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The roar and rumble of the pipes on the car pulling up outside Beck's Back Alley Bar were unmistakable, headers and the dual exhaust of the bad girl's ride, tuned to perfection and guaranteed to shake glass in four directions. Red Dog was here–back from cheating death one more time.
Travis James let out a heavy breath and knocked back a shot of tequila before he turned to face the front door. He hated to miss her entrance. Watching Red Dog walk into a room was the best floor show in town–in any town.
"Geezus," the guy sitting at the table behind him said when the door opened.
Oh, yeah. She had that effect on him, too–all the time, every time.
He chased the tequila with a swallow of beer and let his gaze drop down the length of her body. She was so bad, she was good. Good like seven-dollar-a-shot mescal, and exquisitely, classy bad.
A sheer red silk muscle shirt didn't leave anything to the imagination, especially not the size, the shape, or the delicacy of the black lace bra she was wearing underneath it.
He bought her a lot of black lace.
Her worn denim jeans had silver studs running down the right leg and were so tight, they should have come with a warning label. A small chamois fanny pack was slung around her waist. Pale ostrich-leather cowboy boots covered her feet. Stacked heels, pointed toes, and worn vamps, they'd seen a lot of long days in a dozen Third World hellholes over the last two years–the two years since Red Dog had created herself from a blank slate and a heart hungry for revenge. She was five feet, five inches of pure, unadulterated, ass-kicking girl, and every day she pushed him. She pushed him hard.
Sometimes he wondered if either of them would survive the trip she was on.
"I'd sure take a piece of that," the man at the table continued, his voice hoarse in a way Travis understood only too well–which did nothing to improve his mood.
"Forget it," another guy said. "That one would just as soon gut you as fu–"
Travis reached back, grabbed the last man by the scruff of his collar, and hauled him around until they were face-to-face.
"Don't," he said, very clearly, very succinctly, and very . . . very calmly.
Rising from his bar stool, he pulled the guy's face even closer to his.
"Don't say it. Don't think it."
Fear flashed through the man's eyes, and Travis understood that, too. It had been a hard two years since the night Red Dog had lost her first life and started on her second, and those two years, on the front line with Special Defense Force, a group of black ops warriors based in Denver, Colorado, had changed Travis. Only one person ever mistook him for anything close to an angel anymore.
Letting go of the man's shirt, he started toward the end of the bar and the woman standing there, waiting for him.
Gillian Pentycote–that had been her name before Dr. Souk, a maniacal physician in the employ of a drug lord, had shot her full of an experimental "truth serum" called XT7 and stolen her memories. By the time Travis and his teammate, Skeeter B. Hart, had gotten to her, there had been nothing left but her screams and four images burned into her brain–only four.
His steps faltered for the barest fraction of a second, less than a heartbeat's worth of pause.
Walking on, he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
The faces of the two men who had tortured her were half of her shortchanged memory bank: Dr. Souk, his dark and dirty hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and openmouthed death shock when Travis's .45 caliber slug had punched a hole in his chest–a memory Travis wouldn't wish on anybody, let alone a woman, even one with Red Dog's resume; and Tony Royce, the CIA agent gone bad, who had set her up for the pain she'd endured strapped into Souk's dental chair.
Tony Royce, whose face Skeeter had cut open with her knife.
Tony Royce, who had escaped that night and disappeared.
Tony Royce, whom Red Dog hunted with a vengeance born of desperation.
It was her desperation that kept Travis always on edge. She was a gun for hire. She went to bad places and did bad things to bad people, and so far, every time, she'd come back to him. But time was running out. He felt it with each passing day, with each mission she survived. He felt it when they worked together, and he felt it when she went out without him, like she had this time.
"You're late," he said, coming to a stop in front of her and taking hold of her arm. Contact, that's what he needed, physical contact.
"Things came up." The huskiness of her voice told him how tired she was, how run-down.
"Four days late." He tried to keep the frustration out of his words, and failed.
"El Salvador is kind of a long ways away." She ran her hand back through her short auburn hair, sending a little more of it sticking up on end. She was a wild girl, the wildest.
"The mission was in Panama," he said, his jaw tight. Fucking El Salvador?
"I took a side trip."
Which was the last goddamn thing he wanted to hear, even if he'd already figured that much out. Her "side trips" had only one motivation: Tony Royce.
"What did you find?"
"Nothing. It was a rumor."
And that was a lie. He could tell by the way she avoided meeting his eyes.
He tightened his hold on her. He wanted the truth. He needed to know, but she never gave him what he wanted, and barely gave him what he needed. She had a head full of bits and pieces, and that's all she ever offered of herself–except in bed.
Sex wasn't love, though, and it wasn't trust, and though he didn't know a damn thing about love anymore, and in retrospect doubted if he ever had, he did know about trust–and he wanted hers. It was the only way he could ever keep her safe.
She'd been laying a trapline for Royce since she'd walked out of rehab, and any day, the bastard was going to catch the scent and come after her. It was what she hoped for, what she prayed for, that the man who had stood over Gillian Pentycote and watched her lose her mind would come for the woman she'd become. That Royce would come for Red Dog.
It was all she wanted, and the only thing Travis feared–that Royce would find her somewhere, sometime, someplace when he wasn't by her side. Some goddamn place like El Salvador.
A moment passed. Then she lifted her gaze to his, and looking down into her eyes, he suddenly didn't give a damn if she lied, and he didn't care that she pushed him hard and kept him on edge. Tonight, she was back. She was safe. And even if she didn't know who she was, she knew she was his.
"Take me home, Angel," she whispered, closing her hand around his shirt and leaning against him, tearing him up and turning him on at the same time. "I'm tired. The Panama deal, it was rough."
Angel. That was her third memory, the name she remembered him by. And lastly, she remembered his face, the face of the man who had made love to her that night, before she'd been abducted, before Souk had injected her–before her life had taken a sharp left into hell.
Take me home.
It was the one thing he could do: take her home . . . and take her.
Still holding on to her arm, he turned her around and started for the door, but she stopped after two strides and looked up at him again.
"Don't you have something for me?" she asked.
She always asked, and he always had something for her, whatever she wanted.
But he knew what she meant, and he reached into the front pocket of his jeans. Inch by soft silky inch, he pulled out a scrap of black lace.
"A new bra?" She reached for the small piece of lingerie.
"No, baby. Panties." Super-short, boy-cut underwear, the bit of stretchy lace would sit low on her hips and curve up over her ass, leaving a lot of bare bottom for his profound personal enjoyment–and she thought he bought the stuff for her.
With a smile that damn near slayed him on the spot, she took the underwear and shoved it into her own pocket. "I hope they fit."
They fit. He knew the shape of her body better than he knew his own. Their relationship was very "hands on"–his hands on her, and his hands were the only hands on her, ever. Nobody touched Red Dog except him, not even her mother, which broke the woman's heart, the way everything that had happened to her daughter broke Lydia Shore's heart–especially what her daughter had become.
Mercenary. Contractor. Whoever wrote the paycheck, the job was the same. Two days ago in Thailand, he'd heard the word "assassin" connected to her name, along with a price tag that guaranteed Gillian could provide for herself in whatever manner she chose, for as long as she chose to stay in business.
Assassin? Maybe. Unsung hero–just as likely, considering the kind of men Red Dog took down. It was all a matter of semantics and point of view. There wasn't an SDF operator at Steele Street or a combat soldier in the employ of Uncle Sam who hadn't been tagged an assassin by somebody, somewhere. But Red Dog wasn't really an SDF operator, and she certainly wasn't a U.S. soldier. By most standards, she was unemployable, except in the niche Christian Hawkins and Kid Chaos had trained her to fill.
Sometimes, lately, Travis wondered what in the hell Superman and the Boy Wonder had been thinking, but in the beginning, he'd understood what they were doing only too well. She'd been so lost when she'd first come out of her drug-induced coma, so detached. Hawkins had given her something to hold on to: physical training. Her memories were gone, but she was alive. Her body worked, so Superman had worked her hard, made her fight for herself. Then Hawkins had given her to Kid, and Kid had taken her to a remote Department of Defense training camp high in the Rocky Mountains and taught her how to fight for a living.
Panama had been the seventh job she'd taken without Travis–and as far as he was concerned, it was her last. He was finished with not knowing where in the hell she was, or what in the hell she was doing, or even if she was alive. Nothing felt right, not when she was out and he wasn't there to watch her back.
And then to disappear off the face of the earth–well, hell, that was way more than he had the strength to endure anymore, especially when he was in goddamn Thailand, thousands of miles away.
It was General Grant himself who had authorized her to work with C. Smith Rydell, the newest member of the SDF team, in Panama, and it was Grant who had called Hawkins and congratulated him on his protege's latest successful mission. So if everything had gone so well and the job was finished, Hawkins had wondered, why in the hell hadn't she come home?
Travis had wondered the same damn thing when Superman had called him, and by nightfall he'd been on a plane.
Fuck. Four days–that's how much time had passed between when she'd left Smith in Panama City and when she'd checked in with Hawkins and told him she was headed back to Denver. Four days: plenty of time for her to have gotten herself into more trouble than she could handle.
Going to El Salvador. Alone.
He needed to clip her wings, lock her in, tie her down, whatever it took to keep her in his sight. The DOD didn't give a damn if she lived or died, as long as she accomplished her missions, but he cared–too much.
Sliding his hand to her waist, he started toward the door again. Beck's Back Alley Bar was in an industrial section of north Denver called Commerce City, tucked between the refineries and the factories on a strip of street eight blocks west of the Steele Street Commerce City garage. The garage was an annex to the SDF headquarters in LoDo, the only place in Denver with enough security to suit Travis. Hawkins and the boss of SDF, Dylan Hart, had both offered Gillian one of the upper-floor lofts at Steele Street, but the bad girl wasn't looking for security. She didn't want to be hard to find.
Quite the opposite, and it unnerved the hell out of Travis.
"Give me your keys," he said, opening the door for her and glancing toward the 1967 Pontiac GTO parked in front of the bar. Chrome bumpers, bright trim, and six coats of wet-sanded and polished Signet Gold paint gleamed in the summer sunlight of late afternoon. Coralie was her name, Corinna's sister, and with a 360-horse Ram Air 400 under the hood and a four-speed Muncie on deck, she was as bad as the girl who drove her.
He unlocked the car and handed Gillian in before giving back the keys.
"Straight home," he said, making himself absolutely clear.
"Straight." She nodded, sliding into the butter-soft, custom black leather interior.
"Five minutes." It shouldn't take more, not in Coralie, but he never took anything for granted, not with her.
"Two, if we blow the lights," she said, glancing back up at him.
He grinned and shook his head.
"Not on my watch, babe. Five minutes." He turned and headed toward his Jeep.
Behind him, he heard the GTO start up, the deep rumbling purr of her engine and headers echoing in the alley. Coralie had been a gift to Gillian from Dylan, a classic piece of muscle for the woman they'd all been too late to save. The boss had been the target that night, not a sweet-faced, tousle-haired thirty-three-year-old "wannabe" assistant trying to work her way up the ladder in General Grant's office.
She still had a sweet face, sweetly exotic, except when seen from the muzzle end of an SR-25 rifle or her TC Contender pistol. "Sweet" wasn't the word that came to mind in those situations. She had a Glock 17 long slide reworked to a .40 Smith & Wesson in her fanny pack, and a seven-inch Recon Tanto sheathed in her boot–razor sharp. He'd seen the clip of her folding knife hooked over her pants pocket. He knew if he looked, he'd find a 12-gauge tactical shotgun under Coralie's front seat, a flat black beauty called "Nightshade" that Gillian kept loaded with double-ought buck and rifled slugs. Her breaching loads were in the glove box.
Two knives, a shotgun, and a semiautomatic pistol, just to visit the neighborhood bar. Nobody touched Red Dog. No man could get a hand on her, not on his own.