EXCERPT: RUNNING ON EMPTY
An LCR Elite Novel
Sabrina Fox stood at the window of her apartment and looked down at the bustling street below. Since she lived on the thirty-sixth floor, recognizing anyone from this distance should be almost impossible. But she would know him…she would recognize him from any distance. From the moment she had met Declan Steele, she had known him.
Not that it had been love at first sight. A smile tugged at her mouth as she thought about those early days. She had hated Declan with a passion unrivaled since the fury she had known as a kid. He had infuriated her, challenged her…made her see things in ways she had never considered before. She had wanted to succeed in everything he taught her, but at the same time had resisted him with every fiber of her being. Even then she had realized her hatred for him was different. He had been her trainer and harder on her than anyone else in the class, but even in their darkest moments with each other, she’d felt as if an invisible force had been drawing her to him.
Still, there were many days she’d left her training sessions plotting his excruciatingly painful death. Dangerous, since he had been teaching her how to kill.
Having been born into the very definition of a dysfunctional family, she had endured a childhood of sheer hell. She had been rescued from that hell by Albert Marks, who had offered her a job, bringing her into the dangerous world of covert ops. The job had saved her life.
The Agency, EDJE (Eagle Defense Justice Enforcers), was known to only a few, including the president and his closet advisers. When assassinating terrorists and dictators, the fewer people who knew about such things, the better.
When Albert had told her about the Agency, she’d laughed in his face, sure that it was just another gimmick or trick. In her world, adults did one of three things—lied to you, abused you, or drugged you. They didn’t offer you an escape.
Albert’s patience, sincerity, and sheer determination had convinced her. She would always be grateful to him, not only for saving her life but also for introducing her to Declan.
Because of Albert and the Agency, she had learned to believe in herself, to realize there was more to Sabrina Fox than being a victim to beat, demean, or rape. She had worth.
And Declan? He had taught her many things, but the most important was that she deserved to be loved.
Leaving EDJE hadn’t been an easy decision to make. She still believed that what she had done for them was right and just. She admired what the Agency stood for. But it had taken its toll. With each new assignment, she had felt as if she lost a little part of her soul. She would have hung on, doing the job even as it destroyed her, but Declan had seen the damage, too. He had been the one to introduce her to Jordan Montgomery, who had left the Agency years ago to become an operative for Last Chance Rescue.
Even though she’d known about LCR, Sabrina had never encountered any of their operatives. Jordan had met with her, told her a little about the organization and then arranged a meeting with Noah McCall, LCR’s leader. From that first meeting, she had been hooked. Rescuing victims as opposed to killing? Doing good without taking lives? The chance to work for LCR had felt like a gift from heaven. So she’d joined the Last Chance Rescue team and never regretted it for a second.
The emerald and diamond band on her left hand captured the sunlight, creating a colorful prism on the window. It felt strange to be wearing it. Unless she was on an undercover assignment, she rarely wore jewelry. No one at LCR, other than her boss, knew she was married. She kept her personal life private for many reasons, but one of the biggest was her concern for Declan. As one of EDJE’s top agents, his life was in constant danger—she refused to add to it by revealing her connection to him.
Just over a year ago, she and Declan had exchanged vows in the sanctuary of a small church. Other than the minister and his wife, there had been no witnesses. Then, for five glorious days and even more glorious nights, Declan had been hers and no one else’s. No calls, texts, or email warnings of dire events and impending doom.
Breath caught in her throat. There he was, getting out of a cab. As if he knew she would be watching, he looked up. She couldn’t see his face from here, but his image was etched in her memory. Square chin, stubborn and implacable, but the hint of a dimple in the center gave it a slight softening. His cheekbones, as if carved from stone, were the kind a camera would love to capture. Unfortunately, with his job, photos of any kind weren’t possible. He had a high, intelligent forehead and a slash of thick black brows that he often arched when he was expressing himself passionately about something. And beneath those expressive brows were startling, deep-blue eyes that could glint like a sapphire flame when he was angry or sparkle like jewels when he was amused. His nose was a noble blade that she had once teased him would look perfect on a Roman coin. And his mouth…oh, Declan’s mouth would make angels weep. Full, sensuous, delectable. Firm and hard when he was in a mood, but soft and delicious when he was kissing her.
If that wasn’t enough, all of that masculine beauty was surrounded by ink black hair so thick that it took a strong wind to even ruffle a strand. And his body—six feet, five inches of masculine perfection. Broad shoulders, muscular arms, a sprinkling of hair on his well-defined chest led down to granite-hard abs. Long, powerfully built legs that could run for hours without tiring. To make it doubly unfair, he possessed a keen, intelligent mind, a quick wit, and a good heart. When God had been passing out special favors, Declan had been standing at the front of the line.
She turned at the sound of the door opening, and there he stood, looking even more wonderful than she remembered. He barely took one step inside before she was across the room. The door closed behind him, his luggage dropped with a thud, and then she was in his arms.
“I’ve missed you.” She spoke against his neck and inhaled, loving the fragrance of her man. He smelled of the aftershave she’d given him the last time they were together and clean male musk. Pulling slightly away from him, she gazed up into those deep-blue eyes and her insides melted.
“I missed you, too, Little Fox.”
Little fox. She smiled at the nickname he had given her when he’d first started training her. At first it had infuriated her. She’d come from a family who called her derogatory names more often then they’d used her given name. She had been sure it was an insult. And her? Little? Okay, she was smaller than Declan, but in no way, shape, or form was she little. She was sure he had meant to demean her. But then, after she had come to know him better, she had heard the affection behind the name.
Her fingers traced a slight crease beside his mouth, one she swore hadn’t been there the last time they were together. “You’re well? No new bumps, bruises, abrasions?”
“Nothing to speak of. And you?”
“Not a scratch.”
The relief in his eyes was a reflection of her own feelings. This was the life they’d chosen but that didn’t lessen the worry.
“And now that you’re in my arms, I’m perfect.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said softly.
Lowering his head, his smiling mouth covered hers and time disappeared. His taste deliciously familiar, heady, sexy, rocketed her from simmering need straight to full arousal. Declan’s big hands, callused and urgent, roamed over her body. So immersed in him, lost in her desire, it took a moment or two to register cool air washing over her.
Pulling away slightly, she laughed breathlessly against his lips.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re the only man I know who can strip a woman without any effort.”
He looked down at her black skirt and aqua blue cashmere sweater lying on the floor. A lacy black bra and bikini panties lay several feet away as if flung by impatient hands.
His grin was wicked. “Be warned, this is how I intend to have you all weekend.”
“You’ll get no complaints from me, but how about you?” She took a step back. “Think you can undress yourself as quickly as you did me?”
In seconds, he showed her how he could be even faster. Ripping his shirt open, they both ignored the buttons that fell to the floor. He toed his shoes off and pulled his pants, underwear and socks down in one determined move. And he stood before her, gloriously aroused, gloriously hers.
He pulled her back into his arms and growled, “Ready, wife?”
“Always,” she answered softly. Melting into his embrace, she allowed him to possess her body, just as he possessed her heart. Everything she had, everything she was, belonged to him. Her husband, her lover, her life.
Hours later, Declan stood beside their bed and gazed down at his sleeping wife—the woman who had become the beat of his heart. She was everything he’d ever dreamed of having in a mate and was the biggest reason he fought against the shit he faced daily. How she had become so vital for his survival still surprised him.
Having lost his entire family years ago, he had never planned on loving or having deep feelings for anyone again. And now here he was today, incredibly, undeniably, and fiercely in love. Every ounce of tender emotion he possessed was tied up with this beautiful, intelligent, courageous woman.
Everything else in his life was duty, but Sabrina was his purpose, his reason to exist.
Holding back a heavy sigh, he walked over to the reading chair across the room and dropped into it with an uncharacteristic lack of grace.
All the plans he’d had were now shot to hell. Would she hate him when she learned the truth or would she understand? She had been in the game a long time, too. She knew better than anyone that you did the job no matter how objectionable. If you let emotions get in the way, people died.
The ache in his chest might be shame. It had been a long time since he’d felt this way, so he wasn’t sure he would recognize the emotion. Didn’t matter. He had a job to do and would do it to the best of his ability.
When the assignment was over, he would tell her everything. Didn’t mean she wouldn’t be hurt or royally pissed. When they married, he had recited vows—ones he had written himself. At that time, he had meant every single one. In those vows, he had promised to never willingly hurt her. What a stupid, idiotic thing to have said. In one way or another, he’d been hurting people all of his life. Why would he think Sabrina was any different?
He had known from the beginning that their marriage wouldn’t be like others. His job as a top commander of EDJE didn’t allow for normal. Maybe if he were still just an agent, still in the field, it could have been semi-normal. But when his pay grade had been upped, the danger had increased, and semi-normal had gone to hell.
Regretting his decisions would do no good. He believed in what he did, what EDJE stood for. Protecting his adopted country, one that he loved as much as he loved his homeland of Scotland, meant sacrifice. He just damn well hated certain parts of it.
“For a man who recently gave his wife ten orgasms, you’re looking awfully serious.”
Throwing aside his dire thoughts for the moment, he glanced over at her. “You’re keeping count?”
“Hell yeah. If I don’t, how will I know when you’re slipping?”
“So is ten better or worse than the last time?”
“Better.” She beamed at him. “Thank you very much!”
He chuckled and shook his head. Only Sabrina could pull him from the darkness. “I ordered a meal for us…that little Italian place down the street you like so much. Should be here in about twenty minutes.”
Her movements graceful as a dancer, she rose from the bed. “Just enough time for me to shower.” Her naked body seductive, enticing, she held out her hand. “Join me?”
Declan followed her into the bathroom. All the worrying in the world wouldn’t stop the inevitable, but for a few hours more he could hold back the sense of impending doom that shadowed his every step. Reality would come soon enough.
Placing her fork onto her empty plate, Sabrina leaned back in her chair with a satisfied sigh. Nothing like incredible, mind-blowing sex to increase her appetite. “That was wonderful.”
“No, thanks. Good choice, though. It was fabulous with the risotto.”
“I was surprised the restaurant had a bottle. It’s sometimes hard to get.”
What she knew about wine or the finer things of life, she had learned from Declan and her Agency training. Odd that knowing such things as the correct wine or proper fork were important, but when infiltrating certain organizations to get close to the leader, that knowledge could be paramount. Men and women who perpetrated some of the most heinous acts on mankind often cloaked their evil ways behind wealth and privilege. Blending in had been vital to her success.
Working for LCR was a refreshing change in many ways, but more than once she’d had cause to be grateful for her earlier training. Though she now rescued kidnap victims instead of assassinating evil leaders, she occasionally went deep cover. Her skills had come in handy.
She eyed the beautiful man across from her. Though Declan could hide any emotion or thought behind a cool, implacable facade, she had known him for twelve years, loved him almost that long. Making a career of being someone else enabled him to hide behind a mask, but she knew every nuance and expression…something was bothering him.
Their time together was so limited that neither of them liked to bring the outside world in, but she knew that was about to happen. And if it was bothering him, then she definitely wanted to know.
“You want to talk about it now or do you want to wait till later?”
She appreciated that he didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about.
He swallowed as if what he was about to say was difficult and gave an odd, twisted smile. “I’ve been giving a lot of thought to our marriage. What I want out of life.”
She wanted to tease him and say she was glad he’d been thinking about her. The darkness in his eyes prevented that. “You want out?”
He jerked slightly. “No…hell no.”
Relief flooded through her. “Well, then…what? If you don’t tell me quickly, I’m going to imagine all sorts of terrible things.”
“I want more than this…clandestine, too dangerous life. I want a family, a house with a yard, I want pets…maybe a kid or two.”
Frozen in dismay, she could only stare. Never had he indicated that he wanted something like that. The nature of their careers made those things almost impossible to carry off. “I…uh…”
He grinned. “Damn, I love seeing you speechless.”
“But, Declan, the Agency is your life. You’ve been with them for years.”
An intense light entered his eyes. “The Agency is not my life, Sabrina. You are. Never forget that.” Then, as if pulling himself back from the force of those words, his body relaxed and his expression cleared. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I want to be with you more than a few days out of the year. I was fooling myself thinking I could have both. I don’t want both. I only want you.”
Happiness burst within her. To have him out of danger. To not worry while watching news of bombs exploding and people dying in war-torn countries if he was there in the midst of it all, trying to stop the chaos. To not worry about that middle-of-the-night phone call telling her he’d been killed or injured. Yes, yes, yes!
“So you’re leaving the Agency? I mean, really, seriously leaving it?”
“Yes. I talked to Albert about it already. He was surprised, to say the least, but he understands. I have just a couple of minor issues I need to rectify. Nothing major. Won’t take more than a month or so to finalize everything, and then I’m all yours.”
“So…you want to, uh, like…get a regular job? Nine to five, the whole deal?”
“I’ve got some money saved up, so I don’t have to make a decision right away.”
She bit her lip. While she was thrilled that Declan would be out of the dark, gritty, and dangerous world of covert ops, she wasn’t sure how he felt about LCR. She loved her job, and though it was dangerous, often just as much as his was, she didn’t want to leave it.
A thought flashed across her mind like a meteor. “I have an idea. How would you feel about working with me? I’m sure that No—”
His fingers covered her mouth. “Let me get this out of the way, and then we’ll see. Okay?”
Even though she was a little disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm for her suggestion, she told herself it was understandable. Here he was finally giving up a dangerous job, and she was asking him to jump right back into the fire.
“So the things you’re finalizing. Is it an op or—”
He leaned forward and grabbed her hand, squeezing it gently. “Don’t ask, darling, and I won’t have to say no.”
Even though she understood, it still hurt. It wasn’t because he didn’t trust her—she knew without a doubt he did. His reticence to share was always about one thing—protecting her. And that scared her most of all.
“I love you.” She didn’t know why, but she felt the need to say it once more.
His face softened. “I know. Believe me, sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me alive.”
“Don’t say that.”
“For now, it’s the job.”
She nodded. They’d had this discussion before. Either of them could be killed on any mission. They’d agreed to make the most out of their lives, their marriage. Soak in as much as they could. But that conversation hadn’t seemed as grim as it did now.
“You’ve got that look on your face that I don’t like. I can’t tell you what I’m finishing up, but I will say that it’s much less dangerous than usual. Very routine. Mostly paperwork and assignment shifts. Absolutely nothing covert.”
Why did she suddenly feel as though they were talking about two different things? She shook away her disquiet. His news had just thrown her off-kilter, that’s all.
Realizing their discussion had changed the atmosphere of their time together and wanting to get back to enjoying themselves, she asked one last question, “When do you need to leave?”
“Tomorrow? But we—” She held her tongue. This was the job, too. Missions rarely came at convenient times. If he could’ve delayed it, he would have.
She drew in a silent breath. Okay. All right. Complaining about it would do no good and only spoil their last few hours together. No way was she going to let that happen. And once he was finished, he’d be back with her permanently.
“Then let’s not waste time we don’t have.”
His smile of appreciation washed away the taut atmosphere. Still seated, he pulled her into his arms, onto his lap. “Tha gaol agam ort.”
She smiled her delight. Other than some sexy time when he was seducing her or turning her on in bed, Declan’s Scottish heritage rarely showed itself anymore. Occasionally, she’d catch a hint of brogue, but for the most part he sounded as American as she did. However, he knew she loved it when he spoke Gaelic to her. His words, Tha gaol agam ort meant I love you.
Surprising her even further, he did something incredibly odd, something he had never done before. He drew her closer, cupped his hand around her ear and said in an almost soundless whisper, “You’re my everything, Little Fox. Never ever forget that.”
Last Chance Rescue Headquarters
“For right now, I’m offering the job only to those with special ops or covert experience.”
Sabrina sat before Noah McCall, her boss and the leader of Last Chance Rescue. Even though she’d been with LCR for four years, she had not yet learned how to read him. A few months back, he had hinted that there were going to be some changes for LCR. She had never anticipated this. Not only was Noah moving the main headquarters to the States, he was creating another branch, LCR Elite.
She loved being an LCR operative, but this sounded even more exciting. And with her background and training, a natural fit for her. Rescuing victims from the most dangerous places in the world. Totally unsanctioned and off the grid. Every mission a high-stakes risk. Her blood pumped with excitement.
“So. You interested?”
His black eyes coolly assessing, Noah asked the question with no emotion, not a hint of coercion. Not that the LCR leader would ever try to persuade an operative to take on an assignment. That was not his style. However, the question he’d asked her wasn’t as easy to answer as it might have once been. With the changes Declan wanted to make in his life, how would this new job mesh with it? If only he would come back so they could discuss this together.
“I actually don’t know yet.”
Black eyes flickered with compassion. “Still no word from your husband?”
She shook her head. “He said he’d be gone for no more than a month…it’s been almost two.”
“He ever been gone this long before?”
“Yes, but for some reason, this feels different.” She wasn’t much for psychic premonitions, but she did trust her gut. Something wasn’t quite right.
Aware that Noah was waiting for her answer, she said, “How soon do you need to know?”
“You’ve got some time. I’ve commissioned the building of a training camp outside Tucson, Arizona. Three former Navy SEALs are designing it. Once it’s done, they’ll be chomping at the bit to put us through their own version of Hell Week.”
Adrenaline surged within her. She loved challenging her physical and mental skills, pushing herself to do more. Hopefully, Declan would be back before she had to give Noah her final answer.
“I saw Aidan leaving when I arrived. I’m assuming you offered him a spot, too?”
“Yeah. With his Special Forces background, Thorne is a natural fit. If you join, you can continue as partners. You work too well together to mess with that.”
That was another reason she’d hate to turn down this offer. She’d be losing Aidan Thorne as a partner. They’d been watching each other’s backs for a long time. She’d miss the man she considered a friend.
“Just a warning. He’s already expecting that you’ll be on the team. And since he doesn’t know you’re married, he might be a little confused if you turn it down without explaining.”
She inwardly winced. She had been putting off that conversation for too long. Her brutal childhood had trained her to keep her mouth shut about private matters. And her Agency training had only reinforced her reticence to share personal information. Breaking a thirty-one-year-old habit was damned hard, but she owed her partner the truth.
“It’s time I told him.”
“Any reason why you haven’t? I know it’s not because you don’t trust him.”
“No, trust isn’t an issue.” She shrugged, unable to explain what probably was a defect in her personality. Getting the hell beaten out of you for telling personal details created an adult who had trouble opening up to others. She’d fought with all her might to overcome her past but still carried scars, both physical and mental. Declan had been the only person she’d ever been able to be completely open with, allowing him to see the real Sabrina.
“Aidan’s like a brother to me.” She’d never had a real brother, but her stepbrother had been a monster, so that was probably not the best description of their relationship. “Outside of you and Declan, there’s no one I trust more.”
“Good to know. I—”
The ring tone on her phone played Rod Stewart’s Purple Heather. Declan! Heart leaping to her throat, she jumped to her feet and barely took the time to throw Noah a look of apology before she dashed out the door. The amused glint in his eyes told her he understood completely.
The instant she was out of Noah’s office, she read the short text: Meet me in Florence tomorrow at 3:00. Salvatore’s Café. Have a surprise for you. DS
Her feet flew to the elevator, thinking about all the things she needed to do to get to Florence by three tomorrow. Didn’t matter what she had to do. She would not miss this opportunity.
Sabrina rushed out of the airport. Flying commercial and getting somewhere at a specific time rarely meshed anymore. Why hadn’t Declan given her more notice? She was going to be at least fifteen minutes late, if not more.
Waving madly at a taxi, she caught the attention of the driver. Barely waiting for it to stop before she opened the door, she threw herself into the backseat.
Giving the driver the location and street address, she sat back into the seat and tried to make herself relax. Silly. She didn’t know why she was so anxious about being late. It wasn’t as if he’d leave without seeing her. In fact, she was a little surprised he hadn’t already called to check on her. She’d called his cell phone to let him know she was running late and gotten his voice mail.
She tried not to be disappointed that it was just going to be a quick visit. If he were through with his assignment, he would have come to Paris. She’d already given Noah notice that once Declan was finished for good, she would be taking several days off. Her boss was a happily married man and understood.
The taxi driver slammed on his brakes as a gridlock of traffic loomed ahead. Cursing softly, Sabrina spoke in rapid Italian, “I’ll just walk from here.” She dropped several euro into his outstretched hand and jumped out of the car.
She stood in the middle of the stopped traffic to get her bearings. Up ahead was a traffic jam of massive proportions. Horns were blaring, people were getting out of their vehicles and shouting. Any other time she might have enjoyed the entertainment of drivers spouting colorful and inventive curses. Today, she was too focused on her target—getting to Declan.
She spotted a street sign and realized she was within three blocks of the café. Even though she’d worn heels and a dress, she didn’t let that stop her. Weaving in and out of stopped cars, she got to the sidewalk and then started hoofing it toward her destination.
She stopped at a street corner and caught a glimpse of the café in the distance. Squinting against the afternoon sun, she focused on a man standing beneath the canopy in the doorway. That was Declan, or was it? He was the right height and coloring. She waved and was glad to see he waved back.
Traffic had picked up again, and she was going to have to either wait until the light turned red to cross the street or take her life into her own hands. She assessed her chances of making it across the busy street without getting hit—not good. Shrugging slightly, she waited. She’d rather arrive alive.
The instant the light turned red and pedestrian traffic was allowed, Sabrina crossed the street at a run. Declan was still there. Odd, but he looked as though he’d put on some weight. She grinned at the thought of teasing him about secretly hiding away and stuffing himself.
She took another step and barely registered the jolt and massive noise before her feet flew out from under her, and she was propelled backward. As she landed with a hard slam onto her back, her breath left her body. She lay for several long seconds as her mind scrambled to comprehend what had happened. Pain radiated throughout her body. What in the world…?
Breath finally returned, and gritting her teeth, Sabrina sat up. Horror washed over her. The restaurant was gone. Flattened. Demolished. The remains were heaps of ravaged brick and burning wood. The building had exploded.
Darkness threatened, and she fought against its comforting pull. She went to her knees, and then stood, wavering. Her head swam, and blackness skirted the outer edges of her vision. An odd numbness swept up her right arm. Absently, as if she was looking down at a stranger, she noticed a large piece of wood sticking out of her shoulder. Blood dripped down her arm to the ground.
Sabrina tried to hold on to reality, to the fierce need to get to Declan. He couldn’t be dead. He was trained for things like this. He would have heard the beginnings of the blast and flung himself away from the building. Yes, he might be injured, but he wasn’t dead. She refused to even consider the possibility.
She took a step, felt a vague, distant pain on the bottom of her feet. Odd, but she was barefoot. Her shoes were gone. Ignoring the smoldering wood that scorched her skin and the broken glass that shredded her feet, she weaved and hobbled her way closer to the demolished building.
Declan was fine, she continued to reassure herself. Still, she needed to find him so they could help others. She jerked to a stop. A few feet from where the café had stood lay an arm beneath the rubble. Her heart stalled, her breath halted. It was tanned, large, obviously male, and on the hand was a wedding ring identical to Declan’s.
Shaking her head, mumbling, “No, no, no,” she pushed the debris out of the way and pulled on the hand. It came loose. She stood among the ruins of the destroyed building, holding an arm. No body was attached. Her mind screamed in denial, black mist swirled around her, and she fell forward into a blessed, mind-numbing darkness.
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