Alexander Gaev hated when classes ended each day almost as much as he hated the weekend. It wasn’t that any subject piqued his interest or anyone in his eighth-grade class liked him, but at least at school he had the comforts of heat and lunch. With the voices of classmates at his back, he headed to the comfort of the loud shopping mall to take in all its distractions.
The place was a money-spending monstrosity—he should have hated it for torturing him with things he couldn’t have, couldn’t want. Clothes that fit and were new. Food that was hot and homemade. His mother only cooked kvass and pelmeni when Dad had men from the neighborhood come over. They called themselves the Bratva, and more and more, the Bratva would drink and smoke the night away at their home as they made their plans to carry out orders from the Mikhailov bosses.
Those Russian bosses scared Alexander, and maybe all the Bratva men also, which would explain why they stole cars and stripped them, and then farmed out the pickpocketing and shoplifting to neighborhood women and teenagers. Some of the kids on the corner said the Mikhailov bosses did bad things to those who didn’t listen. Alexander didn’t know what those bad things were, but he knew his parents believed in the power and loyalty of the Bratva. They probably loved those guys more than him and his sister, Tanya.
He pushed through the heavy glass doors into the mall, into his sanctuary, where he could live as an American and pretend the throwaways of the Soviets, living like their neighborhood was Little Russia, didn’t dictate his life.
But they did. The Bratva would party at his little, rundown house until the vodka bottles ran dry. Then the men would pass out with the cigarette smoke so thick that it still hung in the air when Alexander’s alarm went off. Tanya would cluck about the passed-out bodies they’d have to step over as they left for the school bus each morning.
He wandered along the crowded mall walkways then checked his watch. One hour until the time he promised his father he’d help work on a car, stripping it for parts. He never asked where the cars came from and didn’t want to know. That way, he could pretend they weren’t stolen.
Alexander ducked into Sherman’s. Expensive trinkets sparkled as far as the eye could see. He liked to brush his hands over the clothes, touch the leather, and inhale the colognes. The extravagance was very American—he was an American, but he didn’t feel like one. Not as a first-generation American with Russian as his native tongue and accented English. Then there was his haircut that never seemed to look right, his clothes that never seemed to fit right.
“Sir, can I help you?”
The voice made him jump. Alexander ran his hand along a glass case. “No.”
“If you need anything…” She eyed his too-short pants and worn jacket.
But Alexander moved around the corner and headed to another rack before he’d let her questioning look humiliate him.
A prick of awareness caught his attention, and his eyes tracked to the side. What was his mother doing here?
Alexander ducked behind a jewelry stand and studied her. Mama had wrinkles that had arrived too early, courtesy of cigarettes, alcohol, and Dad. She wore her best slacks in an attempt to fit in at Sherman’s, but it was her long coat with the oversized pockets that Alexander focused on.
He’d never seen her shoplift, but there was no other reason she wore that coat. He moved to stay out of Mama’s line of sight. She inspected a row of necklaces—the long kind that dangled—occasionally holding them to her neck.
Now earrings, too. Mama pulled her hair back, tilting her head to the side. She looked up at the light and then around, moving to another mirror. Same modeling moves, switching the handful of earrings and necklaces.
“Sir, can I help you?”
He jumped back as the Sherman’s clerk did a harsh up-and-down inspection of his ill-fitting clothes. It was a miracle she didn’t ask if he were homeless. “No, I’m fine.”
“Are you interested in a scarf—”
“No.” Had she seen what he was watching? He’d be in trouble if he brought attention to his mom. His stomach turned. The clerk’s eyes narrowed, but she wandered away with a promise to check back.
Paranoia crept up his spine as he sensed that the clerk had followed him. He moved around, eyeing his mom as he did. Her methodical ways intrigued him.
“Son.” The store clerk tapped his shoulder. “We have a no-loitering policy. Do you need anything?”
“I’m not loitering. I’m thinking.” Again, he walked away from her, wishing he could watch his mother work. How funny was it that the clerk questioned him about loitering when his mom was nearby shoplifting, all so they could have more alcohol and cigarettes.
He rolled his eyes. Why couldn’t he have parents who paid more attention to him than they did to the Mikhailovs—a mom and dad who asked how school was, not whether Alexander or Tanya could help with Bratva business? As if it were ever a question. It was more like an expectation. But he wanted his dad’s attention, and during Bratva business was the only time the man talked to him.
“If what you’re thinking”—the clerk trailed him—“isn’t about a scarf, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Alexander rolled his eyes. “I’m trying to imagine my sister in one of these. Okay? She deserves it.”
Pity flashed in the clerk’s eyes. Alexander didn’t know how to handle the combination of familial loyalty and disgust.
“All right, then,” she cooed and gave him a sympathetic shrug. “I’m sure she would look lovely in any of these.”
“Mm-hmm.” His gaze shifted to his mom, surprised that she was still in Sherman’s. “She would.”
“Are you okay?” the clerk asked.
“Fine. Dah. Yes.” He focused quickly on the woman in front of him. Damn, he didn’t like speaking to others, particularly in Russian. Maybe Mom shoplifting made him nervous. Alexander stepped away and stumbled back into the pathway of people. They blocked the view of his mom. Or maybe she was finally gone. She’d been in the store for a while. He checked his watch—oh, he needed to leave soon too. If he didn’t help tear that car apart, Dad would be pissed.
Wait, there was his mom. She was still there? Two store clerks hovered next to her, haphazardly checking tags. Were they on to her?
Alexander’s stomach dropped. If Mom had clerks tailing her, she needed to leave. Now.
The two clerks came closer, triangulating. There was no doubt. She’d been made. And then there was a security guard, hanging back and ready to assist. Damn it.
His mind rushed. What was he supposed to do? Maybe help. If she were caught, Dad would be a nightmare, but that wasn’t his concern. The Mikhailov bosses were dangerous.
Adrenaline fueled his anxious thoughts, and Alexander rushed ahead. Almost without a plan, he grabbed anything he could. Racks of purses caught in his arms. They toppled and crashed. He punched a tower of boxes. Rings scattered, and the river of people shouted and skidded.
“What are you doing? Stop!” The sales clerk who had pitied him chased the expensive boxes.
Alexander bolted away, having no idea what to do but lead the Sherman’s security away from his mother. He was part of the Gaev family team. Wasn’t the point of the Bratva that they protected their own? The Mikhailovs might even hear about how brave he was!
His arm was yanked behind him, and he swung around to face a security guard.
“Son, you need to stop,” the security ordered. “Do not resist.”
He pulled back, gritting his teeth, and suddenly, his mother was next to the security guard. “What are you doing?”
What was he doing? What was she doing! She was supposed to go! He created a diversion for her to escape.
“Ma’am,” a clerk said behind them, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Can you come with us?”
Rage exploded deep within Alexander. “Do not touch her!”
The man tugged his mom back as the security guard urged him away.
Mom kept her eyes on him. All he could see were her hazel eyes. Her experience. Her calm. Whatever came next would be okay.
“It will be okay,” she whispered like a lullaby.
He realized he was pulling on the guard’s arm. “Why are you still here?”
“Khoroshiy mal'chik,” she said with a maternal voice he’d never heard before.
Good boy? That didn’t make sense. Unless… He squinted. “Are you proud of me?”
“Your father will be too,” she promised.
He’d made them proud. Had that ever happened before? But everything had gone so wrong. He could imagine the fighting that would happen when Dad found out she didn’t complete her job, and if it were up to the Mikhailovs, she could be in danger. They’d owe money or worse, though he didn’t know what that meant.
A crowd of store employees and shoppers gathered around. Hot embarrassment burned in his cheeks and set his ears on fire—but his dad would be proud. Never once in his twelve years—not for football or wrestling, not for good grades or report cards—had they been proud of him.
Alexander’s chest expanded. He felt taller than before—broader, stronger, smarter than he’d ever been. “Ya tebya yublyu, Mama.”
“I love you too.” She beamed as the creases around her eyes deepened.
Now he understood what made a man: family and loyalty.
Twenty Years Later
This helicopter’s upward maneuver to a rescue mission was goddamn hell—if hell was a frozen Russian tundra during a snowstorm. Locke Oliver dug his thumbs behind the dark straps that belted him into his seat. The five-point harness stood out like a tic-tac-toe board across his arctic camo. He leaned into his headset, ready to razz his team leader, Rocco. “I thought someone said we were headed to a resort.”
The center of gravity tipped, and the helicopter pitched back and forth, stabilizing.
“I did,” Parker said in their earpieces from the safe confines of Titan Group’s war room. “Sochi is an hour away.”
“This is a frozen hurricane,” Locke grumbled.
“He speaks.” Jax laughed. “Our boy Locke must be mega-worried.”
Bishop muttered in their earpieces, echoing Locke’s thoughts about Jax’s need to be the team’s constant dickhead.
“Quit your bitching,” Brock mumbled as he piloted the helicopter. “If Rapunzel doesn’t like the snow, he doesn’t like the snow. Who the hell likes ice pellets the size of bullets?”
“If it’s not buzzed, it’s long?” Locke grumbled again. Brock’s humor was one thing. Easygoing. Jax… was Jax. A prick.
“You could use a haircut,” Rocco said, looking unfazed by the goddamn blizzard they were flying into for an extraction mission. “And maybe listen better in the briefing. A frozen hurricane might’ve been mentioned.”
“It was not,” Parker interjected from Titan’s warm, dry war room. “Don’t sully my reporting with your BS.”
“Jax and Locke were hoping for downtime by the pool.” Cash leaned back from his position next to Brock at the control panel.
“Looking for ladies,” Roman added. It seemed like he wanted to be on this helo as much as Locke did.
“Easy, baby,” Brock crooned as they lurched.
The wind howled against the belly of the helicopter as they gained altitude in the Krasnaya Polyana Mountains. Locke ground his molars. He didn’t doubt Brock, but conditions changed fast. He’d call this damn near a whiteout, and this bird was moving back and forth like popcorn on a windy day.
Brock’s voice crackled with interference in the headsets. “ETA, two minutes.”
“Simple job.” Rocco readied them up for the subfreezing op. “We have one task: to find this dude and haul his ass home.”
The team responded with ooh-rahs and hoorahs. Locke grunted too, closing his eyes and focusing on what they knew. A DC-based teacher with an elite exchange program had found himself the target of the FSB. Russian Intelligence was no joke, and if they wanted him dead… The guy was lucky he’d found a safe place to hide at the ski resort.
The request for extraction had come in under duress, and when Titan received the information from St. Andrew’s High School that the FSB was hunting one of their own, Locke had written the guy off. They had little information. Something about disrespecting the Mikhailov family.
Disrespecting the Mikhailov family? No telling what that meant. The Mikhailovs ruled the Russian government and ran organized crime. An American could play cards wrong and insult a generation of Mikhailovs. Either way, that corrupt and powerful family wanted a piece of his American ass, and it didn’t bode well for the teacher surviving before Titan arrived.
Locke listened to the ping-ping-ping of the sleet against the metal. This wouldn’t be a silent in-and-out job. That was the only way to do it—get in and get the fuck out—and they were choppering in because the roads were closed. Even the ski resort had shut down. Due. To. Snow. In Russia.
The helo lurched, and Brock cursed a storm in his headset. “Thirty seconds.” They spun sideways. “Or less. Goddamn. Getting this bird down.”
Locke’s ears popped, and the air was thin. They swayed hard side to side. Mother Nature needs to chill the fuck out. Roman’s ironclad face again matched what Locke was thinking.
“Piece of cake.” Jax kicked back, and Locke half wanted to punch him.
“Someone shut him up,” Brock growled.
Conditions weren’t as predicted—they were so much worse. They would never have gone up in this crazy weather.
“Ten seconds.” The toll of piloting this shitstorm covered Brock’s words. “Five. Fuck it. Out. Out. Let’s get that hatch open and punch out!”
The helicopter jarred to a hovering standstill. Locke slammed his teeth together.
“Smooth as silk,” Rocco muttered, yanking off his headset and grabbing his facemask and pulling it down.
“Stay safe,” Parker said. He even sounded warm all the way from HQ in the States.
Locke pulled his headset off and donned the facemask and comm piece. The hatch opened, and hell howled with its white wind.
“We’re a go,” their team leader said.
The frozen mountains mocked them. The howling wind blew cold and cruel, and Locke’s toes curled. It would be a miracle if the teacher weren’t a solid piece of icy human meat. Even if the civilian were sheltered in a ski-patrol shack, Locke didn’t see how survival was possible in this icebox.
Locke jumped into the whirlwind and sank into the fresh snow. “Whoa, baby!”
With a snarl, he unsheathed the shovel and dug his pathway forward as the tink-tink-tink of icy snow hit his goggles. Crunch, cut, crunch, cut. He dug and moved, sweat and heat building under his thermal layers, until the Titan team hit the trees.
“Eyes up,” Rocco ordered. “Get down. Keep your head on the swivel.”
The wind howled as he dropped, and damn, the snow made every move a thousand times harder.
“What are you seeing?” Parker asked from the other side of the globe.
“Sideways snow,” Locke reported. “White as far as the eye can see.”
Others echoed the same.
“Pulling out,” Brock’s voice crackled from the helicopter. “Be back when you radio.” The helicopter lifted away and dropped into the snowy valley.
“Titan Two, keep moving,” Rocco ordered.
Locke, Jax, and Bishop—dubbed Titan Two for this job—pushed up but stayed at surface level.
“Eyes and ears,” Rocco said, referring to his sniper and spotter, Cash and Roman. “Head out. Keep us clean and clear in case those FSB fucks are hanging close.”
Cash and Roman melted into the white abyss.
Titan Two moved boots too. Every step took the strength of ten. Thin air and snow-weighted steps depleted oxygen from their bodies. What condition would the teacher be in?
“There we go.” Jax signaled their rendezvous location. “Twenty yards ahead.”
“Good eyes,” Rocco said.
Locke caught sight of the ski-patrol shack. Shack was a questionable term. If it had electricity, that would be a miracle. The thing had been made for the ski-resort conditions but maybe not for long-term housing. The SOS cell phone call had been placed to the US almost thirty hours earlier, and even that call, their intelligence report said, was broken and marred by interference then cut short. There wasn’t a follow-up phone call, and all return calls and attempts to find the signal had failed.
Titan Two closed in on the drift-covered shack. The snow had all but blocked one side. Too much longer, and it would be buried in totality with no new air supply. Locke glanced at the white, pillowed snow. Hell, if the building was covered, forget ever finding it. Even though Parker had triangulated where the call had come from, it almost looked like a snowdrift. Too much longer, and they wouldn’t be able to help.
“No known targets,” Roman announced.
“Stay on guard.” Rocco signaled for them to move.
Warily, they stepped from the tree line into the open snow and moved to the front of the ski-patrol shack and dug to make an entrance. A minute later, the door was visible.
“Knock, knock,” Jax joked, and Rocco pushed him aside.
Shovels sheathed, they grabbed their weapons, ready to breach the door and enter. Hopefully, the civilian would be alive. No one wanted a dead teacher. Rocco pushed the door in and cracked the light. They filed in, taking positions, and Locke saw a hump under a layer of blankets. Nothing moved.
Damn it… dead teacher.
They stood at the ready, waiting. Bishop and Rocco were on either side of Locke.
Jax stomped a boot. “Wake up.”
The blanket moved. A small twinge of relief surged in Locke’s blood—wait. The blanket moved twice. Locke’s finger caressed the trigger for whoever else might unexpectedly join them.
“We have two people here,” Rocco reported to HQ as they all lifted their weapons, targeting the moving lumps under the blankets. “Parker, you read me?”
Unexpected situations didn’t fly well in Parker Black’s war room. Maybe the teacher’s disrespect of a Russian family had nothing to do with a simple card game but rather with a person—a much bigger problem for Titan and the extraction.
A couple slowly sat up. They could have been cold or sick. Who knew? But they were alive. That was what mattered—assuming they were friendly—and they huddled under blankets and coats. Locke didn’t see a risk or weapons pointed their way.
Rocco gave the stand-down-and-help gesture, and Titan moved into action. Jax helped them onto their feet, gave the couple instant heat packs, and quickly changed out their layers for thermo-care resuscitation blankets. Locke readied for hunger and hydration, and waited for first aid requests.
“Ma’am.” Bishop moved to the teacher’s companion, assessing. “How are you?”
Locke stepped in to follow up on the teacher, but the flash of the unknown person—a woman, a redhead—caught his eye. A cold shiver of recognition tugged at his subconscious. He couldn’t shake the eerie feeling, but he needed to focus. The sense of déjà vu tickled his spine, and he rolled his shoulders, handing the teacher an energy bar. “Thirsty?”
“Yes.” The teacher—Alex Gaev—nodded.
Bishop had separated the couple. Locke tried to look out the corner of his eye, but the mask blocked his view.
“Thanks.” Alex guzzled the liquid in the bottle and glanced at the woman.
“Your girlfriend?” Locke questioned.
“No, someone the school sent.” His teeth chattered as he pulled the parka’s hood farther over his head.
“We didn’t know there were two of you.” He took the guy’s trash, shoving it into a zippered compartment.
Locke nodded and pulled off his facemask completely, needing a better glance at the redhead. Bishop stepped out of Locke’s line of sight, and he met the gaze of the woman’s blue-green eyes. He couldn’t see the few freckles he already knew she had, just like he couldn’t ignore how deeply her presence cut him, like a knife into his soul. All the memories came rushing back as the only woman he hated stared back at him.
Mere feet separated them, and Locke stumbled back. God, his chest compressed like an avalanche slide had buried him alive. “No.”
Cassidy Noble was a living memory of loss. Of memories and heartache. Of death and destruction. She reminded him of explosions and the worst that war had to offer.
Cassidy’s blue-tinged lips fell open. “Locke?”
The room came to a standstill.
“You again?” Locke’s fists bunched in his gloves—until the wind howled, and he swore he could hear bombs exploding in Iraq when the black sky glowed as bright as day. Those detonations had ruined his life. Ruined so many lives. Except he blinked back to the Krasnaya Polyana reality and stared at the woman who held all the blame caused by her flagrant—
Jax grasped his bicep. “You good, man?”
In no way was Locke good. He recoiled, his ice-cold blood matching the temperature outside. Had they risked their lives for her? No way. He shook his head. No way could the universe screw him like this.
“What’s going on?” Bishop approached him cautiously, as if Locke were a rabid animal, and Rocco moved closer to Cassidy.
Locke never misspoke. He never took a misstep. He sure as hell wouldn’t spit venom at civilians they were there to rescue. But the words that fought to roll off his tongue at that moment were inhumane. His forehead pinched. His neck felt tight. He couldn’t breathe—
“Locke.” Cassidy stretched her arm out.
“Don’t you dare,” he snapped.
Whiplash and shock hit Titan at once. The wind died to a whisper. Even Mother Nature wanted to hear what was happening.
Underneath the layers of Polartec and winter camo, his chest punched to escape the snow-soaked suit. “Of all the people and places, in a situation that could kill another team…” He raged, unable to look at his enemy. His shaky breath sputtered. “You’re here?”
Her bluish lips trembled. “I—”
“Stand down, Locke.” Rocco stepped in front of her, a gloved hand extended like a gate that Locke should not pass. “No more.”
That woman was everything that was wrong with his world and with how the military operated. Case in point: Rocco was protecting her!
Her eyelashes fluttered. “If I could explain—”
“No.” Again, Locke’s hands bunched into fists.
“Stand down,” Rocco ordered. “Get your ass back.”
Back? He’d moved? Locke blinked. Fuck. He had. “I’m having a conversation.”
Jax and Bishop flanked him, eyeing one another like they readied for a takedown.
“An aggressive one,” Rocco said, stepping closer to him in the already small shack. “With one of our extraction targets.”
Rocco, Bishop, and Jax had boxed him in. Alex Gaev stood in the background, and fucking Cassidy Noble was to the side. Some days, the paycheck was harder to earn than others.
“Take a breather,” Rocco said, an edge of no bullshit lining his words.
“I’m good.” Locke lifted a shoulder burdened by years of things he should have said and couldn’t say now.
“We’ll finish up,” Bishop quietly said.
What the hell? He was done with their patronizing bullshit. “I said I’m good.”
Locke brushed by Rocco—whose fist came slamming down as a barrier.
“Do. Not. Move. Comprende?”
Did he comprehend? Stress pulsed in his forehead, above the bridge of his nose. No. At the moment, Locke couldn’t comprehend shit, which was why he needed to work. He was so fucked-up by Cassidy that he couldn’t point out the color white while surrounded by tumbleweeds of snowdrifts. That was how wracked his brain was by the redhead hidden in a parka.
“Got it.” Locke knocked Rocco’s wrist away—
“Wrong move.” Rocco hauled his ass back and released him. “Try again. Do you got it, Locke?”
His skin crawled to get off this mountain. “Christ. Yeah. I got it.”
“Good. By the door,” Rocco ordered. “Stay your ass still.”
Locke ground his hatred for Cassidy into his molars, flexing his fists in his gloves, and tried not to implode. He couldn’t—no, he fucking wouldn’t—be another Cassidy Noble casualty, just another of her talking points. How fast would she try to profit from this rescue? Maybe she’d staged the FSB guys to further her career.
Or she could make a meme out of it. Throw it on social media. Perhaps Washington insiders needed to hear what she had to say? Or not! Locke tried to remind himself she’d had her ass kicked straight off the high-and-mighty all the way down to fallen-and-disgraced.
Cassidy wasn’t shit!
But it still didn’t help him right now. He couldn’t see straight, couldn’t breathe right, couldn’t tear off the layers that kept him warm and safe but had a stranglehold on him, squeezing the life out of him. Locke spun, needing to get the hell out of the ski-patrol shack even if that meant straight into Russia’s Arctic freeze—and he slammed into Jax.
“Brother,” Jax said.
What the fuck? They were not brothers. They were barely buds. Working beside Jax was like walking next to a wall—if that wall was an asshole with an attitude problem. That he thought to stand up for Cassidy…
“I’m cool,” he lied.
“Bro, you’re not.” Jax’s dark eyes held no emotion. “I’m doing this for you. But you can’t get around me. Fuck her, whoever she is. She isn’t worth it.”
Jax didn’t know how worth it those men’s lives had been. Locke wouldn’t touch her, but damn, he wanted to tell her… something. Anything. Everything. Whatever it would take to regain the footing he’d lost the day she destroyed his life. But what words were even adequate?
There were none. For so long, he’d said only the right words, and only when necessary. Locke snarled. That woman talked and talked and talked some more.
Jax knocked him in the chest. “I’ll haul your ass out of here if that’s what you need.”
Bishop stepped behind Jax in at show of support against Locke. Fucking hell.
Locke rolled his shoulders and tried to find the truth of it somewhere inside. “For real. I’m fine. I’m good.”
Slowly, everyone ignored the awkward reunion and returned to their tasks. Except for Locke. The nightmares of his past paralyzed him as Titan doted on the woman who’d ruined his life. Hoorah.
Between Locke and Alex, Cassidy didn’t know which way to direct her eyes or what to pay attention to as her teeth chattered. Both men had her attention and ire. That anger went both ways. Man, did she have a way with the male species or what? She certainly knew how to create misunderstandings of epic proportions. She stared at her winter snow boots and tried not to think about the last time she had seen Locke.
His blond hair had been clipped—and was coated with dripping blood, speckled with sand and dirt. Trickles of it seeped down his cheeks, painting rivers through the dust that collected on his cheeks.
He didn’t cry. Others did, but not him. His whisker-covered chin never trembled. His eyes never wavered. Such a staunch beacon of strength when the chaos of the attack settled around them.
Even years later, frozen instead of sweating, Cassidy couldn’t shake how vividly horrific the Sadr City attack had been. She ducked into her well-worn parka as though she could seal herself away from the memories, from the acrid smoke and scent of death in the Iraqi air.
How many years had it been? Didn’t matter. Nothing would erase the devastation that came from the attack the media had dubbed the Night of Fire.
Alex came up behind her as the rescue team regrouped. “How do you know that guy?”
She shrugged. “Long story.”
“He seems like your type of friend.” Alex was fishing for information. Maybe he should be an investigative reporter. Except his questioning was questionable, falling flat.
“I don’t have a type of friend.” She twisted her mouth and then pressed her cold, chapped lips together. “And we couldn’t have seemed that friendly.”
“Is that all I’m going to get?”
He laughed. “I finally have a chance to turn the tables. Maybe I should be more direct. Did your ex just show up?”
“Ha, no.” But she dropped her head back and stared at the sketchy shack room. “You’re right, though. I have been asking you a lot of questions. We almost died.”
One second, Cassidy was on a teach-abroad program, earning extra cash in Russia, and keeping up her international street cred, and the next, she and Alex were running for their lives under gunfire.
So far, Alex’s nonanswers had been unacceptable, which she’d reminded him about since the moment she caught her breath and they realized no one had tracked them into this dinky hut. Alex’s saving grace was that he had a way off this mountain that didn’t involve them hitchhiking on snowmobiles. Good thing too, because neither one of them was prepared for the weather to turn.
“If not an ex-boyfriend,” Alex said. “How do you know him?”
“Will you explain the woman I saw and—”
“No. You didn’t see that. Someone else must’ve looked like me.”
“Right.” Bullshit. “And how did you know someone was going to shoot us? Did the woman tip you off?”
The only thing he had told her was that men were coming with guns and they had to leave their belongings and run.
Alex’s hazel eyes narrowed. “Explain that guy, and maybe I might remember more about the woman.”
That guy… She turned toward Locke. He obviously blamed her for everything. Who reacted like that merely from seeing her? That hurt, but he was still hurting too. Enough that two men he worked with acted as human shields, blocking him from her.
Maybe if Locke had a chance to say what he needed to, he wouldn’t look like a homicidal bully one second from self-destruction. She turned to the man who appeared in charge of the group. “Locke should come over here if that’s what he needs.”
“Oh, come on.” Alex stepped to her side. “Don’t goad him.”
Locke pivoted, glaring with enough anger that Cassidy stepped back.
“Stand down.” The man in charge shook his head. “Locke and—” He turned to her as if asking her name.
“Cassidy,” she said.
“Cassidy,” he repeated. “To your corners, and stay quiet. Like fucking two-year-olds.”
Her eyes peeled back. Well, hell. She was trying to help.
“That’s okay with you, Cass?” Alex stepped to the side with a wave.
She ignored Alex and stood in the corner as ordered, sneaking glances at Locke. Her head pounded, and she wanted to get away from his anger. Even if it was semi-justifiable. If he only knew the truth. If he would only listen. The stubborn jackass.
“It’s time,” their team leader barked. “Let’s go.”
Saved from her own thoughts by the Special Forces. How ironic. But they still had to travel back to the United States. Many more hours left with Locke.
That was fine by her. She had a goal for this trip, and even having to be rescued and having Locke show up wouldn’t ruin it.
When she was at home and staring in the bathroom mirror, Cassidy had promised herself that she wouldn’t see herself as the politicians and the media saw her. She didn’t have the poor judgment Locke probably thought she had, just like she wasn’t unpatriotic for refusing to give up her sources like he probably believed as well. This redhead was feisty, friendly, and fiercely committed to what she did well: the truth. The opposite of Locke Oliver.
Cassidy shivered, and their rescue team hadn’t even opened the door yet. The howling wind ridiculed them mercilessly as the group drew closer to leaving. Soon… She wriggled her toes in her boots. Soon, she would have warm clothes and hot coffee.
“Into hell we go,” someone muttered.
The door creaked open, and no matter how many layers Cassidy had on, she recoiled at the all-white sight awaiting them. An arctic abyss.
The rescue team had weapons out and surrounded her and Alex. They surged and trudged into the snow. The wind knocked her sideways, and she kept her focus on the tree line. They’d said that was their goal, promising the journey would be easier in the trees, where they’d wait for a helicopter to arrive. In this wind…
Each step took every muscle to work overtime. “Alex, wait.”
He didn’t hear her or didn’t care, pushing farther ahead of her than she could keep pace with. Someone pushed her from behind, urging her to keep up and lifting her over drifting snow humps. “Thanks,” she huffed as heavy snowflakes landed on her cheeks.
She was sweating and freezing at the same time, breathing made her lungs ache, and she needed more help than she wanted to admit to as they crouched at the base of tall, snow-covered pines.
A helicopter ascended from the closed snow trails, rising as snow swirled faster than the wind could even blow it. The man in charge of their group motioned with his arms, and the team moved en masse. Struggling in the drifts, she faltered, tripping, and strong hands grabbed her, lifted her back on her feet, and kept her moving.
“Thanks,” she mumbled again, exhausted and running low on energy. She hadn’t had decent sleep in days, nor food or drink except what they’d just given her. Fading fast, Cassidy’s muscles seemed too heavy, her head too light.
The helicopter appeared from the valley. If there wasn’t the worry about angry gunmen, she might have stood in awe of it, but there was no time for that as it hovered. As it was now, adrenaline was her only motivator.
Her tired legs throbbed. She only had to stay upright long enough to use the landing skids as a step up, then in. It sounded straightforward, but her muscles were exhausted. Her mind faded. Each breath didn’t feel strong enough, like it wasn’t getting as much as oxygen from her gasps.
They came to a stop, and she leaned forward, gloved hands on her knees, panting as she waited for each of the men to push into the helicopter.
“Cassidy! Eyes up!”
She tilted her head up. God, she was dizzy. Their hands reached down, and the white world began to spin. “Oh… no.” Her eyes closed, and she tried to find her bearings, reaching for help. She blinked open as the wind changed direction and stung her cheeks. The helicopter bobbed and floated, moving side to side in the harsh wind, and a masked man hung out, reaching for her. If she could focus on getting in… if she weren’t so drained, fatigued… “I can’t—”
Confident hands grabbed her waist and tossed her up to another set of hands that pulled her upright. Cassidy blinked, getting her bearings, not having the energy to thank anyone yet rejoicing because that was exactly what she’d needed.
Unsteady on her feet, she let a white-camo-clad man assist her into a seat as the man who’d helped her along hoisted himself in, pulling his mask to his forehead. Locke. He’d been the one behind her. He’d picked her up. Put her in. She tried to wrap her mind around his hatred and his help—a hand came close and pressed a plastic oxygen mask on her face and—oh, that was nice. Easier to breathe.
“Breathing better?” he asked as the helicopter lifted away.
She took a deeper breath. And another. “Yes.”
He sat next to her, removing his mask and hat to reveal dark hair and eyes, and pulled on a headset. “Good. I’m Jax.”
She tilted her head, not wanting to move too much. That was far more work than she was prepared for. She eyed him belting himself in, looked around, and did the same.
She pulled the oxygen mask away. “I’m good now, I think.”
A moment later, after Cassidy had caught her breath and Jax cut off the oxygen flow to the mask, she closed her eyes to the rock and roll of the helicopter and prayed as they descended the mountain. All she wanted to do was go home. There was so much work to do, and it all had to do with the question of why Alex couldn’t help but lie.
Locke had kept his eyes on Cassidy the entire time Brock piloted their chopper through the storm. The woman was fearless. Maybe tired, but fearless.
They landed in a place where Titan had a jet fueled and waiting to take them home. In all that time, he hadn’t lost sight of Cassidy. Until now.
The team hit the bathrooms at the private airport to change from the arctic camo to normal clothes that they’d fly in. One by one, they headed to the waiting jet.
Locke was the last one on, taking a phone call with Parker about an old job in Chicago. Soon as Locke wrapped, he hustled to the private jet and bounded up the stairs. It wasn’t often he had flown in a Learjet, and he was ready to relax.
The lights were dim, and everyone was conking out already. He’d be asleep as soon as he searched out a seat. Roman and Cash were already sleeping on two sets of couches, and Rocco had clearly set up shop at the table and chair, though he was nowhere to be seen. Bishop had his feet up on the seat across while talking to Alex, and Jax was passed out and had his shit all over the seat next to him. Fucking hell.
Locke rounded a partition as Rocco came around. “Sit down and make nice.”
His team leader’s usually even brown eyes were bloodshot and exhausted.
Hell, they were all tired. “Roger that.”
“Make no trouble for her.”
Her? Locke’s eyes tracked over Rocco’s shoulder. Damn it. Last seat available was next to Cassidy. “Boss? There’s bullshit history there, and I don’t think it’s—”
“Are you going to cause a problem?” Rocco growled, exhaustion adding grit to the question.
Damn it. “No.”
With a nod that might as well have been you wouldn’t dare, Rocco walked past the partition and settled into the desk and chair far away from Cassidy that Locke would’ve sold his truck to trade for.
This was going to be awkward. But with his every muscle aching, and half the team snoring already, he planned to be lights out before Cassidy Noble said two words to him.
Locke grabbed an army sweatshirt and stowed his go-bag in a bin nearby. The sweatshirt could be anything. A pillow. A blindfold. Another partition if he needed to block the view of his red-haired enemy.
Without the protection of the death storm and the dark belly of the chopper, Locke couldn’t avoid the vibrant—though exhausted—sparkle of the woman he’d last seen in Iraq. Cassidy was curled in her seat with a book in her lap, toying with the pile of dark-red hair knotted on top of her head. The plane’s interior lights showed an almost hidden smattering of freckles and her blue-green eyes. There were valid reasons why she had done well as a television correspondent in the desert. Even in hellacious conditions, she could still look camera ready.
“Joining you,” he mumbled and lumbered into the luxury seat. Aircraft confines and comfort weren’t made for men like him, and already the space seemed too intimate. Add supple leather, and this felt… too close for comfort. He’d kill Rocco for the forced seat assignment. Hell, he’d kill the whole team.
Her slight chin upturned and long eyelashes blinked in recognition of him standing there. “I’m sorry I upset you,” she whispered.
“Gee.” She smirked away the whisper. “Fooled me.”
“I would have thought your buddy Alex would sit with you.”
“Too much time together.” She rubbed her thumb over the corner of a paperback book. “Maybe I just have that effect on men I work with overseas.”
He frowned. “Maybe.”
“Don’t be a jerk, Locke. I don’t see you winning awards for attitude and compassion.”
Great. A lecture. Somehow, words of wisdom about how to behave didn’t seem appropriate coming from this woman. “Don’t care anyway.”
“We should hash out—”
“I’m asleep, Cassidy.”
“I’m willing to have a conversation about it.”
Nope. Not going to happen. Especially surrounded by his team. Stuck in a tin tube with his nightmare for hours on end? No. Locke grumbled, balled the sweatshirt into a pillow, and closed his eyes.
“Right. I’m asleep too, Captain Avoidance. So much for talking it out. Again.”
Talking it out. Did Cassidy want a fight on an airplane? Really? They could talk out the loss of life, maybe hold hands and chant their way to inner peace.
The loudspeaker crackled once, and a real captain came on. “It’s a short runway and a long trip. Buckle in, and go to sleep. We’ll be wheels up before you know it.”
How the hell was he going to sleep sitting next to…? Locke stole a glance out of the corner of his eye, and Cassidy was dead out. Her pink lips parted, and she leaned against the wall, oblivious to the world.
Dreaming, she didn’t look like the devil or seem like someone who had enough venom in her to destroy an army unit. With her thick red hair knotted high—some pieces had fallen free, covering part of her face—he could see her allure.
Her book slid off her lap and landed cover side up. It was not what he’d have guessed she’d pick for a leisure read. Then again, he didn’t know a thing about Cassidy Noble.
Shadows of Truth. His eyebrow rose as he focused on the subheading: Reality’s Fight for Freedom. Scowling to himself, he mulled over her choice of reading material and the fact that she’d fought to tell him something in the snow shack from hell and even just before she fell asleep.
Their aircraft launched into the air. She didn’t stir, only shifted, sliding her weight from one side of the seat to the other—toward him. And she slouched, piled against him, asleep and unaware, and damn his manners and the soft purr of her dreamy relaxation as she nuzzled against his shoulder, and he went ramrod straight. Paralysis had taken over, and it seemed his biceps had coaxed her into falling further into sleep. Cassidy was the cause of his tormented, sleepless nights, and he wanted to shake her awake, but he couldn’t rip his shoulder away.
He had a reputation as a man of few words with a shoulder to lean on—interesting that the one person he hated was literally taking advantage of that shoulder, and after he had given her too many words and not listened at all.
Locke tucked the army sweatshirt under her neck—as a barrier—and she looped her arm up and snaked around the new pillow, latching onto his forearm in the process.
“No, no, Cassidy,” he whispered, failing to extract himself. “Don’t do… that.”
She sighed and pouted in a deep sleep. Whoa—that was quite the face. But he wouldn’t fall for it. She’d be lethal with that pout, those lips, and that hair if she had half an idea the effect they had. “Not cool, woman.”
This time, he’d get out of her grip even if he woke her up. Locke held his breath and tugged his arm. His face scrunched, but finally, he was free.
Quickly, he looked around. No one had been watching. Jesus. He shook his arm, smoothing out his shirt, and the warmth of her touch dissipated. The idea that Cassidy had been wrapped around him was absurd.
“She’s a snake.” He’d never forget the Night of Fire and the deaths of men who were like his brothers. Locke rubbed his arm then scrubbed his face with both hands, trying to fight the confusion and the memories and maybe have a normal flight’s worth of sleep.
She stirred, but she didn’t look evil. No horns hiding, no whiptail curled beside her. He needed to remember all women looked pleasant when they slept. The sweet, sighing lady next to him was nothing but a trap.
Two days. Two whole days had passed since Titan had returned from the Krasnaya Polyana Mountains, and all Locke had thought about was Sadr City. The entire team sat around the war room table under the intense scrutiny of Jared Westin. The heavy aroma of coffee hung in the air as Boss Man cracked his knuckles.
With each bone popping, Locke imagined that Jared was ready to punch his face in. Even Thelma, Jared’s bulldog, gave Locke the stink eye when he walked into the meeting. Everyone knew he’d been out of line in that damn snow-covered ski-patrol shack. Even the damn dog.
On screen, the thermal images remained paused. Overall, the post-op situational assessment was positive. But after this meeting was over, Jared was going to shred him.
If he could have changed his initial reaction to Cassidy, yeah, he would’ve played it differently. But bonus points for sitting next to her on the plane, right? Maybe Rocco had even set that up so Locke wouldn’t get fired.
Locke chewed the inside of his cheek. What was done was done. Dole out the punishment. Commence with the ass ripping. No one wanted a boot from Boss Man, but if it was coming, get it over with and move on. All the post-op analysis was slow torture. Locke’s attention turned back to Boss Man’s lecture on attitude problems in the field.
“Yeah, jackass,” Jax mumbled next to him and stuck a pen in his mouth.
Locke twisted in the chair. “Say something?”
He smirked, shaking his head. “Nah, bro.”
Rocco slammed his hand on the table. “Shut your faces. Both of you.”
Jax grinned like an asshole, pen still between his teeth, as Rocco leaned back in his chair. The temperature dropped a hundred degrees in the room as Jared turned steel eyes toward Locke’s corner of the table. Even Jax buttoned down the asshole routine as Jared balled his fists and planted them on the table like two tree trunks holding up a massive attitude problem.
Yeah. The day sucked, and it wasn’t past nine in the morning.
“Jax,” Jared boomed, and the walls shook.
For all Jax’s bravado, Locke could feel unease curl in the pit of his teammate’s stomach.
“You’re on notice. I’m done with the bullshit and the attitude. I will personally remove it from your stinking face if I see it again. Do you read me?”
“Loud and clear.”
“And you.” Black laser eyes moved away from Jax and drilled into Locke. “Stand up.”
Locke hit his feet. Motherfucker. This sucks.
Across the room, Jared righted himself. They were two big guys with a table full of tough men and women between them. Venom fueled Jared’s eyes. Ripcord-tight tension flexed in his cheeks. Even the tendons in his neck acted as though they wanted to crawl out of the man’s body and strangle the life out of Locke.
He took a deep breath. Public flogging—all right, he’d survive. Humiliation—got it, bring on the embarrassment. Cassidy had dealt with that too, in the public eye, no less. Not that he wanted to find her as an ally in this, since she was the cause of his problems.
“Make peace with it.” Boss Man’s ass-kicking words bitch-slapped Locke across the room. “Whatever it is, find it and do it.”
He blinked, dumbfounded. He wanted to glance around to see if he was missing the ass kicking that about to commence, but he didn’t dare move a muscle.
“All right.” Jared turned to Rocco. “That’s it. Got anything?”
That was it…? Locke, still standing, tried to understand if Rocco and Jared had moved on to regular business or what.
“Nothing else.” Rocco pushed back in the rolling chair. “Oh yeah. Don’t forget dinner at Winters’s tonight. Bravo Zulu, guys and gals. Bravo Zulu.”
Everyone stood up with job-well-done camaraderie as Locke dropped down. Make peace with it? Make peace with the Night of Fire and with Cassidy Noble? Jared didn’t have a clue.
Jax peered down at him as the room emptied. “Dude, that motherfucker straight shaved fifteen years off my life,” he grumbled, eyeing Locke. “Apparently, yours too.”
Locke ducked his head in his hands and leaned forward on his elbows. Shit, this morning sucked. A hand slapped his back, and he turned to see Cash walk by.
“No one’s slapping me on the back.” Jax elbowed Cash, who threw a middle finger into the air.
“Learn not to be a dick,” Locke muttered.
“Really?” Jax stretched with a Cheshire cat smile on his face. “The man of few words with gravitas and bullshit all but clobbers a woman on an op, and you’re telling me not to be a dick.”
“Shove it,” Locke muttered.
“What?” Jax leaned back in the chair and laughed. “She give you the clap? Stole your pretty-boy heart?”
Locke lunged and wrapped his hand around Jax’s throat, knocking over their chairs, and he pinned him to the wall. Nose to nose, both men stared, Locke’s hand still gripping his teammate’s throat. “Fuck you.”
“Whoa, assholes.” Bishop wrapped an arm around Locke’s chest, handily separating them.
Locke didn’t want a fight. He wasn’t there to get into it with a man who needed to be his brother. He just needed Jax to shut the fuck up.
“You cool?” Bishop had him wedged against his chest.
“Couldn’t be better.” Locke shouldered away, not entirely losing Bishop’s hold on him.
“Yeah, we’re just fucking around,” Jax said, still smiling as if he needed his face punched in.
Bishop maintained his hold up to Locke’s neck as he stepped forward, giving him a hard yank before pushing him free. “You? You good?”
“As it gets,” Locke said flatly.
A deep throat cleared dramatically. Locke turned. Cash was standing by the doorjamb, watching Titan’s newest teammates fall the fuck apart. He stared like a babysitter unsure about what to do with his charges. The three of them fell silent.
“They’re fine,” Bishop said.
“Looks like.” Cash smirked and shook his head. “Locke… look.” Titan’s sniper let seconds drift. “If you need to find some peace, you should talk to Brock. And Jax? The asshole routine is old, man.” Then he shook his shaggy blond hair and let the door slam.
“Hell.” Bishop dropped into a chair. “I should knock your ass to the ground for that.”
“Then do it, bro. I don’t care.” Jax tossed his middle finger again.
Locke was ready to volunteer. That asshole was about as mature as Locke was in high school.
“Seriously.” Bishop ignored Jax and tossed a pen at Locke. “She’s the catalyst. But”—Bishop widened his eyes—“what gives?”
“I lost my team in Sadr City.”
“The Sadr City attack?” Jax sobered.
Locke lifted his eyebrows, daring him to throw a middle finger or say something fucked up when the Night of Fire was mentioned.
“Damn, bro…” Jax mumbled, finally acting like a decent human being—and Locke saw the light dawn. “The lady, the redhead. Fuck. That’s”—he gestured—“what’s her name?”
“She’s the reporter?” Bishop asked. “Man, people either believed her or hated her guts.”
“Cassidy Noble. The reporter.” Locke’s molars ground before he could work his jaw loose. “Men died. She’s to blame. Can we leave it at that?”
They were smart enough not to say anything for a minute.
“You know, a lot has come out since then,” Bishop said.
“A lot hasn’t,” Locke snapped. “And too much came out to begin with. Everyone fucking died because of it.”
Bishop hummed in thought.
Locke rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, letting tension tighten in his tendons. “It’s her fault they died. She killed them.”
“Insurgent attacks, man. They fucking killed them,” Jax said. “If she killed anyone, she’d be in prison.”
“She’s a traitor.” Locke threw his fists down as blood pounded in his ears.
“Didn’t she go to prison?” Bishop asked.
“Not for killing anyone,” Jax said.
“She’s a traitor,” Locke repeated, growing furious that they were discussing her.
“She’s not there anymore.” Jax’s dark eyes narrowed. “Traitors head to prison for a lifetime. You can’t call her a traitor just because some headlines screamed—”
“The headlines fucking screamed the truth,” Locke said, remembering the news as it filtered back to Iraq. “The woman is a cold-hearted, traitorous murderer.”
“Then why is she walking around, free to live her life and get stuck in Russia?” Jax raised his eyebrows.
“Man, I was overseas too, and I still remember watching the reports and news.” Bishop leaned against the wall. “But it’s been a while, and I know other information trickled out—”
Locke saw red. “You’re questioning me? On Sadr City?” Hell, he was so angry he heard red. “Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
“I was there! I held their bodies. Watched them die! I saw her. Heard her. Knew who she was with and what she was saying! I knew!”
“Not enough to get your facts straight, bro,” Jax said.
“Enough,” Bishop snapped. “Both of you, give it a break already.”
Jax threw both hands in the air. “Just saying. If this is what has you all moody-blues-brothers, silent-goddamn-night all the time, and it’s been this long? Educate yourself. Don’t live in fear and the past.”
Locke blinked, stupid and dumbfounded for the second time that morning. “What the fuck ever.” He needed to clear his head and get far away from Jax.
Jax chuckled, antagonizing the hell out of him. “Then Google her sweet ass if you’re so interested in disagreeing.”
“When did you become the voice of reason?” Bishop dropped into a chair and eyed Jax, who had his phone out.
Jax lifted his middle finger, not looking in Bishop’s direction. “What’s her name again?”
“Cassidy Noble,” Locke spat out, disgusted that he had to repeat it.
“That’s right. Noble.” Jax thumbed her name into his phone, and Locke waited for his teammate to agree. After a couple of seconds, Jax tapped the screen and read. He scrolled, tapped, read, and repeated the whole damn process over again.
“Did we save a traitor or not, Jax?” Bishop asked, stretching, seemingly not in the least bit concerned that they’d braved an arctic hurricane for a traitorous, murderous bitch.
“Not,” Jax announced.
“What the fuck, man?” Locke rolled his shoulders, needing to get out of the conversation. “You didn’t look up the right lady, or you didn’t read her shit right.”
“I’m reading about an embedded journalist who almost died right alongside you.”
“Yeah.” His lips drew in disgust. “And?”
“And she wouldn’t release her sources.”
“Of course she fucking wouldn’t. What else?”
Jax shrugged and scrolled. “Some bullshit here, a little bullshit there—”
“Out of every fucking thing that has been written on her, those are the two things you choose to define her as? Jesus Christ. I’m out of here.” Locke didn’t want to end up in jail for knocking off a teammate.
“Stand your ground, Lone Ranger,” Cash said from where he stood by the door.
Fucking hell. Locke hadn’t realized Cash had reappeared. Damn snipers and their ability to sneak into places. “I didn’t realize we had a babysitter. Or that you were a spy.”
“Locke, my man, you are on thin ice. You read me?” Cash strolled into the room and clapped and held out his hands.
Jax tossed the phone. Cash caught it one-handed. After an eternity of the same tap-and-scroll bullshit Jax had danced through, Cash nodded his shaggy blond head. Locke thought he and Cash must have some camaraderie, maybe because neither kept his hair clipped, but Cash wasn’t on Locke’s side any more than these jerks were.
Cash tossed the phone back to Jax. “All this says is—”
“She’s to blame.” Locke would stand by that to the end of his days.
Two lines formed on the bridge of Cash’s nose. “Damn, you’re a headache. It says that she listened and stood by her man. Which is more than I can say about you at the moment.”
“You think I didn’t stand by the men who died?” Locke growled, stepping toward Cash.
Cash eyeballed him, ready for any challenge that would quickly go to blows. “You need to get yourself in check before Rocco or Boss Man benches your ass.”
Locke recalibrated. “I’ve never wavered in my support for anyone in Sadr City. None of the men in that unit. No one that she claimed she was protecting.”
“Well,” Cash snapped, “you’re wavering in support for this team now, asshat. Try that thought on for size. When Jax is Mr. Calm and Courtesy, you have a problem.”
“Dick,” Jax mumbled.
“Denying it?” Cash turned his head slightly.
Jax shook his head. “Nope.”
“Didn’t think so.” His eyes narrowed in assessment. “All right, then. We’re in agreement?”
“But I don’t get it.” Bishop pushed out of his chair. “Why did anyone say she was to blame when enemy combatants killed Americans?”
Locke pivoted, seething. Maybe they needed to Google. “She was a distraction. A leaker. A writer of bullshit. And a reporter of crap.”
“Who leaked to her?” Jax asked. “Was it true? Why aren’t you giving her any credit when there are pages of hits calling her a damn hero for what she exposed?”
Locke’s stomach churned. “Would you shut the fuck up? Even if she was, even if she did, they knew our weakest link. It was a precision hit.”
“It was an awful day. Has anyone ever denied that?” Cash asked quietly. He shook his head. “No one.”
“Goddamn it!” Locke seethed. “She reported where we needed more men. That the front lines weren’t covered. That the combatants we were training weren’t up to snuff and the resources were lacking.”
“It was true,” Bishop mumbled.
“So fucking what? You don’t say it! You don’t! You don’t talk to civilians; you don’t tell reporters.”
“Someone did.” Bishop took a deep breath, knowing firsthand what they were lacking overseas.
A vein pulsed in Locke’s temple. “My unit became a political lesson learned, which is a clean way to say mass casualties and loss of life. Because of politicians and their deals, and reporters and their guesses and leaks.” His tight chest ached. “She’s the reason we were hit. She killed them.”
They fell silent.
“I get it,” Bishop said, shaking his head. “She did her thing. People died.”
“They would’ve died anyway.” Jax rubbed a hand over his face as if even he didn’t want to say that. “Insurgents saw what you saw. Why are you fighting this so hard?”
Locke dropped his head. “Fucking hell… I don’t want to make peace with it.”
“Cassidy Noble probably feels a lot of pain too,” Jax said. “She got nothing for what she did.”
“Nothing but a fall from grace and a target on her back for people that needed a scapegoat.” Cash gestured toward Jax’s phone. “Brother, make peace.”
No. Locke took a page out of Jax’s book and lifted a middle finger. “Sit and spin.”
There’s only one person to blame for darkening the last years of Locke Oliver’s military career: Cassidy Noble. And damn if he doesn’t have to save her from the side of a frozen mountain.
Even after the job is done, he can’t shake the woman from his thoughts. He blames her for the deaths in his Army unit so many years ago, and he’s not ready to let that go. It’s driving him to the point of distraction, and now his Titan Group boss says to get his act together or get out.
THE FEISTY, FALLEN REPORTER
Cassidy is a disgraced journalist, once accused of treason—Or she’s an American hero. It depends on who you ask. She’s on a mission to rebuild her name and started with a simple question but discovered a complex web of spies and possible human trafficking.
Titan Group believes in her. Locke does not. Until he can’t deny the truth any longer about the past or what she’s uncovered in her investigation.
BECOME AN INSEPARABLE TEAM
Cassidy volunteers to go undercover. Locke would do anything to stay by her side as she slips into the network and is sold to the highest bidder. All is going right until everything goes wrong. Nothing is as they expect, including falling in love with the woman he thought he hated.