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Dylan Hart flipped his cell phone shut and rubbed his hand over his forehead, trying not to stare at the girl on the other side of the office. She was out to slay him, his nemesis, the bane of his existence--Skeeter Bang, five feet eight inches of blond bombshell leaning over a computer.
She knocked a cigarette out of the pack of Mexican Faros on the desk and struck a match off her belt.
"Put that out," he ordered. She knew there was no smoking in the office.
"Make me," she said, then stuck the Faro between her lips and inhaled, holding the match to the end of the cigarette. A billow of smoke came out of her mouth when she exhaled.
Dylan was the boss of 738 Steele Street in Denver, Colorado, second in command of Special Defense Force, SDF, a group of tough-as-nails black ops shadow warriors who specialized in doing the Department of Defense's dirty work.
"Put out the damn cigarette, Skeeter," the man working at the last computer said. "And if you bend over that desk one more time, I'm going to paddle you."
Thank you, Superman, Dylan thought.
The girl was out of control, but Superman, a.k.a. Christian Hawkins, had kicked more ass and taken more names than most men alive. He could handle Skeeter Bang, and honest to God, they had bigger problems, much bigger, like the phone call he'd just gotten from General Grant--and of course, there was still that little problem of the death sentence he'd picked up on his last mission. Wouldn't want to forget about that now, would he?
Yes. Actually, he would, but forgetting about it wasn't very goddamn likely.
"Skeeter," Hawkins warned her again.
And the chit put it out, just like that, without batting an eyelash or missing a beat. Though who the hell would know if Skeeter batted her eyelashes? The girl always wore sunglasses, and a damn ball cap Dylan was about ready to burn, literally, put it in a trash can and blast it with a flamethrower.
He was hardly ever at Steele Street to see her, and then even when he was there, he couldn't actually see her--which was all for the best. Just the way he liked it.
Except now he had this walking time bomb thing happening, and if it turned out that things weren't going to go his way and the whole damn shooting match was about to be over, well, maybe he should tell her how he felt.
Or maybe not.
Shit. He was such an idiot. He shouldn't have come home. He should have just toughed it out in Indonesia.
"So what did General Grant want?" Hawkins asked, gesturing at the cell phone Dylan still held in his hand. General Richard "Buck" Grant was SDF's commanding officer at the Department of Defense, DOD. He deployed them, paid them, and made sure damn few people beyond the secretary of defense had a clue what they did for a living. They trained at Quantico and Fort Bragg, lived in Denver, flew out of Peterson AFB or Buckley, and were the only group of special forces operators in the world with a twenty-year-old girl on their team, even if she was only the office manager and their computer tech.
She also just happened to be one of the best auto mechanics they'd ever had at Steele Street--which was saying a lot, considering that most of SDF was made up of a bunch of former juvenile delinquent car thieves who'd stolen, chopped, and rebuilt more cars than anyone else in the history of Denver. To the cops and the gangs, the short alley called Steele Street in lower downtown was still synonymous with grand theft auto, no matter that none of the guys had stolen a car in years.
Guys--that was his point. Every teenage thief at Steele Street had been a guy. General Grant had started SDF with those same guys, until three years ago, when Hawkins had dragged home a spooky, baby-faced street rat with long blond hair and twenty stitches holding her face together.
Geezus. They all needed their heads examined.
He jerked his attention back to Hawkins. The expression on his friend's face told him he'd been caught red-handed, staring at her ass again. Dammit. He hadn't hardly noticed her the first two years she'd been at Steele Street--and then one day, he had noticed her, noticed that suddenly she had more curves than a Camaro, that her stringy blond hair had turned into a platinum waterfall, and that though she was still spooky as hell, she wasn't spooked anymore. She'd been standing on her own two feet--in combat boots, no less--with confidence radiating off her like a supernova.
He'd been noticing her ever since. He couldn't seem to help himself, which pissed him off to no end.
Ignoring Hawkins's knowing grin, he cleared his throat.
"Grant's concerned about some documents he saw at Senator Whitfield's mansion tonight." "Concerned" was putting it mildly. "Apoplectic" was more like it--which meant maybe Dylan ought to stop getting distracted by Skeeter's butt and start focusing on the job he got paid to do.
"I thought he was on his way to the London conference tonight," Hawkins said.
"Whitfield's was his last stop. He's headed to the airport now, but he's pretty damn sure the documents are exactly what the guys on the E-ring of the Pentagon are afraid they are--the Godwin file."
"And that warranted an immediate phone call to us?"
"Yes," Dylan said. The general knew better than to drag his feet on something as volatile as the Godwin file, if what he'd seen really was the Godwin file. Some people doubted that the documents actually existed. Others prayed every night that they didn't.
"So what does he want us to do?"
"Steal the file." That was the mission. Steal the damn thing and bury it, before it blew up the careers of half a dozen congressmen and another half-dozen major players at the Pentagon.
"From Senator Whitfield?" Hawkins's gaze sharpened with interest.
Dylan knew it sounded nuts. Stealing from a U.S. senator was the kind of mission guaranteed to get somebody's ass thrown in Leavenworth, even if the thieves worked for the Department of Defense--especially if they worked for the DOD. On top of all the regular "thou shalt not steal" laws, federal law explicitly forbade the use of military personnel for operations within the United States. More than once, though, when a situation had gotten sticky enough, Grant had shuffled him and a couple of the guys through the FBI's payroll so they could follow through on a mission without having their backsides completely exposed.
Grant hadn't mentioned any shuffling tonight, but Dylan knew their commanding officer always did his best to cover their asses and their tracks. Of course, under normal circumstances, Buck Grant and Arthur Whitfield were on the same side, America's side, and under normal circumstances, U.S. Army generals did not go around authorizing the theft of top-secret documents from senators--but nothing about the Godwin file was normal.
It was a legend, a myth, a time bomb that had been lurking in the murky waters of the Defense Department's rumor mill for over a decade. It was the bogeyman sitting at the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and clandestine operations, and if the rumors were true, it had been a death warrant for a CIA agent and the U.S. ambassador under his protection, just the sort of dirty laundry nobody wanted aired, especially the people whose names were on the orders.
"Whitfield has an appointment to see the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Monday morning at nine a.m. Grant wants the file to disappear before the meeting."
"So we're heading to Washington, D.C."
"I am." It was a one-man job, and despite certain god-awful inconveniences in his current situation, he preferred to keep it that way. His luck had been running nothing but bad lately. Either that or he'd hit the top spot on some real mover and shaker's shit list, because things that shouldn't ever go wrong had gone wrong in Jakarta.
"You're going to need somebody to watch your back," Hawkins said.
"Creed and his team aren't due back until Sunday." Which meant backup was a luxury he didn't have.
"They might make it by tomorrow night."
"By tomorrow night, the deed will be done, and I'll be on my way home."
"You should still have somebody with you," Hawkins insisted.
"And that would be?" Dylan asked, giving the other man's leg a pointed look. A cast went from just below Hawkins's knee to down around his foot. The broken ankle was compliments of a successful mission six weeks ago in Afghanistan that had netted the U.S. armed forces a long-sought-after terrorist leader. No one was naming names at this point. Hawkins, with two other SDF operators, Creed Rivera and Kid Chaos, had done their jobs so well, word had yet to leak out that the terrorist leader was even missing, let alone that he was sitting in a cell in Guantanamo Bay.
In answer, Hawkins flicked his gaze toward Skeeter.
A shiver of alarm skittered down Dylan's spine. Hawkins couldn't be serious. Skeeter? On a mission?
No way in hell.
Especially one of his missions, which all required deception, deceit, discretion, and stealth of the highest order, not to mention plenty of sheer, unadulterated nerve. He was a thief, the best. Big things, little things, cars, computer chips, ideas and identities, fingerprints, information, jewels, gems, high-tech junk, a nuclear warhead out of Tajikistan, or seventeen million dollars out of an Indonesian warlord's black money slush fund, whatever General Grant wanted, Dylan delivered. Those were the terms of his freedom, and they hadn't changed in the nine years since the general had first proposed SDF to the U.S. secretary of defense. An elite force of highly expendable men had appealed to the man who had been the secretary then and to the two who had followed. SDF had a commendable reputation, but dozens of successful missions hadn't changed Dylan's situation. The other members of SDF, most of whom had been in the military, could come and go as they pleased, but he was always on borrowed time. The CIA still wanted his ass in a federal prison for his involvement in a dicey operation in Moscow back when he'd been a green kid smart enough to get what he wanted, but not smart enough to stay out of trouble while doing it. To date, the agency had consistently been outgunned by General Grant and Dylan's benefactor in the State Department, a man code-named White Rook. It was a situation Dylan wasn't going to allow to change. He'd be damned if he went to prison, which meant he couldn't afford failure, ever.
So he didn't fail, ever.
He shot Hawkins a cold look and silently shook his head. He wasn't taking Skeeter to Washington with him. He wasn't that insane, or that selfish. Not yet.
"Don't talk about me behind my back like I'm not in the room," she said, continuing to tap on the computer's keyboard without so much as glancing over her shoulder.
Dylan swore under his breath. The girl was spooky. Neither he nor Hawkins had said a word, but she knew.
"You're not going," he said clearly, not wanting there to be any doubt in anybody's mind, most of all his own.
"She's good," Hawkins insisted. "Steady as a rock and practically invisible when she wants to be."
And when would that be? Dylan wondered, arching his eyebrow at his friend.
Hawkins didn't blink, and against his better judgment, Dylan let his gaze slide back to Skeeter.
Forget it. She was outrageous, the cosmic opposite of invisible. Her pink sweater was sleeveless, practically Day-Glo, and absolutely, positively laminated to her body. Her black leather miniskirt hugged her hips like a second skin. She had Chinese tattoos inked into the upper part of her right arm. Underneath her black tights, a lightning-bolt tattoo streaked up her leg from her ankle and shot over her hip, up under her arm, up around her back, and down over the top of her shoulder. He'd never seen the whole thing, couldn't see it now, but he knew it was there. She had that perfectly silky, perfectly straight, perfectly maddening platinum blond ponytail that went all the way to her butt, and every day she managed to work a little chain mail into her outfit. Today it was her belt and a knife sheath. Add the mirrored sunglasses and the ball cap and she was nothing short of a piece of work.
A piece of work with a button nose and the softest, most perfect skin he'd ever seen on a woman. She was built like a centerfold, dressed like a Goth princess, and had the face of a cherub. Every time he looked at her, he felt like the world's biggest fool.
So he tried not to look, tried not to come home very often. Hell, he hadn't been to Denver five times in the last seven months, but he'd already overstayed his welcome tonight. He could tell by the pain running down the middle of his chest. She gave him heartburn.
At least that's what he called it.
"No," he said. Hawkins was crazy if he thought she was invisible. Dylan saw her everywhere he went, from Bangkok to Paris, from L.A. to the Beltway. He saw her in his sleep. He'd spent one night in her company last January, chasing Creed Rivera across the city through the blizzard of the century, and he honest to God hadn't been the same since. Hour after hour of talking with her, being with her, and damn near dying of fear for her life had only exacerbated his incredibly inconvenient obsession. He was so out of line to want her the way he did.
"She can shoot and loot," Hawkins said.
The hell she could.
"Who has she ever shot?" he asked, then didn't wait for Hawkins to tell him, because he already knew. "No one, that's who."
It was impossible. Office managers and computer techs did not go out on missions, not even with an outlaw outfit like SDF. Sure, he'd taken her with him to find Creed that night, but only as a computer tech, not as an operator. And yes, things had gotten out of hand, and yes, she'd gotten into trouble up to her neck and gotten back out all on her own, but none of it had been planned.
Again, Hawkins didn't blink, just held his gaze, steady and sure, until Dylan finally got the message. Another shiver of alarm raced down his spine and damn near stopped his heart cold.
"What's been going on around here?" he asked, very quietly, very calmly, very certain he wasn't going to like the answer.
"It's a natural progression," Hawkins said, unperturbed. "She's been training for almost three years, and she's good, really good."
"Where was she good?" He couldn't believe this.
"Colombia. Kid and I took her with us as backup on the Personal Security Detail we did for Occidental Petroleum in Bogotá."
"The one where two members of the National Revolutionary Forces were killed during a kidnap attempt?" He'd read the report, which hadn't had Skeeter's name on it anywhere. The FNG's--Fucking New Guy's--name, Travis James, had been on the report, but not Skeeter's.
Hawkins nodded, then hit a couple of keys on his computer when it beeped.
"She got the first kill," he said, looking back to Dylan.
Dylan, who couldn't breathe.
"They were waiting for us in the lobby of the hotel we were using as a safe house," Hawkins continued. "It was close-quarters combat, textbook CQC. She beat Kid on the draw, which neither you nor I could do on our best day."
She'd beaten Kid Chaos on the draw--and Dylan still couldn't breathe. She'd been in battle, with people shooting at her, trying to kill her.