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Connor West had an eight-second warning before the knockout blonde with a too-serious expression showed up in front of his house. His perimeter security alarm beeped and her newer-model luxury sedan displayed on his smartphone screen. A camera situated along the driveway scanned her car's tags and ran a DMV lookup. Another camera snapped a picture of her face and ran it through facial-recognition software.
Nothing popped up immediately on his computer, which checked his watch list first: federal and local law enforcement, known special operatives, and convicted and released felons. The woman in his driveway must be lost. Connor lived in the woods, far away from civilization, and it was how he liked it. He didn't often get surprise visitors, and when he did, their arrival was either a mistake or delivered a problem.
Connor hoped she'd take one look at his cabin, spin her car around and hightail it off his property. He gave it an 80 percent likelihood she wouldn't stop to ask for directions. Didn't most people have GPS on their cars and their mobile phones? Why would she turn onto his private road? Had to be a mistake.
To his surprise, she climbed out of her car, one long, shapely leg followed by the other. She was wearing a pair of bright green shorts and a white tank top. In her hand, she grasped a small piece of paper. She looked between it and his cabin and back to the paper.
Yes, she was definitely lost.
He mentally urged her to get back in her car and not look back. He wasn't in the mood to deal with her. Connor hadn't seen another human being in a week and he was happy to have it that way.
To his annoyance, she walked up the stairs to his front door. Guess she wasn't a woman who was easily put off. Connor hadn't gone so far as to put no-trespassing signs everywhere. He didn't think he needed them. The location spoke for itself.
The curvy blonde knocked on his door. He could either slip out of the back or pretend not to be home. She would get back in her car and he'd never see her again. He could return his attention to the book he was reading and forget this interruption to his day.
At her second knock, his curiosity overtook his annoyance. What if she needed help? If she didn't turn and run at the sight of him, telling her she was at the wrong location and sending her down the road would take five seconds. Not difficult. She was a beautiful woman and Connor rarely had the opportunity to speak to a woman who looked like her. It would be his one social interaction for the month.
If her looks didn't cinch it, her worried expression and terse mannerisms drew him to his feet. Leaving a woman lost and concerned didn't sit right with him.
Connor opened the front door, expecting a startled reaction. A few months of forgoing shaves and haircuts in combination with his worn jeans and battered, holey T-shirt made for a distressingly poor appearance. She got courage points for not immediately fleeing at the sight of him.
The woman smiled. "Connor? Connor West?"
He instinctually reached for the gun tucked in the holster at his side and unsnapped the strap, letting his hand linger on the handle. Pretty face, short shorts and a tight shirt wouldn't distract him. He was too smart to be taken out by a female assassin. He was a survivor and this woman wouldn't get the best of him. Perhaps this visit would be more exciting than he'd first believed. "Hands where I can see them. I want your name and why you're here. You get ten seconds and then I start shooting."
Her hands went into the air, and unless she was a great actress, the shaking of her arms and trembling of her lips gave away her fright. She was missing the hard edge and the precise and skilled movements of a Sphere assassin. Perhaps not an assassin, then. "My name is Kate Squire. I have information about Aiden. He was a friend of mine."
Another surprise and Connor hated surprises. His brother had been a friend of hers? She'd paused before that word. A friend? Or his brother's former lover? Given Aiden's track record, it was believable that he had been sleeping with this woman. She was his type. Tall, fit and blonde, with a smooth, sexy voice.
A stream ofjealousy shot through him and Connor batted it away. What was the point of being envious of a situation he couldn't change and that had been true all their lives? Aiden had been the handsome, fun brother. Nothing had gotten him down. Connor had wanted Aiden to be happy, had worked to make it the case, and Connor liked to believe that Aiden had been.
Aiden hadn't mentioned this woman by name during any of their late-night conversations. Not unexpected, since Aiden had grown increasingly secretive and distant in the months before he'd died. Their last conversation had been in anger, a reality Connor deeply regretted. It made it harder to cope with losing Aiden.
"How did you find me?" Connor asked. He kept his home address off the radar. It wouldn't be found using a typical internet search.
The blonde's arms dropped a few inches. "Aiden gave me your address for emergencies."
If Aiden had told her where to find his brother, they had to have been good friends. Why hadn't Aiden mentioned he'd shared Connor's information with someone? Why hadn't Aiden mentioned this woman? His distrust was heightened.
"What's your emergency?" Connor asked. This woman was at his home, claiming to have information and an emergency. How dramatic. Maybe it would feel good for her to get something off her chest, but in all likelihood, whatever she told him, Connor would already know or would find insignificant, as most everything was compared to his brother being dead.
Connor also wasn't sure he believed her story. If they didn't plan to outright kill him, it would be like Sphere to send an attractive woman and launch upsetting information at him to get him off guard. Sphere hadn't given up on bringing him back in, and psychological games were their specialty. Connor wouldn't fall for tricks. Aiden had been gone for seven months and Connor had made his peace with his brother's death. He wasn't getting taken in by a beautiful woman. Whatever this Kate Squire needed to say, he wouldn't let it affect him.
"Could you please take your hand off your gun? You're making me nervous," Kate said.
He hadn't realized he was clasping the handle. He removed his hand from his gun and put it at his side. If she gave him any reason to think she was reaching for a weapon, he could get to his gun before she could get to hers. "Answer my question. What is your emergency?" Connor didn't take his eyes off her hands. A difficult task given that she had a lot of features worth a second and third long look.
She lowered her hands and he allowed it. "I heard you were tough but, wow, I didn't expect this."
What had she expected? If Aiden had told her about him, he would have told her Connor was a hermit who lived alone, who didn't like visitors and who preferred the company of his books to people.
"I have something to tell you that might be upsetting for you. Do you want to sit down? Or do you want to get a drink first?" she asked.
No and no. "I don't need to sit. I don't need to drink. There's nothing you can tell me about Aiden that will upset me." Both he and his brother had worked for Sphere. They had completed missions and tasks that were difficult and dangerous. They had walked the line just shy of immoral at times, they had lived fast and loose, and they had loved the adrenaline high of working rogue missions all over the world in the name of liberty and justice. Whatever this woman had to say about his brother, whatever story she would tell, it didn't change that Aiden was a good man with a good heart. Nothing would sully Connor's memory or change his deep respect for his younger brother.
The woman folded her arms over her chest. "I'm the one who needs a drink." She laughed, a nervous jitter. The sound was light and tingled in his ears. Kate took a deep breath. "I don't want to get your hopes up and I don't want to make trouble for you, but I believe Aiden is alive."
Unrealistic hope flared at the word alive but realism tamped it down. "My brother is dead." It was a fact. If his brother was alive, Connor would have heard from him. If Aiden's lover had convinced herself Aiden was alive, perhaps it was a coping technique or the denial phase of her grief. Connor worked firmly in reality and the reality was that Aiden was dead.
The woman looked at the ground, and when she lifted her head, tears shone in her eyes. "I think he is very much alive and he might need your help. I think he was captured in Tumara and is being held by the Armed Revolutionaries in one of their prisons."
Connor's denial skidded to a stop. How had this woman known his brother was working in Tumara for elpresidente and against the revolutionaries? Elpresidente was fighting to stay in power despite a burgeoning lower class who was demanding higher wages and better living conditions. Bruno Feliz was their outspoken leader. Armando Lopes, or el presidente, as the dictator was known, had assistance from Sphere to keep the revolutionaries down. Keeping Lopes in power would prevent upheaval, but Sphere only cared about the money.
Aiden's involvement in the region was classified. He hadn't spoken about his mission or the work he'd completed for Sphere. Connor knew what he had done from keeping his finger on the pulse of Aiden's work, a task he'd found more difficult the deeper Aiden had gone with Sphere. "Where are you getting your information?"
Kate stepped closer to him. As she neared, the light scent of vanilla wafted over him. "I could get in trouble for this. For telling you anything about Aiden and his work. But I feel like I have to tell someone. I work for the same company you and Aiden did. I analyzed some intelligence we received from our overseas allies and I have reason to believe your brother is alive. My cover-that is, my work with the State Department- puts me in touch with important people." She shoved a hand through her hair as if frustrated with her explanation. "I know this sounds crazy, but I need you to believe me."
Connor's thoughts shifted into overdrive. She worked for Sphere, the organization responsible for his brother's death. Sphere's agenda was buried beneath a flurry of excuses and stories and rationalizations. It was one of the reasons Connor didn't work for them anymore. "You work for Sphere?"
Kate looked around as if someone could overhear them. At least she had the paranoid-operative part down pat. Not that he had room to judge.
"Yes. I work there," she whispered.
"Let me tell you something, Kate." If that was her name. "I know how Sphere operates. They told me he was dead. Now you are telling me he is alive. If someone gave you that false hope, I'm sorry." They could be manipulating Kate into seeking him out. This could be another attempt to coerce Connor to work a mission for them. "If my brother was alive, he would have contacted me. You're being played."
Kate shook her head. "This isn't a game. Aiden needs you. I have a picture in my smartphone that might change your mind. Can I get it out and show it to you?"
Connor nodded his assent, and Kate reached into her back pocket and withdrew a slim phone. She typed on it and then turned it to face him. Connor closed the distance between them, poised to react to any sudden movements. Sphere would take out a target by any means necessary: deception, surprise, full-on attack. If Kate pulled out a weapon, he'd disarm or kill her.
The picture on the screen startled him. Aiden was sitting on a dirt floor, a bamboo fence behind him. It was too small for Connor to notice any photo editing. She could have gotten a picture of Aiden and inserted it into the setting. A phony picture to tear at his resistance was a simple lie for Sphere to manufacture.
Connor should have told her to leave the moment she mentioned knowing Aiden. He should have forbidden the slim ray of hope that his brother was alive from shining on his thoughts. But the thinness of his brother's face, the bruises, the worn and tattered clothes spooked Connor. Could Aiden be incapacitated and unable to send a message to Connor for help?
Thinking of his brother in desperate straits took hold of his core and shook him. If the picture was real, and if it was recent, it wouldn't help him locate his brother. Unless Kate had more, Connor would have to mount his own operation to search for his brother. It would take time and resources.
Growing up, it had been he and Aiden against the world. To know the only person he'd ever trusted could be hurt, in need and alive changed everything. Kate might be lying, but was he willing to stake his brother's life on it?
"Did you check if the picture was edited?" he asked.
"The picture is legit. I obtained it, with great difficulty I might add, from work. A contact of mine in Tumara believes I work for the State Department and that I have a streak of goodwill in my blood. He sent the picture to me in case it developed into an international incident. You know, American held against his will by the Armed Revolutionaries," Kate said.
When someone lied to him, Connor usually knew it. He sensed it. Nothing about Kate screamed liar. What was her angle? "What do you want?" Connor asked, cutting to the chase.
"What do I want?" she repeated, her eyes wide and confused. "I want you to help Aiden."
Was Connor ready to believe that this woman was telling the truth and his brother was alive? That he was already thinking about how to find Aiden told him that he'd bought Kate's story. "Tell me what you know and I'll take care of the rest." He'd fill in or locate the missing information. If Aiden was alive, Connor would find him.
Kate blinked at him, her bright blue eyes giving away nothing. "If I tell you everything, you'll take off and I'll never hear from you or Aiden again. You're taking me with you and I'll tell you what you need to know as you need to know it."
Gutsy. She'd shown up on his property, asked for his help and then set the terms of their arrangement. "Tell me everything and we'll go from there." She was right in deducing his intention. Once she spilled the information he needed, he'd ditch her. He preferred his work how he preferred his personal life: solitary.
"Nice try. We work together on this."
"If you work for the agency, why not find him yourself?" It was as much a challenge as it was a test.
"I'm a computer analyst, not a field operative. I've completed the mandatory cross-training, but I am not foolish enough to attempt this alone."
Sphere recruited two types of people: highly skilled assassins with unique talents, like him and his brother, and uberintelligent supergeeks who excelled in their areas of technical expertise. Connor couldn't envision Kate rapidly typing at a computer. Most attractive people used their looks to their advantage and she couldn't do that behind a computer. Sphere liked attractive operatives to work the field. A good-looking woman could pull information easily from a smitten man.
Kate set her hands on her hips, bringing his attention momentarily to the dip in her slender waist and the roundness of her hips. "I know the odds are stacked against me. If you won't help me, you've taken away my best option. But I can't let this go. I won't let this go."