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Debt of Sacrifice: A Rough Romance by Piper Stone – Sample

Chapter One


Run. Run. Run!

Save yourself before it’s too late.

I threw all I had into racing through the forest, trying to control my breathing as I weaved my way through the line of trees, almost tripping twice over fallen debris. That’s what he was hoping for, an advantage.

He was prepared to win at all costs.


To hell with him.

A new rush of adrenaline was just what I needed, allowing my legs to fly. The wind whipped through the trees as the storm approached, the dimming light more oppressive than it had even been. With the first rumble of thunder, my heart started racing, the pulse in my neck beating furiously.

He’d upped the ante, the prize too delicious to resist, but I had to be the victor.

A laugh threatened to bubble to the surface, but I stymied it before the sound had the chance to escape. I couldn’t give my hunter any advantage.

Everything about this was dangerous, unpredictable, which is what made it so exciting. I’d faced the devil and won, or had I? He was much stronger, a huge, rugged man who was always in control. With a single look, he could turn me into ash, and scintillate my senses into a frenzy. And there was never a single doubt what he would do to me if I was caught in his lair.

Taste me.

Use me.

Cage me.

Fuck me.

The filthy thoughts spurred me on, keeping me powering deeper into the woods, wild animals watching my every move. I took a deep breath, able to catch a small lingering of his scent, the unmistakable fragrance always intoxicating. He was close, far too close for comfort. If he caught me now, my punishment would be much worse.

I shifted behind a large oak, taking a few deep breaths as I listened for any sounds of his approach. With every crack of a tree limb, every scuttle of whatever creature was preparing to hide from the storm, I became even more electrified. Thoughts of him filtered into my mind, every one of them keeping me fully aroused. That’s how he would find me, the scent of my desire wafting through the wind.

But I couldn’t stop my body’s reaction to the powerful man any more than I could stop the need for air to breathe. He had that kind of control over me, a brutal process that had stripped me of every single inhibition. Now I craved the play almost as much as the man, the blood rush impossible to resist.

After a few seconds, I took off running once again, changing course. At least twenty minutes had passed. I demanded at least thirty of myself, but I knew he had other things in mind.

Tonight his predatory needs would not be denied, nor would his desire to punish me for all my latest sins.

I darted into an unknown area, suddenly frightened as the storm grew even closer, lightning flashing across the sky. While I slowed down, I continued walking, paying zero attention to where I was going. When I tripped over a branch, a single sharp yelp floated into the trees.

Damn it.

The pain of going down hard didn’t compare to the anger I felt for making such a significant mistake. Panting, I remained on my hands and knees, stifling a second cry even though my palms and knees stung.

I was certain he was coming. I could feel his presence as I always did, the hunger building to an oppressive point. No other man had understood my dark cravings, but he knew exactly what I needed in all things.

That made this even more dangerous because I feared I’d already lost my heart to a man who could never embrace anything considered normal, only the dark cravings he’d squelched for most of his life.

I knew he would find me. He always did. And once that happened, I would be punished.

Tremors skipped along my arms and legs, adding to the goosebumps that had formed the second I’d been given a ten-minute head start.

Slowly I rose to my feet.

Then I heard his voice, the powerful baritone sliding across my body, creating another ache that only he could soothe.

“Where are you? You know there’s nowhere you can run where I won’t find you and when I do, I’m going to punish you. Is that what you crave, my sweet princess?”

He was goading me but knew better than to think I’d answer him.

At least not right now.

I leaned against a tree, waiting until another flash of lightning sliced across the sky. Dear God, I could see his silhouette, his muscular frame making my mouth water. The light always accentuated the path I wanted to take.

So I took off running again, refusing to allow him an easy or early victory. He would need to earn his prize. When he released a deep howling growl only seconds later, I sensed his frustration was growing. He couldn’t stand being made to wait, something I adored about him.

When he continued to close in, I had to decide whether to keep running or to find a place to hide. Hiding was close to a full surrender. I refused to do it.

When he issued another howl, it seemed as if all the creatures in the forest responded, the crackling sounds increasing. I sprinted to another part of the woods toward a respite, a beautiful area I’d discovered, learning every inch of the acreage. The forest was a safe ground, protected by miles of fencing in every direction.

Did that mean there wasn’t the possibility a wild animal had forced its way onto the property? No. That’s what boosted the excitement, increasing my heartrate. The risk was well worth the filthy reward.

There was no doubt what he’d do to me if and when he found me. And he would. He was a true predator in every way, his mind centered on nothing but the catch.

And claiming his prize.

The first drops of rain began to fall, but only the slight pitter-patter of beads hitting the dense canopy could be heard. However, it wouldn’t be long until the area was deluged, the predicted storm expected to last for hours.

Every noise exploded in my ears until I reached the small opening. Then as I stepped onto the soft terrain, the blades of grass providing comfort beneath my feet, I took a deep breath. The moment was as refreshing as it was exhilarating.

Then I heard his voice, and everything changed.

“You belong to me, my princess. Or did you forget about that?”

He couldn’t be more than a hundred yards away, the hunt almost over. I basked in the glory of reaching our private spot first, although neither of us was the victor over the other. After all, I’d surrendered to him body and soul.

I walked toward the water’s edge, removing my shoes. Then I stood in wait, although as with any primal beast, I wouldn’t give up without a fight.

Every footstep he took in coming closer created a wave of tingles, my mouth dry from anticipation. When he was only thirty feet away, I closed my eyes, tipping my head as the rain continued to fall.

Another crack of lightning flashed across the sky, the roll of thunder matching the hard hammering of my heart.

“My beautiful creature. When will you learn that I’m your master?”

Now, with him only footsteps away, dozens of prickles adorned my skin. I was breathless, desire roaring through me like a tidal wave. His scent was powerful, his prowess not to be denied. Every part of me was ready to feast on the delicious man, and I was a willing partner in our foray into pure, raw sin.

As he crowded my space, I could finally feel his heated breath dancing across my skin. I refused to move, to run away as he might expect. I would stay and fight. A smile crossed my face as he rolled a single finger down the side of my neck, swirling the tip around my pulse of life.

Thump. Thump…

“I want you and I will always own you,” he growled then fisted my hair, yanking me against his massive chest. “You’ve been a very bad girl.”

“Always,” I whispered, dragging my tongue across my parched lips.

“You understand you will be punished.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I won’t go easy on you.”

“I know.” I couldn’t stop tingling, my pussy aching to have his cock inside. He turned me around, the flash of lightning allowing me to bask in his expression, his need more intense than I’d ever seen. He would soon devour me. Shirtless, his carved muscles drew my attention. I dared to touch him, trailing my fingers down the tattoo I knew by heart. His ragged breathing was my sweet reward.

With a single gesture, he ripped my dress, his massive hands easily tearing the thin material into shreds. As it floated to the ground, exposing my naked skin, he took several deep breaths before cupping my breasts, pinching and twisting my nipples until I cried out in pain, but the anguish always morphed into a powerful moment of raw ecstasy. Tonight was no different, pussy juice trickling against my inner thighs.

He lowered his head, issuing a series of low, husky growls before engulfing first one nipple then the other, biting down on my tender flesh. It would be his first mark, but not his last. By morning light, I would be covered in them, a statement made for all those who cared to pay attention.

I belonged to him and no one else.

However, the night was young. As soon as he lifted his head, I smashed my palms against him, breaking the hold. Then I raked my nails down the length of his chest, an indication I’d yet to give up the fight.

He laughed, the sound booming into the night air, as he tipped his head and opened his mouth, allowing drops of rain to fall into his mouth and across his heated skin. When I took off running again, he waited before following. Within seconds, he pitched us both to the ground, rolling us over several times, pressing his full weight against me then yanking my arms over my head.

“You’ll never beat me, princess.” He crushed his mouth against mine, immediately thrusting his tongue past my already swollen lips, dominating mine with ease. The taste of him was bold, whiskey accentuated with a hint of cinnamon, able to quench a portion of my thirst.

But I wanted more.

I craved the taste of his cum, the feel as it slid down my throat. Even though he tried to snag both my wrists, I refused to let him. I managed to throw one leg over his, straining to gain some control. When I was able to roll him over, the surprise was evident by his breathless sounds. Two seconds later I was on my feet, bolting toward the trees.

But there was no winning against a man who hungered the way he did. There were rules of the game and when he shoved me against the tree, I was required to obey, accepting my punishment.

Panting, I turned my head, the dim light barely accentuating his form.

“Time for your punishment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hug the tree and wait for me, princess.”

I did as I was told, knowing exactly what he was doing.

Cutting a switch.

I was able to see him in silhouette as he found what he was looking for, the perfect twigs on his favorite tree. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket, taking his time selecting the perfect specimen then cutting away the bark, exposing the fresh green of the wood inside. When he was finished, I sucked in my breath, the anticipation creating another series of tingles shifting up and down my body as the excitement continued to build.

He stalked toward me, the rumble of his growls floating in my ears. “Open your mouth.”

My hesitation was met with a hard crack of his hand against my backside. I obeyed, forced to accept the switch, biting down until I was able to taste the fresh cut. Then he removed the rest of his clothes, raking his hands through his hair before approaching once again. He was larger than life, an impatient man with a huge appetite. And there was only one flavor he craved.


As he removed the switch from between my teeth, he leaned over, biting my earlobe. Every sound he made was animalistic, a reminder that he was all alpha male. I was weak in the knees, the lingering taste of him far too delicious. When he moved behind me, I fisted my hands. My usual attempts to obey him were met with difficulty. I’d always been a fighter, a woman who refused to take second place to anything. This was only one phase of the battle. I’d triumph in the others, even if he attempted to warrant the win.

The whooshing sound filtered through the rumble of Mother Nature a split second before the birch was smacked against my backside. I shuddered from relief, sagging against the tree as the biting pain took hold. There was nothing as incredible as the explosion of anguish, which heightened my awareness, awakening my senses.

He delivered four in rapid succession, one coming right after the other. The burn was real, and I twisted against the tree, grinding my hips against the rough bark. His breathing remained as ragged as mine. He’d lose control soon enough and I’d make my move, another attempt to best him at our game.

I clung to the tree, digging my nails into the bark as the spanking continued, my lover working his magic. He covered every inch of my bottom and the tops of my thighs, the sting more pronounced than ever. After he’d smacked me at least a dozen times, pure euphoria took over and I was lost in a sweet moment of release, my pussy clenching several times.

He took an exaggerated whiff as he caressed my heated bottom, his final sound a low-slung growl. “My princess is excited.”


“Do you want more?”

“God, yes.”

There was no mercy, his strikes relentless, the few minutes I’d endured well worth every sensation of agony as the pleasure would be that much more enjoyable. He snapped his wrist six more times, the strikes hard enough I rose onto my tiptoes, my nipples scraping against the rough bark. Then he dropped the switch where I could see.

That was my cue. I lunged to the side, twisting then kicking out, my foot barely catching him in the thigh.

His laugh kept a tight hold around me even as I bolted toward the water, tossing my head over my shoulder once before racing through the mud by the river’s edge.

“Be careful, my love. A beast is hunting you.”

His deep baritone had the same effect as the first time I’d heard his voice, the flutter of butterfly wings in my stomach adding to the wetness between my legs.

“Not if he can’t catch me.”

I couldn’t help but laugh as I zigged and zagged my way closer to the forest, the heated ache in my bottom increasing with every long stride. It would be difficult to sit for days, and he knew it.

Almost out of breath, I stopped just long enough to glance behind me. He’d disappeared. I dropped the ball for a few seconds as I pondered his disappearance. I should have known better.

His tackle was hard, pinning me to the earth beneath him. I ripped at his hair then drove my palm under his chin. The man wasn’t fazed, using my exertion that had shifted into exhaustion against me, pinning my arms over my head.

“Mmm… A formidable woman as always, but you will never win.”

“Who says I haven’t already?” I purred as I wiggled underneath him. The rain began to fall in sheets, the wind howling through the trees as lightning flashed above our heads in crisscrossing patterns. His eyes were almost luminescent, yet the dark needs shining through every time he blinked.

As the thunder rolled, he drove every inch of his cock deep inside, the hard press of his body almost suffocating. I shifted my hips, throwing both legs around his, my moans matching his growls as he fucked me, my muscles stretching to accept his huge girth. A roar of ecstasy filled me instantly, the brutality of our coupling unlike anything I’d ever experienced. This was our private game, a delicious foray into the darkness.

There was no tenderness to our filth, no gentle caresses, only primal needs requiring fulfillment. I’d never felt so alive, my skin tingling, energized by the bolts of electricity sweeping through us.

He finally released my hands, pressing his palms against the earth and lifting his massive body as the rain soaked our skin. I raked my fingers down his muscular arm, squeezing his muscles as I pressed my other hand against his chest. I remained unblinking as he drove into me long and hard, driving my back into the mud.

With every brutal plunge I was driven close to nirvana, but I wanted this to last. Bright lights erupted all around me as I blinked, my entire body shaking from the savagery. And still, I wanted more.

There was no stopping the man, his growls floating into the air, his heated breath skipping against my skin. As he lowered his head until our lips were almost touching, his dark command was not to be denied.

“Come for me, princess. Slicken my cock even more.”

There was no holding back, no ability to control the situation. As an orgasm erupted from the depths of my core, a ragged scream pushed past my lips.

“Oh. Oh!”

He quickened his pace, pummeling my body into the ground, driving me into a second climax. It was so powerful I couldn’t think or breathe, my mind a beautiful blur. As I lolled my head, acquiescing to the powerful man, I realized I’d never been so happy in my life.

As he filled me with his seed, I accepted I belonged to him. My body. My soul.

And my heart.

Four weeks earlier

The darkness was foreboding.


Beckoning to demons of the night.

I rolled my eyes as I bounded into the small store nestled between a pastry shop and what everyone in the neighborhood believed was a house of ill repute. Did they use that term any longer? The ugly rumors weren’t true, but the neighbors needed something to gossip about. I bit my tongue to keep from laughing at my ridiculous thought, but it was better than allowing images of flesh-eating monsters to remain in the forefront of my brain.

The store owner’s son was waiting for me behind the counter, ready to lock up as soon as I left. I’d stayed later than I’d wanted finishing up grading papers. Then my bestie had convinced me to come out for a light dinner that had turned into allowing her to cry on my shoulder over the latest I-finally-found-my-soulmate breakup. I’d almost forgotten about the fact I’d have nothing decent to wear the next day. At least tomorrow was Friday.

“Thank you, Carlos, for staying up late. What would I do without you?” I grabbed my dry cleaning from the hanging rack, grinning from the sight of his bashful smile. The young man had a crush on me. While he was cute in a studious kind of way, I preferred my men with a few more years and muscles on them.

“No problem, Ms. McDuff. You’re a wonderful customer.”

The term ‘Ms. McDuff’ made me feel old. After paying for the items, I waved as I scampered out the door, the light breeze sending a cold chill through me even though the air was humid with the approaching storm. It was almost ten, the moonlight snuffed out by the heavy bank of clouds. I folded the clothes over my arm, taking long strides down the sidewalk. I wasn’t prone to being skittish walking alone, even at night, but that was likely because I had a can of mace easily accessible in my purse.

The area was notoriously safe, yet tonight I had an apprehensive feeling in the pit of my stomach. I hated storms and had since I was a child, a clap of thunder capable of keeping me on edge for hours.

I wasted no time, more exhausted from the long week than usual. The parent–teacher conferences always seemed to put me in a foul mood. I adored the children in my classes, but I could do without their condescending parents. They were doctors, lawyers, and corporate moguls, but they were always insistent they knew better than I did how to teach English or math. I growled inwardly as I headed for the corner, my apartment building less than fifty yards away.

Next on the agenda was a nice glass of wine and a bubble bath.

Even before I rounded the corner of the building, I heard loud voices, which wasn’t anything new, just a hassle if some kids were fighting.

Pop! Pop!

While the sound was muffled, it was easily distinguishable.


No. No…

For a few seconds, I was tossed into a horrible memory, vivid images rushing into my mind. I gasped for air, the feeling of suffocation like a slow death. Faces. Blood. Their screams echoed in my mind. No. This couldn’t be happening again.

Mama. Daddy.

Oh, God.

I dropped the items in my hand, blinking several times as I tried to catch my breath, watching in slow motion as a man fell to his knees right in front of me. Within seconds I realized two terrifying things. One, I’d squealed from shock and two, the two men responsible were only a couple of feet away. And I’d seen caught a glimpse of their faces under the harsh streetlight.

They’d also seen me.

“Fuck. Take care of her,” one of the two men said, his gruff voice one I’d never forget.

“Yes, boss. Come here, little girl. We won’t hurt you.” His grin was evil, and he beckoned with his hand as he walked toward me.

I was momentarily shut down, the panic overwhelming. Then something broke inside of me, my desire to live stronger than the increasing fear.

Without a second of hesitation, I took off running, although I had no idea where I planned on heading. The echo of my rapidly beating heart drowned out everything else.

Until I heard heavy footsteps behind me.

I refused to stop, thankful I’d worn low shoes today. While I knew most areas within the quiet neighborhood, the terror encapsulating every thought, every scattered breath preventing me from thinking clearly. I zigged and zagged my way through several cars, avoiding the oncoming traffic as I racked my brain trying to figure out where to go. There were very few commercial businesses in the area, almost none that were open past six in the evening.

As I raced around a corner of a building, I took a chance of throwing my head over my shoulder. The killer was still coming, either brave enough or uncaring that he had a weapon in his hand.

Oh, God.

“You’re never going to get away, little girl. We will find you.”

His mocking threat was laced with amusement. This was nothing but a game to them. Who the hell were they?

The echo of my heartbeat was deafening, my mind barely able to process what I’d seen. I felt sick all over, no longer able to feel my feet. When I held up my hands, I almost let out another whimper. I started to shake as I realized I had the dead man’s blood all over me. Almost hysterical, I raced toward the small convenience store, stumbling inside when the door was thrown open. As I fell to the floor, I gasped for air, trying to form a coherent sentence.

“Help. Me. They will kill me.”

As I lifted my head, tears slipped past my lashes.

Chapter Two

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.


Somewhere in Warrenton, Virginia

Someone had once called me lucky. I’d laughed in their face and walked away, disgusted that’s what they’d thought after learning about what life had doled out on a humid, ugly night in the middle of the desert. I’d had friends who hadn’t been able to understand my sullen attitude after my return, chiding me that I should be happy I was finally home.

I wasn’t certain if anywhere in the country would ever feel like home again. Everyone had an opinion of the battles men and women who’d served our country had experienced, but unless they’d spent months or years in the environment, they were fucking clueless.

Yeah, I was a bitter man, one prone to bouts of anger. I even had a warning sticker on my permanent file, allowing prospective employers to second guess their decision to interview me for a job.

The term ‘loose cannon’ had been used more than once, ‘violent’ the standard and very appropriate word to use for my aggressive level of depression. A part of me reveled in the negativity, although I hungered to find joy in the darkness.

I pulled down the long driveway leading to a freaking house and laughed. My superior officer had recommended me for what he’d called a special task force. His reputation alone had gotten me in the door of the Pentagon. Finding out I’d already been checked out thoroughly hadn’t surprised me.

Being asked to serve on a specially mandated, secret government organization tasked with reconnaissance and recovery of powerful individuals threatened or captured had. Why the fuck did they want me on their team?

During the last two days, I’d been tested in every way imaginable, given various inoculations for several ugly diseases and tested mentally and emotionally by highly trained experts. After all that shit, I was here, pressing my fingers against a keypad that opened a secret door underneath an average-looking farmhouse. I’d been skeptical up to this point. Now I was intrigued.

The elevator dropped my car to a massive bunker-style garage, several highly specialized vehicles parked side by side along a wall. I scanned the surroundings, appreciating the money and expertise it had taken to facilitate this kind of secure environment. The location was just another clue whatever I was considering getting involved in had the full backing of some pretty important people.

As soon as I climbed out, I was met by an older gentleman I recognized. Well, well. They’d called in a buddy of the president, a general with more stripes than four soldiers combined.

I grabbed my gun out of habit, shoving it into my shoulder holster. I’d never be without my weapon again. Then I closed the door, taking several deep breaths.

He nodded as I walked closer, the man studying me intently before holding out his hand.

“Captain Barrington, I’m Director Broderick. I’m glad you decided to make this your home.”

There was that word again.

“That remains to be seen,” I told him. I was truthful with everyone, even though I’d been called far too blunt for society. “And the name’s Shark.” I’d used it since before becoming a Navy SEAL, enjoying the sound of a creature with sharp teeth, capable of crushing a man with a single bite.

“Shark.” He chuckled, giving me a nod as if respecting my honesty. “I knew you were right for this the moment I read your file. Take a walk with me. You’re the first one here and your mission begins immediately.”

“Not until I find out what all this is about.”

“I thought you were briefed,” he said as he led me down a corridor toward a series of closed doors.

“Yeah, but I like to hear it from the horse’s mouth. No disrespect intended.” I’d been told that my expertise was needed in order to offer protection and little else. I’d never wanted to become a glorified babysitter for the government or anyone else. However, what I knew about the federal government was that with the kind of security I’d been subjected to, my entire background gone over with a fine-tooth comb before being erased given the importance of whatever mission I was assigned, the people who needed that protection were powerful.

And it had titillated my senses, which was rare these days.

“None taken, soldier. Your frankness will suit you in this organization.”

The room he led me into was as impressive as the elevator and garage had been. The pieces of equipment alone cost millions.

“This is our operations center. As you can see, we have everything required for communications and reconnaissance as necessary. You’ll also be provided with personal equipment to use on your missions. Take a seat. I want to explain the situation.”

“I prefer to stand.”

He shook his head. “You will need to travel to Pennsylvania tonight, just outside Philly. A young woman is being held at one of the local police stations.”

“A criminal?”

“No, a witness. This wouldn’t be handled by Eagle Force, except she’s the single witness to a brutal crime. In fact, she’s the only witness who hasn’t been hunted down and killed prior to providing testimony regarding the same organization responsible for several brutal murders.”

I took a deep breath. A woman. I hadn’t anticipated I’d be forced to save or protect a female. The why didn’t matter at this point.

“Is something wrong, Captain?” Broderick asked, eying me carefully.


“Because if there is, now is the time to tell me.”

I shook my head. The past had to remain in the damn past. “Who the hell are we talking about?”

“The Campanella Crime Syndicate.”

“Whew. Some bad guys. They expanded their operations into Philly?” This I hadn’t expected.

“Not necessarily, but they did decide to take out the governor of Pennsylvania. If you’ve read the papers, you know he launched a campaign less than three months ago that’s made it to Congress, already signed by the house. If the Senate signs the new bill into law, crimes such as racketeering, extortion, and assassinations will see a drastic increase in focus from law enforcement.”

“Making their lives even more difficult,” I huffed under my breath. The assholes had some balls. However, if the bill was already in front of the Senate, why bother killing the man now? Something didn’t smell right.

“Exactly. This is important. He was about ready to bring their organization down.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do, kill the fuckers?”

He laughed. “No, you’re going to need to guard the woman until trial.”

“And how long will that take?”

“Maybe two months, which means you’re need to take her to a safehouse, a location only you know of.”

I shook my head. I hadn’t realized I’d signed up to be a long-term babysitter. There was only one place I could take the girl, and it was the last fucking place on earth I wanted to go. “I don’t know if I can do this shit.”

“If it’s a matter of compensation, I assure you that your pay will reflect the amount of time and the level of danger involved.”

Chortling, I couldn’t help but smirk. “You obviously didn’t read my entire dossier.” My parents had left me a fortune in their will, including real estate. Money meant little to me, but I certainly didn’t have to be concerned if I suddenly wanted to purchase a yacht in the upcoming year.

“I know all about you, son, including you prefer to do things your own way. You came highly recommended for this position and in my mind, you’re the only person who can keep this girl alive.”

“How the hell was the governor killed? Wasn’t he usually surrounded by bodyguards of his own?”

He took a deep breath. “That I’m not privy to.”

Uh-huh. I could smell betrayal a mile away. “If I do this, I’ll need help with decoy planes to get part of the way to where I’d take her.” Was I really considering this? I’d made a promise to myself I wouldn’t return. The place brought up the most difficult memories, even more than spending time in the desert in Afghanistan.

“Anything you need, just ask. So you know, the president asked for this to be handled as a top priority.”

Great. Now I had the president of the United States breathing down my neck. “Who the hell is this girl?”

“A schoolteacher but she’s tough. She managed to get away from the assassins after witnessing the crime.” He shook his head. “She’s been through a lot but she’s a fighter. At least that’s what I’ve been told.” He’d been ordered to make this happen.

Sighing, I thought about what the hell I was going to do with this. At least the girl had chutzpa. An alarm sounded throughout the room and Broderick touched my arm. As I did with everyone, I immediately jerked it away.

“We’ll get started in a minute.”

I remained where I was, scanning the expansive location. This portion of the facility had been set up as a war zone. No wonder I’d been given Yankee White Security, the highest level in the US. A second soldier entered the room and we glared at each other as if at odds. I just wanted to get this shit started. Two months. With a woman. The only way I’d be able to pull this off was if my past collided with the present. Fuck me. What a crock of shit.

Fifteen minutes later the third soldier appeared, his expression matching mine. All three of us were unsure of what the fuck we were doing.

I barely listened as Director Broderick introduced all of us, although I realized the other two were highly qualified, one an Army Ranger, the other a Marine Raider, the three of us serving in the Black Ops environment before we left active duty. Well, goody for us. We were considered cream of the crop.

How the hell had that happened?

A logo flashed onto the screen, but only briefly. Eagle Force. The description was brief but explicit enough to help me realize the missions we were on could become deadly. That sounded like something I was more than interested in.

“You will erase the name of the organization from your memory banks,” the director stated. “If you are ever captured or questioned, you are simply working for the United States government.” Director Broderick moved around the computer, taking deliberate steps in our direction. “As noted, this is a private, sanctioned, yet invisible division of the government. There are very few people who will ever know of our existence.”

One of the soldiers asked a question. At that point I was well entrenched in figuring out how I’d make my grand reentrance to Colorado. I doubted the people who I knew would allow bygones to be bygones. Too much shit had occurred, the bad blood as thick as molasses.

“Our work is vital to the security of the United States, gentlemen. As such, we only accept the best into this elite division. The three of you are considered the best at what you do. You will be working alone. While you are allowed to hire temporary individuals for certain necessary operations, you will mostly be on your own. You have a single point of contact for every mission, but only request assistance if absolutely necessary. Our enemies will stop at nothing to obtain information, our technology and to procure the mark you’ve been assigned to rescue or protect. Are there any questions?”

“Yeah. How much are we getting paid?” I asked the question even though the money didn’t matter. I was simply curious how much the marks were worth.

The director returned to the locked cabinet, removing three envelopes, handing them out like they were candy.

I yanked one from his hand, taking a deep breath before opening.

He also had three iPads as well as what appeared to be communications consoles in his hand, doling them out.

Director Broderick waited until he’d returned to the computer system before addressing the question. “Inside you will find passcodes, keys to several vehicles at your disposal, and other pertinent information including your compensation package. All three of you have been given your first assignments. After that, the missions will come as needed. In between, you are allowed to return to your normal lives, but no one is to know about the existence of this location or the work you are doing. And I assure you, gentlemen, you will be monitored.”

“What is this place?” Jagger asked.

“This is a sanctuary as well as the headquarters of the operation for now. However, it will be altered from time to time in order to protect our anonymity. Your fingerprints and retinal scans have been uploaded into the main computer system so at this point, you have full access to every room and piece of equipment. The house is nothing more than a furnished environment that each one of you will be allowed to use on a temporary basis if necessary. As you might imagine, that will need to be coordinated. However, you will be responsible for providing a more permanent safe location for the marks as required. Tell no one. Not even me.”

Everything was so formal that I almost laughed. However, I sensed the various marks were important. If the witness to the murder could bring down the Campanella family, even I had to admit it was worthwhile keeping her safe. The syndicate was bad news and had been for over two decades, controlling the East Coast as if it was their playground.

“And what if we get into trouble?” Santiago asked, his tone full of anger.

“That will depend on the situation and what your handler determines is necessary,” the director answered.

“In other words, soldiers, we could be left to die,” Jagger said casually.

Director Broderick turned his head in the soldier’s direction, slowly nodding.

At least we all knew the score.

I yanked out the information, typing in the supplied passcode on the iPad. As the girl’s name and picture flashed onto the screen, a lump formed in my throat. She had the largest doe eyes I’d ever seen, her smile the kind that could light up a room in complete darkness. I found myself tracing lines in her face, barely able to breathe as I memorized her features.

She vaguely resembled someone I cared about a long time before. Fuck. This mission would likely push me back into the hellhole I’d been in for almost eighteen months. Maybe this was karma’s way of forcing me to exorcise my demons.

I quickly read her file. Her parents had been murdered when she was a young girl. She’d grown up with her aunt and uncle, no other siblings. From what it would appear, she was a loner, very few friends listed.

As I took a deep breath, my cock stirred, which wasn’t the best thing that could happen. Without a doubt, Greer McDuff was the most beautiful creature I’d ever laid eyes on. If I did this, in two months’ time, I could destroy her world.

“Any additional questions?” Director Broderick asked.

No one said a damn thing.

“I almost forgot to mention,” Broderick continued. “There is only one rule, and it cannot be broken. If it is, that will result in your instant termination.” He took the time to lock eyes with each one of us, making certain he had our attention. “No involvement with your mark. None.”

Great. It would give me an excuse to stay the hell away from her.

The mark had been temporarily placed in a safehouse used by undercover detectives, a shithole of a little house in one of the worst sections of Philly. The city wasn’t tops on my list of places to visit ever again. One of two times I’d stopped in the City of Love, I’d made the mistake of going to a corner bar, getting into a fight after some asshole attempted to accost a female bartender. The single incident had almost landed me in prison. But hell, I’d do it all over again.

With Broderick’s assistance, flights had been arranged, one used as a decoy in case soldiers from the Campanella family were on the lookout for the girl. From what limited information I’d been provided with thus far, she’d identified the two assassins, detailing their faces, which meant they’d likely seen hers. Even if they were arrested, that meant shit in terms of what the Don of the organization would do. Joseph Campanella was brutal and wouldn’t stop to ask questions or pay any attention to her beautiful face.

Because of that, I’d insisted on a disguise, which I’d hastily put together. It would work in the short term. Where we’d ultimately stay wouldn’t require anything but one big fat lie.

She’d become my fiancée. That was the best I could come up with.

Fucking perfect.

In public, we’d be required to pretend we were madly in love. But in private, she could have one end of the house and I’d take the other. I continued to have my doubts about accepting the assignment but without protection, the girl would end up in a casket within two weeks tops.

That wasn’t acceptable.

I took several deep breaths, trying to find my center again, which I knew wasn’t going to be easy. The service to my country had taken a significant toll, but my past had altered the man I’d become. I didn’t need to be reminded of just how much. A huge part of me had screamed I should walk away from this assignment, but the moment I’d looked at Greer’s picture, something had clicked inside of me, preventing me from abandoning her.

As I’d done before to people I’d cared about.

Still, this wasn’t good for ‘enhancing the betterment of my life,’ which was something I’d heard from my father before he’d had a heart attack. I knew what he’d meant, his fatherly advice something I’d forgotten to listen to on several occasions. Now, what I wouldn’t give to be able to have a single additional conversation with him.

He’d also told me how proud he was of me a few times in the past. Even though that had been before the shit between us had hit the fan, accepting this position would make him a happy man.

The street was quiet, which allowed me a few minutes to make a phone call. It was one I’d told myself I’d never do again.


The man’s voice was filled with surprise. Hell, he might have shifted over into shock given the nasty garbage that had flowed from my mouth the last time he’d seen me.

“Josh. Long time,” I said, continuously looking in the rearview mirror. I’d driven around the block several times before parking. My concern wasn’t about anyone knowing my identity, but to see if the safehouse had been compromised.

“Yeah. I wasn’t certain if I’d ever hear from you again. I’m damn glad I picked up the phone.”

Yeah, me neither. “Things change. I’m coming back.”

Josh’s cough was a clear indication of his surprise. The man had been a godsend over the last few years in particular. As one of my father’s oldest, most trustworthy friends, he’d stepped up to the plate to become the live-in caretaker of my family’s ranch, somehow not only maintaining the legacy my father had built but increasing profits. For that he was paid well. Why I hadn’t sold the multimillion-dollar corporation outright, I wasn’t certain other than Black Stallion Ranch had meant the world to my parents. After their deaths, I’d refused to accept the two dozen offers my father’s attorney had received.

Even though the town held far too many ghosts, most of them holding rope to string around my neck.

I continued mourning the loss of my father, his heart attack hitting me hard. A part of the reason was that we hadn’t talked in the months leading up to his death, eleven to be exact. The bad blood between us had taken a toll, both of us suffering yet too stubborn to pick up the phone. Nothing had been the same after my mother had died, the crux of his anger aimed toward me.

The guilt I harbored would never go away, a fact that I’d learned to accept, although living with it continued to disrupt my life.

“Well, that’s… amazing. For good?” he asked, so much trepidation in his voice I wasn’t certain it didn’t hold sarcasm. He knew what I’d be up against.

“At least a couple months. I have some issues to tackle and need to lay low for a little while.”

There was a full minute’s worth of hesitation. “When are you coming?”

“Day after tomorrow.”

“Fuck. That doesn’t give me much time to make sure the house is ready for ya.”

I laughed. “I don’t need much, Josh. Don’t worry about it.” I cringed with what I was about to say. “I’m not coming alone.”

“O-kay. Do you mind if I ask who you’re bringing?”

Fuck me. I’d never wanted to say these words. “A woman. My fiancée.”

“Well, that’s fantastic. Congratulations! I’ll get Lilly to put a woman’s touch to the place. I’m so happy for you and your mama and daddy would be as well.”

“Don’t go to any trouble and don’t mention I’m bringing anyone with me.”

“No trouble, Gabe. It’ll be damn good to see you again. I’ll keep it on the down-low until you get here, but you know how people talk.”

I certainly did. Sadly, I wasn’t certain if he really would be happy to see me after all I’d put him through, but at this point I couldn’t care. “If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

“Good deal.” He exhaled and I knew the sound. One of angst. He’d been through a lot of shit given my less than stellar past. “You know a lot of people aren’t going to be happy to see your face.”

Tell me something I didn’t know. “They can get the fuck over it.”

“There’s a lot of folks who moved away and came back, including Jenny.”

I took a deep breath, holding it. Jenny. She’d gone to bat for me how many times? Then she’d been forced to pick sides. “How’s she doing?”

“She’s the sheriff.”

“She always was a go-getter. The past is the past and I plan on leaving it that way.”

“Good deal. Like I said, it’ll be fantastic to see you.”

Snorting, I ended the call then yanked another magazine of ammo from the duffle I’d brought with me, sliding it into my Glock. I pulled the jacket around me, hiding the weapon before climbing out. The next two days would need to be handled with precise timing and accuracy. I couldn’t allow the girl to fuck with it on any level. I had a feeling she’d still be terrified, withdrawn, which would help with getting her to safety. If not, I’d handle it my way. That was the deal.

The mission was mine to organize and complete in any manner I believed necessary.

Including killing any threats.

At least the job would suit my needs, including bloodshed.

I scanned the street, seeing nothing more than a few drug addicts hoping for a fix. As I walked to the door, issuing the knock as required, I eased my hand into my pocket to grab my identification. It would be the last time my real credentials were used. The mark would know me by my moniker only until we got to Colorado. That would add a small additional layer of protection.

The man answering the door gave me a hard onceover as I shoved the ID in his face. Then he allowed me in, checking the street before closing and locking the door.

“You’re Shark,” he stated.

“And you are?”

“Detective Kyle Lopez. This is Detective Trainer.”

I glared from one to the other, smirking seeing their attire. They were in the middle of an undercover operation, infiltrating one of the cartels who were threatening to run the city into the ground. They looked like enforcers on steroids, beefed up to provide protection to the savage dictator. They were also taking a significant chance in being ordered to hold the girl.

Which meant I needed to get her the fuck out of here quickly.

I nodded. This wasn’t the time for chitchat. “Where is she?”

“Bedroom. Don’t worry. No way for her to get out of here,” Lopez told me.

There was no need to say anything. I took long strides down the hall, not bothering to knock before entering the room.

The mark was sitting on the bed. As soon as I walked inside, she lifted her head.

Then all hell broke loose in my mind.

I’d never been a man prone to first meeting attractions. I’d never had a pull so severe that my body was drawn to a woman because of her outward appearance, but nothing had prepared me for the vicious jerk of every portion of my system. My cock was rock hard, my balls so damn tight they ached. Even my pulse had increased from taking one look at her porcelain skin and the way the shadowed light created a luminescent shimmer dancing across her face. She had the largest eyes I’d ever seen, her pupils partially dilated from fear and anxiety. Her long copper-colored hair was swept off her face in a long ponytail, strands gently falling against her flushed cheeks. Even the way her mouth twisted in continued concern couldn’t take away from how voluptuous her lips were, rosy red like the blush of the perfect rose growing on the vine.

Greer McDuff was stunning, so much so I found it difficult to breathe. Fuck me. This was going to be a pain in the ass mission.

When she blinked, her long eyelashes skimming against her cheeks, a single tear slipped past her lashes. Her eyes held a haunted quality, but instead of weakness, I sensed a strong resolve. Then her expression hardened as she tilted her head even more, exposing her long neck.

“Are you the man they told me about?” she asked and damn if her voice didn’t drill right through me. There was a softness about it yet defiance as well, refusing to fall victim to such a horrible crime.

“Yes.” That’s when I noticed the bastards hadn’t allowed her to clean the dried blood off her face. What the fuck was wrong with those people? I was certain they’d taken samples for DNA evidence, not that it was needed. There was no doubt the governor was dead, two bullets through the brain the cause. Still, if I knew the Feds, they’d dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s in order to make certain they could build a case against the Campanella organization.

“What took you so long?”

I was surprised by her harsh question, but it allowed me to smirk. I tossed the bag containing clothing and the wig next to her. Her attitude was just a natural response to being treated like a criminal herself. “Go clean up and change, Greer. We’re leaving in five minutes.”

“Not without knowing where I’m going. The bastards wouldn’t tell me anything.” She stood and when she did, I was forced to suck in my breath. She was petite, standing maybe five foot four and a hundred twenty pounds soaking wet, but her hands were fisted as if she was prepared for a fight.

I walked closer, checking my watch. Before I answered her question, I rubbed my finger across several splotches of blood. While my action did nothing to remove the grime, the shot of electricity coursing through me was startling as hell. This wasn’t good at all. “Providing you with our final destination could place you in additional danger. What I can tell you is that it’s a long way from Pennsylvania. Now, you will do as I say when I tell you. Period.”

She shook her head as she brushed the same spot I had, her breath skipping. “Excuse me? I have a life.”

“So did I. Here we are so get used to the fact I’m in charge.”

Greer studied me for a full minute before grabbing the bag, moving around me in a wide arc toward the door. “Jesus. What arrogance,” she muttered. “What’s your name?”

“You can call me Shark. Just keep in mind we’re not going to be friends.”

She smirked, glaring at me as if she was ready to punch me in the gut. As least she wasn’t sniveling like I expected. The fire in her eyes was a clear indication she wanted to laugh, amused at my moniker. “You know my name.”

“I know everything about you, Greer, although as of now, your former identity doesn’t exist. I’ll explain more when it’s necessary.”

“Necessary.” She looked away, shaking her head. “This is nothing but a nightmare. They will come after me. Won’t they?”

Her question was laced with angst, the tone breathless and it sent a hard slice of electricity through me. I wasn’t the kind of man who should be protecting anyone, but at that moment, I felt sorry for her and would do anything in my power to keep her safe. Anything. “Yes, which is why you’ll obey my commands.”

She fisted her hands, her icy glare remaining. I wanted her to keep the fight inside of her. That could help keep her from being caught. “Can you keep me alive?”

“I’ll do my best, princess.”

Her body tensed and she threw her shoulders back. “Don’t call me princess. You have no idea what I’d been through in my life.” With that, she walked out of the room.

Damn. This wasn’t going to be easy.

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