Noelle raised her cigarette to her lips and took a deep drag, sucking the smoke and chemicals into her lungs before exhaling a plume of gray into the night air. The apartment across the street was dark, save for the one light shining in the study where Gilles Girard was currently sipping on a cup of espresso. She’d been watching the Parisian barrister for three days, and she knew that after he indulged his caffeine fix, he’d move on to the bottle of Rémy Martin on the mahogany bar. The guy had expensive taste in cognac, that was for sure.
The lawyer’s west end private residence was located in the 16th District, one of the most prestigious areas in the city. That told her he had the required cash to procure the services of someone like her, or, at the very least, represented clients who could afford her. But she didn’t trust the man. Granted, she didn’t trust anyone, but Girard’s out-of-the-blue request was definitely fishier than most.
He’d contacted her via several middlemen, though that alone wasn’t unusual considering her number wasn’t exactly listed in any phone books. No, what made her uneasy was the urgency she’d detected in his voice. The job must be done as soon as possible. There’s no room for delay. The harried plea had rung with desperation, and in Noelle’s experience, desperate men spelled nothing but trouble.
Which was why she now lay on the dark roof opposite Girard’s, flat on her stomach with a rifle at her side and binoculars zoomed in on her prey. Watching, waiting.
Girard lived alone. No wife or kids, no household staff. He was in his late fifties, and his choice of attire told her he was an old-school, aristocratic kind of guy. Anyone who wore perfectly pressed slacks, a cashmere Burberry sweater, and a Gucci scarf around his neck in the privacy of his own home was someone who valued luxurious items.
Noelle adjusted the zoom on the binoculars and studied Girard’s handsome features and groomed salt-and-pepper hair. There was something very . . . jaunty about him. And honorable—he seemed like a man with a moral code.
So why was he trying to hire a contract killer?
Frowning, she snuffed out her cigarette on the pavement and extracted her cell phone from the pocket of her tight-fitting leather coat. A moment later, her field glasses revealed Girard reaching for his own phone.
“Bonjour?” came his baritone voice in her ear.
“It’s me,” she answered in French. “It’s time to continue our little discussion.”
She clearly saw the man’s face stiffen through her zoom lens. “You ended our last call very abruptly,” he said in annoyance. “It was quite rude.”
“I told you, I had to check out a few details.”
“You had to dig into my background, you mean.”
“And are you satisfied with what you found?”
“For the most part.” She lazily ran her free hand over the barrel of her rifle. “Who is your client?”
“I already told you, I can’t reveal that. But I can assure you, my client has no shortage of funds. He is more than capable of paying your fee.”
“Good to know,” she said lightly. “But I don’t like working for shadows, Mr. Girard.”
“Then I’m afraid we’ve got nothing more to discuss. The identity of my client will not be disclosed, mademoiselle. This is nonnegotiable.”
Irritation flared inside her. Christ, sometimes she wished she’d gone into a different line of work. Secretive men were so goddamn infuriating. And yet she didn’t disconnect the call—her curiosity had been piqued the moment Gilles Girard had contacted her, and she wasn’t the kind of woman who walked away from a puzzle. Or a challenge.
“All right,” she conceded. “I can live with that.”
“Good. Shall we discuss the details, then?”
“Not over the phone.”
“Fine. We will meet tomorrow?”
“Tonight,” she said briskly. “We’ll meet tonight.”
“I’m afraid I’ve already retired for the night.”
“No, you haven’t.” Chuckling, she zoomed in closer and saw the flicker of alarm in his dark eyes.
“What makes you say that?” he asked carefully.
“Well, I’m looking at you as we speak, Gilles, and your fancy-pants clothes don’t look like pajamas to me.”
Noelle got great satisfaction from seeing his gaze dart around wildly, as if he expected her to pop out of a closet and ambush him.
She laughed again. “Don’t worry, monsieur. I’m not inside your house. Yet.”
She tossed the binoculars into the sleek black duffel by her side. As she gracefully rose to her feet, the warm August breeze lifted her blond ponytail and heated the back of her neck.
“I’ll see you shortly, Gilles,” she told the panicked man. She paused in afterthought. “Oh, and I suggest you don’t reach for that pricey cognac of yours.”
Suspicion floated over the line. “Why not?”
“Because I poisoned it.”
His startled curse brought a smile to her lips. “Y-you . . . h-how . . .”
“Don’t you worry about that, honey,” she answered as she quickly disassembled her rifle, while balancing the cell on her shoulder. “It was just a precaution, in case I didn’t like the outcome of this phone call.”
When he made an outraged noise, she fought a laugh and said, “Out of curiosity, who’s the target?”
There was a pause. “I thought you didn’t want details over the phone.”
“Not about money or method. Names are fine.”
She zipped up the rifle case, then tucked it next to the duffel—she’d leave both on the roof and collect them after her little tête-à-tête with the good lawyer.
“Ah. All right, then.” Girard hesitated. “The target is a soldier. Well, a former soldier. He now works as a private military contractor.”
Shifting the phone to her other shoulder, she patted her jacket to make sure the weapons beneath it were secure, and then she walked across the gravel-littered rooftop toward the wrought-iron ladder at its edge.
“He’s used various aliases over the years,” Girard continued, “but he’s currently operating under the name James Morgan.”
Noelle froze. “What did you say?”
“Morgan,” Girard repeated. “The target’s name is James Morgan.”
* * *
“I met someone else.”
The slender brunette kept her back to him as she snapped the clasp of her bra into place. Her long, straight hair fell down to her panty-clad ass, shimmering in the pale glow of the bedside lamp.
Morgan zipped up his cargo pants and waited for Maya to continue, which she did, with great regret in her throaty voice.
“I should have ended it sooner, but I was . . . waiting . . . hoping, I guess.” She turned to face him, her bottomless brown eyes flickering with unhappiness. “I suppose I was silly to think that we might have a future.”
When he didn’t argue, her expression grew even more pained. “I know. You made yourself clear from the start.”
Morgan cleared his throat. “Maya—”
She held up her hand to silence him. “No. Don’t apologize. Like I said, it was silly of me. But Cruz . . . he’s willing to give me everything you can’t. And he adores Diego . . .”
Who you have never even met, was the unspoken implication.
And damned if it didn’t make him feel like a total dick. In the two months they’d been sleeping together, he’d gone out of his way to avoid Maya’s seven-year-old son. Not out of malice or dislike, but, well, he knew how attached kids could get, especially young boys without a father figure in their lives, and he hadn’t wanted to take any risks. He’d known from the onset that his affair with Maya would be a temporary one.
She was a wonderful woman—he couldn’t deny that. Smart, beautiful, hardworking. But relationships didn’t interest him. Sex was all he’d ever wanted out of the arrangement, and Maya had always been more than happy to provide it.
“I want to give my son a good life, Morgan.”
“I know,” he said gruffly, his Spanish coming out stilted even though he normally spoke it impeccably.
Maya slipped into a pale blue tank top and a pair of denim shorts, then walked over and kissed him. She was a tall woman, didn’t even have to stand on her tiptoes to bring her mouth to his, and he kissed her back with more tenderness than he’d ever shown her before.
She blinked in surprise as she pulled back, but the resolve in her eyes didn’t falter. “I had a lot of fun.”
“Me too.” He dragged his thumb over her soft jaw before taking a step back. “But it was bound to end, sweetheart.”
She nodded sadly. “I’ll walk you out.”
They moved through the dark bungalow in silence, with Maya ahead of him, her expression shielded from his view. Although she’d known the score from the get-go, Morgan knew she was disappointed he hadn’t put up a fight about ending it. He could see that disappointment in the slight slump of her shoulders and the weariness in her long strides.
But he wasn’t going to give her false hope or make empty promises. He wasn’t the man she wanted him to be. Husband, daddy—that wasn’t him, and never would be.
“Will you at least tell me about her?”
Maya’s quiet plea made him frown. As they paused in the shadow-ridden front hall, he searched her gaze, trying to make sense of the request.
“Tell you about who?”
“The woman who broke your heart.”
A harsh laugh slipped out. “Oh, sweetheart, I’ve never had my heart broken.”
“I see.” Maya hesitated. “She died, then?”
A thread of discomfort knotted around his insides. Christ. Why did women always assume he belonged to the loved and lost camp? Why did they always feel the need to analyze him, to discover what his demons were?
“I know I’m right,” she murmured. “And I’m never going to see you again after tonight, so what’s the harm? Tell me about her, Morgan. What was she like?”
Morgan stifled a sigh. He didn’t have time for this. Didn’t want this.
But when he opened his mouth, the words that popped out surprised them both.
“She was sweet.”
Maya’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline. “Sweet,” she echoed. “What else?”
“Strong.” He swallowed. “She was very, very strong. And innocent. And when she laughed . . .” The lump in his throat made it difficult to go on. “Her laughter was . . . Fuck, I can’t even describe it. And she always knew what I was thinking. She could read my mind, and it was damn infuriating.”
Maya bit her lower lip. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
An ache tightened his chest. “Yes. She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry, Morgan.”
He managed a shrug. “Yeah, so am I.” Before she could question him again, he dipped his head and brushed his lips over hers. “Take care of yourself, Maya. Maybe I’ll see you around in town sometime.”
“Maybe.” She sounded noncommittal, and he could feel her retreating from him as she flicked the dead bolt and opened the front door to let him out.
He stepped into the night air without another word, and headed for his SUV without looking back. The soft click that met his ears told him she’d closed and relocked the door.
The moment he slid into the driver’s seat, he popped open the glove compartment to retrieve the nine-millimeter Sig Sauer stashed there. He never brought a weapon into Maya’s little bungalow—he didn’t want to scare her—but he felt naked without his trusty Sig. Even now, just sitting in his car, he didn’t feel fully comfortable until he placed the gun next to his thigh, within reach of his right hand.
Letting out a breath, he started the engine and reversed out the dirt driveway. He didn’t glance in the rearview mirror to get a final glimpse of the house. Their time together was over, which meant it was time to move forward.
And if there was one thing Jim Morgan excelled at, it was never looking back.
Still, his heart felt heavy as he drove down the darkened street toward the intersection that would lead him into town. He hadn’t wanted to hurt Maya, but he suspected that he had. He just hoped this new man of hers could give her everything she needed. Everything she deserved.
He reached the heart of town a few minutes later, found himself easing his foot off the gas pedal. The sleepy village of Turtle Cove didn’t offer many options in terms of nightlife, but it did boast a tiny dive bar that Morgan and his team of mercenaries often frequented. He headed toward it, and then parked in front of the narrow strip of dusty, crumbling storefronts.
It was just past eleven, but he wasn’t in the mood to go back to the compound yet. Nearly every member of his team was a night owl, and Morgan didn’t feel like seeing anyone right now. He’d been restless lately, itching to continue the search he’d embarked on so many years ago, but he couldn’t skip town on a whim anymore, not after his last spontaneous trip.
In his absence, his compound had been ambushed by a private hit squad, two of his employees had lost their lives, and one of his men, Holden McCall, had suffered a crushing loss. Morgan knew the attack couldn’t have been foreseen, but he still felt responsible for Beth McCall’s death. He wondered whether Holden blamed him for it too. Probably. Fuck, it’d be rightfully so.
Sighing, he hopped out of the SUV and strode into the deserted bar. Ernesto, the owner and sole bartender, stood behind the counter chatting on a cell phone, but he nodded in greeting when he spotted Morgan.
“Tequila?” the bald man said briskly.
Morgan nodded back and slid onto one of the rickety wooden stools. He chose a seat that provided him with a perfect view of the door and corridor leading to the restrooms, and his gun was tucked in his waistband, a reassuring bulge beneath his shirt that allowed him to relax.
A moment later, Ernesto deposited a shot glass of Jose Cuervo in front of him, then wandered back to the other end of the counter, his phone glued to his ear. From the sound of it, Ernesto was trying to convince his wife that he had indeed cleaned the rain gutters like she’d requested, but clearly the woman wasn’t buying it.
Tuning out the other man’s conversation, Morgan thought about all the shit he needed to take care of tomorrow. The CIA was on his ass about a potential extraction of an agent who’d gotten himself captured in Angola, but government jobs were always such a pain in the ass. Too much red tape and peanuts for pay. But he supposed he could send Castle and a few members of his B-Team to get the job done.
He’d also just accepted a security gig, which he’d probably assign to Luke and Trevor, since the client had requested trained snipers. That meant he and the rest of his A-Team would have to handle the Ecuador job also in the pipeline. The government officials down there wanted a particularly delicate rebel situation handled, and were trying to avoid military involvement.
Man, so many jobs on the go, which gave new meaning to the words soldier of fortune. But even though the team would make a killing this month, Morgan had never been in it for the money. It was the action he craved, the rush of adrenaline and the surge of triumph he received after a successfully executed mission.
“Another one?” Ernesto’s voice drew him out of his thoughts.
Morgan glanced down to see that he’d slugged back his shot without even realizing it, but he shook his head at the bartender’s inquiry. Instead, he dropped a few US bills on the counter and rose from his stool. “Have a good night, Ernesto.”
“You too, Mr. Morgan.”
He left the bar feeling as unsettled as he’d entered it. What the fuck was up with him tonight? Yeah, he and Maya were done, but he knew that wasn’t the reason for the persistent edginess he was feeling. Inexplicable unease continued to crawl up his spine like a colony of ants, and it stuck with him during the entire drive home.
The new compound was about twenty miles outside of town, bordered by dense jungle on one side and rolling hills on the other. And it was isolated and hidden, just the way he liked it.
It had belonged to a drug kingpin whose empire had recently been crushed by the DEA, and Morgan had bought the place for a song at a government auction. Surrounded by a twelve-foot electric fence, the hundred-acre property consisted of an enormous main house, several outbuildings, and a Playboy Mansion–esque backyard with a swimming pool, grotto, and ten-person hot tub that his men were fucking gaga over.
He found it ironic—for a group of hardened soldiers, the men in his employment sure enjoyed their luxuries. Sullivan couldn’t go a day without talking about his prized sailboat. Liam owned more designer clothes than a male celebrity. And as no-nonsense as Kane and Abby were, they sure spent a helluva lot of time in the sixteen-seat movie theater down in the basement. Yup, the house had an honest-to-God movie theater. Not to mention a game room, gym, indoor and outdoor target range, and a dozen other decadent goodies.
But Morgan didn’t give a shit about the frills. He cared about the tunnels running beneath the house. The armory. The top-notch security system and each strategically placed block of C4 in every corner of the house. After last year’s attack, he was taking security even more seriously than before, especially since this latest place seemed to pick up new residents like a damn boardinghouse.
Ethan had moved his girlfriend, Juliet, into the compound a few months ago, and even though Luke and Trevor were living off-site these days, Sullivan and Liam had swiftly moved in to take their place. Plus, the recent addition of Ash, their newest rookie, meant there was yet another person to bump into every other second.
Sometimes he felt like a goddamn babysitter, with all these younger, sexed-up soldiers running amok. For a man who’d been on his own since the age of eighteen, living with so many people was kind of unnerving for him, but Morgan ran a tight ship. And truth be told, he preferred having his team close by where he could keep an eye on them.
It took him five minutes to drive through the three enormous gates that blocked off the compound from the road. Each one required a different access code for the security panel, and a glance at the cameras mounted on the chain link fences. One of the two security men who worked around the clock buzzed him in each time, and when he finally reached the large courtyard in front of the main house, he was starting to wonder whether this new security protocol of his might be overkill.
The thought died the second he spotted the out-of-place Mercedes parked next to Kane’s silver Escalade.
His eyes narrowed as he stared at the sleek black car. Almost instantly, wariness flooded his gut and stiffened his shoulders.
Son of a bitch. Either Sully and Liam had brought a late-night visitor onto the property, or . . .
His hands curled into fists over the steering wheel. Fuck. The alternative was grating as hell, and he suddenly found himself praying that his boys had broken the rules and invited a woman over. But he knew better.
And the ominous feeling that had been prickling his spine ever since he’d left Maya’s made sense now.
Perfect fucking sense.
Squaring his jaw, he stalked into the three-story house, paused in the cavernous parlor to rearm the alarm, then strode purposefully toward the living room. Light spilled out from beneath the heavy oak doors, and the soft murmur of voices reached his ears.
He pushed open the doors, paying no attention to the three chocolate-brown Labrador retrievers that scurried up to him.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
Abby Sinclair and Kane Woodland glanced up from their perch on the couch. The couple was snuggled together under a red afghan, looking too damn calm considering the toxic presence they’d allowed into the house. The blanket hid Abby’s growing baby bump, which, if he were being honest, was a relief not to see. Abby was almost five months pregnant, and each time Morgan noticed the rounded curve of her belly, he was unsettled as hell.
He couldn’t imagine a baby living in this house amid a group of highly skilled operatives, but Abby and Kane hadn’t discussed their plans with him yet. He wasn’t sure if they planned to raise the kid here or find a place of their own. Though he was kinda hoping they’d choose the latter.
“You’re home earlier than usual,” Kane remarked.
He repeated himself. “Where is she?”
Abby ran a hand through her long red hair, her voice quiet and composed. “Out back.”
Without another word, Morgan ignored the excited dogs still nipping at his heels and marched off. The massive screened-in porch at the back of the house offered access to the backyard, and when he emerged onto the endless stone terrace and approached the railing, he instantly spotted their unwelcome visitor.
She wasn’t alone. Derek “D” Pratt was with her, the two of them standing side by side near the kidney-shaped swimming pool. Although a foot of distance separated them and neither one was talking, their body language didn’t reveal an ounce of aggression. If anything, they seemed utterly relaxed standing there together.
The anger that flooded Morgan’s insides was both expected and infuriating.
Had she come here to see D?
It hadn’t even occurred to him that she might be here for someone other than him, and the strange vise of possessiveness that squeezed his throat only pissed him off even more.
“Evening, Jim. Are you going to join us, or just lurk there in the shadows?”
Her mocking voice wafted toward him in the balmy night air. She hadn’t even glanced his way, yet she’d known he was up at the railing, and the evidence of her razor-sharp senses was a reminder that he couldn’t let his guard down around this woman. Ever. She was a threat. Had been for years, and probably always would be.
As he descended the stone steps, he steeled himself for this latest reunion. Each time they crossed paths, he went through the same old routine. Stayed on the alert, masked his emotions, armed himself for the inevitable showdown. He never knew what to expect with Noelle, except for one constant—her unceasing attempts to unnerve him.
If he were being honest, she succeeded more often than not.
Damned if he’d ever admit it to her, though.
“Why are you here?” he muttered when he reached the couple.
Couple. Goddamn it. The thought made him want to . . . Fuck, he didn’t even know. Throw up? Shoot them down like rabid dogs? Laugh?
D seemed to be reading his mind as the two men locked eyes. The big, tattooed mercenary took a quick drag of his cigarette before breaking eye contact, then headed over to the poolside table to put out his smoke.
“Nice catching up with you, honey,” Noelle drawled to D’s retreating back.
The other man didn’t turn around, just kept walking, but Morgan noticed those broad shoulders stiffen for a beat. He watched as D went up to the terrace, noting the power and confidence in the man’s stride. D was a warrior, a terrifying force to be reckoned with, and for a moment, the image of that muscular body tangled with Noelle’s petite one between the sheets flashed in Morgan’s head.
His hands involuntarily curled into fists, but he tamped down the anger and resentment that rose in his throat, and finally turned to face Noelle.
“Why are you here?” he asked again.
Her pale blue eyes gleamed in the light glowing from the pool. “Just stopped by to say hello to an old lover, but you seem to have scared him off.”
Morgan jerked his thumb in the direction D had gone. “He went thataway.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Aw, I’m just messing with you, Jim. You know exactly which ex-lover I came to see.”
Her laughter was like a razor blade scraping a chalkboard. Cold, humorless, deadly.
“What do you want, Noelle?”
“You look good, Jim.”
“What do you want, Noelle?”
She blinked innocently. “You’re not going to return the compliment?”
He kept his gaze locked with hers, despite the fact that looking at her took a major toll on him. She was too beautiful. Too fucking beautiful, with her exquisite face, those big blue eyes, the perfect rosy lips. Her long hair was the color of spun gold, and he knew firsthand that it was silky to the touch.
And her body . . . it was goddamn sin. Endless curves hugged by black leather pants and a bloodred tank top, a body designed to make a man think of pure, carnal fucking.
Noelle’s beauty was beyond compare, and that only stoked the hatred burning like lava in his gut. She looked like an angel, but she had a devil’s heart. She was poison, and he refused to utter a single complimentary word to her, even as his hard-on strained against his zipper in salute to all her splendor.
“Fine.” She gave a mock pout. “I guess pleasantries aren’t really our style, huh? Let’s get right to business.”
He shot her a pointed look. “What favor do you need this time?”
She was positively beaming now. “Oh, baby, this time the favor’s all yours.”
As a cloud of suspicion floated through him, he reached for the bottom of his shirt and yanked it right over his head.
Noelle’s gaze fastened on his bare chest, her head tilting to the side. “What are you doing?”
He unzipped his pants and let them drop to the concrete pool deck. “Going for a swim,” he answered in a bored tone.
His boxers came off next, and Noelle’s slight hitch of breath confirmed that she noticed his raging hard-on.
It was kind of hard to miss.
“You don’t want to know what I mean by that?” Those blue eyes remained glued to his cock, but she didn’t comment on his state of arousal.
Probably because she knew damn well the erection had nothing to do with lust. This was an anger-fueled boner, pure and simple.
He arched a brow at her. “I’ll hear you out when I’m good and ready. Right now, I feel like a swim.”
Brushing past her, Morgan headed for the deep end, hopped on the diving board, and dove cleanly into the warm water. The moment he was fully submerged, his head began to clear. Soon the volatile emotions Noelle always managed to elicit in him had reduced to a manageable degree.
When he finally poked his head out, he saw that she’d sat down on one of the lounge chairs. Her annoyed expression brought a surge of satisfaction to his blood and a burst of energy that had him doing laps.
He’d do twenty-five, just to stir up her irritation. Make her wait, watch her stew. It was the same old game they always played. See who could piss off the other one more. Who could inflict more pain, cause more destruction.
Morgan sliced through the water in a clean crawl stroke, wishing he could see her face. But no biggie, because he could clearly envision her displeasure, picture the scowl twisting her lips.
Except . . . bad idea, thinking about her lips. That only triggered the unwelcome memory of what he’d done the last time they’d been alone together. Not two months ago, when she’d helped the team out in Cairo, but on the job in Belarus earlier that year, when he’d . . .
Goddamn it, he’d kissed the bitch.
You felt nothing.
Right, he’d felt nothing. Nada. Zip. It had just been a test, a need to confirm that there was nothing between them.
Absolutely frickin’ nothing.
He forced the memory away and concentrated on counting out his laps. Six. Seven. Ten. Fourteen. His arms burned from the brisk pace he’d set, but he preferred the pain to the other burn he felt around Noelle.
Another glance at the deck revealed the bitter grimace on her face. Good. Let her sulk. He’d spent years thinking of ways to punish her and make her suffer, but the woman was a block of ice, totally impenetrable. Unless she was being ignored—that was when the wall of indifference crumbled, her desire for power and recognition trumping her need to conceal her emotions.
And so he kept swimming, knowing the longer he made her wait, the faster her carefully composed mask would unravel.
Times like these, when he was imagining new ways of hurting her, it was impossible to believe that he’d ever loved this woman with all his heart.