Parting is all we know of heaven, And all we need of hell. Emily Dickinson
The sleek, dark bitch tailing him over the crest of the mountain was definitely not standard Army issue.
Cameron Moore ignored both the snow swirling furiously around his Harley and the classified stealth helo on his six as he began his ascent up the thin, curved ridge ringed by stone that would lead him to his destination.
Half a mile earlier, when he'd heard the familiar thump of the quiet bird over the roar of his bike, the hairs on the back of his neck had risen. Now his gut tightened in tandem with the heavy whir of the rotors, and fuck, he'd thought this was over and done with.
He'd had nearly five months of freedom, having been assured that his debt was paid in full, which meant there would be no more black ops jobs involving the CIA and this fucking helo from hell following him. But he'd been down this road before--after five years, eight years, ten years. The promise of release had never been kept, eleven years and counting.
It'll never be fully paid. You knew that . . . you just didn't want to believe it.
And still, he pushed on, trying to ignore the past that wouldn't let him forget.
He'd only been back from a mission with Delta Force for forty-eight hours, on leave for the past twenty and headed to visit Dylan Scott--a man he'd met through Delta, and his best friend--in the Catskills when he'd been tracked.
One of these days, Gabriel Creighton--CIA chameleon extraordinaire--wouldn't be able to find Cam anymore. The chip that had once been implanted in Cam's right forearm was only as big as a postage stamp, and as slim as one too . . . and was long gone. He'd convinced himself that Gabriel couldn't track him without it.
Obviously, Cam had been way fucking wrong.
He didn't have to wonder what his life would be like if he'd never met the man--he'd still be in jail, serving two consecutive life sentences. And he despised Gabriel more than his father, which was really damned hard to do, considering his father had framed him for the murders and left him to rot in a maximum security cell.
For eleven years, Gabriel had been both mentor and taskmaster. Cam had never asked Gabriel for anything, not a single goddamned favor.
The favors Gabriel insisted Cam provide for him were always dangerous and usually above the law. Jobs that necessitated a non-CIA operator with insider information, which Cam indeed was, hiding in the job of a Delta Force operator.
If Cam's immediate sups knew what the jobs he did for Creighton really entailed, they'd never let on. And so Cam lived and worked, waiting for the magic number--the time limit Gabriel had imposed on him when Cam had been nineteen and willing to do anything to get out of that cell. An expiration date that only Gabriel knew.
Now he stared down at the mark on the inside of his left forearm--the result of a tattoo that had been lasered off. It wasn't completely erased, was still a reminder.
That was the thing about pasts, you could never fully eradicate them, and fuck it all, he'd tried to more than once.
Finally, he stopped the bike on the edge of one of the small cliffs, pulled as close to it as he possibly could. The wind whipped him, making it hard to hold on to his footing, never mind the heavy metal between his legs.
The stealth hovered, unable to land, but more than willing to block him. As he stared down at the dark, cavernous chasm ahead of him, he knew his choices were limited. Going down would be the coward's way out--and he was anything but.
He'd never let go of the idea of vengeance, tasted it like a fine wine on his tongue--it ran heated through his blood, slamming his veins with a barely concealed fury.
In all his years of military service, he'd saved a lot of people, killed more and prayed for salvation daily.
In so many ways, he'd never left the ten-by-ten cell where he'd lived for twenty-three months, four days and ten hours. At the time, he'd been wary of his rescuer, but he'd assumed things couldn't have gotten worse.
He'd been so fucking young--fear and bravado mixing together in a heady combination. He'd been a punk, a fighter, willing to do anything to stay alive. Had kept his pride during those years, refusing to let prison take it from him, the way his freedom had been ripped away.
Pride had been all he had.
He finally turned around on the mountain, the way he had eleven years earlier when the police chased him between a rock and a hard place. That night, the police had impounded his bike.
Now Cam knew that a good operative never left anything behind. He revved his bike and let it ride over the edge without him, listened as it screeched and crashed against the mountain walls below.
And then he walked to the helo and used the rope ladder they'd lowered to climb aboard.
Two years of max security had taught him many things--that life wasn't fair; that typically the bigger you were, the more shit you talked and the harder you went down; that this life wasn't for the weak. His time in the Rangers and Delta Force had refined those teachings until his mind functioned like the elite warrior he was; but make no mistake, he was still that same damned punk--and he wouldn't take Gabriel Creighton's shit anymore.
This time, he would shoot the messenger Gabriel always sent, no matter what the job entailed, and then he would walk away and deal with the consequences--any and all, because the yoke around his neck had finally tightened to where he could no longer breathe.
As it turned out, the messenger wanted to shoot him as well.
Cam noted the gun in the suit's hands as he hauled his ass into the helo, and then his gaze moved quickly to the ankle cuffs on the bench and he snapped to attention. Instead of waiting for the man to aim the Glock directly at him, Cam lunged, using the shaky motion of the struggling helo to propel him into the man's chest even as the man barked at him to sit down.
He was too far into fight-or-flight mode to do anything else, could smell the setup as surely as helo fuel. He'd done this dance too many times, and it had never, ever looked like this before.
They went down hard, sliding into the co-pilot's seat. The gun clattered from the suit's hands and Cam stared into his eyes--it was the same man, always the same man, although he never spoke to Cam, had always pointed to the phone or the laptop where Cam would get his orders.
Cam wondered what this guy had done in his life to become Gabriel's minion.
"We . . . talk . . ." the suit croaked as Cam kept his forearm across his throat. Cam wondered what the man's story would be, if he'd gain anything by letting him speak his peace.
But the ache in his gut was swift and sudden as he remembered that he didn't trust most people, especially strangers.
"I don't talk to people who want to kill me." As quickly and cleanly as possible, Cam shifted and put his hands on either side of the man's head. A sharp twist to the right and the suit was gone, his eyes open, his stare as dead as he was.
But the fight wasn't over yet.
Cam wouldn't let the pilots take off with him inside, would rather free-fall out than be carried off, and they knew that--Cam saw it in the brace of the co-pilot's back the second he'd climbed on board--and as the man lunged, Cam was ready, even as the obviously well-trained man threw a nice left hook, which caught Cam square on the jaw. The helo banked a hard left and Cam lost his footing for a second, hitting his head on a sharp piece of metal used to hold the hooks for the parachutes. The co-pilot also fell, and Cam was the quicker one up and at the ready, slamming his boot into the guy's chest.
He struggled, his hands around Cam's ankle--but Cam's footing was too strong. The co-pilot knew Cam fully intended to leave alive and didn't care who he took out in his wake, and he stopped fighting.
"Who the hell sent you?" Cam asked, but neither man answered. "Where are you supposed to bring me?"
Cam didn't know friends from enemies anymore in this game, the wilderness of mirrors that spooks and spies dealt with on a daily--and lifetime--basis. As he stared between the man under his boot and the pilot, who held the gun in a shaky hand while he tried to wrestle the helo with the other, Cam told them, "My fight's not with you."
The pilot's eyes held his for a second--Cam wondered if he'd been pressed into service as well or if he was flying this bastard bird of his own free will.
It didn't matter; Cam didn't have time to play savior now, not when he'd just committed suicide himself. "I'm out of here."
He took his foot off the man's chest, turned and didn't look back, wondered for a fleeting second if he'd get shot in the back, and then dropped out of the helo and onto the hard ground, with a vicious slam. He curled in a ball as it rose, the wind buffeting him with a harsh hand as the stealth left him behind and headed back to report the incident to Gabriel.
As he stared after the bird, well after its lights disappeared, he wondered why the hell they hadn't simply killed him when they'd had the chance--while he was climbing up into the helo. When he was vulnerable.
What the hell did he know that made him worth something? What did Gabriel want from him?
After he'd cleaned the blood off his hands and his bearded face with snow, Cam hitched a ride with a trucker, got dropped off halfway up the mountain to Dylan's house and then ran the rest of the way, his bag slapping against his back, wind whipping his face--his heart beating so fast from stress and fear, he was pretty damned sure it would rip from his chest.
Dylan opened the door as Cam pounded on it. He didn't ask any questions, not even when Cam shoved him aside and slammed the door behind him to peer out the window.
He hadn't been followed. He wouldn't be--not tonight. Probably not tomorrow. But when he reported back into work, there could be consequences.
You've lived with the consequences for years--how much fucking worse could it be?
He felt empowered and freaked all at once.
"Did you crash?" Dylan asked finally.
Cam turned, still needing to catch his breath. His hands were shaking. He'd never been like this on a mission before--but this . . . this was personal. His life.
The words spilled out. "Gabriel sent a stealth--same kind, same suit waiting for me. He had a gun. There were restraints. I killed him, and the helo took off with the dead guy and the pilots."
"Breathe, man, breathe." Dylan handed him a brandy--Cam gulped it down and then poured another before noticing that Dylan also had a towel waiting for him.
He rubbed the towel over his face and hair, then stared at his friend. "They wanted intel from me--or else they could've killed me a thousand times over before I got on board. I'm done, Dylan. No way out."
His friend didn't say anything for a long moment and then he walked over to a bookshelf that lined a far wall of the room. He pulled out a hardcover book and handed it to Cam. "Open to the back . . . the author."
Cam did as Dylan asked, staring at the picture of a beautiful young woman named Skylar Slavin at the back of the novel. "Are you setting me up with her? Because I don't think I'm really dating material right now."
"She's Gabriel Creighton's daughter, Cam. His only child. The only thing he cares about in this fucking world. Skylar Slavin's the key to your future."
Cam didn't say anything, continued to stare at the picture as the woman with the clear green eyes stared back at him. She wasn't smiling--in fact, he'd say she looked slightly haunted.
But still, the woman must have had a better life than him--been loved and protected by her father. She was probably just like Gabriel--cold and cunning, with a heart of steel.
"How long have you known about her?" Cam demanded. Dylan simply shrugged, that noncommittal kind he typically reserved for authority figures. Which was why he didn't last long in the military at all, yet somehow managed to get out with an honorable discharge and several medals of honor.
"How long?" he asked again, with enough of an edge to his voice for Dylan to know this wasn't the time to fuck around.
"Five months? Five motherfucking months?" Nearly blind from rage, Cam leaped at his best friend in the world, ready to kill him as soon as he could wrap his hands around his neck.
Dylan readied for him, but Cam was like a charging bull and knocked him to the ground, hard. Dylan grunted as he attempted to roll Cam off him--when he couldn't, he swung and punched Cam in the face a couple of times, reopening the gash above his eye.
"Fucking asshole," Cam said through clenched teeth, the blood dripping into his eye and onto Dylan's shirt. "You had something on Gabriel and you didn't tell me?"
"Because you weren't ready to hear it, to use it," Dylan growled, his breath coming in quick gasps because Cam was sitting on his chest, punching him anywhere he could.
He and Dylan were evenly matched, but not when Cam's temper was riled by anything involving Gabriel Creighton. Then he ran on pure adrenaline, an anger machine.
"I found out . . . after your last mission. It wouldn't have . . . changed the outcome. You always said . . . it was your fight. That I needed to . . . stay out of it. And . . . I did. For the most part. Jesus Christ, Cam, Gabriel was . . . leaving you alone, and I didn't want you to . . . bring trouble on yourself you didn't need." Dylan took a stuttered breath while holding his rib cage. "I'm going to kill you if you broke my ribs."
From the Paperback edition.