New York Times and USA Today Bestseller!
"A first-rate thrill ride."Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
HE'S GONE ROGUE
Ex-navy SEAL Rock Babineaux is as Cajun as they comespicy, sexy, and more than a bit wicked. But would he actually betray his country? Even his best friends on the special-ops Black Knights team aren't sure they can trust him. Now the target of a massive manhunt, Rock knows the only way to protect the teamespecially his partner, Vanessais to run...
SHE WON'T BACK DOWN
Rock might think he can outmaneuver them all, but he hasn't counted on how stubborn Vanessa Cordero can be. And she refuses to cut him loose. Sure, her partner has his secrets, but there's no one in the world she'd rather have by her side in a tight spot. Which is good because she and Rock are about to get very tight...
Praise for Black Knights Inc. Series:
"Julie Ann Walker is one of those authors to be put on a keeper shelf along with Nora Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann, and Allison Brennan."Kirkus
About the Author
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Black Knights Inc. HQ
Goose Island, Chicago, Illinois...
"They say he's gone rogue."
Like a bad smell, the sentence seemed to hang in the air. Those seated around the large conference table shifted uncomfortably, their expressions varying from wary disbelief to stubborn denial.
Vanessa Cordero found herself falling into that last group. He wouldn't. Not Rock.
"Who's they?" Ozzie asked. The guy's wild blond hair and Star Trek T-shirt-it read I beat the Kobayashi Maru-shouted of his secure position in the upper echelons of Geekdom as loudly as the three microsized laptops open in front of him.
"Official word came down through the DOD," Boss said, pulling out a chair and wearily sinking into it. Frank "Boss" Knight, their esteemed leader, was built like an Abrams tank. Of course, right now he looked more like Atlas-the weight of the world squarely on his big shoulders.
"The DOD?" Ozzie snorted, and Vanessa watched his youthful face contort with skepticism. "Well that makes it all clear as mud, now doesn't it?"
The Department of Defense oversaw all facets of government intelligence and defense from the NSA down to the individual branches of the military. So, yeah, saying the information came from the DOD was ambiguous at best, and downright cryptic at worst.
Boss's jaw hardened. He seemed to hesitate before finally opening the accordion-style folder tucked under his arm. Pulling out a stack of bundled papers, he tossed them into the middle of the table. "Pass 'em around," he commanded.
Vanessa was almost afraid to take one. Afraid of what the information might reveal and-
No. He wouldn't do this. Not Rock.
Not the man who'd laughingly and patiently endeavored to teach her to make the perfect roux for a pot of gumbo despite the fact she totally botched and burned the first three attempts. Not the man who'd calmly showed her how to handle a motorcycle even though she kept laying the sucker over on its side. Not the man who'd scooped her up in his arms and carried her two miles back to Black Knights Inc. headquarters the time she twisted an ankle while the group was out jogging.
The whine of an electric screwdriver sounded below, and Boss pushed up from his chair to stomp over to the railing. BKI's command center occupied the second floor of an old three-story menthol cigarette factory and overlooked the custom motorcycle shop-the cover for their covert government defense firm-on the first floor below. As Ozzie liked to joke, they were grease-monkey motorcycle mechanics by day and Uncle Sam's last resort by night.
And one of them had just been accused of going rogue...
A shiver of trepidation raced up Vanessa's spine. A rogue operator was considered worse than a traitor. And what was the government's stance on traitors?
That'd be death. Pure and simple.
Shitballs. What a nightmare.
"Becky!" Boss yelled as the pages he'd thrown on the table were distributed around the group. His booming bass made her wince, as usual. "Get your ass up here! We have a problem!"
A problem? Is that what he called it when every agent and operator employed by the dear, sweet U.S. of A. was going to be gunning for one of their own-when they would be required to gun for one of their own? If so, she hated to know what he considered a catastrophe.
The electric screwdriver clicked off and, seconds later, the thump of Becky's work boots pounded up the metal treads. The hollow sound echoed throughout the building and inside Vanessa's tight chest. And, yep, the fact that the room was doing a slow tilt probably had something to do with the fact that she hadn't taken a breath since Boss dropped the bomb. Clamping her eyes shut, she forced herself to rake in much needed oxygen. When she heard Becky arrive on the second floor landing, she cracked an eyelid only to discover the woman's blond ponytail covered in metal shavings. They acted as sparkling accessories to the grease spots staining her shirt.
Becky Reichert was the reason their cover worked so well. Because while most of the guys were pretty handy with a wrench, she was the genius behind the kick-ass motorcycle designs that convinced the general public they were exactly what they were purported to be-simply one of the world's premier custom bike shops.
"Has anyone ever mentioned you bellow like a wounded bull?" Becky demanded, hands on hips, lollipop stick protruding from her pursed lips as she glared at Boss. And, yes, Vanessa would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment.
"Just you, honey." Boss pulled the bright red sucker from her mouth, bending to give her a quick, smacking kiss.
When he straightened away, Becky accurately read his I-really-need-to-hit-something expression, because the teasing light in her eyes instantly dimmed. "What is it, Frank?" she breathed. "What's happened?"
"General Fuller just called to inform me Rock has officially been listed as a rogue operator."
"What the hell!" Becky exclaimed, taking the sucker back from Boss. She bit down on the lollipop and chewed viciously, taking out her shock and disbelief on the innocent candy.
"It's true," Boss insisted, pulling out a chair for his fiancée. "And we need to get to the bottom of it."
"I'm not sure we're going to like what we find once we get there," Mac said in his slow Texas drawl, his bluebell-colored eyes narrowing, his brow furrowing as he flipped through the stapled papers in his hand. "This evidence could be pretty damning."
The coffee in Vanessa's stomach-which never sat well anyway, since most of the Knights preferred their java to have the general consistency of syrup-burned like battery acid. If any of them knew anything about damning evidence, it was Bryan "Mac" McMillan, former all-star FBI agent.
Hesitantly, she looked away from Mac's worried gaze to peer down at the thin packet in her hand, her unease increasing as her eyes skimmed each postage stampsized photo and the brief blurb beside it. "All of them?" she croaked, glancing up at Boss in disbelief. "He's supposed to have killed all of them?"
"Yep." Boss nodded.
"But most of these deaths look accidental. A heart attack, a car accident, a drowning...Why are they pinning these on Rock?"
"Something about a tip on a PO box in Rock's name that contained a bunch of files on these guys," Boss said.
"And there are untold ways of making a murder look accidental," Ozzie added.
"Here's something interesting," Mac observed, mouth thinned. "Each of these men was kidnapped at one point, and none held for ransom. They all just suddenly reappeared and went about their lives. The local law enforcement was never able to discover who'd held them."
"Yeah," Boss nodded. "I found that extremely odd as well. And since it's the only clue we have to go on, I'm having Ozzie compare the dates of those kidnappings to see if any of them coincide with the times we knew Rock poofed out of BKI."
"But why would he do this?" Vanessa realized what she said, shook her head, and rephrased. "I mean why are they saying he did it? Killing these men...What could possibly be his motivation?"
"Money?" Ozzie posited, frowning at his computer screens. "Says here, these men were all very wealthy. Having Rock eighty-six them might've proved extremely lucrative for some folks. You know, family members, rival business associates..."
"No way," Vanessa jerked her chin from side-to-side, more convinced than ever this was all a giant smelly load of bullcrap. "Have you seen how he dresses? Do you think he'd go around wearing beat-up Levi's, holey T-shirts, and scuffed-up alligator boots if he was sitting on a big pile of cash?" She pointed at the dossier with a finger she was disgusted to find was shaking. Hastily, she clenched her hand into a fist and hid it in her lap. Her number one rule since coming to work for BKI: show no fear. The Knights were all hardcore, hard-assed operators who didn't so much as flinch when they were staring death in the face, and she didn't want to find herself labeled the weak link. "Now if you told me it was Christian," she continued doggedly, "I might believe you. No offense, Christian." She made a face at the former SAS officer who, as usual, was sporting designer jeans and a cashmere sweater that probably cost more than most peoples' monthly car payments.
"None taken, my dear," Christian said, his smooth British accent a minor balm to her screaming nerves. "As it happens, I tend to agree with you. If Rock had, indeed, accumulated the level of wealth likely to come from performing hits on these men, why was he still messing about with us? Why wasn't he sitting on a beach somewhere, soaking up the sun and ordering umbrella drinks from some bird in a bikini?"
Vanessa glanced around the table at the faces of the people she'd come to love like family. Their expressions gave her little comfort. It was obvious they were as confused and scared as she was, which-oh dear, sweet, baby Jesus-had the coffee/acid in her stomach burning its way up the back of her throat.
The Black Knights were not supposed to get scared. Hardcore, hard-assed operators who didn't flinch while staring death in the face, remember?
She swallowed hastily and pushed ahead. The silence was deafening...and damning. She couldn't stand it. "Well, one thing we know," she grasped at the first straw to come to mind, "is he wasn't working alone."
"The phone calls." Ozzie halted his typing. "He always got one of those strange phone calls right before he disappeared. Which means he had an accomplice in all this."
"Accomplice? Wait a minute," Becky interjected, yanking a new sucker from her mouth-this one was purple-to point it at Ozzie. "You're making it sound like you think he's guilty."
"I'm not saying anything." Ozzie held up his hands. "I'm just saying he was Mr. Mum on the subject of his second job, he did have the tendency to vanish at odd times, and he was working with someone and-" His laptop dinged, and his face drained of blood. Vanessa's stomach dropped down to the floor in response.
Ozzie turned his computer around. On the screen were two columns. The first one showed the dates of the kidnappings. The second one showed the dates Rock had disappeared off the face of the planet.
The two columns matched perfectly.
Boss let loose with a string of curses that would do any sailor proud. "Okay, so there's obviously a link between these men and Rock's other job."
The job that they'd all thought revolved around some shadowy government entity. The job that, according to these recent revelations, obviously wasn't related to the government at all.
Holy shitburgers! Vanessa was going to pass out. The room was no longer tilting; it was spinning like a merry-go-round. She lowered her head to the table and tried to slow her breathing as happy little stars pranced on the backs of her eyelids-so much for that whole hardhearted operator facade.
Is it possible? Could he have done it? Just contemplating the thought made her temples pound in rhythm to her racing heart.
"What?" She heard Becky ask, confusion evident in the woman's voice. "Why does everyone look like they've just seen a ghost?"
"Our government isn't allowed to assassinate its citizens," Boss answered, his voice so rough it sounded like he'd scoured his vocal cords with steel wool. "And each of these guys, down to a man, was an American, born and bred."
A tense silence once more settled over the group, and Vanessa raised her thousand-pound head from the table. "Really? We're really sitting here contemplating the fact that he's guilty? Rock Babineaux? ExNavy SEAL? Founding member of BKI and ragin' Cajun who's more patriotic than the whole lot of us put together?"
Rock Babineaux, the man who was witty and courageous and, surprisingly-given his testosterone-laced occupation and training-incredibly self-effacing and modest? Rock Babineaux, the man who'd made her want to throw her rule about not dating operators right out the window?
Her pleading gaze landed on Boss. Please don't lead us down this path. Please tell me you know Rock wouldn't have done this.
Boss's Adam's apple bobbed, and for a moment she held her breath. Then she heaved a shaky sigh of relief when he adamantly shook his head. "Hell, no. It's been my experience that when everything is as neat and tidy as this report is," he flicked a scarred finger at the document in question, "then something is way the hell off. Nothing is ever this black and white."
She clung to the certainty she heard in his voice because, yes, for a second there she'd actually begun to have her doubts.
"I agree, Boss," Ozzie said, closing the lids on his laptops so he could place his forearms on the conference table and lean forward. "And here's something else I don't get: if Rock's second job wasn't government sanctioned and no one in the government save for El Jefe and his JCs knows about the true status of our organization"-the Black Knights had been run autonomously by the president and his Joint Chiefs for over four years. In fact, their direct report was the head of the Joint Chiefs himself, General Pete Fuller-"then how the hell can the DOD list him as a rogue operator? As far as they know, he's just an exNavy SEAL turned motorcycle mechanic. So, what gives?"
Boss whispered a quick profanity that questioned the legitimacy of the births of everyone working in the DOD. And, uh-oh, his I'm-gonna-kill-somebody expression all but screamed that what he had to tell them wasn't going to fall under the happy little banner of Good News.
Great, Vanessa thought. I knew I should've just gone back to bed this morning.
When she'd stubbed her pinkie toe on the way to the restroom, run out of conditioner in the shower, and nearly electrocuted herself when her blow-dryer decided to spontaneously combust, she'd had a feeling it was going to be one hellaciously craptastic day.
She hadn't had a clue...
"If you'll look at your dossiers," Boss began, leafing through his own packet, "you'll see the last man Rock supposedly killed was one Fred Billingsworth. Now, Fred was a super high-tech and super-secret private investigator. Which means he didn't spend his time trying to catch cheating spouses or insurance scammers but, instead, was hired out exclusively to major corporations. As far as anyone can tell, his last job was working for some Democratic Party support group. He was supposed to dig up what dirt he could on all the potential candidates for the presidency next election season. As you can imagine, given the tenuous and sensitive nature of his investigations, when he died, the case was quickly taken over from local law enforcement by the FBI. Somehow, and I don't know how, they got a bead on Rock and that PO box which, along with all these other guys, contained a file on Billingsworth. When General Fuller found out, he had to come clean to the powers that be in the Intelligence community about the true nature of our business here or risk having the investigation fall on all our heads."
That got everyone's attention. One of the main reasons the Black Knights had been so effective since they'd opened their doors was the fact that only those few elite men in the highest tier of government knew what they really were.
"What does that mean for our operation?" Ozzie asked.
"According to the general," Boss replied with a heavy dose of skepticism, "it doesn't mean a damn thing. He says it'll be business as usual."
Those seated around the table made varying noises of disbelief.
"What's done is done," Boss muttered, shaking his head. "For now, all we can do is take Fuller at his word."
"And what do we do about Rock?" Ozzie asked, and Vanessa swung her gaze back to Boss. She'd very much like to know the answer to that question herself.
"We find him," Boss declared, nostrils flaring, "before anybody else does."
What People are Saying About This
"Julie Ann Walker is one of those authors to be put on a keeper shelf along with Nora Roberts, Suzanne Brockmann and Allison Brennan." - KirkusReviews.com