, Book Two
The best part of an op was the moment it was over. Unless, of course, it was your last.
Landon Miller brushed his thumb against the seam of his slacks as he scanned the lobby of the Majestic Hotel in Barcelona, waiting while his principle, Abdul Al Fattaim, finished his conversation with the hotel’s manager. Landon didn’t like wearing a suit. He liked being overseas even less. And though normally he’d be itching to say sayonara to a boring-ass job providing personal security for a sheikh, a big part of him was dreading the moment this was over and he was forced to face reality.
The phone in his pocket buzzed, and he curled his hand into a fist to keep from reaching for it. He’d been ignoring the messages for the last thirty minutes, knowing he had no right to look and respond, aching to do just that. Olivia Wolfe was off limits in every way imaginable, especially now, when his time was all but up. Not only was she the sister of an Aegis operative, the elite black-ops firm he’d been working for this last year, she was still dealing with the trauma of her recent abduction. And the last person she needed in her life—the last person who should ever be in her life—was a fucked-up former Marine and Defense Intelligence Agency employee.
Yeah, right. There was no such thing as former in his line of work. Not unless you were dead.
“Sheikh Fattaim thanks you for your services.” One of the sheikh’s personal bodyguards—one who hadn’t been thrilled when Landon had been brought in to oversee the sheikh’s tour through Europe because of Aegis’s expertise with the changing European political climate—handed Landon an envelope. Like every other one of the sheikh’s goons, he was dressed in a suit and wore shades to blend in but stuck out like a sore thumb.
Landon accepted the envelope and tucked it into his inside jacket pocket. “So this is where we part ways?”
“Yes,” the man said. “The sheikh no longer requires your services. You are free to go.”
Free to go. As if he’d been a prisoner. Landon couldn’t help but see the irony considering where he was headed next.
He glanced toward the sheikh, who was still knee-deep in conversation with the hotel’s manager. The sheikh caught his eye, nodded once in dismissal, then refocused on the man in front of him.
Landon scanned the lobby once more. The sheikh’s private goons spoke in quiet words near the main doors. A few women chatted animatedly on a cluster of couches, shopping bags at their feet. The hotel staff was busily checking guests in this late in the day. A bellhop, pulling a cart with two suitcases, wandered through the lobby, heading straight toward the sheikh.
Landon’s gaze settled on the bellhop, blending in to the background of the lobby. The man’s eyes were downcast. No one was paying him an ounce of attention. But as he drew closer to the sheikh, his jaw hardened, his hand around the pole of the cart tightened. He reached back with his other arm for something from the luggage. Cases, Landon noticed now, that weren’t completely closed.
Years of instinct, training, and listening to his gut kicked in. Landon’s muscles flexed. He was already moving toward the sheikh as he reached back for the Sig Sauer holstered at the base of his spine when he yelled, “Gun!”
The bellhop’s eyes flew wide. Rage coated his features. He pulled a semi-automatic weapon from the suitcase. Screams erupted in the lobby. The bellhop shrieked something Landon didn’t catch then aimed the weapon straight at the sheikh.
Landon’s arms came up, the Sig held loosely in his hands. He hurled himself toward the sheikh, twisted in the air, and pulled the trigger.
One single gunshot rang out through the lobby. Landon hit the sheikh with his shoulder, the force of his momentum shoving the man to the ground. They landed against the marble floor with a crunch. Grunting, Landon rolled to his side. The sheikh’s bodyguards were already reaching for the sheikh, grappling to help him up.
Arabic words Landon didn’t catch echoed in the air around him. Footsteps pounded against the marble floor. While the sheikh was helped to his feet, Landon glanced to the left, where the bellhop lay flat on his back, the gun inches from his lifeless fingers, a bullet dead center in the middle of his forehead.
“No, no, I’m fine.” The sheikh said.
Landon looked in the other direction, toward the sheikh who was shunning the help of his bodyguards.
“Mr. Miller,” the sheikh said in a thickly accented voice, reaching for Landon’s hand to help him up. “My sincerest gratitude.”
The sheikh didn’t like to be touched. Landon had been told in no uncertain terms the minute he’d joined the sheikh’s detail not to get too close. Reaching out, he gripped the other man’s hand and let the sheikh drag him to his feet.
He looked over at the bellhop, surrounded by hotel staff and a few of the sheikh’s men. “The police will be here soon. I’ll deal with it.” He turned back to the head of the sheikh’s detail, standing close. “Get him to the airport before anything else happens.”
The man hollered toward the men standing near the door. Several rushed over to shield the sheikh as they led him out.
The sheikh nodded once to Landon. “I am forever indebted to you, Mr. Miller, and all of Aegis Security. If you ever find yourselves in the Middle East and in need, do not hesitate to call on your old friend Abdul.”
He exited the lobby, flanked on all sides by men dressed in black. Landon watched through the glass doors as he was ushered into a waiting SUV, then disappeared into the city.
Exhaling, Landon looked back at the dead body in the middle of the lobby floor and holstered his weapon. No emotion flowed through him at the sight of what he’d done. Death, in all its forms, was simply a part of his life. Though a tiny piece of him did find it fucking ironic that this op—what should have been a cake-ass job—had ended the same as every other one he’d done for the DIA.
The phone in his pocket buzzed again, and this time he reached for it without hesitation.
ADDISON: Text me when you’re done. Jake wants an update.
Marley Addison was the op manager at Aegis Security, and Jake Ryder was her boss, CEO of Aegis and a former Navy SEAL who ran his black ops company with military precision. He was also the only person besides Marley who knew this was Landon’s last job with the company.
MILLER: Just finished. They’re headed to the airport now.
ADDISON: You’re not accompanying them?
MILLER: No. I’ve got things to deal with here.
Landon wasn’t in the mood to get into the details with Marley just yet. All he wanted was out of this suit and to be on a plane headed back to the States for his last few days of freedom before he had to report back to the DIA. But that wouldn’t happen until he dealt with the police.
ADDISON: We’re really going to miss you around here.
A lump formed in Landon’s throat. One that was both foreign and unexpected. No, he didn’t feel a goddamn thing killing a man, but Marley mentioning missing him was enough to leave him choked up. How fucking twisted was that?
MILLER: Now I know you’re just blowing smoke.
ADDISON: I do blow with the best.
ADDISON: Wait! Shit. That came out wrong.
Landon chuckled. He liked Marley. A lot. The woman had spunk. Not only was she smart, she didn’t take shit from anyone, him included. That made her a keeper in his book.
ADDISON: Getting back to business… You’re booked another night at the Majestic. Your flight leaves at 0800. We’ll debrief when you get back.
Great. Another night. Just what Landon wanted. But the disappointment was quickly replaced by a pang of…loss…rippling through his chest.
Jesus, his CO was right. He’d gotten soft. If feeling sad about a stupid, meaningless interim gig with Aegis wasn’t a sign he needed to man up and get back to what he’d been trained to do, nothing was.
He was just in the process of typing a quick response to Marley when a new text message popped up on his screen.
OLIVIA: I’m thinking of quitting my teaching job. What do you think?
Landon’s heart stuttered, just as it always did when Olivia Wolfe texted him, and he dug the fingernails into his palm to keep from responding too quickly.
It’d been three months since he’d last seen her. Three months since he’d rescued her from a group of wacked-out terrorists who’d taken her hostage as leverage against her sister, former CIA officer Evelyn Wolfe. His mind flashed to the way Olivia had looked when he’d found her chained to the floor in that dingy, dark Seattle basement—thin, frail, her hair so dirty he couldn’t tell what color it was. But even then—even before he’d gotten her to safety—he’d seen a spark of something in her eyes he’d never seen from anyone he’d rescued over the years.
He’d seen strength.
The kind that marked her as a fighter, not a victim. The kind that had propelled her out of a hospital bed she desperately needed to stay in so she could help find the evidence that would clear her sister’s name. The kind that had grown and matured over the months until times like this—when he’d get these random texts about major life changes she was contemplating—and he was awed all over again at how resilient she was.
No one reacted to trauma the way she did. No one he’d ever known—even him. Common sense told him he shouldn’t have anything else to do with an innocent, honest person like Olivia Wolfe, but no matter how many times he reminded himself of that fact, he still couldn’t stop being mesmerized by her.
His fingers moved over the keyboard before he could stop them.
MILLER: I think…that’s a big deal.
OLIVIA: But you don’t think it’s a bad idea?
He thought it was a terrible idea. Because if she wasn’t tied to a classroom in Boise, Idaho, she had no obligations. And no obligations meant there was nothing stopping him from dragging her off somewhere exotic for a week of sun and sex and fun before he had to report for duty with the DIA.
Which you can’t ever, ever do, dumbass.
He clenched his jaw and typed again, pushing the little fantasy from his head.
MILLER: What else would you do?
OLIVIA: I don’t know. I was thinking I could come bother you for a few days.
His stomach tightened, and blood rushed straight to his groin. A plethora of different ways he could make her come flashed behind his eyes.
He sucked in a breath and stared down at his phone.
MILLER: You’re teasing me.
OLIVIA: I might be. Like it?
Yes, he liked it. More than he should. He’d never had a relationship with a woman that hadn’t involved sex. Never had a relationship that lasted more than a few days. In his line of work, personal attachments weren’t just frowned upon, they were highly discouraged. So he’d certainly never been part of a long-distance friendship that was both deep and meaningful in ways he’d never expected, with a woman he’d only known for a matter of hours before leaving her.
But that’s what he had with Olivia. More than he’d ever had with any other woman, period. And damn, but he wanted more.
OLIVIA: You’re being awfully quiet, Mr. Miller. I’ll have to take that as a yes.
Landon’s gut twisted. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her. He never should have started texting her to find out how she was doing. These last few months, while they were the best he could remember—thanks to her—were also the worst of his life because he knew this relationship was fucked in every way possible.
MILLER: Olivia, we need to talk.
OLIVIA: Whoops. Bell just rang. I gotta go. We’ll talk later. Be safe, Landon.
Be safe, Landon. She always ended every conversation with that, as if she were worried about him. Just one more thing to remind him she was as sweet and special as she seemed. And he had no right being anywhere near her.
He pushed the phone into his pocket before he could text her back and stared at the lifeless body at his feet. Sirens sounded outside. In a matter of minutes he’d be inundated with questions. That freedom seemed so far off, he could barely see it.
But it was there. Waiting for him when he finished. And the prospect of spending the next few hours alone in his room, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Olivia… Yeah, some wacked out assassin hadn’t taken him down, but daydreaming about a woman he couldn’t have just might kill him.
The smart thing to do was forget about her. Forget he’d ever met her. Forget about the stupid fantasies he’s worked up these last few months. Get her out of his head—and what little heart he had left—for good.
Lucky for him, he knew exactly how to do that.
His gaze drifted to archway that led into the bar at the far end of the lobby. The room was dimly lit, and a few patrons sat scattered at tables. This early, the only people mingling and sipping cocktails were couples.
That didn’t mean a single woman wouldn’t show, though. One who could change his priorities for good. And tonight, if she didn’t find him, he’d find her.
And put Olivia Wolfe behind him for good.
* * * * *
“Last call for British Airways flight 48 with service from London to Barcelona, Spain.”
Olivia grabbed the bag at her feet and slid into line at the Heathrow gate behind a dark-haired woman holding a kid who looked to be no more than two on her hip. It had been on the tip of her fingers to tell Landon she wasn’t just thinking about coming to see him, she was already on her way, but she’d held back, wanting to surprise him.
A silly smile spread across her lips as she fingered her ticket and pictured him wandering around that big hotel in Barcelona with nothing to do. Her sister Eve, who worked with Landon at Aegis Security, had told Olivia that Landon was finishing his assignment today and that he wasn’t booked on a flight until morning. There was a chance he might not be at the hotel when she got there, but she knew from their conversations earlier in the week that he was burned out and just wanted to relax. She was banking on the fact he might want to relax with her. And that she could convince him to hang around in Europe with her for a week or two…or however long he wanted.
“Miss? Your ticket?”
Olivia’s gaze snapped to her right, and she realized she was at the front of the line holding up the boarding process. “Oh. Sorry.”
She handed the attendant her ticket, waited while the woman scanned the bar code, then took it back.
“Have a nice flight,” the attendant said.
Olivia mumbled “thanks” and headed down the Jetway. She was taking a huge risk traveling all the way to Europe to surprise him. She hadn’t seen him in months. He wasn’t her boyfriend. He’d never even hinted he wanted to be her boyfriend. But since Seattle they’d grown close. Texting every day—multiple times per day, calls whenever he could get to a phone, even Skyping if he had access to a computer. It seemed silly, but she felt closer to him than she had to anyone in a very long time. Since even before the abduction.
She’d known, sitting in that staff meeting last week, when she realized that she hadn’t heard a word her principal had said because she’d been thinking about Landon, that it was time to see if they had a chance for something more. Time to go after what she wanted. He might say no. She might get her heart broken. But life was too short to sit back and daydream. If she never took the chance, she’d regret that more than if this all blew up in her face.
The smile teasing the corners of her mouth wobbled as she stepped onto the 747. Her muscles instinctively tightened, and she drew a deep breath of stagnant air that immediately flashed her back to three months ago. To being trapped in a dark, stale box. To not knowing if she was going to get out. To being convinced she was going to die.
Her lungs constricted. Her palms grew sweaty. For a moment, the muscles in her legs shook with the remembered fear.
You’re safe. This is a plane, not a box. Nothing’s going to happen.
She drew a deep breath. Swallowed hard. Reminded herself that was over. No one was looking for her. What had happened before was never going to happen again.
Heart pounding, she turned down the aisle then glanced up at the interior of the aircraft. Not a box at all. Just a plane. Just like the one she’d stepped onto in Boise when she’d started this trip. She let out a slow breath. A plane that was as normal and ordinary and unimportant as her.
She found her seat, stowed her bag in the overhead bin, then settled in next to the window. She wasn’t convinced the therapy her sister had talked her into had done much good. She didn’t feel like a victim even if she did have a few moments of panic now and then. But she did like her therapist’s suggestion of finding her “happy place” whenever she felt stressed or anxious or afraid. Mostly because her happy place wasn’t a place at all. It was a person. And hopefully, in a few hours, he’d be as excited to see her as she was to see him.
A woman in her fifties with salt-and-pepper hair took the seat beside her. “You look American.” The woman’s accent was British. She leaned forward, pushing her purse under the seat in front of her. “First time in London?”
“Yeah,” Olivia said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “It shows, huh?”
The woman smirked. “A little.”
Small talk. She could do small talk to get her through this flight. And to keep her from worrying about what Landon’s reaction would be when he saw her. “I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I would have liked. I was only here on a short layover.”
“Oh, then you must come back. London is meant to be experienced, my dear, not laid over.”
Olivia smiled. “I will. It’s a beautiful city.”
The woman buckled her seat belt as passengers continued to board. “Are you visiting family in Spain?”
“No. A friend.”
When the woman lifted her brow, Olivia added sheepishly, “A guy friend.”
“Ah.” The woman leaned her head back against her seat. “The city of counts. Your love is not a count, is he?”
Olivia pictured Landon trussed up in a monkey suit in some fancy castle. Laughing, she said, “No. Not that I’m aware of. And he’s not my love. At least not yet.”
A spark ignited in the older woman’s eyes. “Yet? Oh there’s a story there, I can tell. Tell me all about him. Where you met and why he’s in Spain. We’ve got several hours to kill.”
Several hours? Suddenly, that seemed way too long. Olivia’s stomach tossed and swirled, but she knew without a doubt that coming to Europe to see Landon was not a mistake—no matter what her sister Eve would say when she found out Olivia had taken a leave from her job and emptied her savings for this trip.
“Well”—that silly grin spread across her lips again, the one that popped up whenever she thought of Landon Miller—“we definitely didn’t meet in the traditional way.”