Avery was dancing on the bar. She wasn’t sure how she’d gotten pulled up there, but had to admit she didn’t care. When she looked over, Grace was dancing up here too, along with several other women shaking their asses to the local rock band intent on tearing the house down. The loud vibrations from the bass and drums, the sexy screech of the lead singer thrummed through her body and seemed to go straight through to her soul, It was loud enough to drown out everything . . . except her feelings for Gunner.
Those feelings made every note amplify, and God, it felt good to just have fun. There was a time for mourning, and that wouldn’t end soon, but they all needed this. Her brother, Dare, was smiling as he watched Grace—Avery had known they were perfect for each other from the first time she’d seen them together. Jem and Key, brothers and Avery’s friends, were keeping an eye on them but chatting up some women in the corner at the same time.
And Gunner was . . .
She glanced around for him, found him standing almost right in front of her, watching her. They locked eyes for a long moment while she danced. Just for him.
He’d been watching her like that the whole night. Circling her, but always staying just out of reach.
This bar was down the alleyway from his tattoo shop, one of the first places she’d gone when she’d arrived in New Orleans. And somewhere along the way, maybe even from the first day she’d slammed into his shop, she’d fallen for Gunner. The tattoo he’d given her had cemented it, pink and white flowers trailing along her side, grazing a breast and a hip. It was so graceful. Perfect. He’d marked her and in front of Jem and Key. And things might’ve progressed naturally between them if not for the turn the mission had taken.
The mission that would always haunt them.
She pushed that out of her mind. Tonight, she wasn’t the daughter of a mercenary who ran a legendary group called Section 8. Tonight, she wasn’t a fierce warrior who’d decided that she would resurrect the group with the help of her brother, Gunner and the others.
No, here in this bar, she was drinking and dancing. She was a woman who wanted a man to finally decide the timing was right. If she’d learned nothing from the past months, it was that whoever dubbed patience a virtue was a goddamned liar.
The band segued into a new song—still a wild one with a slower, sexier beat. If she jumped down, Gunner would catch her. She was about to test her theory when a guy popped up next to her, grabbed her hands and began dancing with her.
At first, it was all friendly and fun, and then he was tugging on her too roughly, pulling her close, and when she glanced at Gunner, his expression had grown tight.
“Buddy, hands off,” she said, because the last thing they needed was trouble.
But the guy was past the point of reason. He was sloppy, drooly, unattractively drunk and al- though she could handle him on her own—and easily—she decided that playing damsel in distress would still allow her to remain dancing on the bar.
Gunner raised a brow at her and she gave a quick nod. In seconds, his tattooed arms shot up and grabbed the guy off the bar as if he weighed nothing. At first, he flailed and cursed. When he saw who he was up against, he stilled. Which was smart. Gunner was six feet five inches with spiky blond hair and covered with tattoos. A big guy with an expression that read you’re going to get hurt if you don’t cut the shit.
“Hey, get the fuck off my friend,” a male voice yelled above the music.
Gunner turned in time to stop a fist from exploding into his face. Still holding on to the drunk guy by the front of his shirt, he shoved the other guy’s arm down and yanked it behind his back.
“This can’t be good,” Grace said in her ear loudly. Because the music hadn’t stopped. If any- thing, it seemed to ramp up in anticipation of the impending, inevitable fight. “Where’s Dare?”
Avery pointed to where her brother had jumped into the fray with a gleeful yell, diving headfirst into several men the bouncers were trying to pull apart. Some of the fighting included breaking beer bottles, and suddenly someone was thrown at the bar. At them.
Before she could do anything, Grace was grabbed to safety by Jem and Avery was whooshed off the bar into strong arms and found herself held against Gunner’s chest. For a moment, their faces were inches apart and it would be so easy to kiss him. Actually, the perfect place—her refuge from the storm.
Yes, maybe have another shot of whiskey, Avery.
And then Gunner carried her and placed her in the safety of a corner near the back hallway next to Grace and flew into the melee.
“They’re all enjoying this.” Grace pointed first to where Dare was fighting with a couple of biker types. And smiling.
“For the love of all that’s good and holy,” she muttered, especially when she saw Jem throw someone over the pool table. Key caught the guy and tossed him back to Jem.
Avery and Grace shoved away anyone who came too close to them, both trying to keep an eye on the men. Avery automatically scanned the crowd for weapons, like knives or broken beer bottles. Because if you were going to brawl, it should be about fists.
“I hope this place doesn’t get raided,” Grace said.
“Considering we’re with the owner, I’m guessing we’re okay,” Avery pointed out.
“Considering the owner just hung a man by his pants on a hook, maybe not?” Grace asked, and Avery looked where the drunk guy who’d manhandled her literally hung by his belt loops on the coatrack nailed to the wall. “Is this what college would’ve been like?”
“I guess we’ve got some making up to do.” She noted that the bouncers had called in reinforcements. Gunner was talking to one of them who looked as if he could pick the pool table up with one hand, and he was shrugging sheepishly, looking like a little kid who’d gotten caught but was having too much fun to care.
“Closing time!” the bartender yelled, and Avery heard the sounds of sirens in the distance. A normal sound for this bar at this time of night. It was nearing two in the morning and Grace took her hand and led her out the back door and around the outside alley toward the front.
“Mama, come. Let me read you.”
Avery glanced over at the woman who’d set up shop outside the bar, promising the drunk boys and girls who stumbled out lifetimes of happiness and love and babies. “No thanks.”
“You don’t want to know your future? To see what’s coming?” the palm reader persisted.
Would knowing what she knew now have made Avery do anything differently up to this point? She could confidently answer no. She shook her head and let Grace lead her down the alley, both giggling giddily. Drunk, but fun drunk. Anyone who saw them might think they were two single college girls. They’d be so very wrong, but Avery liked the idea of being normal every once in a while.
Avery turned and found Gunner following them, but he was also staring down at his cell phone and holding it a little too tightly. When he realized she was looking, he shoved it in his pocket and shrugged.
She was more than happy to shrug it off too, especially when Jem came up to her, saying, “Sometimes all you need’s a good old-fashioned bar fight,” and Key whooped his approval. She got the distinct feeling they were disappointed that it ended so soon, that if they had their way, they’d start another one just for the hell of it.
Key threw an arm around her shoulders and she grinned at him, knew he was doing it to get a rise out of Gunner.
She’d kissed Key at that bar months ago; she’d been drunk, and he’d been too, and although they’d been good kisses during moments of boldness, exacerbated by being free of her old life and by lots of Dutch courage, she’d ended up going home to Gunner.
Ever since, Gunner had been subtly trying to push her into Key’s arms while acting jealous when she spent any time with Key. An interesting paradox, but one that told her what she needed to know.
Gunner wanted her.
She also knew that Key didn’t. Not really. Be- cause that same night they’d kissed, Key had murmured another woman’s name in her ear. She’d dismissed it at the time because it had mingled in with the other Cajun French he’d been whispering, but now that she’d been around the dialect for a while, she knew for sure.
Emmeline. Whether she was a high school sweetheart or a long-lost love, the woman who broke his heart, she didn’t know and she’d never asked.
When she’d talked to him about this, Key had said, “I’ve known where your heart belongs. Knew it from the night he gave you the tattoo.”
“I was mad because I figured he’d break your heart,” Key explained then, and now he glanced back at Gunner and then winked at her.
She swore she heard Gunner’s growl behind her, and that made her smile.
They tumbled into Gunner’s place, through the back door that led to the kitchen. Dare and Jem were cooking eggs and bacon and she sat at the table and ate and laughed. The mood tonight was exactly the note she’d wanted tonight to end on.
A far cry from two weeks earlier, when they’d been somber and moping and exhausted. Shell-shocked, really, because they’d rescued Grace from her stepfather, and they’d rescued her and Dare’s father as well, only to have him die before they could get him help.
The bright spot was that the man responsible for hurting the families of Section 8 and the operatives themselves had been killed on that island. She knew Gunner and Dare were ultimately responsible, but neither man was talking about what had happened in the room where Richard Powell was killed by his own men.
Now they were all worried about Gunner. He’d stopped taking tattoo appointments, stopped drawing. They’d been lucky to get him to go out at all—he’d been growing more and more closed off, although no one could blame him after what he’d been through.
She couldn’t do much because she had promised everyone their space, including him. And he wasn’t exactly asking her for advice. Finally, in a moment of what she deemed pure brilliance, she convinced everyone to go away, take a vacation and, most important, make some decisions about the future of the new Section 8.
A couple of months ago, she’d been all alone. Now she had a half brother, a soon-to-be sister-in-law and three other men in her life, all of whom would combine to become a mercenary group based on the original Section 8. Her father had been one of the original members, and he’d been killed for his efforts. She was a legacy, along with Dare.
Would it be all or nothing? She hadn’t been certain when the others left, but she’d had to make sure Gunner was really, truly okay.
So far, that wasn’t the case.
She’d wanted to take a room in a hotel, give him some space, and although he wasn’t exactly himself, he refused to let her leave. And he still used all the security equipment.
She figured that was simply a hard habit to break. That he was still protecting her, worried about blowback. But Rip—aka Richard Powell— worked alone and his men, who’d actually been the ones to kill him, had scattered to the wind. They were afraid for their own lives.
Tonight was the last night before Dare and Grace left for the Seychelles, before Key left for parts unknown and Jem went to Texas, although nobody knew what he’d lost in Texas, and he wasn’t telling.
After she’d said good night to everybody, bid them safe trips, knowing it would be the last time she saw them for a while, she sat on her own bed and debated.
Tomorrow, the place would be emptied of everyone but her and Gunner.
Now she padded down the stairs to Gunner’s room. His was the only one on the second floor—Key and Jem slept in the panic room on the shop level with all the cameras, because they felt most comfortable there. Gunner’s floor held the same sort of security setup.
Dare and Grace were already pretending to be on their honeymoon on the third floor, down the hall from Avery’s room, and everyone granted them their space.
She’d been sleeping with headphones on.
Now, shivering more from anticipation than the cold, she stood in front of Gunner’s door, wearing just a T-shirt that skimmed her thighs, the neckline stretched comfortably enough to fall off one shoulder. It was actually his T-shirt she’d grabbed one day and never given back.
She knocked lightly and he opened the door quickly, like he was expecting her.
Duh, because the cameras probably picked you up the second you left your room.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded. He held his gun in his hand and she touched his wrist and pushed it so the gun faced the floor.
“Oh.” He stared at her. “You’re sure?” “Never more sure,” she murmured. She took a step closer, stared up his body. Put her free hand out to trace the swirl of tattoos along his neck and he let her. Stood stock-still, frozen, watching her face.
Her hands traveled along his arms, starting from his shoulders and moving downward and then back up, the muscles bunching and flexing under her touch.
Still nothing from him but the stare. She really hoped he didn’t want to talk about this—about anything—because she did not come here for conversation tonight.
Finally, she stood on tiptoes, slid a hand around the back of his neck and brought her lips to his. She closed her eyes and melted against him, the heat of his body calling to her like a beacon.
It took her maybe ten seconds to realize he wasn’t kissing her back.
* * * * *
Gunner had tried to back away, but he’d found himself mesmerized by her touches, by the smooth expanse of tan skin that showed around the old white V-neck T-shirt of his she wore. When she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him, the instinct to pick her up and carry her to his bed and fuck everything else nearly won out.
God, she was sweet. He wanted to sink into her and not pull out for days. Weeks. Forfuckingever.
But none of that was in the cards.
Your whole life is a lie.
He ripped his mouth away. She looked stunned. Stepped back, touched her swollen lips with her fingers. Stared at him like she didn’t recognize him.
Had she sensed something? Did she know?
He hoped not. There was so much more to his past than Avery or the others knew. Finding out he was Richard Powell’s son had only scratched the surface of a very tarnished past, one he’d wanted to stay buried.
“Sorry,” she whispered, backed away and he didn’t go after her, not even when she turned and ran. He stood like stone, steeling himself for what was coming next.
When he heard her race up the stairs and lock her door, he knew what he had to do. The rest of the crew would leave in a few hours. He lay on his bed for most of that time, listening. Waiting. When he heard the last of them leave, watched the cabs pull away for the airport, he knew he was nearly ready.
It was only then that he used the blade to lightly go over the tattoo already embedded in his skin. Recut and press the herbs into the welling blood to keep the charm active. Most would tell him he only had to rub the herbs, not do the cuts. But Josephine—his Josie—had made him promise to do it like this. Said it was more effective.
He’d keep that promise to her until the day he died. Could hear her chiding in his ear, “That’s it, chère . . . perfect.”
She would hate that he’d mourned her for so long that he’d left a string of broken hearts in his wake, trying to forget.
She’d be angry, but she’d understand, and that was the bitch of it all.
He muttered her name like a prayer. Remembered the most important words he’d ever learned.
“From this moment on, all your lies are your life.”
He’d been lying for as long as he could remember.
The first thing he remembered was being woken in the middle of the night. He’s twelve. He should be asking what’s wrong, should be scared, but it had happened so many times before, he’s just moving. Sleeping on his feet. By the time he wakes, he’s in a moving car with the bag he’d carefully packed hidden, shoes shoved on, and they’ll be in a car heading toward a train or a plane that’s also going somewhere.
Doesn’t matter, because he won’t have a choice. That somewhere won’t matter. At least it never had before.
But this time, as the helo hoves over the landing strip on the small island, his stomach’s tight, muscles tense.
This time, everything’s different.
The bag he always kept packed was bigger now, held more sophisticated things, but a go bag was always the same, made the same feelings surface. There was a silence that wouldn’t go away. No matter what he did, no matter how many good things he accomplished, it would al- ways be there.
His voice mail still blinked, the message from the private number as yet unplayed. He knew what it would say, who it was from. He’d already gotten a call the day after they’d returned from the island, the day after he’d killed his father.
The threat was so fucking real, and what was worse, he’d been waiting for it every single minute of every single day for more than ten years. Once he’d been on his father’s island again, he knew there was no going back. He’d been caught on surveillance tape while there. His life would never be the same.
Now he picked up the phone and redialed the number he still knew by heart. All the messages that had been left for him daily had said exactly the same thing.
Welcome back from the dead.
Drew Landon picked up on the second ring. “Cutting it close, James.”
“Under the wire’s always been my specialty.”
“You disappeared after you fucked up my job a second time,” Landon told him. “Imagine my disappointment.”
“What do you want?”
“Work off your debt. If you’re as good as you used to be, you’ll work maybe five years.”
So fucking reasonable. “And if I don’t?”
“I can send every criminal you ever helped after you. Ever family member of every trafficker you ever took down will have your picture. And pictures of your team members. The deal I’m proposing isn’t so bad now, is it?”
“Haven’t you done enough?”
“I haven’t even started. But I’m a man of my word. Your friends will be safe. I trust you’ve been making arrangements while you’ve been ignoring my messages. The next step would’ve been a visit to your shop.”
“Your friends will be safe.”
Why should he trust Landon now? Just because he didn’t have a choice was the only answer he could come up with. “You didn’t keep Josie safe.”
“I never promised that. But I had nothing to do with Josie’s death, James. If I did, don’t you think I’d admit it? I’m outright threatening your team — obviously, I’m far from terrified of you.” Maybe Landon had never been, but now he should be. Gunner would make damned well and sure of that. Not that it had ever been the same. Not for long, anyway. He slung the go bag over his shoulder and grabbed the file folder that held the contracts for the sale of the tattoo shop and the other properties. Dare and company had a month to vacate, and he had a job to do. One he never should’ve tried to get away from.
He promised himself he’d never try to again.
Avery hadn’t wanted to leave her room, not after Gunner’s rejection hours before. He’d just pulled away and stared at her. She’d never forget the look on his face, although she couldn’t quite place it.
Could she have misjudged this so badly? Or was he that freaked out by what had happened? God, she felt stupid. Humiliated. And maybe she’d ruined any chance of him working for S8.
Would you really want to work with him if you couldn’t have him?
She wasn’t exactly in the headspace to answer that question. Maybe after coffee, which she smelled brewing. Maybe it was a peace offering.
It was just after seven in the morning. Sleeping in—or much at all—wasn’t happening these days. She was about to cut around the corner to the kitchen when she saw the note propped up on his favorite tattooing chair, her name written on it.
She went over to it, noting how quiet the shop seemed. She ripped the envelope open and found a note in his handwriting telling her that the shop and the surrounding building and garage had been sold. And that she needed to vacate within a month’s time.
She wavered between hurt and anger. The anger won out at first. She slammed one of his tat- too guns against the wall, watching it break in half.
You have a month to vacate.
Well, thanks for that. She’d take about a minute.
Although it didn’t work like that, because after the initial anger wore off, she realized that leaving Gunner would be like wrenching her heart from her body. Was it that easy for him?
She couldn’t bear to think that it was.
He had to have been planning this. His rejection of her last night made sense in light of that. She read through the note again, focusing on his last lines.
I can’t be a part of S8. I can’t be who you want me to be. Key’s a good guy. He’s good for you.
“He’s kidding me, right?” she asked out loud. He’d left her, the shop. The team. He’d waited until it had been just her here. The lease, the note, it was all for her.
And that’s why he rejected you last night. That’s why he’d been acting so oddly. This had been in the works for weeks. Maybe from the second they’d stepped foot back in Louisiana.
She wondered if it was because there had been blowback she didn’t know about, stemming from the murder of Richard Powell, an ex-CIA spy who nearly ruined all of their lives. But she knew Jem was still monitoring the situation. They all were. If something big had come up, vacation or no vacation, they would have gotten in touch.
Which meant Gunner chose to walk out of her life, wanted to get away from Section 8, and from her. This was a major statement and one she wasn’t taking too well.
And then she went into every single nook and cranny of the place, looking for clues. He’d left a lot of his stuff behind, presumably for the new owner to simply throw out.
She knew she’d neatly pack up his clothes. His books. The framed pictures of his tattoos. She’d put them all in storage for when he came back. But for right now, she sat in the quiet of Gunner’s shop, unable to stop thinking on the strange, sometimes miraculous and equally heartbreaking turns her life had taken in under a year’s time.
It started out with Avery and Dare trying to save themselves from a man named Richard Powell and ended up with them finding a new group who felt like family.
Section 8 had been assembled in the eighties, comprised of seven men and one woman who’d gotten dishonorably discharged from the military for many different reasons. Typically, for not being leadable enough, and one of those men was Avery and Dare’s father, Darius O’Rourke. S8 was charged with doing black ops missions for a handler they’d never met, and after one mission gone wrong, the original S8 was dis- banded. But when their handler called them back together, disaster stuck and the original team, save for Darius and Adele, were killed.
After Darius and Adele discovered their mysterious handler was Richard Powell, they helped his stepdaughter, Grace, escape from his island. Powell in turn hunted down anyone and every- one who was ever associated with S8 and tried to kill them.
Unfortunately for Powell, he’d underestimated Darius’s children and Grace herself. Together with Dare, Grace, Jem, Key and Gunner, they’d taken down Powell.
Or rather, Gunner had. The fact that Gunner’s father was Richard Powell, who was also Grace’s stepfather and the man behind Section 8, was a twist none of them had seen coming. So Avery and Dare were legacies. The rest were guilty, as it were, by association with S8. And so the new Section 8 was born. At least until Avery took the practical measure of reminding them what they’d all been through, and how a future in such a group would not be easy. She was telling military men this, and Grace, a survivor in her own right, but it needed to be said. Coming off the high of a completed mission, coupled with the low of Darius’s death and learning Gunner’s secret, things were complicated, to say the least.
Six months, Avery told all of them when they’d gotten back to Gunner’s shop after burying her and Dare’s father, Darius. Six months to decide if they were truly in or out of the new S8.
She’d thought more than once about asking Dare what really had happened on the island when Powell was killed by his own men, but she’d stopped herself. It was more Gunner’s story than Dare’s, and she would wait for him to make the reveal.
She had a feeling she’d be waiting a long time, at this rate, anyway. She was haunted that she missed Gunner’s leaving, possibly by mere min- utes. Gunner had been pulling away faster than any of them had been able to reel him in. And now he was running.
When Avery first met Gunner, she’d been run- ning too, first from the police and then from the men Richard Powell sent to kill her.
Richard Powell, who’d been responsible for the deaths of both her mother and her father.
Richard Powell, the biological father of the man she’d fallen in love with.
Trying to reconcile Gunner to that monster who’d made sure she’d only met her father long enough to hold his hand while he died . . . it was impossible.
Grace was adopted by Richard Powell, but Gunner was his blood.
God, what a complicated mess, hampered by the fact that she was more worried about Gunner and what all of this had done to him. She knew he was nothing like Powell. She had a feeling he wasn’t as sure, and it was breaking her heart.
They’d grown close in a very short period of time. Danger and proximity often did that to people, but what happened between them was more than that. She’d never felt this way about any man before him. And she felt closer to understanding many of her mother’s decisions be- cause of that.
Everything was in limbo, with all of them deciding whether they were ready to take this on. And they all needed time to tie up loose ends, get their heads together. Because once they started working, downtime wasn’t going to be as free.
If they decided to be a part of the new Section 8. She’d known there might be hesitancy, but she hadn’t figured any of them would quit outright. Not like this.
Dare had taken Grace to the Seychelles. Key hadn’t mentioned where he was going, but knew he’d stay in touch with his brother, Jem, who was spending time in Texas.
She didn’t bother to ask why. With Jem, it wasn’t so much why, but rather why not?
Jem, who’d been the most reluctant to leave her behind. “Worried about you, kid,” he’d told her a couple of nights ago.
“Who’re you calling kid?”
He’d laughed, then handed her a phone.
“Jem, I have a phone.”
“Not like this, you don’t. You call me, any fucking time. Got it?”
“Very.” He’d glanced toward Gunner, who’d been on the computer, not talking to any of them, not joining in their conversation. There, but not there, the way he’d been the entire month. “Something’s up.”
“Well, yeah, after what he’s been through . . .”
“Something’s. Up.” He’d stared at her. “You call me. Dig?”
“Dig,” she’d said, although barely able to with a straight face. Now she was never so grateful for what she’d dubbed the bat phone in her entire life. She’d hold on to it like a lifeline and pray that Gunner would come to his senses. Because it was never too late.