she was happy that way.” “And now Dmitri is back.” Another fact. “He called me up. I didn’t even know he was living here again or that Caro had hooked up with him.” I shook my head, embarrassed to admit I hadn’t talked to Caro. Hadn’t wanted to hear her coked out or drunk off her ass. Clint’s gaze locked on mine. “What did Dmitri ask you to do?” Fucking tell him the truth. He deserved to know. “He wants me to get him something. Some… drugs. Like a shipment thing at the airport.” Sometimes you had to make a choice, and you picked the cowardly one. “Why didn’t you want to?” Clint asked. “Because it’s illegal. And it’s wrong. Really, really wrong, okay?” “So you offered to give him eight thousand dollars instead?” I made a face at Clint just so he’d know I wasn’t thrilled about the whole hiding-in-my-truck thing. So that was who Katie had seen. But I couldn’t exactly claim any moral high ground here, so I moved on. “He didn’t take it. It was a long shot, but…I don’t know what else to do.” In all honesty, I was hoping Clint would have some kind of magic solution. That was a long shot too, like the eight thousand dollars. “Have you tried talking to the police?” he asked, and that was when I knew that no magic solution would be happening. The police was dead last on my list of things to try. I’d be dead before I got that far down the list. Caro would be dead. “No, and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t tell them,” I said stiffly. “Dmitri won’t react well to that, and he has my sister. He’ll kill her.” A little groove appeared between Clint’s eyebrows, and I knew he was thinking hard about how to say what he wanted to say. He leaned forward. “I don’t deny that he’s a dangerous person, but you said your sister was with him for a while. He hurt her, but he didn’t kill her then. What makes you think he’s going to do it now?” I stood up and found my phone in my purse. Pulled up the first text message and set the phone on the coffee table in front of him. On the screen was a picture of my sister, eyes swollen. Her skin wasn’t skin colored anymore. It was black and blue and purple and red. She barely even looked human. He picked it up and swore softly. “He did this?”

I shrugged. “Who else? Dmitri has never had a problem getting his hands dirty.” Clint’s gaze sharpened. “He did that to you?” “Not like that. Not on my face. He knew our bodies would heal and you would barely be able to tell anything had ever happened. But faces, they never heal right with something like that. He wouldn’t have beaten me like that and lost whatever money I could make on the pole.” “Fuck.” He stared at the photograph. “This is unbelievable.” “I figured you would have seen worse things where you went. War zones and all that.” “Not much worse than a woman’s face bashed in. But yeah, I’ve seen some bad shit, but I thought it was mostly over there. We have domestic abuse and crimes in the US, I know that. But what you’re talking… that’s slavery. That’s human trafficking. That is the kind of shit that happens over there every fucking day. And here too, I guess.” “Assholes everywhere,” I said, like I was some kind of criminal-world Buddha. He quirked his lips. “Yeah. Assholes everywhere.” “I don’t know if he’ll really kill her,” I said honestly. “But I know that if he doesn’t, it’s not out of kindness. He’s not that kind. It’s just because he wants to keep her around, or maybe he’s too cheap to pay off the cops again. I don’t know, but I can’t take the chance.” Clint nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful. “So what’s your plan? You gonna give him what he wants?” Maybe. Are you willing to die for me? “I don’t know yet. Just stalling, I guess.” Sometimes you had to make a choice, but I would put this one off for as long as I could.

*** We made it through the rest of the afternoon as if nothing horrible had happened. Clint even flirted with me with a tenderness I was shocked to see. He kissed me on the tip of my nose, and tears welled in my eyes. I looked away so he wouldn’t see them. How could he even look at me after what he knew? Because you didn’t tell him the whole truth, coward. Yeah, but I’d told him a lot of bad shit in my past and he hadn’t run screaming. Wouldn’t have blamed him if he had, but he didn’t. Went out for drinks with his friend James, but left his stuff here. He was coming back, he assured me. He also asked to make sure I’d be okay. “Stay inside the house,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.” Don’t go back to Dmitri’s house, he meant. “I’ll stay here,” I promised, pretending like everything was fine even though it wasn’t. A current of expectation ran through the air. By tonight, Dmitri had said. I had to deliver him by tonight. Which meant I would have to decide soon. The rap on the door made me jump. I peered out the kitchen window in time to see a van head down the street. It didn’t have its lights on, but I could make out the shape of it—large, looming—and wondered if this was how Katie felt. As the van passed, a car parked on the street pulled away from the curb and followed. The car had its lights off too. Strange. Strange enough to make this feel dreamlike, unreal. I imagined all the cars on the roads with their lights off, gliding through the pitch-black night like fish in the sea. No lights flashing or blinking. Peaceful. I opened the front door to see, half expecting a pipe bomb to go off in my face. As long as Clint wasn’t here to get caught in the blast, I didn’t even care. Instead there was a box. Not a velvet box like Clint’s had been. This one was a similar size but wrapped in brown

paper. I knew better than to expect anything good inside, but I felt curiously numb as I carried it to my dining room. The thick brown paper tore to reveal a brown cardboard box, like the kind used for moving, but tiny. I opened it and stared inside. Horror planted itself in my gut and grew a thick base all the way up to my throat. It branched into cold tendrils that wrapped around my arms and held me in place. It rooted me to the spot, and all I could do was stare inside at the ten fingernails, painted purple. Glittery purple the way Caro had done sometimes. Oh God. Caro. I didn’t know how much time had passed. I thought I might have blacked out for a few minutes. Or a few hours. When I came to again, my mouth tasted of vomit. They weren’t even that bloody. That was what I thought about. There was some blood, on the ones that had flipped over. And some black stuff that I thought might be flesh. But not puddles of blood like I would have thought. Calmly, my hands steady, I closed the box and threw it in the trash. Then I took the trash out to the big trash container in the garage. Then I went back inside my house and threw up again. I heard gravel crunch as a car pulled into the driveway. Another van? Another package? Then the door slammed and I heard Clint’s voice call my name. Relief filled me, because he’d come back. He’d come back, and now I could save my sister.

Chapter Twelve Clint James and I actually went to a bar, the way I told Della we would. But instead of drinking beer and playing darts, we went over the intel James had gathered. The information about Dmitri might help me protect Della. Or I could use it as leverage with the FBI agent. I’d have to play it by ear. Everything he’d found backed up what Della had told me. Which was good, except that I got the feeling she was hiding something from me. Something important. “What’s next?” James said as we left the bar and headed back toward Della’s place. “That depends. You up for a little field trip?” “Christ, yes. Get me out of the van.” There wasn’t an actual van, but since vans were so often used for surveillance, James used the phrase. He was great at providing support, but I knew sometimes he wanted to stretch his legs. “Not tonight. Tomorrow. I want to find out if the sister is at the same location or if he’s keeping her somewhere else. The picture of her…” I shook my head. “He messed her up pretty bad.” James’s gaze sharpened. “You think she’s still alive.” “Hard to say. Some proof of life would be nice.” “If your girl starts asking for that, odds are Dmitri will get suspicious. He’ll think she’s called in the FBI.” “She may not have called them, but they are here.” I glanced at the neighboring house. The windows were dark, but I had no doubt a telescope pointed from one of those windows. Someone was watching. “Anyway, I don’t really want to suggest that to her. She’s freaked out enough as it is without thinking her sister may already be dead.” I glanced back at James, whose expression was smug. “You like her,” he said. “No shit, Sherlock.” “You really like her.” “Yeah, and we’re sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Can we be done with this bullshit and focus?” James sobered. “You had to fall for a girl with major underworld connections, didn’t you? I’m just saying, push comes to shove, you can’t be sure which way she’ll go.” Actually, I was pretty damn sure she would choose her sister over me. I couldn’t even blame her. James had dug up some background information. A father serving a life sentence, no hope for parole. Mother gone. Her oldest sibling had been murdered, her body found off the pier with a bullet in her brain. The middle sister was the only family Della had left. If I’d had any family, I would have guarded them with my life too. “I always fall for girls,” I said, trying to make light of it. “Doesn’t mean it’s a real thing.” “You always fall for girls,” James said skeptically. “You have specifically mocked me for doing so, so yeah, I’d say that’s true. I always fall for girls, too fast and too hard. Then they end up leaving, and you mock me.” “Thank you for that rousing portrait of me as a friend. What I’m saying is that you’re into the girls. You say nice things about them. You think nice things about them. You will give them a key to your whole life if they blink at you. But you don’t fall for them. Not really.”

“What’s the difference, then? How is Della different?” I was bullshitting, though, because Della was different. I just didn’t know why. Beautiful, yes. Classy, yes. The greatest lay I’d ever had, yes. But there were other women. What made this one like honey, so sweet I couldn’t get enough? James shrugged. “How many times did you e-mail Chelsea while you were overseas, huh?” “I was undercover. Kind of hard to send her cat gifs and corny lines.” “You didn’t e-mail her. You didn’t call her. You barely mentioned her. Bet you didn’t even jack off to thoughts of her.” “Come on.” “Come on, what? You’ll give them money, your apartment. You’ll give them anything they want, except yourself. You’re a fucking bleeding heart, but you don’t let girls in.” I stayed silent. His tone softened. “Compare that to now, where we’re out having some secret vigilante meeting just for this girl. And you can’t stop talking about her. It’s Della this and Della that. You practically broke my arm when you realized how late it was. Have to check on her.” “This is what I’m talking about. The mocking.” “The mocking is just because I’m an asshole. But this girl is doing something to you. It’s like black fucking magic, and I’m not gonna lie, it makes me nervous.”

*** Something had changed in the hour I’d been gone. The house felt different—the air sharper, the lights more eerie. “Della!” I called, my heart pounding. She would be okay. She had to be okay. “I’m up here,” she said, and I released a breath of pure relief. “I’ll just shower,” I said from outside her door. “I smell like smoke now.” Maybe it was presumptuous to assume she’d even care what I smelled like. Just because we’d had sex the past two nights didn’t mean we’d have it again tonight. And she might be feeling raw from having told me all that personal stuff. I wasn’t going to push that part, but I did want to sleep with her. Like actually lie in the same bed with my arm around her waist and hold her all night. After stepping out of the shower, I toweled off and pulled on a loose pair of sweatpants. Her door was still closed, and I wanted to check on her. Hell, I wouldn’t push the sleeping together thing either, but I had to know she was okay. I knocked on her bedroom door, lightly. When she didn’t answer, I called, “Della?” More knocking went unanswered. More calls went unacknowledged. Shit. What if she was sleeping? Or what if she was in trouble? I couldn’t just leave her without checking. These were the moments I wondered if I was being too aggressive with her. Wondered whether I’d even know the line between aggressive and protective anymore. I imagined some courtroom, dissecting the mental breakdown of a special ops soldier. Exhibit A, paranoid delusions. Exhibit B, ignored social cues, like the fact that failure to respond to knocking usually indicates lack of interest. Exhibit C, called “I’m coming in,” and stepped inside the room, uninvited. Exhibit D, stopped and stared at the beautiful woman wearing a black and red lace bra and matching panties. Black garter belts covered her legs for miles. And those heels. Oh Jesus fuck, those heels. I’d dream of them walking on me for the next ten years, while jerking off to the ruby red of her lips. “Where are you going?” I said, standing there like an idiot. An uninvited idiot. Get out. She’s obviously not lying on the floor bleeding. But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t stop staring.

That half smile was fucking lethal. “Who says I’m going anywhere?” “Uh.” Good question. It was just that she had changed into fancy underwear and put on makeup, so it seemed like… “What?” She laughed. “Come here, soldier. I did this for you. Got dressed up for you.” “Oh fuck.” “Do you like it?” “I’m about to pass out because I forgot how to breathe, so yeah, I like it. But listen…I wanted to tell you, you don’t have to do this. Not just what you’re wearing but even just having sex. I don’t want you to feel like you have to do it to get me to help you.” I met her gaze, trying to convey how much I meant this. “I’m gonna help you no matter what.” Her eyes were clear and fathomless, the sapphire of a deep ocean cavern. “I know.” And in that moment, I believed her. She knew I would help her. She trusted me. Then she stood up, and I stopped thinking. My brains shorted out as she swayed over to me in those obscene shoes. My eyes couldn’t figure out where to land—the shadowed valley of her cleavage, the taut curve of her belly, the incredible slope of her hips. She reached up and pulled me down, wrapping her arms around my neck. Her lips found my jaw and sucked on a patch of skin. A rough sound came out of my chest, and my hips jerked. This was moving fast. Too fast. Alarm bells sounded in the back of my mind. What had changed while I went out for drinks? Then she was palming my cock through the sweatpants, and I forgot to ask what had changed. Forgot to care about anything but the talented stroke of her hands, the swivel of her hips as she pressed her ass into my palm. God. “You’re so beautiful,” I said. Inadequate but true. Her smile was less brilliant this time. “I know.” How many times had some asshole thought she was pretty? More times than I could imagine? So why the fuck was I here? Why had she let me in? That thought wanted to take root, but then she crouched down, taking my pants off as she went. Her fist circled my cock; her mouth sucked me in. My back bowed in response, chest heaving. I groaned as her tongue moved like a goddamn miracle all around the head of my cock. She kept up a steady rhythm that should have had me coming in thirty seconds—but then she pulled back. She edged me until my cock was aching with forced restraint, turned purple and leaking precum in her hand. “Let me come,” I gasped. “Please let me come.” “Selfish,” she said like an admonishment. She yanked my balls while I choked out an apology. “I’ll make you come. Please. Let me lick you. I want to—” “I have a better idea. You trust me, don’t you?” Holy fucking alarm bells. Did I trust her? Sure, I trusted her to say things that were mostly honest, as long as I verified them with my own personal fact-checker. So no…not really. That wasn’t trust. That was inappropriate interest. Borderline obsession. Trust would have to be later, when a major criminal player wasn’t trying manipulating her. And now I’d stayed quiet too long. She went to the dresser drawer and pulled something out. It was long and black and shiny— and for a split second, I thought it was the barrel of a gun. My pulse raced, and it didn’t slow when I figured out what she was really holding. A strap on. A rubber cock. I knew exactly what she meant to do with it, and my ass clenched in refusal.

Meanwhile my cock throbbed with desire. “Wait,” I said. Her smile was lopsided. “Don’t have all night, soldier. You want me to put this away, I will.” I didn’t want her to put that away, not after I’d seen her. I wanted her to use it on me very much, but it seemed fast. And something about her demeanor was off. This whole setup with the lace and the garter belts. It felt like a seduction, like a trap I should avoid, and I wasn’t sure why since we’d already had sex. Not this kind of sex, though. “Bend over the bed, Clint,” she said so softly I almost didn’t hear her. But I saw her lips move, so red and plump I wanted to get down on my knees and worship her. So I did the next best thing and obeyed her. The bedspread was cool against my chest and against my cheek. I rested there and clenched my ass together so tight it felt like nothing could breach me. She didn’t try to force it in. Not yet. Instead she trailed a finger from my nape all the way down my spine. I shivered as her finger traced lightly over the puckered hole. She ended the caress at the base of my balls. “I want this to be special for you.” “It’s already special,” I gasped out. She proved me wrong. What we’d done before seemed tame now, as I lay there exposed to her. She pressed a kiss to the top of my spine, where her finger had touched. Then her lips traced the path down my back with slow, meandering kisses. I gasped at the sensation of her lips and tongue on me, of her nipples pressing against my skin. And I knew exactly where she planned to go, because she’d already showed me with her finger. She kissed down my lower back until she reached my ass. I grew so tense, so clenched that she couldn’t possibly reach between my ass cheeks—and that was for the best, really. Even though the thought of her mouth on my ass excited me, I didn’t want her to do something like that for me. Didn’t want her to debase herself for me. I would have rimmed her in heartbeat if she’d let me, but she would never have to return the favor. “Wait,” I gasped again, futilely. “Della. Not there. Not-there, not-there,” I said, my voice slurring. “Not where?” She slid her finger between my taut ass cheeks. Tapped on my asshole. “Here?” “Please,” I murmured, out of my mind. What was I asking for? To get fucked? Not to get fucked? I wanted everything from her, impossible as it was. I wanted both more and less, every single breathless feeling and the sweet nothing-bliss of finding release. “We’re gonna go real easy, okay? Have you done this before?” I shook my head against the bedspread. “Just…fingers. And thought about it.” “Yeah, I’ve thought about it too. Never done it. I’m going to go slow, though. Won’t hurt you. Okay? And I’ve gotten fucked in the ass plenty, so I’ll be careful with you.” Oh shit. The way she said it, like she knew exactly how it felt to get fucked soft—and fucked hard, the kind of ass fucking that tore and injured. “Della.” “Don’t make me gag you, soldier. You need another pair of panties to hold between your teeth?” I groaned, imagining it. It had been so fucking hot to taste her arousal while I’d been

fucking her. She pressed two fingers inside me—fast but careful. I sucked in a breath at the pressure and the cool feel of lube. It warmed up quickly inside me, especially with the friction as she fucked me with those fingers. Too fast. Something’s wrong. Alarm bells. Then I heard slick sounds as she must have been lubing up the rubber cock. God, just the thought of her doing that. I couldn’t quite see with my face pressed into the bedspread, but the mental image of her stroking her rubber strap-on cock was enough to make me rut against the bed. “That’s right,” she murmured. “You fuck that mattress. That’s the only thing you’re going to fuck tonight.” I had to bite down on my tongue just to stop myself from coming. Something slick and wide pressed against my asshole. Her cock. I shuddered, tensed. Just as quickly, the light pressure was gone. Air swept along my back as she moved away. “Wait,” I begged. “Come back.” I was too far gone to have any pride. Too far gone to be lucid or even conscious. I existed only in the sex-dream world, where my fantasies came true and the witches wore red and black lace. “Something is missing,” she said, her voice muffled. I heard her rummaging through the drawer, and then she was back, her legs between mine, pushing my ankles wider apart. “You’re squirming too much. It’s not right.” I rocked my hips back, desperate. “Baby. Fuck.” Not coherent. Not making sense. Just strung out on the edge, with my cock rubbing against the wet spot it had made with precum. The drops would have been warm when they leaked out of my cock, but the spot was wet. My dick was burning up, and the contrast threatened to set me off. Something appeared in my vision. Black leather cuffs with a silver chain. And beside it, a long, thin metal chain. A spreader bar, my porn-watching brain supplied. She wants to use these on me. “You ready?” she asked softly. I was ready to get fucked by her, but tied up? That was different. Do you trust me? she had asked, and the answer had been no. Then I remembered James telling me I didn’t give a shit about these girls, even when I thought I did. More importantly, I didn’t give them myself. Just my apartment or my time. Not myself. Not what Della wanted from me. It suddenly seemed necessary that I surrender to her, like a gift. The only gift that would mean anything to a woman like this. I’d felt pissed off that she hadn’t trusted me enough. Enough to let me help her with Dmitri and whatever else. She’d barely tolerated my fixing her porch step, for Christ’s sake. But how could she trust me if I didn’t trust her? I must have been distracted, must have let my guard down without consciously realizing it, because my ass had relaxed. Her mouth was between my ass cheeks, kissing my asshole. I strung up tight, my whole body bending off the bed. “Jesus, that’s so good. So good. More please. More.” She gave it to me, rimming me until I was only babbling sounds of pleasure and grief, so close to coming but not allowed, not allowed. My dick felt raw against the bedspread, as if I were rubbing against sandpaper, but I couldn’t stop now. Just humped the bed and groaned and pressed my ass into her face. She wasn’t the one degraded here; I was, and I loved it. Oh God, I loved it. “Cuff me,” I managed to say. I felt drunk, drugged, unable to form words, but I said those. She drew one wrist behind my back and secured the cuff tight. Then the other was attached to

it. Bound. Helpless. So fucking turned on. Then my legs got spread even farther apart, my ankles wrapped by more cuffs and held in position by the metal bar. I groaned at the loss of control. You don’t let girls in. I was letting a girl in now, and the alarm bell was a distant memory. Then her dick nudged my asshole, and my whole body twitched. I was one big nerve ending, one massive involuntary reaction writhing on the tip of her rubber cock. Her hands settled on my hips as she pushed the cock inside, inexorably, forcefully. I couldn’t help it. I clenched to keep her out, but I wasn’t sure she even knew it. The rubber cock just pushed in deeper, splitting me open, making me burn. I gritted my teeth. “Fuck, that hurts.” “Want me to stop?” She didn’t even sound breathless, and I was going to explode. “I feel you everywhere.” It was like she’d invaded my body—not just my ass, but my whole body, filling me up to my fingertips. I pressed my cock against the bed, desperately rubbing. “Hurts. Feels good.” “Guess I’ll keep going.” I heard the smile in her voice. Then she was fucking me, pulling out and then pushing inside. Each thrust into me felt like the first one, a cold and hot, unforgiving and so damn sweet. She found a rhythm, and that was the end for me. The friction of rubber against a spot inside me. The steady pulls of the sticky bedspread against my trapped cock. I yanked my arms against my restraints and tried to drag my legs together, as if that could keep me from coming. But I was held open, helpless to whatever she could do to me, and that was hot enough to make me come all on its own. I shuddered and shouted my release, fucking the mattress just like she’d told me to do. My mind drifted off into that cloudless night, the space between frantic fucking and cuddling after, the time when you are truly alone and prefer it that way. Then I felt her press a soft kiss to the back of my neck. That was the only warning I had before a sting replaced the kiss, the sharp pain of a needle followed by the sting as some kind of drug worked its way into my system. I shuddered, barely able to comprehend what was happening, so fast, not right, alarm bells, before falling out of the sky. I landed in the water with a crash, losing my breath before sinking under, sucking in water, looking up and asking the moon why?

Chapter Thirteen Della The thing about drugs was that they weren’t instantaneous. Not like you saw in the movies, where you put a rag over someone’s mouth and their eyes rolled back. It took him a while to pass out. But the sedative I injected into Clint still affected him. The small movements he could make, with his hands curled into fists, and his ass in the air, told me that the drug was slowing him down. His speech was slurred too. “What the fuck?” he said. What the fug? “Della. Why are you doing this?” Dell… Why’re you doooing this? It made me sick to hear him ask me that, to know that he was lucid enough to understand what was happening but too drugged to protect himself. My stomach turned over, and I wanted to back down. Could I untie him and pretend this was all some sort of kinky game that had gone wrong? Then I remembered the fingernails in my garage and forced myself to calm the fuck down. My sister was sitting in a basement somewhere with her fingernails torn off. She had already been beaten, I knew that, but I’d hoped Dmitri would leave her alone once he’d told me what to do. Apparently I wasn’t moving fast enough for him. Fuck. He was right to doubt me. I had been stalling, but that was over now. I’d made my choice. It came down to my sister or Clint. It had always been down to that, but for a little while, for a blissful few days, I’d pretended I could have both. The crazy part of all this was that I tried to soothe Clint. I stroked the back of his neck where I’d injected him, trying to ease the pain of entry. “It’ll be okay,” I lied. “Just go to sleep. Just rest.” He thrashed in his restraints, wrists pulling against the leather, metal links in the spreader bar clinking. There was no way he could get free, though. He had to have known that, even in his spaced-out state, but he kept trying, kept fighting. It broke my heart, so I stayed there, my head bent next to his, whispering words of nonsense. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to. I know it doesn’t make it okay, but I’m so sorry.” I rested my forehead against his shoulder. “I think I fell in love with you. I’m a monster. I shouldn’t love you.” But I couldn’t let my sister die. Finally he slumped against the bed with a defeated sigh. I stared at his still body with a growing sense of horror. I had done this. I was doing this. And I couldn’t even stop yet. I had to deliver his body to Dmitri so I could trade him for Caro. Release him. Tuck him into bed. Maybe he won’t even remember. I was shaking violently. Even when I clenched my hands, my whole arm shook. It came from inside, a chill so strong and so deep that no warmth would reach me ever again. On my first push, rolling him over, I realized I had underestimated this part of the job. Clint was heavy. Seriously heavy, with long limbs and thick muscles. I had to shove him with all my strength just to get him on his back. His cock was soft now—and still wet from his semen. Guilt sliced me into a million pieces, not only for doing this, but for doing it during sex. I’d taken something beautiful and made it ugly, but at least I hadn’t come. There was no way I could have climaxed, no matter how beautiful he’d looked bound and trusting.

Maybe I could have done it while he was sleeping. Or taken him by surprise in the shower. But there was always the chance he’d overpower me first. And besides, I was used to wielding sex like a weapon. For a very long time, sex was the only power I had. I found a washcloth in the bathroom and dampened it with hot water to clean him off. I didn’t know why it would matter. Dmitri would most likely torture and kill him, so what did it matter if his dick was clean? If he smelled like sex? But it mattered to me, that small bit of dignity, the pathetic consolation prize of being second place to my sister. So I cleaned him off carefully, gently, and undid the cuffs. I knew what dignity was worth—worth something, that was for sure. I knew how being naked could strip you of your dignity. I knew how Dmitri could take advantage. Dignity. Fifteen minutes passed, and I was panting and sweating, but he was dressed now. He wore the same jeans as before and a gray shirt that said ARMY in bold letters. I wasn’t sure whether that would be a proper fuck you to Dmitri or whether it would feed into his pride. But I figured Clint wouldn’t mind. He was a soldier, through and through. This would be his uniform in the least fair fight of his life. I had found a gun too. It must have been on his person when he undressed. I stuffed that into his duffel bag alongside his clothes and toiletries. At the last minute, I took the medal out of the bag and hid it in my dresser. If Clint made it through this, I would return it to him—along with the rest of his boxes. If he died, Dmitri didn’t deserve this as a trophy. Then I redid the wrists and ankle cuffs, binding him up again in case he woke up. I left the spreader bar off this time, so his ankles were stuck together. His hands were cuffed in front of him this time, to put less stress on his shoulders. I laughed, a little maniacally. What did it matter, stress on his shoulders? He would be dead soon. For good measure I added a blindfold. It seemed like a standard thing to do when kidnapping someone, but I didn’t fool myself that there was any criminal logic going on. I just didn’t want to see the betrayal in his eyes if he woke up. It took another fifteen minutes to get him down the stairs without bruising either of us too badly. I ended up more injured than him, having banged my elbow and gone down hard on my knee trying to maneuver him down without us both falling. Over half an hour had passed since I’d first given him the drug, and it made me nervous how long this was taking. I still had an hour’s drive, and I wanted to make the exchange before he woke up. The street was mostly empty. Even the green car I sometimes saw parked a few houses over was missing. I breathed deep in relief and dragged him onto the porch and down the steps that he’d fixed for me. Of course the sturdy new step supported both our weights with ease. Whatever sense of morality I’d had was a fragile thing, made of glass, and now it cut me as it shattered. I was drenched in sweat and panting by the time I managed to load him into the bed of my trunk. I found the plastic tarp in the garage and used it to cover his body, wrapping it snug around him as if I were tucking him into bed. Then I went upstairs and got his duffel bag and all his stuff from the bathroom. It would be like he’d never been here at all, as long as I ignored the stack of boxes in my garage. But I’d have to figure those out later. I tossed it into the back of the truck and pushed the tailgate closed.

“Della?” I whirled to see Katie standing on her lawn, hugging herself. My heart thudded in my chest. How much had she seen? She said there were only shadows from far away. “Hi, Katie,” I said, giving away how breathless I was. “Is everything okay?” She stepped forward uncertainly. Her eyes were shielded by large brown sunglasses. They were overkill for the waning afternoon light, but I imagined they were more for hiding her disability than blocking the sun. “Do you need some help?” My eyes felt wild as I glanced at the huge unmoving lump in my truck bed. Had she seen me load him in there? But no…if a regular person saw their neighbor loading a limp body in their vehicle, they would be way more freaked out. They would probably not even come out and talk to me. They’d call the police, but Katie was just standing there, waiting for me to answer. “I’m good.” I struggled to slow my heart rate and catch my breath. “I’m fine. Just have some errands to run.” She smiled a little. “More errands. You need to relax more.” I managed to laugh a little. “Tell me about it.” “Actually, I was wondering if you could give me a ride.” “Uh…what?” She’d never asked me for that before, and while any other day I would have been happy to help, there was no way I could do it now. “I need to stop by the pharmacy and pick up these special eye drops.” She made an apologetic face. “They’ve been bothering me all day. I can wait in the car while you do your stuff.” Oh, I could just imagine that: Katie sitting peacefully in the car while I traded in human flesh with a monster. Yeah, no problem. “I’m sorry, Katie. Really I am. Any other day I would’ve done it but now… But I’m running late and I have no idea how long it will be. I’ll take you tomorrow. Or as soon as I come back. I’m so sorry.” She nodded, as if confirming something. “All right. Well, be careful.” And she stood there waiting—and watching?—as I got in my car and drove away. Her words rang in my ears. Be careful, be careful. I might die in that crazy mansion tonight. Dmitri might take it in his head to shoot Clint and me and Caro too, to exterminate us like pests. You couldn’t trust assholes like Dmitri, which was why I’d never planned on dealing with them at all. God, Caro. Why? I hated that she’d put me in this position. I hated that she’d put herself in this position. Even though I tried not to blame her, it was hard not to think she deserved some of the blame as I drove me and Clint to our deaths.

*** The sun had dipped below the trees, casting an eerie yellow glow. When I turned onto the dirt road leading to Dmitri’s house, I found the gate open. He was expecting me. He knew I would come. He knew exactly how to manipulate people. Caro was the button he could press and press and press. I drove through the gate. The ride was exceedingly bumpy, even in my big truck, so I had to go slow. Even so, I covered ground more quickly driving than walking, and before I was ready, the mansion was within sight. I parked the truck and got out. Walked straight up to the door without looking into the bed of my truck at all. I didn’t want to see him looking back at me, if he had woken up early and if the blindfold jostled aside on the ride over. The chances were slim that would have happened, but I couldn’t see the disillusionment in his eyes. By now he knew what I really was.

The door opened before I pressed the doorbell. Dmitri stood there with his greasy smile, the one he thought was smooth and terrifying. “You made it,” he said as if I’d arrived for a party. “Where’s Caro?” “Watch your tone, darling. And she’s inside.” “Well, bring her out. I want to see her. And she better be okay, you dirty fucker.” She better be alive. Dmitri smiled pleasantly. “She’s very well, actually. You’d be surprised. But I don’t think you’re in a position to make demands about the order of things. First I’d like to see the package.” “We had a deal,” I insisted. I studied the windows all the way to the top, but they were too reflective to see inside and Caro wasn’t anywhere. “Let me see her.” “We did have a deal, and I intend to uphold my end of the bargain. You give me what I want, and I won’t stop your sister from leaving if she wants to.” I narrowed my eyes. “She’s coming with me.” He raised one shoulder in a sort of European shrug. “That won’t be up to me. Assuming you brought me the man.” Every cell in my body screamed to get the hell away from there. Just get in the front seat and drive away with Clint. I wouldn’t even take him to my house, where Dmitri would know to look for him now. I wouldn’t take him to the police station, where Dmitri had the police chief on payroll. I’d just keep driving forever, through desert and plains. I wouldn’t even stop when we hit the ocean. I’d drive on water if it meant he stayed alive. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you think you’re going to die, but it wasn’t my life I saw. Not the tiny apartment I shared with my sisters or the dingy club I’d stripped at for years. I saw my future instead. The great expanse of possibility, if things had worked out differently. If Clint and I could have been together. If he had been a regular passenger and I had been a regular girl. In the end, I didn’t have to walk over and see if Clint had stirred, if his blindfold had slipped. Dmitri made that choice instead, striding over to my truck and pulling the plastic tarp out. He stared inside the bed of the truck for a second, and another, and another, and then finally looked at me. “Is this a joke?” he asked. “I’m not fucking laughing.” “Neither am I, Della. I want the fucking package. I want that army pig and his fucking package. Where is he?” I stepped closer to the truck and stared into the empty truck bed. “Oh shit.” “Oh shit,” he mimicked. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice, you dumb slut? Did you think I would just give you Caro and the two of you would ride off the sunset?” “No, I—” Oh God, where did he go? What am I going to do? You’re going to die. And it’s all you deserve. Still, I was trying to figure out where the hell Clint could have gone. I had this horrible vision of him somehow falling out of the truck while we were on the highway and getting crushed. God. God. But I would have noticed that, wouldn’t I? It seems like I would have noticed his weight lifting from the truck and bouncing out. I would have noticed cars swerving and crashing behind me, even if I’d been in a haze of guilt and self-hatred since leaving my house. But then I remembered the open gate at the edge of the property and the bumpy road on my

way in. I might not have noticed if someone had slipped over the side on a big bump. No, that’s too much to hope for. That would mean Clint actually woke up and managed to get out of the truck while cuffed on his wrists and ankles. It was so freaking unlikely, but my heart already raced with exhilaration. He’d done it. He’d gotten away. Even the duffel bag was missing, which told me he must have taken it with him. He had his cell phone, his weapon. He’d escaped. Dmitri grabbed my arms and shook me. “Where is he?” My eyes scanned the tree line, and without meaning to, I gave it away. Dmitri released me fast enough that I stumbled back. He shielded his eyes from the sunset glare. No movement. “He’s gone,” I said, my voice hoarse with relief. “He’s far gone by now.” I just prayed that was true. Dmitri took a phone from his pocket and made a call, snapping in Russian to the guy on the other end of the line. Then he strode over to me, grabbed my arms, and shook me again. My head wobbled on my spine so hard I was dizzy even when he stopped. “You little stupid whore. I give you one thing to do, and you cannot even finish the job.” He ended his little speech by slapping me across the face. My jaw felt like it unhinged. I shook my head to clear it, ignoring the ache in my cheek. “So maybe you should do your own work instead of blackmailing women to do it for you.” That earned me another brain-jarring slap. This time I lost my balance and fell on the ground. I wanted him to keep going, to keep pummeling me, to give me the pain I deserved for dragging Clint into this mess. He gripped my chin hard enough that I whimpered. He turned my face so that I had no choice but to look into his pale, haunting eyes. “You understand you’re going to die now,” he said calmly. I know. I couldn’t speak, my jaw too sore—was it broken?—and his hand clamped it shut anyway. But I told him with my eyes. He’d been crouching over me, leaving himself vulnerable. He didn’t expect me to fight back, not when it would lead to more pain for me or for Caro. I was beyond that now. We would both die here, but I wouldn’t make it easy for him. I raised my knee and kicked him between the legs. He doubled over and fell on top of me, pressing us both into the ground. I couldn’t breathe. I fought him, struggling to get his weight off me. I never wanted his weight on me again. That would be worse than death at this point. I had already resigned myself to dying, but I wouldn’t let Dmitri touch me again. Wouldn’t let any of those fuckers touch me again. The last man to be inside me was Clint, and I was going to die that way. Big ideas. I had big ideas, but then Dmitri slammed my skull into the ground. The ground was hard from a recent drought; it rattled my brain and left me dazed. Dazed enough that he could flip me on the ground and put his knee on my back. He laughed at my predicament. “You’ve changed since you left.” “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I mumbled. “You should. I like a little fight. You and your sister. You always thought I wanted a girl who did what I told them to, but that wasn’t it at all. I wanted a girl who fought back. Caro figured that out first.” The weight from his knee increased as he levered himself up. He stood, pressing his heel into my spine until I couldn’t hold it in; I sobbed into the dirt, hating that he’d brought me this low

again. He twisted his foot, pressing the hard edge of the heel farther into my spine. “I’ll have fun with both of you here.” A crack rang out in the open space, pinging the granite wall behind us. I froze, and Dmitri did too. I angled my head so I could look at the smoking hole where the bullet had gone. Who the hell had fired that? The only ones who’d be here and armed would be Dmitri’s men, but why were they shooting at him? Did they mean to shoot me and somehow got it horribly wrong? I waited for Dmitri to dive for cover. Even he would do so when we were taking fire from an unknown source. He didn’t have a death wish. And for a second it seemed like he had gone for cover as his body landed beside mine and dust rose to cover my eyes and ears and nose. Then everything went silent. I watched in horror as the dust cleared. Dmitri was lying on his side, his body lax. And his head…God, his head. It had been shot through, that was the only way I could process it. Half of it was missing. I looked at the ground around us and realized it was sprinkled with blood. And hair. And brain matter. I scrambled away, wiping at myself furiously, crying. Who had shot Dmitri? Then I saw the figure of a man in the distance, emerging from the tree line. He was tall, with broad shoulders. He walked slowly at first, like someone who had been injured. Or someone who was cuffed at his ankles. As I watched, he aimed his gun down between his feet and another crack split the air. Then he crossed the remaining distance quickly. “Clint,” I whispered.

Chapter Fourteen Clint There are times in your life when you think you’ve hit the bottom. Eating MREs and hanging out with international criminals while they brutalize women…that was one of them. That had to be the worst. But then we’d put most of them behind bars. We’d dismantled their organization, and I thought it made things okay. Then I made it stateside and figured out that my girlfriend was breaking up with me. Worse than that, she’d been cheating on me. Oh, and she kicked me out of my own apartment. That, I figured, had to be the lowest fucking point. But I was wrong. Getting kidnapped and almost fucking murdered by the girl I was seeing. This was the worst. I figured it out, of course, as I came to in the bumping bed of the truck. I was the payment Dmitri had demanded in exchange for her sister’s life. So maybe it should have made me feel better to think she’d tried to offer him money instead, that she’d tried to find some other way. But I didn’t feel good. She’d picked this in the end. It hurt bad enough to break me up inside, but I stared at her stonily as I walked closer. I had a lot of experience with this, approaching the enemy. And as much as I hated to think of her that way, she was the enemy. Her face was puffy and red from when the bastard had hit her. Those would turn into dark bruises soon. How badly was she injured? Her clothes covered any injuries on her body. She held herself stiffly as I approached. Ridiculous how easy it was to feel sorry for a woman I should hate. “You okay?” I asked roughly. I hadn’t meant to ask that, but she looked too fucking pitiful, like a dog from the gutter, that I had to throw her a bone. She shrugged, then winced at the movement. There wasn’t much I could do for her here anyway. I went over to Dmitri and found two firearms on his person—tossed them into the cab of the truck. “Get in,” I said. Della just sat there, her eyes wide, looking past me. She’s going into shock, asshole. Yeah, well, maybe she wouldn’t be so fucked up right now if she hadn’t tried to kill me. “Get in the truck.” “Can’t,” she mumbled. Shit. “Something broken? Where does it hurt?” A humorless smile tilted her lips. “Hurts everywhere, but that’s not why. Caro. My sister.” I glanced at the house. “We go in there, we might not come out. There are men patrolling the area. Only a matter of time until they find us.” “You go,” she said. I shook my head. “This is how it’s going to happen. You get in the truck, driver’s seat. I’ll go in and look for her. If I get us out, we all three drive away. If I don’t come back, if the guys find you first, then you can assume I didn’t find her. Anyone comes here, you drive like a bat out of hell. Got it?” Her eyes widened. “I’m not leaving you here.” “No, Della. You don’t get to call the shots. After what you did, the least you can do is listen to me.”

She tried to stand…and stumbled. She finally made it to her feet, swaying in the sunset. “I’ve spent my whole life doing what men told me to do. Including tying you up and bringing you here, which was the biggest mistake of my life. I’m done with that.” “Yeah, you picked a real inconvenient time to start being independent.” She flinched, and her shame resounded deep in my belly. I knew she deserved my bitterness, my cruelty. And she’d take it all too. I read the guilt in every harsh line of her body. She’d probably let me beat her just like Dmitri had. She’d let me pound her into the ground as if I could take my revenge out on her flesh. Didn’t want to hurt her, though. But I did want to take the revenge out on her flesh in a different way. Yeah, you picked a real inconvenient girl to lust after. “Take the truck,” she said softly. “Keys are in the ignition.” I barked a laugh. “That’s not how this works. I’m a soldier in the US Army, do you understand? Do you know what that means to me? It means I have to protect everyone. I don’t get to pick and choose.” She shuddered, and I felt her pain roll all the way down her body. It rose to the surface as a deep flush she tried to hide by looking down. “I’m done arguing, sweetheart. You wanna come get shot to hell? Be my guest. We’ll both go in and look for your sister. Just do me one favor. Stay behind me. The last thing I need is you getting us both killed.” Of course it wouldn’t happen that way. If anyone was waiting behind a corner ready to spray us with bullets, I would be the first one hit. It wouldn’t give Della enough time to get away or defend herself, but it was all I had. Turned out we didn’t have long to test out my theory. Standing in the middle of the atrium was a blonde woman. Pale blonde hair, creamy skin. A nose that turned up, and a certain bearing. Regal. Elegant. She was shorter than Della, her expression harder, but I could see the family resemblance. And she was holding an automatic pistol with a comfortable grip, pointing directly at us. Her gaze focused on me. “Arms up. No funny business.” I raised my hands into the air. No trouble here. Only took a second to figure out what had happened. We’d gotten played. Della had gotten played. She stepped forward, a stunned look on her face. “Caro?” Caro smiled like a hostess would, welcoming but distant. “I wondered when you’d get here.” I took advantage of their conversation, edging farther away. I moved silently—and slowly enough not to be noticed. If I could get a clean shot without attracting her attention, I’d do it. Or if the woman started shooting, I’d draw her fire away from Della so she could escape. I just had to hope Della took the opportunity when it presented itself. Get to the truck. Get safe. I tried to will her the orders, but she was staring at her sister in shock. Della shook her head, not understanding. Not believing. “What are you doing? You were hurt. I saw the picture.” Her sister smiled indulgently. “You saw what you wanted to see.” “You sent me your…your nails,” Della cried, and disgust panged in my gut. This woman was a piece of work. And Della was related to her? No wonder she had a hard time trusting people. Caro showed us her nails, painted a shiny purple. “You mean these? Pretty, aren’t they?” Piece of work.

Della made a disgusted sound. “You beat up a woman so I’d think you were hurt. And you… you…” “Tore off her fingernails? Not me personally, but that’s the general idea. If it makes you feel any better, the girl was dead by the time that happened. Stone-cold.” Della clapped a hand over her mouth. She got herself under control with visible effort. “No, that doesn’t make me feel better. You’re sick. I can’t believe I was worried about you.” “I can. The little martyr girl always running to save me. You kept doing it over and over again when no one asked you to. I knew you’d do it if we did ask.” “We?” Della asked. “Me and Dmitri. Well, I suppose it’s just me now. You did kill him out there, right?” “Yeah.” Della’s voice was hollow. “I think you’re all caught up.” I hated the defeated look on her face. It was worse than her quiet acceptance when I’d walked up to her. I could have killed her then. Someone like Dmitri, the kind of man she was used to, would have done just that. But she hadn’t protected herself. She hadn’t even cowered. She’d accepted her death as her due, but this was even worse—like she’d just realized she was all alone in the world. “Took you long enough, little sister. For a second I thought you might not come through.” Della hesitated, looking lost. “I didn’t—I couldn’t—” Her gaze flitted to me, and I fell into the broken look in her eyes. I tasted her sadness and breathed in her regret. It didn’t matter in that moment that she’d bring Caro’s attention to my new position. It didn’t matter that we’d both probably die here. All that mattered was that she know I forgave her. I’d spent most of my life wishing like hell I had a family, wanting one so bad I had to enlist just to make one for myself. Now I had brothers in arms, and I would sacrifice anything to save them. It’s okay, I tried to tell her without words. I would have taken a bullet for you. I would have died for you. Her expression didn’t change, and I had no way of knowing if I got through. But then Caro was there, shouting, “Hey, you, get back over there. What are you trying to do? Hands in the fucking air.” So maybe I’d let them drop a little, as if they were tired, as if they’d sagged naturally. But in reality, I knew it would come down to this. Down to a duel. Caro raised her gun at me. I watched the angles of our guns shift in slow motion, hers and mine —whoever pointed first, whoever pulled first, would win. I pulled the trigger and braced myself for the impact of a bullet. “No, Caro. No.” Della’s voice sounded agonized, as if she was already mourning one of us. I didn’t know which one she meant. No, Caro, don’t shoot him. Or No, don’t shoot Caro. But she was closer to Caro than me, since I had been shifting away. She launched herself at her sister, falling short because of a glass-and-gold table in the middle. They fell like dominoes: Della, the table, and Caro last of all. I watched in shock, in absolute terror, as Della filled the space where her sister had been. “Della!” In those fractured moments, I did something I’d never done before. Not in my foster home when we bowed our heads before dinner. Not in the hellholes overseas. I prayed. Let her be okay. Let her be safe. I’ll do anything you want if she’s safe. I had spent my whole life searching for a place to belong. For a family, for religion. For an army. But I had never felt that deep peace, that all-encompassing comfort, until Della had looked at

me and known exactly what I was. She’d known exactly how to deal with me. She’d given me every damn thing and I couldn’t even keep her safe. The fact that she hadn’t confided in me, that she’d tried to use me, wasn’t an excuse. I should have known. I should have protected her. It felt like digging through the wreckage. There was glass and pieces of a vase and pieces of a table. Water mixed with blood. There was a woman choking on her own breath, dying on the floor. Blonde, slender. For a heart stopping moment, I grabbed her arm. But as soon as I touched her, I knew. Not Della. This was her sister, and Della was already kneeling at her sister’s side, pressing a piece of cloth to the wound. Too late. It was too late to save Della’s sister. That was what she’d set out to do, save Caro. But the woman sucking in her last breath on the floor, with her sparkly purple nail polish, had been gone way before now.

Chapter Fifteen Della I used to cry after we went to the strip club. Not just because someone was hurting me or touching me. I would cry all the time. It drove Dmitri crazy. It drove Caro crazy too. I think it reminded her to be sad about what had happened to us. It made it harder for her to move on. We just have to play along, she told me. For my birthday, she got me a plant. I was so happy. I think I cried again, which pissed her off, but they were happy tears. I thought the plant was like the ones I’d had back at home. I thought it meant she wasn’t going to forget, like me. We wouldn’t forget. Then I found out she had done things with Dmitri to get the plant. I turned the pot upside down over the toilet and let the plant and soil fall in. I flushed it all down the drain and threw the pot away, because I didn’t want any part of that. Caro said I was stupid, that I refused to play along, and for a long time, I believed that. Even when I stopped stripping and left Dmitri, I still believed it was stupid. I just knew that if I kept going that way, I would die. I wasn’t the scientist in this world; I was the plant, and without enough water or sunlight, I was dying. That was what I told Clint while we waited for the ambulance to take my sister away. He didn’t say anything in return. He just kept his hand on my shoulder. He had done that ever since my sister stopped breathing. He had touched my shoulder or stroked my hair or held my hand, as if he knew I needed that anchor. As if he knew I’d float away without it. There were a bunch of people in suits milling around outside. Some came inside and started taking pictures. Katie came and stood in front of us. I blinked slowly, not understanding. Katie, my neighbor. Blink. Katie was wearing a suit and looking right in my eyes, directly, which she’d never done before. “Not right now,” I heard Clint say, his tone almost vicious. “You can talk to her later.” Katie argued, saying it was important, that things were fresh. “She’s in shock,” Clint said. “The last thing she needs is to find out about you.” I already figured it out, I wanted to say. I figured everything out, but that didn’t seem to matter. Knowing wasn’t the problem. Playing along, that was the problem. The ambulance arrived, but they didn’t take Caro. I told them to take her. “She needs help.” But they just shook their heads. Clint steered me out the door, away from Caro’s unmoving body, past my neighbor Katie who was no longer blind, and into the back of the ambulance. They stung me a thousand times, finding the places I had been cut and then making them deeper. “Digging out the glass,” they said, but I wasn’t sure about that. Couldn’t believe what people told you. Couldn’t believe pictures of beaten women or real-life nails torn off. Couldn’t even believe Clint when he said, “Everything will be fine.” One of the paramedics held up a needle. “This isn’t going to hurt.” Liar. But I offered him my arm and didn’t flinch as it went in. Clint held my hand, murmuring, “I’m here. I’ll watch over you. Just relax.” I remembered soothing him while he went under. Just go to sleep. Just rest. And I realized that only made it worse. Because in those moments before the drug dragged you down, when the last bit of pain whispered through your body, what you wanted most was not to sleep. I wanted to finally wake up.

Chapter Sixteen Clint “They’re going to give you another medal for this,” James said. I groaned. “Don’t even joke about that.” “Who’s joking? You did a good thing.” I would definitely not be getting a metal. The only reason they weren’t filing charges against either Della or myself was because they didn’t want the scandal. Definitely didn’t want it getting out that the FBI didn’t even know about an international crime leader rising in the ranks. It was an embarrassment. Suddenly the damned list was in high demand. At first I thought it had been lost, but then I’d found it in Della’s dresser drawer, tucked under the purple and gold medal. Agent Katherine Porter was thrilled to take it off my hands. She was a hero in the FBI now. Good for her. I scrubbed a hand over my face. “All I’m looking forward to is a very quiet, very uneventful rest of my leave.” “I hear that.” Almost getting killed was not a great way to spend my leave. Almost getting Della killed…fuck, I still had nightmares. I felt the kick of the gun and saw her body falling, catching the bullet, bleeding. It hadn’t happened that way, but my mind was content to replay the horrifying alternate ending on repeat. I prayed now—not just at night. All the time. But it didn’t come out like the words I had read so many times. It ran through my head in a soulful litany: Della and be safe and come back to me. Praying wasn’t enough to stop the nightmares. I had even shouted enough at night to scare the nurses. They got a doctor to prescribe me some sleep meds, but then I couldn’t sit next to Della while she slept. Then I wouldn’t be alert if she woke up and needed me. I accepted the cup of lukewarm coffee James had bought from the machine. He ordered another drink for himself, something fancier, with chocolate or caramel or some shit. I wanted my coffee black. It was utilitarian, designed to keep me awake with minimal disruptions. James raised an eyebrow. “Slow down there. What did that drink say about your mama?” I looked at my cup and saw it was mostly empty. I must have gulped it down. I snorted at his lame joke and tossed the Styrofoam cup across the room. It landed in the trash can. “Three points,” I said idly. I left Della’s hospital room several times a day. Or more accurately, I got kicked out several times a day. The doctors and nurses stopped by to check on her or replace stitches or run more tests. The day after, her face had swollen up and turned black-and-blue, bad enough to match the picture of that poor girl they’d sent her. But that part would heal on its own. The worst part had come toward the end, when she’d fallen on glass. Some of the shards had cut deep into her hand, piercing tendons and slicing nerves. She’d already had two surgeries to try to repair the damage, and she would probably need physical therapy to regain full motion in that hand. “What did the doctor say this time?” James asked. “They’re thinking two days now.” He nodded. “Good. Good.” We both knew the psychologist might not sign off on her discharge, though. Because she wasn’t

talking. Hadn’t said a single word since we left Ozerov’s country house of mirrors. She wouldn’t talk to me or the doctors. Agent Katherine Porter had showed up to take her statement and left emptyhanded. This time they were changing her bedding and bathing her, so I knew it would be a few minutes until they let me back in. “I’m going downstairs,” I told James. “You want anything?” He shook his head and resettled on the thin plastic chairs that would never be comfortable. James had been some pretty fucking awesome support throughout this whole thing, and even though I told him repeatedly to go home to Rachel, he told me she wanted him to be right here. He had been worried when I hadn’t contacted him about searching Ozerov’s place. When I didn’t answer my phone, he came over to Della’s house looking for me. He found Agent Porter going through Della’s trash—again. The woman was relentless. And Agent Porter had found the fingernails, so they knew things had gone south. By the time I woke up in Della’s truck and called James, they were en route. Too late to save Caro, but no one would be crying over her. Except Della. Tears fell down her cheeks like rain, one after the other, never ending. I didn’t know how her grief could match the skies. I didn’t know how to dry up the ocean. I found myself in the gift shop, which had a lot of cheerful stuff, pink polka-dot balloons and cards that played music and a ceramic figurine of a high-heeled shoe. I thought about getting her something like this—bright and meaningless. But in the end I kept circling the tiny shop, making the clerk nervous, until my gaze landed on a group of little plants in pots. They weren’t flowers. They were some kind of plant with green bulbous ends, flowers made out of cactus pieces. But not sharp. I read the tag. Succulents. They were nice, but I liked the one in the back with the green sticks. It reminded me of Della’s house, the lush lawn and climbing honeysuckle. So much green. I picked up the pot and wondered if Della would ever speak to me again. “That’s a great choice,” the clerk said. At some point she had moved to stand beside me. “The bamboos generate more oxygen than other plants. And they’re highly adaptive. They can thrive in most situations, even without fertilizer.” “Oh,” I said. I supposed that was good to know, although I’d mostly picked it because it looked pretty and earthy and elegant—like Della. “It’s actually a type of grass,” the clerk continued. “With very strong stems.” I raised my eyebrows. “You gotta learn all this to work here?” She flushed. “No, but I’m a biochem major.” “Good for you,” I said, and meant it. “Did my junior thesis on these things. Anyway, do you want it? It’ll be $14.99.” I sighed, wishing there was something bigger and nicer and more expensive. Of course I wished for that. I was always trying to give money, according to James. A bleeding heart. A fucking martyr. I shook my head, disgusted with myself. But this was somehow worse, because I didn’t want to give her my money to help her. Didn’t want to give her a plant because she needed or wanted it. I had to give her something, to stay by her side, to keep trying to talk with her—for myself. I wasn’t a martyr with her. No, my motives were purely selfish. I needed her to talk to me so I could hear her voice. I needed her to look at me so I could watch her expressive eyes, sweet and so alive. I needed her to forgive me, forgive herself, so that I’d have a chance at a real future with a woman I shouldn’t have fallen for. But I had, all the same.

Chapter Seventeen Della I drifted in a dreamworld, never sure which people were real. The doctors, they were real. And the nurses. They would push needles into me, and seconds later, minutes later, I’d feel a faint sting. Even pain didn’t wake me up. Caro wasn’t real, though. She came sometimes, standing by the door, holding her finger to her lips. Shhh. She was protecting me, then. Other times her face contorted in rage as she reached for me with purple claws. But neither of them were real, because Caro was dead. I’d watched her die. I’d held her limp hand and found no pulse. James. That was his name. Clint’s friend. I wasn’t sure if he was real. I watched without curiosity as he came in after the nurse left. He sat down in the chair beside the hospital bed. “You don’t mind if I wait with you, do you? Clint’s going to be back any second.” I said nothing, just watched him. He closed his eyes with an expression of bliss. “God, an actual cushion. It’s like a miracle. Do you think Clint would notice if I switched this with one of the chairs in the waiting room?” Funny. Smile. There was a time I would have smiled in reaction, but I’d forgotten how to do that. The muscles on my face were still asleep. The parts of me that could laugh or feel happy were still asleep. This whole thing might have been a dream. James studied me. “Clint’s worried about you. I’m guessing you know that. I’m also guessing you’re doing the best you can, but if you can give him any reassurance…” He shrugged. “He just wants to know you’re okay.” I thought about that. Was I okay? I was dry and warm. I had a bed that wasn’t exactly comfortable but it would do. No one was hurting me, except the doctors and nurses sometimes. Yeah, I was okay. There was a sound at the door, and Clint appeared. A dream? Real? Everything just felt so far away. But maybe the world was actually fine. Maybe I was the one who had left. Clint looked good. There were shadows under his eyes, probably because he hadn’t been sleeping well. Hard to sleep in a plastic chair, even one with a cushion, with his head propped up in his hand. He’d been there every time I woke up from a nightmare, shushing me, telling me it would be okay, and I’d thought he was part of the dream. It was easier to think he was part of the dream than to face him. Face myself. Face what I had done. I had gotten my sister killed. I had almost gotten myself killed. I had almost gotten Clint killed. Clint, who kept ordering food from the cafeteria and putting it in front of me, as if I’d suddenly discover a deep-seated desire to eat Jell-O and dry toast. Eat just a little, he would say. Have a bite. And I would stare at him, wondering why he didn’t hate me. He didn’t hate me, so he must be a dream. Now Clint was holding something. Not food this time. Not coffee. A bamboo plant. It was small and green, in a square pot glazed in a white and blue china pattern. I flashed back to a different time, a

different plant, and my heart started to pound. What bad things did he have to do to get that plant? I was stuck in the in-between space, neither past nor present, but mired in my fear of the future. He held up the plant as if for inspection. “I thought you might like this. Thought it might make the room a little…” He waved a hand toward the gray hospital room, looking uncertain. Was he nervous? “Brighter.” Looking at the plant made a strange feeling well inside me, like liquid pooling in the center of my chest, pressing down on all my vital organs, crushing them. So I looked at the sheets instead. At my hands, twisted together. “It’s a…uh, bamboo. For luck. That’s what the tag says. And the lady at the store…” I stared at him like he’d lost his mind. Luck? He wanted to give me luck? I was the opposite of luck. I was basically the grim reaper in a flight attendant uniform. I was…getting a little dramatic, even in my own mind. “Why are you here?” My voice came out hoarse and rusty. His whole body tensed at the sound, as if he had to restrain himself against doing something big and possibly violent. Grabbing me? Holding me? I wanted him to hold me. But he got himself under control. When he spoke, it was with a wariness that broke my heart. “I got you this plant,” he said. “I don’t want your plant.” “Okay,” he said easily and reached his hand out to toss it in the trash. Throwing it in the trash. Flushing it down the toilet. “Wait!” He stopped and watched me like I was the crazy one. And okay, fair point. But I wasn’t actually crazy. I was just tired. I was dreaming. I was waiting to wake up. Clint set the plant down on the cabinet that held the monitor. Beep, beep, beep. Still alive and breathing. He sat in the chair James had vacated, wincing as it creaked under his weight. He was a big guy. The chairs here couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t imagine him fitting in the hospital bed I was currently living in. But for all his innate power, he looked almost hopeless. Like he didn’t know what to do. He just wants to know you’re okay. Was that why he kept coming back? And if I told him I was okay, would he stop coming? The thought filled me with cold dread. I’d never see him again, but it wasn’t fair to bind him to me, anchored by his fierce need to protect. “I’m feeling a little better,” I offered. Something flashed through his eyes, swift and blinding. He spoke mildly, still careful. Still cautious. “You had me worried.” “I’m sorry I didn’t talk because…” I wasn’t really sure how to explain it. “I guess I didn’t know what to say.” For three whole days. He reached out a hand and then pulled it back. “It’s okay not to talk. You were attacked and brutalized. It’s okay to be afraid, and I didn’t want to push you too fast. But I don’t even know if you want me to stay or…” “Stay.” Regret panged in my chest. “Or don’t. I wouldn’t hold it against you. I mean…I tried to kill you. I think breaking up with me is kind of par for the course.” His lips twitched. “Were we dating?” For some reason, a flush spread up through my chest and heated my cheeks. “Maybe not in the

traditional sense.” The look in his eyes told me he remembered in exactly what sense we did connect. Hot nights beneath the cool sheets. Kissing feverishly in the kitchen. Bending him over the bed and pegging him…right up until I’d betrayed him. “No,” he agreed. “Not in the traditional sense. But in a way I’d like to try again. Without the… you know…” I remained silent, wanting to see how he’d describe it. “Without the psychopathic maniac pulling your strings,” he said. My eyebrows shot up. Pretty good description, actually. The only thing I didn’t like was that it removed the responsibility from me. “I don’t understand why you’re even talking to me when I tried to kill you. I should be in jail.” He shrugged even though I could tell he was uncomfortable. “He played you. You don’t need to feel bad about that. He played a lot of high-ranking law-enforcement officers too.” “And Caro?” I asked softly. “Her too. Her most of all. She was the reason they were after that list.” When I raised my eyebrows in question, he nodded. “Ozerov’s name had been on the FBI’s radar for a long time. I had even heard about him overseas. The problem with guys like that is getting enough evidence to convict.” “But my sister wasn’t on any watch lists.” “That’s right, which meant she could travel without anyone questioning her. She went to Russia, to China. She dealt directly with the manufacturers and made herself important in Ozerov’s organization.” “But why?” I asked, bewildered. She could have gotten away. We both could have gotten away. Clint’s eyes were sympathetic but implacable. He wouldn’t let me escape the truth about my sister, not anymore. “Money? Power? Why does anyone become a murderer?” I flinched. In my case, I knew exactly why, but it didn’t relieve me of my responsibility. “Not you, Della. You’re not a murderer. You didn’t want to hurt me. You think I don’t know that? I figured that out in the bed of your truck, while we were bouncing along at ten miles per hour. I figured that out when you were holding me, crying, after you’d stuck me with that needle.” My eyes were wide. He was yelling now, and it was like a cold splash of water on my face, yanking me out of sleep. This was what I’d been looking for. His anger. His disgust. I didn’t deserve his sympathy—didn’t deserve him at all. He stood and paced the floor. He ran a hand over his hair and then turned to face me. “Of course you’d protect your sister. And of course I’d help you. Yes, even if I died to do it. You think I’d go to another country and die for a stranger, but I wouldn’t die for you? I’m yours, Della. I’ve been yours since you first offered me some goddamn peanuts on the flight home.” I stared at him, unable to speak, but for a totally different reason this time. There were too many things I wanted to say. Questions I needed to ask. I had to ask whether he meant it when he said he was mine. My heart beat too fast and my breath came too short to form any words. It didn’t matter, because he wasn’t finished. “God, Della. I wasn’t mad that you turned me over to Dmitri. I was mad that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth. I could have told you he wouldn’t hand your sister over if she was really a hostage. I could have helped you plan the exchange to stay safe. Or at least, given you my gun and taught you how to use it. You almost got yourself killed, and that’s why I’m fucking pissed.” My chest felt tight, the air in my lungs growing, expanding. “Oh,” I managed.

“Yes, oh. And what I really want, if you’re looking for some way to make things up to me, is to get out of this damned hospital and never come back. I want to be barefoot in your kitchen frying bacon. I want to be bent over your bed, getting my ass reamed and—” A small sound came from the door. We both looked over at James, who was standing there holding a cardboard container of two coffees and a bag from the café downstairs. His mouth was hanging open. He looked scandalized. “I’ll just…leave these here.” He deposited the food and drinks on the nearest flat surface and bolted from the room. “Well, shit,” Clint said in the following silence. The strange airy feeling inside me popped, like a balloon, and a small laugh huffed out of me. That turned into a giggle. Clint gave me a repressive look, but then his lips quirked. Then he was laughing too, a big laugh with his hands on his knees. Laughing woke me up like nothing else could have done. Laughing did what pain and sleep and guilt could never do. Laughing brought me back.

Chapter Eighteen Clint I waited for what felt like hours, straining to hear anything coming from outside the room. Logically I knew only a few minutes had passed, but every second beneath the blindfold expanded in time, like a drop of water in a well. My hands were free. I could just rip off the blindfold. My ankles were unbound. I could leave this room, find Della, and push her up against a wall. But the anticipation made the edge of arousal sharper. My cock was tenting the front of my cargo pants. My faded army t-shirt, usually so freaking comfortable, felt like sandpaper against my nipples. Find her. Take her. But she had promised the wait would be worth it… A sound came from the door. I tensed as I heard Della’s familiar footsteps enter the room. How many times had I heard her enter, waiting with my face pressed against the headboard or pushed into the mattress. I had come to know Della well in the past few weeks, but she had come to know me even better. She knew how to make me squirm. How to make me beg. How to make me hurt so fucking good I couldn’t wait to do it again. “Patience,” she said, correctly reading the frustration in my body. I tried to relax. And failed. There was something different today, a change in the cadence of her walk. My mind scanned through possibilities like the whirring of a slot machine. Cha-ching. She was wearing shoes on the carpet. I hoped they were her black stilettos. She wore them and pressed them to my skin, and I practically came on contact. A whisper of air beside me carried her scent. There she was, so close. Then her hands were light on the back of my head, tugging the fabric, loosening the blindfold until it fell in my lap. I stared in shock at the sight that greeted me. In the upstairs bedroom of Della’s white house, she was wearing her blue stewardess uniform. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun. Her makeup was crisp, lips a deep ruby red. I let my gaze fall down over her slender hips and long legs. God, those legs. All the way to her shoes. Not black stilettoes. These were navy blue to match her uniform, shiny patent leather, shorter and more practical to walk in but no less sexy. More sexy, because they were part of her primand-proper uniform. She’d worn it just for me. “Della,” I said hoarsely. I had to cram so much into that word. You’re so beautiful. I’m head over heels for you. I love you. Things I couldn’t say when she was looking at me like she wanted to eat me up. She glanced down at her name tag. DELLA, it said in bold capital letters. “That’s right.” She smiled. “Can I get you something? Water? A soda?” I swallowed, remembering those questions on a plane three weeks ago. My mouth was impossibly dry, desperate for something to drink. “No, thanks,” I said. I didn’t want a soda. I wanted to lick the moisture from her skin, and from the look in her eyes, she had a plan to get us there. She smiled again. “I think I can rustle up some pretzels if you ask nicely.” The way she said pretzels, I knew she wasn’t talking about food. She was talking about tying me up in knots, and it was too late, really. She’d made knots inside my body—around my heart and up

to my brain. Tied in a bow around my cock. Invisible ropes that never chafed; they just reminded me who I belonged to. They would stay even when I was deployed again. Even when she was on a plane. Even when I sat in a chair in her bedroom and pretended to be a passenger. “I’m not very hungry,” I said. “But there is something you can help me with.” Her eyes sparked with pleasure. “Oh, what’s that? I do aim to please.” I suppressed a groan. The woman pushed all my buttons—every single one that made my body turn into flames. “The problem is I can’t get this seat belt working.” We both looked at my lap, which of course had no seat belt whatsoever. My cock, however, thought this was a great time to pulse and leak precum into the army-green fabric of my pants. “I’m so glad you told me about that, sir. I have just the thing to help hold you down… In the event of an emergency, of course.” “Of course,” I murmured in agreement. My breath hitched as she pulled out a wide black strap. It was made of a stretching material, designed for multiple uses. For tying wrists together or attaching large, willing men to antique headboards. It did look remarkably like a seat belt as she draped it over my lap and pulled it tight. Much tighter than a seat belt would normally go, but the restraint just made my dick throb. “Oh no,” she said. “This won’t do. You aren’t safe at all like this.” “What’s wrong?” I asked, sounding worried, playing along. “Can you fix it?” Her voice was directly behind my ear, low and breathy. “I’m going to fix you right up. Just hold very still.” I almost laughed at her playful seduction, but I was too busy trying not to come. It took all my concentration to hold back when she bound my arms beside my body—for my safety, of course. Then she realized that my feet were in danger as well. They needed to be secured to the legs of the chair. “Unfortunately the windows must stay open for the convenience of your fellow passengers,” she said sadly, holding up the blindfold. “You’ll need this if you plan on resting at all.” My eyes were covered, and then she was kneeling in front of me. “Della, please. Please.” “What’s this?” The lightest touch stroked along the bulge in my pants. “A wet spot here. Did you spill your drink?” I groaned again, my breath coming more shallow. “I don’t know.” “No, you won’t be comfortable that way. Here, let me wipe that up for you.” Her finger circled the tip of my cock, spreading the precum all around, pressing more of it into the fabric. She made a dismayed sound. “Oh no, it’s getting worse. You’ll catch a chill, all wet like this.” As if to prove her point, I shuddered and bucked my hips against her hand, my cock desperate for more contact. Desperate for her. Thank God she was never cruel. She knew how much I needed her in that moment, and she opened my pants and took out my cock. I panted as she stroked me once, twice. “This is the problem.” Her voice was authoritative now. A bit relieved, since she’d found the origin of all that wetness. “See, here? You’re leaking.” Her finger swirled around the tip of my cock, and I choked out words I couldn’t even recognize. “Baby. Help me.” “I’m going to help you, sir. That’s my job. But you’ll need to call me Della. Professionalism is vital on the job.” “Yes, Della,” I gasped. “Good. Now I’m going to do my level best to clean up all this wetness. And you’re going to be a very good boy for me and stay quiet, aren’t you? You don’t want to disturb the other passengers.”

The sound I made was a cross between a grunt and a whimper. Then her tongue touched the tip of my cock, and I moaned long and low. “Della,” I muttered, in agony, having to stay quiet instead of shout my ecstasy. “Shhh,” she said. “I’m just cleaning up this mess. Look how much of it you have. And even when I lick some up, more comes out of the tip. What are we going to do about that?” She licked me, over and over, while my thighs shook and my abs quivered. I was rocking my hips in the chair, threatening to break it apart. Then her mouth encompassed me, all the way down to the base, and I couldn’t hold back anymore. I was bursting, I was broken in pieces, but I forced myself to stay quiet while I shattered. “Della. Oh, Della. I’m coming, baby,” I whispered as I pumped come into her mouth. She cleaned me up with long licks that turned into leisurely pumps. I didn’t know how much time passed on that chair, in that blindfold, but my soft dick turned hard again. She licked and sucked and bit my chest until I was begging her to let me go, to touch her. I wanted to eat her out, but when my dick was hard enough, she climbed on top of my lap and impaled herself on my cock. I shuddered at the feel of her swollen flesh. She sighed in clear pleasure. “I used my mouth on you. I sucked your dick, sweetie. Didn’t I?” “Oh, Jesus. Yes. So good.” “Then why don’t you return the favor, hmm? Use your mouth on my breasts. Suck them.” Thank fuck. I’d never touched her breasts before now. Never licked or sucked or bit them. Because she’d never ordered me to. But now I was released, and I tasted her soft flesh and sucked her tight nipples. Her muscles tightened around my dick, and I groaned. Then her pace sped up and I couldn’t hold on to her breasts without hurting her. I kissed her neck and buried my face in her hair as she rocked her hips on top of me. Faster and harder, she slammed herself down on me until she shuddered and moaned and clenched around my dick with enough force to milk me all over again. When our breathing slowed, she got up and took me out of the restraints. She tried to massage my arms, to make sure I was okay, but I wouldn’t let her. Her hand wasn’t fully healed yet, and damned if I was going to risk her comfort or her health so that I could get a rubdown. In bed, I pulled her close, tucking her head under my chin and holding her tight against my body. I loved being dominated by her during sex, watching that sexy body move, doing whatever wicked thing she wanted me to. But I also liked to protect her. I wanted her to feel safe next to me, her smaller body against my larger one, her sweeter nature against the hard-hearted training of a soldier. I knew she thought of herself as a cold person, a cruel one, but I’d never met anyone who met my needs before her. I’d never met anyone who gave me her house, her body. Her hopes for the future. There was no woman more kind and generous than her, and I counted myself lucky to be the one to serve her. “You okay?” I asked with a contented sigh. “Never better.” Her voice was thick with sleep. “Thank you for asking.” I smiled, feeling my eyelids shut. The world narrowed to her and me. “Anytime, Della.” “And thank you for flying.”

*** Thank you for reading! I hope you loved both Nate from Anti Hero and Clint from On the Way Home. Both of them are sexy, swoonworthy military men! If you loved Anti Hero, you’ll adore the sexy, suspenseful USA Today bestselling Chicago Underground series! Book one Rough is available to download for your Kindle for FREE. If you loved the dark, sensual edge to On the Way Home, you’ll love the USA Today bestselling Stripped series! The prequel novella Tough Love is FREE to one-click! And if you’re looking for something sexy and sweet and romantic, you can fall in love with my modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast now! Sign up for my newsletter to find out when I have new books! You can also join my Facebook group, Skye Warren’s Dark Room, to discuss Anti Hero, On the Way Home, and my other books! I appreciate your help in spreading the word, including telling a friend. Reviews help readers find books! Please leave a review on your favorite book site. Turn the page for a short and sexy excerpt from Rough…

Excerpt from Rough There’s a certain sultry walk a woman has when she’s bare that can’t be faked. No hose and no panties. The nakedness under my skirt was as much about keeping me aroused as it was about easy access. I’d perfected the art of fuck-me clothes. A surprising number of men asked me out, even at a grungy club on a Saturday night. Cute little college girl, they thought, out for a good time. I saved us all time by dressing my part. Tonight’s ensemble consisted of a tight halter and short skirt with cheap, high-heeled sandals, bouncing hair, and bloodred toenails. The scornful looks of the other women didn’t escape me, but I wasn’t so different from them. I wanted to be desired, held, touched. The groping fingers might be a cheap imitation of intimacy, its patina cracked with rust and likely to turn my skin green, but they were all I deserved. My gaze panned to the man at the bar, the one I’d been watching all night. He nursed a beer, his profile harsh against the fluid backdrop of writhing bodies. His gray T-shirt hung loose on his abs but snug around thick arms, covering part of his tattoo. Dark eyes tracked me the way mine tracked him. His expression was unreadable, but I knew what he wanted. What else was there? He was hot in a scary way, and that was perfect. Not that I was discerning. I needed sex, not a life partner. There were plenty of men here, men whose blackened pasts matched my own, who’d give it to me hard. A woman approached him. Something dark and decidedly feminine roiled up inside me. She was gorgeous. If he wanted to score, he probably couldn’t do better, even with me. I tried not to stare. She walked away a minute later—rejected. I felt unaccountably smug. Which was stupid, since I didn’t have him either. Maybe no one had a chance with this guy. I was pretty enough, in a girl-next-door kind of way. Common, though, underneath my slutty trappings—brown hair and brown eyes were standard issue around here. “Hey, beautiful.” I glanced up to see a cute guy wearing a sharp dress shirt checking me out. Probably an investment banker or something upstanding like that. Grinning and hopeful. Had I ever been that young? No, I was probably younger. At nineteen I had seen it all. The world had already crumbled around me and been rebuilt, brick by brick. “Sorry, man,” I said. “Keep moving.” “Aww, not even one dance?” His puppy-dog eyes cajoled a smile from me. How nice it might feel to be one of the girls with nothing to worry about except whether this guy would call tomorrow morning. But I was too broken for his easy smile. I’d only end up hurting him. “I am sorry,” I said, wistfulness seeping into my voice. “You’ll thank me later.” Regret panged in my chest as the crowd sucked him back in, but I’d done the right thing. Even if he were only interested in a one-night hookup, my type of sex was too toxic for the likes of him. I turned back to the guy at the bar. He caught my eye, looking—if possible—surlier. Cold and mean. Perfect. I wouldn’t taint him, and he could give me what I craved. Since Tall, Dark, and Stoic hadn’t deigned to make a move on me, I would do the pursuing. A surprising little twist for the night, but I could go with it. I squeezed in beside him at the bar. Up close his size was impressive and a little intimidating,

but that only strengthened my resolve. He could give me what I needed. “Hey, tough guy,” I shouted over the din. He looked up at me from his beer. I faltered a bit at the total lack of emotion in his face and fought an automatic instinct to retreat. His eyes were a deep brown, almost pretty, but remote and flat. Dark hair was cut short, bristly. His nose was prominent and slightly crooked, like it had been broken. Maybe more than once. He looked mean, which was a good thing, but I was used to a little more effort. Even assholes provided a fake smile or smarmy line for the sake of the pickup. There was a script to these things, but he wasn’t playing his part. My club persona and beer from earlier lent me confidence. Whatever was bothering him—a bad day at the construction site or maybe a fight with the old lady—I didn’t care. He was here, so he needed this as much as I did. I planted my elbow on the bar. “I saw you looking at me earlier.” He raised an eyebrow. I shrugged. He was making me work for it, but I found myself more amused than annoyed. “Buy me a drink?” I asked. He considered me, then nodded and signaled the bartender. The beat of the club reverberated as I took a sip. “So do you talk?” His lips twitched. “Yeah, I talk.” “Okay.” I leaned in close to hear him better. “What do you talk about?” He ignored my question—or maybe answered it—by asking, “What are you doing here?” Almost like he was asking something deeper, but that had to be the alcohol talking. “I’m trying to get laid, that’s what I’m doing here.” I pulled off a breathy laugh I was pretty proud of. He didn’t react, didn’t appear surprised or even interested, the bastard. He just looked at me. “Why?” I decided on honesty. “Because I need it.” He seemed to weigh the truth of my words, then nodded toward the exit. “All right, let’s go.” He got up and threw some cash on the bar. His easy acceptance caught me off guard, just for a moment. But it shouldn’t have surprised me, because…well, because men always wanted sex. That’s what I liked about them—they didn’t even bother trying to hide it. It was worse when I hadn’t seen it coming, when it had sneaked up on me— Now wasn’t the time to think of that. It was never the right time to think of that. He tucked his hand under my elbow, guiding me. He used his body to maneuver us through the crowd, almost as a shield. The whole thing was so gentlemanly, given what we were about to do, that I wondered if he’d heard me right. Maybe he’d want to get coffee or something, and wouldn’t that be awkward all around? But he was a man, and I was a woman wearing fuck-me clothes—this could only end one way. When we exited the club, I couldn’t help sucking in several deep breaths. Even the faint smell of street sewage was refreshing, washing the stench of smoke, alcohol, and countless perfumes from my lungs. I never liked the crowds. The press of bodies, the mingling smell of sweat, the small bumps from all around. Tiny violations that were somehow okay since everyone did it. As my heart rate settled, he inspected me as if he could read me. He couldn’t. “What’s your name?” I asked to distract him. “Colin. Yours?”

“Allie.” “Nice to meet you, Allie. Your place or mine?” I was comfortable again. I knew this play: horny girl who can’t wait to get naked. “We don’t need to go anywhere. Let’s get started right here.” I let a soft moan escape me and clasped myself to the brick wall named Colin. Never mind that I was dry as a bone. He wouldn’t notice. They never did. He raised his eyebrows. “In the parking lot?” “Or in my car. Whatever. I just want you to do me.” “I’m not fucking you in a car. It’s forty degrees out.” I was hardly in this for comfort. I’d done it in colder weather just this past winter. “I don’t mind.” “Well, I do.” “Fine.” I was willing to give him so much. Why couldn’t he take it the way I wanted? “Then we can go to the motel over there. You’re paying.” He didn’t look happy. I wasn’t either, but I couldn’t budge on this. Going to an apartment might be the norm for hookups, but my hookups weren’t normal. Going to their houses where they might do God knows what was out of the question. And I wasn’t about to bring one of these guys home. “Not there,” he said. “I’ll pick the place.” *** I followed his truck in my car to a motel about ten minutes away. When I pulled in, he waved me to a parking spot next to his truck and went into the office. The place wasn’t fancy, but the manicured shrubbery and freshly painted building proclaimed this was an entirely different kind of establishment than the dump by the club. No renting rooms by the hour here. The sign out front advertised $119.99 a night. A typical price for Chicago, but I sweated the cost. The extravagance of my six-dollar drink from earlier paled in comparison. What if it was too much money? I might not be worth it. I kept watch on the frosted office door like he might disappear. Eight minutes later, he came out. My stomach clenched. He flashed a key and nodded toward the back before getting into his truck. I followed him in my car and pulled up beside him again. It was dark back here. Deserted. The only light came from flickering, yellow lamps dimmed by tiny hordes of bugs. Scattered buildings slumbered around us like a nest of dragons, their snore the low drone from the appliances. It wasn’t exactly safe. Technically that was what I wanted, but the allure of danger only worked up to a point. He didn’t come to my car. Instead he opened the motel room door and waited. I could drive away. He probably wouldn’t even come after me. Even if he could, if I drove somewhere safe—assuming there was such a place—there’d be nothing he could do. But his solemn patience gave me the courage to open the car door and join him. The stale air and harsh edge of cleaning supplies softened me. I’d ridden along with my dad in his 18-wheeler once. He usually slept in truck stops, but with me he’d gotten motel rooms. This was just an empty room, but it felt strange to use a place for casual sex that I associated with childhood memories. Once inside the room, I set down my purse on the floral fabric chair. Colin reached out and trailed his finger along my jaw. His eyes, almost black in the dark motel

room, searched my own. I thought he was going to fuck me then, but he said, “I’m going to make coffee.” I blinked. Shit, coffee. “Okay.” He went to work at the coffeemaker. Unsure of what to do, I sat down in the chair, clutching my purse in my lap like I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment instead of rough, dirty sex. He poured a cup of coffee, adding the cream and sugar without comment, and handed it to me. I took a few sips. It soothed some of the skittishness I hadn’t realized I had. He didn’t take any for himself. Enough of this. I set down the cup on the cracked countertop and stood to kiss him. I started off light, teasing, hoping to inflame him. This was all calculated, a game of risk and power. He kissed me back softly, gently, like he didn’t know we’d started playing. He held his body still, but his mouth roamed over mine, skimming and tasting. It wasn’t a magical kiss. Angels didn’t sing, and nothing caught fire. But he wasn’t too rough or too wet or too anything, and for me it was perfection. I rubbed against him, undulating to a rhythm born of practice. His hands came up, one to cup my face, the other around my body. I sighed. He walked me backward, and we made out against the round fake-wood table, his hands running over my sides, my back. Avoiding the good parts like we were two horny teenagers in our parents’ basements, new to this. I shuddered at the thought. This was all wrong. His hands were too light. I was half under him already, my hips cradling his, so I surged up and nipped at his lip. Predictably his body jerked, and he thrust his hips down onto me. Yes. That’s what I need. I softened my body, surrendering to him. “Bed,” he murmured against my lips. We stripped at the same time, both eager. I wanted to see his body, to witness what he offered me, but it was dark in the room. Then he kissed me back onto the bed, and there was no more time to wonder. The cheap bedspread was rough and cool against my skin. His hands stroked over my breasts and then played gently with my nipples. My body responded, turning liquid, but something was wrong. I’d had this problem before. Not everyone wanted to play rough, but I was surprised that I’d misread him. His muscles were hard, the pads of his fingers were calloused. I didn’t know how he could touch me so softly. Everything about him screamed that he could hurt me, so why didn’t he? I wanted him to have his nasty way with me, but every sweet caress destroyed the illusion. My fantasy was to let him do whatever he wanted with me, but not this. “Harder,” I said. “I need it harder.” Instead his hands gentled. The one that had been holding my breast traced the curve around and under. I groaned in frustration. “What’s wrong?” He reached down, still breathing heavily, and pressed a finger lightly to my cunt, then stroked upward through the moisture. I gasped, rocking my hips to follow his finger. “You like this,” he said. Yes, I liked it. I was undeniably aroused but too aware. I needed the emptiness of being taken. “I like it better rough.” Colin frowned. My eyes widened at the ferocity of his expression.

In one smooth motion he flipped me onto my stomach. I lost my breath from the surprise and impact. His left hand slid under my body between my legs and cupped me. His right hand fisted in my hair, pulling my head back. His erection throbbed beside my ass in promise. I wanted to beg him to fuck me, but all I could do was gasp. He didn’t need to be told, though, and ground against me, using my hair as a handle. That small pain on my scalp was perfection, sharp and sweet. Numbness spread through me, as did relief. The pain dimmed. My arousal did too, but that was okay. I was only vaguely aware of him continuing to work my body from behind. I went somewhere else in my mind. I’d stay that way all night. At least that’s what usually happened. Not this time. Instead I felt light strokes on my hair, my arms, my back. His cock pulsed hot against my thigh, but he didn’t try to put it inside me, not in any of the places it would almost fit. His hands on me didn’t even feel sexual. He petted me, and I arched into his caress. Want to read more? Click here to download Rough on your Kindle for FREE!

Other Books by Skye Warren Stripped series Tough Love (free prequel) Love the Way You Lie Better When It Hurts Even Better Pretty When You Cry Caught for Christmas Hold You Against Me Chicago Underground series Rough Hard Fierce Wild Dirty Secret Sweet Deep Criminals and Captives series Prisoner Standalone Dark Romance Wanderlust On the Way Home His for Christmas Hear Me Take the Heat Dark Nights series Keep Me Safe Trust in Me Don’t Let Go The Beauty series Beauty Touched the Beast Beneath the Beauty Broken Beauty Beauty Becomes You The Beauty Series Compilation Loving the Beauty: A Beauty Epilogue

About the Author Skye Warren is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of dark romance. Her books are raw, sexual and perversely romantic. Sign up for Skye’s newsletter: Like Skye Warren on Facebook: Join Skye Warren’s Dark Room reader group: Follow Skye Warren on Twitter: Visit Skye’s website for her current booklist:

Copyright This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. Except for use in a review, the reproduction or use of this work in any part is forbidden without the express written permission of the author. Anti Hero Š 2016 by Skye Warren On the Way Home Š 2014 by Skye Warren Cover design by Book Beautiful Cover Photo by Furious Fotog Cover Model Matthew Hosea

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