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As Shep Lewis, undercover commando, strode into his team's office trailer on the Texas-Mexico border with his morning coffee, his bad mood followed him. To do anything right, a person had to give his alland he did, to each and every op. But it didn't seem to make a difference with his current mission.
He adjusted his Bluetooth as Keith Gunn, one of his teammatescurrently on border patroltalked on the other end. They all took turns monitoring a hundred-mile stretch along the Rio Grande, in pairs.
"Do you think they'll really send in the National Guard to seal the border?"
"They won't," Shep said between his teeth. "It would just delay the problem." For some reason, the powers that be didn't see that the National Guard was a terrible solution, which frustrated him to hell and back.
His six-man team had credible intelligence that terrorists with their weapons of mass destruction would be smuggled across somewhere around here, on October firstfive short days away. His team's primary mission was to prevent that. Switching out players for the last five minutes of the game was a terrible strategy.
They had the exact date of the planned border breach. If they could somehow discover the exact location, they could lie in wait and grab those damned terrorists as they crossed the river. The bastards would never know what hit them.
The National Guard coming in to seal the border could not be hidden, however. Which meant the terrorists would move their crossing to a different place at a different time and might slip through undetected. The sad fact was, even the National Guard didn't have the kind of manpower to keep every single mile of the entire U.S. border permanently sealed.
"The op has to be small enough to keep undercover to succeed," he said, even if Keith knew that as well as he did.
"Except, we don't have the exact location for their crossing."
"We will." But he silently swore. They were running out of time, and the stakes couldn't have been highernational security and the lives of thousands.
There could be no more mistakes, no distractions. They had five days to stop the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. Failure wasn't an option.
Keith cleared his throat. "The FBI's guy will be here today."
"Don't remind me." Frustration punched through Shep. Everybody seemed to have a sudden urge to meddle. "Where are you?"
"Coming in. Ryder's cutting the shift short. He wanted to talk to the whole team at the office."
"More good news?"
"He didn't say. We'll be there in ten."
They ended the call as Shep strode through the empty office that held their desks and equipment, passed by the interrogation room to the left, then team leader Ryder McKay's office. Ryder had been on border patrol this morning with Keith.
Voices filtered out from the break room in the back, so Shep kept going that way.
"She burned down his house, stole his car and got him fired from his job." Jamie Cassidy's voice reached him through the partially closed door.
Okay, that sounded disturbingly familiar. Shep's fingers tightened on the foam cup in his hand as he paused midstep, on the verge of entering. His mood slipped another notch as old memories rushed him. He shook them off. No distractions.
"She broke his heart," Jamie added.
All right, that's enough. Shep shoved the door open, maybe harder than he'd intended.
He stepped into the room just as Ray Armstrong said in a mocking tone, "Must have been some love affair." He glanced over and grinned. "Hey, Shep."
Shep shot a cold glare at the three men, all hardened commando soldiers: Jamie, Ray and Moses Mann.
The latter two had the good sense to look embarrassed at being caught gossiping like a bunch of teenage girls. Jamie just grinned and reached back to the fridge behind him for an energy drink.
The fridge and wall-to-wall cabinets filled up the back of the break room, a microwave and coffee machine glinting in the corner. In front of the men, high-resolution satellite printouts covered the table.
This close to D-day, they didn't take real breaks anymore. They worked around the clock, would do whatever it took to succeed.
Yesterday's half-eaten pizza, which they were apparently resurrecting as breakfast, sat to the side. Jamie pushed it farther out of the way as he lifted the drink to his mouth with one hand while he finished marking something on one of the printouts with a highlighter.
"So" He looked at Shep when he was finished, too cheerful by half. "Want to tell us about her?"
Shep stepped closer, in a way that might or might not be interpreted as threatening. They'd all been frustrated to the limit lately, and a good fight would let off a lot of pressure. "I liked you better when you were a morose bastard."
Ray leaned back in his chair. "He's mellowed a lot since hooking up with the deputy sheriff." He turned to Jamie. "She's definitely changing you, man."
And not to his advantage, Shep wanted to add, but that wasn't entirely true, so he didn't say it.
Jamie didn't seem concerned about the perceived mellowing. A soft look came over his face as he capped his highlighter. "Love changes everything."
"Really?" Shep narrowed his gaze at them. "Four of the roughest, toughest commandos in the country and we're going to sit around talking about love? What the hell? Are we still part of the top secret Special Designation Defense Unit, or is this now the Wrecked by Cupid Team? Have changes been made while I've been out?"
He believed in true love. He'd seen it work; his parents had had it. But he also knew thatlike anything else importantit only worked if you gave it your all. People like him, and the other guys on his team, could never do that.
He wasn't the type to do things halfway, anyway. He either charged full steam ahead or wouldn't even start. Love just wasn't in the cards for him.
"Romance is the kind of" he began, trying to be the voice of reason.
But Mo gave a warning cough.
He would. He was another recent, unfortunate casualty.
He looked Shep straight in the eye. "Love is nothing to be ashamed of."
Shep wished the best for him and Jamie, but in his heart of hearts, he had doubts about their long-term chances. Yet what right did he have to be discouraging? He laughed it off. "It's sad to see battle-hardened soldiers turn sappy." He shook his head, looking to Ray for support, a good laugh or some further needling in Jamie's direction.
But, in a stunning display of betrayal, Ray turned against him. "So what's this about your psycho girlfriend?" he asked between two bites of cold pizza, sitting a head taller than anyone else in the room.
If Mo was built like a tank, Ray was built like a marauding Vikinghis true ancestry. Jamie, between them, was the lean and lithe street fighter.
They didn't intimidate Shep one bit. "We're not talking about me."
A roundhouse kick to Jamie, then vault on Ray, knock himchair and everythinginto Mo. That would put an end to all the smirking.
Except that Ryder, the team leader, had forbidden fighting in the office after an unfortunate incident when they'd first set up headquarters here. As it turned out, even though the reinforced trailer was bulletproof, the office furniture, in fact, was not indestructible.
So Shep threw Jamie only a glare instead of a punch that would have been way more satisfying. "She was a kid, all right? I wasn't her boyfriend. I was her parole officer. End of story."
"He never pressed charges," Jamie told Mo under his breath in a meaningful tone, obviously in the mood to make trouble this morning.
Shep threw his empty coffee cup at him. "Didn't anybody ever teach you to mind your own business?"
Jamie easily ducked the foam missile. "How about you tell us about her and then it'll all be out in the open? It'd be good to know what we're dealing with here."
When they built ski resorts in hell and handed out free lift passes.
"Any reason we're discussing Lilly Tanner this morning?" Saying her name only made him flinch a little. His eyes didn't even twitch anymore when he thought of her.
Ray suddenly busied himself with the printouts on the table. Jamie had a look of anticipatory glee on his face.
A cold feeling spread in Shep's stomach. "How did her name come up?"
He'd made the mistake of mentioning her to Jamie when they'd been on patrol together a while back. He hadn't expected that she would become the topic of break-room discussion. Jamie wouldn't have brought her up for gossip's sake. But then why?
"She's the consultant the FBI is sending in," Mo said with some sympathy. He might have been built like a tank, but he did have a good heart.
Shep stared, his mind going numb. Individually, all of Mo's words made sense. But having them together in a sentence defied comprehension. "Has to be a different Lilly Tanner."
The one he'd known over a decade ago had been a hellcat. He'd always figured she would end up a criminal mastermind or an out-of-control rock starshe had the brains and deviousness for the first, the voice and the looks for the second.
Jamie tapped the highlighter on the table and grinned. "She's the one. I checked when I heard the name."
He didn't like the new, cheerful Jamie. He was used to the pre-love morose Jamie who could curdle milk with just a look. As a good undercover commando should.
The only thing he liked less at the moment was the thought of Lilly Tanner reappearing in his life. The possibility caused a funny feeling in his chest. "They'll have to send someone else."
"Unlikely." Ray grimaced. "We've been read the riot act."
"Sorry about that." Jamie had the decency to look apologetic at least. "My bad."
He'd crossed the border and taken out someone he'd thought to be the Coyote, the crime boss who set up the transfer of terrorists into the U.S. Except the man Jamie had shot had been a plant. The Coyote had gotten away, and the Mexican government was having a fit over a U.S. commando entering their sovereign territory.
Hell, none of the team blamed Jamie. But now the FBI was sending in their own man.. woman.
Shep closed his eyes for a pained second.
His team would either stop those terrorists from entering the country with their chemical weapons or die trying. The last thing they needed was the FBI meddling and putting roadblocks in their way at the eleventh hour.
Ray shrugged. "D.C. city girl coming to the big bad borderlands. Give her a few days and she'll be running back to her office, crying."
Shep swallowed the groan pushing up his throat. The Lilly Tanner he'd known didn't run crying to anyone. He was about to tell them that, but gravel crunched outside as a car pulled up, then another.
"Ryder and Keith are coming in early," he told the others. Maybe Jamie was wrong. Their leader would have the correct information.
Keith, the youngest on the team, came through the door first, tired and rumpled after a long night on the border. He did the best with people they caught sneaking over. One of his grandfathers was Mexican. He had the look and spoke the language like a native. People told him things they wouldn't have told the rest of the team.
He looked around and apparently picked up on the tension in the air because he raised a black eyebrow.
Shep couldn't bring himself to answer. He sank into the nearest chair and reached for a slice of cardboard pizza, then stared at it for a second. He wasn't even hungry.
"The FBI agent who's coming She's a woman,"
Mo said. "She's"
Ryder pushed in. "I was just talking to the Colonel, too. Lilly Tanner. Isn't it great?"
Shep's jaw tightened. "How do you know about Lilly?" He shot a dark look at Jamie. Couldn't he keep his mouth shut?
But Jamie shrugged with wide-eyed innocence.
"She's Mitch Mendoza's sister," Ryder said.
A moment of confused silence passed as the men looked at each other, processing the unexpected information.
Jamie spoke first. "The one he's been looking for?"
His sister was married to Mendoza, so this was family business for him. "I thought her name was Cindy."
"Got changed at one point along the way. You can ask her all about it when she gets here."
Mo clapped Jamie on the back. "Hey, that makes her your sister-in-law, doesn't it?"
A stunned smile spread on Jamie's face as he nodded. "Kind of. Yeah."
Ryder headed to the back for coffee. "Mitch found her just recently. Different name and everything, but it's definitely his sister. They had the DNA test done to confirm it."
Shep rubbed his temple where a headache pulsed to life suddenly.
Mitch Mendoza, another member of the SDDU, Special Designation Defense Unit, the large team that Shep's smaller group belonged to, came from a family destroyed by drugs. He'd been a teenager when his father had sold his little sister for coke. Mitch had been looking for her ever since.
And now he'd found her at last.
Except that through some bizarre turn of events, Mitch's Cindy Mendoza was Shep's Lilly Tanner. Shep swallowed. And she was coming here.
He tried to remember if he had any aspirin in his desk drawer. "They'll have to send someone else."
Jamie lifted an eyebrow, a warning look forming on his face. "She's my family," he said, in case somehow Shep didn't get that.
He did. Shoot me now.
"She can't be my Lilly Tanner. There must be a hundred Lilly Tanners out there." He stubbornly clung to denial.
"She's yours." Jamie extinguished that hope with ruthless efficiency. "I ran a background check on her when I got the name. Right age. Came from the juvie system. Right city."
Shep pushed to his feet.
"Where are you going?" Mo wanted to know.
"Taking a break." He needed an hour at the gym.
He needed a little time to clear his mind so he could focus fully on his work. His thoughts were all over the place, and he had plenty to get done today.
No distractions. He had to erase the picture that filled his mind: the seventeen-year-old bundle of holy terror that had made him quit the juvenile justice system. Sort of. Okay, fine, they fired him because of her.
But even as he moved toward the fridge to grab a bottle of water to go, another car pulled up outside. A throaty engine rumbled, sounding nothing like the team's SUVs. A car door slammed.
He had a hollow feeling in his stomach.
The urge to run hit him, but he stood immobilized as he listened to heels clicking on the floor in the main office area. On reflex, he cataloged the weapons within range: his gun at his hip, his backup firearm in the ankle holster, the knife in his pocket.
Then the door swung open and a pair of familiar devil-black eyes, fringed with thick lashes, scanned the break room before they zeroed in on him.
Oh, holy hell. She was definitely his Lilly Tanner.
Yet she was nothing like the girl he remembered.
Her full lips stretched into a smile that made Ray stare openmouthed. Shep considered throwing the water bottle at the idiot to snap him out of it. Then he realized that the rest of them were just as bad, staring at her, more than a little dazed. Great.
"Good morning, gentlemen." Her voice was a sexy purr, enough to make a man sit up and pay attention, nothing like the disdainful teenage tone Shep still heard sometimes in his nightmares.
She had stretched up and filled out, and somehow managed to look like a Playboy Playmate even in a straight-cut charcoal FBI suit. She wore her wild, dark curls pulled back into a no-nonsense bun, her five-inch heels a somber black, yet everything about her somehow spelled sex, which made Shep feel all wrong and uncomfortable.
She'd been his charge once. He was pretty sure he shouldn't be standing there thinking how she was the hottest thing he'd ever seen.
Good thing he knew too much about her to fall for the new look. Hell, he even knew where her tattoos were
He caught himself and tried to backpedal out of that thought. Too late. A strange heat flooded him.