The Kelly Group International (KGI): A super-elite, top secret, family-run business.
Qualifications: High intelligence, rock-hard body, military background.
Mission: Hostage/kidnap victim recovery. Intelligence gathering. Handling jobs the U.S. government can’t…
They live by night.
P.J. and Cole were sharpshooting rivals on the same KGI team and enjoyed a spirited, uncomplicated camaraderie. Until the night they gave in to their desires and suddenly took their relationship one step further. In the aftermath of their one night stand, they’re called up on a mission that goes terribly wrong, and P.J. walks away from KGI, determined not to drag her teammates into the murky shadows she’s poised to delve into.
Six months later, Cole hasn’t given up his search for P.J., and he’s determined to bring her back home where she belongs. Bent on vengeance, P.J. is on a mission that will plunge her into a serpentine game of payback and make her question everything she’s ever believed in. Cole—and the rest of their team—refuse to let her go it alone. Even if it means sacrificing their loyalty to KGI and their very lives…
Special bonus story included! Softly at Sunrise is included at the end of the print version only. You can also buy a digital version of this special novella.
P.J. Rutherford cocked back her chair and flung her boot on top of the table in front of her. She adjusted her straw cowboy hat so her eyes were barely visible and stared over the smoke-filled room to the band setting up along the far wall.
The waitress thumped a bottle of beer on the table next to P.J.’s boot and then sashayed away, her attention reserved for the male customers she flirted with and chatted up.
P.J. wasn’t a chatter. She’d never spoken to anyone in all the time she’d been coming here. She couldn’t be called a regular, but yet, in all her irregularity, she was.
This was her place to unwind between missions. It wasn’t what most would consider a place of rest and relaxation, but for P.J. it worked to throw back a few beers, inhale some secondhand smoke, go deaf from listening to bad cover songs and watch a few bar fights.
She winced when the guitarist riffed a particularly bad chord and then ground her teeth together when the mike squealed. These guys were amateurs. Hell, it was probably their first live gig, which meant she was going home tone-deaf and popping ibuprofen for the headache she’d be sure to have.
But it beat spending the evening alone in her apartment with jet lag. Although she wasn’t even sure it could be considered jet lag. She’d been three days without sleep, so truly she could sleep at any time, but she was wired and still buzzed from adrenaline the last mission had wrought.
She was wound tighter than a rusted spring and there was no give in her muscles tonight.
The big, happy mush fest that had gone on at the Kelly compound, complete with double weddings and enough true love and babies and bullshit to make her green around the gills, hadn’t helped.
Not that she was a cynic when it came to romance. She had her romance novels and she was fiercely protective of them and against anyone giving her shit over reading them.
But sometimes the Kelly clan was a little overbearing in the sheer sugary sweetness of all that unconditional love and support. Did no one ever get pissed off and start a fight?
The truth was, she just felt out of place, which was why she’d rather stick to her own team, let Steele take the orders from Sam or Garrett Kelly and she’d follow her team leader. The day Steele became embroiled in all that happy, bubbly shit was the day she hung up her rifle and called it quits.
She liked Steele. She knew where she stood with Steele. Always. He didn’t sugarcoat shit. If you fucked up, he called you on it. If you did your job, you didn’t get any special accolades. Not for doing your fucking job, as he put it.
And she liked her team, even if Coletrane was one giant pain in her ass. But he was a cute pain in the ass and he was harmless. Plus he was a perfect target for cutting jokes and egging on. Easy. Too easy. He rose to the bait on too many occasions for her to count.
She was the better marksman. She knew that without false modesty. But it didn’t stop a healthy rivalry between her and Cole when it came to sniper duty.
It pushed them both, made them better at their jobs and made the relationship between them easygoing and casual. Just the way she liked it.
The current song ended, and she sighed in relief. The band looked to be taking a short break, but her ears were still roaring from the deafening sounds of just moments earlier.
She was reaching for her beer when she saw a group of three men walk through the door. Her hand shook, nearly knocking the bottle over. Her stomach plummeted like a rock, and she briefly considered making a break for the restroom.
Just as quickly, anger replaced the sudden panic. What the hell was she contemplating hiding for? She hadn’t done anything wrong. Her ex-lover and his buddies had hung her out to dry. Not the other way around.
She forced her gaze away, pretended interest in an object across the room and hoped they wouldn’t notice her. From her periphery, she saw the moment Derek looked her way and recognized her.
He went completely still and then he nudged Jimmy and Mike and pointed in her direction.
Fuck. They were walking this way. Just what she goddamn needed on a night she just wanted to be left alone.
She was still staring ahead when Derek stepped in front of her, blocking her vision. She slowly looked up, making sure her expression was cool and unruffled.
“So is this where you’re hanging out now, P.J.?” Derek drawled. “Didn’t figure you one for trolling this kind of place.”
The insulting tone grated on her nerves.
“Get out of my space, Derek.”
He lifted an eyebrow and quirked the corner of his mouth up in a sneer. “That’s not what you used to say. Of course that was before you decided to shit on your team. Where are you working these days, P.J.? Surely not here. You don’t quite have the body to pull this gig off.”
The old P.J. would already be in his face and would have knocked him on his ass. The new P.J. . . .
Fuck it. There was nothing wrong with the old P.J.
She rose from her chair, tipped back her hat and leveled a cold stare at the three. Back in the day they’d been tight. All four of them. She and Derek had been lovers for two years. They’d hooked up almost immediately after P.J. had joined the S.W.A.T. team and they’d managed to keep their relationship a secret, hiding behind friendship. Friendship they genuinely shared with Jimmy and Mike.
Derek smirked, almost as if he figured she’d turn and walk out. Because that’s what she was good at. Running.
Not this time.
She pulled her hand back and slugged him right in the nose.
His hand flew up as his head whipped back and he staggered backward several steps.
His fingers came away bloody and he charged forward. She held her ground, refusing to be intimidated by the asshole.
“What the fuck was that?” he roared.
“Something I should have done a hell of a long time ago,” she said calmly. “Listen up, pencil dick. I don’t have time for your bullshit. I don’t give a shit about you or your lame sidekicks, so do us both a favor and leave me the fuck alone.”
“Once a bitch always a bitch, huh, P.J.?” Mike said with curled lips.
“You think what you want, Mike,” she said in a calm, measured voice. “I walked away with a clear conscience. Can you say the same?”
He flushed red, and anger bristled visibly from him. He started toward her but Jimmy stuck out his arm.
“What the fuck, Mike? You going to start a fight in a public bar with a woman?”
“Feel free,” P.J. said sweetly. “I’m more than happy to kick his ass.”
“What happened to you?” Derek demanded. “You didn’t used to be so cold.”
“Forgive me for not rolling over and taking the ass fucking you gave me so well. I wasn’t the one who was dirty. That’s on you and your buddies. You expected me to look the other way, and when I didn’t, you hung me out to dry. Fuck that and fuck you. Now get the hell out of my space.”
She was so focused on her former teammates that she didn’t notice the newcomer until a strong arm wrapped around her waist and hauled her up against his side.
“Sorry I’m late, darlin’,” Cole drawled. “Who are your little friends?”
She stiffened in shock, her mouth falling open. Cole covered her lapse by pressing his lips to hers and giving her a long, lingering, toe-curling kiss.
She was so flustered and flabbergasted over his sudden appearance that she could do little more than stand there while he ravished her mouth.
What a silly word. She’d read the word a lot in her old-school romances, and when she was a teenager, she’d giggled over the idea of being ravished, but holy hell, there was no other word that came to mind as he thoroughly tasted every inch of her mouth.
He drew away, amusement sparkling in his blue eyes. His hair had gotten a little longer than his normal neat cut, so it was spiky on top, aided no doubt by what looked like hair gel. She’d have to give him shit over that later. Right after she found out what the hell he was doing here in her bar when he was supposed to be across the country in Tennessee.
When he pulled away, she got a better look at him and nearly laughed out loud. He was still dressed in fatigues, black shirt and his combat boots. He looked like he’d come here straight from the last mission, and, well, she supposed he had, since he was here and not in Tennessee.
She had to admit, he looked like a total badass. He dwarfed her and was a good two inches taller than Derek, who was the tallest of his trio. And his biceps bulged and strained against the tight short sleeves of the T-shirt.
She couldn’t have planned this any better. His timing was impeccable.
“Cole, this is asshole number one, two and three.”
Cole lifted his brow and his eyes gleamed with amusement. “Is there a problem, gentlemen? Because the way I saw it across the room, you didn’t look friendly. In fact, it looked very much to me like you were trying to intimidate someone much smaller than yourselves, and a woman, to boot.”
“Fuck this,” Derek snarled. “You’re welcome to the fucking ice queen. She nearly froze my dick off.”
“What dick?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Cole’s arm was still around her and he didn’t seem inclined to remove it anytime soon.
“Fuck you,” Derek said rudely. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. I can’t stomach being around a rat fink.”
The three men headed for the door and P.J. blew out a deep breath. That could have gotten ugly, and in this joint, there wasn’t much in the way of security. The one bouncer was balding, middle aged and had a beer gut that made him slow and clumsy. He wouldn’t be much help in an altercation.
“You can let go now,” she muttered.
Cole let his arm fall and then pulled a chair out at her table and sprawled into it, waving to the waitress at the same time.
The waitress wasted no time hurrying over. She gifted Cole with her best flirtatious smile and hovered a lot closer than necessary, affording him a prime view of her cleavage.
“Bring me whatever you have on tap, sugar,” Cole said with a wink.
P.J. rolled her eyes as the waitress all but fell for that fake charm. Cole was easy on the eyes for sure. Muddy blond hair, a newly grown goatee, which P.J. had to admit looked damn good on him. Blue eyes that could be mean as hell one moment and twinkling and carefree the next.
He was the total package, not that she’d ever tell him so. It suited her purposes to keep him down a few notches. Wouldn’t do to have his ego blow up on her. She did have to work with him, after all.
“What the hell are you doing here, Coletrane?” she demanded after the waitress had left. “This isn’t exactly your neighborhood.”
He shrugged. “Can’t a guy come in and check on a teammate?”
Her gaze narrowed. “Sure. There’s Dolphin, Baker and Renshaw, and you could always look in on Steele. I’m sure he’d looooove the company.”
“Maybe you’re just special,” he said with a grin.
“Lucky me,” she muttered.
But she couldn’t control the peculiar butterflies floating around her belly when he turned all that charm on her. Hell, she was acting like a damn girl.
The waitress returned and he tipped back his drink, taking a big gulp before he thumped it back down on the table. Behind him, the band struck up another ear-piercing song and Cole visibly winced.
“Holy shit, Rutherford. I thought you had better taste than this. What the hell are you doing in this shit hole anyway? Shouldn’t you be at home catching some R and R? You haven’t slept in what, three days?”
She cast a baleful look in his direction. “I could ask you the same question. At least I’m within a few blocks of my bed. Last time I checked you still resided in the great state of Tennessee. That’s a long-ass way from Denver.”
“Maybe I like your company.”
For a long moment they sipped their beer in silence while the music clanged and more smoke filled the air. Cole’s eyes suddenly widened when two girls in either corner hopped up on an elevated step and began to do a slow striptease.
“Rutherford, are you a lesbian?”
She choked on her beer and then sat forward, letting her feet drop off the table and onto the floor with a clunk. She tipped back her hat so she could look him square in the eyes.
“What the hell kind of question is that?”
He gave her a quelling stare. “You’re in a strip joint. What else am I supposed to think?”
“You’re an idiot.”
He gave her a mock wounded look. “Come on, P.J. Throw me a bone here. Tell me you aren’t a lesbian. Or at least crush me gently.”
“You’re ruining my downtime.”
“Well, if this is downtime, let’s do it up right. Want to do some shots? Or are you afraid I’ll drink you under the table?”
Her brows went up. “You did not just challenge me.”
He gave her a smug smile. “I believe I did. First round’s on me.”
“They’re all on you since this is your idea.”
“Okay, but I’m guessing you can’t get past three.”
“Blah, blah. I’m hearing a lot of talk and no action.”
Cole held up his hand again and the waitress walked up to the table.
“Can you set us up with some shots?” He turned to P.J. “You got anything against tequila?”
“I’ve only got something against bad tequila. Don’t cheap out on me, Cole. You better get the good stuff.”
“You heard the lady,” Cole drawled. “Give us a setup of the best tequila you have.”
The waitress looked dubious but she nodded and headed in the direction of the bar.
P.J. studied him from underneath her eyelashes. Despite her initial annoyance, Cole was intriguing her. What was he doing here? And why? She could swear he was flirting with her, and the weird thing was, it was a rather delicious sensation.
A guy like Cole wouldn’t have to look far to get laid. No way he came all the way to Denver just for a piece of ass.
“So who were the clowns giving you a hard time?” he asked, breaking the silence.
P.J. grimaced. “Just some people I used to know. A long time ago.”
“Apparently they aren’t as taken with your charm as I am.”
She sputtered and choked on her laughter. She missed the camaraderie and constant ribbing when she was away from her team. It used to be like that on the S.W.A.T. team before Derek had to fuck it all up. P.J. had been certain she’d never find another position that was better than the early days with S.W.A.T. when she’d still been riding high on landing the gig as a female and had been wrapped up in her relationship with Derek.
But she’d been wrong. Going to KGI had opened her eyes to what loyalty to the team and one another was all about. The men she worked for were deeply honorable, but she’d always been careful to keep her distance. Especially from Cole. After Derek, she’d sworn off ever getting involved with someone she worked with.
The waitress returned, carrying a long board that had ten shot glasses. She set it on the table, took Cole’s credit card and then looked at them both as if to say have at it.
Cole picked up one glass, handed it to P.J. and then took another for himself. Then he held it up in a toast.
“To another successful mission.”
P.J. could drink to that. She tipped her shot glass against his and then they both downed the alcohol.
She nearly coughed as fire burned down her throat. Hell, it had been a good while since she’d had anything stronger than beer. She’d sworn off the hard stuff after her stint with S.W.A.T. and the aftermath of her leaving the unit.
She brought her glass down on the table with a thump and then stared challengingly at Cole. He grinned in return and then scooped up another glass. She leaned forward to take her own, but this time they were a bit slower to down them.
The music seemed to grow louder and the smoke got thicker. Her eyes watered, whether from the tequila or the smoke she wasn’t sure. Cole was right about one thing. This was a sucky place to spend her first evening back home.
“What do you say we finish up our five shots and head to my place?” she said before she could change her mind.
She couldn’t believe she’d taken the plunge after being so set on never allowing this sort of thing to happen. Chalk it up to the alcohol or her shitty evening. Either reason constituted one mistake, right? She just knew she suddenly didn’t want to be alone.
He frowned, and her heart sank. She hadn’t read him right at all, and now she was going to make a giant fool of herself. She was already preparing to excuse the invitation away with casual indifference when he spoke.
“If we’re going back to your place, one or both of us needs to stop drinking now. How about I get us a bottle and we’ll finish up there.”
She let out a sigh of relief that she hadn’t even realized had welled up in her chest. She stood, pushing back from the table.
“You get the bottle. I’ll meet you in the parking lot. You can follow me back to my place.”
Cole went to the bar, motioned for the bartender and, a few moments later, left with a bottle and two shot glasses. Not that he intended on needing or wanting either, but he was going to make it look good.
He sauntered out to the parking lot, wondering if P.J. would even be there as she’d promised or whether she’d taken off.
She was a hard-ass. Hard to get close to. Hard to get any information from. He knew next to nothing about her personal life. She never slipped up and dropped hints. When they were on a mission, she had single-minded focus. And when the mission was over, she was always the first to bug out. No chitchat or social hour for her.
It had been surprising as hell to discover that she hung out in this joint. He would have guessed she hated people and that she’d never go out of her way to actually hang out in a place infested by them.
He didn’t feel one iota of guilt over slipping the GPS chip into her backpack before she’d left Tennessee. She carried that damn thing with her everywhere, and it had led him to the parking lot of the bar.
To his surprise she was standing by her jeep, leaned back with a cool expression on her face. Her eyes were unreadable as she stared up at him.
He held up the bottle and flashed a grin in her direction.
She gave a half smile in return then threw her thumb over her shoulder. “Follow me and try to keep up.”
Saucy little heifer. She had to make everything a challenge or a dare. It was okay, though. It wasn’t worth it if it was easy.
He climbed into his truck and quickly maneuvered onto the highway behind her, making sure she didn’t lose him. After a mile, she turned right into an apartment complex that looked like it dated back to the seventies. It was clean and seemed quiet, but Cole didn’t like how dark it was and that there were no security gates.
How the hell did a woman whose job was all about security and protection live in a place like this?
He pulled into the parking spot beside her and slid out. She was already on the sidewalk waiting for him, and before he could catch up to her, she turned and walked up the pathway to her front door.
He grimly surveyed the area, and when she opened the door, he frowned harder because the door wouldn’t withstand a simple kick. He walked through and then paused as she closed and secured the door. Not that it would do any good if someone really wanted in.
When she turned back to where he was standing, she frowned as she stared down at his hands.
“You forgot the tequila.”
“I didn’t forget anything.”
Before she could react, he backed her up against her door, his body pressing in close, and he did what he’d been dying to do ever since the day he’d first laid eyes on her.
He kissed her.
And this time it wasn’t some act he was putting on for the assholes giving P.J. a hard time, nor was he stopping anytime soon.
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