Murphy is right. What can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment.
The voice came from faraway, floating through the fog in his brain. Sweat coated his body, his mouth dry as cotton.
Fucking black death prison, deep in the heart of Russia, run by inmates rather than law enforcement. It would kill him, like so many others, he was sure.
I won’t give Vaslov the satisfaction.
Something poked his arm. He lay still, his body so heavy he would've sworn he was paralyzed. Maybe he was.
“Aidan!” Poke, poke, poke. "Wake up!”
The thin wire holding him together, snapped. He didn't have time to think, his body reacting, dragging him out of the nightmare with rapid speed.
Bam, in the blink of an eye he came off the bed, grabbed the hand of the person poking him, and now had said person on the floor, his larger body hulking over them.
A woman screamed and the sound cut off mid-vocalization, a muffled gurgling noise following. He rammed a knee into his assailant’s stomach, one hand pinning a wrist to the floor, the other around their neck.
“Aidan!” Someone yelled from his left. "Boss, it's me. Me and Megan! Take it easy. We're not here to hurt you."
He blinked away the sweat and nightmare, his eyes focusing enough to see and aww shit. This wasn't good.
“Let her go, boss," he heard the familiar voice say. “You don't want to do this."
He couldn't seem to get enough air in his lungs, a crushing vise tightening around his chest. His head pounded, he couldn't swallow. Where am I? How did I get free of my shackles?
The only answer that came was the cold bite of metal against his temple, the calculating sound of a hammer being pulled back. “You're not in Russia anymore, McNamara. You're in Texas. You're free, not in some goddamn prison. Now, wake the fuck up before you do something you'll regret."
One quick movement and he could disarm the man holding a gun to his head. Another, and he could kill him.
The woman he held pinned to the floor gave a squeak.
The fog in his brain lifted, the grip around his chest released, and he found himself staring down into the terrified eyes of Megan Caines, his boss’s personal assistant. Everything came back to him in one fell swoop.
Scrambling backward, he lifted his hands in the air and glanced up to see Joey Tomas holding the gun on him as he reached down to help Ms. Caines to her feet.
“You okay, boss?” Joey asked as he shuffled Megan behind him. She coughed, rubbing her throat. ”You with us now?"
The nightmare flashback still hung on the edges of his mind, like sleep in the corners of his eyes. Aidan sat on the edge of the bed, scrubbing his face with his hands. “Jesus, Megan. I'm so fucking sorry."
Joey pocketed the gun. “My fault. We knocked, but you didn't hear." He was close to six feet with dark hair and deeply tanned skin. Megan peeked over his shoulder, her generous heels giving her the ability to stay behind Joey's protective stance and stare at Aidan with wide eyes. "I know it's your day off, but we have a new arrival. Mr. DeMarco sent us to wake you. I should’ve done it alone."
Always dangerous to sneak up on him, especially when he was dead to the world. The PTSD was borderline these days, but still a constant shadow. Maybe if he hadn't been up until four AM working on the project hidden behind the false wall in his room, hadn't been so deeply asleep, he wouldn't have come out of it ready to kill someone.
He scrubbed his face. “Yeah, you should have." Joey knew about the PTSD, the nightmares. Knew about his past in that Russian hellhole. Not everything, of course, but enough.
Goddamnit, what if he’d hurt Megan? Killed her? He shut that line of thought down, knowing he’d figure out something later and apologize. “What's so urgent?"
“The new arrival is Protocol Alpha. Mr. DeMarco said you’d want to handle her security personally."
Aidan scratched the back of his head, squinting at the sunlight coming through the patio doors near the bed. He'd never hung blinds or curtains, and while he didn't have a fancy room overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, he could see a sliver of water from his balcony. “Who is she?"
Joey shook his head and shrugged. “No clue."
Megan, braver now, stepped out from behind her protector. “She isn't on the guest list. There're plenty of rooms available, but not Alpha rooms. The suites are booked!”
The Gulf Breeze Spa and Resort sat on the pristine beaches of South Padre Island, Texas, and hosted a wide assortment of rich and famous visitors from all over the world. Actors, sports players, tycoons and billionaires…as well as a few spies and lowlifes like him.
Clients fit into one of three categories: alphas were the big whales, the billionaires and tycoons. Whoever this woman was, she obviously took it for granted they’d have one of their three famous penthouse suites available at a moment’s notice.
Aidan sometimes resented that kind of person, one who had privileges he couldn't even dream of, and took the world for granted. Not that he had any desire to be rich or famous, but common decency and unselfishness didn't cost a damn thing in his world.
Doesn't matter what I think, or who I like and don't. This is the job. Besides, truth was, he was married to a very rich woman. “What time will she be here?"
Megan had gone to Aidan's closet and pulled it open. She flicked hangers, withdrawing a fresh suit to hang on the bathroom door. It annoyed him, her acting familiar with his stuff, and he shooed her away, snatching the suit before she made it to the bathroom door. There was only one woman, besides his mother, who’d he’d ever allowed to pick out his clothes.
Joey glanced at his watch. "DeMarco sent a limo to the airport to pick her up, but apparently she's driving. Should be here in eight minutes."
Great. “Give me five. I'll meet you downstairs."
* * *
Joey was an efficient right-hand man and had Aidan’s Protocol Alpha security team lined up at the front entrance by the time he made it downstairs. Megan had a personal maid and butler standing across from Joey and the team, along with the resort concierge and doorman.
It was as if they were lining up for a royal visitor. Hell, maybe they were. Wouldn't be the first time a member of a royal family spent the week with them. They usually brought their own security and even a chef. In that case, Aidan and his team played second fiddle, only lending backup when necessary. It was a pain to avoid the royal guards, but in a way, it was an easier gig than being in charge of some dickhead who thought his shit didn't stink.
Today's visitor was probably some monarch’s daughter or sister, or maybe farther down the line—sister-in-law, cousin, girlfriend.
Didn't matter. The job was the job, no matter who showed up. An Alpha got top-line everything, from security to services at the spa. There were on-site trainers and physical therapists, cabanas down by the water with their own personal waiters, a variety of massages, body treatments, and health food available 24/7.
Martin DeMarco disembarked from the elevator, straightening his tie and smiling like the Cheshire Cat. He met Aidan's eyes and clapped him on the back as he walked by. “An early Christmas present," he said, winking at Aidan. "I can't believe she's here."
“Yes, sir," he said automatically, hoping Megan wouldn't report the morning’s unfortunate incident to their mutual boss.
December was low season, the rich and famous spending the holidays with family and friends rather than at a ritzy health spa. A few here and there might despise the holidays or not have anyone to spend them with, and those misfits occasionally visited, but for the most part, December was spent prepping for the January rush, when even the Beta and Omega rooms were packed.
Through the wide expanse of glass windows, Aidan saw a slick, silver Maserati fly down the palm tree-lined drive. The woman behind the wheel had her window down, long, coppery strands blowing out the opening. Large, round sunglasses obscured her face, but as she drew to a stop at the front entrance, Aidan’s stomach dropped.
This had to be part of the nightmare, a lingering aftereffect. A hallucination at the very least, brought on by too little sleep and too much alcohol before he’d crashed into bed in the wee hours of the morning.
Because God Almighty, the woman behind the wheel could not be who he thought it was.
DeMarco looked everyone over, nodded his approval, and made for the door, the doorman opening it for him. As the woman emerged from her car, the valet hurried from behind his small desk to offer a hand. She accepted, smiling at him before turning to face Martin, who threw his arms open wide—not just to welcome her, but to embrace her.
That's when Aidan knew—this was worse than a nightmare, than any PTSD flashback.
The woman wore a silky, red dress molded to her generous curves, and thick wedge heels that emphasized her sexy calves. The smile she gave Martin was that of a million-dollar model, her skin the color of the soft sand all around them.
Out under the canopy, Martin embraced her in a full bear hug, kissing her cheeks and calling her tender names. She laughed and spoke in low tones back to him, indulging his fatherly admonishments for not visiting sooner, for not warning him of her visit ahead of time.
Keeping an arm around her waist, he drew her past the decorated urns of flowers, vines, ferns, and the tiny lights and sparkling ribbons to emphasize a tasteful holiday decor, leading her inside.
Pulling himself up to this full six-foot, four inches, Aidan clamped his jaw shut to keep a myriad of curses he hadn’t used since he was a SEAL from spilling out of his mouth as she removed her sunglasses and looked everyone over.
The staff smiled politely—except for Aidan’s team—as Martin introduced them for the Alpha’s approval. Security members did not smile. When they made it to the end of the line where Aidan stood, he kept his hand—the one he usually offered the guest—behind his back so he wouldn’t strangle her.
Martin beamed, his grin still huge. “And of course, you remember my head of security.”
The intense, golden-brown eyes that haunted his dreams as much as that damn Russian prison took their time rising up to meet his. “Hello, A.”
Just like earlier, his mouth was too dry to speak, his head pounded. His chest felt the clamp of the vise around his ribs. A lifetime of memories flashed through him—Vegas, Camp Swampy, their last mission together when she’d nearly died. Drawing breath was out of the question.
Unfortunately, killing the woman he'd wedded, bedded, and saved from prison was too.
At his complete and utter silence, Bree DeMarco Russo-McNamara lifted one corner of her mouth and sighed. He knew that sound—that unending annoyance at him apparently still embedded in her system like it was her very DNA.
“Good to see you again, too, hubby” she murmured, grabbing her uncle’s hand and strutting away.
* * *
Stay calm; the enemy wants confusion.
Falling in love is a fool’s game, her mother always said. Be smart.
Five years. Five years since the first time she’d laid eyes on Aidan and he still took her breath away. As Bree turned her back on him to accompany Uncle Martin to the elevators, she kept her spine straight, chin lifted. She could not—would not—allow him to see the effect he still had on her.
The spa and hotel was the same as she remembered, marble floors, gold fixtures, crystal chandeliers. The receptionist, Candace, called a greeting from the front desk and gave her a large smile. Bree waved, acknowledging other nods and hellos from the staff as they passed. Most of them she’d known her whole life.
“We’re so happy you’re here,” her uncle said, his accent so mild she could barely pick it up. “It’s important to be with family at the holidays."
Family, in his mind, included her husband. The man whose eyes she could feel on her as they crossed the enormous foyer filled with cushy furniture and an atrium of green and flowering plants. Everything inside her wanted to turn and meet that molten gaze, to challenge the man who was not only her estranged husband, but her new assignment.
Easy for you to say, Mama. You and Daddy had a storybook romance.
Bree, on the other hand, had fallen for a Navy SEAL on leave in Vegas. One who’d shown up six months later at the CIA's domestic training center where she taught escape and invasion techniques.
She’d been contractually obligated to provide him with the best training possible. Didn't mean she hadn't tried to flunk him anyway.
Tried and failed.
The itch to look lingered, to maybe catch him unaware and see some emotion on his face.
No, she told yourself. No looking back, no flirting. Not here, not yet.
The man was impossible, irreverent, and totally perfect on so many levels it made her heart squeeze. After six years, she still hadn't gotten him out from under her skin.
“You look pale,” Martin fussed. The elevator doors glided open and he put a hand on her elbow to usher her into the swank glass box. “And too skinny. Don’t they feed you in Washington? Would you like breakfast on the veranda? I’ll have Chef Condor make all your favorites!”
Everyone could see them inside the glass elevator. Bree took a deep breath and pasted on a bright smile, as if she were as carefree and lighthearted as any heir to a fortune could be. “That would be wonderful.”
Her gaze skimmed the foyer, briefly noting that while everyone else in Martin’s lineup had made haste to get back to work, one man still stood watching her.
She swallowed the lump that rose in her throat as their eyes met across the expanse. Silently, the doors closed but they were glass as well, so she kept smiling and dragged her attention from him to put it on her uncle. “I’d like to unpack first, then I’m all yours.”
The elevator rose as her uncle heartily agreed. Be smart, she told herself again, digging deep into her willpower not to look at Aidan.
As Uncle Martin chatted away, she schooled her face into deep interest, but she snuck one tiny glance out the door just as the first floor slid out of sight.
Aidan was no longer staring at her.
He was gone.
* * *
There is always some madness in love…
Another saying her mother was fond of spouting. She’d say it almost whimsically, as if the madness of love was alluring, magical.
For Bree, love was the opposite… it was literally, well, maddening.
Uncle Martin deposited her in the Crystal Breeze suite on the top floor, with the most amazing views of the Gulf, even though Bree had asked for a smaller room near the pool. "Family comes first," he’d insisted, ushering her into the beautiful, upscale rooms that only his most important—and richest—clients could reserve. He’d left her to unpack, humming as he departed, Princess Grace, his spoiled Chihuahua, in tow.
The suite was bigger than her apartment in DC, her single bag, already delivered by the bellhop, looking small and forlorn in the center of the main room. The warm woods and ivory furniture were the perfect complement to the backdrop of the shimmering blue waters outside. She kicked off her shoes and wandered to the glass patio doors, sliding them open and stepping onto the veranda.
The day was so clear, the morning sun bounced off the water, making it look like millions of diamonds floating on the surface. The private beach was mostly empty, the call of birds and an occasional shishing of palm leaves filling the air.
She’d left DC in a deep freeze.
Speaking of deep freezes… Drawing in a deep, salt-filled breath, she tried to shake off the aftereffects of seeing Aidan again. She'd spent the whole way here prepping herself, going over and over her assignment in order to stay detached.
How’s that working for you?
Her legs felt shaky, her heart as well. Madness, that’s what this was. How could she still feel so…infatuated…with a man she hadn’t laid eyes on in two years?
Placing her hands on the railing, she considered throwing in the towel. Beatrice had sent her here, and Bree had known better than to accept the mission.
Bring him home, Beatrice had said. Make him trust you again.
Little did her boss realize what doing that would cost Bree.
But the words Beatrice hadn’t said held just as much weight. You owe me.
Boy, did she. Two missions, two screwups. Mia’s brush with violence in Monte Carlo hadn’t technically been Bree’s fault, but she still felt responsible since it had happened shortly after the brush pass they’d executed in the casino.
Cassandra’s near death in Vienna, on the other hand, was entirely her fault. She’d been assigned to keep the SFI attorney safe and out of harm’s way. Instead, Cassie still fought with her compromised immune system after being bitten by a bat infected with a fatal disease. If Bree hadn’t gotten distracted, had stuck to Cassie like glue, it never would have happened.
Beatrice shouldn’t have sent her in undercover. Talk about madness. The lawyer had no skills, no training in field operations, but that wasn’t Bree’s call. Beatrice had made the decision to let Cassie go undercover and Bree’s only job had been to watch her back.
After that FUBAR, she’d turned in her resignation. She knew how it would go if she stayed. She’d once been a highly-esteemed CIA operative with a file full of commendations, and then she’d screwed up there too. First her mother’s death, then Aidan, then…Russia.
That final, crucial mission the CIA had used her as a throwaway—an agent they considered expendable—and if it hadn’t been for Aidan…
Cold snaked up her spine and she slammed the door on that fiasco. Nothing good would come from rehashing those memories yet again.
When Beatrice had shown up on her doorstep with a couple SFI team members, both former SEALs, and a noted psychologist, and gave Bree the choice of going to South Padre Island and completing an important mission, or sitting there with the psychologist and “working through” her issues, Bree had felt manipulated. Damned if she did, damned if she didn’t.
No way she was embracing talk therapy, even if she respected and liked Dr. Emma Collins in every way possible. Bree’s former teammates—Mick Ranger and Trace Hunter—had done a good job insisting Bree wasn’t the only one to blame. They all shared the guilt and neither man held it against her.
A soft breeze picked up a strand of her hair and blew it across her face. While her guilt over Cassie hadn’t waned, she appreciated the fact that Beatrice and the others had made an effort to convince her to let it go. To move on.
To recruit her husband—a former SEAL and CIA operative—to join the team.
It was the perfect fit, the Queen B insisted. Beatrice, head of Shadow Force International, had a well-oiled machine of ex-SEALs for certain tasks requiring specific skill sets: bodyguards, paramilitary missions, undercover work. The latter missions had grown lately, and she’d been recruiting a few spies. Former ones, such as Bree, were a good match, but to have someone like Aidan? He was gold in the Queen’s book.
But what would it cost Bree to win him over? To take him from her uncle—the only real family she had left in the world? Bree had been the one to send Aidan to Martin after her estranged husband left the Agency. He’d been “retired” just like she had, once they got him out of that Russian prison.
RED—retired, extremely dangerous. That’s what they labeled her when they’d kicked her to the curb. Aidan had been given the same designation.
He’d saved her life over there, the least she could do when he got back on his feet after being tortured in that god-awful Russian prison was to help him get a job. Heading up the Gulf Breeze Spa & Resort security team seemed like the perfect gig. Uncle Martin had been desperate for someone to handle it and Aidan had needed to get out of DC and find a new home.
One far away from her.
Her watch blipped with an incoming call and she glanced at the number. Sighing, she went inside to get her cell and answer.
“Status update?” Beatrice asked as her way of greeting.
“Have you made contact with our target?”
Eye contact. Did that count? “Yes.”
“Good. You have three days. I’ll expect you, with the package acquired, on Monday.”
And if she failed? The resignation that had been rescinded would probably become a pink slip. “I won’t let you down.”
As she hung up, she felt the madness closing in. Aidan wouldn’t even speak to her, how was she going to convince him to leave Texas and go back to DC to play spy again?
Bree tossed the phone on the bed, slid her shoes back on and headed for the door.
I have one job, and by God, I’m going to complete it if it kills me.
Knowing her husband, it just might.