"Incredibly intense, beautifully written and drop dead sexy, L.R.Nicolello's Dead No More is a top-notch romantic thriller. It grabs you by the throat on the first page and doesn't let go until the very last line. Nicolello's storytelling gets better and better. You won't want to miss this one." New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison
The next person you trust…may be the last…
Lily Andrews was once the most sought-after undercover operative at Unit 67, a Black Ops agency buried deep within the U.S. Intelligence Community. But then her partner—and fiancé—turned rogue, leaving her for dead after a mission gone horribly wrong. Disgusted with 67's attempt to cover up Jackson's traitorous actions, Lily walked away from everything she knew and loved…and swore she'd hunt her ex down on her own and bring him to justice.
When the handsome, undeniably alpha Derek Moretti needs her help to pursue a ruthless sociopath who is putting advanced weaponry into the hands of terrorists, Lily sees her chance to return to 67 with her pride intact. She didn't realize how much she'd missed the adrenaline rush of being undercover—or maybe that's the heat that races through her whenever Derek is near. But soon Lily will have to choose between the vengeance she craves and the country she's sworn to protect. And with the clock ticking down on a nuclear catastrophe, she knows that this time, if she's trusted the wrong man, she won't live to regret it…
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One Year Ago
Wednesday, August 15, 10:00p.m.
Pounding footsteps echoed off the walls in the empty back alley. The sleeper cell's leader turned, saw her closing in and blindly fired. Lily Andrews dodged to her left, sidestepping the bullet as it whizzed by her. Amateur. She took a deep breath, pushed herself harder and closed the distance between her and Amed.
"Stay on him, Andrews. We can't lose that briefcase." Jackson's smooth voice crackled in her earpiece.
"I got it. Driving him toward you now."
Amed rounded the corner and raced across the busy New York City street. Lily shadowed his movement, car horns screaming at her as vehicles skidded to a halt. She jumped and slid over the hood of a Honda, her feet hitting the ground lightly before she fell back into stride. Amed tore down the alley hugging the Grand Hotel. There was no way out.
We've got you, asshole.
"He's in the alley adjacent to the hotel," she relayed to her partner. "Tell me that door is unlocked."
"Affirmative. Coming into the front lobby now."
Amed froze, cast a spooked glance over his shoulder and fired. The panicked shot went wide, hitting the brick wall to her left. He lunged for the hotel's emergency exit and vanished. Lily followed, racing up the stairs. She peered around the landing wall. Amed thrust his open palm into the door on the next floor. The door didn't budge. He cursed, turned and raced up the next flight of stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
She sprinted after him, closing the gap.
"There's nowhere for you to go, Amed," she yelled up the stairs. Her heart raced, pumping in time with each footstep. Adrenaline and excitement coursed through her veins. "Let me help you."
Another bullet flew past her. This one closer. Shit.
"I take it that's a no."
At the next landing, he slammed into the exit door. It flew openas Lily had known it would.
She stopped at the exit, hugged the wall and slowly pushed the door open. If her intel was correct, this guy was a rabbit, not a shark, so he'd rush to find a place to hide, not wait to blow her head off. Let's hope they're right. With a deep breath, she threw herself through the door, rolled and ended in a crouch, gun raised. Head intact, she smiled. Thank you, Intel.
A crash echoed down the empty hall. She pushed herself close to the wall. No one was supposed to be on this floor. And there was no way Jackson could have beaten them to the rendezvous location.
"Where are you?" she whispered.
"Coming up the front steps." Jackson's deep voice popped in her earpiece.
Lily's eyes flicked to the end of the hall and back. "Proceed with caution. Our location may be compromised."
"How? Wait for me."
"Negative. We can't lose that file."
"Wait for me, Andrews. That's an order." Another crash reverberated down the hallway. "Yeah, that's not going to happen." She got up and ran.
The hotel room door was propped open and Lily paused just outside, listened. Only silence met her ears. She crept in, softly breathing, back pressed against the wall as she made her way into the room. The mirror was smashed. Tiny, razor-sharp shards littered the carpet. A lamp was broken.
Her instincts screamed at her to get out.
She inched back toward the open door, but it banged shut. Her brain registered the soft pop of a gun silencer behind her. She dove for the chair, grabbed it and brought it down on its side as two more slugs zinged past her head.
Where was Jackson? Where was her backup?
The door opened and slammed again. The only sound in the room was her own thundering heart. She took a moment to gather herself and organize her thoughts. This mission was going to hell. And fast.
Flattened against the wall, gun up, she took a deep breath and peeked around the chair. Amed was sprawled out at the foot of the bed, his lifeless eyes staring back at her. The case he'd been carrying? Gone.
Then, in the broken mirror, she caught a glimpse of a fractured reflectionone she knew intimately. What the hell? Her throat constricted.
"Of course you would disobey my order," Jackson said, his tone hard, clipped. "Are you going to show yourself, or do I have to talk to a chair?"
"That depends." Her bewilderment boiled over to a hot rage. "Are you going to shoot at me again?"
He chuckled. Funny, how that deep sound used to make her smile. Now her skin crawled with apprehension.
"Lily, sweetheart. Why would I shoot my partner? My lover?" he continued in a voice as smooth as velvet.
A wave of nausea hit her. Not the I-want-to-puke sensation due to a simple stomach bug, but the debilitating sickness you couldn't escape after riding the roller coaster one too many times. She trusted this man with her heart, with her life. The room spun, and she reached out her hand to steady herself. Had Jackson turned? Her mind tumbled over itself, fought against the inevitable. No. It wasn't possible was it?
Lily reached for the second gun strapped to her ankle. Her fingers brushed the cold metal, and she drew it out of its holster, simultaneously peering under the chair. She held her breath and flicked off the safety. The soft click echoed in her ears like a canon.
"Is that what this has come to?" he asked.
"Don't give me that shit, Jackson."
How were they having this conversation? Better yet, how had she not seen this coming? She'd sensed his distance and moodiness, sure, but chalked it up to the grueling hours on this assignment. Her mind raced, landing on sure tells that something had been amiss: the late-night calls, last-minute cancellations, occasional disappearances. She shook her head.
Son of a
She should have seen those signs for what they were.
But those damn green eyes of his got her every time, dulling her well-honed instincts.
Their romance was against Unit 67's strict protocol. She knew it, Jackson knew it, hell, even the director of their top-secret government agency knew it. But when he'd hauled her into his office, she'd argued with him, promised to keep her romance with Jackson under wraps. Swore it wouldn't impede her judgment.
When the directorwho also happened to be her godfatherstarted searching for a new partner for Lily, she'd thrown the I-have-no-one-else card at him, which, no doubt, had been a slap in his face. Kennedy finally relented, agreed not to interfere with Lily's relationship with Jackson, but threatened to bench her if she couldn't separate work from play. She'd laughed, promised she had it under control.
Clearly, she'd been wrong.
"Stand up, Lily, or I'll kill you," Jackson said in a do-not-fuck-with-me tone.
Lily knew that tone, had heard it before, and he'd been good on his word. Shit. She checked both guns, took a deep breath and slowly stood.
Jackson leaned against the far wall, his weapon trained on her forehead. The kill shot he'd all but perfected. Her gaze landed on the silencer, and her heart seized.
She kept one hand hidden, raised the other arm, pointed her .45 at her partnerher fiancéand prayed she wouldn't have to pull the trigger.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because I'm tired of putting my ass on the line for nothing but a pat on the back and a medal that's taken away right after a classified ceremony." He picked up the briefcase and took a step toward her. "Do you know what this formula is going for on the black market?"
"Give me the case." She scanned the room with her peripheral vision, searching for an exit. The door was closed, and the window was shutprobably sealed tight. She was trapped. Just perfect. Choosing the closer of the two limited options, she edged toward the window and held up both guns. "You don't have to do this."
"Oh, but I do. The man I'm in bed with now will kill me, and slowly, if I don't deliver this. Besides, I'm looking forward to an early retirement." Something that resembled hope flashed across his face as he took a tentative step toward her, reaching out his free hand. "Join me?"
She'd heard that tone before, the quiet plea blanketed in bravado, when he'd all but begged Lily to say yes, to throw cautionand protocolto the wind and accept his marriage proposal. And just like then, it about damn near split Lily's heart in two. Then she'd agreed. Now she hesitated, caught up in the past, in the promise of more.
He stopped, tilted his head and locked eyes with Lily. She tried to see past the darkness dancing in his green eyes, to the man she'd loved from the minute she'd been paired with him for her first mission.
On the streets of Paris, they'd played the part of lovers perfectly, and she'd fallen for him.
She'd soaked up his woodsy smell as he'd tucked her into his side. They'd meandered down the Seine, their target in sight. The feel of his blond curls running through her fingers. The stubble on his strong jawline scratching her as he pressed his face into her neck sent fire racing down her spine. Everything about Jackson drew Lily to his sidehis rebellious spirit spoke to hers on so many levels.
That connection followed them from that first mission in France, to the next and the next, until there was no separation between the cover of the mission and their reality behind closed doors.
She blinked hard. No. The man before her wasn't the man who'd been her partner for the past three years, and definitely wasn't the man she'd pledged her love to and was set to marry next month. It was supposed to be small and intimate, just the two of them and a couple witnesses, but that was all she'd ever wanted. Now it looked like that would never happen. A tremor ran down her arm.
How could she have been so wrong?
"You know I can't," she said in a broken whisper, barely recognizable to her own ears.
A dull, blank shadow descended over his face, turning his handsome, model-like features into something grotesque, evil even, and he stepped back. "Or won't."
"I'm not going to play this semantics game with you, Jackson." She leveled both weapons, aimed them at his heart, and put more pressure on the .45's trigger. "I don't want to shoot you. Just give me the case."
Scorching fury burned out any nostalgia she'd had left for her fiancé. If he'd turned, he was the enemy.
End of story.
"You won't shoot me." He smirked at her. "You can't."
In another lifetime, he would have been rightshe couldn't have pulled the trigger. But time blew by at a blistering speed, and she was no longer the agent racing after a known terrorist hell-bent on destroying her country. She was staring at a skilled, narcissistic traitor, a sociopath who had no problem whatsoever betraying his partner or the cause he'd held dear.
And for what? Self-preservation?
She'd promised to defend her country against all enemies foreign and domestic.
The bullet flew past his head, nicking his right ear. Jackson's hand shot up reflexively to the wound. Pulling his hand away, he glanced at his bloodstained fingers, stunned. Seizing that brief moment of dropped guard, Lily sprang and tackled him.
He recovered quickly and went on the defensive, flipping her over his shoulder. The .45 sailed from her hand. Landing hard against the scratchy carpet, his body tumbling down onto hers, Lily thrust her open palm into his throat, hoping to crush his larynx. She was off by a fraction. Nevertheless, he gasped and stumbled backward, struggling for air.
Pushing to her feet, Lily searched for an escape. Jackson had recovered from her attack and now stood blocking the door. She glanced at the window, weighing her options. Where was her freaking backup?
That moment of inattention was her undoing. With a roar, Jackson charged. She snapped to attention, sidestepping his assault. He spun and jabbed out his arm, his fist connecting with her jaw. Light exploded behind her eyes. As she blinked back the pain and squared off again, his other fist made contact with her lower back, just below her kidneys. Lily swallowed the cry in her throat, swung again. He deflected her fist and drove his into her stomach.
Lily tried to stumble away, doubled over in agony. But Jackson was faster, grabbing her by the shirt and lifting her off her feet. With a snarl, he slammed her into the window. It shattered. Knifelike shards of glass bit into her back. Pain ripped through her. A shadow crossed Jackson's facewas it regret?but quickly disappeared. She clutched his wrists. He pushed her hard until half her body dangled out the window.
"You should have said yes."
"Don't do this." Cold panic encased every cell in her body. Dear God, he's going to drop me. The blood in her veins crystalized. She tightened her grip. "Jackson, please. Don't do this."
"Sorry, Lil." He twisted his arms, dislodging her hold, and let go.
Five Days Later
Monday, August 20, 3:00p m.
Soft beeping pulled at Lily from the dark recesses of her mind. Where was she? She shifted slightly, then gasped as pain ripped through her back. She groaned and forced her eyes open. Bright light blinded her. Where were her reflexes? Why was she taking so long to move? She concentrated, tightening her focus on the room around her.
Ben's tanned, weathered face hovered over her. Worry shone in his brown eyes, pulling his crow's-feet even deeper. She wasn't surprised he was herewherever here was. In some serendipitous moment just before her parents had been killed in action, he'd sworn that if the unimaginable happened, he'd step in.
He'd been there ever since.
"Easy, Lil." He leaned over and stroked her hair.
"Where am I? How long have I been out?"
"How long?" The words came out in a pathetic squeak.
"What?" How the hell had she been unconscious for five days?
"You've been in a coma. Intel screwed the pooch. Your backup ended up in the wrong place, on the other side of the damn city. When they finally found you, you were in seriously bad shape. You'd fallen from a three-story window, Lil. They had to shock your heart twice in transit." He shook his head and looked away. "Jackson didn't make it."
"Didn't make" She choked on the words. Why did Ben think Jackson was dead? She clenched her fists. The bastard wasn't dead. He'd betrayed them and slipped off into the dark.
"They found bloodJackson's, yours, Amed'son the scene. The team worked around the clock to piece it together. The mission was compromised. They knew you were coming. Killed their mule, tried to kill you. From the looks of it, Jackson put up quite a fight." Ben rubbed his hands over his buzz cut, got up and paced. "They took him and the case. We tried activating his tracker, but they found and disabled it. The trail went cold. There was nothing we could do. I'm so sorry, Lil. We lost him."
"I didn't fall," she whispered.
He turned and his eyes narrowed, the warrior he'd once been pushing to the surface. If Lily hadn't known Ben since she was old enough to walk, she'd be terrified at the fierceness staring her down. "What do you mean, you didn't fall?"
Why was her throat so parched? And why the hell was he staring at her as if she'd sprouted two heads in the past five minutes? Hadn't he heard what she'd just said?
She reached for the IV in her arm and yanked at the tubes, desperate to get out of her sterile prison. She'd been down too longshe had to find Jackson. "I didn't fall. Jackson threw me out that window."
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