A grandmaster of lies and deception
Drake Radcliffe has spent half his life in the shadows. Recruited by the CIA when he was barely out of high school, Drake doesn’t know how to have a normal life. While most people his age were playing sports or video games, he was playing spy games with the world’s most dangerous adversaries. It has been a life filled with thrills and adrenaline, but it’s also been lonely. All that might change when a mistake from Drake’s past rears its ugly head and he’s forced to face the only woman he ever loved—the one he’d vowed to stay away from.
A beacon of love and compassion
Taylor Cline committed the cardinal sin in her world—she fell for another operative. Drake was everything she wanted in a man, until he broke her heart. She had one unforgettable night with him and then he never looked back. Her future threatened and family in ruins, she shut down and moved on, hoping to never see him again. Just as she is beginning to put it all behind her, a critical assignment puts her under his authority and right back in his arms.
A deadly mission that brings them together
From the wilds of Wyoming to the glittering cities of Europe, Drake and Taylor must race against time to uncover the truth and expose an evil organization. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If they fail, the world could crumble. If they succeed, they could finally have everything their hearts desire.
Release date: September 13, 2022
Print pages: 382
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) emotionally riveting (1) entertaining story (1) strong heroine (1)
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No Time to Lie
Snow beat against the windshield of the sedan, the stark white nearly blinding him.
Drake Radcliffe felt the burning pain in his side and prayed he could make it to the safe house. When he’d taken the hit, it hadn’t felt too bad. He’d had far worse, but now it ached like a mother, and he was pretty sure he’d reopened the damn wound when he’d swerved on the highway. Was that blood he felt? There was a lot of it. He had to force his hands to stay steady on the wheel, his eyes on the…was it a road?
The events of the day slammed into him once again, and he could see his operative lying on the cobblestone street, blood just starting to stain the stones. Whoever had been behind that bullet had used a suppressor because Drake had barely heard the sound before he saw the hole in his operative’s chest open up and then felt the pain in his own side.
Where the hell was the cabin? It was a cabin, right? He was on the side of a fucking mountain, so he was pretty sure there was a cabin and not an apartment building.
Guilt swamped him. He should have known something was wrong, that they’d been found out. His operative…what was his name…he didn’t like to use names because it was easier to move around chess pieces than people. That was what he did. He played chess with people’s lives, and he’d lost a pawn and he couldn’t even remember the pawn’s name because he was a piece of shit.
Come with me, brother. Think about what we could do with that kind of power. We could take over the group and then we would rule the world. Just like we always knew we would.
That had been a joke between him and his sister. They were smart. They were kind of assholes who joked about being smarter than everyone else around them and so the world should simply do what they said.
Except one of them had been serious…
Where was the cabin? He was so fucking tired. He’d driven for hours and hours. Almost eight hours with a hole in his side he’d basically stuck a bandage on. He needed stitches and antibiotics, but there was no way he was going to a hospital at this point. The safe house couldn’t be too far away. He thought he might remember some of the markers but everything was fucking trees, and the road that was barely more than a trail was covered in snow.
How much blood had he lost? His head felt fuzzy, and now he was worried he’d made the wrong choice and should have tried to find a hospital.
But the nature of his business was…delicate, to say the least. If anyone found out he was in a hospital and vulnerable…
He had the drive his operative had delivered, and if it fell into the wrong hands then all his work would have been for nothing. His death would mean nothing. He had to get to the safe house and call in. There was a safe there.
A safe in the safe house. Safety. Safe. Safe. Safe. Safe.
Such a funny word when he thought about it. Was anyone safe? He said it out loud. It sounded weird to him.
His dad had stepped down from his dangerous job, and he was supposed to be safe. Safe from lies. But Julia built her whole world on lies. Julia didn’t believe in safety, and it had cost their family everything.
The world was starting to blur and his brain was as soft as the snow and he wasn’t home. Snow didn’t look like this in Virginia. Snow was a soft thing there, something they complained about and watched through windows and encouraged on Christmas. He would sit and watch the snow with his mom and his…
The very thought of his sister forced his mind back to his task.
Julia was dead and he’d had a hand in it, and if his mother ever found out he wouldn’t have a mother anymore, and the snow kept falling. The wipers couldn’t keep up. The hits just kept coming.
Julia was dead, and Kyle had left and he wasn’t coming back. He was with his uncle now, and the whole found family thing was bullshit. Kyle had been his friend, one of the only friends he’d ever truly gotten close to, but Kyle had to kill Julia because she’d…
His cell phone rang through the connection on the sedan, the sound waking him up again. He glanced at the screen. Safety. Command.
The car he was driving was Agency approved. It had all kinds of security gadgets on it a person couldn’t buy at a big box store. But he still had to be careful.
“This is Gray.” He went by Gray for now. He’d gone by all the names. Black. White. Green. Brown.
Not Magenta. That had been Taggart, and he was an asshole. It was funny that all these years later he still remembered that meeting with Taggart in Paris when his daughters had watched through the railing of the banister and he’d wondered what it would be like to be Taggart—a man who’d gotten out and had a life and family and kids.
He’d thought he was moving toward that. Not in a traditional way. But he’d been building his little spy family with his sister and Kyle Hawthorne and he was going to be the weird uncle, and then Julia had turned out to be everything he hated. Everything he’d ever feared he could be himself.
He could still remember everything she’d said to him that terrible day.
This is who you are, little brother. Don’t look at me like I’m a monster. You’re nothing but a reflection of me. You’re fooling yourself if you think anything else.
His dad pretended like he’d never worked for the Agency at all. Since he’d retired, he wouldn’t even talk about work with Drake. How was his sister dead and now it was him and a father who barely acknowledged him and his mom and he could lose her, too, if she ever found out? He would be alone.
Of course the way he felt right now he might be dead soon, so maybe he should worry about that.
Was his family cursed?
“Gray? Gray, are you there?”
Did the guy on the other end of the line even know his real name? Or was he this guy’s pawn? That was how the Agency worked. Lives were interchangeable. There was always some new idiot willing to risk his or her life for their country. For America.
That was a funny word, too.
Reality was starting to become fuzzy, and he had to hold on. His operative was dead, and the mission was his now. The mission was all that mattered. The mission was everything. “I’m here. Is this line secure?”
“As secure as a pig in mud.”
For a moment his brain didn’t connect the odd reply. Codes. Little things that let an agent know it was okay to talk. He’d asked if the line was secure. It was Thursday. Pigs were Thursday this week.
Such a low-tech protocol for a high-tech job.
He had the intel in his pocket. All that information on a tiny drive. He would call in and someone would show up, and if he didn’t die in the meantime, the op would be successful.
That was all that mattered. The op.
How much blood had he lost? “I have the data. I’m on my way to 124.”
“124?” the voice over the line asked. “Why are you in Romania? Drake, there was a safe house in Kraków. Why wouldn’t you go there?”
The sound of his name woke him up a bit. He slowed down, the twin beams of the headlights illuminating the powder white snow in front of him. He was fairly certain he didn’t want to look off to the right because it was dark and likely a long way down.
“They knew about it.” It was one of the last things that fucker who’d shot him had said right before Drake had taken him out. He’d rolled to the side of the alley behind a trash bin and the Russian agent had told Drake there was nowhere to run. There wasn’t a hospital they wouldn’t be looking for him at, and they knew about the townhouse in Ludwinów.
So he’d killed the man, gotten into the sedan, and headed for the safe house known as 124. It was a level three safe house, meaning it was only known to high-level operatives and only used in emergencies. No one would know about the small cabin just across the border in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains. It had an old hard line that connected to the US Embassy in Bucharest. He could download the intel safely once he was there and then…
Well, then he might die because that wound he’d taken seemed to have opened up. He’d thought it was a glancing blow, but he was weakening now.
“According to the map, I’m almost to 124.” He hoped. The roads were winding, and he wasn’t exactly in a proper car for this kind of driving. It was supposed to be early spring, but this freak blizzard had popped up and he could drive right off the edge of a mountain. “I have the intel. I will download asap.”
“I’ll alert our agent in the embassy. But you…not…she’s…”
Static broke up the call. He made another turn and noticed that it wasn’t so dark now. The pitch black of night was giving way to a deep, velvety blue. Almost sunrise. “Say again.”
Up ahead he could see the start of warm lights glowing in the distance. The cabin. The porch light was on. So close.
He was losing the signal, and the wound in his side was aching again.
“What about the asset?” Drake looked down to see where the phone had gone.
That was the moment the road seemed to slide out from under him and he spun, the world tilting, and he heard someone scream.
Then the world seemed white and so cold. So fucking cold.
His gut churned and there was a pain that seemed to take over his entire body.
Was this death? It felt empty because there wasn’t some wonderful flash of his life, not even a bunch of regrets of the roads he hadn’t taken. There was only failure because he wouldn’t complete his mission.
Shouldn’t there have been something more?
The light faded and questions no longer mattered as the cold took him under.
* * * *
Taylor Cline woke to the sound of a crash. It hadn’t been loud, but it was so quiet on the mountain that sometimes she could hear the crunch of animals walking in the snow at night. She sat straight up in bed, reaching for her Glock with the ease of long practice. She’d been sleeping with a gun close since she was seven when her father had decided to come back into her life and the world had changed. She’d missed her mom—missed her so deeply in those first days, but her big bear of a father had stormed in and made sure she wasn’t alone.
Unfortunately, he’d brought all of his problems with him. Hence the gun.
She took a deep breath and assessed the situation.
The green light on the wall told her the cabin hadn’t been breached. The security system was functioning.
Everything was quiet again but something was wrong. She could feel it deep down. That sound hadn’t been a bear or deer. And it had stopped.
Was her father back? Had he been followed? Was he outside?
She slipped into a pair of sweatpants and tugged on a sweater before moving through the cabin to the small room that held all the tech, including the monitor for the twenty security cameras placed around the property and the paths that led here.
When the CIA built a safe house, they kept tabs on the sucker.
She began with the cameras that were closest to the cabin and worked her way out. Dawn was beginning to break, and there was a small rat-like creature on the front porch. Likely trying to hide from the feral cat who hung around because she kept feeding the sad-looking thing.
It was almost sunrise, that weird time between utter darkness and the sky becoming a flaming variety of sherbet colors. Dawn here reminded her of the ice creams her dad used to buy her. No matter where they went her dad would find someplace that served lime and strawberry and pineapple frozen treats. Ice cream. Gelato. Frozen ice. She liked it all, and those colors reminded her of her dad.
Who wasn’t on the monitors. She touched the keyboard to move to the perimeter cameras. Every now and then she would catch sight of a brown bear or one of the lynxes that prowled across these mountains, and she would stop and stare because they were so rare now. But today there was nothing.
The phone rang. Not her cell. That didn’t work so high up on the mountain. She had to go down at least a hundred and fifty meters to get a signal. The phone that rang was an old-school rotary from at least 1955.
Sometimes the best security was low tech. She picked up the earpiece. “This is Delta.”
It was her designation with the Agency. Her father was known as Alpha. They’d tried to stick her with Beta, but she’d refused.
“Delta, we have a situation that might need taking care of,” the deep voice on the other end of the line said.
“I’m standing by.” It looked like this cushy assignment was about to turn interesting.
“We’re not sure what happened but one of our higher-level agents was supposed to pick up valuable intel from an asset last night in Kraków. Something went wrong and he’s coming to 124,” the agent explained. “I was talking to him a few moments ago when the call dropped. Has he shown up?”
If he was coming from Kraków, he’d driven a long way. It must have been important for him to get out of Poland. She flipped through the screens and then stopped, her breath catching.
Right outside the final curve, a BMW was smashed against a large tree. Smashed was hyperbole. It was more like slightly crushed, like the driver had been doing five miles an hour and taken his eyes off the road for a moment and lightly tapped the poor tree. “He’s had an accident.”
“Is he alive?”
“Unsure.” Though if he was dead, it wouldn’t be from that accident. She would bet the car was still running. She stood. She couldn’t tell anything from here. She would need to go to the site. “Is there a possibility he was followed?”
“Satellite tracking shows you’re alone. He wasn’t followed. Damn. Is that a car? Why isn’t he getting out? He should be fine,” the man breathed, losing his smooth tones. “Delta, the intel he has is important but so is he. He’s the son of a US senator who doesn’t know her baby boy is a spy. If he dies…”
She sighed and grabbed her boots. “Yeah, don’t let the rich kid die. Got it. I’ll report back when I’m done.” She hung up the line and shoved her feet into the boots. “Come to Romania, they said. It’ll be quiet, and you can get work done while you wait for your dad to come in.”
What the hell had that agent been doing trying to get up the mountain in a sedan?
She stomped out of the cabin. Had the guy fallen asleep? No one had mentioned prior injuries, and the Agency was pretty good about knowing what was going on with their field operatives. Especially the important ones. She’d learned that the CIA was like pretty much everywhere else. There were people who mattered and there were goats they led to slaughter without a second thought.
Why couldn’t her dad have been like a history professor? Or a trash guy. Yeah. Sanitation services professionals did important work, and for the most part none of them had to run for their lives on a daily basis. If they were lucky, they got tips at Christmas time. No one ever gave a spy a tip. Not the monetary kind. Honestly, as careers went, spying was low on the pay to danger ratio.
She worked her way across the big yard, her boots crunching in the snow. No one should be driving up the mountain in the middle of a late-spring blizzard, much less in a luxury sedan more suited for the Autobahn than this treacherous part of the Carpathians. She had a Land Rover and she wouldn’t drive in these conditions.
“Hello.” She called out to him because if she could get him out of the vehicle on his own, that would be optimal.
Nothing but the sound of the wind. Snow swirled around her, and she picked up the pace. Just because base hadn’t told her this dude was hurt didn’t mean he wasn’t. Some operatives liked to play down injuries. Once her dad had taken two bullets to his shoulder and told his handler he had a couple of scratches.
She jogged across the snow, her feet already threatening to go numb. The headlights from the car made twin beams in the predawn, lighting her way to the site. The snow reached her ankles, but she was able to jog. If he’d been here three weeks ago, she would have had to find snowshoes. Now she worried she wouldn’t be able to carry him back to the house if he was unconscious.
She made it to the car, and the driver was slumped over the steering wheel. Taylor reached for the driver’s side door and pulled the handle. Locked.
She had to wake him up or knock out one of the windows. If it was an Agency car, that would be hard to do. The windows would be reinforced against bullets, so her trying to kick it in wouldn’t do a lot. She slapped a hand against the window. “Hey. Hey, buddy, I’m going to need you to wake up.”
Please wake up. She didn’t want this guy to die on her. She could see the shallow movement of his back, signaling he was still breathing.
If she wanted him to stay that way, she needed to get him inside.
She knocked again, shaking the car. “Hey! Wake up!”
His head shifted slightly, coming off the wheel and slowly moving up as though every centimeter caused him pain.
The good news was she had pain meds. There was a fully stocked, more than first aid kit back in the cabin for just such an occasion, but she had to get him there. “Hey, I’m Taylor. I’m going to help you today. I’ve been in touch with base. We need to get you to the cabin.”
His whole body shuddered, and his head hit the wheel again.
She knocked, pulling on the door handle with her other hand. The motion seemed to rouse him before. “Hey, stay with me. I need you to open the door.”
She kicked the door, making the whole car shake. Movement seemed to disturb him. He might have a concussion, and that meant keeping him awake. There was no blood on his skin, though he was pale as the snow that kept coming down around them.
His head tilted, moving around so she could see his eyes were open slightly. Storm gray eyes stared back at her, dark hair tumbling over his forehead. She would bet he slicked back that hair a lot of the time. “Hey.”
Good. He could talk. “Hey. I need you to open the door so I can get you out of there.”
“I had a car accident. It was bad. I’m not sure I can move.”
She looked to the car. It was fairly pristine, with the singular exception of the tiny dent where he’d hit the tree. What else was going on? “I can help you. We need to get to the cabin. I can call for help from there.”
He nodded and then his hand came out, and she heard the door lock pop.
Taylor breathed a sigh of relief. She opened the door, and that was when she realized he had a gun on her.
Damn it. She held her hands up. “Easy there. I’m Agency.”
He groaned and sat up. Now she could see the blood on his shirt. It stained his left side. “I need to get to the hard line.”
He was obviously serious about the mission. Now she wished she’d gotten his name from base. “Okay, it’s inside, but you need some help.”
Another deep groan and he was twisting his body to get out of the car. “Step back. If you’re here for the package, you should know I already killed the other agent.”
He was a wounded predator, and she had to treat him like it. Dangerous. Any wrong move could set him off. “I’m Agency. I’m stationed here at 124 for a week or so. I do analysis work and serve as backup for my father, Lev Sokolov.”
Normally she wouldn’t mention her dad at all, but he was a legend, and if invoking his name meant she didn’t get shot, she would do it.
He stood. Damn he was tall. At least six four, with a lanky but strong frame. He towered over her five-foot-three-inch self.
“No one’s supposed to be at 124. It’s remote. The only reason we still have it is the hard line,” he said, his voice deep and husky.
Someone a long time ago had taken the time to bury an actual line between 124 and Bucharest, 450 km away. It was considered the most secure way to get important information where it needed to go, but it was hard to keep up which was why there weren’t hard lines across the globe. The Agency had put them in decades before when the world was initially being wired for the Internet. Those old cables had been replaced by satellites and wireless networks, but some of them remained. He’d come all that way injured to use that secure line, and that told her his op was a serious one.
Which made him even more dangerous.
“Yes, the hard line is why I’m here, too. I can’t explain my mission. I don’t know your clearance, but I assure you I’m not working for anyone but the Agency.” She kept her tone as calm as possible. “You look like you took some fire. Can I help you with that? I’m a trained medic. Is it a gunshot wound?”
He looked down to his side as though he’d forgotten it was there and frowned. “I…I was in Kraków and I…” His head shook, and he refocused on her. “Give me the gun.”
Oh, she wasn’t giving up her gun. He was in trouble, and it was obvious he needed help. Like a lot of men, he didn’t know how to ask for it, and also like his brethren, he’d been trained to avoid help if possible. “Your hands are shaking. What can I do to make you comfortable with me? Besides disarming, because I’m not sure you won’t shoot me. You’ve been through something traumatic.”
He huffed. “You think this is traumatic? You think I can’t hand…” He tried to steady himself but he stumbled. “Back away or I’ll shoot.”
And she was done with him. He was off kilter and way past dangerous, and it was time to handle things.
She kicked out, easily sending his semiautomatic into the snow. He started to react, but she reached for his wrist, twisting it up and back, taking control. “Calm down. I told you I’m here to help you, but I can’t let you shoot me. I’ve got a mission, too.”
He struggled, trying to pull his arm away. If he was running at full capacity he probably would have given her hell, but he immediately went to his knees, obviously overwhelmed with the pain. Blood stained the snow around him.
She sighed and let go. “Can we please go inside and take a look at your side?”
He seemed to find some energy and brought his head back. If he’d had some speed he might have caught her on the chin and sent her to the ground.
But he didn’t, so she simply brought her arm forward and knocked him back down.
With a low groan he managed to turn over, gray eyes staring up at her. “Are you really Agency?”
She sighed. “If I wasn’t, wouldn’t I have killed you by now?”
“You want the drive. I won’t tell you where it is.”
“The drive is hanging out of your pocket, buddy.” She reached down and grabbed it, dangling it in front of him. “Now we have two choices. I can help you inside and patch you up and let you get this to base, or I can leave you here and I’ll go and send this in. I’m going to warn you, if you choose the second path, there are a couple of bears out here and one lynx. If you want to go out being a meal for an endangered species, this is the way to do it.”
He frowned and put a hand to his side. “Okay, now I believe you’re Agency. Fucking sarcastic assholes every single one. Can I have the drive back?”
“If it will make you feel better.” After all, she could always take it back when he died.
She put it in his outstretched hand. He caught her, holding her palm against his, the drive there between them. “This is important. Promise me if I don’t make it, you’ll get this to command.”
He wasn’t some pampered prick whose daddy had gotten him a cushy job. He was aching and still trying to fight to complete his mission. She dropped to one knee. “I promise. I’ll do everything I can to save you and to get this where it needs to go. I’m with you… What’s your name? Don’t give me Black or White. We’re about to get real cozy because even if you survive, that storm is going to keep us together for a while. Make up a name if you’re still worried about me, but no Agency crap.”
She wasn’t sure if what he did next was about the fact that he was beyond weary or that he needed comfort. He pulled her hand down with his, laying it over his chest and letting her feel his heartbeat.
“It’s Drake. I’m Drake. Like the duck.”
It made her grin. “Well, Drake like the duck, I’m Taylor. I’m going to save you and your mission.”
His lips curled up in the sweetest smile, and she could see how gorgeous this man was when he wasn’t passing out from possible blood loss. “Taylor. My hero.”
And then he passed out.
Fuck. Was he going to die on her? She didn’t want him to die. She shoved the drive in her pocket and felt for a pulse. If she needed to, she would start CPR out here.
His pulse was strong.
His breathing was steady.
She pulled back the corner of his dress shirt, revealing the wound he’d taken. He’d been shot in the side and needed a stitch up, but it should have been easily handled in any ER or back at the Kraków safe house. Hell, he likely could have done it himself with a needle and thread.
“Stubborn boy.” She sighed as she stood again. Beautiful boy. He was quite stunning, and she was going to have to find a way to get him all the way back to the cabin because he’d passed out from blood loss. Luckily there was a mini clinic inside, and she was well versed in stitching up stubborn men. After all, she’d learned at a young age.
“Stitch him up, wait out the storm, send him on his way.” She said the words out loud so she could make it happen.
Because she was already attracted to him and he was half dead and had tried to halfheartedly kill her.
She was not going there. Nope. No way.
She hopped in the car, praying it still worked. It would be easier to drive him the last hundred yards than carry him, and infinitely better on him than dragging him through the snow.
The car was still purring, the expensive engine not at all damaged by its bump with the big beech tree. She put it in reverse and eased it back onto the actual road before parking it again and getting out to open up the back seat door.
Maybe he wasn’t as pretty as she’d thought. Maybe it was a trick of the light. It was soft, but dawn was here with its yellows and pinks and purples and blues, and it would reveal him to be another normal, run-of-the-mill dude who would not be worth the effort.
Although she’d learned he could be hot as hell and not worth the effort while guys who weren’t gorgeous could be worth everything.
She stared down at Drake like the duck and sure enough, he was still lovely. Lovely and so much trouble.
“All right, buddy. Let’s hope you weigh less than you look.” She grabbed his ankles and pulled.
Nope. He was all muscle, and it showed. Still, she wasn’t exactly a lightweight herself. She got him in and started for the cabin.
Get him healed. Finish his mission and then ignore him for a couple of days and then he would be gone and she wouldn’t see him again.
Easy peasy. Lemon squeezy.
She parked the car in front of the cabin and got to work.
Copyright 2022 Lexi Blake
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