CIA officer Nick Andris wants revenge. His last mission failed after a Georgian arms smuggler killed his lover. He's been tailing a woman for three weeks hoping she will lead him to his target. But there's a problem with the intel. Holly Elise Bradshaw is nothing more than an entertainment writer with a love for sex and designer clothes. Clearly someone at Langley made a mistake...
When Holly finds herself in trouble, the only weapons at her disposal are her brains and her body. But they won't be enough to handle the man who's following her. He's going to turn her world upside-down.
Read an excerpt below...
Praise for the novels of Pamela Clare
Packed with action and raw, sexual tension...Striking Distance brings readers the edgy suspense, meaty subject matter, and intense emotions fans have come to expect from this talented author." —Cindy Gerard, New York Times bestselling author
"Clare is a dazzling talent." —Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author
"Everything feels flawlessly researched, and she blends enough detail in to make her writing authentic, without bogging it down. This book is sharp-edged and smart." —Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
"One of the few authors I find reliable in the romantic suspense department these days...[A] cracking good read with believable and diverse characters, deeply romantic and emotional." —Dear Author
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Trust no one.
What the hell was Kramer trying to tell him?
Nick Andris rubbed his closed eyes with the heels of his hands, then looked up at the clock. Almost midnight.
This was a waste of time.
For almost three weeks, he'd been keeping Holly Elise Bradshaw under round-the-clock surveillance. He'd turned her life inside out, but had found nothing. He'd tapped her cell phone and landline, sifted through her laptop, searched her condo, memorized the details of her childhood, learned about her friends, pored over her financial records, scrutinized her posts on social media for hints of tradecraft, and tracked every move she'd made via GPS. He'd found nothing remotely suspicious.
He'd even gone behind Bauer's back and contacted Rich Lagerman, an old buddy from Delta Force who was now working for the FBI, and asked whether Bradshaw was one of theirs. Every federal agency in the country now had undercover officers, and it wouldn't be the first time operatives from different agencies had tripped over one another while pursuing a suspect.
"Nope. Not one of ours," Lagerman had said. "But if you need any help with her, maybe some late-night, under-the-covers work, let me know."
Nick now knew more about this woman now than she knew about herself. If Holly Bradshaw were some kind of underworld operative, a foreign agent, a traitor who sold US secrets, then he was Elvis fucking Presley.
Someone at Langley had screwed up.
Bauer had recalled Nick from assignment in Tbilisi amid whispers that a handful of officers were missing or dead and that the Agency was conducting an internal investigation of its Special Activities Division, or SAD, the top-secret branch of the CIA that had recruited Nick out of Delta Force nine years ago. He'd never been assigned to operate within US borders, so he'd arrived in Langley expecting to find himself in the middle of an inquisition.
Instead, Bauer, his supervisor, had given him a file with the latest intel on Sasha Dudayev, aka Sachino Dudaev, the Georgian arms smuggler who'd killed the only woman Nick had ever loved.
"He killed an officer and stole a flash drive containing classified information vital to US operations outside the homeland," Bauer had said. "Holly Elise Bradshaw is his contact for the deal. Keep Bradshaw under surveillance, recover the data, and neutralize them both using any force necessary."
As a rule, the Agency left affairs within the homeland to the NSA and FBI, but they sometimes broke that rule when it came to high-value international targets and US citizens who'd crossed the line to work with those targets. It was unusual for Nick to run surveillance on a fellow American in her home, but apart from that element of his current mission, Bauer had given him exactly what he'd wanted for two long years now-a chance to make Dudaev pay.
Dudaev had played the Agency and brought the Batumi op down on their heads. Nick had been there that night. He'd watched, wounded and pinned down by AK fire, as the son of a bitch had emptied his Makarov into Dani's chest, then made off with the cache of AKs the Agency had wrested away from Chechen terrorists. Nick had crawled over to Dani and held her body afterward, held her until he'd passed out from blood loss.
His sole task that night had been to protect her, and he'd failed.
But now things were about to come full circle.
There was only one problem.
The suits at Langley had clearly made a mistake when they'd fingered Ms. Bradshaw as Dudaev's contact. Okay, so it was an understandable error. The bastard's last lover had been an Italian journalist who'd acted as his mole and messenger—until he'd had her killed. Analysts must have assumed he'd recruited Ms. Bradshaw when she'd interviewed him about his new art gallery and then begun dating him.
As understandable as the error might be, nothing changed the fact that Nick had now wasted three weeks discovering that Holly Bradshaw was exactly what she seemed to be-an entertainment writer, a smart but shallow blonde, a woman who loved sex, expensive clothes, and good times with her friends. He'd explained all of this to Bauer, sharing every bit of intel he'd gathered on her. If Dudaev was about to sell the flash drive, the deal would go down without Bradshaw's knowledge or participation.
Bauer had blown him off. "Stick with her. I swear she's the one."
Some people just hated to be wrong.
Nick's time would be better spent trailing Dudaev and hunting down the real contact—or sorting truth from rumor on the internal investigation and the missing and dead officers.
Trust no one.
Kramer had contacted him this afternoon, insisting they speak face to face. He'd be passing through Denver tomorrow and had asked Nick to meet him for lunch. Nick hadn't needed to ask what was on Kramer's mind. It wasn't unusual for an officer to be killed in the line of duty, but it was strange that Nick and Kramer had worked with all of them. Then Kramer had ended the call with those three words—and Nick's imagination had taken over.
"They're ombré crystal pumps in royal blue with four-inch heels."
Nick took another swig of cold coffee. In his earpiece, Bradshaw and her friend Kara McMillan were stilltalking.
"I love them," Bradshaw said, "but my shoe budget is blown for the next ten years."
Nick doubted that. Bradshaw's daddy was a retired brigadier general who had served with US Army Intelligence—another reason analysts believed Dudaev had chosen her—and Daddy had created a nice little trust fund for his baby girl.
"How much do a pair of Christian Louboutins cost?" McMillan asked.
Nick ran through the key facts on McMillan, more to help himself stay awake than because he'd forgotten anything.
McMillan, Kara. 40. Journalist, author, journalism instructor at Metro State University. Wife of Sheridan, Reece, lieutenant governor of the state of Colorado. No arrests. No suspected criminal associations. Three children. Formerly employed by the Denver Independent on its Investigative Team, aka, the I-Team. Met Bradshaw through work. Close personal friend.
"Well, it depends on where you buy them, whether they're on sale, which shoe you choose—that sort of thing."
"Holly," McMillan said in a stern voice. "How much?"
Bradshaw hesitated. "These were just over three thousand."
Nick had just taken another swig of coffee and nearly choked.
Three thousand dollars? For a fucking pair of shoes?
"Wow!" McMillan laughed. "Reece would divorce me."
"Did you get them for your big date with Sasha tomorrow?"
"I needed something to go with my new dress."
Nick rolled his eyes. The woman's closet was full of shoes. The last thing she needed was one more pair—especially one that cost three fucking grand.
"I read in the paper that he's a billionaire—gas and oil money," McMillan said.
Nick's jaw clenched.
Dudaev had built his fortune on human lives, including Dani's. Killing her had been nothing more than a business transaction to him. He could change his name, wear designer suits, and open a dozen art galleries to make himself seem respectable, but nothing could wash the blood off his hands.
"You should see the sapphire necklace he gave me last week. The chain isn't actually a chain. It's a strand of diamonds."
Nick already knew from another conversation-this time with Sophie Alton-Hunter, another friend from the newspaper—that Bradshaw had bought the dress to match the necklace. Now she'd gotten the shoes to go with the dress. And at last Nick understood what a woman like Holly Bradshaw would see in Dudaev.
Well, greed was blind.
She had no idea what kind of man he truly was. If she wasn't careful, he'd strangle her with that necklace.
"Sophie told me. It sounds like he's serious about you. Do you think this will be it—the big night?"
What did McMillan mean by that?
"I don't know. I mean, he's good looking enough."
"Good looking enough?" McMillan laughed. "He's a lot better looking than that banker you went out with last year. Where was he from?"
"He's better looking than that Saudi prince, too, whatever his name was. In the news photos, he looks a lot like George Clooney. Sure, he's got some gray, but I'll bet he's fully functional."
Ah, yes. They were talking about Ms. Bradshaw's love life. Again.
Nick glanced for a moment at the photos of her he'd pinned to the wall above his desk. He could see why men were eager to sleep with her. She was hot.
Okay, she was incredibly hot. Platinum blond hair. A delicate, heart-shaped face. Big brown eyes. A full mouth, and a body that...
Get your mind off her body.
What good were looks if they got you into trouble? There were men who preyed on beautiful women, and Dudaev was one of them.
"Yeah, but he's... I don't know... self-absorbed. He's probably the kind of man who makes you wish you had a magazine to read when you're in bed with him. You know—the kind who acts like he's doing you a big favor when he rams into you for two minutes."
McMillan was laughing now.
But Bradshaw hadn't finished. "A lot of guys are oblivious like that. 'Don't worry about getting me off, babe. I just want to go down on you all night long'— said no man ever."
Nick shook his head. Is that truly what she expected?
A dude would have to have a motorized tongue to pull that off.
Did all women talk like this about sex? Nick couldn't imagine his sister sharing details about her sex life with her friends or using this kind of language. His mother, a devout Georgian Orthodox Christian, would have had a coronary if she'd caught her daughter or even one of her five sons talking like this.
Not that it offended Nick. He found it kind of sexy, actually. But then, given the things he'd seen and the things he'd had to do, a conversation about oral sex was pretty damned tame.
"Not all men are selfish."
You tell her, McMillan.
"No, I suppose not. But lots of them are. It makes me want to take out a full-page ad in the paper just to help out womankind. 'It's the clit, stupid.'"
Nick let out a laugh—then caught himself.
Keep your shit together, Andris.
Holly Bradshaw glanced over her shoulder at her living room wall. "Mr. Creeper must be watching something funny on TV. I just heard him laugh. I never hear him." "You still haven't met him?" Kara asked through a yawn.
"He's lived there for almost a month now and hasn't once come over to say hello. He stays indoors and keeps the shades drawn. I've seen him outside once. He was taking out the trash, but he was wearing a hoodie. I couldn't see his face."
Kara's voice dropped to a whisper. "Maybe he's a serial killer."
"You're not helping."
"Who cares about him anyway? If I were you, I'd be so excited about tomorrow night. You lead such a glamorous life. I'm so jealous."
But Holly knew that wasn't true. "You and Sophie and the others—you spend every evening with your kids and men who love you, while I watch TV by myself or go out to the clubs. I think you're the lucky ones."
Like the rest of Holly's friends, Kara was happily married to a man who cherished her. Reece was one of the kindest, most decent, and sexiest men Holly had ever met—which was really strange, given that he was a politician. He'd bent over backward to prove to Kara that he loved her. Now, they had three kids and lived what seemed to Holly to be a perfect life.
The fact that all of her friends were now married and most had children had changed her life, too. She spent a lot less time out on the town with them and a lot more time alone while they took on new roles and responsibilities. As much as she loved excitement and enjoyed the city's nightlife, a part of her had begun to long for what they had—a family, a sense of roots, the certainty of belonging with someone. If she hated anything more than boredom, it was loneliness.
But Kara didn't seem to believe her. "Are you saying you'd be willing to trade places with me?"
"And sleep with Reece?" Holly smiled to herself, stretched out on her sofa, and wiggled her toes.
"That's not what I meant."
But the question, however intended, had Holly's imagination going. Reece was sexy with dark blond hair, blue eyes and muscles he hid beneath tailored suits. How fun it would be to peel one of those suits away from his skin.
Then there was Julian Darcangelo, Tessa's husband. He was the city's top vice cop and a former FBI agent who'd worked deep cover. Tall with shoulder-length dark hair, a ripped body, and a strikingly handsome face, he was sex on a stick—and crazy in love with his wife.
Then again, Marc Hunter, Sophie's husband, had served six years in prison and had that badass vibe Holly loved. A former Special Forces sniper, he was also devoted to his family—and sexier than any man had a right to be.
Gabe Rossiter, Kat James's husband, had a rock climber's lean, muscular build and a daredevil attitude. He had all but given his life for the woman he loved. Kat was a lucky woman.
Zach McBride, a former Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient, had saved Natalie from being murdered by the leader of a Mexican drug cartel. All lean muscle and confidence, he had the hard look of a man who was used to taking action.
Nate West, Megan's husband, had been badly burned in combat, his face and much of his body disfigured. The part of him that wasn't scarred was extremely handsome—and he had a cowboy charm that brought the song "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" to Holly's mind.
Javier Corbray had rescued his wife, Laura Nilsson, from captivity in a terrorist stronghold in Pakistan, sacrificing his career as a SEAL. With a sexy Puerto Rican accent, dreamy, dark eyes and a mouth that—
"Are you fantasizing about my husband?" Kara's accusing voice jerked Holly out of her reverie.
"No, of course not. Not really. Okay, a little," Holly confessed. "I was just deciding which one of you I'd most like to trade places with."
It was just a game. Holly had never so much as flirted with a married man. She didn't poach on other women's territory. But that didn't mean she couldn't fantasize.
"Holly!" Kara laughed. "I'm sorry I phrased it the way I did. Let me try again."
Tessa, Holly decided.
She'd trade places with Tessa. She'd always had a secret crush on Julian. But Kara went on. "If you want to meet good men, maybe you should quit going to the clubs. Most of the guys there are just looking for someone to hook up with."
It wasn't the first time Kara had suggested this, but she didn't understand.
How could she?
Holly fired back. "You met Reece at a bar."
Okay, so it had been a restaurant. Still, Kara had consumed three margaritas, so it might as well have been a bar.
"Only because someone interfered," Kara replied.
Holly smiled to herself. It had been so easy.
"Where else can a woman meet men? If I don't go out, I'll never meet anyone. It's not like Mr. Right is going to just walk up and knock on my front door."
"You never know." Kara changed the subject. "Hey, did you hear that Tom is converting to Buddhism?"
Holly sat upright. "Tom? The same Tom Trent I know? The one who spends his day shouting at everyone? He's converting to Buddhism?"
"That's what my mother says."
Kara's mother Lily lived with Tom.
"She would know. But Tom—a Buddhist? He and the Dalai Lama have so much in common, like, for example—nothing."
Tom was the editor-in-chief of the Denver Independent, where his temper was as much of a legend as his journalistic brilliance. As an entertainment writer, Holly didn't work directly beneath him like her I-Team friends did. Beth Dailey, the entertainment editor, was her boss. Beth never yelled, never insulted people—and she appreciated Holly's shoes.
"I think it's perfect," Kara said. "If anyone needs to meditate, it's Tom. Gosh, it's after midnight. I need to get to bed—and so do you if you want to be rested for tomorrow night."
The two said good night and ended the call.
Holly got up from the sofa and went through her nightly routine, undressing, brushing her teeth, and washing and moisturizing her face, a sinking feeling stealing over her. Naked, she walked over to her dresser and carefully took her new Louboutins out of their red silk bag, moving them in the light to make the crystals sparkle.
She didn't want to spend another moment with Sasha Dudayev, but she'd already accepted and had the shoes...
Just one more date and that would be it.
She tucked the shoes carefully back in the bag, turned out her light, and crawled between her soft cotton sheets.
Nick fell to the floor, pain knocking the breath from him. He looked down, saw that the round had penetrated his right side. He pressed his hand against the wound to staunch the blood loss.
He glanced over his left shoulder, caught sight of Dani. She lay flat on the ground behind a forklift, her gaze on him, her eyes wide.
She was safe.
She got to her knees, clearly about to run to him.
Nick shook his head in warning. "Stay there!"
But their attackers had already spotted her and opened fire again.
AK rounds struck the forklift, ricocheting wildly.
Dani felt flat again, panic in her eyes.
Then Dudaev appeared, gliding down the center of the warehouse like an apparition.
The bastard walked over to Dani.
"No!" Nick shouted.
Dudaev glanced his way, looked back down at Dani and said something. Then he drew a Makarov from a shoulder holster inside his jacket.
"Dani! No!" Nick fought to reach her, bullets raining from above, pain and blood loss making it impossible to move.
He was too late.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Nick awoke with a gasp, sweat beaded on his forehead, a hand pressed to his side. There was no blood, pain only a memory.
Around him, the room was silent.
He rose, walked to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face, his sense of terror slowly receding, grief taking its place.
Every damned time he had one of these, it was like losing her again, the pain as real and new as it had been when he'd lain there holding her body, her lifeless eyes looking up at him, her blood and his mingling on that warehouse floor.
God, how he wished it had been him.
How he wished Dudaev had killed him instead.
"They say they've got more leg room, but that's bullshit. I'm six feet. You just can't get leg room in economy."
Nick nodded, took a swig of Tsingtao, his gaze on Kramer as he typed a message onto the Notes app of Nick's phone with one finger. Nick had known Kramer since the beginning. He'd been working under Bauer when Nick had joined the Agency and had taken Nick under his wing, acted as his mentor, showed him the ropes.
Kramer had always seemed indestructible to Nick, but today he was looking rough around the edges—older, pale, worn. There were thick bags under his eyes and a couple of days of whiskers on his jaw. His hair was more gray than brown now and looked as if it hadn't been combed in a few days. Then again, he'd just flown in from South Korea. But it was more than that.
For the first time since Nick had known him, Kramer seemed shaken, worried.
Kramer turned the phone so Nick could read it.
We've got big trouble.
As soon as he'd read the message, Nick deleted it and typed his own.
An internal investigation. Who? Why?
"I'm six-three, man," he said aloud. "You're preaching to the choir."
On his plate, an order of kung pao beef was growing cold, the food and conversation nothing more than cover.
Kramer frowned, took the phone, typed.
Daly, Carver, both dead.
"I sat there for the last three hours of the flight wishing I could stash my legs in the overhead compartment," Kramer went on, the tone of his voice casual, his Brooklyn accent standing out in this crowd of Coloradans and California imports.
"I've had that same fantasy." Nick deleted the words, typed his own message.
I heard. Were they outed?
Kramer shrugged, deleted Nick's message, and began to type again. "They're going to have to decrease their fares or take out a couple of rows of seats if I'm ever going to climb into one of their rust buckets again. I felt like a goddamn sardine."
McGowen's dead, too.
"Too bad you've still got four hours of flying time to go, old buddy." Nick's mouth formed words that barely registered with his mind as he did the mental math, a sense of foreboding growing in his gut.
He typed out his reply.
They were all part of the Batumi op. What the hell is going on?
"Yeah, too damned bad about that for sure." Kramer looked Nick straight in the eyes, typed one last message, then finished his beer and stood.
Nick turned the phone so that he could read it.
Watch your six.
That was it? Kramer had met with him just to tell him to watch his back?
Nick had every intention of doing just that, of course. He erased the message, stood. "Want a ride to the airport?"
Kramer tossed a couple bucks onto the table. "I'll grab a cab."
As he watched Kramer leave the little Chinese joint, Nick felt certain that Kramer knew more about all of this than he'd just shared.