A misunderstanding tore them apart.
Now he’s her only chance…
Blackhawk Security’s Elizabeth Dawson believes ex-government programmer Braxton Levitt betrayed her, but now he’s the only one who can keep her safe. A killer steps ahead of them is methodically hunting the pregnant analyst to access her top-level software program. But as Braxton and Liz race to stop him, their broken trust—and most intimate secrets—could end more than their lives…
“You’re not dead.” Rage and relief urged Elizabeth Dawson to push away from the conference room table and tackle her former partner to the floor, but she held her control.
“It’s good to see you, too, Sprinkles.” Braxton Levitt’s rich, seductive voice skittered under her skin. The sound of his handpicked nickname for her on his lips—as if they were still friends—tightened the muscles down her spine. That gray gaze pinned her against the back of her chair. A rare occasion. His eyes were normally green, depending on what he wore. She pushed the useless fact to the back of her mind as he planted his elbows on the massive wood table, leaning forward. Thick muscle and tendons flexed beneath his thin T-shirt, and goose bumps prickled down her arms. After all this time, did he honestly think he could walk back into her life after what he’d done?
“Don’t call me that.” No matter how many times she’d imagined this moment—of confronting him after all these months—there’d always been a small part of grief lodged in her chest. Her fingers curled into the center of her palms beneath the table. She had to stay in control. He wasn’t the man she thought he’d been. Her heartbeat pounded loud behind her ears. Something alive—full of fury—clawed its way up her throat, but she couldn’t touch him. Not in any way that counted. He’d made damn sure of that when she’d been pulled into countless interrogations after his disappearance. He cost her a career she’d spent a decade building. Now, no one but Blackhawk Security would hire her. Too much of a risk. Elizabeth mirrored his movements, clasping her hands in front of her on top of the table. “You paid my boss for my time, so get on with it. What do you want, Braxton?”
Despite the federal charges stacked against him, Braxton leaned back in his chair as he ran one hand through his dark shoulder-length hair, completely at ease. No longer was he the clean-cut, out-of-shape intelligence analyst she’d known back at the NSA. He’d changed, now something more primal, as though he’d seen things he couldn’t possibly forget. New, bulky muscle stretched against the seams in his clothing. Physically different, yet the same man reflected underneath the confidence in his eyes, in his heart-stopping, manipulative smile. Under all those changes, he was still the man who’d walked out on her.
“I missed you.” Stubble ran along his jawline, a little fuller than she remembered, deepening the permanent laugh lines around his mouth. She’d once missed the effects of that smile, the gut-clenching delirium he brought to the surface from no more than the upward tilt of his lips. The trust. Scary what that smile could hide.
“Is that why you’re here?” she asked. “Because you missed me?”
The blue ball cap pulled low over his head failed to hide the bottom of a scar above his left eyebrow he’d gotten during a fight as a teenager. He studied the dark, rainy view of the Chugach mountain range through the floor-to-ceiling windows as if her words hadn’t registered then recentered on her. He tapped his fingers against the gleaming conference room table as he sat back in his chair. “No.” His shoulders rose on a deep inhale. “Dalton Meyer is dead. Someone tied your old NSA supervisor to a chair and tortured him so they could hijack Oversight and find you. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Elizabeth’s blood iced. “That’s not possible.”
The facial-recognition program she’d been contracted to build for the NSA had the highest level of security ever coded. She’d designed the system to run autonomously. No human interference. Not even the director of the NSA had access. Its job was to strictly surveil the American population to identify threats to national security using security cameras, traffic cameras, scanning email. Law enforcement, FBI, CIA—they all relied on those feeds. If they’d gone off-line or been hijacked as Braxton suggested…the possibilities were endless.
The threats were endless.
Elizabeth released the breath she’d been holding. There was only one other person in the world who had the ability to override Oversight’s programming. And he sat across the table from her. “How did you find me?”
“The fact I’m sitting here says a simple name change isn’t working for you, Sprinkles,” he said. “If I was able to find you in less than twenty-four hours, how long do you think it’ll take someone who’s hijacked your program and is gunning for you?”
“Stop calling me that. We’re not friends anymore.” Her jaw tightened. She followed passing movement outside the conference room through the blinds. Blackhawk Security provided home security, protection and investigative services and handled military contracts. She’d left the NSA behind, left that life behind. She’d moved on. Whatever this was, whatever Braxton wanted from her… No. Protecting her clients was her life now. Sullivan Bishop, Blackhawk Security’s founder and CEO, and the rest of the team had taken a chance on her. Trained her without questions about her past. She wasn’t about to blow it based on some wild theory the man who’d turned on her had cooked up to come back into her life. If someone had tortured her former project supervisor and was using her own program to hunt her, she had an entire team she could count on now. Former SEALs, Rangers, con men, a profiler. She didn’t need him.
“Is that all you thought we were? Friends?” Braxton studied her, staring up at her from below thick, dark eyebrows. “I remember that night, Liz. Hard to believe I was that easy to forget.”
“I haven’t forgotten anything.” She fought against the urge to swipe her hand across her lower abdomen. She’d waited four long months for this moment. Time to get it over with. Time to move on from him. “Since you’ve brought up that night, you should know I’ve been trying to find you for a few weeks now to tell you I’m pregnant.”
Braxton sat forward in his chair, staring at her from across the table. “H-how?”
Really? That was the question he wanted her to answer? “You want me to explain to you how a woman gets pregnant? Okay. You see, when a woman thinks she’s in love with her best friend she’s trusted for years—”
“That’s not what I meant.” He exhaled hard. “We were careful. We used protection.”
“Yes, well, obviously that didn’t work.” The pressure of his full attention tightened her insides. Liquid fire burned through her. She swallowed hard against the sensation. He wasn’t supposed to affect her like this. Her crush had ended the night he’d left her to pick up the pieces of his mess. He exuded confidence with his subtle movements. The haze clouding her head dissipated, and she forced everything inside her to go cold as she stood. Digging for her phone, she swiped her thumb across the screen and set the timer. “Now, if you came here for my help, you’re out of luck. I don’t work for the NSA anymore. So I hope you’ve got your money’s worth. This meeting is over. I’ll give you a ten-minute head start before I call the FBI.”
“You’re being hunted, and you just told me you’re pregnant with my baby.” Braxton pushed away from the table. Three distinct lines deepened at the bridge of his nose. A day’s worth of dark stubble that matched his hair shifted over his strong jaw. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I bet all the girls fall for that line. And, to be fair, I tried to tell you before now, but I couldn’t find you.” Elizabeth reached for the large oak door. Her instincts screamed for her to put as much space between them as she could. Her muscles had tensed so hard she ached. What did he expect her to do? Take him at his word he was here to protect her? That he didn’t need something from her? Not happening. She flashed her phone’s screen at him. “Nine minutes. You’re wasting time, Braxton.”
He moved fast. Faster than she thought possible. His rough hands pressed into the door, hiking her blood pressure higher as he caged her in the circle of his massive arms. The faint scent of soap and his own masculine scent filled the air, urging her to breathe him in deeper. Two years as coworkers. He’d recruited her for the NSA, helped her land the contract of her career. Taken her to his bed.
“I’m the only one who can protect you, Liz. You know that,” he said.
Fury built behind her sternum. A deadly wrath that couldn’t be contained anymore.
“How would I know that?” Only the pounding of her heart working overtime filled her ears as she leveled her chin with the floor. She’d been naive to think anything could work between them. Elizabeth fisted her hands at her sides to control the trembling raking through her. She’d trusted him to the end. Denied the allegations the NSA had thrown at her in those interrogations after he vanished.
Braxton Levitt had an entire arsenal of body language, stories and personalities to force his marks into believing he was who he claimed. That was all she was to him. All she had been to him. A mark. “Everything I knew about you turned out to be a lie.”
He straightened but kept her caged against the door. “I never lied to you.”
“Really? Up until four months ago, I thought we knew everything about each other. You recruited me for the NSA to build Oversight, became the only person I could trust, then took me to your bed, and that same night, you disappeared.” The last word hissed from her mouth. She lowered her voice in case the doors weren’t soundproofed. “Now you’re here, asking me to trust you with my life?” Elizabeth stepped into him, his clean scent surrounding her. It took everything she had—every last reserve of energy—to keep her control in place. “I don’t know a damn thing about you, Braxton. I don’t think I ever did. Now, let me go before I find a reason to reach for my gun.”
His expression fell as he stepped back, taking his body heat with him. “I would never hurt you.”
Her heart jolted in her chest from the sincerity in his voice. She studied him with a new mind-set. No emotion. No ties back to the past. Not as a spurned one-night stand but as an operative of Blackhawk Security. The creases around his mouth and the hollow circles under his eyes revealed the exhaustion he’d been dealing with since his disappearance. Worry lines, perhaps? A man on the run certainly became paranoid once stepping back into the spotlight. Every federal organization in the country had searched high and low for him since his disappearance. How had he managed to stay under the radar all this time? Whom had he relied on for help?
Not her. She locked her back teeth together. Didn’t matter. This was the last time they’d be in the same room together. He’d slide back under the radar, and she’d go back to doing what she did best: protecting herself—and their baby. She wasn’t heartless. She’d just taught herself how to use her heart less. Elizabeth’s short black hair slid out from behind her ears as she wrenched the door open. “You already have.”
A deep rumble reached her ears, claiming her attention a split second before Braxton shoved her into the hallway, and an eight-foot solid oak door rocketed into her.
BRAXTON LEVITT SLAMMED face-first into the nearest wall. Heat tunneled through his clothing as glass rained down around him. Emergency lighting cast the entire floor into shades of red as alarms kept rhythm with his pulse. He shifted his weight into his hands, flexing his jaw against the pain spreading through his ribs. Something wet slid down his cheek. He swiped at it as a gust of cold Alaskan air and rain rushed through what used to be an entire wall of windows. Blood.
“Liz!” Squinting through the rising smoke, he shoved to his feet. He blinked as a wave of dizziness tipped him into a fern still standing beside the one unhinged door. Yells punctured through the ringing in his ears. The sprinkler system fought to drench the sporadic fires clinging to the walls and the remains of the conference table. He stumbled through what was left of the massive door frame. “You better be alive.”
Pain seared through his rib cage. His temples throbbed in rhythm to the alarms. She had to be alive. If he lost her again… No. He couldn’t go there. Couldn’t think like that. A dull ringing filled his ears. Then a moan. Her moan. Braxton’s insides burned with an energy he’d learned to contain. A pair of familiar black boots registered in his peripheral vision. “Liz.”
Air stalled in his lungs. Not because he’d nearly died in the timed explosion but because for thirty horrible, mind-numbing seconds, he’d lost her all over again. The hollowness of four months and ten days’ separation from her vanished as he hauled an oak door and a few other pieces of debris off her with a guttural groan.
Brushing her hair out of her face, he lifted her into him, and the rest of the world fell away. Lean muscle flexed beneath her black leggings and leather jacket as her hand moved to her lower abdomen. Flames crackled around them, sirens already echoing off the surrounding buildings in the street below, but he didn’t give a damn. His body’s response to Liz had always been off the charts. She’d been the only woman who could make him lose control. Still was. Black smudges highlighted the sharp edges of her cheekbones and jawline. The steady thump at the base of her throat relieved the pressure in his chest, but that relief didn’t last long. The bastard who’d hijacked Oversight had set a bomb—for Liz. He was sure of it. That rumbling sound right before the explosion? Had to have been a cell phone on vibrate. A detonator. He should’ve known the SOB hunting her would’ve tried to get to her at work. The more casualties, the better chance he had of getting away with murder. More time, more evidence to sift through. Braxton fought the rage spreading rampant beneath his sternum. “Come on, baby, open your eyes. Can you hear me?”
“For once in your life, call me by my actual name.” A cough ripped up her throat. She jerked in his arms. Once. Twice. Brown eyes, as dark as chocolate, focused on him. “You do remember what it is, don’t you?”
A smile fought for release. He’d missed her fire. Her attitude. Missed her. They’d been a great team back in Fort Meade. Saving the country one line of code at a time. Back before he’d destroyed everything between them to keep her safe. The smile disappeared. None of that mattered now. Keeping her alive—that was all that mattered.
“We’ve got to go.” They had to get out of here before whoever had set that bomb realized he hadn’t killed his target. Her lavender-scented shampoo invigorated his senses as she wrapped both arms around him, raising goose bumps on the back of his neck. It’d been a long time since he’d breathed her in. He tightened his hold around her waist. Get her to safety. Find the man using her own program to kill her. Maybe convince her he wasn’t the man she believed.
“Liz!” Blackhawk Security’s founder and CEO, Sullivan Bishop, shielded his face from the flames as he ran toward them. Braxton had done his homework. He knew the former SEAL had a woman of his own—a JAG Corps prosecutor—but the use of one of his nicknames for her still grated on Braxton’s nerves. Liz didn’t let anyone give her a nickname. The two had obviously gotten close since she’d relocated to Anchorage, and his gut tightened in response. One of the other operatives followed close on Sullivan’s heels. Blackhawk’s disgraced NYPD officer, Vincent Kalani, studied the scene, ready for battle. “You all right?”
“I’m fine.” Liz wrenched out of Braxton’s grasp, struggling to her feet on her own, all contact between them severed. She brushed debris from her clothing and huffed a piece of hair out of her face. From the outside, it was such an innocent movement, but Braxton understood her tells. He always had. Despite her hard exterior, she’d been rattled. And with good reason. Someone had tried to kill her. But she refused to allow anyone to see vulnerability, especially those she worked with. “But I think it’s safe to say our conference room is not. Was anybody hurt in the explosion?”
“No fatalities. From what we can tell, most suffered only minor burns and scrapes from the blast.” The forensics expert—Vincent—checked a gash on his forearm, swiping the blood away against his long-sleeve shirt. The muscled, tattooed Hawaiian ran a hand through his shoulder-length brown hair. “Was anyone else in the conference room with you?”
Liz shook her head. “No. Just the two of us.”
“Good. As much as I’d like to scour through debris for evidence of who attacked us, let’s get to the street. Then you tell me who the hell detonated a bomb in my building.” Sullivan turned down the long hallway leading past several now-empty offices, a med clinic and the elevators and stairwell.
“Whoever it was targeted Liz,” Braxton said.
Liz rounded into his vision. “There’s no evidence proving that bomb was meant for me.”
Sullivan twisted around, lips thin, hands ready to tear into the person responsible. “You used to work for the NSA, right? Sold classified intel and disappeared?” The CEO closed the distance between them, expression hard, calculating. “How do I know it wasn’t you who set a bomb in my conference room? Some sick game to get Elizabeth back in your life.”
“I’d kill any one of you before I let something happen to her. Is that a good enough answer for you?” Braxton straightened, surveying Vincent’s position in case the ex-cop made a move, then centered on Sullivan again. “The only thing that matters is this guy is going to keep gunning for her. I’m not going to let that happen.”
“Let’s move out.” Sullivan didn’t take his attention off Braxton. “I don’t trust you, Levitt.” Veins pulsed under the skin of the CEO’s arms as he pointed a dirt-smudged finger at him. “If anything happens to her, I will find you, understand?”
“I get that a lot.” Despite the threat, Braxton didn’t take offense. Liz had an entire team watching her back. He couldn’t fault the former Navy SEAL for protecting a member in his unit.
Vincent rounded behind him and Liz to take up the rear with silent obedience.
The sirens grew louder. First responders had arrived on the scene.
But Braxton didn’t move. The bomber hadn’t attacked Blackhawk Security. Not directly. The bastard had had only one target in mind, and he was staring right at her. The bomb was just the beginning. Whoever had set it would try again as soon as they realized Liz had survived. And what better way to ensure a target had been killed than enter the building as an EMT or firefighter for confirmation? Braxton lowered his voice, instincts prickling. There was more at stake now. They had a baby to consider. He shifted closer to her, pain radiating at the base of his skull as they made their way down the hallway, and lowered his voice to prevent the security cameras from picking up their conversation. “Listen to me, Liz. We can’t go to the street.”
“Wow, you do remember my name.” Liz moved to follow her colleagues.
He threaded his fingers around her arm and pulled her to a stop, holding her against him. The small fires burning around them had nothing on her body heat tunneling through his clothing right then. He covered his mouth and nose in the crook of his arm. “The garage. The only way in is with a key card, right? One exit? He’ll expect us down on the street with the others. Not exiting the garage.”
“What are you talking about?” She wrenched away from him as though his touch had burned her, his fingertips tingling from the friction against her jacket. Those dark brown eyes locked on him. One second. Two. Wisps of her uneven exhales tickled the oversensitized skin along his neck as she turned on him. “You’re insane if you think I’m going anywhere with you.”
Damn her stubbornness. One day it was going to get her killed. And then where would he be? He couldn’t find the bastard hunting her down without her. No matter how many times he’d tried to keep his distance, every road, every move to stay off the Feds’ radar had led him to Anchorage…to her. He didn’t care that her program might’ve already recognized him and reported his location to the NSA. He wasn’t going to leave her unprotected again.
The floor rumbled underneath his feet. The explosion had most likely damaged the building’s structure. They didn’t have a whole lot of time.
“We need to get moving.” Vincent stepped into them as Blackhawk Security’s CEO disappeared into a cloud of smoke toward the stairwell. Close enough for Braxton to reach out and touch him.
He didn’t want to have to do this, but the hard determination in Liz’s gaze said he didn’t have any other choice. “All right. If you’re not going to come with me willingly—” Braxton spun, wrapping his grip around the Sig Sauer in Vincent’s shoulder holster, and twisted the weapon out of the cop’s reach. With one hard swing of the butt of the gun to the operative’s head, Vincent went down. Hard. Braxton hefted the gun up, attention leveled on the shocked woman in front of him.
Liz lunged for the unconscious operative. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m kidnapping you. Once the bomber realizes you’re not dead, we lose the upper hand.” He pointed to her jacket with the barrel of the gun. “Toss your sidearm. Please.”
“Do you honestly expect me to leave him here?” Digging beneath the leather, she tossed her handgun to the floor.
“Of course not. Rescue is already on the way.” He kicked the weapon out of her reach and motioned her to her feet. “Head for the garage.”
“You should shoot me now, because I’m sure as hell going to shoot you when I get the chance.” She rose slowly, expression controlled, voice dropping into dangerous territory. Her almond-shaped eyes narrowed on him. Exhaustion—maybe a bit of pain from the blast—broke through her movements as she stepped around the unconscious forensics expert at her feet.
“Wouldn’t expect anything less from you.” The muscles in Braxton’s arms and neck tensed. In the thousands of times he’d imagined this moment, this wasn’t how he’d expected their reunion to turn out. But there was a killer on the loose, and he wasn’t about to lose her again. Not Liz. And not their baby. She shifted in front of him. Every second she stayed out in the open notched his blood pressure higher. “I’m trying to save your life, damn it. Trust me.”
“Stop asking me to trust you.” Liz headed for the stairwell, fire reflecting in her dark gaze. “I’m still trying to get over the last time you betrayed me.”