Nothing beat a cup of steaming hot coffee in the dead of winter, at least in Ethan Hayes’ humble opinion. As he stepped onto the enormous cedar deck of the chalet-style house, Ethan was unbelievably grateful for the heat of the ceramic mug seeping into his cold fingers. February in Vermont meant biting-cold temperatures, buckets of snow, and frigid wind, but he wasn’t complaining about his surroundings. The isolated house and surrounding area were so idyllic he’d be a total moron to find fault in it.
He approached the wooden railing and gazed at the snow-capped peaks of the mountains in the distance. White mist shrouded the jagged tips, giving off a ghostly vibe, and dozens of feet below the deck, a sheet of pure white snow covered the hills and valleys that made up the landscape. Tall pines jutted proudly from the land, branches swaying in the early-morning breeze.
A postcard. That’s what it looked like, and Ethan found it hard to believe that a woman as cold and deadly as Noelle had ever lived in such a beautiful slice of heaven. Then again, she’d given the house to Trevor Callaghan and Isabel Roma without batting an eye, so clearly the blond assassin wasn’t too attached to the place. He just hoped she didn’t spring a surprise visit on him while he was here—Noelle made him damn nervous, and he had no desire to spend any quality time with the woman.
He’d just taken a sip of coffee when his cell phone rang. He wasn’t surprised to find Trevor’s number flashing on the screen—he’d been expecting the call ever since Trevor and Isabel had rushed out the door in a mad race to make their private charter.
“I already arranged for a new one,” Ethan said in lieu of greeting.
An amused male chuckle sounded in his ear. “What are you, a mind reader?”
“Nope, I just know how attached women are to their phones.”
Trevor laughed again. “Yeah, Isabel’s incredibly annoyed she left it behind. She didn’t realize until we got here that it wasn’t in her bag.”
“You guys are at the airport?”
“About to board to the plane. She wanted to drive back and get the phone, but I managed to talk her out of it. She claims she needs it in case of an emergency—AKA, any minor crisis that requires us to abandon our honeymoon so she can offer her assistance to some poor soul.”
Now Ethan laughed. He’d liked Isabel Roma from the moment he’d met her nearly two years ago, and her endless compassion was one of his favorite things about her. It was refreshing when you spent most of your time with hardened mercenaries. But the downside to all that compassion was that Isabel would drop everything to help out a friend, even cut her honeymoon short if she had to.
“Don’t worry,” he assured his teammate. “Her phone is safe and sound, and I already called the provider to have a replacement ready when you two land in Maui. Tell her to text me the new number and I’ll forward her entire contact list to the new phone.”
“Thanks, rookie, you’re a life-saver.” There was a snort. “Remember, don’t throw any wild parties while we’re gone. I’m kind of in love with the house and I don’t want you trashing it.”
“Damn, but I was planning a kegger.”
“Make a stupid remark and get a stupid answer.” Ethan grinned to himself. “Trust me, I’m looking forward to the solitude. Sometimes it’s nice to be away from the others.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts. I hear Sully and Liam are moving to the compound this week.” Trevor suddenly sounded distracted. “Shit, gotta go, rookie. The pilot’s waving us over.”
“Cool. Say hi to Isabel and have fun in Hawaii.”
Ethan disconnected the call and tucked his phone into the back pocket of his cargo pants. He took another long swig of coffee, returning his attention to the picturesque mountain scene before him. The chalet was located in the middle of nowhere, directly on the top of a rocky hill surrounded by dense trees and a creek that hadn’t frozen over despite the below-zero temperature.
As he stood there on the massive deck, he couldn’t help but feel like the last man on Earth. It was so damn quiet here, a huge change from the noisy jungle he’d been living in for the past ten months. The mercenary team he worked for had previously been based in Mexico, but after the team’scompound had been attacked by a private hit squad last year, Jim Morgan had relocated his men to a sprawling estate in Costa Rica, where the air was forever humid and the wildlife couldn’t seem to shut up. Thanks to the jungle that bordered one side of the new compound, Ethan spent his days listening to birds squawking and monkeys screeching and his nights listening to the constant drone of insects. Needless to say, the silence was blessedly welcome.
He was actually looking forward to these next two weeks. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been truly alone. For the past three years he’d lived with his fellow mercenaries, which meant someone was always underfoot—D in the shooting range, Kane and Abby hanging out in the game room, Morgan brooding on the terrace. No matter where he went, he was bound to run into someone.
Normally he didn’t mind the company—he welcomed it, in fact—but every now and then it was nice to have some quiet time to collect his thoughts. He was off-rotation for a few more weeks thanks to the mandatory vacation time Morgan regularly inflicted on members of the team, which gave him the perfect opportunity to…to what?
He faltered for a moment, his hand freezing before he could raise his mug to his lips. What exactly was he hoping to accomplish during this time off? He didn’t quite have an answer for that, but what he did know was that he’d been feeling out of sorts these past few months. Restless, edgy…unfulfilled.
But why? What reason did he have to feel unfulfilled? He worked for Jim Morgan, a deadly super soldier and one of the most honorable men Ethan had ever met. He had friends he’d lay down his life for, a shit ton of money in the bank, a roof over his head and food on the table. No serious girlfriend, sure, but he’d been casually seeing someone in Costa Rica, a cute tour guide who worked at one of the many resorts dotting the coast. But it wasn’t serious, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep that going anymore.
He wasn’t sure what he wanted, period.
A house of his own?
One day, of course, but hell, he was only twenty-five. He had plenty of time to do the whole home and hearth thing.
So then why couldn’t he stop feeling like there was something missing in his life?
Philosophical this morning, aren’t we?
Sighing, he moved away from the railing and strode into the house through the glass doors that spilled into the living room. Isabel had given him a quick tour before she and Trevor had sped off in Trevor’s Range Rover, but Ethan doubted he’d spend much time anywhere but this room.
With its high ceilings, wood paneled walls and big leather couches, the living room was the very definition of cozy. He was looking forward to lazing around in here, maybe grabbing a few books from the tall oak shelves lining the walls and spending the next couple of weeks doing nothing but reading, eating and sleeping. And maybe hot-tubbing, he had to amend—considering this place offered a rooftop eight-person hot tub, he’d be a fool not to make good use of it.
He’d just plopped down on the couch and set his mug on the rustic pine coffee table when an unfamiliar ringtone broke the silence.
Shit. Isabel’s phone. He’d forgotten to ask Trevor for the password so he could forward Isabel’s calls to Trevor’s cell in the meantime. He’d have to ask her for it after the couple landed.
He leaned forward and swiped it off the table to check the Caller ID, intending to let it go to voice mail, but he reconsidered when he glimpsed the name on the screen.
Almost immediately, his body reacted, groin stirring and stiffening.
Well, this was a first. He couldn’t remember ever getting hard from the sight of a woman’s name.
But he knew it was less about those eleven little letters and more about the images her name triggered. The long dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes, the tall willowy body and high perky breasts. Sassy little smile. Great ass. Endless legs.
What man in his right mind didn’t get hard at the thought of such a gorgeous woman?
At the same time, his reaction annoyed the shit out of him. Same way Juliet had annoyed him when they’d crossed paths last year. As hot as she was, the woman had rubbed him the wrong way, driving him crazy with her sarcastic barbs and her relentless teasing about his age.
He shifted awkwardly on the couch and willed away his erection, still debating whether to take the call. Isabel’s phone didn’t require a password to answer, so in the end, he pressed the talk button before he could second-guess himself.
“Isabel’s phone,” he said in greeting.
There was a beat.
Then another one. And another.
But the shallow breaths tickling his eardrum told him she was still on the line.
“Juliet? It’s Ethan,” he said gruffly. “Ethan Hayes…we met last year. I work for Jim Morgan.”
He suppressed a sigh. “I know you’re there. I can hear you breathing.”
The moment she spoke, his guard shot up a good thirty feet. Weak. Her voice sounded weak and shaky, not the confident, throaty tone of the woman he’d worked with after his team’s compound had been targeted.
“Isabel and Trevor are on their way to Hawaii.” His wariness escalated, rivaled only by the concern tugging at his gut. “They won’t land for several more hours, but I can tell her to call you when she picks up her new phone. She left this one behind.”
“No…time…Need her now… Can’t reach Noelle… Need help.”
Every muscle in his body went tighter than a drum. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Are you hurt?”
“Big…fucking…mess…” To his surprise, a wobbly sob echoed over the line. “He’s dead…”
Ethan’s back went ramrod straight. “Who’s dead?”
Another pause. “Nobody…never mind…Please, get Iz. Tell her to come.”
When she didn’t respond, a tremor of concern rippled through him. “Juliet,” he said sternly. “Tell me where you are.”
“Belarus. Grenadier Hotel in Minsk…room…room two-six-four…no, two-four…” Her voice grew strained. “Two-four-six. Med kit…tell her to bring a med kit. Antibiotics and…um…”
If he didn’t know any better, he would have suspected she was high as a kite on something, but Juliet hadn’t struck him as a user. Besides, the pain in her voice was unmistakable. She was wounded. Fuck, she was wounded and alone on a whole other continent.
“Stay where you are,” he finally ordered. “Someone will be there soon.”
No response. And no more breathing sounds.
As the phone beeped in his ear, he realized Juliet had hung up the phone.
Shooting to his feet, Ethan raked a hand through his hair and quickly went over his options.
Option one—Stay put and pass Juliet’s message along to Trevor and Isabel when they checked in hours from now.
But that would mean ruining the couple’s honeymoon, because Isabel would hop right back on the plane to help her injured colleague. And who knew what kind of shape Juliet would be in by the time Isabel got there? Not only would Juliet have to wait for Isabel to land in Hawaii, but also for the twelve or so hours it would take Isabel to get to Europe.
His second option was to contact Noelle, but clearly Juliet had already tried that and hadn’t been able to reach her boss.
Option three—get someone else to answer the SOS. He’d call up a few contacts, arrange for a trusted medical professional to tend to Juliet, and while the doc took care of her, one of Ethan’s teammates would make their way to the wounded operative. Abby might be able to… no, Abby and Kane were heading up an extraction in Bolivia, he remembered.
D was off-rotation, though. Maybe… no, there was no point in involving the surly mercenary, especially when Ethan could easily do the job himself.
You don’t even know the woman.
No, he didn’t know her. In fact, he wasn’t sure he even liked her, which was damn ironic seeing as he was about to come to her rescue.
“For Isabel’s sake,” he muttered to himself.
Right, he would do this for Isabel. And for Trevor. The couple had gone through so much to be together. They’d earned this quality time, and he’d be damned if he interrupted their newlywed bliss.
With a heavy breath, he glanced around the cozy living room, his gaze resting on the gorgeous stone fireplace he’d yet to make use of.
So much for his quiet mini-vacation.
Looked like he was going to Belarus. In the dead of winter.
It didn’t sound at all appealing, but what other choice did he have? Juliet had stepped up and helped the team when they’d needed her last year.
The least he could do was repay the favor.