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Winters Heat (Titan Book 1) by Cristin Harber (1)

CHAPTER ONE

 

His simple job just became complicated. Colby Winters watched the two men who had tailed him for days. For the first time, they weren’t bringing up the rear on their cross-country caravan. Team Tagalong, as he had grown fond of calling them, pushed their way into the crowded airport ahead of him and beelined for the covert pickup location. Winters’ adrenaline and curiosity spiked.

He powered past a coffee shop, trying to catch Team Tagalong as they neared a jog. Business folks with rolling briefcases blocked his view for a second but cleared. His tails stood still, their faces tight and focused on the row of chairs that only Winters should’ve known about, where the package was hidden.

There was no doubt they’d learned about the pickup spot, and he needed a swift Plan B. He hated when the spy game changed in the final countdown.

Edging closer, he couldn’t see why they stopped after powering past him. He followed their hesitant gaze. A woman, dressed in khaki pants and a cardigan sweater decorated like a pink Easter egg, was on the floor, pawing at the underside of the chairs.

That was their problem. And now, his too.

Plan B now needed to account for Miss Khakis-and-Cardigan. Team Tagalong advanced toward her. The woman remained oblivious to their approach while Winters pulled back.

This can’t be happening. She had the small package in hand and was turning it like a Rubik’s Cube.

His Plan B formed. Stay to the perimeter. Move in and extract the package at a location with fewer witnesses. Team Tagalong’s apparent plan was a hand-to-hand version of engage the enemy. Manhandling the woman wasn’t the smartest option, but they’d already proven not to be the smartest team.

Her eyes were as wide open as her mouth. One man had her elbow, and she buckled into his grip. Not the type of complication Winters needed. She couldn’t look any more honest if she had a glowing halo.

Her eyes said she knew Team Tagalong would leave her dead in a dumpster. His instinct said the woman had no idea what she held. Then again, neither did he. The contents of the package were on a need-to-know basis only, and he didn’t need-to-know squat in order to secure it.

She flinched again. Time for Plan C. Waiting to engage wasn’t happening with Miss Khakis-and-Cardigan in the crossfire. His tactical pants and black shirt served as piss-poor camouflage, and their quartet didn’t need the attention, but he stalked over and squared off.

The woman wrapped a white-knuckled grip around the package. She was scared, but that didn’t seem to matter. Had he read the scene all wrong? She didn’t yell or drop the package.

Was the unlucky female really an operative playing the innocent card? He didn’t know. He didn’t care. This op was a headache and a half. Time for the next plan: secure the package, and everyone could fend for himself.

Winters ignored the men and smiled as polite and professional as a gladiator on a bad day.

“Not sure what this is all about.” He gestured to the men at her sides. “But hand it over.”

“No, pendejo. She is coming with us.” The man answered for her, flexing his sausage fingers around her bicep. Her mouth opened with unvoiced pain.

“Wasn’t talking to you, was I?” He couldn’t place the Spanish accent, and an international-fucking-incident wasn’t his idea of an easy in-and-out. Next time he was offered a cakewalk assignment, Winters would ignore his sweet tooth.

Team Tagalong pivoted away, woman in hand, and merged into the constant flow of mindless travelers.

So, it’s going to be like that.

She was dragged more than she walked. The second man hovered close, hiding her reluctance from any interested spectators.

Winters sidestepped in front again. He had orders not to engage. Extract and secure only. Extracting was a pain when he couldn’t throw down. Besides, airports weren’t conducive to altercations given their national security issues.

“Hold up. We have business to discuss. That package is leaving with me, mi amigo.” Dickhead would have worked better, but the Spanish translation for that term of endearment slipped his mind.

The woman. She was an unknown, though she looked like she sat in the front car of the world’s scariest rollercoaster. Pale color. Wide eyes. Pinched brow. He gave a once-over of the sugary outfit and superglue-grip on the package. She didn’t act like an operative, but chameleons were tricky to spot.

One half of Team Tagalong pressed a blade into her torso.

Come on. You’re pulling this stunt here? He rolled his eyes high to the terminal rafters. A legitimate coffee run would be needed after this hassle. Gas station coffee wouldn’t cut it.

The operative let the woman’s sweater cover his weapon. Maybe he was smart. When the blade pierced the fabric, she let out a quiet whimper. It was the first sound she made in his presence. Her pink glossed lips quivered, and her gaze ricocheted among the three men.

Winters rocked on the heels of his well-worn combat boots and lifted his hands. It took practiced patience to pull up short. But there were better ways to get that package than to engage in the middle of a commuter-swamped airport, where God only knew how many law enforcement agencies and security cameras patrolled.

He fell back and reached an alcove, ducked in, then flipped his cell phone open. Headquarters needed an update, and he needed intelligence. His boss picked up and grunted his usual hello.

“I got problems, man. Team Tagalong blew by my ass, snagged the package and a girl.”

“Freakin’ fantastic.” Jared Westin had one inflection for all occasions, calloused, full of grit and gravel. Every day. Every time. “What do you need?”

Winters scanned the airport corridor. Nothing but business suits and carry-on bags. The trio was nowhere to be seen. “A clue where to find the fuckers.”

Jared spoke to someone in the background and returned. “Pulling the parking lot footage, checking into their car rental. When’d they pick up a girl?”

Even his monotone questions had a hard-boiled splash. Jared could order a burger at a drive-thru and scare the employee clean out of her hairnet.

“We arrived at the same time, my tails leading the way. A woman had the package in hand. Shit got complicated. They took her. I backed off, figuring Boy Genius could work his satellite magic.”

“Yeah, something like that. Parker’s deep in the airport’s system, hacking their programs. He’ll send you info and screen shots ASAP.”

“Hey, Jared.”

“What?”

“Did I thank you for this job yet?”

“Nope.”

“Good.”

“Get to work, dick.” Jared coughed his equivalent to a laugh and hung up.

Winters double-timed it back to his truck and jumped in. The tires squealed as he rounded the exit ramp. He tossed a handful of change into the payment kiosk and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for the mechanical arm to lift and for HQ to hit pay dirt. His phone buzzed, and he checked the caller ID.

“What you got, boss man?”

“Parker traced their vehicle, a black, four-door Taurus, to a car rental company in Virginia. They used a credit card, which was also used at a nearby motel. Head there first.”

“Roger that.” As he exited the garage, the sun flooded the cab of the truck, and he pulled on his mirrored aviator sunglasses. “What’s up with the credit card?”

He used cash on his jobs, as he assumed all operatives did.

“No idea. Nothing turned up.”

“Huh.”

“Sending the address to your phone now. And Winters?”

Winters received the address, programmed the GPS, and grunted in response. He picked through empty boxes of Dots, far more interested in crushing his candy craving than hearing a lecture from Jared. “What?”

“I scanned the parking lot footage. They put that girl in the trunk. And none too carefully. I don’t think we’re looking at two teams. No intel on a friendly or a female op. I’d tread with care.”

He found some candy stuck at the bottom of a box and chomped down on it. The trunk, huh? That’s overkill. “Got it.”

“I’m serious, Winters. If this is a case of wrong place, wrong time, you dust off your kid gloves and use them.”

That was more of an order than Winters would admit. He hated working with untrained women. They were always ready to bawl when it was time to tangle. It was better for all involved if he could hand her to a more sympathetic operative. But he was the only one here. Not much of a choice.

“I’ll behave. I promise.” He sounded like he was trying to get a crazy girlfriend off the phone. “When I have an update, I’ll make contact.”

Winters shuddered thinking about the red-eyed, tear-brimmed woman. Finding the mystery woman dry-eyed was about as likely as him scoring a much-needed cup of joe in the next fifteen minutes.

The GPS showed the motel to be only miles away. Highway signs flew by, and cars shifted lanes to make way for him barreling down the road. He rounded a bend, saw nothing but red brake lights, and cursed. He tried to move to the left lane, but traffic was at a standstill. He slammed his hand on the top of the steering wheel. Maybe he could make a list of everything that could go wrong today and see how close he came by the time it was lights out.

He laid on his horn and crept toward the left lane. No one moved. Not an inch. Not even the moron he threatened to hit with his truck. Winters rolled the window down and motioned to the driver. Motioned may have been too conservative a description. He bore down on the man like a crack-addicted grizzly bear, ready for a fight to the death.

“Get over.” He pointed to the shoulder of the highway. “Over. Now.”

The man ignored the truck maneuvering its way into the crack of space. Winters blew the horn again and leaned out the window, ready to threaten life, limb, and loved ones.

“Move your car.” Honking wasn’t getting him anywhere, but he did it again. Then again and again. Still no help.

He dropped the gear into neutral and slammed the gas pedal down. The truck revved like a road warrior. The driver, who was fast becoming a sworn enemy, flinched, then tapped into the survival part of his brain and pulled over. Winters moved to the shoulder, pushed the pedal to the floor, and redlined it.

A half mile later, the source of the traffic problem appeared. Three lanes of a four-lane highway were closed for paving. Bright orange barriers and men with neon yellow reflector vests milled about machinery.

The one open lane had a fender bender. Two men with cell phones glued to their ears pointed at their bumpers. Winters hit the brakes in time to jet through the construction entrance, rumble over an unpaved section, and cross in front of all the stopped traffic. Dear God, let there be an immediate exit.

The GPS interrupted his prayer. “Exit highway in one hundred and fifty feet. Your destination will be on the right.”

What do you know? He should pray more often.

He pulled off the highway exit. The motel was ahead, and he bounced over the rough entrance. The vacant lot had faded parking space lines and crater-like potholes. Knee-high weeds ran the length of the curb. A black Taurus was at the end of the lot. Fan-fuckin-tastic.

Winters parked his pickup truck around the side, ran through a quick ammunition and supply check, and closed in on the pay-by-the-hour room. He jogged by several silent rooms, then heard muffled words and a feminine yell. Son of a bitch. As much as he didn’t like to work with weepy women, he would rain hell on anyone hurting them. Weeping or not.

One heel kick and the cheap door splintered off of broken hinges. Surprise was on his side. Winters held the Glock in his right hand and used his teeth to pull the pin from a tear gas charge the size of a cherry bomb. Nothing too serious, but enough for a distraction. Perfect for overwhelming a small room with a little smoke and burn.

He tossed it in with a shouldn’t-have-fucked-with-me grin. The sparse room filled with the hissing smoke. The three other occupants clawed at their faces and covered their tearing eyes. In the smoky haze, their gagging noises, harsh sputters, and coughs littered the room like three teenagers wheezing on their first cigarettes.

Winters was trained for the gas. Prepared for it. Hell, the bitter taste in his mouth was almost pleasant, a Pavlovian effect tied to the adrenaline rush of throwing one of those babies into a room. Pull. Pop. Hiss. He loved it every single time.

He wanted to brawl, to clash, and take them down. Hard. They shouldn’t have screwed with his day. They shouldn’t have stuffed Miss-Khakis-and-Cardigan into the trunk of their car.

He moved with a single step to the closest man and punched, breaking the man’s nose, which felt as gratifying as it sounded.

Winters smiled and beckoned for more. Come and play. The man staggered backwards in the haze, head in hand, blood seeping through his fingers.

The second man lurched toward him, arms swinging, as he jumped side to side. Winters jabbed an elbow into his attacker. The man reeled back, sucking in the acrid smoke in uncontrolled gasps.

Hopefully, one of them would hop up jack-in-the-box style, so he could have another round. Knees bent and body agile, he readied. The first man gained his bearings. Winters egged him on. “Try me.”

The man charged. Winters landed a punch to his bloodied face. Thud. Knocked out.

The second man staggered forward, brandishing a switchblade with untamed, arching slashes. Looked like the same blade he pushed against the woman’s midsection earlier. That was a mistake. Both then and now.

“You’re going to wish you didn’t bring that out to play today. Never should have threatened the lady. Never should have gotten in my way. Never, ever should have fucked up my job.”

Winters grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted toward the stained popcorn ceiling. A bone cracked. The knife hit the dirty floor. And all the while, a feminine fit of coughs reverberated from near the back closet. She was choking on the gas and hadn’t moved to escape.

“Are you hurt?” he called to the woman.

No answer. Only gasps as she stumbled through the smoke.

“Where’s the package?”

“Go to hell.” Her words wheezed and faded.

Of course. What’d he expect? His lips upturned in a mixture of annoyance and exasperation, and his eyes burned as his tolerance for the gas neared its threshold. “Do you have it or not?”

The woman scampered and made a weak maneuver to escape. He stepped in front of her with a menacing grunt. This lady wasn’t going anywhere.

She wilted without fresh air. As he countered her next move in their hasty dance, she backed into the corner again. He continued to question her, gruff and with quick efficiency, but only more coughs responded. She sniffled and wiped at her watering eyes. He felt bad. Almost.

“Stay put,” he said.

He pulled plastic zip ties, his handcuff of choice, out of his back pocket and secured the unconscious men to a table. The woman jumped from her crouch in the corner. She fumbled toward the busted door, arms outstretched, wailing a determined cry. He hooked an arm around her waist. She flailed, arms pumping and legs bicycling the Tour de France.

He tossed her on the bed, clapped his hands on both her shoulders, and held her in place. “I’m not playing, lady. Don’t move.”

Winters took in the room. The cops might be there within minutes. “Last time. Where’s the package?”

The woman hesitated with a sputter of coughs.

Damn, he didn’t want to threaten her. He stood to his full height but didn’t give an ultimatum. He watched her eyes flicking around the room, looking everywhere, landing on every possible hiding spot…except—bingo. He kept an eye on her and opened a drawer.

“No.” She hacked again. “Don’t.”

The package.

The woman scooted to the side of the bed and jumped for it in his hand. The tear gas gnawed into his patience. What was she doing? His decision making skills weren’t firing like they should. Not being able to think in this time constraint, he needed answers. Like who the hell she was, for starters.

He wrapped an arm around the woman and threw her over his shoulder. She was as light as she looked and losing steam with each gas-filled gasp.

“Wait. No. Let me go. Help. Someone help!”

“Pipe down,” he said in a manner in which Jared wouldn’t have approved.

Still, she continued a feeble holler. “Help. Someone. Help.”

There wasn’t anyone around, so her hoarse cries didn’t matter. In joints like this, most everyone minded their own business. But still, she was a confusing headache. He didn’t have to take her. He could’ve left her for the cops to figure out. But she looked more suited to sell Girl Scout cookies than handle thugs and cops.

She’d been hell bent on grabbing the package and couldn’t have had a day of training in her life. She didn’t make sense, and he wouldn’t abandon her, his protective nature stoked.

Winters cleared the splintered door with her still over his shoulder. In the distance, the police sirens sounded. He made double sure the package was in his back pocket, then hightailed it to his truck.

Once he reached the four-door pickup, he set her down. “Stop hollering. I’m not a bad guy. We’re getting the hell out of here, then we’ll work this all out. Chill.”

A determined flash glinted in her eyes, and he felt her muscles tense before she made a move. Gritting her teeth, she made a swift kick to his balls. Son of a bitch. Thank God for his reflexes. She was a handful, even when gassed.

“All right. If that’s how you want to play, lady.” He tossed her into the backseat of the truck. “I have the stupid package you’re so worked up about. So don’t think about jumping out of the truck while it’s rolling. We’ll make a deal. You’ll get something, and I’ll keep what I already have.”

Winters scrubbed his face with the palm of his hand, then standing outside the open door, caged her in the backseat with his arms and torso. Why did he care if she bailed on him? He had the package. It was his only task. This mission was halfway done, and none of his task list included this woman. But why did she want it in the first place? It didn’t make sense.

Propped on her elbows, she kicked at him, landing her feet on his abs. He rolled his eyes. “Well hell, lady.”

She would make a run for it given the chance. He knew it. Winters looked at her, then the door locks. She was a liability that he didn’t have time for today. He engaged the child safety looks, locking her in the backseat.

His seat punched forward every few seconds as she beat her heels into it. He dropped his head, suppressing a vicious string of swears. Before the cops could fly into the motel parking lot, Winters eased out the entrance. Unsure where to go for the time being, he pushed a button on his cell phone and connected to Jared.

“Got the package. And the lady.” He glanced in his rearview mirror at her.

Fresh air had reinvigorated her, and she kicked his seat over and over, making his teeth saw together.

“Let me go, you jerk.”

“Sounds like it,” Jared said. “Clean up your mess and move it on home. And for God’s sake, Winters, play nice.”

Play nice probably meant no knockout juice or truth serum.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll figure out who she works for, and how she knew the pickup spot. Then I’ll send her on her merry way.” She kept kicking. He was so far past annoyed that it was amusing, in a he-must-be-out-of-his-mind kind of way. “She’s a spitfire. It’s entertaining.”

She shouted, “You don’t scare me. I’ll kick you again. Get close to me and see what happens.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jared murmured before ending their call.

Winters sighed, resigned to the pounding in his head.