The hotter they come, the harder they fall…
With a man like him, every mission becomes personal…
Ever since FBI agent Keira O’Shay started tracking a young boy named Mateo, she’s felt a connection even her empathic abilities can’t explain. She needs to save Mateo from the cult leader holding him hostage. Nothing can interfere with that—not even the reappearance of Luke Ransom, the hot-as-hell fire captain she’s regretted walking out on for three long years.
Losing Keira left Luke vulnerable—in every way. When they were together, the powers each possesses were mysteriously enhanced. But it’s the sexy, surprising woman beneath the tough exterior that Luke’s really missed. Even if she betrayed him utterly. And even if agreeing to help her uncover a government conspiracy means watching his life and his heart go up in flames again…
Read an Excerpt
Keira O’Shay flexed and released her fingers around the grip of her Colt AR-15 assault rifle, her mind on the little boy inside the religious cult compound. The boy she’d been tracking for over a year now.
She squinted through the hundred-and-twelve degree heat rippling off the hard, dry Nevada landscape. The ranch house and barns of the property danced in watery distortion, shifting like reflections in a House of Mirrors.
Fitting. From the very beginning this situation had taunted Keira with reflections of her own twisted past.
Her commander, FBI Senior Special Agent Angus West, leaned his hip against the bed of an agency pickup ten feet away, arguing logistics with the incident commander from ATF while she and her team steamed in their SWAT fatigues like vegetables.
Fucking departmental posturing. Fucking egos. Fucking waste of time.
So much precious time already depleted in briefing, staging, arming, negotiating.
Gunfire cracked through the air, followed by the clang, clang, clang of bullets against metal. The sting of anxiety burned across Keira’s ribs. The half-empty bottle of Gatorade exploded beneath the crush of her fingers, orange liquid drenching her hand. She chucked the shattered plastic at the dirt.
“Don’t return fire, you idiots.” She clenched her teeth to keep her voice low so the team, hovering beneath the shade of a single pathetic Joshua tree nearby, wouldn’t hear. “My boy’s in there.”
Her stomach coiled tighter, something she hadn’t believed possible. She already felt like a bottle of champagne—shaken and still corked.
Enough of this bullshit.
She pushed off the SWAT van acting as a barrier to the hostilities. The men supposedly in charge had ceased their dispute to watch FBI and ATF agents scuttle among pickups and outbuildings for cover.
“Excuse me, sir.” From beneath the brim of her uniform ball cap, she trained her eyes on Angus. “What are we waiting for? A neon sign flashing ‘Armageddon this way’?”
The ATF leader standing across from Angus sliced her with a critical sneer. One that indicated he had a dick the size of a peanut and had to compensate by making everyone else’s life a living hell.
Angus’s gaze remained locked on the other man, his demeanor controlled as he raised his index finger to Keira.
Don’t push it.
Yeah, she got it. Didn’t even need her clairaudient abilities to get that message as loud as the gunshots across the compound and as clear as the growing risk she faced with every passing moment.
But, dammit, this waiting was killing her. She wanted that little boy. Wanted to see him. Wanted to touch him. Wanted to prove that the kid was real, and that she hadn’t spent the last year of her life chasing a ghost only to end up in the same haunted, hopeless, helpless place she’d started.
She didn’t understand the gravity of her needs. Only that they’d driven her from the moment she’d first seen his photograph. He was important to her. She just didn’t know why. Just as she didn’t know why another vague anxiety gnawed low in her belly. One she’d cued into as soon as she’d stepped onto the scene.
She scanned the landscape again searching for the source of her discomfort. Clusters of FBI, ATF, local deputies, military personnel, support staff and vehicles cluttered the staging area. Nothing stood out.
She reached into the front pocket of her jumpsuit for the child’s photo, a talisman of sorts now after all this time. The moment she touched it, a young voice loped through her head.
Thia, edo eeme. Edo eeme, Thia.
Whatever that meant. She couldn’t exactly ask the missing boy’s father why the kid was speaking another language without exposing her clairaudient abilities. And if that happened, she faced an ugly path of workplace inquisitions, governmental psychological testing, probable suspension and possible termination. If her powers, or more importantly, the source of her powers, caught the wind, her life and the lives of those she loved would hit the fan.
Keira studied the boy’s face for what had to be the thousandth time over the last year. And wondered, for what had to be the hundredth time in the last few hours, whether she’d recognize him now, three years older than he was in the picture. Would his eyes still be warm and trusting? Would his face still be round and full of color? Would he even still be alive?
Keira looked up just as one of her fellow agents, crouched behind a metal storage shed for cover, bucked and pitched backward. She sucked an audible gulp of air.
“Oh, shit.” Her stomach clenched and burned. Two backup agents swept in, hooked their hands under the armpits of her academy buddy and dragged him to safety. “Was that…Connor Royal?”
“Yes.” Angus pressed his fingers to the earpiece feeding him information over the airwaves as he spoke to her. Sweat glistened on skin the color of fresh ground coffee beans. “It was Royal. Not a fatal hit. They’re bringing him out.”
Nerves split her professional shell. She couldn’t stand it anymore. Screw all this testosterone. “Are you going to send us in or wait for him to kill our whole squad?”
She’d catch hell for the attitude later, in private. Now, Angus focused on Keira with his customary intensity. “Yes. You’re going in.”
The other leader threw his shoulders back. “Now, wait just a—“
Yes! She tuned out the argumentative ATF ass and swung back to signal her team.
Finally. She could get her hands on this kid, turn him over to his father and get the hell on with her life. And even save a few other lives in the process. Win-win.
“Wait.” Angus put a hand on her arm and signaled the team to hold tight. “This isn’t a rescue mission. Not yet.”
“Sir, you can’t be serious.” She glanced back to make sure the ATF asshole wasn’t within earshot. “There are women and children—”
“I’m dead serious, Keira. At this point, the best way to salvage the lives of those women and children is to take out the shooter. Either by capture or elimination.” He pulled the Colt from her hand and slapped a Remmington sniper rifle in its place, then released a five-by-seven photograph from his clipboard and held it out. “This is your target: Andre Rostov. And lose the attitude, would you?”
Her new mission came into sharp focus. Sweat slid between her should blades.
She studied the photo, but didn’t take it. She wasn’t ready.
The man in the image was in his late fifties with nearly white hair and a clean-shaven jaw exposing a fair share of wrinkles and age spots over a plain, expressionless face. Light eyes, a color she couldn’t determine, beamed with intelligence and defiance.
“Rostov’s got another one of our teams isolated at the west end of the main house.” Angus drew her attention. “Pinned between a silo and an outbuilding.”
“Once we pull the kids out—”
“No, Keira.” He had his boss-face on. Hard. Demanding. Unyielding. “You are going to take him out of the equation before he starts handing weapons to those kids.”
A shiver tracked her spine. She stepped closer, forced her voice lower. “But, Angus—”
“No buts. This is what you were trained for. You are our best chance of getting this guy before he hurts anyone else.” He pushed the photo toward her. “Do it for Royal.”
She peered toward the ranch house—the lower level windows boarded with shutters, the charcoal gray roof and stark white siding wafting in the inhumane heat.
Yes, she’d been trained. Yes, she could kill in self-defense. But, elimination? Assassination? Murder?
The department picnic two months prior flickered in her head. Pictures of Royal’s young wife, their two toddler daughters.
The fingers of her empty hand curled into her palm and squeezed hard before she reached for the picture. At the first touch, a tangle of sounds and voices snarled in her head. She let them murmur in the background until she was ready to unravel and apply.
That other, unrelated unease resurfaced, chewing at her belly. And it definitely wasn’t coming from the photo. She glanced over the various groups again. Looking for…what? What the hell was bugging her on this subversive level?
“We’ll get Tony’s kid out, Keira,” Angus reassured. “But to get him out alive, you’re going to have to remove the threat, and we both know this maniac won’t let you take him alive.”
Yes, she did know. Which was why she wanted to get to the boy so badly. “I understand, sir.”
Keira tuned out the background voices of her colleagues, the rumble of vehicles, the murmur of generators. One by one, she sorted through the sounds: the clink of glass, bubbling liquid, a ringing timer. When none of those made sense, she focused on the disjointed voices. Control group…placebo…quantitative results…
The skin over the back of her neck tingled. “Angus, are you sure about the Intel on this? A religious group?”
He pulled his attention from a map spread over the hood of a pick-up. “Why?”
One more check of Rostov’s picture, just to make sure. …Absolute measure…controlled environment…clinical trials…
“I just…” Hear voices that tell me it’s wrong. How fast did she want to lose her job and land in a pink padded room and a straight jacket? “Look at him. Not much of a Koresh look-alike. I mean, come on, he’s no cult leader.”
“It was your research that lead us here.”
“To find the kid. I knew it was a commune of some sort, but I never said it was a religious compound.”
“Well, others have, and it’s a moot point anyway. He’s now shooting and holding hostages. ”
And she’d been entrusted with this boy’s safety. Angus was right. The underlying purpose of this ranch didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was rescuing a child from a nut job. Reuniting a loving father with a stolen son. She’d seen the court custody papers, the ex-wife’s psych evaluations. Now, she’d all-but-proven the abuse allegations.
Angus yelled at the ATF commander, huddled amongst other big-wigs, “My sniper’s ready. Get me your best agent to guide her in.”
Sniper. Keira’s lip lifted toward a grimace.
“Ransom, suit up.” The man’s growl stilted the conversation of several agents loitering around the back of an ATF van. “You’re going in.”
Keira brain’s was still pushing around sniper, searching for a comfortable fit in some unused crevice when the name registered.
“What?” she asked Angus. “Who?”
“I don’t know. Someone named—”
“Ransom,” the asshole yelled again. “Get moving. You’re babysitting the Feebs’ prima donna.”
Ransom? Her stomach jumped and went icy hot.
The hostage she’d vowed to rescue and the cult-leader she’d agreed to kill faded in her mind, replaced by memories of a man she hadn’t heard from in three years. A man who shared her complex past and still secretly held far too much of her heart.
Lord, she could not afford to think about Luke right now. Besides the name had to be a coincidence, because Luke was not an ATF agent. He was a fire captain in northern California. He wouldn’t be at a government run siege in the Nevada desert.
Surely there were thousands of men by the last name of Ransom in the Western United States. She scanned the ATF camp, focused on one group of swarming men and swallowed hard. Okay, maybe hundreds named Ransom who were also tall, well-built and blond like the one suiting up, his back toward her.
There have to be, because Luke is not ATF. Shit, he’s not.
The man dropped a black bullet-proof vest over his navy uniform tee shirt. He leaned down to tighten the holster securing a semi-automatic at his jean-covered thigh and grabbed a Ruger sub-machine gun handed to him by a colleague.
Keira’s stomach jumped. Jesus, the fluid movements, the tilt of his head…they created a delicious, familiar pressure in her chest. Which terrified her. Please, no. Please, no. Keira held her breath as the man pivoted toward his commander.
Before he’d fully turned, her stomach bottomed out. She knew the slant of that cheekbone. Knew the angle of that chin. Knew the slope of those lips. In fact, every inch of her body knew that mouth.
No! Dammit. Luke is not ATF.
But denial couldn’t erase the fact that he stood yards away, just as striking as the day she’d left him for the academy three years before. Same intense blue eyes. Same long legs. Same wide shoulders. Same commanding presence.
“Screwed. I’m so screwed.” Keira turned her back before Luke spotted her. Not to hide—far too late for that. Just to regroup. Just to get herself together before she faced him.
Angus looked up from his map. “What?”
“This vest is screwed.” She yanked at the canvass-covered Kevlar as her heart scrambled for a dark corner. “Who last wore this thing, a two-year-old? It’s choking me.”
He turned from the truck and took hold of the straps, tugging to test the fit. “It’s fine. Fits perfect.”
“Then why the hell can’t I breathe?”
“It’s called anxiety and it’s totally normal. Relax, O’Shay.” The hint of a pride-filled smile turned his dark lips. “You’re the best in the Nation.”
“Don’t start bragging.” She didn’t know why, by the thought made her cringe. “You know how guys go all weird when they hear that.”
Angus’s attention locked on someone behind Keira. Luke. She knew. Her guts knew. She could feel him, as if his presence physically compressed her lungs until she could drag in only a wisp of air on each breath.
Angus sidestepped her with his hand out in greeting. “Agent Ransom, you’re going to be taking care of our sharp-shooter. And I promise you, she does not have an ounce of Prima Donna in her blood.”
The word popped into her head from nowhere, vibrating like an echo. The same way thoughts from images played beneath her skull. God, it was happening already. She hadn’t even spoken to him, hadn’t even looked him in the eye and her powers were rising like a kite in high wind.
Keira’s eyes closed. She allowed herself a split second of dread, of doubt, of pain before she drew all her strength into her core. Then she envisioned a metal door shutting out every agonizing memory and secured the shield before facing the men.
Luke’s clear blue eyes dropped from Angus’s face to Keira’s. Her stomach sizzled as his gaze held hers. His flat, impersonal expression lasted two full seconds before shock set in. The reaction would have been comical if it hadn’t been so quickly followed by a look of heated, almost sickening, contempt.
Her psychic armor took a heavy hit.
“Don’t let that sweet face fool you, Agent Ransom,” Angus said. “Mobile targets, mobile platforms, extreme distance, night shots, you name it, O’Shay will hit it. She’s a pit bull.”
For an extended second, his eyes remained steady and unblinking on her face. A deep vertical line pulled between his brows, as if someone had smacked him upside the head, and he hadn’t quite recovered.
He hadn’t had a hair cut in months, hadn’t shaved in at least two days, hadn’t been using enough sunscreen. And he looked…amazing. Absolutely mind-numbingly amazing.
“Yyyyyeah. You could say that.” His tone suggested an unsavory subject. He squinted at Angus. “Sir, can I have a word?”
Goddamnedsonofabitch. Keira’s millisecond of admiration splintered and the hurt and anger from their past boiled to the surface. “If you have something to say, Agent Ransom, say it to my face.”
Luke’s eyes reconnected to hers with a cold snap. He shifted his weight and cocked his hip, a move she’d once found sexy but which now struck her as arrogant.
“Okay, Agent O’Shay.” He put the same venom on her title as she had on his. “Are you qualified to do this job or are you a just pretty face for the news cameras? Cause I’m risking my ass here, and I’m sure as hell not doing it for you.”
Air siphoned into her throat with the sucking sound of a gut-punch. Her stomach responded with a painful hitch. After so much time, he could still stab her right in the heart.
That came out really fucking wrong.
The thought drifted from Luke, but his expression remained unchanged. And after that greeting, he didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
She forced the imprisoned air out of her lungs. Refused to wince at the pain centered beneath her ribs. And faced Angus.
“I’m not going to recite my resume for this…” Pissant. “If he doesn’t trust me, get someone else to take me in.”
The ATF commander invaded the group. “Problem here?”
“No.” Luke’s chin went up. Stubborn sonofabitch never changed. “No problem.”
“Then get on with this before that fucker starts throwing bodies out windows.”
Luke’s boss stomped toward their camp, wiping the sweat from his bald head with a handkerchief.
Keira pulled off her ball cap, tossed it on the hood of the truck, smoothed her hair into a ponytail and pulled on her helmet.
“Keira,” Angus said. “Is there a problem here?”
Hell yes. “Nope.” Two could play this game. “I don’t give a flying fuck whether he goes or not. I can handle this on my own.”
You always could. Never needed anyone. Sure as hell never needed me.
Luke’s thoughts pierced her skull. She gritted her teeth and forced them out. Luke Ransom’s head was the very last place on earth she belonged.
“Play nice, Keira,” Angus directed in low tone before refocusing on the map and circling an area of the main building with his dark finger. “We have reports of your target in this area. If you position yourself here,” he tapped the paper, “you have opportunities for shots here and here. This is your point of entrance. This your exit. Got it?”
Keira nodded once, her gaze scouring the floor plan she’d already memorized.
Angus dropped a hand on her shoulder. “Alive is preferred. Dead is perfectly acceptable.”
Ice spread through her belly, but she met his intense eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“You’re call sign is Sniper Six.” He gave her a gentle push off. “Be careful out there.”
“Yes, sir.” She started toward the building without waiting for Luke. Her legs pumped hard in an effort to put space between them, but he caught up to her in seconds.
“Keira.” He pulled her around by the arm. “What the hell is going on?”
Her lungs decompressed on a whoosh of air. Three long years she’d imagined all the possible ways they might connect again. What they might say. How it might go. None ever slumped to this level. So many daydreams wasted. So many fantasies shattered.
She dug in her pocket for the two photos. The first landed against his chest with a satisfying thump. “This is the man I’m going to either capture or kill.” When he took the photo, she hit him with the second. “This is the kid I’m going to find and rescue. Keep your eyes open. If you spot either one, signal me. And stay out of trouble, Ransom, cause you’re not on my favorites list. I have enough to think about besides saving your sorry ass.”
She started toward the ladder leading to the roof again. Luke easily kept pace with her. “When did you become a fucking sniper?”
The dig pinged off her psychic shield, leaving a dent. Everything he did, said, thought, left a dent. “Probably about the same time you became a fucking ATF agent.”
A local deputy stood at the base of the metal ladder, securing it against the building. “Be careful up there.”
“Will do.” Keira slanted the strap of her Remmington over her chest and whipped the weapon around to lie against her back.
“Watch where you’re throwing that thing,” Luke groused behind her.
“If I did,” she shot over her shoulder. “It would break your perfect nose.”
She scaled the ladder with ease. With cool metal beneath her hands, her quads pumping as she ascended, bittersweet memories of her years as a firefighter flooded her mind. The fact that Luke now tailed her only shoved her into a time warp. And as soon as they landed on the rooftop together, couched and ready to attack, their three years apart evaporated. No two people worked together better—professionally, if not personally.
Only now they weren’t focused on drowning a fire. They were hunting a psychotic Russian cult leader holding hostages. Kevlar replaced turnouts, subguns replaced Pulaskis, helmets replaced breathing apparatus. Easy reminders of the bizarre event that changed their lives. All seven members of their hazmat unit had gone into that firefight as ordinary people. Six had emerged permanently altered. One hadn’t survived. Keira often wondered if he had been the lucky one.
Focus. Get in, hit the target, find the boy, get out.
She scuttled across the roof toward the single window along the second story wall, planted her back against the peeling paint and searched for Luke. He was right there, mirroring her position on the opposite side of the glass.
Despite the Intel Angus insisted was accurate, something felt wrong. Wrong location. Wrong target. Wrong…something. And Keira couldn’t tell if the sensation was expert intuition or some enhanced psychic ability, which was really annoying.
She eased forward, glanced through the window. No one inside the bedroom-turned-office, but the laboratory set-up in the corner explained all the sensations Keira had received through Rostov’s image. Sink, microscope, slides, test tubes, beakers, floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted cabinets filled with chemicals.
What the hell?
The thought wasn’t Keira’s, although it echoed her own. Luke also squinted through the glass, studying the mini-lab.
She tilted her chin toward the radio speaker on her shoulder to check in with Angus and pushed the transmit button.
An explosion rumbled through the opposite end of the main building, as if Keira’s action had detonated a bomb. Her heart punched toward her throat. In mirror reflex actions, she and Luke braced themselves against the wall. When the roar of the explosion dimmed, she tried again.
“Sniper Six to base. Update. Over.”
“Base to SS.” Angus’s cool tone crackled over the radio. “Target has relocated. Hold for Intel. Over.”
“Dammit.” She dropped her head back against the siding, just a second to catch her breath.
Is she really the best shot? What the hell is going on here?
Luke hadn’t spoken. At least not out loud. He still peered around the corner of the building, watching the fire.
“Yes,” she snapped . “I really am the best shot, and you are—evidently—still the jackass who thought I’d fall on my face when I joined the Bureau.”
His head snapped around with a what-the-fuck? expression, then eased. “I will admit to the jackass part, but for the record, I never expected or wanted you to fall on your face.” His eyes narrowed. “Are you reading minds now?”
“Don’t be an idiot. Even if I were, which I’m not, your mind would be the last place I’d inhabit.”
She darted to Luke’s side and followed his gaze around the wall toward the opposite end of the compound. A twenty-foot section of the two story building in the distance spit flames from every window. Black smoke rolled toward the sky, and somewhere deep inside the structure, sparks surged like a fiery volcano. Cobalt blue sparks. The kind she’d only seen one other time in her life. Five long years ago.
She’d been with Luke then, too.
That reality overwhelmed her. The questions, the repercussions, the complications so vast she simply couldn’t process them in the moment. She knew this incident was about to change her life, yet she had no idea how. And, worse, she had absolutely no control over that change. She was on a raft thrown in the rapids with no oars. Hold tight for the ride. Pray you don’t drown on the trip.
Every priority in her life altered. Instantly.
Screw following orders. Screw killing Rostov. She had to find that boy.