Waking up in a cold sweat was nothing new to Gunner. His life was made up of a series of nightmares strung together like a broken strand of lights that his subconscious forced him to relive night after night after night.
Prior to the one day that defined his life more than any other, his dreams had varied, featuring one horrific reenactment after another of harrowing escapes, hostile gunfire, exploding IEDs, and other forms of death and destruction.
Now, the first thing he saw, most nights when he closed his eyes, was the woman he’d been forced to kill, looking him in the eye and saying, “Paps, I thought you loved me.”
She’d never actually uttered those words to him. They were only spoken in his nightmares when her eyes met his at the very moment she realized he’d killed her.
Lena Hess had been under K19 Security Solution’s protection since the day he and his three partners opened for business. Prior to that, her detail had been the responsibility of an elite team comprised of active duty service members and CIA agents, called the Special Activities Division of the agency’s National Clandestine Service, or NCS.
Had he loved her? For a while, he thought maybe he could. In what felt like the briefest of moments, he’d seen the bright light of the woman she’d once been before darkness reigned over her life. In an instant, she was gone again, unable to pull herself out of what they now knew was mental illness.
If only they’d known how to help her…but that didn’t matter now. It was too late. She was dead—and he’d killed her.
* * *
“Don’t do this, Lena. If you think I won’t shoot, you’re wrong,” he shouted.
Her eyes darted between him and his business partner—a man like a brother to him whom she’d just shot, and who was on the ground—with his gun still pointed at her.
Gunner watched as she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tightened her finger on the trigger. Before she could get the shot off, he fired.
He ran toward her, catching her before her head hit the concrete.
There was no question she was dead; he’d hit her square in the chest with a .45. No one could survive a shot like that.
“Goddammit,” he cried, cursing her for forcing his hand.
* * *
As he’d watched Lena’s lifeless body being taken away, he’d made two decisions. First, that “Paps,” the code name he’d been given by his special ops teammates, would be buried with her. Second, the man who remained, Gunner Godet, vowed he’d never allow himself to fall for a woman again. His resolve had lasted less than a handful of hours, when the woman he was now risking his life to rescue, wound up in his bed.
Zaryana “Raketa” Ivashov had been undercover on the same op that resulted in Lena’s death, initially posing as her nurse and caregiver after an accident had left Lena blind and amnesic. When the operative was tasked with providing her safe passage to Moscow, Lena had thanked the woman the intelligence world knew as “the Rocket,” by putting a bullet in her brain—or so she’d thought.
* * *
“Shit,” Gunner gasped when he saw Raketa’s body lying in a pool of blood.
He ran forward and checked for a pulse, nodding at his teammates when he found one.
That she was still alive meant the bullet had either grazed her skull or was still lodged in her brain. If it was the latter, the chance she’d survive was slim. However, without immediate medical attention, it would be certain.
Raketa’s eyes fluttered open when he whispered her name. She groaned and tried to sit up.
“Stay still,” he whispered, motioning for his teammates to go ahead.
As risky as it was, he called for backup. “Send a medic,” he said into his radio mic.
“Who shot you?” he asked, trying to get her eyes to stay focused on his.
“Lena,” she groaned. “Go. Find her. She’s…”
When she lost consciousness again, Gunner closed his eyes and said a silent prayer, all the while keeping his finger on her still-active pulse.
He knew he had to leave her when the medics arrived, as hard as it was to go.
* * *
Later, he learned that the shot had only grazed Raketa’s scalp, resulting in enough bleeding that Lena had believed she’d successfully offed the woman.
He didn’t remember much about the night they’d spent together, except he knew they’d had sex until he finally passed out. Then, in the morning, she’d sneaked out while he was in the shower.
A few months went by before he heard from Raketa again, and then she wanted to make a deal. She told him she knew who had kidnapped the victims of his then-current op, and where they were being held. In exchange for that information, she wanted his help with an op of her own—leaving the employ of United Russia, or in other words, defecting.
Agreeing to help her was what had landed him in the bowels of hell, otherwise known as Baku, Azerbaijan, trying to find where a Russian black market arms’ dealer was holding her prisoner and, more importantly, why.
Makar Petrov was a cold-hearted sonuvabitch, but Raketa doubted he’d kill her. If he was going to, he would’ve done it by now.
If it weren’t for Rauf “Topor” Evasov, she would’ve killed Petrov first, but she’d ended up his captive instead.
Raketa still cursed the emotional reaction she’d had when she saw Petrov put a gun to the head of a woman who shared her DNA. Letting her guard down, not pulling the trigger for fear she’d kill the woman rather than the man who was her target, was what had allowed Topor to knock her out and load her onto Petrov’s plane.
The circumstances of her incarceration certainly weren’t what most would consider a hardship. Instead of keeping her in a cold, dark room, Petrov had ensconced her in an apartment within his compound in Old City Baku. She’d been told she was free to come and go within its ancient walls, which dated back at least to the twelfth century, although some contended they were constructed as long ago as the seventh.
She could probably live out the rest of her life here. Petrov would keep her safe from United Russia, who’d put a price on her head of over a million dollars. However, there were two reasons she couldn’t do that.
First, she’d never work in intelligence again, unless it was for Petrov, and then it would have to be done within the confines of the Old City because she wouldn’t be let out of it in her lifetime, or his.
The other thing was, she’d never see Gunner Godet again. The man likely had no recollection of the last time they were together. It was the same day he’d saved her life, and she’d gone in search of him to offer her thanks.
* * *
“You shouldn’t be here. What the fuck are you doing here?” Gunner scowled through what was obviously a drunken haze when she found him sitting in the otherwise empty bar.
“Don’t call me that,” he barked back at her.
“Izvini,” she muttered. “I know Lena was—”
In a flash, Gunner stood and grasped her neck with his hand, holding it tightly enough that it was difficult for her to breathe, but not enough that he cut off her air supply entirely. If she wanted to, it would be easy for her to break free. Instead, she absorbed the pain flowing from his fingertips.
“Never say that name again either. Do you understand me?”
She couldn’t nod or speak with his hand on her throat, but her eyes bored into his.
“Never,” he spat again, this time releasing her.
She sat down at his table when he did, and lifted the half-empty bottle of vodka. “May I?”
He grabbed it from her, stood, and stalked over to the bar. When he returned, he slammed a glass on the table in front of her and poured.
She didn’t wait for the toast that typically would be expected. The situation was anything but typical. She threw the shot back and poured herself another. This time she waited for him since his glass was still full.
Her eyes remained focused on his as she kept her hand clasped around the icy-cold vodka.
“Leave,” he said right before he threw the shot back.
Raketa shook her head, watching the only other person in the room, the bartender, follow a command intended for her.
Gunner inched closer, leaning forward enough that she could feel the heat of his breath.
“I want to be left the hell alone,” he seethed.
“No.” She’d been where he was too many times before, but never because she’d killed someone she cared about.
“Then I’ll leave.” Gunner stood, tucking the bottle of vodka in the crook of his arm. He swayed just slightly, but caught himself and backed away before she could touch him.
“No,” she said again.
He slammed the bottle back on the table and grasped her neck, this time from the back.
“You saved my life,” she whispered.
“You would’ve lived.”
If Gunner moved any closer, their lips would touch. Instead of waiting for him to do it, Raketa brushed his mouth with hers.
“Fuck,” he groaned as he wound his arm around her waist, pulled her body flush with his, and slid his tongue between her lips.
When she slipped her arms around his neck and pressed her breasts against his chest, Gunner put his knee between her legs.
“Take what you need, Rocket Girl,” he taunted when she straddled his powerful thigh.
“Not here,” she said as he moved his leg, backed her up against the wall, and put his hands beneath her bottom.
“Put your legs around me,” he demanded.
When she did, he ground himself against her.
“Is this what you want?” he asked before bringing his lips to hers and kissing her in a way that no man ever had or ever would again.