The Collective Book 1
Grace Meredith is the CIA’s most deadly assassin. Too bad she’s gone off the grid and become a mercenary for hire. After the death of her daughter by a sniper’s bullet, Grace can no longer stomach the demands of agency life or keep herself from blaming the only man she’s ever loved. Her mind and body are fragile, and she knows she’s just a step away from breaking down completely.
Gabe Brennan hold’s the weight of the world on his shoulders. As one of the most brilliant black ops agents the CIA has ever employed, he knows it’s no one’s fault but his own that his child was gunned down in cold blood. He might not have been able to save his daughter, but he’s determined to save his wife. He only has to find her first.
Sexual tension crackles between Gabe and Grace from the moment they’re reunited, but between the man who is hunting them, a secret that’s been buried for eighty years, and a turbulent past—the odds are stacked against them.
Near the Border of Venezuela
By her calculations, Grace Meredith had exactly five and a half seconds to take out six targets before an alarm sounded. She had a round in the chamber and five in the magazine of her M40A5. Piece of cake.
She ignored the mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds searching for exposed flesh, and she ignored the sweat that dripped steadily down her spine as she looked through the scope of her rifle. The temperature was in the mid-nineties, but the canopy of trees that blanketed the area held the heat in like an oven and slowly baked anyone who didn’t have shelter. Her body and mind were disciplined, so the discomforts didn’t register.
Colombia wasn’t known for its gentle climate. Or gentle anything for that matter. Gemino Vasquez was Colombia’s baddest arms dealer, and lately his biggest client had been North Korea. But Vasquez had something Grace wanted very badly. Something that would bring in a big, fat paycheck from the South Korean government.
She shifted slightly, and the bark of the large tree branch she’d laid on for the last four hours ground against her stomach. But her focus was absolute. Not even the hundred and fifty foot drop to the ground could distract her. The orange sun blazed just over the tops of the trees, but it would disappear completely in another twenty minutes. By the time it was gone, she’d have the flash drive in hand and already be across the border to Venezuela.
Grace did one final check of all her equipment and took a deep, steadying breath, slowing her heartbeat so her pulse would be in time with each shot. She’d hit the sentry at the top of the Vasquez compound first and then take the rest in order from left to right. She pushed her feet against the tree for balance. The clock ticked in the background of her mind as she put the slightest amount of pressure on the trigger.
“One,” she whispered. She didn’t wait to watch him fall, but moved to the next target. Five seconds until the report from her rifle reached their ears. Five seconds for five more kills.
Grace didn’t stop to check the accuracy of her shots. She never missed. She hung her rifle on a tree branch, already missing the feel of it in her hands. Time was of the essence now, and she couldn’t afford to be burdened with too much equipment. The new guards would be driving up soon for the shift change, and she had to be long gone by then.
She took the crossbow she’d hung on another branch, lined it up with the tree that hovered over the roof of the compound, and fired. The bolt buried itself deep in the tree, and she held tight to the crossbow as the cable attached to the bolt threatened to jerk out of her hands. She pulled until the cable was taut and secured the crossbow in the crook of two sturdy branches, tying it down with rope from her bag just to be safe. Falling to her death wouldn’t bring her the money she needed.
Fifteen minutes until all hell broke loose.
Grace slipped on her harness and clipped herself to the cable. She pushed off from the sturdy branch that had been her refuge that afternoon and soared through the treetops like a phantom. And when her momentum died, she put hand over hand on the cable and pulled herself with pure strength to the compound roof.
The body of the first sentry she’d shot lay face down in the greenish-blue water of the swimming pool. A hazy cloud of blood ballooned from under him, and his arms and legs floated like waving ribbons.
Her eyes and ears were alert, but all that greeted her was growing darkness and silence. Even the animals and birds in the jungle knew bad shit was about to go down.
Grace unhooked the harness and pulled her Sig from a thigh holster. She stood silently next to the gray door that led from the roof down a set of stairs to the main floors of the house. Two heartbeats passed before she opened the door and slipped inside. It was quiet, but that wasn’t unusual at this time of the day according to her intel—six sentries on duty surrounding the compound, only two guarding Vasquez’s private suite of rooms.
Vasquez’s stupidity only made her job easier.
Grace walked silently down the thickly carpeted hallway as if she weren’t about to steal the schematics for a new super weapon—a weapon that used state of the art laser technology—and sell it to another country. But the closer she got to Vasquez, the more her spine tingled in awareness that something was wrong. That tingle had saved her life more than once, and she never ignored it. The hallway opened up into a landing just as she reached Vasquez’s private rooms. Weak light filtered through the windows and cast rainbows as it pierced the glass chandelier that hung overhead.
She saw firsthand exactly why her spine was tingling.
Both sentries were slumped against each other—a dead man’s embrace—one with a broken neck and the other with a hunting knife in his carotid. Efficient work considering the size of the sentries.
She pushed the bodies out of her way with her foot and eased the door open, her finger on the trigger of her Sig. All that mattered was the flash drive. If she didn’t produce it then she didn’t get paid.
The smells of new death were thick and cloying in the heat, and she could taste the fresh blood in the back of her throat with every breath she took. Dust mites danced in the air and long shadows were cast in the fading sunlight.
Grace waited for her eyes to adjust and listened for sounds of footsteps, but all she heard was the gentle whir of the wicker fans that rotated slowly on the ceiling. She moved silently, staying close to the wall as she checked each room.
Vasquez’s bedroom was bigger than her whole apartment—the furniture oversized and ornate—the colors garishly red. He was set up for sex. The interesting kind of sex by the looks of it. Restraints and various whips and other tools lined one whole wall, and torn condom packages littered the floor. It looked like Vasquez had had a busy morning. Too bad his afternoon hadn’t turned out so hot.
Gemino Vasquez’s body laid spread eagle on his bed. He was naked, and his eyes were open and unseeing. A single gunshot wound to the heart bled sluggishly. He hadn’t been dead long. She couldn’t stop the bitter disappointment when she saw the flash drive was gone from the chain on his right wrist.
“Dammit,” she whispered and moved to check the covers of his bed just to make sure it hadn’t come off in the struggle. But she knew in her heart it was long gone. She knew the signs of a professional hit, and this job reeked of it. What pissed her off even more was that whoever did it managed to sneak in right under her nose. He had to have known she was watching and snuck in through the one blind spot she had at the back of the compound.
The stir of air behind her was the only warning she had as an arm locked around her throat.
“Looking for this?” a deep voice whispered in her ear, holding the flash drive in front of her face.
He pressed close against her back and squeezed his arm tighter around her throat so she had to breathe shallowly through her nose. Grace winced as he pressed his fingers against the pressure points of her wrist and her pistol fell uselessly to the floor with a dull thunk.
Fear never had a chance to take hold. It was anger that drove Grace. Anger that had kept her alive the last couple of years. And she knew how to wield it. She threw her head back and aimed her heel at his knee simultaneously. He dodged her blows as if he’d been expecting them, but the distraction was enough for him to loosen his grip. She swept her leg and brought him to his knees, reaching down for the knife in her boot. The knife gleamed once in the fading sunlight just before it was knocked out of her hand and across the room.
He outweighed her by close to eighty pounds, and he had a good eight inches on her in height. They grappled and rolled, each one blocking the other’s strikes with only seconds to spare. It was a well choreographed dance.
A familiar dance.
The surprise of recognition took her off guard, and she looked up into laughing blue eyes framed by thick, dark lashes she’d always been jealous of. She had time to register that he’d let his hair grow—a shaggy mane of ink black that curled just over his ears and collar, and a face that was covered in a short, stubbled beard—just before her legs went out from under her. She hit the carpet with a thud. A hard body pressed her into the floor, and he held her wrists captive above her head.
“Hello, Grace.” His breath whispered against her skin, and she couldn’t stop her traitorous body from reacting to his familiar scent. Her nipples hardened and she arched against him. “You’ve been practicing. Who’s your new sparring partner?”
“What do you want, Gabe?” She tried to act as if his growing erection against her thigh wasn’t having any effect, but she could tell by the way he shifted against her that her attempt failed. She bit her lip to stifle a moan as he pressed against the very heat of her. He knew exactly how to weaken her resolve. They’d always been able to read each other much too well.
“I want you, of course.” His lips glanced across her cheek to the corner of her mouth, and she sucked in a breath that brought her body even closer to his. After everything he’d done, he was still the only man who could make her feel less than whole when their bodies weren’t fused together. She hated him for it. She hated herself for it.
“Go to hell.” She struggled against him, but he just shifted his weight to hold her down.
“I’ve been there, thanks. Christ you feel good. Stop wiggling and we’ll talk. Don’t you want to at least hear my offer?”
She stilled her body and relaxed, hoping he’d get distracted long enough for her to make a move. “I don’t want anything you have to offer. Just give me the flash drive.”
“I figure we have exactly four minutes to get out of this place before the new guards show up for the shift change and Armageddon begins. All I’m asking is that you come back with me and listen to my offer. If you hear me out and still turn me down, then I’ll give you the flash drive with no hard feelings, and you can claim your bounty.”
Grace stared at him and tried to decide if he was bluffing. “I don’t trust you.”
“You never have. But what I’m offering will pay you more than double any of the jobs you’ve recently taken. Just hear me out.”
“Fine. Just move your hard-on and let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Darlin’, I have scars on my back from the last time you asked me to move my hard-on. Be careful what you wish for.”
“You son of a bitch.”
“So you’ve told me before. Let’s go before Vasquez’s men get here. I’ve got a pick up scheduled in twenty on the other side of the border.”
Grace had no choice but to follow him out of one hell and into another.