Nick & Victoria
H.O.T. Strike Team 1, Book 6
Is she a traitor? Or is she the victim?
Victoria Royal will do anything to save her sister – including let the Army believe she’s a traitor. Once a promising military sniper, she’s now a disgraced mercenary.
But the sacrifice will be worth it when she finds her baby sister, who went missing over two years ago. She’s getting closer to the truth – until someone orders a hit on her life.
When Special Ops soldier Nick “Brandy” Brandon is tasked with bringing Victoria in, he doesn’t expect he’ll have to work side by side with her. If he wants to infiltrate the rogue organization she works for, and find out who’s calling the shots, that’s the mission.
Even if he doesn’t trust that she won’t blow his cover.
Nick has wanted the smart-mouthed redhead since they were in sniper school together, but he can’t let himself be distracted. Do the job, get out alive.
But once all hell breaks loose and they’re running for their lives, he’ll have to decide if Victoria is really a traitor – or if she’s the victim…
**Start reading the Hostile Operations Team Series – Strike Team 1 today and enjoy an action-packed, seriously romantic and steamy-good-fun military romantic suspense. Each book can be read as a standalone. No cliffhangers or cheating and a guaranteed happily-ever-after ending!
Read an Excerpt
“Nothing happening.” Nick Brandon squeezed one eye shut and sighted down the scope of his sniper rifle. “No sign of the target.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” came the frustrated reply over the comm. “Where the fuck is this bastard?”
A bead of sweat trickled down Nick’s neck. He ignored it since it was only one of many that had soaked the cotton of his T-shirt and made him damp beneath the desert ghillie suit. Discomfort was part of the job. Ignoring it was a necessary survival skill.
“Wish I knew.”
Hell, yeah, he wished he knew. He’d been in position for days now, in a bombed-out building in one of Qu’rim’s distant towns. The fighting still raged in this war-torn land, in spite of the fact they’d neutralized Al Ahmad months ago. It had eased up for a while, buoyed on the reforming spirit of the new king and his promises to the people, and then it fell apart again as other factions took advantage of the Freedom Force’s confused and fractured leadership to fill the void and continue the civil war.
Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much to the rest of the world if there weren’t a giant fucking uranium mine in the middle of the conflict. At least it was heavily guarded by an international peacekeeping force, but that was small comfort when it was still technically in a war zone.
Now that the Freedom Force was regaining strength, the whole fucking thing was a fresh nightmare. But this mission, if it went well, would help to stifle their regrowth, at least for a little while.
“Checking with HQ. Hold tight, man.”
Nick sighed as he put down the sat phone and rotated his neck to pop out the kinks. His spotter looked up from the floor where he’d taken a few minutes to catch some sleep. It was odd to think of doing this job without Jack Hunter, but Jack was on assignment elsewhere these days. Being married to a pop star changed a guy’s life, apparently.
Though if Jack were still here, Nick would be the spotter instead of the sniper. He liked being the sniper.
Dexter “Double Dee” Davidson rubbed his hand over his head. “Man, what a dream.”
“Did it involve naked girls and swimming pools?”
Dex grinned. “Not quite, but that would’ve been a good one too.”
Nick scanned the area once more. A donkey meandered down the street on one end while a woman in full burka shuffled along on the other. He focused on the woman, watching her sharply for a minute before deciding she was exactly what she appeared to be. Her face was hidden behind the burka, but she didn’t move like a man. She had a basket slung over her shoulder that seemed to contain a few meager dates and some rice so far as he could see. She was clearly hurrying to get out of the street before anyone noticed her.
This town was about half-inhabited anymore, but the ones holding on were determined to stay and make as normal a life as possible in the midst of a war. It would be far more convenient if no one were here at all, but war wasn’t about convenience.
Nick watched the woman until she disappeared down the street, and then he sank down against the wall and pulled water out of his pack. He took a sip and then capped it and put it back.
“Why don’t you take a nap? I’ll watch for our tangos for a while.”
Nick yawned. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
Dex lifted his scope and crawled into position in the opening in the wall. Nick had just closed his eyes, looking forward to twenty minutes or so of uninterrupted shut-eye, when something rumbled deep in his chest.
He opened his eyes again, certain he was imagining things. But Dex was peering intently at something.
“Trucks,” he muttered. “Mile away, coming toward us.”
Nick scrambled back up. “Could be our guy,” he said, sighting down his own scope. It was the first interesting thing to happen in days now, and his adrenaline spiked as he imagined completing this mission and bugging the fuck out.
“Can’t tell yet.”
They waited, watching the trucks that bristled with armed men — and then the column turned and drove north. Far in the distance, Nick could see a dust cloud making its way south. More trucks, no doubt.
His heart thumped with excitement. “I think this is our meeting. But they aren’t coming to the town.”
Dex was busy with calculations. “Almost twenty-eight hundred yards when they converge. Damn,” he breathed.
“We’ll make it.”
“Dial seven mils to the right,” Dex said. “Fucking wind.”
The two columns moved closer together.
“Long shot,” Dex said.
“I got it, Dex.”
The two columns converged after what seemed like hours but in reality was only minutes. Sand swirled, obscuring the men for a long moment before finally settling. Men got out of the vehicles and ranged into the open. Nick searched for the target. The man was a new lieutenant in the Freedom Force and rumored to be pulling the strings in this quadrant of Qu’rim. Not to mention, he’d been rebuilding the shattered network of terrorists and giving them a cause to unite behind.
“Found him,” Nick said, satisfaction rolling through him with the sharp sweetness of an orgasm. Not quite the same sensation, but damn close. The second-best feeling in the world, he decided.
Dex double-checked the deck of cards they carried that had the names and faces of the men they were hunting. This one was young — and American-educated, which left a bad taste in Nick’s mouth.
“Yep, that’s him.”
Nick’s finger hovered over the trigger. He had to sight this one carefully, had to take the shot when he was fully ready. The man had no idea he was being targeted, so there was no need to rush. When the wind was right, Nick would squeeze the trigger. The shot would fall long and fast before it finally arced into the head of the target. It was critical he get this right.
Once it happened, they had to break down and get the hell out fast. Nick let out his breath, ready to squeeze on the exhale. Another split second and this bastard was going down—
The man beside the target dropped just as Nick’s finger tensed. He jerked, but it wasn’t his bullet that had hit the other man. He hadn’t even fired—but someone had. He sighted the target again, but the men in the group had realized something was happening. They went berserk, shouting and running and throwing the terrorist leader into an armored vehicle before Nick could get a clear shot.
Dex echoed him at the same moment the report of a rifle rang back to them over the distance. Of course someone else had taken a shot. They both knew it before they heard it.
The mission was a bust. Nick scanned the area around their hideout, looking for signs of another team. Who else could have come after these bastards if not another government with competing interests?
But if there was another team, they were damn good, because he and Dex had been in position for days and they’d never gotten wind of anyone else in the area other than a few locals.
Damn, that had been a beauty of a shot. It was almost impossible, in fact — and yet another sniper had made it in the split second before Nick could make his. He could admire the skill even if the bastard had fucked up the mission.
Half the column of men had slammed back into their trucks and sped away. But another group, a small group, was heading toward the town with assault rifles and antiaircraft missiles.
“Copy,” Dex said into the sat phone before ending the call he’d just made to their team. His eyes were filled with determination when he looked up at Nick. “Extraction point moved due to enemy fire. We gotta bust our asses if we’re gonna make it.”
They broke down the equipment double-quick, stowing the weapons and shouldering the gear. They had a head start, but not a long one. They’d have to move from this building and keep moving while the enemy combatants searched for them. And they needed air support if they were going to make it out.
Nick’s comm link crackled for the first time since this mission had gone to hell. “Need that firebird, Flash,” he grated before Ryan Gordon could speak. Jesus, this mission had been plagued with bad luck from the start. In the past few hours, a dust storm had interfered with their primary comm and sent them to backup. And now this.
“Called it in. HQ says it’s coming. What the fuck happened?”
Flash and the team were a couple of miles away, waiting for Nick and Dex.
“We got company, that’s what. They took out the opposition commander. Our guy got away.”
“Yeah. No sign of our shooter or his team.”
“Don’t worry about them, Brandy.” It was Kev “Big Mac” MacDonald. “Get the fuck out and we’ll let HQ sort it out.”
Like Nick would do anything differently. But, yeah, if he got a glimpse of this asshole, he’d take the chance.
“Birdie’s ETA is fifteen minutes. You guys all right?”
“Yeah,” Nick said as he and Dex busted out the back door of the building they’d been haunting like ghosts and made for the next zone they’d set up.
The sun was setting, and long shadows lay across the desert landscape. The heat of the day still shimmered on the horizon, and the sounds in the town were subdued. A goat bleated somewhere. Nick’s head jerked up as something moved to his left. But there was nothing and he kept running.
Dex made it first and burst into the building they’d scouted days ago. There was always the chance someone had taken shelter in the past few days, but the building was abandoned and the chances were slim.
Dex headed for the long bank of windows at the rear and hunkered down inside the wall. Nick could hear shouting coming from outside now. It was still a few streets over but moving closer.
The door they’d come through just a few seconds ago shot open, and both men raised their weapons automatically.
A woman in a burka stood there, silhouetted against the setting sun. Nick wondered if it was the same woman he’d seen earlier, but then he realized this one didn’t have a basket like the last one had.
“Fuck me,” Dex breathed softly at the sight of a rifle cradled in her arms.
The woman ripped away the face covering and tipped her chin up, and Nick shook his head as if to clear a mirage.
“Not just now, boys,” she said in perfect English. Or as perfect as a Southern accent could come to it, anyhow. “We’ve got a company of tangos on our heels, or hadn’t you noticed?”
* * *
Victoria wished it weren’t two against one, but she’d lost her spotter three days ago when the dumb bastard had tried to suggest she was only good for one thing — and that thing hadn’t been shooting.
She hadn’t shot Jonah, but she’d wanted to. Turned out it hadn’t been necessary since he’d gotten himself killed by a Russian mercenary on the way here during a dispute over God knows what.
Whatever. It wasn’t her problem. She’d called it in. If the boss wasn’t happy, that’s what he got for hiring military rejects and Rambo wannabes in the first place.
She didn’t bother to wonder where that put her in the catalog of hires. She already knew what she was and why.
The two men were staring at her as if she’d materialized out of thin air. Which, for their purposes, she nearly had. She’d shadowed them for days now, and she knew they were Army Special Ops. She hadn’t seen their faces, but now the setting sun arrowed into the room and picked them out where they had their backs to the wall and guns drawn.
Both were dark-haired, muscled, and sported several days’ beard growth. One had his jaw hanging open. But the other…
Recognition hit Victoria like an unexpected encounter with a bat. She knew that face. Knew that mouth, the hard curl of those lips as he’d hurled insults at her during the few weeks they’d spent as competitors at the Army Sniper School. He’d been the only one there who’d had the ability to get to her, to rattle the smooth surface of her calm. And he’d done it again and again. Where the other guys tried to cozy up to her, he’d done nothing but push.
In a way, she supposed she should be grateful. He’d made her remember what she was there for, that she’d been determined to graduate and earn her right to be an Army sniper.
She would have done it too, had things not changed.
Victoria pushed the door shut and rushed over to the tattered rug that lay on the floor between her and the men.
“Don’t just sit there looking stupid,” she snapped. “Help me get this trapdoor open.”
The one she didn’t know stood as if to obey. The other one — Nick Brandon — shot a hand out and stopped the guy from moving.
Victoria shoved a stray lock of hair from her face and sputtered. “You’re going to let them find us just because you’re pissed, is that it?”
“You took the shot.”
“Damn right I did.”
Nick unfolded himself and got to his feet, his hands flexing on the case slung over his shoulder. “You took the goddamn shot, Victoria. But you shot the wrong motherfucker.”
She jerked at the trapdoor, levering it up with a grunt. Sweat rolled down her face. She wanted to rip the burka off entirely, but she still needed the damn thing. If this shit went south, it would provide a measure of protection that her assault suit wouldn’t.
If they looked under the burka, however…
“So you do remember my name. And for the record, I didn’t shoot the wrong guy. I shot the one I was hired to shoot.”
Nick’s face twisted darkly. “You still shot the wrong guy. And for the wrong fucking reasons.”
She shoved the trapdoor until it fell with a thud. “How do you know what my reasons are?” She slapped her forehead. “Oh wait, I forgot. It’s easy for you to be self-righteous, isn’t it? Preacher’s son who shoots people for a living. How’s that working out for you, hot stuff?”
The other guy’s gaze had been swinging back and forth between the two of them. But now he put his hand on Nick’s arm. “Dude, I don’t know how you know this chick, but I think she’s right. We need to get inside there and wait this one out.”
The sound of machine-gun fire rolled through the streets, closer than before. Typically, the Qu’rimi opposition wasn’t that organized, but this group was taking orders from someone new. And that person had a plan.
“Yeah,” Nick said, tilting his head to listen.
Victoria huffed a breath as she swept her hand toward the darkened stairs into the cellar below. “Be my guest, boys.”
“You first,” Nick said, his hazel eyes lasering in on her, gleaming hot.
Victoria shrugged as she tossed her gear into the hole. “Fine. Just be sure to hook the rug on the door on the way down.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. She knew he didn’t have clue what to do with the rug at this point — and they didn’t have time for him to figure it out when she already knew.
“Dex can go first then.”
The other man shrugged and came over with his gear, tossing it into the opening. When he was down in the hole, Nick passed the rest of the gear to him. And then he climbed halfway into the opening before he stopped and glared at her as if he didn’t trust her.
Victoria sniffed. “Make room, asshole, or I can’t follow.”
“How do I know you intend to?”
She blinked. “What do you think I mean to do? Wave the scumbags in and show them where you are? How do you think that’ll go for me once they discover I’m not a Qu’rimi woman?”
He grunted before lowering himself farther into the opening. He was almost at the bottom when she spoke.
“Stop right there,” she said as she grabbed the trapdoor and folded it over so he could prop it up. Then she snagged the rug and went about fixing it over the door. Once she was certain it was in place, she had to lower herself onto the floor and slide into the opening.
Nick was still there, still holding the door up so she could shimmy beneath it. The opening was tight and she found herself wedged against him suddenly, the hard press of his muscles making her jump and tingle in all the wrong places.
Or right places, depending on who you asked.
“Jesus,” he muttered as she dropped, her body sliding against his.
“Let the door go,” she urged. “Slowly.”
He went the rest of the way down the ladder, letting the trapdoor sink behind him. The rug, though tattered, had a heavy weft and would lie flat.
The cellar was surprisingly cool for a dirt hole carved out of the desert floor. They were near an oasis here or it wouldn’t have been possible, but the bedrock was solid and allowed the villagers to dig cellars in order to store vegetables and water.
The room wasn’t big, and the only thing preventing it from being completely dark at the moment was the glow stick the man named Dex had broken.
The ground rumbled and dirt showered from the ceiling. Victoria clenched her hands into fists. God, she hated this part. Being buried alive was bad enough, but buried alive with this man…
Nick’s head was back, his eyes on the ceiling as the dirt stopped falling. His skin glistened in the dull glow of the light. She let her gaze slide over him, cataloging the chiseled planes of his cheekbones and nose. And those lips.
Dear God, she could never forget those lips. She’d hated them and adored them all at once — and hated them even more because she’d been weak enough to want to feel them against her own.
At least she hadn’t allowed that indignity before the end.
“How did you know this was here?” he asked, not looking at her, his voice a low rumble in the dark.
“Part of the job. I’m surprised you didn’t know it. Or maybe you’re not as good as you like to think.”
His gaze snapped to hers and she found herself swallowing, which wasn’t easy considering her mouth was as dry as the sand covering the desert over their heads.
“At least I’m here for the right reasons.”
He sounded cool and judgmental, and it pissed her off even though she knew she shouldn’t let him get to her. He couldn’t know what her reasons were or how right they were to her.
“Of course you are. I’m just here for the fun. What girl wouldn’t want to be trapped in a cellar with you two jerks while a bunch of jihadists tromp the ground over her head?”
“Hey,” Dex said, “I didn’t say a damn thing. Leave me out of your pissing contest.”
“The one you let get away,” Nick growled, “will prolong this conflict and cost American lives. How does that make you feel?”
Victoria tilted her chin up as fresh heat flooded her. She knew precisely who she’d let get away. And it still made her sick inside.
“And I say the one I shot would have done the same thing. There are no easy choices out here, and you know it.”
“I work for an organization that knows what they’re talking about. Who do you work for?” He took a step toward her, though they were already close due to the tight proximity of the cellar.
She wanted to back away, but she wouldn’t show that much weakness. And she wasn’t telling him anything, either.
“Whoever it is,” he continued, “they don’t give a fuck about what’s right or just, do they? Guns for hire never do. It’s all about the money and who can pay to get what they want. You shot an opposition commander of no consequence. You let the terrorist get away. And that’s the fucking truth of it, Victoria, so save the rationalizing for some other dumbass who might believe it.”
His words hurt, but she wasn’t going to let him know it. She reminded herself that she was here for Emily, and she was going to do whatever it took to get her sister back. Besides, Victoria’s name was already sullied in the eyes of the United States Army. What was one more transgression?
She was hot on Emily’s trail, thanks to Ian Black and his business. She started to tell Nick to fuck off, but there was a burst of gunfire overhead and the words died in her throat. The three of them cast their eyes to the ceiling and gripped their weapons.
There was a sudden thump on the trapdoor and Victoria’s heart lodged in her throat. Any second, the door would lift—and they’d be caught in this hole like rats.
H.O.T. Publishing, LLC
September 29, 2014
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