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The kidnapper had a gun pressed to Sydney's head.
Gunner Ortez stopped breathing when he saw Sydney's beautiful face fill his scope. So perfect. Delicate, high cheekbones. The soft curve of her nose. The full, red lips
And the green eyes that stared straight back at him. Seeming to know where he was. Her green gaze that showed no fear even as that soon-to-be-dead man jammed the gun harder into her temple.
"Do you have the shot?" a low voice asked in his ear. The earpiece wouldn't even be noticed by most people. Uncle Sam was great at inventing gear that his soldiers could use anytime, anyplace.
With a minimum of fuss and a maximum of damage.
Gunner's finger was curled over the trigger, but he wasn't taking the shot. "Negative, Alpha One," he told his team leader. "Sydney isn't clear."
And he was sweating, feeling a tendril of fearwhen he never felt fear. There was no room for emotion on any of their missions.
He worked with a group far off the grid. The Elite Ops Division wasn't on any books anywhere in the U.S. government. They took the jobs that the rest of the world wasn't meant to know about. In particular, his EOD teamcode-named the Shadow Agentshad a reputation for deadly accuracy when it came to taking out their targets.
And this guy that jerk with the trembling finger, he was going down. The man had kidnapped an ambassador's daughter. Held her for ransom, and when the ransom had been paid, he'd still killed her.
He'd thought he could hide from justice.
He'd thought wrong.
Sydney's intel had led them to Jonathan Hall. Led them to his hideout just over the border in Mexico.
Sydney had volunteered to go in, to make sure that Hall was holding no civilians.
Now she was the one being held.
"He can't leave the scene," Logan Quinn said, the faint drawl of the South sliding beneath the team leader's words as they carried easily over the transmitter. "You know our orders."
Containment or death. Yeah, Gunner knew the drill, because the ambassador's daughter hadn't been the first victim. Hall liked to kill.
Gunner stared down at the man, at Sydney. You won't kill her.
Sydney's face was emotionless. Like a pale canvas, waiting for life. That wasn't her. She was always brimming with emotion, letting it spill over onto everything and everyone.
It was only on the missions that she changed.
How many more missions would she take? She seemed to be putting herself at risk more these days. He hated that.
He shifted his position, testing the wind. Hall wouldn't see him. He was too far away. Gunner's specialty was attacking from a distance.
There was no target that he couldn't reach.
He could take out that man right now. A perfect shot if he hadn't been worried that Hall's finger would jerk on that trigger at impact.
"I want the gun away from her head," Gunner snapped into his mouthpiece.
But even as he said the words, he saw Sydney's lips moving.
Take. The. Shot.
Hall was outside the small house, his gaze frantically searching the area even as he kept Sydney killing-close. The man wasn't stupid. He'd eluded capture for over a year because he understood how the game was played.
Hall knew Sydney hadn't come in alone. The guy just didn't see her backup. When he hunted like this, Gunner's prey never saw him, not unless he wanted to be seen.
This time, he wanted to be seen because that gun was coming away from Sydney's head.
Take. The. Shot. Her lips moved again.
He shook his head, even though he realized she'd never see the movement. Then he took two steps to the right. He knew that, in this particular position, the sunlight would glint off his weapon. When he saw that flash of light, Hall would fire
And he did. The man yanked the gun away from Sydney's head and shot at Gunner. Too late.
Gunner had already taken his own shot.
The second the gun moved away from her temple, Sydney shoved back against Hall with her elbow, and then she'd jerked away from her captor and threw herself down.
Before she even hit the ground, Gunner's bullet slammed into Hall. The man stumbled back and fell.
"Converge," Logan's hard order came in Gunner's ear.
The other EOD team members rushed from the shadows. Not that they needed to rush. Hall wasn't going to be a threat to anyone, not anymore.
Gunner's breath eased out. He watched as Sydney pushed to her knees, then rose to her feet.
Cale Lane, the newest team member, crouched over Hall as Sydney looked toward Gunner's position.
He'd put the weapon down, so he couldn't see her face clearly, not with the distance that separated them. But he was aware that his heart beat too fast. His hands had been sweating.
A sharpshooter wasn't supposed to get nervous, wasn't supposed to feel on the mission.
But whenever he was close to Sydney, all he could do was feel.
He packed up his weapon and hurried down to her. Because lately, it was always about her.
Day and night. Whether he was awake or asleep, he was obsessed with the woman.
Cale and Logan had secured the scene by the time he got down to the front of the house, and Cale was leading some sobbing redhead from the cabin. So Sydney had been right. Hall had already taken his next victim. If they hadn't moved then, would she have been dead by nightfall?
"Good shot." Sydney's voice was quiet.
Gunner's body tensed. He knew he should hold on to his control, but the gun had been at her temple. If Hall hadn't hesitated, Gunner would have watched while the man put a hole in her head.
So he ignored the wide stare that Logan gave him and stalked to Sydney. He grabbed her wrist, pulled her against him. "You took too much of a risk."
Her short blond hair shone in the light. Her cheeks stained redhe didn't know if that red was from fury or embarrassment.
"I did my job," Sydney said through gritted teeth, lifting her chin. "I told you that my intel indicated a new hostage. She was hidden in the closet. If I hadn't moved in"
He pulled her even closer. "He could have killed you." Then what would I have done?
Her voice dropped. "You say it like that matters to you." Her words were whispered, carrying only to his ears.
Damn it, she did matter. "Sydney."
"You're the one who wants to be hands-off," she snapped with a hard flash of her green eyes. "So why are you holding on to me so tightly?"
He was. Too tightly. He dropped her wrist as if he'd been burned.
"I'm not waiting any longer," Sydney told him as she straightened her shoulders. "Death can come at any moment, and I told you once I'm not crawling into the grave with Slade."
Yes, she'd told him that, when he'd made the mistake of getting too close to Sydney on their last case. They'd been trapped during a storm, forced together in a small cabin, and all he'd been able to think was.
I want her.
But he'dbarelymanaged to stop himself from taking what he wanted. He did have some self-control. Unfortunately, with her, that self-control was growing weaker every day.
"I'm going to start living my life on my terms," Sydney told him. "Consider yourself warned."
Then she spun away. Sydney headed toward Cale and the redhead. More backup had swarmed the scene. Other EOD agents who'd come to lend their support for the rescue-and-takedown operation.
Gunner stared after Sydney, feeling lost.
Then Logan cleared his throat. "I've seen that look before."
Gunner glared at him. Logan might be the team leader for the Shadow Agents, and Gunner considered him as a friend most days, but the man should know not to
"Better watch yourself, or you might just lose something important."
Sydney had already walked away. Logan didn't understand.
She was never mine to lose.
The bar was too loud. The place was packed with too many people, and coming there, well, it had been a serious mistake.
Sydney huffed out a hard breath and pushed her barely sipped drink away. She'd gotten back to the States just hours beforefinally gotten a break for some serious R & R time, and she'd gone home to Baton Rouge.
But it didn't feel like home anymore.
So many missions. So many places.
They were all blending together into a hail of gunfire and death.
"A pretty lady like you shouldn't be sitting alone." The voice, marked with the Cajun that she loved, came from her right.
Sydney's gaze rose, and she found herself staring at a tall, blond man. He was handsome, with the kind of good looks that probably drew women all the time.
So why isn't he drawing me?
She'd come to that bar to find someone like him. It seemed as if she'd been living in a void for the past two years of her life, and she wantedso desperately wantedto start feeling again.
The blond glanced at her drink. "Don't you like it?"
Sydney shook her head. "It's not what I wanted."
He pulled up the bar stool next to her, leaned in close. "Why don't you tell me what you want?"
A stranger, a guy who didn't know her at all, and he looked at her with more warmth than Gunner did.
Don't think about him. This was not supposed to be another Gunner night.
She forced a smile on her face. Gunner was miles away. He always had been. This man, he was right in front of her. She wanted to live, and here was her chance. "I'm really not sure," she said softly. The words were the truth.
What did she want?
That wasn't happening. Time to consider other options.
The guy leaned toward her. "How about we start with a dance, then? Maybe that will help you figure out just what you want."
How long had it been since she'd danced with someone? Too long.
"I'm Colin," he said, giving her a broad smile. "And I promise, I'm a good guy."
As if she could believe a promise from a stranger. She'd met far too many dangerous, lying men for that.
"I'm Sydney." She took the hand that he offered to her. "I guess one dance"
She broke off, her words stuttering to a halt because she'd just met the dark gaze of the man who'd entered the bar. A man who should not have been there.
A man whose stare was hot enough to burn.
Colin stiffened beside her as he followed her gaze. "Problem?"
Yes. No. Maybe. If Gunner was there, then there could be a new mission. There had to be a new mission. There was no other reason for Gunner to be in Baton Rouge instead of up in D.C.
But why hadn't Logan just called her?
Gunner was stalking toward her.
"I thought you were here alone," Colin said softly.
"I am." He still had her hand, and that felt wrong all of a sudden.
Maybe because Gunner's gaze had dipped to their hands. Hardened.
"Then you want to tell me why that guy looks like he's about to rip me apart?"
Gunner did look that way. But Gunner usually looked tough. It was his face. Not handsome like Colin's. Not perfect. It was full of hard angles and dangerous edges. With his golden skin and that jet-black hair, he always looked like walking, talking danger to Sydney.
Danger wasn't supposed to draw you in, but Gunner seemed to draw her more and more.
Even as he kept pushing her away.
"He's a friend," Sydney said, giving a shrug that she hoped looked careless. "An old friend."
Then Gunner was in front of them. "Sydney." His voice was a deep, rumbling growl when Colin's voice had been soft and flirtatious. Did Gunner even know how to flirt?
She doubted it. "We need to talk."
A mission. Right. Just as she'd suspected. Sydney cleared her throat and glanced at Colin. His hold was light on her wrist. "Can you give us just a minute?"
One blond eyebrow rose, but he nodded. "I'll wait for you." She noticed that when he glanced back at Gunner, Colin's face hardened, losing some of its easygoing appeal.
Gunner didn't wait for the guy to back away. He grabbed Sydney's handhis grip much tighter than Colin'sand pulled her into the nearest dark corner.
"Gunner!" His name burst from her. "What are you doing?"
He caged her with his body. "What are you doing?"
"Getting a drink? Getting ready to dance?" Some things should be obvious to a superagent like him.
His teeth snapped together as he leaned in, even closer. The wooden wall was behind her, and Gunner's muscled form wasn't leaving much space in front of her. "You know what he wants."
She was in some kind of weird alternate reality. Sydney shook her head. "What's the mission? Why didn't Logan call"
"There is no mission."
She didn't have any kind of comeback. She couldn't think of what to say. If there was no mission, then Gunner shouldn't be in Louisiana. Her family's old home was there, but Gunner had a place in D.C. Not here.
"I could see it in your eyes," he growled.
"See what?" Her voice came out huskier than she'd intended.
Gunner flinched. "After the last mission, I knew you'd do something like this." He glanced over his shoulder. Since Gunner was big, easily six foot three, with wide shoulders, she couldn't see what he was looking at when he glared behind him.
But she had a pretty good idea.
"Any man?" Gunner asked as that hard, dark gaze came back to her. "Is that what you're"
Her cheeks felt numb. "Don't say another word." She wanted to slug him. "You don't have the right to say anything to me, to judge me." She'd wanted Gunner, had let him become too important to her in the past few years, but enough. "Slade is gone. I've moved on." She pushed at him.
Gunner stepped back.
Good. She marched away from him and didn't look back.
Colin stood as she approached. "I want that dance," Sydney said, and she pretty much dragged him onto the small floor.
She didn't know what Gunner's game was. But he wasn't controlling her. He didn't want her. He'd made that clear when she'd tried to kiss him on that case in Texas.
Colin's hands settled along her hips. She was wearing a pair of jeans, a top that was a little low and strappy sandals that pushed her a bit higher than her normal five-foot-six height. Colin was big, not as tall or muscled as Gunner, and
"You don't want to come between us." Gunner was there. Again. On the dance floor. And he'd just pulled Colin away from her. This was insane.
"Sydney, come with me," Gunner said in that low growl of his.
Colin shook his head. "Look, buddy, I don't care if you are her friend, you don't"
"Is that what I am, Sydney?" Gunner asked, his voice flat. "Your friend?
He had been. After that nightmare two years ago, he'd become her rock. The man she depended on. The one who'd pulled her through her darkest time.
But she wanted him to be more than that.
She wanted more.
"I don't know what you are," she told him. "But you should leave." Because she was tired of living only for the job. She'd find happiness. Everyone else did. She wanted to have a real home one day. A family.
Not just mission after mission.