My life is a secret.
His life is dangerous.
We’re both stubborn, calculating, and controlling.
Mark Dixon doesn’t know what he’s getting into. He doesn’t know his games could cost us our lives. I have to do what is necessary to keep us alive, and that means guarding my heart.
But I know I’m defenseless against him, and in the end, he’ll force me to surrender.
Release date: January 19, 2016
Publisher: BAAE Inc.
Print pages: 324
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Listen to a sample
“Everyone locked and loaded?” Liam Dempsey draws our attention. There’s a part of me that wants to slap him, but then I remember: I’m the guest. It would probably be frowned upon.
“Ready,” Jackson says and bangs the magazine into the rifle. “What’s the plan?”
“We have the location where Aaron’s being held captive. We’ll split into two teams, surround the building, and get him out. The helo will be on standby for extract. Muffin, Twilight, you guys will handle meeting with the CIA agent.” Liam
lets us know how this will go down.
He’s the big cheese of our small team. Commander was fine with allowing Muff and me to go on the rescue. First, we know what the hell we’re doing; I could be the damn commander at this point. Second, if it isn’t Aaron, we have the best chance of knowing quickly. I know it is, though. The code word that the CIA agent communicated was the one we’ve used for years. She relayed his area and the best way possible to enter the compound. Of course, deciphering her instructions was difficult, and it left us to make plans for the plans.
“Let’s get this shit done and get back in one piece this time, okay Muff?” There’s no hiding the sarcasm in my voice.
“Fuck off, Dixon.”
“So touchy.” I grin and double-check my gear. As funny as it is, it’s also not funny at all. Jackson Cole was once the leader of our SEAL team when the mission we were tasked with went really wrong. We lost three teammates that day, and all of us suffered injuries both mental and physical. Then we sent Aaron to deal with a lost shipment of weapons and he was killed. Well, possibly not, but still. Each time one of our asses touches down in this fucking place, someone ends up shot or killed. I’d love to be able to forget, but the truth is, I never will. The guys I’ve lost reside in my heart. The memories take hold in all of us, and for some, they torment us. The wondering if we could’ve done something different, remembering their last moments—it’s a heavy burden to carry.
I’ve lost too many friends and too much blood to this hellhole.
“Okay,” Liam says through our earpieces. “Two minutes out.”
Everyone stands, heads toward the back of the plane, and readies for the ride. We’re parachuting in, and there’s a part of me that’s alive for the first time in a while. I live for this shit. The command of the sky, the adventure, the danger—I love it. It’s a part of who I am, and while I don’t regret leaving the Navy, I miss the fun. Being a SEAL was everything to me. I was damn good at it, too. While Aaron and Jackson had no problem getting out and starting Cole Security Forces, I would’ve been buried in my uniform. However, my arm had other ideas and made the choice for me.
Jackson slaps my shoulder. “Ready to be badass again?”
“I never lost it. Unlike you other pussy whipped assholes.”
“At least I get pussy, unlike some shithead who talks a lot of crap,” he mutters under his breath.
“Keep it up, fat boy. You’re starting to earn your call sign again, Muffin.” I pull my goggles down and watch for the light to turn green. There’s no hesitation as I jump out the hatch. The plane fades away as I plummet to, once again, do what I live for.
We all reach the ground safely a few miles from the IED site where this whole mess started.
Liam gives the hand commands as we split into teams of two. If I ever felt like a piece of shit before, it was nothing compared to now. Aaron is possibly still alive and nearby. We didn’t search before, partly because Muff got shot, but I never even considered coming back. They claimed there were no survivors, and we listened.
If it were me, would I be pissed? Fuck yeah, I would. We should’ve looked.
“See that, up on the building?” Dempsey’s voice cuts through the silence.
My eyes dart to where his hand is pointing. I can’t see it clearly, but hanging from the antenna is a red scarf, the go ahead signal from our contact.
“Charlie better not be fucking us around,” I grumble. I’ve missed the way my body feels right now. Everything inside me is awakened. My mind knows there’s danger and my muscles are tense so I do my best to relax. I can’t be on edge or someone could get hurt. I remember how it felt to lose our teammates on that mission. I remember carrying Brian, Devon, and Fernando’s bodies out. I remember watching the life fade from their eyes. Then to think of all the other drama we’ve dealt with being in the sandbox—this place gives me anxiety.
“She’s on our side. Head in the game,” Jackson snaps as he creeps forward. He’s in the zone. I need to get there before we kick in the door.
As we approach the entrance, Liam comes through with the green light. “Petunia.” His tone is clear. This time we’re using flowers for code names. I liked it better when we used liquor or tobacco . . . more manly. Shows just how much the Navy is breeding pussies now.
Jackson braces his hand against the door, ready to push through, but someone pulls it open first. All of our guns raise, and my gaze locks on the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.
The woman’s hands slowly raise, and she casually removes the hijab that covers her mouth and hair. “Check out the garden, boys. Petunia.” Her accent is clearly American. “He’s down the hall and knows you’re coming. There are three on guard by his cell. The others are out doing errands. I’m leaving with you, so don’t fuck this up.”
I stand there, staring, unable to form a fucking coherent thought. This is the CIA op? This five-foot-four, drop-dead gorgeous woman? No wonder she gets information. I’d sell my soul if she asked. Her hair is almost black and hangs straight, her eyes are ice blue, and don’t get me started on what I imagine her plump lips doing. I’ve never seen anyone like her. I’ve never reacted to anyone like this before. I want her—any man would—but I want to own her. Every part of my body, especially one in particular, yearns for her. I want to see if her skin is as soft as it looks, if her hair feels like silk, and her voice—I’m done for.
Jackson lowers his gun and then addresses her. “Which door, Charlie?”
“Second on the left. I need a gun.” She puts her hand out.
The need to protect her calls from deep within. “Maybe you should stay out here.”
“And watch you guys get lost? I don’t think so. Gun. Now.” She doesn’t look my way when she replies. She just waits for Jackson to hand her his pistol.
I don’t like this. She may be trained by the CIA, but that’s not saying she can handle combat. “Are you sure you know how to use it, princess?” I ask.
Her eyes meet mine and narrow. Oh, that got her attention. A storm’s raging in those baby blues. She recovers quickly, though, when Jackson places his nine mil in her delicate palm. “Thanks. I’ll let that slide since you obviously aren’t aware of who I am,” she says without taking her eyes off me. “We don’t have a lot of time. Where’s the rest of your team?”
“We are the team,” I reply. Who is this girl? Maybe the CIA needs ten people, but Jackson, Liam, and I could handle this entire thing on our own—the six-guy team we brought is more than enough.
Jackson smirks. “They’re approaching from a different entrance. Let’s go.”
“I’ll lead,” Charlie says and lifts the hijab over her hair.
“We know what we’re doing.” I speak just so she’ll look at me again.
“Wouldn’t want you to get lost or hurt. Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” Her voice drips with sarcasm. My cock hardens. It fucking hardens on a goddamn mission. I am so fucked.
She opens the door and I push Muffin out of the way. No way is he going to be behind her. Charlie turns to relay a message, and notices he’s not the one following. Her eyes roll, she holds up two fingers, and then she points to the room. The way her ass sways is hypnotic. I lock down the sexual urges flowing through me and focus. The two men trailing me let off two silent shots and then return to following us. We slink through the dirty hallway and come face to face with another guard.
I don’t have a moment to take the sight. Charlie doesn’t hesitate. No more than a breath passes before she raises the nine and shoots him in the head.
I’m in love. It’s official. I’m going to blow my fucking load right here.
This woman is going to be mine.
She turns her head to face me and lifts her lips. The words that come from her mouth go straight to my groin. “Don’t be afraid to pull the trigger next time, princess.” Charlie’s eyes glimmer, and I know right then that this woman will not be owned, but she sure as shit will own me.
~ One Year Later ~
I toss my legs on my desk as I lean back in the office chair. I close my eyes with the phone against my ear. “Well, there are answers somewhere, Muff. I’m not sure what the hell to think anymore.” I swear it’s like talking to a brick wall. After the mission to save Aaron, I went through hell trying to find answers, but I came up empty.
Jackson sighs. “You’ve gone over our competitors?”
“No, I figured I’d leave them out,” I reply sarcastically. “Of course I looked at all of them.”
It’s been almost two years we’ve been dealing with this bullshit. Charlie and I worked together using the intelligence she gathered along with what little I had. It went dormant for a while, and we thought the threat was eliminated. Then she left on assignment, and we had no more problems. Seemed whatever it was had eradicated itself. But sure enough, it’s happening again.
Things are starting to go missing again. There’s no way I’m letting this go. Jackson and I will spare no expense to figure this out. I won’t lose another brother, and I’m not letting whoever this prick is get away with it.
“I’m just as frustrated as you are, Mark. Don’t be more of an asshole than usual. There’s a reason all of this is happening and why it’s happening now. The first shipment encountered issues around the time Raven Cosmetics came back into my hands. I had just hired Catherine. See what else happened around that time. Any new clients we took on, anything that was a shift.” Jackson lets out a deep breath.
I know this entire situation haunts him. Aaron lost a year of his life and his family, and Jackson almost lost his now fiancée, Catherine. She had a hard time when he got shot. Hell, we all did. Jackson is the reason we’re all here in so many ways. He and I are closer than the other guys. I see how heavily this weighs on him.
However, his suffering doesn’t stop my need to piss him off for fun. “Weren’t you the damn intelligence officer? You should’ve figured this out already. Apparently, the Navy spent too much money training a dipshit.”
“You can’t fire me. I’m the only one who will put up with your shit.”
He’s silent for a moment. Then I hear the dial tone.
I sit and think about what he said. It’s true, all of this happened around that time, but I’ve been over this so many times. I really could use another set of eyes, someone who was with Aaron, because it seems the key to all of this is in Afghanistan.
“Hey,” Lee says softly from the doorway, breaking me from my thoughts.
“Sparkles! Back from your honeymoon so soon? Liam couldn’t get it up, huh? The juice will do that to you.” I grin as I taunt her.
They got married a few months ago, but decided to hold off on a honeymoon until after she had Shane. Liam’s dad was all too happy to watch the ankle biter while they went off to the islands. Aaron, her ex, has been really good with everything, thank God, especially about their daughter, Aarabelle. Any time he can get with that kid, he takes. I don’t blame him; she makes all of us behave a little more.
“Why are you so hell-bent on making people want to punch you in the throat?” She pops her hip and narrows her eyes. She’s so cute when she’s hostile. I love having her working here. Cole Security Forces has been thriving with Natalie’s help. She gets things done that the guys can’t seem to take care of.
I shrug as she enters. “How’s Liam handling going from bachelor to father of two?”
Her eyes light up and I have to force myself not to puke. “He’s on diaper duty and doing well. We’re doing good though, since I think that’s what you’re asking. And I guess the ’roids are what caused your shrinkage?”
“Oh, good one.” I stand and start unbuttoning my pants.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Proving mine is bigger. I figure you must be in need since you cut the trip short. I can satisfy you.” Instead of flushing or giving a hint of embarrassment, she grabs the closest item off the table and chucks it at me.
“Sit down, you turd.”
“I’m just making sure I don’t have to kick his ass.”
She puts the paper on the desk with a smirk, “Oh, Twilight. You’re old. I’m pretty sure he could kick your ass with his eyes closed, but thanks for the sentiment.”
“You forget who taught these younger idiots how to handle their shit. And fuck you very much. I’m not old. I prefer ‘seasoned’.”
“I’m not even forty yet.”
Natalie is one of the few females I don’t mind being around. Thankfully, Catherine is the other. They both can verbally spar with the best of them. It also helps that they’re both hot. Not that I would ever touch them, but there’s something about a sexy woman mouthing off.
“Is that how you should address a man of the cloth?”
“Oh, for the love of . . .”
“Do not finish that sentence, my child.” Her eyes roll as I fight back a laugh.
“Mark,” she huffs. “You have issues.”
As if I didn’t know that. I’ve had issues for a long time, but my friend’s issues were far worse. I was able to take some of the stuff, put it to the side, and focus on functioning. There’s not a part of me that doesn’t think I fought hard to save those guys. Jackson and I have always been close, but Brian was like a brother to me. We went through hell together during jump school. I was there when his wife left him, when he lost his house, married again, and then when he took his last breath. To lose him of all the guys was hard, but you can’t do anything except move forward.
“Only issue I have is being in love with you,” I joke.
Lee raises her hands then lets them fall. “I give up. And you do realize you’re not really a minister!”
“I have a certificate that says otherwise.”
“I blame Liam for his brilliant idea of letting you get ordained.” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head.
“What’s this paper?” I ask, bringing the conversation back to whatever led her here.
She sits with a sigh. “I can’t get a hold of the contact person in Egypt. It’s a small team that’s guarding a diplomat. He didn’t trust his last company, so he hired us. I worked really hard to secure this account. Assured him that we could handle it. No one is able to get a hold of anyone in their group.”
Fucking shit. “How many checkpoints have they missed?” I keep myself under control. Could this be another blip? Sure. It could also be that they’re unable to get reception on the satellite phone.
“How is this happening again?” I grumble.
Lee shifts. “I wish I had answers, but Liam thinks something is really wrong. I’ve put him at ease because he trusts you guys . . .” she trails off.
If she were my wife, I’d be telling her to leave, too. Before I can say anything else, Aaron knocks.
“Hey,” he says. “Lee, can you give us a minute?”
The former spouses smile their fake smiles, and she gets up. I gotta hand it to them. They both act way more mature than I would. Aaron really screwed up. He hurt Lee more than any of us probably know.
It was a mess.
And really awkward.
At the end of the day, she made her choice and he made his, but for Aara they keep their shit together. He always makes sure he’s there for her, and Lee does her best not to make him feel alienated. I wish more divorces were like theirs.
That being said, if my ex-wife married my former best friend, gloves would be off and someone’s nose would be broken.
“What’s up dickface?” I ask.
“I assume she told you?”
“Yeah, she did.” I stand. “Jackson know?”
Aaron walks to the door, pulls it closed, and then releases a heavy sigh. “I don’t think we should tell him.”
“Have you lost your mind?” I’m not sure I heard him right.
He walks toward me with his hands up. “We don’t have any information. Why would we go to him? Let’s spend the next week doing what we’re trained to do. I think all of our instances are related. Missing shipments, me being taken, Muff being shot, the mission in Egypt . . . it all centers on Jackson.”
I know where he’s going, but this is Jackson’s company. Sure, I practically run the operation from here, but he funds it. He’s in constant contact, monitors everything from California. He’s even opened a field office there to expand our reach. There’s no way in hell I’m keeping things from him. I like my paycheck.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just not saying you’re right.”
“I need to do something,” Aaron says while he cracks his knuckles. “I’m asking you to put me in charge of investigating this. Let me go back and figure out this whole thing.”
Now I know I heard him wrong. “You’re asking me . . . to send you back to Afghanistan?” I’m stunned. “Voluntarily?”
“I’m asking you to let me do what I know how to do.”
Aaron was an interrogator. A damn good one. There’s not a part of me that doesn’t think he gathered something while over there. Something he’s been harboring and festering over. I sure as hell would. A year of captivity is a long time of quiet reflection with nothing to do but use your mind.
“What do you know?” There’s no point in beating around the bush. It’s like a meeting of the minds with us, each of us working to outsmart the other, all the while pissing each other off.
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