Master Sergeant Duke Gunnison sucks at retirement. He has no intention of turning in his combat boots for golf shoes. His former life in Special Ops, where he protected innocents and fought dangerous enemies, provided the rush he continually craved. Without the constant missions to feed his adrenaline addiction, he’s lost his sense of purpose and he struggles to find meaning in his new life—until he gets a life changing phone call.
Grey Holden, a founder of the prestigious private security agency The Omega Team, offers Duke a chance at a second life doing what he was born to do—a special op to safeguard the daughter of an important Ukrainian diplomat. But Mila Bartosh is not only a special envoy’s daughter, sent to accompany her father as he negotiates the removal of troops in eastern Ukraine. She’s on a secret mission of her own—to exact revenge on a powerful Russian mob boss, guilty of unspeakable crimes.
Mila is determined to help protect her father and accomplish her treacherous undertaking at all costs. But as her tasks become more complex, she unexpectedly reunites with the man who stole her heart and then vanished into the night, never to be heard from again, until now. Her love’em and leave’em paramour is none other than her new American bodyguard Duke Gunnison. With innocent lives on the line, can she carry out her missions while avenging her broken heart?
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As far as European hotels went, the Grand Lutsk Hotel was near the top of the marks with its classy decorations, spa and guest services. The air conditioning was a definite plus. The majority of places Duke had ever stayed in boasted “rustic” accommodations, which generally meant the hot air outside was cooler than one could expect inside. Having grown up in the swamps of Louisiana, and then soldiering most of his life, sleeping in AC and on anything but the ground or a stained, second-hand mattress felt fairly high-class.
He’d barely settled in and managed a quick shower before his first scheduled meeting with Yure Bartosh. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had time to get a haircut or do more than stuff a bag full of washed clothes before jetting off for Ukraine. Now, as Duke rubbed the stubble on his chin and stared at his reflection in his suite’s swanky bathroom—what self-respecting man used a bidet, for Christ’s sake?—he had to admit he looked a little rough around the edges.
His hair was long enough to brush his shoulders, and its dirty-blond coloring had lightened from his many days fishing and combing the beach. The nicest outfit he’d packed—and currently wore—was a Western shirt, a pair of faded jeans and his snakeskin boots. Had his brother returned the one and only suit Duke owned, he would have brought that along too. But one simply couldn’t pack what one didn’t possess or have time to buy.
All in all, he could easily be mistaken for an American bum.
The thought made him grin.
No harm in being considered a bum. People didn’t expect much from that lot, especially in Europe, which worked in his favor. Anyone seeing him around would think he was an easy target. The men he needed to watch for would come out of the woodwork and try to take him on. Then they’d be in for a big surprise. The same thing had happened when he was a kid, and again when he’d joined the Army. This side job wouldn’t be any different.
The rush out the door and onto a plane, plus three sleeping pills, had also meant he couldn’t dwell on the fact he’d be playing bodyguard to Mila Bartosh. Jesus. Having her pop back into his life felt a little like karma giving him a swift kick in the ass. Their coming together again would no doubt top the charts for awkward reunions. He’d be lucky if the feisty woman didn’t haul off and try to shoot him with his own gun. Well, the Ukrainian government’s gun. Europeans didn’t take too kindly to folks flying in with weapons.
Someone knocked on the door, followed by a muffled, “Mr. Gunnison, Mr. Bartosh will see you now.”
The words were spoken in Ukrainian with a notable Eastern dialect.
“Here goes nothing,” Duke said to his reflection. “It’s your first day on the job. Let’s try not to piss anyone off, get shot or blow anything up. What do ya say?”
A tall man in a dark suit led him to the top floor of the hotel. They passed several more men in matching dark suits flanking the hallway and stopped outside a set of wide double doors. Plenty of time to get his pulse in check before seeing Mila. He was former Special Ops and here to do a job, not some angsty teenager dealing with an angry date he’d left at the prom.
His escort gave him the onceover before knocking. Duke hadn’t missed the man’s disdainful smirk.
“We all look like this in the states. Part of our dress code. You’d look like an idiot there.” Duke spoke in English, not caring if the man understood. If this guy and the rest of the security detail were doing a bang-up job in the first place, he’d still be catching fish in the Gulf of Mexico rather than babysitting their boss’s daughter or facing his past.
Without any acknowledgement to what he’d said, the man opened the door then closed it after Duke walked into the room. There, an old but sizable gentleman with long gray hair and an equally gray beard and mustache sat at the end of a table. Based on the pics from files Grey Holden had e-mailed, the fella was Yure Bartosh, the diplomat. Mila’s father.
Also based on the pics, the stiff in the suit behind Bartosh was Burton Laramie. The other hired gun sent from The Omega Team. The way Laramie stood, ramrod straight with his hands clasped behind his back and feet spread slightly apart, were sure signs the guy had to be pure Boy Scout. Someone who always did the right thing and followed the rules down to the crossed T’s. Laramie was probably very good at his job, but he would definitely be no fun at parties.
Mila sat at the table as well, her attention focused on a pile of papers. She didn’t look pleased.
Duke’s mouth went dry and his heart began to thump fast and loud in his ears. Damn if the woman wasn’t even more beautiful than the last time he’d seen her, and he’d seen a lot of her back then.
I’ve never felt this way about anyone.
I want to be with you.
I…I love you.
She finally looked up and her gaze met his. She tilted her head and pursed her lips, confused. Then her chest rose and fell as though breathing had suddenly become an effort. Her eyes widened. Color sprang up her neck and raced to her face. In an instant she was on her feet, smoke pouring from her ears.
“You! What the hell are you doing here?” she growled in her native tongue.