EXCERPT: CHANCES ARE
Last Chance Rescue headquarters
Angela Delvecchio sat at her desk and watched the world go by. As the pseudo-receptionist for the Last Chance Rescue organization, she figured she’d seen the entire world pass by her at least twice.
Years ago, she had come to LCR out of necessity. Her family had needed money. At seventeen, with almost no experience, her prospects had been few. The fact that Noah McCall had taken a chance on her still amazed her. She would always be grateful to him.
Some might call her efforts noble but she couldn’t imagine making a different decision. Her family had needed her. Yes, there had been sacrifices. Instead of being able to go to university like many of her friends, she had taken night classes to obtain her degree. When all of her friends were partying and dating, she had been working or studying. She had no regrets. Helping her family hadn’t come from nobility but from genuine love.
Last Chance Rescue had been her salvation back then and she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. The organization’s philosophy of rescuing the innocent, no matter the cost, struck a deep chord within her. Only days after starting her job, she had realized her true calling. She wanted to be a field operative. The opportunity to be involved in a mission, physically assist with a rescue, called to her unlike anything else. She had known within the depths of her soul that being an LCR operative was what she was meant to be. Of course, that hadn’t been possible. Putting herself at risk would have been selfish and foolhardy. Her recently disabled father had been in poor health; her mother’s stroke the year before had made her health almost as precarious. Angela had to stay safe and healthy to care for her family.
But those years of doing the right thing were over and now meaningless. The family she had once held dear and protected ferociously was gone forever. A freak one-car accident on Rue de la Seine had taken them from her. In one fell swoop, she had lost her mother, father, sister, and brother.
Noah had told her more than once that Fate had a way of kicking you in the gut when you least expected it. How true those words were.
Over the years, her mother’s health had improved, so much so that she had been able to take a part-time job at their church. Her father had found a teaching position that hadn’t been too demanding. Max had been in his first year of university and Chloe was all set to graduate high school next year. And Angela had been breathing a little easier, seeing her loved ones thriving and happy once more. Life, at last, had been on the upswing for the entire Delvecchio family. Then that cruel bitch called Fate had swooped in and ripped Angela’s heart right from her chest.
That had been six months ago and now she could feel herself coming back to life, released from the smothering sadness that had threatened to consume her. A few days ago, she’d woken with the knowledge that though she would give anything to have her family back, that wasn’t possible. However, something else was possible. Something she had wanted for years. She could now pursue her dream of being a field operative.
Noah was more than aware of her dream. She had no secrets from him. From the moment she met the LCR leader, she’d felt a kinship to him as if they’d been related in another life. He had understood her desire to be an operative, as well as the reasons she couldn’t pursue her dream. So he’d given her the next best thing—the full training of an operative along with the promise that if the opportunity ever presented itself, she would become one.
The image of a tall, dark-haired man came to her mind—a reminder that fulfilling her dream of being an operative wasn’t the only thing that had brought her back to life. The moment she met Jake Mallory, her world had changed for the better. It seemed as though she’d been waiting for him all of her life.
When Jake arrived at LCR for his first day of training, Angela had been more than eager to meet him. Having done most of the research on his background, she already knew his strength of character, his heroism, and his pain. The moment she'd looked into his eyes she had seen an LCR operative.
Tall, even to her height of five-foot-ten, Jake was six-feet-five inches of gorgeous masculinity and hardness. His vivid blue eyes, chiseled jaw and swarthy complexion could make any woman drool. And he had the kind of world-weary toughness that said he’d been there, done that and hadn’t been impressed. Yet, despite all he had been through, he had a gentleness about him. He also had a wickedly dry sense of humor that could make her laugh unexpectedly and a sexy, too-rare smile that made her toes curl. Jake Mallory epitomized every trait she desired in a mate.
Too bad Jake didn’t feel the same way about her.
A sigh of hopeless longing exploded from her. What was the point in wishing for something that would never materialize?
Movement outside the window caught her attention. A middle-aged couple had slowed to a near stop in front of the building and was peering inside. With effortless ease, Angela went into her receptionist role. Propping her longs legs upon her desk to show off an almost indecent amount of smooth, creamy skin, Angela blew a giant bubble from her wad of gum and winked suggestively at the man. Startled expressions were followed by the couple picking up their pace and scurrying away. Mission accomplished.
She swallowed a small laugh. Some parts of this job never got old. Between her sparkly, skimpy attire, multiple tats and piercings, and ever-present mouthful of bubblegum, she had deterred more unwelcomed visitors than many border patrol stations.
Her eyes turned to the computer screen in front of her but her mind once again wandered to Jake. What would he think when he learned about her aspirations? Would that make a difference in how he looked at her?
Though she’d seen some measure of attraction in his eyes, he had never tried to take their relationship further than a back and forth light flirtation when he came into the office for an assignment. Angela, on the other hand, had done everything but proposition him to make sure he knew she was interested. Her efforts had produced zero results. It was enough to give a girl a complex.
She jerked herself out of her unhelpful introspection. She was who she was and made no apologies. As much as she wanted a relationship with Jake, he had no influence on her career choice. She was proud of the work she had accomplished for LCR. With her skills and abilities as a researcher, she knew she had saved lives. Still, she wanted more. She had the training and the opportunity…now she just needed the mission.
When she told Noah that she was ready to be a field operative, he hadn’t seemed surprised. He had to have known it was coming. Being true to her nature, she hadn’t waited for him to give her an assignment…she already knew which one she wanted and had presented her choice to Noah. To say he was shocked would be the world’s biggest understatement. But the question remained: Would he agree?
There was a monster loose in London.
Noah McCall stared grimly down at the pictures before him. Graphic police photographs, depicting the horror of a gruesome murder, screamed up at him, telling him that this killer had no remorse, no conscience. Noah had seen hundreds of crime scene photos and many of them had turned his stomach. None had affected him like these. Something had to be done to stop the bastard. And he might have the solution.
Slumping back into his chair, he rubbed the crease in the middle of his forehead as his mind searched for another way. Assisting the police in apprehending criminals wasn’t the norm for Last Chance Rescue but they’d done it on occasion. Operating beneath the radar often meant not getting involved even when they wanted to intervene or assist. LCR enjoyed a good relationship with law enforcement officials and stepping on their toes was a sure way to ruin it. However, this time the officials had come to him and asked for help. LCR had the resources to go deep cover, for months if necessary. They also had something else—highly skilled and trained operatives who could hunt down this bastard and stop him. Therein lay his dilemma.
LCR’s purpose was rescue. Each operative understood that victims came first and would risk their lives to save others. Noah’s number one concern was the safety of his employees. His operatives were in danger every day but they usually knew the monsters they pursued—pedophiles, human traffickers, and kidnappers were scum of the earth but a somewhat known evil. This was a different kind of creature—like nothing they’d ever hunted before.
His people were the best trained in the business. They could and would trap this fiend and end his reign of terror. Noah’s issues with this case came from one employee only. A trained operative who could kick butt with the best of them, shoot the whiskers off a cat without scaring it, and when necessary, lie better than anyone he’d ever known. But she had never worked an op in her life.
She had brought the case to him. With her knowledge of the inner workings of LCR, few things got past Angela. She knew they had been asked to help, she knew they had the expertise. And she wanted the op for herself. He had always known this day would come. He’d just never anticipated it would be on a case like this.
For years, Angela’s family obligations had prevented him from assigning her any missions. She had been responsible for their welfare. All of that had changed. Her entire family was now gone and Angela’s entire life had changed in an instant. One thing that hadn’t changed was her desire to become a field operative. Truth was, when she had told him she was ready to be a full-fledged operative, he had been relieved. For months, he’d watched her frozen in grief, zombie-like and merely existing. There was light in her eyes once again. Dammed if he wanted to douse their brightness.
With her skills, intelligence, and grit, he had every faith that Angela would be an excellent operative. What she lacked was experience. But was this the right assignment for her first time? A psycho-maniac who was abducting and torturing his victims before murdering them? This was a hell of an op to cut her teeth on.
The buzzer on his desk sounded. He sighed resignedly as he pressed the button. “Yes?”
“Can we talk about it?”
Her eagerness to get started was apparent. Hearing the excitement in her voice made him want to agree to anything just to keep it there. However, he refused to make a rash decision just because of that. “We can talk but I still haven’t made up my mind.”
“I’ll be right there.”
In spite of the grim nature of their upcoming discussion, Noah barked out a dry laugh. When she wanted something, Angela could talk a blue streak. He’d seen her wear down more than one person just by her sheer volume of words. Most of his operatives were taciturn at best. A dynamo with energy to spare, Angela could talk anyone into almost anything.
Her long-legged stride full of determination, she entered his office without knocking. Angela was one of LCR’s most valuable assets and, other than Noah, knew the organization better than anyone. She had been in her late teens when she’d responded to his advertisement for a receptionist. As an upstart rescue company, Noah and his friend and business partner Milo Evans, had no clue on how to go about finding good help. Milo had often commented that the good Lord was looking out for them when he’d sent Angela their way. They had been looking for someone to answer phones and discourage unwelcomed visitors. What they had gotten was a computer genius with research skills not even the government could match.
Noah had liked Angela’s energy and intelligence but most of all he had liked her loyalty to her loved ones. She had been determined to take on so much at such a young age and make it work. Even if she hadn't been a computer genius, he would have hired her.
There wasn't an LCR employee who didn't appreciate Angela’s contributions. She made everyone's job a thousand times easier and had saved lives in the process.
She dropped down into the chair across from him. “So, what's your biggest concern?”
Noah had intimidated more men and women than he could remember, but to his knowledge, he had never done that with Angela. She had always acted as if they'd known each other since birth.
“My biggest concern is that you could get yourself killed.”
“Since this guy is slicing and dicing his victims, that's a given. But whatever op I go on, something similar could happen.”
“The creeps we go after aren’t usually serial killers.”
He knew better than to encourage her to take some time off and just enjoy life. That argument had already been made and lost. After all she had been through, one would think she’d want to spread her wings, maybe even explore life outside the confines of LCR. When he’d made that suggestion, he had been reminded once again of Angela’s single-minded determination. When she wanted something, she went after it with everything within her. She wanted to be an active field operative. Now.
“There are plenty of other ops I can assign you. Dropping you into the deep end of the pool makes no sense. Only our most seasoned and experienced operatives should be on this case.”
“I'm well aware that I don't have the experience, Noah. And I know which operatives you’re assigning—remember, I saw your list. Eden, Shea, Sabrina and Riley are some of our best. But you trained me just like you trained them. I know what they know.”
“There are some things you can't get in a training session. Real world experience is a hell of a teacher.”
“So let me go out and get that experience.”
Noah shook his head. “We're talking around the issue. I know you've got the skills, I just don't know if throwing you to the wolves your first time out is a good idea.”
“Then assign someone to me who'll watch my back.”
That was a no-brainer. If he put her on this op, he already knew who she would be paired with. A former military man and ex-Chicago cop, Jake Mallory had the discipline and drive that Noah looked for in an LCR operative. He also possessed the protective, kick-ass attitude of a seasoned professional. And with the bond Noah had seen growing between the two, he knew that Jake would battle the fires of hell for Angela.
Apparently under the impression he was considering which operative he could partner her with, she added, “Seth and Honor already know this case. Assign Seth to me. Or how about Dylan? He just came off an op and—”
Noah held up his hand. This was the price he paid for having Angela know almost as much as he did about the inner workings of LCR. Normally he enjoyed her input but this was one thing he would decide for himself. Seth Cavanaugh and Dylan Savage were excellent operatives but not right for this particular mission. “Finding you a partner won’t be a problem. I’m just not sure—”
“Will you ever be absolutely sure, Noah? You’ve treated me like family from the moment I walked through LCR doors and I can’t even begin to express how much that means to me. Without your generous salary, I’m not sure how my family would have survived. But that’s in the past. Being an LCR operative is my future.”
She leaned forward, her dark, velvet brown eyes searing his. “It comes down to this. I’m an LCR employee. And I’m a trained operative. This is an operation I know I can handle. It’s time to let me be what you trained me to be.”
Noah stared deep into her eyes for several seconds; Angela met his gaze, unflinchingly, unwavering in her determination and confidence. Finally, he took a breath and said, “Three conditions.”
A brilliant light entered her eyes but she kept her expression serious. “Name them.”
“No rash decisions. Your partner will be the experienced one. He tells you to do something, you damn well do it. No arguments.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“You go through a two-day refresher course. Weapons, self-defense, and physical stamina. If your trainer says you’re ready, you’re ready. If he says no, then you sit this one out.”
“No problem. And the third?”
Noah held back a grin at her easy agreement. Lack of confidence had never been one of Angela’s weaknesses.
“I want you to talk with Samara. If she says you’re mentally ready for the challenge, you’re in.”
By nature, Angela was an exuberant, expressive person. Noah could tell it was taking every bit of her self-control not to get up and dance around the room. He had missed seeing that vivre. He just hoped to hell he had made the right decision. If anything happened to her, he would never forgive himself.
She settled back into her seat with apparent effort and asked calmly, “Who's my partner?”
His eyes eagle sharp to gauge her reaction, he answered, “Jake Mallory.”
Multiple electric quivers zipped up Angela’s spine. Maintaining as neutral an expression as possible, she held her breath to keep from gasping. She knew her boss all too well…he was waiting for a reaction. She refused to give an outward sign that her heartbeat had just skyrocketed. Noah was aware of her fascination with Jake. She hadn't exactly hidden it from anyone, even Jake.
Aware that he was waiting for a response, Angela nodded her approval and said calmly, “I'll be glad to work with Jake. He's extremely capable.”
She wasn't fooling Noah. His slightly raised brow and little half crooked smile told her that. Okay, so what if she couldn't look at Jake without salivating or getting very heated in certain parts of her body. She was a professional and a mature woman. Her hormones didn't control her actions. Besides that, Jake had gone out of his way to show her he wasn't interested in her romantically.
Most operatives treated her like a kid sister. Their attitude had never bothered her before since she had always looked at LCR employees as extended family members. Until Jake. There was no way she could look at him and see anything other than a larger than life sexy man. One with all the necessary attributes and equipment to make her heart flip over and her hormones stand up and take notice.
Apparently deciding the meeting was over and the matter settled, Noah stood. Angela had no choice but to get up also. She didn’t even bother to tell herself that her wobbling knees had nothing to do with the fact that soon, she and Jake would be alone together for hours, maybe days. But this was an op…her very first. No matter her partner, she would do her job to the best of her considerable ability.
“Send Jake up when he gets here.”
Her unreliable, foolish heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t seen Jake in days. Still, she didn’t plan to stick around to hear what he thought about this assignment or his new partner. She would have to face him soon but not today. She needed to go home and regroup. Tomorrow she would be better equipped to deal with the fallout.
“He's not going to like it, is he?”
“It's not his job to like an assignment. He'll do what he has to do.”
Not exactly encouraging words. Bad enough that Jake would be worried about her, but to have him forced to work with her wasn't going to be pleasant for either of them.
“Maybe you should assign me to someone else.”
“All operatives on this case will have a partner.” Noah paused a beat, and then with that adamant edge that meant he wouldn’t back down, he added, “Jake is yours.”
A hundred different emotions raced through Angela as she silently left the room. Setting aside her anxiety about Jake for the time being, she reveled in what lay ahead. She was getting what she had wanted almost from the moment she’d walked into a small, slightly shabby hotel room and met Noah and Milo for the first time.
After describing her qualifications, eagerness had lit up their faces like they’d just been handed their most wished-for Christmas present. Even then, her computer skills, mostly self-taught, were crazy mad.
A few months before he was killed, she’d had a conversation with Milo about this very thing. He had understood her need to do more but told her when the time came, she’d probably have to fight both he and Noah for the chance. Not because she was so good at research but because she meant so much to both of them.
Milo had been gone for almost four years now. An LCR operative turned traitor had sold them out. Milo had paid the price. Even now, it was still hard to deal with that loss. She knew that Noah missed him daily. Milo had been an inspiration to all who knew him.
The elevator landed on the first floor and Angela headed to her desk. She’d clear up a few things and be gone before Jake’s meeting with Noah ended. She told herself she wasn't being a coward. She honestly did have a lot of things to do. It was just that when Jake found out, he would probably come looking for her. She had no problem holding her own with most people. Jake wasn't most people.
Falling in love with a man who only wanted to be your friend was a sure path to heartbreak. She was idealistic when it came to a lot of things but not this. If one didn’t look beneath the surface, Angela knew she shocked people. But beneath the façade she wore for her job lay the soul of a true romantic. She wanted candlelight dinners, long walks in the park, and multiple orgasms. And she wanted forever. That wasn’t anything Jake would ever offer her. Okay, maybe she could wear him down eventually to where he could provide the multiple orgasms. But she wanted much more than that. She wanted to be Jake Mallory’s everything.
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