Men and women who have sacrificed their personal identities to live in the shadows and uphold justice for all–no matter the cost.
Loyal operative Dez Luttino has graduated from the recruits of the Network, top of his classes and single-mindedly driven to succeed in his duty to his country. What he hadn’t counted on was mentoring his first operative—Nova Granger, once a head-strong, albeit gorgeous, hunting machine who didn’t seem to want to follow any rules except her own. As her team leader years ago, Dez had helped Nova tame her reckless nature and develop a team player attitude. She’s become one of the organization’s most valuable operatives.
Little does Nova know that sexy Dez has been instructed to prepare her for an undercover mission that involves felling a ruthless criminal. While Dez has been instructed by his superiors to get close to Nova and encourage her to trust him implicitly, he soon realizes that he’s gone beyond duty and done the unthinkable by falling in love.
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GENRE: Romance: Contemporary Intrigue/Espionage ISBN: 978-1-922548-07-8 ASIN: B093FTHQNZ Word Count: 62, 071
I can’t do it. Nova Granger realized that fact on the wave of fury rising inside her like a tsunami.
She’d sat quietly, trying not to make eye contact, as immaculate men dressed and smelling like a million bucks perused the virgin offerings in the brothel showroom. These particular girls, including Nova, were highly prized because they hadn’t yet been ‘spoiled’. As soon as they were, of course, they would be offered to the men who weren’t so choosy. She’d watched four of the pigs incline their heads toward the young girls of their choices, then the pimp’s thugs escorted them upstairs to the bedrooms. None of the girls fought–they’d learned their lessons the hard way during the torturous weeks since being taken from the streets of Chicago, where they’d lived hand-to-mouth after running away from somewhere months or years before. Most of them were barely twelve years old.
Mere children. Used like a product of pleasure with no thought whatsoever of their rights, their dignity, their choices. Dear God–their souls.
The mission profile had been drilled into her, and she reminded herself forcefully what she was doing here and why she couldn’t act on her own, apart from the primary operation. She was one of a team of undercover agents with specific orders. Their intention was to infiltrate the inner sanctum of an interstate human trafficking ring operating seven houses of prostitution around the United States–from Chicago, to Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston.
A mid-level recruiter employed pimps to handle the houses in each city. Runaways and prostitutes between the ages of twelve and sixteen were “charmed” into trusting pimps who controlled the day-to-day business of handling the girls. Charm quickly turned to threats and horrific violence–of which Nova had taken her share. The girls were rotated, blindfolded, every two weeks, between the prison-like brothels in a city so they couldn’t make connections and never knew exactly where they were at any given time. At this particular chicken shack, clients were willing to pay a fortune for sex with extremely young, virgin girls.
Nova made herself recite the mission objective: Get to the top of the chain, so the ring could be collapsed from the inside out and shut down permanently. She’d been brought in as a teenage runaway on the rumored possibility that the top dog in the ring was also a client. So far, she hadn’t been forced to endure the attentions of any of the men in order to find out who he was. Her fellow operative and the mission leader, Victor Leventhal, who was posing as a pimp, had warned her that her hands-off attitude was the reason for their disinterest in her. That certainly wouldn’t last long.
One customer wore an unstained, soft gray business suit and horned-rimmed glasses. Behind the spectacles, his eyes bulged with excitement as he slowly looked from one girl to the next on the sofas and chairs in the room. Hesitantly, he reached out and touched Nova’s arm. She watched that hand as if it moved in slow motion while a fragile, black piece inside her came unhinged.
No, Dad, no…
The pig’s hand was soft–too soft, as though he’d soaked in churned butter. Nova gagged on the sickeningly sweet scent of the cologne he wore, mingled with the sweat of his barely contained anticipation. Everything inside her advised her to rip his arm out–right from the socket. She could make him bleed, the depraved bastard.
Don’t you realize how easily I could kill you? With my bare hands?
Nova squeezed her eyes shut. I’ll never let you or your friends touch me again. I’ll never believe you did it because you love me, Dad.
Opening her eyes, Nova raised her gaze to the pervert, and he instantly drew back at what she knew he saw there. Incredulously, he appeared to realize the danger involved with his secret sin for the first time, and he hurried to the opposite side of the room, to a cluster of girls huddled on a sofa. Nova’s glare followed him. A moment later, as if he could feel her gaze on him like an imminent missile, he glanced back at her over his shoulder with fear in his cow eyes.
Overhead, the sound of female cries and beds creaking fired the avenging angel inside Nova’s blackened heart. No one’s coming. No one will save them if I don’t.
Movement beside her compelled Nova to glance away to see the little, freckled, red-haired girl being led to the opposite side of the room by one of the thugs. Her long braid hung down her back–the very picture of innocent summers, balancing on a crooked fence, sipping lemonade. Not Pippi Longstocking, my favorite character from the Astrid Cooper books Mama and me read when I was little. Not the sweet girl with blue fire in her eyes, the one who didn’t want to die. She’d cried that over and over while the pimp taught a new reality. Nova had almost lost her sanity wanting to turn his lesson back on him.
Stay alive, Pippi. Endure long enough for me to help you escape. But is that even possible?
Next to her, Dara whimpered, and Nova turned to look at the young girl she’d befriended earlier that day. A thug pulled her up. Nova wanted to grab her back, especially when the pig wrapped his arm around Dara and murmured, “You’ll be my doll. You’ll be part of my collection.” Dara looked back at her, her gaze dark and fearful. Nova saw the message in her eyes: Save me. You’re the only one who can.
Soon, the pimp would make the exchange of hard, cold cash with this diseased bastard for the death of an innocent soul. Dara… Nova’s teeth clenched at the drilled-deep reminder inside her head: Focus on the mission. You can either save one or all.
In front of Dara being pushed to the other side of the room, the spectacled customer followed Pippi and the thug quickly–nervously, glancing back at Nova. That skittish gaze broke her.
I’ll kill you before I let you touch her again. I can’t save all of you, but I can save a few. And that has to be worth something.
Nova’s hand closed around the narrow-necked vase holding a single, withered rose. Over the past few days, the other flowers in the vase had died one by one, their petals falling to the dingy carpet where they remained. In their quest for selfish gratification, the customers trampled them underfoot over and over, never noticing their existence. For the past week, Nova had watched everything, reciting her mission parameters in her head like a prisoner trying to escape the boundaries hemming her in.
With a cry of rage, she broke the bulbous bottom of the glass vase and launched herself at the pervert with his arm around Dara. Driving the broken tube deep inside his back, seeing the bloom of deep red staining his immaculate suit, only partially satisfied the bloodlust metastasizing unchecked in Nova’s heart.
She shoved his body to the floor while the girls behind her screamed in shock. There was no time to think. She threw herself onto the nervous pig who’d chosen Pippi and plunged her makeshift weapon into his neck with all her strength. He crumpled like a worthless bit of paper headed for the trash.
When one of the thugs reached for her, she slammed her foot into his chest, smashing him down to the floor while grappling for his silenced handgun. As soon as her blood-soaked hand took possession, she turned the weapon on him and blew his head clean off his shoulders. Whipping around where she was straddling the body, she brought the gun to bear on the other thugs one by one. The screams around her sank into the background, secondary to the agenda filling her head. Kill the men. Kill them all. Make them pay. Redeem the souls of these innocent girls. Maybe save my own soul.
She ran through the house, killing all the men she saw. In the last room upstairs at the end of the hall, she stood over the naked body of a man who’d been raping a young girl until she burst in. He held his hands up in surrender, begging her fruitlessly for his miserable life.
“No. I’m giving her the life you wanted to take away.” Smiling cruelly, Nova kicked him away from the girl to the other side of the bed and emptied the gun’s magazine into his head while the girl screamed, covering her ears as blood splattered her. Three soft little coughs preceded the handgun clicking impotently as the breech stayed open. The room filled with the strangely pleasant smell of propellant from the gunplay. Nova lowered the spent weapon and turned to the little girl. Her body was already covered with bruises from her training.
“Don’t move.” The order came from a commanding voice she recognized.
Vic. Nova raised her head to look at her team leader posing undercover as the pimp who controlled this chicken shack. An instant later, a sharp pain blossomed in the center of her back. “No,” she murmured. I’m not done…haven’t saved them all…
The drug inside the dart he shot at her stole into her veins almost immediately and she became dizzy. Colors swirled around her head. For an instant, she thought she smelled her father’s cheap aftershave, felt his weight as he shoved her hard onto the bed sheets. She couldn’t breathe with her face in the pillow. She moaned, fighting almost blindly under the effect of the drug as hands caught her and bound her arms and legs.
Dragging her eyes open a fraction, she saw Vic’s ruggedly handsome face leaning over her. “You shouldn’t have done this,” he whispered. There was pity in his expression and tone–and understanding. “You shouldn’t have gone off-profile, Nova.”
Barely a week into their infiltration operation, and she’d already screwed up. Tried to save the one and sacrificed the many. “No…”
She never had a chance to fight the suffocating lethargy stealing over her. Helplessly, her eyes slipped closed. Everything went black as she fell out of all time and meaning.
A sharp slap returned everything to focus. Nova gasped, her hands moving instinctively to grapple against her throat and ensure the possibility of drawing in the air she couldn’t seem to get into her lungs.
What had happened slammed back into the fore of her mind with her first clean, cool inhale. Angelo Pluzetti’s smooth face filled her vision just as Vic’s had seconds before she passed out, only in his expression there was no sympathy, no understanding of why she’d done what she had. How could Angelo understand? Second in command of operations, he was here, insulated in the Network compound, far from the mind-shattering horror she and Vic had faced undercover during the longest week of her life.
Groaning, Nova laid back on the bed, recognizing that she was in Medical. Her head felt like she had twin hammers on both sides, taking turns slamming her skull. She could see Angelo was furious with her, and she didn’t want to hear it.
Good luck escaping this lecture.
“You promised me you could handle this,” he said, his tone low and deadly. His green eyes narrowed. As if he couldn’t control his rage, he drew away from her, standing straight to his intimidating height of six foot five. “You weren’t even under for a full week, Granger. Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“I saved those girls from being raped by–”
“You’ve ensured that dozens more young girls will be raped until we can get to the top of this ring. Luckily, Vic had you taken out before you completely destroyed everything we’ve set up. He told the recruiter you freaked. He’ll be able to continue the mission, no thanks to your short-sighted sabotage.”
For a moment, Nova considered his use of the word “sabotage”. Much as she didn’t want to admit it, the word fit. She’d inadvertently done everything in her power to sabotage their higher mission. She should regret it, but she’d destroyed enough demons that she couldn’t feel anything but gratification.
Will they continue what I started with another female operative posing as a runaway teen? Nova swallowed against the dryness of her throat. No. Hell, no. She didn’t want to rue what she’d done. The Network too often allowed evil to take place as they tried to align the stars just right before making a decisive move to destroy the full breadth of the threat.
Angelo sighed, shaking his head. “If we don’t take this thing apart a piece at a time, from the inside out, it’ll just come back like a lethal virus. You told me you understood that, wildcat.”
And she had. But she couldn’t have stood back and let crap happen. How many times in her seven year career as a Network operative had she been reprimanded for taking matters into her own hands? Too many to count. In the face of pain, affliction…she lost focus. She could only see one course–avenge. The sooner, the better.
“I couldn’t stand to see them suffer,” she murmured, knowing she’d get no understanding from her superior. “Put me back in. I’ll do better next time.”
Angelo barked a laugh as he ran his hands through his short-cropped blond hair. “Didn’t you hear me? Vic told the recruiter he killed you and dumped your body with those of the men you attacked. There’s no way back in for you. I never should have trusted you to do this job in the first place.”
There has to be a way. If I–
“If you try to return, Nova, I’ll put you in abeyance this time. You seem to think the rules around here don’t apply to you.”
Shoving herself into a sitting-up position, she lifted her chin haughtily. Since she had no choice but to endure this reprimand, she sure as hell wouldn’t take it lying down. “Maybe they shouldn’t. What are we doing for these girls in the meantime–while we work our way inside, right to the top? They’ll be ruined, body and soul. Somebody has to care. Somebody has to give a damn and act.”
His steady gaze met hers and didn’t allow her to turn away. “You survived,” he said softly.
Nova looked away as the scorch left behind by her own pain seared her like it was still alive and well.
Today’s pain, not something left over from another life. A life that was buried.
Though his hand didn’t cover her shoulder, nor squeeze it reassuringly, she knew he considered giving her the comfort she needed but hadn’t taken from anyone inside this place. “We’ll get them all, Nova. I promise you that. They’ll be brought to justice. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want it to end for good?”
Her teeth clenched. Through the blockade, she spit, “I want it to end now. Immediately. Before another soul is mutilated beyond recognition.”
“It won’t end, not forever and not that fast. You know it never does with something this insidious, this underground. It’ll take time. It’ll take strong warriors to see it through to the end.”
She hated the time. Hated that she’d never been strong enough to do what needed to be done over the long haul. But she knew her superior was right. Until they got the kingpin, they couldn’t shut down the human trafficking operation for good. It would just continue somewhere else, with another servant of evil in charge of it.
The memory of the blue fire going out of Pippi Longstocking’s eyes, Dara’s fearful whimper, begging Nova to save her, told her she hadn’t done enough to make a difference. She could have helped them more. But now they were lost, maybe forever.
“Don’t leave the compound,” Angelo told her before leaving Medical.
Watching Angelo disappear in the hall outside her hospital room, Nova swore under her breath. She shouldn’t have gone ballistic. Hindsight whispered that she couldn’t have waited another second anyway, even if she understood now where she’d gone wrong in its big-picture scope. Because of her inability to handle herself, her superior would have her watched for the next several weeks to make sure she didn’t try to go back under.
Maybe she couldn’t go back, but she didn’t have to stay here. Nova shoved herself out of bed. The first moment of standing on her own two feet after being drugged brought with it a flush of heat and dizziness. When it passed, she took slow, tentative steps toward the pneumatic doors. None of the nurses in the reception area outside in the hall tried to stop her from leaving Med.
She returned to the barracks, got a change of clothes, and headed for the locker room. A hot shower made her re-live the satisfaction of the blood spilling out of the jagged wounds she’d inflicted on the two perverts in the brothel before she got hold of a real weapon.
That’s why I’m here in the Network. Why I voluntarily joined, gave my life to it. Because I want to stop the suffering. Because I couldn’t stop my own.
After her shower, she dressed in sweats and curled up in her assigned bed back in the barracks. She tried to sleep but her mind was assaulted by memories of screams and quiet weeping, as the thugs made sure the girls knew who they belonged to…and what they’d have to do to stay alive until they were no longer any use to them or anyone else. Nausea welled up in Nova’s throat each time she thought of what the Network’s purpose came down to. What she’d nearly sabotaged. Sacrifice the few to save the many. I believe in the Network’s mission. I’m just too impatient to wait for it sometimes.
I don’t want even one to be lost.
Although it was sanctioned by the American government, only the highest officials in the White House knew about the Network, including the President and a select committee called Oversight. The organization was funded by a major technology corporation–a front that designed innovative equipment both for public use and devices only the Network had access to. Expanding Technology Industries (ETI) functioned separately from the secret organization, providing the perfect cover for the underground bunker built deep in the earth beneath ETI’s skyscraper.
Seven years ago, Nova–then Piper Laslow–had been brought in when she was only sixteen and hadn’t left the compound once in those first five years while she’d trained in every conceivable area. Only in the last couple years had she been allowed to go out on field missions.
I’m loyal to the Network’s purposes, and I’ve worked hard because it gives me a chance to do what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little girl–make a difference. How often had she and her mother talked about that? Not simply getting by, taking care of themselves and their family, but doing good for the world or at least their neck of it.
I’m making a difference, Mama. But I’ve lost you. I never wanted to lose you or your purity. Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m just striking out because I can’t let what happened to me happen to them or because I’m put on this earth to be the one who saves them. No matter what I do, though, the evil never stops.
Footsteps coming closer made her sit up, alerted, on her bunk. She recognized the rhythm of Angelo’s pace. “What’s happening?” she demanded as soon as he appeared in the barracks’ doorway.
“Your hot-headedness worked in our favor, wildcat. Vic’s gained the recruiter’s trust because he took care of you so quickly after you attacked the customers and the other men in the brothel.”
Disappointment filled her even as she recognized the news as favorable. Vic had gained ground, though probably not enough to quickly get to the top of the chain. Nova had gotten to know the operative well enough during their prep and the week undercover to realize he possessed what she didn’t–sympathy and patience. He’d succeed where she continually failed.
Surprising her, Angelo came into the room and sat on the bed across from hers. He didn’t preface his next words with anything that could have prevented her shock: “You’re being promoted. As of December 18th, you’ll be Level 5 and you’ll be given the appropriate freedoms of that position.”
Nova blinked at him, astonished. What the hell’s happening? Is this a trap? A test? A tease? She wasn’t sure which would be worse.
Level 5… I can leave the compound after missions. I’ll have my own apartment on the outside. I’ll have a life beyond this place…
In her inflated boasting to anyone who would listen, she’d claimed often that she expected this long ago. But she realized now that a part of her had never believed it would happen for her. She’d expected to live out the rest of her life inside this compound, only leaving when she had an assignment.
Angelo didn’t respond to her question. He continued, “You’ll be assigned to teach our youngest recruits in defense in between missions with your team.”
It was then that Nova understood what was happening here. Angelo and the Oversight heads in Washington were throwing her a bone to keep her in line after her failed mission. They wanted her to leave the fate of those girls in the brothel to them. They’re pacifying me. “You back off, we’ll give you this.” Not full freedom but a semblance of it.
As much as she didn’t want to acquiesce so easily, she found herself nodding to the arrangement that might be an oasis only a couple weeks away–only a couple weeks if she could prove she was capable of standing down and following orders exactly as they were given.