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by Destiny Blaine
Description: How far will a family go to hide embarrassing secrets? How deep will an intelligence agent dig in order to uncover them? Audra McAllister is one tough broad leading a small team of modern day renegades determined to protect those they're hired to guard. However, her extensive training never prepared her for Brance Willingham, a man from the past who is determined to win her hand, maybe even her love. Safeguarding an affluent American family, Audra fears the enemy is living among them. Soon, her fellow agents discover they're helping a high profile family conceal the truth behind an enormous political scandal. And they're forced to make professional decisions with the potential to destroy them all.
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2011 November
eBookwise Release Date: April 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [152 KB]
Reading time: 89-125 min.
"Well ain't this just grand?" Nathan Willingham grumbled the second he saw Audra McAllister standing on the veranda of his historic Franklin, Tennessee antebellum home. "The Confederation sent a damn woman to guard my family?"
Audra stiffened at the insult. She'd fully expected Senator Willingham's sharp tongue and unpleasant greeting, but she'd never imagined how much the politician's words would cut like a knife.
"In the early days, the Confederation protected its own. Now? Bah! Those in charge don't give a damn about anything, unless of course, their families are the marks. Then? Oh well, then it's a different story. Now you see why I'm glad that boy of mine left your schismatic group."
Squaring her shoulders and standing as tall as her five-foot-four frame would allow, Audra said, "Senator Willingham, I'm Audra McAllister, the senior agent in charge. I'm here to reassure you. Our best and brightest agency experts are working on the current threat to you and your family." She turned toward the men to her left. "This is Scott Swanson and Mark Reynolds. We're honored to serve you, sir."
Scott and Mark offered their hands. Both were ignored. Senator Willingham paced the length of his porch, chewing on the tip of an unlit cigar. "Thomas sent you out here with two agents, did he?"
"Yes, sir," Audra replied, thinking the senator would be pissed off over limited manpower, and for good reason. Audra had argued with her senior advisory agent, Thomas Hadley, until she'd been blue in the face. For this particular assignment, they needed a large team of security intelligence agents, and when their orders came down, she was shocked over the lack of front-line support.
"Do you understand the magnitude of this threat, Miss McAllister?"
"Senator Willingham, I can relate to your concerns. You have successfully managed to irritate the situation between the US and the cartel controlling Mexican border towns. You are viewed as a terrible menace to the cartel, and enormous profits stand to be lost. Understandably, corrupt Mexican leaders want you eliminated. However, I must encourage you to look at the minimal assistance we have and help us develop a plan for keeping your family safe. If we work together, we'll be better prepared when the threat arrives."
"When the threat arrives?" Steam could've been swirling from the senator's ears and it wouldn't have made a difference. He clenched his fists, growled like an enraged bear, and his brows came together as if they were destined to touch. He looked angry, mean, and just plain scary. "Do you have any idea what my children have sustained, the kind of torture my son endured? My teenage daughters were almost kidnapped twice. Where were you then, Miss McAllister?"
Audra understood Senator Willingham's anger and fear. She'd read the Willingham report, studied the senator's family like a science, and realized if an attack came down again, her team would suffer more than minimal collateral damage. There would be bodies to count. A bleak end result could be unavoidable.
Audra and her unit believed in their abilities, but the facts were hard to ignore. They were outnumbered. The Willinghams would need to take an active role in fighting their enemies. Agent Hadley had assured her she would have Brance Willingham's support, but until she saw Brance, she had no way of knowing. He'd walked away from the Confederation once.
Still, a recurring thought made her believe Brance might work with them. The previous year, he had been held hostage in a desolate location where he was said to have tolerated some of the most heinous forms of torture.
Most men would've died, but the survival skills ingrained in Confederation agents sustained Brance during impossible interrogations. When a search and recovery team of Confederation specialists found him, he was near death and barely breathing. Some believed his survival was a miracle.
After Brance's crisis, high-ranking company officials issued an internal statement reflecting their views on Brance Willingham's situation and warned agents he was deadly, dangerous, and had gone rogue. While a kill order wasn't placed on the former agent's head, a warning came down. Brance Willingham had potentially used his formal training to work as a mercenary.
In other words, he was a problem. How much of one was the question. And no one knew.
"I deserve an explanation! My family will die at the hands of these immoral monsters!"
"We may not have strength in numbers, but--"
"I don't have to tell you this is unacceptable!" Senator Willingham interrupted Audra. "Do you know what those terrorists will do to my children if they're able to apprehend them again?" He stopped pacing and started glaring, his gaze working from one agent to the next. "Answer me!"
Audra started to tell Senator Willingham he should've thought of that before he provoked a war with the Mexican cartel. Former politicians lost their lives dabbling on the wrong side of the border. Willingham wasn't naive. He knew what was at risk when he started a personal campaign against notorious foreign enemies.
"Senator Willingham, my team is prepared. We're excellent marksmen, skilled in weaponry typically reserved for the military, and--"
"Your team?" he asked, arching a brow. "You call a trio of agents a team?"
Fuck it. There was only one way to earn a nod of approval in this business, and Audra understood what was required. "Senator Willingham, with all due respect, we didn't ask for this assignment, and my men damn sure didn't cross that border and pick a fight with the bully. They didn't punch him in the nose then sprint like hell, praying that they'd outrun the tyrants he'd send to settle old scores."
"You're acting as if you think this is somehow my fault!"
And the senator behaved like a spoiled child.
"Who would you blame, sir?" Noting the fury in Willingham's eyes, Audra bristled, and the tough-talking superior agent came to the surface. "Senator, if you want to rant and rave, you're welcome to do that. My men and I will still be here when you're finished. We're all you have. I suggest you find some measure of acceptance in that. We'll protect your family. Let us do our jobs so one day soon you can return to yours."
Senator Willingham wheeled around on his boot and stalked her. He narrowed his gaze and took a deep breath. For a moment, Audra felt as if she'd made headway, but her confidence disintegrated under his tough scrutiny. "Do you have a family, Miss McAllister?"
"We all have families, Senator Willingham."
"I'm asking if you have children. Do you?"
"No, sir. I've never been married and do not have children." For some reason, verbalizing that fact made her heart ache like never before. At twenty-eight, Audra's marital status rarely bothered her, but thanks to the way Senator Willingham phrased his question, she became greatly disturbed.
"If you had children, perhaps you'd understand. There's nothing you wouldn't do to protect them. Do you hear what I'm saying, Agent McAllister?"
"If you were in my shoes, would you feel as if everything were in order to do that? Would you rest at ease if that damn organization--the one you represent--sent you a few good men, or women, to protect your family?"
"Sir, I don't know how I'd feel if I were in your shoes. I clearly am not. What I do know is how I can respond from my pair of sneakers. I will not run. I won't hide. I'll fight for your family and so will my men. Now, if you would please show us around the property and let us familiarize ourselves with our surroundings, I'd really appreciate your help. We don't have a moment to waste."
"No family," Willingham said quietly, as if he were just processing that one tidbit of information. "Then you have nothing to lose, do you, Miss McAllister?"
"Some believe that makes for the best agent, sir. You of all people should know that."
"Unless you're afraid," the senator pointed out, glancing at the other two agents. "Are you frightened?"
Mark shot Audra a quick glance and said, "We have an excellent unit in place, sir. You asked if Audra had something to lose. Maybe she doesn't, but I do. I'm not willing to die here, Senator. With all due respect, this is your war. You brought your enemies to small town America and backed away, fully expecting someone else to pick up their weapons and defend a cause that didn't concern you."
Mark paused. He rubbed his jaw in thoughtful consideration. "Senator, you stirred up the kind of trouble most wouldn't dream of antagonizing. Then, you expected the Confederation to come in and sweep up your mess. Well here, we are with dustpan and broom. When you have company, we'll clean house. That's what we're paid to do. We pick up after egotistical politicians that care more about their political agendas than the safety of their fellow countrymen and families."
Senator Willingham walked over to Mark and stood directly in front of him. They were about the same size--over six-foot-three and about two hundred and thirty pounds of hard flesh--and if expressions counted for something, they both looked mean as the devil with their cold eyes, set jaws, and overall stance.
Willingham had about twenty years on Mark, who was in his mid-thirties, but that didn't seem to matter. Willingham wasn't intimidated, and Mark never backed down from a good fight. Like Audra, he loathed their reasons for being there.
"Do you have a motive for disrespecting me in my own home?"
"No, sir," Mark replied. "I'm only pointing out the facts. Don't stir the kettle over a hot stove then call for the head chef when the damn thing starts to boil. You got what you asked for, Senator. I hate that for your family, and that's why I'm here.
"I want to protect the innocent--your wife, your son and daughters, and your neighbors who aren't exempt from the danger looming--but make no mistake, you'll be required to fight, too. You'll need to look over your shoulder, pick up a gun, and know damn well how to use the weapons we place in your hand. When the time comes, we may need backup, and when it's not there--and rest assured, it won't be--then your family's preparedness will be the only leverage we'll have."
Watching the blood rush out of the senator's face, Audra quickly said, "Senator Willingham, Agent Reynolds and Agent Swanson will fight for your family, but what Agent Reynolds is trying to say is that we want to cover our bases and make sure your family members are taught to protect themselves so they're never entirely vulnerable again. We'll do our best to--"
"What if your best isn't good enough?" Senator Willingham bellowed. "Have you ever thought about that? What if your best is one second shy of pulling the trigger when an intruder enters my home? What if you're three steps behind the men who take my daughters the next time or--"
"That won't happen," Mark told him confidently.
Scott Swanson grunted. A man of few words, Scott was the man on the team who mattered. A former SEAL, Scott didn't care if he lived or died, and often that was his greatest strength.
He was the one who would walk through fires to rescue the person he was hired to save. Audra would rather have Scott on her team than ten other men. His senses were razor sharp. He wasn't just a man. He was a machine. Plus, he had been Audra's best friend since they were kids.
Truth be told? Scott could be credited, or blamed, with her decision to join the Confederation. When Audra and Scott were children, they always enjoyed friendly competitions between themselves. Scott was twice her size, but Audra held her own in a battle of wits. He trumped her in strength and weight, but she beat him with speed and brains. As a young girl, Audra believed whatever he could do, she could do better.
They'd entered the Confederation together, which was really no surprise. Scott was the one who'd been heavily recruited by those funding the private organization. In early 2007, a SEAL mission went terribly wrong in Afghanistan. Attempts to rescue stranded servicemen were unsuccessful and enraged retired military officials, who in turn came up with a solution. They formed a conglomerate and hired the best men and women, training them for militia activity while invoking rebel practices. When Scott told Audra he was joining the group, hell's flames couldn't have stopped her from following right behind him.
Senator Willingham's gaze averted, shifting toward a newcomer. Audra turned, and when she did, it was as if her life passed in front of her eyes.
Brance Willingham's entry was in slow motion. As he moved toward her, every sound, every action was noted. The way his heavy foot dropped against the tile outdoor flooring. How his smile widened as he approached, and the lazy method used when he ran his fingers through his blond shag-style hair. He strode within inches of his father and immediately looked her up and down with this cocksure grin stamped upon his lips.
Audra sensed trouble right then, and the danger arriving wouldn't surface in the form of a professional threat. This job was bound to become personal.
Audra had feared the possibilities when she'd received the assignment. She and Brance trained at the same time. They'd worked together on two missions prior to Brance's resignation, a formal request only honored and granted because of Senator Willingham's political position.
Unfortunately, Brance still looked pretty much the same as Audra remembered him. Tall and tough, he was built as if he were specifically designed for pleasing the opposite sex. Brance was devastatingly handsome, and Audra's mouth watered when she saw him.
Damn him for having the same drastic effect on her. In his presence, she fell under this unexplainable spell.
"Agent McAllister, you remember my son, Brance Willingham. Brance, I'm sure you recall working with Agent Audra McAllister. She can introduce her team. I need to make a phone call."
Audra extended her hand. When Brance planted a kiss on her knuckles, she felt like a bolt of lightning struck at the base of her spine. "Miss McAllister, it's certainly a pleasure to see you again."
"Brance," she whispered. Scott chuckled, and Audra snapped out of her daze. "It's nice to see you as well, Mr. Willingham."
Formal connotations were her undoing. There were moments in the past, few and far between, where they practically pawed one another. Now, they were acting as if they'd only been mere acquaintances.
Thoughts of groping brought a smile to her face. She and Brance had never been intimate, but the long stakeouts had been enough to make a woman think...and fantasize. Close quarters offered opportunities for some mighty fine body-to-body friction when time allowed a woman and man to think about personal matters rather than strictly professional objectives.
"Please, call me Brance. I seem to recall how much you liked saying my name," he remarked, smirking.
Audra gulped, thinking Brance still represented nothing more than pure adult recreation, precisely the kind of obstacle Audra didn't need on this assignment. Within seconds of seeing him again, she lost her sense of purpose. They were inexplicably drawn to one another by that same familiar chemistry neither of them fully defied, and never denied, in the past.
As the senator disappeared behind two double doors, Brance introduced himself to Mark and told Scott how glad he was to see him again. Audra focused on a family portrait hanging on the far wall. In an effort to tear her gaze away from the object of her apparent attraction, she walked toward the painting, noting the obvious right away--Brance Willingham was in a wheel chair.
The image was almost too much for Audra to view. She was only somewhat aware of the silence behind her or the fact Brance had walked up and stood beside her.
"Mother wanted a family portrait. She'd waited years for me to sit still long enough for an artist to capture the perfect family she wanted portrayed. During my recuperation, we had a lot of idle time, so she bribed us to sit for one of the best painters in the country. Amazing what a son will do for a mother when sugar cookies and homemade brownies are used for bargaining chips."
"Maybe later on, I can trade weapons for chocolate."
"Mom will fix you right up."
Audra didn't mention her surprise. Based on the research she'd gathered, she didn't picture Mrs. Willingham as the domestic type. "I'll remember that."
She forced a smile, facing the man who had long since earned her admiration. She'd read the Willingham story. She'd looked over Brance's entire file from his earliest affiliation with her organization to his abduction in 2010. Without question, Brance Willingham remained true to his training. He wasn't just a civilian survivor. He was a Confederation fighter.
Audra planned to use him--in several ways.