Strike Zone

Sharpshooter, Emily Rogers, was the best at what she did, until a job went tragically wrong resulting in the death of an innocent child. Haunted by guilt and harassed by the media, Emily turns her back on the only existence she’s known, hiding herself away and trying to build a new life.

When a job comes up requiring a sharpshooter, Hawk Elite medic, John Vega, has the perfect excuse to hunt down the woman he’s had a crush on for over two years. When he finally finds her living a quiet life in a small town on the coast, he makes her an offer she can’t refuse. 

Aware she needs closure, Emily agrees to work with John, but soon it becomes obvious she has a target on her back. Can she trust John enough to stay and give in to the attraction growing between them? Or will fate show her that she should have stayed hidden in her quiet coastal town
 

 
cover design by elaina lee at "for the muse design"

cover design by elaina lee at "for the muse design"

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Two Years Later
Chicago, Illinois


The press of metal against his fingernail increased millisecond by millisecond, fraction by fraction of an inch until the pain became an all-consuming fire in his hand and up his arm. The crush blinded him.

“That’s just what I’m doing for the grand,” the man’s raspy, breathless voice brushed against his ear and his nail finally cracked. Bood dripped off his finger to the cement floor below. Lights shown in his face, the man above him a silhouette. 

Didn’t matter. He didn’t need to see the face, to know the man.

Damien Campino. The no name loan shark from his own neighborhood in Chicago. The distant relative who’d gotten him out of a fix down at the tracks. Using him to prove a point, to show the up and coming crime syndicate this was his turf, his neighborhood. 

He’d become a pawn by his own stupidity, at his own mistake. 

Damien nodded, and the pressure let up.

With a groan, he cradled the injured hand. The two muscle men behind him moved forward, anxious to do their part. With a wince, he waited, and it was the waiting that was worse than the actual beating.

He’d trained to take a beating.

The fists came at him. One lifted him; the other threw punches, the glee in his eyes eerily silent in the cold, dark warehouse. 

They didn’t touch his face, though. He never thought he’d be thankful for a beating before today.

A solid punch at his lower back had him seeing white. The guy behind him wanted in, too, apparently.

Damien’s face appeared before him, blurry from the sweat and pain. The man crouched before him, sighed. “I give you a month. But you have nothing. I give you two months. And you have a quarter what you owe.” Garlic hung on his breath with the scotch. 

“I can get your money—”

The slap cracked off his cheekbone, silencing him. He couldn’t afford the face shots. 

“Because you are family, I give you two more weeks.” Damien stood. “I’m a nice guy like that, yes? We used to play on the courts together. Went to school together.”

“You were a nice guy then—”

The man’s nod sent another fist into the small of his back. 

“Now, you’re a bully.”

“And you’re stupid with your money, stupid with your good fortune. So you have to come to the bully to fend off the bigger bully.” He tisked. “Your mama would be so disappointed.”

A cough wracked his body, and he spit blood onto the floor.

“Two weeks. Twenty grand. Or I kill your mama.”


Harbor View, North Carolina

The man in the dark sunglasses with his too-long, dark blond hair walked into Emily Rogers’ quiet coffee shop by the sea, and she sighed. “Number nine, number nine, number nine...” 

And it was only February.

The job offers had started six months ago.

Apparently, she should be ready to get back to work.

Richard had been the first to appear on her doorstep. She’d turned him right around. No thank you. And she’d sent him on his way. Then had come Frank, out of Quantico, and Charles from the Army Recruitment office. The national rifle association. Several smaller private companies, looking to recruit for the number of different shooting competitions throughout the country. 

She narrowed her eyes. This one was different. Younger. He wore carpenter pants—lots of pockets—even though he was a far cry from a carpenter, a tight black t-shirt, which hugged his muscled arms, and a firearm at the small of his back. 

Not a suit, like they usually came, ready to do business. This guy wore security like a second skin. 

After so many offers, she’d become immune to the nerves that flitted through her veins. Her practice saying no was going to pay off today, and then she was going to enjoy a nice long weekend in her cozy place by the sea.

The guy walked up to the counter, and Emily ignored him to pour herself a cup of coffee while Callie took his order. She hefted her purchase order book into her arm and took it out to the round table just inside the front door near the corner. With blue poppied wallpaper at her back, she dove into her end-of-the-week ordering. Pastry sales were up fifteen percent from last year this week and nineteen percent from last week. 

Success was happening, even if it was slowly.

The quiet success of this business changed her life. The high-stakes tension of her former career seemed like a long time ago. 

And good-looking guy or not, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go back—ever.

At the same time, her gaze was drawn to him, and she gauged his stance, his friendliness. He made Callie laugh. A charmer—definitely former military. He pulled the sunglasses down with a grin. Okay, it was a nice grin, full lips, straight teeth—she almost snickered at the thought. She should get into the horse business if she was going to start checking out people’s teeth.

But his presence had her blood pumping like it hadn’t in years, making her admit her biggest lie, that she was happy, alone in this little seaside town. She shoved the thought aside.

He turned and caught her in his direct gaze.

She was happy.

Her heart pounded as he came her way. 

Be cool. Calm. You can say no to anything. You are the master of your destiny.

And then he sat. “Emily Rogers?”

“No,” she answered. See that wasn’t so hard.

“No?” His confusion confirmed her suspicions.

“No, I won’t come work for you.” Her gaze looked him up and down. “Security? Beretta? Winchester? National Rifle Association? It’s not the military. They’d send someone in uniform. And it’s definitely not government. They wear the suits.”

The man eyed her and studied, finally making her nervous. He leaned forward and reached across the table. Every instinct inside of her fought the urge to react, to defend against the unknown threat. But then he just stuck his hand out to shake hers. “I’m John Vega.”

“You’re a bit blond to be a Vega, aren’t you?”

“We’ve been watered down in the last few generations, but we still got the blood to prove it.” He grinned again and almost made her smile.

But the nerves flared up again. “How’s your coffee, John Vega?”

“It’s excellent coffee.”

“I’m glad you like it,” she said, unable to hide the bit of pride that cropped up. Studying him, she was struck by feelings from her past—being part of a team and having his confidence. She frowned. Those feelings had been well-buried. But, his face tugged at some memory, almost as if she met him before. “I’m sorry. Do we know each other?”

“Not really. But we almost met—once.”

Emily leaned in and rested her chin on her hand. “No. I never forget a face. Yours, I would remember.”

He hesitated the briefest of moments, and then grinned, as if to put her at ease. “There was a lot going on, probably a lot you don’t want to remember. But—”
Vega. Doha. Qatar. Hotel. The bar. “That’s right.”

He took a card from one side and handed it over to her. “You must get offers all the time.”

She glanced down, saw a red, white and blue eagle with the words Hawk Elite across the glossy side of the card. Flipping it over, she found his name, an email, and a phone number. She let out a slow breath. Hawk Elite was well known…and good. “There’s still nothing to talk about.”

“Please.” 

They all tried so hard. 

But this time, she shrugged, willing to bend. Maybe it was the good looks. She needed to work on getting laid. “You are persistent.” 

She nodded toward the benches across the street that lined the rocky embankment between the beach and the road. “Wait out there for me. I won’t be long.”

“Promise?”

She rolled her eyes and made him grin—and holy moly…her stomach dropped right out of her abdomen. Too confident. Too freaking gorgeous for his own good. She watched the long line of his khaki-clad legs and his tan, sandaled feet stride for her door. Lord help her, she’d forgotten what instant attraction could do to a woman.

“That man is trouble, Miss Emily.” Callie came up behind her and leaned in. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she answered, ignoring the shiver of awareness that ran down her spine. 

Emily rounded the pastry-filled counter and ducked through the doorway to the back room. She counted out the drawer and filed everything for tomorrow morning. Monies went into the safe, trash went out the back door…

She could sneak out. Right now. Ignore him. 

The alley backed up to the small public library, which was open until six thirty, and one short walk would put her right where she ought to be—hidden amongst shelves full of books. Where in her fake, pretend, wonderful life, she was harmless.

A car honked as it drove by on the main street, and she jumped in surprise. “Geez. Don’t let a stupid man make you stupid,” she warned. “Stupid. He’s just a man,” she muttered as she went inside and secured the door. A man who knows things. Knows me. 

Emily stopped behind the counter and watched her late-day visitor sit on the bench with his cell phone to his ear. He looked content, a smile on his face, legs crossed out in front of him, and just a touch of breeze, ruffling his hair. Callie was right.

No matter what he wanted, and she believed he wanted something, John Vega was definitely trouble.

And it had been a long time since she’d been in any trouble.

She bit at the smile that came to her lips. 
***
“The rumors are true. She’s being nice, but—” John spoke to Hawk as he waited. He rarely waited for anyone, much less a woman. Unless that woman was his mother, of course, or one of his sisters. “She said no before she even knew my name. Literally.”

“We need a shooter, and she’s been in hiding long enough. Something bad happened. I feel for her, but we could really use her. Is she still shooting?”

“I don’t know. Haven’t gotten that far in our relationship yet,” he answered, tongue in cheek. 

The door to the shop opened.

“I gotta go. Call you later.” He touched the screen, disconnecting the call as Emily approached him. She walked with her head held up and her shoulders back, like the woman who’d worked for the FBI. He’d followed her career after the botched Hassan assassination—calm, collected. She hadn’t wavered when the press had demoralized her. And she’d never apologized.

He liked what he saw. That hadn’t changed in two years. “Would you like to walk?” 

“Walk? How about you can walk me home? In that amount of time, you can make your proposal.”

Unexpected butterflies filled his stomach as she moved south down the sidewalk. He picked up his pace to keep up. “Well, you see. I’m recruiting for Hawk Elite. Our shooter is on family leave—indefinitely. We hire the best—”

“Ding, ding, ding,” she interrupted, cutting him off with a smile to soften the blow. 

“Wait.” He stopped. “This is where you live?” 

They’d gone maybe five steps and stood at the bottom of a set of stairs that rose off the sidewalk to the second floor, above the café. “No wonder you were willing to let me walk you home.”

She had a smoky, velvet-smooth laugh. He was certain he’d never hear another without comparing it to hers. He couldn’t take his eyes from her. It was like the crush he had two years ago never left. 

And it didn’t even matter that she’d gotten the upper hand.

“Do you run?” she asked, out of the blue.

He almost sighed. Hawk wanted Emily Rogers on his team. Period. If that meant running, he could manage it. “Sure. When I have to.” 

“I’ll be right back.” She moved up the stairs.

He would have followed her, but it was like she knew he wanted to, and the look she sent over her shoulder stopped him. John lifted his hands. “I’ll wait right here.”

She disappeared through the doorway at the top. And he was only fifty-fifty sure she’d come back. But he sat to wait anyway. If he was wasting his time, he was going to do so while he enjoyed the twilight version of the sky over the Atlantic. 

He leaned forward to pull his phone out of his pocket, touched the camera app, and lined up his shot. 

His mom was going to love the colors in this one.

Ten minutes later, the door above him opened. Emily came out in a slim pair of yoga pants, a tank top, and sunglasses. She wore bright colored shoes and a holster under her arm. 

He grinned up at her. “Expecting trouble?”

“Not necessarily.” A blush rose on her neck. “What are you doing there?”

“Just taking a picture of the ocean at sunset.”

“Oh.” She narrowed her eyes, perhaps suspicious again. 

He liked that about her. She’d fit in well with Hawk’s team. If they couldn’t be called misfits, they at least knew how to hold out on trust to the very end. “I send them to my mom,” he explained.

She laughed, her eyes sparkling from the rays of the setting sun. “Yeah, right.”

“It’s true.”

“Mm-hmm.” She took the last step to the sidewalk. “I like to run at the end of my day.”

“Okay,” he answered, waiting for the hitch. He knew she wasn’t interested in the job, so what was she playing?

“Let’s race.”

He lifted his right foot, took his sandal off, and tossed it onto the steps, repeating the action for his left foot as well. Shoeless. He had five brothers and three sisters. Right in the middle, he’d been raised to keep up with the older ones or chase after the younger ones. Shoes were optional. “Ready?”

She chuckled as she lunged into a stretch. “Almost.”

He stretched as well. “I’ll even give you a head start.”

“Oh, really,” she snorted. 

“And if I win, you hear me out.”

A light came to her eyes. “And if I win, you leave me the hell alone.”
 

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