“What do you think?”
From his place on the raised platform that had once served as a fire outlook post, Torin Carter glanced at Hawkeye, his boss and mentor. The man owned the security firm Torin worked for, as well as this eight-hundred-acre outpost in the remote part of the West. “Think of what? The class?”
Six times a year, recruits new to the VIP protection program cycled through the Aiken Training Facility. It wasn’t Torin’s job to get them through. It was his job to make sure that everyone, except the very best, washed out.
“That recruit in specific. Going through the bog.” Aviator glasses shaded Hawkeye’s eyes as well as his thoughts.
“Mira Araceli?” Torin asked.
“That’s the one.”
Carrying a thirty-pound pack, face smeared with mud, her training uniform soaked, Mira Araceli dashed at full-out speed toward the next obstacle. She grabbed the rope and began to pull herself up the ten-foot wall as if she hadn’t just navigated a killer course designed to destroy her energy reserves.
Today, her long-black hair with its deep fiery highlights was not only in a ponytail, it was tucked inside her jacket. She concentrated on the task in front of her, never looking away from her goal.
Torin had been running the training program for several years. During that time, only a few recruits stood out. “She’s…” He searched for words to convey his conflict. Brave. Relentless. Driven, by something she’d never talked about during the admission process.
On a couple of occasions, he’d studied her file. Hawkeye’s comprehensive background check had turned up nothing out of the ordinary. Youngest of three kids. Her father was a congressman and former military. Both of her brothers had followed his legacy—and expectations?—into the service.
Araceli’s academic scores were excellent. She’d graduated in the top of her college class but had opted not to put her skills to use in a safe corporate environment. Instead, she’d applied to be part of Hawkeye Security, even though she knew the scope of their work, from protecting people and things, to operating in some of the most difficult places on the planet. Why does she want to put her life at risk?
Fuck. Why did anyone?
Hawkeye cleared his throat.
Torin glanced back at his boss. “She’s one of the most determined I’ve ever seen. Works harder than anyone. Longer hours.” Yesterday he’d hit the gym at five a.m. She was already there, wearing a sports bra beneath a sheer gray tank top. Rather than workout pants, she opted for formfitting shorts that showed off her toned legs and well-formed rear. They exchanged polite greetings, and she’d wandered over to be his spotter for his bench presses, then offered a hand up when he was done.
He shouldn’t have accepted. But he had. A sensation, dormant for years, had sparked. Raw sexual attraction for Mira Araceli had shot straight to his cock, a violation of his personal ethics.
She hadn’t pulled away like she should have. Her palms were callused, and so much smaller than his. Torin was smart enough to recognize her danger, though. He’d honed her strength himself. She would have him flat on his back anytime she wanted.
In the distance, a door slammed, and they moved away from each other. From across the room, he saw her looking at her hand.
No doubt she’d experienced the same electric pulse as he did.
Since that morning, he’d been damn sure she wasn’t in the gym before he entered. Relationships among Hawkeye operatives weren’t expressly forbidden. Hawkeye was smart enough to know that close quarters, adrenaline, fear, and survival instincts were a powerful cocktail. But the relationship between a recruit and instructors was sacred.
Having sex with Araceli wouldn’t just be stupid—it would border on insane.
In addition to the fact that he was responsible for her safety, Araceli was far too young for his carnal demands. And it wasn’t just in terms of age. Life had dealt him a vicious blow, leaving parts of him in jagged pieces.
He no longer even pretended to be relationship material.
When he could, he went to a BDSM club. There, he found women who wanted the same things he did. Extreme. Extreme enough to round the edges off the memories, the past.
There was no way he would subject a recruit to the danger that he represented, even if she was tempting as hell.
Hawkeye was still waiting, and Torin settled for a nonanswer. “Her potential is unlimited.”
“But?” Hawkeye folded his arms. Despite the thirty-seven-degree temperature, he’d skipped a coat and opted for a sweatshirt to go with his customary black khakis. Combined with his aviator glasses and black ball cap embroidered with the Hawkeye logo, the company owner was incognito.
Torin looked at her again. “She does best in situations where she is by herself.” And that wasn’t how Hawkeye Security operated. They believed no person was better alone than as part of a team. Certainly there were times when an agent had no backup and was left with no choice but to take individual action. But the ability to work with others was crucial to success.
“What do you think of her chances?”
Torin shrugged. When she first joined Hawkeye a year ago, she’d trained at the Tactical Operations Center. She could pump thirty-seven out of forty shots into a target’s heart and was first through the door during hostage rescue exercises. Though she’d excelled, she took unnecessary risks. At times, she calculatingly ignored superiors’ commands. So far it had worked well for her, much to the annoyance of her numerous instructors.
On her application to the program that Torin headed, she’d indicated she had too much downtime during her assignments. She wanted something more demanding. VIP protection could provide that. If she made it.
Araceli summited a second wall, then leaped off and kept moving, dropping down to crawl through a tunnel, then back up to navigate the ridiculously tough agility course.
Hawkeye watched her progress. “There’s something about her.”
At the end of the course, she doubled over to catch her breath; then she checked her time on a fitness watch. Only then did she shrug off the pack.
“Lots of potential,” Torin agreed.
“Either hone it or get her out of here.” Hawkeye adjusted his ball cap. “They’d be glad to have her back in tactical. And with her IQ scores, she’d do well in a support role. Strategy.”
She was a little young for that.
Then again, age wasn’t always a factor. He knew that more than most.
“You doing okay?” Hawkeye asked.
Torin twitched. “It’s easier.”
In his usual way, Hawkeye remained silent, letting time and tension stretch, waiting.
“I think about it every day.” Dreams. Nightmares. Second-guessing himself, his reactions, replaying it and never changing the outcome.
“You’ve accumulated plenty of time off.”
“I’d rather work.”
Torin and Hawkeye watched a couple more recruits finish the course. Results were fed through to his high-tech tablet. Not surprisingly, Mira had finished in the top three.
In the distance, an old bus lumbered toward them, spewing a cloud of dirt in its wake.
Turning his head to watch it, Hawkeye asked, “You heading to Aiken Junction?”
“Yeah.” Torin grinned. Drills in the mock town were one of his favorite parts of being an instructor. And he fully intended to use the opportunity to be sure Araceli learned a valuable lesson. “Want to join us?”
“If I had time.” Hawkeye sighed. “Another damn dinner. Another damn meeting with a multinational company.” Hawkeye wasn’t just the founder and owner of the security firm—he was their best performing salesperson. “And I’m going to get the account.”
“Never doubted you, boss.”
Hawkeye clapped Torin on the shoulder. “I’ve taken enough of your day.”
After nodding, Torin descended the steps, then jogged over to the finish line where recruits were talking, drinking water, dreaming about a beer or the hot tub. “Listen up!”
“You’re responsible for protecting the family of an important diplomat. Their youngest daughter is seventeen and just slipped her security detail. And you’re going to get her back.”
There were groans and resigned sighs. The group had hit the running track at six a.m., had hours of classroom instruction, missed lunch, and been timed on their run through the mud challenge. And their day was just beginning.
He pointed to the approaching vehicle. “Gear up.”
Exhausted recruits picked up the packs they’d just shucked.
“The bus will stop for ninety seconds. If you’re not on it, you’ll be hiking to Aiken Junction.”
Mira grabbed a protein bar from her bag then slung it over one shoulder. She made sure she was first on the bus and moved to a seat farthest in the back.
Torin jumped on as the driver dropped the transmission into gear. While others had doubled up and were chatting, Araceli leaned forward and draped a T-shirt over her head. Smart. She was taking time to recover mentally and physically.
“Here’s the drill.” He stood at the top of the stairwell, holding on to a pole as the ancient vehicle hit every damn rock and pothole, jarring his jaw. “The tattoo parlor denied her because she’s underage, and the artist we interviewed said he saw her move over to Thump, the nightclub next to Bones.” The name of their fictitious high-end steakhouse. “She has a fake ID, so it’s possible she got past security. Her daddy wants her home, and wants her safe. This isn’t the first time she’s slipped her detail. You’ll stage at the church. Choose a team leader and make a plan. Any questions?”
Most people lapsed into silence, a few engaged in banter and trash talk, and he took a seat behind the driver.
A mind-numbing thirty minutes later, the bus churned through Hell’s Acre, the seedy area of town, then crossed the fake railroad tracks that separated the sleazy area of town from the more respectable suburban setting.
The driver braked to a grinding halt in front of the clapboard All Saints Church.
“Not so fast,” Torin said when the recruits began to stand. “This isn’t your stop.”
He jogged down the steps to the sidewalk, and the driver pulled the lever to shut the door, then hit the accelerator fast enough to cause the occupants some whiplash—good training for real-life evasive driving. The recruits would be taken around the town several times in order to give Torin and the role-players time to set up.
Once the bus disappeared from view, he pulled open the door to the restaurant and entered the dining room where he greeted fellow instructors. “Who’s playing our principal?”
“That’s me, Commander.” Charlotte Bixby—four feet eleven, ninety-two pounds, and ferocious as a man twice her size—waved from the back of the room. She wore a black dress and flats that would give her some maneuverability.
“And your gentlemen friends?”
Two agents raised their hands.
Torin went through the rest of the roles, couples, bartenders, cocktail servers, DJ Asylum, partiers on the dance floor. All in all, over two dozen people were assigned to the scene. “Okay, people! Let’s head over.”
Twenty minutes later, music blared. Charlotte was seated in a booth attached to the far wall. She was wedged between two solid men, a cocktail in front of her. The dance floor in the center of the room was filled with gyrating couples, servers moved around the room, and a bartender was drawing a beer. The surveillance room was being manned by one of the instructors, and he was wearing a polo shirt that identified him as one of Thump’s security team. The bouncer, nicknamed Bear, was dressed similarly, but wearing a jacket that emphasized his broad shoulders and beefy biceps. Arms folded, Torin stood behind Bear.
Since a cold front was moving through and the temperature had dropped to just above freezing, a coat check had been set up near the front door, close to the restrooms.
Everything was in place.
A role player sashayed through the front door and gave Bear a once-over and an inviting smile. That didn’t stop him from scrutinizing her ID.
“Enjoy your evening, Miss.”
After snatching her ID back, she breezed past them and headed straight for the bar.
Several more people entered, and none of them were Hawkeye recruits. Hopefully that meant they were still strategizing. He preferred that to seeing them head in without a plan…like they had last time they ran a similar drill.
He checked his watch.
Charlotte was on her second cocktail.
Torin left the door to grab a beer at the bar. Then he carried it to the side of the room and stood at a tall round table.
DJ Asylum turned on pulsing colored strobe lights and cranked up the music. The walls echoed from the bass. People shouted to be heard.
Exactly like an ordinary bar in Anytown, USA.
One of Charlotte’s companions signaled for another drink and then draped that arm across her back. She leaned into him.
Within minutes, Araceli strolled in. Her face was clean, and she’d changed into clean clothes—obviously they’d been in her backpack, along with a shiny headband. Nothing could hide her combat boots, though.
Life wasn’t a series of perfect opportunities. Blending in mattered, but speed was critical. It did mean that the role players had an advantage, though.
Along with a fellow trainee, Araceli found a table. Instead of waiting for a cocktail waitress, she headed to the bar. She scanned the occupants, saw him, gave no acknowledgment that they’d ever met.
Yeah. Hawkeye was right. She was damn good.
She secured two drinks, then, instead of heading back to the table, walked to the far end of the room and began a search for their principal.
Smart. She wouldn’t approach right away, she’d make sweep, assess the situation, all the while looking as if she fit in.
Except for those ridiculous combat boots.
Under the flashing lights, he lost her. Until her headband winked in the light.
He checked out the other recruits and their strategies. Two of them—women—looped arms like besties and pretended to look for men.
DJ Asylum’s voice boomed through the room, distorted by some sort of synthesizer. “Get on the floor and show me your moves!”
One of the trainers walked to the table where Charlotte sat and whispered into the ear of the man with his arm draped over her shoulder.
Araceli put down her drink.
The companion nodded and moved his arm to reach into his pocket. Money exchanged hands.
The second guy slid off his seat, effectively blocking the pathway to the booth.
The man Charlotte was cozying up to led her to the dance floor. Araceli stood, looked around for a male agent, grabbed him, then pulled him toward the other couple.
Moments later, fog spilled from machines, clouding the air.
Lights went out, and the music stopped so abruptly that it seemed to thunder off the still-pulsating walls.
It took a few seconds for emergency lighting to kick on. When it did, the fog was thick and surreal, and Charlotte and her dance partner were gone.
Araceli headed toward the exit and shoved her way past Bear and out of the building.
Torin strolled toward the coatroom. He pushed the door most of the way closed, leaving a crack so he could watch the front door.
Moments later, Araceli hurried back in, her winking headband all but a neon sign indicating her position. He eased the door open, then, as she started past, reached out, grabbed her, pulled her in, and caught her in a rear hold, an elbow under her chin, his right arm beneath her breasts.
She was breathing hard, but she grabbed his forearms to try to break free. In response, he tightened the hold to ward off an elbow jab. And he leaned her forward to prevent one of her vicious, calculated stomps. “Knock it off, Araceli,” he growled into her ear.
“Commander Carter?” She froze. “It’s dark. How did you know it was me?”
“That’s right. You lose.” He loosened his grip slightly, but she kept her hands in place. “Your target is gone.”
With a deep, frustrated sigh, she tipped her head back, resting it on his chest. And he noticed her. The way she fit with him, and how she trusted him, despite her annoyance at having been bested. And even the way she smelled…wildflowers and innocence, despite the grueling ordeal earlier today. He wanted to reassure her, let her know how proud he was of her efforts.
Jesus. Immediately he released her. He’d held her longer than he need to. Longer than he should have. “Go to Bones. I’ll meet you there.” Torin took a step back, literal as well as mental.
In the near dark, she faced him. “But I can—”
“Go. I’m one of the bad guys, Araceli.” And not just for the role-playing scenario. He was no good for her. “I took you out of the game. You never even noticed me. You didn’t make a plan. You rushed forward without assessing the situation. You failed.”
After a few seconds of hesitation, she nodded. “It will be the last time, Commander Carter. You underestimate me and my capabilities.”
Something he didn’t want to name snaked through him.
She had to be talking about the job, nothing more. Araceli couldn’t know about his inner turmoil and his dark attraction to her.
Alone in the dark, Torin balled his hand into a fist over and over, opening, closing. Opening. Closing.
By far, Mira Araceli was the most dangerous student he’d ever had.