Hard Target: Elite Ops - Book One

 

Hard Target

E
LITE
O
PS
—B
OOK
O
NE

KAY THOMAS

 

Contents

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Acknowledgments

An Excerpt from
Personal Target

About the Author

An Excerpt from
Rescued by a Stranger
by Lizbeth Selvig

An Excerpt from
Chasing Morgan
by Jennifer Ryan

An Excerpt from
Throwing Heat
by Jennifer Seasons

An Excerpt from
Private Research
by Sabrina Darby

Copyright

About the Publisher

 

D
edication

For Dr. Joe Stockwell—my college English professor, first editor, and friend.

Thank you for being my inaugural fan.

And in memory of Aunt Skeeter a.k.a. “Pretty”—who believed I could do this before I did.

 

Chapter One

Cancun, Mexico

“M
EET ME UPSTAIRS.
I want you and I’m taking you to bed.”

Despite her pounding head, Anna Mercado smiled to stall for time and sipped her margarita. Delivering a not-so-subtle message, her estranged husband ran his fingertips lightly over the top of her thighs before adjusting the beach umbrella.

“We’ve already discussed this. I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she said.

“No? I think it’s one of the better ideas I’ve had all day.” Max Mercado grinned, completely at ease with her seeming rejection. “You need more sunscreen or you’re going to burn, babe.” His accent made the declaration sound sexy as he climbed over his wood-and-canvas chair to grab the lotion from her bag.

She took another sip of the frozen drink and searched for what to say. Going upstairs with her handsome husband was a terrible idea. She looked past the pristine sand of the Ritz-Carlton’s exclusive beach to the startling blue water of the Gulf and tried to remember how she’d been talked into this faux family vacation.

That was easy. Their very ill son had begged. She couldn’t refuse Zach when he’d asked for so little in the past twelve months.

As much as she’d like to blame the wretched circumstances, Max’s assumptions this morning were completely valid and entirely her fault. Yesterday she’d been looking for courage to face the future, so she’d let herself be talked into sharing a suite with him instead of insisting on her own room. She’d come dangerously close to sharing a bed with him last night as well.

But almost having sex had more to do with sharing two bottles of wine than talking—and absolutely nothing to do with courage. Lack of communication had long been an issue in their failing marriage. Lack of communication and Max’s lack of exclusivity.

Compatibility in the bedroom had never been a problem for him . . . with anyone. If anything, it was just the opposite. Her husband liked to show every woman a good time in bed.

Today, she had the mother of all headaches and morning-after regrets over an evening that had led to “almost sex.” She was not sleeping with him. She couldn’t.

Even if that intimacy was . . . familiar. Safe. Easy. Comfortable. It wasn’t love. Not anymore.

Despite what others thought, it didn’t matter to her how wealthy Max was. As his wife she couldn’t live with his infidelity. She took another sip of her frosty concoction and reached up to stay his hand as he went from rubbing sunscreen into her shoulders to massaging her neck.

Okay, so she liked his hands on her. And the man was beautiful. There was no denying it. With his Hispanic good looks and panty-melting charm he’d always been difficult to resist. Maybe this drink was starting to work as a hangover cure, or maybe she should just set it down on the side table immediately, because she was considering going upstairs with him.

“Zach’s having a blast.” She was still stalling. “I told him I would get him food from the beach grill when they open for lunch.”

Their fourteen-year-old son was sand sculpting a great white shark with his cousins ten yards away, blissfully oblivious to his mother’s dilemma.

“This could be his last shot at fun for a while. Once he checks into Children’s Transplant Center . . .” All playfulness was gone from Max’s tone.

“I know.”

A year ago she’d never dreamed it would take so long for her son to get a new heart, or that his health would deteriorate to the point where they’d be forced to consider an LVAD heart pump to serve as the “bridge to transplantation.” The countless meds they used and the pacemaker implanted six months earlier could no longer regulate his heart rhythm. Waiting had become a tangible enemy as time was running out.

That they were now waiting for someone else to die so their child could live was something she tried not to think about. The guilt would be overpowering. As it was, Anna jumped whenever the phone rang.

“Are you glad you’re here?” Max’s husky voice pulled her from the dismal thoughts. Seeing Zach so happy, she couldn’t help but nod.

“Yes, I am. I didn’t realize how much of a toll this has been taking. You’re sure we can get there in time if the hospital calls?”

“With the company plane we can be at CTC in three hours. And we’ve got Julia to take care of him if any complications arise.”

Anna glanced at the extremely competent and attractive private cardiac care nurse who’d flown into Cancun with them from Dallas. “I know, I just—”

“He’s been on the wait list a year, Anna. They’re not going to call this weekend. He’s checking into the hospital Monday for the LVAD. God only knows how long that recovery will take.”

“But—”

He was behind her and wouldn’t let her interrupt. “I’m not asking if I can come back or if we can do the transplant procedure here in Mexico anymore. But we need to give him this time away from the strain and stress of it. Forty-eight hours is all. Let him enjoy his family. I need to give you both this time. Please, let me.”

Anna squeezed her eyes shut. She wouldn’t argue with him. Not anymore. It was too exhausting when he lost his temper.

Just for today, she wasn’t going to look back and she wasn’t going to look forward. She couldn’t think of what the coming weeks held. The past year had been too hard, and the future was too scary to contemplate.

As much as she longed for something or someone to give her hope, she knew Max was not that man. But he was safe and he was all she had.

She nodded.

“So?” Her husband sat in the beach chair beside her. “Are you done beating yourself up about last night? It’s okay, you know. We are still married. And I still want you. Come upstairs. Forget about all this for a while.”

She blew out the breath she’d been holding and swung around to look at him through dark glasses. It was disconcerting that he was practically reading her mind. He wasn’t usually able to do that.

“I can’t. I need—”

“What Anna?” He interrupted as usual, but in the past he would have been irritated with this level of intimate conversation. Today he truly seemed interested in what she had to say. “What do you need?”

“Things that are not fair to ask of you if I’m not staying in this marriage.”

“I understand. But he’s my son, too. Did it occur to you that I might be scared and looking for a little comfort?”

His words shocked her to her toes because they mirrored her thoughts exactly.

Comfort sex
.

She slid Chanel sunglasses down her nose to stare at him. “No, frankly that never occurred to me.”

He stared into her eyes. “Lay the burden down, babe. Emilio will watch the boys and Julia is here, too.”

The very capable Julia was under the huge shade tent shielding the boys from the blazing Mexican Riviera sun. Emilio, the tank-like Mercado bodyguard, was several yards away under another umbrella watching them all. His only concession to the beach setting was a knit shirt instead of a coat and tie.

Max’s affluent family owned the largest tequila distillery in Mexico and took precautions everywhere these days, even inside an exclusive resort. Her husband was right. Anna wasn’t really needed at the moment.

“I—” she hesitated but it had to be said. “You do understand I’m not staying.”

He touched her face when she would have stopped there.

“I feel like I’m using you, Max.”

He laughed, a deep rich sound that stirred something inside her from long ago. Those hypnotic brown eyes crinkled up at the corners as he brought her hand to his lips. “God yes, woman. Now come upstairs and use me some more.”

She laughed with him then, every argument slipping away. “All right. But I have to get my head wrapped around all this. Plus I have to get Zach something to eat.”

She took his hand and read the time on his expensive dive watch. “The grill opens in fifteen minutes. I’ll be up right after,” she said.

He grinned at her like a boy who is about to commit serious mischief and knows he won’t be punished. Leaning over her body to kiss her, he caressed her shoulder and slid his palm down her arm into her bikini top to cop a very thorough feel. She gasped, but he was blocking everyone’s view.

“The only thing I want you to wrap yourself around is
me
. I’ll be in the suite. I’ve got a couple of calls to make.” He kissed her again, making it crystal clear what he intended to do to her once she got upstairs. Then he was gone, waving to the boys and stopping to talk to Emilio.

She sat listening to the waves, surprised at how aroused she was. Maybe this was another mistake, but she didn’t care. Her headache was fading and she was going for it.

She wasn’t going to pretend he was offering courage or anything resembling hope. But what he could offer was pulse pounding, peel-the-paint-off-the-ceiling comfort sex. That was the only thing on the menu, and right now she’d take it, because the coming days were looking grim.

“T
AKE
Z
ACH FROM
the party before the guests arrive. We won’t dump her body until the designated time. It’s all been arranged.”

Anna stopped in the doorway of the Presidential suite, her husband’s words abruptly penetrating her lust-fogged brain.

“No, I’m not worried. Haven’t you heard? Mexico is the land of vicious drug cartels and random violence. My wife will be a sad statistic.”

Was this a dream?

She felt the cold Italian marble beneath her bare feet and recognized Max’s voice in the adjoining room, but she didn’t wake up. The seductive words he had whispered moments earlier on the beach still resonated in her head.

The only thing I want you to wrap yourself around is me.

She’d come up immediately when Julia had volunteered to get Zach and the cousins’ meals from the hotel’s beach grill. But on the way to the room she’d been calling herself all kinds of a fool. She and Max were on the verge of officially separating even though they’d been living apart for several months. The counseling wasn’t working. Having sex was a terrible idea. Even comfort sex.

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