TUESDAY 4 P.M. MST
Kira Donovan would be dead by now if Ender needed her to be, another victim of his steady hand and expert marksmanship, which were part random gift of nature and part honed by years of training.
He lay in familiar sniper position, on his stomach on the broad, grassy slope overlooking the farm, mentally lining up one perfect shot after another as the woman he'd been sent to persuade walked in and out of the dilapidated barn without a care in the world.
The woman born as Charity Connelly was going to require a hell of a lot of training to bring her up to spec. And she was going to have to stop wearing those shorts and T-shirts that showed off too much tanned, curvy flesh too, because that was much too distracting for everyone involved. Ms. Freakin' Doolittle and her merry band of animals were going to have a rude awakening.
He sighed, put his forehead down against the cool earth and breathed in the scent of nature that always seemed to be a part of him, no matter how hard he'd tried to get away. And even though he so didn't want this assignment, he was here, and he had a job to do. And his jobs always got done.
Speaking of done, what hadn't been was the beautiful woman he'd picked up last night, someone who shared his tastes in bed and his penchant for no-strings relationships. That had to be the real reason for his hard-on.
They'd just gotten to the handcuffs portion of the evening when he'd received the call from work, something he couldn't ignore. And when Dev, the head of the Agency for Covert Rare Operatives that employed him, and Ken, his direct supervisor, had laid out the plan to him, which meant taking the red-eye from the Catskills, New York, compound to bumble-fuck Idaho, Ender had just shaken his head in a combination of irritation and no-fucking-way.
"Why me?" he'd asked when he arrived at Dev's office. Because he'd worked for five years as one of their top Convincers, the guy who brought home the big catches. He liked being able to go in and pick off the men and women who'd already been briefed to some degree about the agency's dealing in Special Ops of a very different kind, was always prepared for one of these rare-ability types to go off the deep end, but never had much more than a casual, passing acquaintance with them.
He did not want to be one of the people who actually had to recruit the talent.
"You've got patience," Ken said.
He snorted. "Patience when I'm waiting for the right shot, yes. My patience where new recruits are concerned is severely limited, and if you mean patience where women are concerned—well, I just went from bad to worse."
"You've got the background for the cover. You grew up on a farm," Ken continued.
"Shit," he'd muttered, because he'd put his shit-kickers away when he left the farm, and the horse, when he was sixteen, and never looked back. Hitched around the country for a year doing odd jobs, whatever he could get his hands on—same went for women—and finally, when he hit seventeen and got his GED, he hit the nearest recruiting office. He wanted different—college—something. And the Army had given him that, Delta Force and Covert Ops even more. His parents had given consent, grateful that he'd finally called to tell them he was still alive.
He finally appealed to the head of ACRO. "Come on, Dev. You've got plenty of other guys who could handle this one—guys whose job it is to do this. What the hell do you need my talents for so early in the game?"
Dev had smiled, and with his usual straightforwardness, simply said, "Because if she can't be convinced to join us within forty-eight hours, you're going to have to kill her."
Ender had grabbed the file and left the office without another word. Ken hadn't wanted a trail—needed a quick in and out because of the target's highly specialized and unforeseen increasingly urgent needs, and the fewer people seen on and around the farm, the better. So it was good-bye Ender and hello Tom Knight for the next forty-eight hours.
If he had his way, the job would be done in twenty-four. Whatever it took, no holds barred, he was going to drag Kira the animal whisperer kicking and screaming into ACRO, or he'd carry out his alternate orders. From what information he'd gleaned from her files, she might actually enjoy being tied down, especially during this time of year.
If it could only be that easy, a seduce and convince special, normally Wyatt Kennedy's favorite means of persuasion. An ACRO operative who specialized in deep undercover ops, Wyatt was convinced that ninety-nine percent of women would roll with just the right kind of persuasion, and the other one percent would require a tranquilizer gun.
Ender had both plans covered.
Mixing business with pleasure had never gotten in his way before, and from what the first contact person, a psychic who'd gone undercover at the sanctuary, had reported, it might be the only way to get Kira on board. ACRO's psychic had claimed that Kira's spring fever was a major issue and, according to Ken, utilizing Kira's insatiable need for sex during this time was supposed to be part of Ender's master plan. An open invitation.
Now he pushed up from the ground and headed down toward the barn, taking the main route that led from the driveway. Bag slung over his shoulder, he looked like a man who'd walked in from the one Greyhound bus stop in this one-horse Idaho town, without many possessions or cares.
Still, Kira came out of the barn and headed right in his direction like she had a homing device on him. He hadn't spotted any cameras, but he'd been told she was paranoid.
"Can I help you?" she asked, her voice brisk, businesslike and not at all like the soft tones he'd figured on. Immediately his own needs gained quick interest and let him know they'd demand to be heard sooner than later.
God, she was pretty—naturally pretty, all long, light brown hair and full, pouty lips, wide amber eyes and a body to freakin' die for.
"Hey, I'm Tom. Your new man for hire," he said, and yeah, he'd let her work him in more ways than one, if she was game.
He hadn't used his real name in years, preferred the anonymity of "Ender" and the images it conjured up, especially at work. It kept most of the assholes, and everyone else, at bay. Because, at heart, he never was a social kind of guy, and things were not going to change if he could help it.
He approached her, palm out, and she hesitated, the skittish side he'd been expecting showing through. Finally, she extended her hand, her palm rough from work, her shake strong and sure.
"Hello, Tommy," she said.
"It's Tom," he said, then cursed inwardly and shrugged. "But, whatever, it's all good."
Yeah, real fucking slick.
She didn't smile, but the corner of her mouth pulled up slightly. "You're right on time."
"I try to make that a habit," he said, became aware of something sniffing his ass and turned to find a goat staring at him. It didn't look happy either.
"Do you also make it a habit to spy on people?" she asked, and he turned back from the animal to her.
Son of a—"No, ma'am," he said.
"So you just decided you wanted to stare me down for an hour and a half, then?" She'd folded her arms over her chest, and he let his eyes skim her breasts before meeting her gaze and smiling.
"I got here a little early and wanted to take a nap. Didn't want to bother you or anything. And then I saw you, walking back and forth from the barn and, well . . ." He shrugged. "Shit, I'm a red-blooded man, Kira."
That part was more than true, and standing this close to her, inhaling the scent of apples and honey and cloves that surrounded her, despite the other, more pungent smells close by, was killing him.
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he held his breath because he couldn't screw this up this soon. Something was wrong—very wrong. He'd never been spotted, not like that. He'd been hidden, camouflaged, and he was good enough at that to know that she'd gotten her information about his watching in some other way than stumbling on it herself.
When the goat poked him in the back again, everything suddenly became clear.
Kira watched Peeping Tom for a long moment, allowing Cheech time to sniff him out. The little Nubian goat was a great judge of character, and if he indicated that Tom needed to be watched, then that's what she'd do.
And frankly, she'd watch him anyway. She'd never been one for the rugged, outdoorsy type, but something about Tom grabbed her in places no man had grabbed for a long time.
Not since her last spring fever.
Now that May had come again, the yearning had begun, the fierce, primal burn that permeated every cell and told her she was days, maybe hours from the insanity that would consume her for upward of four weeks.
She'd been getting antsy, had been unable to concentrate on simple tasks. And simple tasks in the presence of males . . . forget it. It was definitely time to scope out potential partners and give her battery-operated toys a rest. She'd figured her other hire, a dark-haired, brawny hottie named Derek, would be the first mate she took this season.
But now, as she studied Tom Knight, with his piercing blue eyes and sun-streaked blond hair that was too long for a military cut and too short for a surfer, she began to think he might be more fun until he wore out. High, chiseled cheekbones, firm mouth . . . yeah, he may not be her type, but during this time of year, all men were her type, and besides, she wasn't looking for happily ever after.
There'd never be one of those. Not for her. Not for someone people thought was psychotic if they didn't believe she could talk to animals, or were terrified of if they did believe. Because she didn't just talk to animals. She understood them, communicated with them through words and body language and scents, but mainly, mental images and sensations that transcended most human understanding.
And the other aspect of her gift, the part that was more of a curse, well, people really didn't understand that. Hence, the moves. The name changes. The prayers that her latest relocation and identity would be her last.
Cheech gave Tom a head butt and then, with a low bleat, told her he'd keep an eye on the man. The goat seemed to think it was strange for a human to lie on the ground the way Tom had, and Cheech wasn't going to trust him any time soon.
She blinked, realized she'd been so immersed in her own world that she hadn't heard anything Tom had said, and the way he was watching her, like he didn't enjoy being ignored, made her a little jittery.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I asked if maybe I could move in? Get started working."
His voice, powerful and compelling, rolled through her like a muscle-deep caress, and she wondered if his effect on her was a result of her growing need or if he always talked with a rough, erotic edge, as though urging a woman toward orgasm.
"Right." She started up the drive toward the guest house, and motioned him to follow. "I don't know how familiar you are with Rainbow Ridge Sanctuary . . ."
He settled into an easy, long stride next to her, and the warm breeze brought his scent to her, a powerful mixture of grass, woods and sun-warmed man no one else would have smelled unless they'd been on top of him. Which, she thought as she glanced at him, sounded like a nice place to be right about now.
Yeah, spring fever was kicking at the barn door, and it was only a matter of time before it broke out at a dead run.
"I know it sits on roughly forty acres, and that there's a public and private side." He looked over his shoulder, frowned at Cheech. "Is that thing going to follow us everywhere?"
"Just you. He's suspicious of strangers."
"Great," he muttered, turning his attention back to their surroundings. "I'm guessing this is the private side."
She nodded. "The people who own the sanctuary live on the front twenty acres with the exotic animals. Fifteen or so volunteers help out over there, and they charge a nominal admission for people to visit. Down here"—she waved her arm in an expansive gesture—"we take care of the domestic animals."
He slowed to avoid stepping on Peepers, a crippled mallard duck she'd rescued last year from a kid who'd grown tired of his Easter present. "I thought you were in charge of the whole place."
Nodding, she bent to run a finger over Peepers's smooth green head, which put her at crotch level with Tom. Heat billowed from him, heat and seductive male scents, and oh, she needed to be alone with him. Soon.
"I'm the manager," she said hoarsely, and straightened. "So I do the hiring, and I oversee all the animal care and training. I live down here with you and Derek."
"He's my other hire. You two will share the upstairs part of the guest house. The bottom floor is mine." She thought she saw a flash of irritation in his eyes, but it was gone so quickly she might have imagined it. "Is there a problem?"
He shrugged and ignored Cheech when the goat gave him a head butt for the sheer pleasure of it. "I was under the impression I was the only hire."
They started walking again, his boots crunching gravel, his tread lighter than she'd have expected as they navigated around flocks of farm fowl and three sheep that refused to give way. Tom didn't miss a beat, moved with her to give the animals a wide berth, and she tried not to focus on the way his lean thighs flexed inside well-worn and well-fitting jeans with every step. Or the way the muscles in his bare arms looked strong enough to effortlessly pin her beneath him.
"Two of my guys quit suddenly a couple of weeks ago. One of them went on vacation and never came back, and the other got up one morning, packed and left before I knew he was gone."
The kind of labor-intensive, low-pay work they did in a place like this had a tendency to weed out all but the most dedicated animal lovers, but it had still been odd to lose Jack and David like that, and in such a short span of time. Especially since they'd been around last year during her time of need, and they'd seemed happy to stick around for this one.
Excerpted from Unleashing the Storm by Sydney Croft. Copyright © 2008 by Sydney Croft. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.