Where are all the eligible, well-hung, sexually talented men in Catamount Lake?
It was Friday night; Maine Game Warden Officer Abigail O’Connell was babysitting, and she was making a list. A naughty-and-nice list, as it were.
After young Matthew had gone rock-a-bye-baby, she returned to the kitchen. First, she gathered up her long blonde hair into a high ponytail on the top of her head. Not pretty, but efficient. Then, she mixed up a batch of avocado goop according to directions and slathered the mess all over her face. One must care for one’s pores, after all, especially when one worked outdoors all day, every day.
Setting a yellow legal pad in front of her on the kitchen table while the goop firmed up and did its thing, she made two columns under the title Possible Date List
(1) Potential/Hot Sex
(2) Fun/Party/No Sex
The list developed: fellow game wardens; conservation officers; local law enforcement; staties; search and rescue; EMTs. Anyone she knew with some amount of certainty was totally heterosexual—she’d learned that lesson from her last tryst where such knowledge could have been a deciding factor. Additionally, any prospect should be single and stand taller than she did. Abby was only five feet seven but preferred big men. Husbands looking for a fling need not apply. She didn’t consider herself to be fling material.
She reconsidered her criteria and decided divorced guys should be included, otherwise the list would be ridiculously short. She could fine-tune later, if necessary, to narrow down possible choices.
After scribbling furiously, she sat back, checked the columns. Well, bloody hell in a yellow straw handbasket.
Except for one, all the names were in the no sex
column. And the single name in the hot sex
column was a been there, done that, no go. Bummer.
Dismayed by her results, Abigail penned a large X over the entire page, then abandoned the list.
The security alarm pad on the kitchen wall sounded, startling her into a mini-adrenaline rush. She wasn’t expecting company. No one was due to check in at Sanctuary for training until Monday morning. By that time Adam, Lucian, and Lorelei would have returned to once again take over the reins.
Two problems. Number one, it was too damn late for callers; number two, Abigail was alone in the house with eight-month-old Matthew. Still in uniform, she checked the .357 rounds in her SIG Sauer P229, slapped the magazine tight. She hit the intercom button. “Sanctuary Lodge. Unless you’re delivering pizza with no peppers or little fishies, we’re locked down for the night. Oh, and I should mention I’m armed.”
“Ma’am, Sergeant Nico Ferrari, ma’am. No pizza, sorry. No need for a weapon. I’m the Hail Mary trainer, called in for this session.”
Hmm, smooth, mellow tone, with a slight inflection of either South or country. I could listen to that voice for a while.
“Look, chief, no one is due for orientation until Monday.”
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am. My previous business didn’t take as long as planned. Is Gunnery Sergeant Stone or Staff Sergeant Duquesne available? One of those boys will vouch for me.”
Still can’t quite place the accent.
“Sergeant Ferrari, hang tight for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
Abigail placed a call to Lucian. After imagining how he’d sashay his fine, unhurried Southern ass to the phone, she explained the situation and gave Gate Guy’s name. She must have interrupted something, since she could hear voices in the background. Well, a conversation between Lucian and Lorelei, plus a growl from Adam. The growl bolstered her belief that she’d interrupted the threesome. Then again, with Adam, it was difficult to tell—he pretty much snarled about everything.
“Ferrari’s an affirmative, Abby,” Lucian said. “His cabin isn’t quite ready, so he can either bunk in one of the guest rooms or head back to town to the CataLodge and put his room on our tab. However, he’s housebroken, and more importantly, Lorelei gave the okay since Matthew is in residence. So, it’s your decision, sweet cheeks.”
“Gee whiz, thanks.” Abigail ended the call, Lucian still laughing as she disconnected.
What to do, what to do.
Alone in the house with a strange man and a baby. Lorelei had given permission for the visitor to stay, apparently confident in her child’s safety—so maybe having adult company and adult conversation wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Matthew was adorable, but at eight months, his vocabulary was currently somewhat limited. Subjecting Gate Guy to a good half-hour’s drive back to town seemed kinda mean. Throw in that voice…
She hit the intercom. “All right, sergeant, drive up to the lodge.” She pressed the button to open the security gate, which would close behind him.
When Abigail opened the front door, the hand poised over her weapon dropped to her side. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner…
Her unwavering gaze locked onto six feet and about one hundred-ninety pounds of totally rockin’ make me your sex slave
body. Sand-colored T-shirt stretched tightly over wide shoulders, substantial biceps, and sculpted torso. Matching camo BDU pants taut over thick thighs, the pant legs tucked into tan combat boots. Ice-blue eyes outlined by long, thick black lashes steadfastly returned her stare, their light color a surprise when combined with his swarthy complexion. Black hair clipped marine high and tight, although longer top curls were trying to fall over his forehead. The five-o’clock shadow was probably left over from the day before. A waist rig held his Colt M45A1 weapon close.
Those shockingly pale eyes rounded out as he returned her stare. “Ma’am? Did I catch you at a bad moment?”
She tore her gaze from the most lush, kissable lips she’d ever seen on a man. Brain finally kicked into gear, with a response forthcoming. “I’m sorry?”
He circled a finger next to his cheek. “Ma’am, I think you may have overlooked something.”
Oh crap, crocodiles on a cruise ship.
She’d forgotten the avocado face mask. Good thing the slime covered her cheeks or he’d see how the heat of total embarrassment lit up her face. With her fair complexion, even under a tan, she couldn’t get away with anything. Then her hand went to the messy ponytail perched on top of her head. Omigod, I look like a Halloween witch in green.
“Coffee? Iced tea? Lemonade?” she asked.
“Oh, the ma’am stuff’s gotta stop.” Leaving him standing inside the door, she fled through the great room to the kitchen.
“Kitchen, refrigerator, coffeemaker, coffee pods in the cupboard,” she stammered as she pointed. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back. Be quiet. The baby’s sleeping upstairs. Don’t wake him.” She flew toward the nearest staircase.
“BABY? WHAT BABY?”
Too late. After that non sequitur, she’d fled. Other than ma’am, he still didn’t know her name.
Nico wandered into the kitchen, which would have been overpowering in a normal family residence. An abundance of whitewashed beadboard cupboards, black-trimmed wainscoting, black granite countertops, and the large, professional-grade stainless steel appliances would have been intimidating in a smaller space. In the large, high-ceilinged room, it all worked.
Nico had settled at the long trestle table with a mug of black coffee—there were no normal cups to be found, only mugs of varying sizes—when he noticed the legal pad with an X defacing the entire page. Flipping it around, he scanned the title: Possible Date List
. Two columns. Twelve names on the no sex
was the only name on the hot sex
side, with a line drawn through it. One name, crossed off? How sad is that?
His hostess had been dressed in some sort of dark khaki green uniform, tailored to fit her slender but curvy figure, her breasts high and firm looking. A no-shit serious SIG Sauer rode low in a thigh holster instead of the usual waist-cinched duty rig.
He hadn’t been quick enough to read the patches on her sleeves and the badges on her chest, but he’d managed a good view of her ass as he’d followed her into the lodge. Her perfect ass. Then she’d flitted all over the place, the messy ponytail at the crown of her skull resembling the nest of a manic squirrel. Her face had still been pale green. Tough to get a good view of anything while she was agitated.
Her eyes, though. Wow. His were a cool, winter blue from his Swiss mother, but hers were soft and warm and summery blue—and familiar. Almost like…
He barely had time to return the notepad to its former position before Tinker Bell dashed back into the room. Released from the ponytail, her long ash-blonde hair fell loose and smooth below the points of her shoulders. Fair skin—sans green goo—appeared softly golden, probably from time spent outdoors. Those bright eyes were wide with her exertions—or excitement.
Then the universe screeched to a halt; the world stopped spinning. Life as he’d known it until two seconds ago crashed and splintered into major fault lines.
It wasn’t possible, yet here she was. Not only in Maine, at the borders of which his trail of available intel had ended several years ago, but fucking here
in Maine, at Sanctuary lodge. Hair longer, with lighter streaks, probably from her time in the sun. Face still smooth, but leaner, cheekbones more defined. Soft-looking lips in naturally colored rose blush. But it was her eyes, her incredibly blue eyes, that could stop a man in his tracks. It became achingly clear why those eyes had looked so familiar.
Abby had been awesome at twenty-two, which was the last time he’d seen her. Well, the last time he’d first seen photos of her. Photos still in his possession. Photos she’d sent to her fiancé. Her dead fiancé, six years gone. Pete “Spiderman” Galletti, marine spotter. Nico’s partner for two years. Pete, taken out by a single Iraqi sniper round meant for Nico.
Meant for him. Lucky Nicky Speed, the deadly, once cocky, once smart-ass scout sniper with a bounty on his head. These days, only the capacity for deadly remained in his repertoire. The cockiness was gone. The bounty continued to grow.
Nico shook his head, refocused. Yeah, it was the same woman. At nearly thirty, she was more stunning than she’d been at twenty-two.
He couldn’t breathe.
It took him a moment to realize she was holding out her hand. “Officer Abigail O’Connell, Game Warden for the great state of Maine.”
I know who you are, darlin’. Except for the Game Warden part, and the Catamount Lake part. You were some sort of park ranger in the Hudson Valley, waiting for a man who’d never return. Then you were gone.
He felt his lungs collapse. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.
“Officer O’Connell, ma’am. Ni— Sergeant Nico Ferrari, United States Marine Corps, at your service.” He admitted his rank but avoided his area of expertise, avoided designating the specialty that made him so lethal. He took her hand with surprisingly steady fingers, considering. Her skin was soft but her grip firm. Things not apparent in photos or Skype videos.
“Sergeant Ferrari”—she retrieved her hand—“you need to dispense with the ma’am shit. It’s not only annoying, but you make me feel as old as my Great-aunt Imogene. Abigail or Abby will do.”
“Abby, then.” Less likely to make a mistake if she’s Abby.
“Call me Ni…Ferrari. I’d like to avoid the sergeant thing, so we can tuck that away with Auntie Imogene.” Man, I gotta stop tripping on my balls over my own fuckin’ name. No one uses my given name. No call name, no nickname she needs to know about. Damn.
“Are you sure? Okay, Ferrari it is. Abby and Ferrari—sounds like a burlesque act.” When she laughed, her face lit up and her eyes sparkled, a dimple on each side framing her mouth.
I should go. Cancel my training gig and leave. Quickly. Like maybe tonight. Yeah, that’s what I should do. Now.
Before he could move, he remembered the deal. The deal made with the quasi-government boss who pulled the strings behind his military boss. Either Ferrari attended Sanctuary to decompress under the guise of teaching his dangerous skills, or he would never know when or where the headshot came from that would take him out.
After Pete’s death, Nicky Speed slid into solo mode. His efficiency remained inviolate; his kill list grew—but his handlers considered his recent state of mind increasingly precarious. Rogue. Powder keg. Loose cannon. Off the fucking reservation. Erratic. Volatile. Unpredictable.
Pick one—he’d heard those and more, although he took offense at some of the more irritating labels. He never lost sight of an assignment; sure and steady, he wasn’t hesitant or impulsive with his sniper rifle in hand.
There was no way to explain to anyone that his descent into desolation had been caused not only by the loss of his best friend and partner, but also by the knowledge that the woman he craved was gone. He sought solitude, but he wasn’t crazy.
However, current wisdom coming down from higher-echelon intel decided Nicky Speed, in the simplest terms, needed to get his shit together. Sanctuary camp, owned and run by two retired marines, with a federal agent thrown in for good measure, was apparently the place to do it. Stone and Duquesne had handed him the perfect opportunity to get his head out of his ass, to prove he wasn’t a liability.
Marine scout sniper Adam Stone remained a legend in the sniper community—once a target landed within his sights, the outcome was a done deal. The man was as lethal as he was ruthless. Rumor had it his spotter, Lucian Duquesne, could instantly modify adjustments in wind and elevation caused by nothing more than a mosquito’s fart.
According to Nico’s intel, Stone and Duquesne’s third was Lorelei Randall, NCS Special Agent on Leave. Her exact association with the marines was at present unknown to him.
Well, fuck it.
What the hell were his choices? Torture himself over a woman he’d loved for years who had no idea he existed or take a bullet to the brain when he least expected it.
He could ghost; his skills would keep him alive longer than most. But some day, some way, a younger, hungrier, better shooter would catch up, take him out, then add Nico’s name to that sniper’s own kill book. All under the radar, of course. All under the fucking radar. For the better good, they would say. For the better fucking good.
He was here and she was here—so, he needed to adapt. That’s what marines were trained to do: they improvised, adapted, overcame. He jumped back into play. “You have a baby?”
As she turned from fixing her coffee at the counter, Abigail stared at him, surprise evident. “I beg your pardon?”
“You said don’t wake the baby. So, you have a baby?” Good save.
She brought her mug to the table with a plate of cookies, then set the snack between them. Catching sight of the legal pad, she blushed, flipped it over so the list faced down. “Oh, hell no, not my kid.”
Good to know. He wouldn’t be required to deal with the man who fathered a child on her. Righteous confrontation—at least in his mind—wouldn’t be a positive way to begin their relationship. Relationship? Fuck. What relationship?
Danica St. Como