"Brilliant!! Now THIS BOOK is what I LOVE
about Romantic Suspense."
Nighthawk 1911 9mm, cocked and locked. Check.
PPSS bulletproof vest. Check.
Last will and testament updated. Check
Over accessorized for dinner? Maybe.
Sabrina Slye kept her eyes on everyone she passed along Baker Street near the Centennial Park area in downtown Atlanta. Sweat drizzled its way down her back, soaking her thin black T-shirt and sliding under the shoulder holster she’d hidden beneath a black windbreaker. A slight breeze swirled across her damp neck, offering some relief from the heat at twilight.
Welcome to the dog days of summer in Georgia.
July fourth had just passed in its usual dazzling glory.
She kept her stride easy and smooth, when she wanted to run to the restaurant where she’d make a trade for intel on the number one, most wanted man.
Maybe not for the FBI, but former CIA agent Len Rikker topped her must-die list. He had to pay for his part in selling out her team over three years ago in the UK, and for all the deaths he’d piled up since then.
She had the money for the trade tucked into a small shoulder bag, but that wicked sixth sense of hers warned she might not be spending a penny.
This could be a trap.
Okay, to be honest, in her line of work, any time she met someone covertly it could be a trap.
That’s why rule number one was Always Be Prepared.
Whatever it took, she was not passing up a chance to finally end this hunt, especially if Rikker really was holed up somewhere healing.
Ziggie, a dependable snitch from her early days as a CIA contractor, had rubber stamped the contact wanting to meet with Sabrina. Ziggie doesn’t say a word for eight months, then calls ninety-eight minutes ago with news that he has a female willing to spill her guts?
Yeah, like that didn’t sound suspicious?
But... this information had a short shelf life.
Rikker had been hurt during a shootout with one of her Slye Temp agents in California twelve days ago. She’d have thought he’d be out of the country by now. Evidently, the person he worked for had left him high and dry when, thanks to her people, he’d failed to get his hands on an ancient scroll from the Vatican.
What goes around comes around, you sorry dog.
He’d orchestrated the deaths of two people—this time. She’d need a calculator for a true count. He’d almost taken out the pope in California. As in the pope. Rikker was harder to kill than a cockroach strung out on crack. Anyone else would have died crashing in an out-of-control helo on a rooftop two weeks back, but Rikker managed to escape. She’d been concerned that the miserable excuse for a human might have bled out somewhere with no way for her to confirm his death.
The small fortune she’d spent hunting him over the past three years was finally paying off. She hoped.
If tonight’s meeting turned out to be a bona fide lead, it would be worth every penny invested. Her team had barely survived a failed op in the UK a little over three years ago when they’d gone in to rescue Rikker. A terrorist group had captured him on foreign soil. The US government couldn’t claim him, but Uncle Sam had wanted the CIA asset back, so they sent in Sabrina and her people.
Correction, Gage Laughton, her CIA handler at the time, had issued the contract for Rikker’s extraction.
Going after the captured spook had seemed no different than any other high-risk contract she’d taken from the agency, but someone who knew the details had burned her team, trading all five of their lives for Rikker’s that night.
She had mixed feelings about Gage, but Rikker?
Dead man walking.
Once she got her hands on him, she’d find out who pulled his strings. Who’d traded his ass for her team.
At the door to the restaurant she waited for a trio of happy women to enter ahead of her, then stepped inside, allowing her eyes to adjust. She searched for two empty seats at the very end of the bar.
Friday night packed house, but look at that. Two empty seats at the bar.
That did not happen by accident.
She’d like to hang back and force the contact to sit first, just to have a look at this unknown person, but that wasn’t how these things went down. Nodding at the hostess that she was headed for the bar, Sabrina took her time strolling over so she could casually scope out everyone already inside.
The aroma of sizzling steak toyed with her senses.
She circled the end of the lacquered bar. It curved so the two vacant seats allowed an unobstructed view of the entire room, with a wall at her back. Mirrored.
Someone had done her homework, if Sabrina’s contact really was a female.
Snagging the last spot, the best choice of the two seats, she left the one on her right empty. Once she met her contact and got what she needed, Sabrina would hook the thin strap of her purse on the chair back so the contact could slide it off without anyone noticing they’d made an exchange.
She angled her body in a way that allowed her to observe every waiter and waitress who swept past her to reach the cubbyhole used for the barback area.
Voices blended and turned into one indecipherable sound surrounding her. Pleasant, though. Wait staff hurried back and forth, smiling and nodding at appropriate times as they interacted with patrons.
She ordered a club soda and lime, which the bartender delivered with polished efficiency.
She’d just taken a sip when her skin tingled.
Someone watched her.
Slowly, she floated her gaze around covertly, observing everything in the restaurant again.
No one stood out.
The hostess led a group of five from the entrance. As she passed Sabrina’s end of the bar, the last person following the group peeled off and took the empty seat next to her.
They had a brief stare down until she unlocked her jaws and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Sabrina shook with the need to strangle Gage Laughton.
He rested his elbow on the bar and turned toward her as if she’d agreed to meet him for drinks.
Had he really tapped her snitch just to arrange a clandestine meeting with her? Of course he had. He knew she’d jump at a chance to take down Rikker.
Still, the fact that he’d sink this low carved her up inside.
Gage started in, “We have to talk. I—”
She cut him off. “You might have to talk, but I’ve got nothing to say. I said it all this morning.” That hadn’t been a fun phone call. She’d left California two weeks ago with her insides twisted up. Everyone had a weakness.
Hers was staring at her hard enough to shove her off the stool.
Damn him for making her suffer more than she already did for being the strong one and cutting ties while they were still civil to each other.
It hadn’t been easy.
And damn him twice over for tricking her into thinking she had a lead on Rikker tonight. Pulling this prank just so he could talk to her in person was classic CIA agent Gage Laughton.
He ordered a scotch on the rocks and sat quietly, allowing those whiskey-brown eyes to search her face for any tell. He could look all he wanted for something he could use to spin this conversation in his favor, but she’d locked down her emotions.
Okay, yes, her libido was doing a tango at the rush of having him so close. She missed running her fingers through his hair. Now maybe an inch long, it had grown out enough for red highlights to show in the rich brown. He had a harsh cut to his jaw. He was all man. Not a smooth edge on him when he showed his fierce side.
She missed touching the sculpted muscles hidden beneath the sport coat and T-shirt he wore with jeans. He pulled off that look like no other man.
What she really missed was the way this man took his time. When he focused on a woman, she was the only thing in his universe.
Gage never rushed into anything, well, except on the occasions that she’d taunted him sexually, determined to push that rigid control to snap. When it broke free, he’d rip her clothes off, then he’d pay her back with smoking sex.
All in the past now.
She had to get her head out of yesterday and worry about today. Time to end this once and for all to keep Gage out of her way. Her heart seized at the idea of never seeing him again, but that organ didn’t have a say.
It had a bad track record when it came to this man.
Flicking a look around the restaurant to check her surroundings out of habit, she parked her gaze on him. “What part of we can’t do this anymore confused you? Tell me and I’ll put it in shorter words this time.”
Nothing showed in his face.
Not a hint of emotion. He had his game face on, which meant he’d come here with a plan in mind. Fine. She’d allow him to lay it out, then make him pack up and be on his way.
“I listened to you,” he said just loud enough for her ears. “That doesn’t mean I believe what you said.”
“Believe it.” She’d snapped that out sharper than she’d intended. “I allowed you, no not you, but us, to come between me, Josh and Dingo. I’ve never allowed that to happen in the past. I’m not going to deny that I enjoyed the time we had together before ... the UK mission. But all things come to an end, especially in our line of work.”
Almost losing Dingo had brought that home with crystal clarity.
She caught Gage’s flinch of pain at her reducing what they’d had to nothing more than sex, but dressing it up any other way would mean leaving a hint of possibility in her voice. The longer she allowed this to be dragged out between them, the more pain it would cause them both.
Gage had never wanted more than an easy-terms affair when they first hooked up, and she’d been fine with it at the time. She could admit to herself that he was special to her.
Even though they’d never have the bond she shared with Dingo and Josh ... she didn’t want to watch Gage leave again with no idea when he’d return.
She was not adding one more person to worry about losing.
Undercover work had many faults and she didn’t like her world much these days, but it was all she knew. One thing was for sure. She intended to find Rikker and stop him from ever threatening the people in her world again.
Once that happened, she’d have to figure out how to keep Josh and Dingo out of dangerous missions.
First, she had to finish ripping off this Band-Aid so her soul could start healing. Her heart never would. “There is no future for us, Gage. Not as long as we’re in this business. Are you planning on leaving the agency?”
“But nothing. This worked between us when I contracted with the agency and we partnered on missions. It worked because neither of us expected anything more than what we had, but ... that’s changed for me. I’m not cut out for any life except the one I have and I now realize this life doesn’t allow for a relationship, not a true one.”
Pain filtered through his gaze.
Damn, she hated hurting him, but she was being honest.
Gage said, “Not true. You’re cut out for anything you want to do ... if you want it bad enough.”
She’d spent two long days alone once she got home, trying to make her decision, and kept coming back to one simple truth.
She and Gage had no common ground anymore. What they did have had created a rift with Dingo that she’d managed to repair.
Before she met Josh and Dingo, everyone who’d claimed to care about her had always chosen something, or someone, else instead of her when things got real.
Gage had put the agency first in the past.
He still did and always would. She wouldn’t hold that against him, but neither could she go back to living that way again. Even after what she’d gone through in the UK, Gage shielded the names of those in the agency who had been involved. In fact, he still blocked her from digging around to find the person who’d burned her team when they inserted to rescue that bastard, Rikker.
When the deal went bad, a local contact died and Sabrina almost lost Josh, one of two people in the world she considered family.
She’d trusted Gage beyond belief at one time.
But he’d interrogated Dingo in California, and in the process he tried to make Sabrina mistrust the man she considered a brother. Worse, Dingo had walked away. She wasn’t losing Josh and Dingo. Not for anything. Especially not for a relationship that would never amount to any more than great sex.
Not true, whispered through her heart.
She drew herself up inside and put on her own battle face. “Okay, Gage. That was my nice attempt at ending this. You know why this is never going to work for us. I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me.”
“I trust you.”
If she’d trusted him, she wouldn’t have spent two years out of touch after the UK mission.
And if he trusted her, he would have shared those names.
Leaning an elbow on the bar and propping her chin, she waited him out.
He shook his head and made a sound of disgust. “The fucking agency names. Why won’t you let that bone go? That doesn’t mean I don’t trust you.” He leaned in. “I told you in California that I’ve checked out everyone who knew about your UK mission and none of them sold you out. If I give you those names, either you’re going to poke around and get killed by the person I haven’t found yet or you’re going to kill someone you’ll regret later when you realize I’ve been telling you the truth. It’s none of the obvious people.”
She was done arguing about this. Trust was trust.
You couldn’t talk it right.
She summed it up for him. “Oh, I see. I’m capable of putting my life and my team’s lives at risk for the agency, but I’m not capable of protecting myself or controlling some unexpected urge to commit cold-blooded murder. Do I have that right?”
Gage cupped his forehead and washed the hand down over his face. “What possessed me to fall for a stubborn woman like you?”
Fall for her? Gage was a genius at strategy, but he had no idea that uttering three words would end this conversation faster than anything else he could say.
She’d learned better than to accept a man’s claim of love after surviving childhood with a father who’d beaten her mother to death while proclaiming his love to both of his girls. Speaking of love, what had her mother done?
Chosen her monster of a father over protecting her daughter when Sabrina was too small to defend herself against a brutal beast.
She didn’t place Gage—or any other man she allowed in her life now—in that category, but neither did she want meaningless words from him.
Sabrina forced herself to maintain a calm front and ignore Gage’s persistence as he tried to put a chink in her emotional armor. She should be worried. He’d done it before.
His eyes lifted to hers.
The world saw little when looking at him because he was a master at concealing his real thoughts and feelings. But she knew him better than most, and she saw pain inch into that unyielding gaze.
Gage had not been the person who betrayed her, but someone in the CIA had and he protected them, which meant he was not a hundred percent on her side.
Just like others who had sworn they cared for her.
Words were the face of deceit.
He relaxed, acting as if he’d shaken off his irritation, but it continued to simmer just beneath the surface. “I’m sorry about what happened in California with Dingo. I stepped over a line with him. I promise you it won’t happen again.”
She appreciated the apology and heard his sincerity, but that wasn’t going to fix this. She didn’t hate him. She couldn’t. In truth, she wasn’t even angry anymore, just ... sad to give up what they had.
But it was either here and now, or a week from now, or a month later. It would happen no matter what.
She had to say something so she went with, “Thank you.”
He waited and when she said nothing more, he said. “Thank you, as in, thank you, but no dice?”
“What’s it going to take for me to convince you we can stay together?”
In that moment, she heard a longing so deep it twisted her heart. A man like Gage never exposed a vulnerability, but his was showing now and she had to clamp her lips shut to keep from giving in. She’d played that possibility out in her mind a hundred times.
It never ended well.
Taking a deep breath and sticking to her plan, she said, “You can’t convince me to change my mind and you know me well enough to believe that, so please stop trying. Please don’t make me keep repeating myself. I can’t go back to the way it was before with us and I’m ... ready to move on. I mean it. I wouldn’t jerk you around so stop punishing me by forcing me to say it over and over, and by showing up when I don’t expect you.”
He lifted his chin and looked away, but not before she saw how deeply she’d cut him.
Now she wanted to punch herself in the head for hurting the one man who had once brought warmth into her cold world. But that was back when she’d believed he was unlike any other man.
Back when she thought he would put her first.
Swallowing hard, he said, “Fine. If that’s what you want, I’ll ... honor it.” He wiped his mouth, a tiny sign of his switching gears to business mode. “I had a second reason for finding you. You have to get off the radar.”
“What?” She sat up straighter.
“Remember I told you that I have two people in the agency that I trust?”
“Yes. I bet they have the list of names you’re keeping from me,” she added tartly.
Ignoring that, his tone turned a shade dire. “Your name is surfacing in the wrong places. Someone is coming for you and it might be from inside our government. I can’t protect you out here in the open. I need you to go to a safe house with me.”
Was he serious? “Dream on,” she muttered.
His eyebrows drew together in confusion. “I’m not joking, Sabrina.”
“Good. Maybe the person looking for me is the one who sold out my team for some POS rogue agent, but why now?”
“I have no idea why now,” he snapped, clearly unhappy she wasn’t climbing aboard the do-it-my-way train. “It’s intel, and you know that doesn’t come with footnotes for clarity. If it is someone in the government, I don’t think he or she is with the agency.”
“So you say.”
He muttered something dark, shook it off and said, “I don’t know how much time you have before someone grabs you or what that person wants with you, so let’s talk about what needs to be done to keep you safe.”
His flint-hard eyes could stop a bullet, but it couldn’t knock down her determination. He argued, “Yes.”
“No. I can do this all night.”
“Fuck. I knew you’d be this way.”
“Oh, this way?” She pointed at herself. “You mean unwilling to go slinking away to some unknown location you pick? I’m not hiding from anyone. I’ll hunt him or her, and when I get my hands on them—”
“What’re you going to do?” he snarled with the force of a Rottweiler on attack, but not loud enough to draw attention. His hand gripped the edge of the bar top. “This could be anyone.” His voice dropped even lower. “Hell, we could be dealing with those fanatical Orion Hunters who’ve infiltrated the government.”
“Exactly, Gage.” She leaned in, tapping her index finger on the bar as she said, “That group is behind most of the terrorist operations my teams have shut down this year. That alone puts all of my people on their radar. Len ...” She caught herself before she said Rikker’s last name, then continued. “That person is neck deep in all of this and he was the reason we almost died in the UK. I’m not about to hide somewhere and leave my team exposed.”
Hope jump into his face. “Not a problem. I’ll find places for them, too.”
She chuffed out a sarcastic laugh. “News flash. They don’t trust you and that’s just another reason you and I have no business trying to be together.”
He sat back, defeat clear in his face. “You’re a walking target and I don’t know who the enemy is, but you think it’s me.”
Why did he have to say crap like that? “I don’t think you’re my enemy, Gage,” she countered softly.
“Yes you do, Sabrina. You’ve spent your entire life operating with one set of criteria. Someone is either on your team or not. I’m clearly not, as far you’re concerned.”
It didn’t help that he was right. Her insides had turned into a battlefield where her heart waged war against her mind and her other organs were quickly becoming unavoidable casualties.
She’d be sleeping with a sleeve of Tums tonight.
Gage cared for her.
She knew it logically and heard the sincerity in his voice, but those were just words. Dingo and Josh had grown up on the streets with her. They’d stepped into any fight and shared everything they’d had with her even if it was one slice of bread to feed the three of them.
Even all these years later, they’d never used the L word with each other because love was only a word. What they had was stronger than anything you could put into words.
Gage had never understood their bond and never would.
This was why she had to be the strong one right now. If not, Gage would follow her home. If he did and she opened her door, they’d hole up without their clothes until the phone rang with a call to duty.
Then this vicious cycle would start all over again.
She’d watch Gage vanish or she’d vanish for days, weeks or months. One day, one of them would not come home.
She didn’t want to be the one left behind, not by this man, and she couldn’t continue half in and half out of a relationship any longer.
He reached over and grasped her hand. All her convictions wobbled on their unsteady foundation, but the truth pushed its way forward.
All they had were stolen moments here and there.
That wasn’t a relationship. At least, not the kind she could live with now.
Standing up, she pulled out of his grip and slipped the purse strap over her shoulder, which reminded her why she’d come here to begin with—a phony snitch meeting that he’d set up.
All her unsteadiness fled. She put steel in her voice and said, “I’m through talking. Stay out of my way and don’t ever screw with one of my snitches again.”
He gave her a confused look. “What snitch?”
Gage shook his head. “Not following you.”
Blood rushed through her so quickly the sound roared in her ears, blocking the noise of the restaurant. She took in the place with one sweeping scan then turned to him. “How did you know I was here?”
She dropped her head down and her voice came out in a low growl of warning. “Just fucking answer me for once.”
He blinked at her rare curse. “I tailed your car from the airport. Picked you up leaving your office.”
Her face chilled with a clammy feeling. “You didn’t set this up with someone for me to meet you here?”
“No.” He was stone-cold serious now. “What’s up, Sabrina. Talk to me.”
She wanted to swipe the glasses off the bar and knock him off that stool. He’d screwed up her meeting with the contact. Her anger rose with the power of a tidal wave, threatening to kill everything in its path.
Sucking in a deep breath, she said, “Don’t call me. Don’t come near me and don’t you dare ever walk up to me uninvited again.”
“Who were you expecting to meet here?” Gage was looking around, now up to speed on what he’d cost her.
“None of your damn business.” She strode away, leaving him in a wake of her fury. He’d better stay the hell away before another word could be spoken.
If not, she’d say something she’d live to regret.
Outside, the street life had picked up with the approach of prime-time dinner hour.
Sabrina wove in and out of groups, then scooted through traffic against a Don’t Walk sign. She picked up speed going downhill toward Peachtree Street, swinging into the parking deck before she got to the next intersection.
When she made it to the third floor, a middle-aged couple stepped onto the elevator as she hurried off and turned to the right. Her car was eight spaces down.
The lights on that end of the parking deck were out.
She’d arrived before they came on, so she had no idea if that was normal or not.
Drawing her 9 mm, she crossed her arms to keep it shielded as she walked toward her car. She watched and listened for any hint of threat, keeping to the middle of the lane between the lines of parked cars.
A raspy voice called out in a sharp whisper, “Over here!”
Damn. Sometimes she hated to be right.
She turned to find a hunched-over figure emerging from shadows where nothing had been a second ago. The plump, elderly woman in a gray blouse and stretch pants shuffled forward. She favored her left arm, holding it tucked against her body as though it were injured. Sabrina believed that how much?
Not one bit.
The woman kept her voice down and moved forward two more steps, asking, “Who was that man? You were supposed to meet me.”
Sabrina held her position where she’d stopped two spaces from her car. The hinky feeling that had crept along her neck from the moment she’d stepped into the parking deck cranked up a notch.
She got right down to business. “I understand you have a location for me.”
“Yes. I ... need the money. He’ll kill me if he finds out.” The woman kept moving slowly, limping actually, with her back to the light, which kept her face silhouetted. Had this woman been with Rikker? Had he abused her?
Sabrina said, “Stop.”
The woman complied, pausing ten feet away. She picked her head up and Sabrina could make out a plain face with dark-rimmed glasses.
When silence stretched too long in Sabrina’s mind, she said, “I have the money. Give me the location.”
Nodding slowly, the woman pulled her right hand away from where it had been hooked around her left arm, and lifted her head as she straightened her posture. She held a Walther PPK. Her voice was soft, but urgent. “Come with me quietly and nothing will happen to you.”
And yet again, she’d like to not be right.
Who had set this trap? Sabrina hadn’t been asked to hand over her weapon yet, so maybe this woman didn’t realize she was armed.
Had Rikker sent her?
Sabrina wanted to find out more before she might be pushed to use her weapon. She said, “I hate to disappoint you, but you’re leaving without me or the money. You can tell Ziggie he owes me for this.”
The woman dropped her voice to a whisper as if she thought someone was close enough to hear her low conversation. “Listen to me. You’re in dan—”
An explosion blasted.
The shock wave hit Sabrina in the back.
She flew across the parking deck and smacked into the windshield of a car. Glass cracked. She slumped down the hood.
She couldn’t feel anything. Bad sign. Her world faded to black.