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Cooper must risk his career – and his heart – to keep Celina alive

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “LOVED it! Breathtaking novel of suspense with an irresistible romance.” ~ Goodreads reviewer

Her sting operation put a ruthless criminal in prison…

One year ago, rookie FBI agent Celina Davenport pulled off the ultimate undercover operation…she seduced Emilio Londano – the dangerous leader of the San Diego Mafia – and destroyed his illegal empire.

Now he’s escaped and looking for revenge…

When Londano escapes a maximum security prison and begins picking off Celina’s friends and coworkers, everyone she knows becomes a target. Including DEA agent Cooper Harris, the man who once broke her heart and is now assigned to be her bodyguard.

How far will they go to stop him?

Cooper must risk his career – and his heart – to keep Celina alive. But will their past, with its forbidden passions and impulsive choices, put them directly in the killer’s crosshairs?

***Enjoy this excerpt!

“Take your gun, Davenport.” Chief Forester’s voice was low and ominous, rising out of the back seat of the car where he was hiding. Not an easy thing to do, Celina figured, with so much body mass.

Bending down, she motioned at her partner Ronni in the passenger seat and shucked off her mittens. “Give me your bag.”

Celina rarely carried handbags to work. She hung her badge on her belt like her male counterparts and carried her ID in her back pocket. Her gun was always in a shoulder holster. Now her gun, ID and badge were lying on the Fairmont’s floor. “Avon ladies don’t carry guns,” she murmured to her boss. “At least not in Iowa.”

Ronni handed Celina her brown leather purse and the Avon catalog. “Right behind you,” she said, giving her a wink.

“Take. Your. Gun,” the chief ground out again. His voice carried as much threat in its low volume setting as it did at its ear-piercing level. “You want to end up a goddamned hostage?”

That was her plan. Celina knew when she approached the door, Annie would immediately sense something was up. Something in Annie’s world always involved police. Celina could see no other outcome but a dangerous hostage situation. She doubted Annie would even open the door, but if she did, Celina was going to offer herself as a trade for Annie’s kids. Any mother, even an outlaw one, would look for a way to save her children. Celina was prepared to give it to her.

Slinging the strap of Ronni’s bag over her shoulder, she shut the car door, defying the chief’s direct orders. Not the best idea, but he’d stuck her in a no-win situation and therefore, Celina decided, she was calling the shots. For a split-second she wondered if he and Quarters would transfer her like Cooper had after the Londano case. Where would she end up this time? South Dakota?

Probably.

Not the end of the world. If I can get the kids out safely, she thought, that will be enough.

Shifting her shoulders, Celina forced her feet to walk up the cracked sidewalk toward the steps of the duplex. She loved her job, wanted to serve her country, but if there was anything she’d learned in the past year, it was that she didn’t always get what she wanted.

Ronni’s car door slammed and Celina glanced at her partner. Her hair was a bright apricot color, her skin darker than Celina’s but no less smooth. As they walked down the sidewalk, the sun popped out, glaring off the new fallen snow. Celina started up the stairs, shielding her eyes against the glare and trying to keep her breathing even. There were fifteen of her counterparts hidden around the block, watching the apprehension and scrutinizing every move she made.

Annie was one honest to God bad girl. Having been on the run for more years than Celina had been legal, Annie was an experienced fugitive. The woman had once shot her partner in his nether region in the middle of a bank robbery because he wouldn’t let her carry the bag of money.

Clearing her mind, Celina tried to think positive. Ronni was by her side and definitely carrying. Chief Forester was right behind her in the car for immediate backup with his Remington, and the other guys were scattered up and down the block. All had extensive training in marksmanship and deadly-force decisions.

Voices from a television filtered through the door. Muffled laughter drifted down from upstairs. Little girl laughter. She had to do this right, not to prove that she was as good as any of the men in the unit, but to keep those little girls safe.

Glancing at Ronni, Celina mouthed Ready? Ronni gave her a nod. Do it.

Celina knocked sharply on the door. “Avon calling,” she said, trying to mimic the singsong voice Ronni had used earlier when they’d decided to approach the house under this outdated guise.

At first nothing noticeable changed inside the house. Then the TV went silent and Celina heard a man’s voice, low but commanding. A man? No one had reported a man being inside the duplex.

Before she could consider who or what she was now up against, Celina saw a drapery move in the window to her right. Instinctively, she shifted her weight and her hand went for her gun.

And came up empty.

Before she could curse her poor judgment, the door handle turned and her eyes dropped to it. Watch their hands, the words of her Quantico instructor echoed in her head. Not their eyes. No one could shoot you with their eyes.

“Don’t want no Avon,” a man’s voice said as the door opened a notch.

A fragment of sun bounced off metal. Instinct had Celina moving before she could think. “Gun!” she yelled, pushing Ronni to the side.

The sawed-off shotgun boomed in her ears and the iron railing gave out as Ronni and Celina toppled off the porch and into the dead evergreens by the house. They landed with a thud on hard ground next to the concrete foundation. A thousand prickly evergreen needles showered down on them as they rolled in unison away from the porch.

Before the spent shells hit the concrete, Celina was hauling Ronni up by her jacket. “Run!” she yelled, hearing the distinctive click of the shotgun snapping back into place.

BOOM!

The sound sent her to her knees, but adrenaline had her back up in the blink of an eye, her legs moving like a runner taking off out of the blocks. More gunshots cracked through the air. Celina heard the Fairmont’s windshield explode.

Crouching with her arms thrown over her head, she ran for the edge of the house where Ronni had disappeared. She rounded the corner at full speed.

And ran smack dab into a wall.

Bouncing back as her feet scrambled for purchase on the late season ice and snow, she grunted when her butt hit the ground. Glancing up, black Magnum boots were in her line of vision. Big boots, laced military tight.

She hadn’t run into a wall. She’d run into a man.

A hulk of a man with very broad shoulders. Celina followed the line of his body up to his face. The sun was reflecting off the house and snow and blinding her. She could make out a few things: a black baseball cap with the letters DEA across the front pulled down low on his forehead, a mean-looking semi-automatic gun in his left hand. His scowl made her already-racing heart shift into warp speed.

When did the Terminator arrive in Iowa?

He shifted his gaze down to her and the look of disgust in it made her, if only briefly, entertain the idea of taking her chances with the sawed-off shotgun.

“Get up,” he ordered, and the sound of his voice and the impatient tone clicked in her brain, but her ears were ringing from the shotgun blasts and she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly. He reached down and grabbed her by the knot in her knitted scarf. Hauling her to her feet, he pulled her with him as he backed up against the side of the house. Her legs wobbled and her feet skimmed on the ice. She lost her balance and fell face first into his chest.

His bullet-proof vest was hard, but under it, she sensed a wall of pure, solid muscle. Just like his arms and his legs and everything else hidden under his DEA-approved wardrobe. Celina knew once her adrenaline slowed down, she was going to ache all over, not from falling off the porch but from hitting the Terminator at full speed.

The machine-like DEA agent pulled her closer. “You all right?”

“Cooper?”

There was a spurt of gunfire from the street and then the sound of more glass breaking. Cooper drew her in tighter. She flinched at the sound of the shotgun booming again. It sounded like a small explosion.

But then Cooper pushed her away, pushed her against the house. She mimicked his position, wishing she could have stayed in the protective embrace of his arms and knowing why she couldn’t. Ronni was a few feet away, sitting on the ground, back against the house with her gun out. Leaning her head back against the siding, Celina let out a breath. They were both a little shook up, but otherwise unscathed.

The gunfire stopped and total silence descended on the street. No birdsong. No traffic noise. Cooper had his eyes on her, sizing her up from top to bottom. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”

On one hand, she was excited to see him. On the other, the tone of his voice and his general man-handling pissed her off. Celina knew the silence around them meant her FBI counterparts were regrouping, while they tried to figure out their next move.

“I was doing my job,” she said to him. She let her eyes run over him in the same sizing-up he’d given her. He looked good. Solid and handsome, and serious as ever. “What are you doing here?”

“Where’s your gun? Or do female Feds in Des Moines carry Avon books as weapons these days?”

Celina shut her eyes for a moment. She had fantasized relentlessly about her reunion with Cooper. Never had her fantasy involved the current scene. Ronni cleared her throat and Celina glanced at her. Her partner was watching the exchange and had a questioning look on her face. Celina mouthed Cooper, and Ronni raised her brows and nodded her nice, very nice look of approval.

“Dickie Jagger is mine, Celina.”

“Dickie Jagger? Annie’s ex-boyfriend?” Celina scanned her memory. Richardson and Jagger had been tight in the late 90’s, pulling off more than their fair share of petty crimes together before Jagger had joined a gang in L.A.. It was probably Jagger who’d fathered at least one of Annie’s kids. “That’s who answered the door?”

“You were expecting the Great and Powerful Oz?”

“I was expecting Annie Richardson or her mother.”

Cooper grunted. “You can have Richardson, but Jagger’s mine.”

Turf war coming up. The FBI and the DEA often overlapped each other’s jurisdictions with criminals, which is why taskforces like Cooper’s SCVC were created. But even though they were supposed to be working together, they were more interested in trying to one-up each other.

Think Big Picture, Dominic Quarters always preached. His Big Picture was now clearer to Celina. Her boss and her boss’s boss wanted jurisdiction over everything and they’d do whatever it took to keep all other agencies in the dark.

She wondered what Forester was doing in the Fairmont, and if he was okay. If he was, she was going to give him and Quarters a piece of her mind when this operation was over. They had sacrificed children and two agents in a hurry to beat the DEA to the house.

“I’m sure Chief Forester would like to talk to you about that,” she said, when what she really wanted to say was, “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call me?”

For months after her transfer, Celina had analyzed Cooper’s behavior out loud while on stakeouts with her partner. Ronni had put it in six easy to understand words: he’s just not that into you.

Cooper did a quick scan of the area again. “Where is he, your chief?”

“In the car.”

His eyes snapped back to hers and the brim of his cap rose with his eyebrows. “The car in the driveway?” He shook his head. “What kind of half-assed FBI unit is this?”

“You should know,” Celina retorted, mad all over again. “You sent me here.”

“I didn’t send you here,” Cooper corrected her. “That was Quantico’s orders after your face was splashed all over Time magazine as the New Face of the FBI.”

“But you kicked me off—”

“This is not the time, Celina.”

Before Celina could reply, Cooper cocked his head, picking up noise inside the house. His hand came up to silence her. For several seconds he stilled; a freeze frame of anticipation. Not even a breath escaped his body, only a prevenient energy radiating from every inch of him. A cat preparing to pounce on a mouse.

Another noise inside the house—this time Celina heard it too—voices and the sharp snap of a shotgun locking into position. Cooper pulled a mouthpiece out of his cap and spoke into it. “Assume take down positions,” he announced quietly to whoever was listening. “We’re going in.”

“There are three innocent people in that house. Kids.” Celina’s voice sounded too loud in her ears. “You can’t just bust in there. Someone could get hurt.”

Cooper pointed one of his fingers at a spot next to Ronni. “Have a seat, Agent Davenport. This take-down no longer concerns you. You shouldn’t be here and if you and your buddies hadn’t screwed this up to begin with, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“Now, wait a minute,” she started, but Cooper grabbed her shoulder, twirled her around and pushed her down hard on her butt. She gasped from the impact and his incivility.

“Everybody move on my count,” he said into his radio.

Walking to the corner of the house, he locked his gun into firing position under his arm. “One, two, three.” His voice rose. “Go! Go! Go!”

And then he was gone.

Celina looked at Ronni, whose eyes were still on the spot where Cooper had disappeared. “So that’s The Beast, huh?” A silly grin split her face. “That gun powder and Wheaties diet is working for him.”

“Yeah,” Celina huffed, sarcasm blowing out with her breath, “and he definitely wants me. Did you notice how he was practically falling all over himself to see if I was okay?” She pushed herself off the ground to follow him. “Asshole.”

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