Countdown to Zero Hour

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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Countdown to Zero Hour
By Nico Rosso

Black Ops: Automatik

Fans of Maya Banks’s KGI series will love this explosive new romantic suspense series from Nico Rosso, featuring black ops agents and the women they’ll do anything to protect.

Former Special Forces agent Artem "Art" Diaz is tattooed, muscular and undeniably dangerous. He's also deep undercover, posing as mob muscle for a deadly
bratva
boss. His mission: gain the Russians' trust. Then lead the strike team that will take them down.

Chef Hayley Baskov knows better than to get involved with someone with such close mafia ties, but the handsome bodyguard who brought her to this sprawling estate full of ruthless mobsters is inexplicably kind. A little flirtation may keep her safe amid the growing menace.

As Art’s timetable for action escalates, so do his encounters with Hayley. Stealing what illicit pleasure they can keeps them both sane in the face of evil. But when things get dangerous, Art has to tell her about his assignment, bringing her deeper into the shadowy world of black ops...and putting her life on the line.

Now Art has a new objective: protect Hayley from the men who'd see them both dead.

Book one of the Black Ops: Automatik series

75,000 words

Dear Reader,

If there’s one thing we have learned from the kickass heroines of the fiction we read and publish, it’s that you should always be in control of your own happiness. And, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re like me and books make you happy. So this February, during Valentine’s month, instead of waiting for someone to put some romance in your life, go ahead and do it for yourself: buy yourself all the books!

Shannon Stacey always brings a fantastic blend of humor, heroes and sigh-worthy romance, and her novella
A Fighting Chance
is no different. All work and no play makes Adeline Kendrick a dull girl, so when she heads to a casino resort for a friend’s bachelorette weekend, she’s ready to have a good time. Until she runs into Brendan Quinn, professional fighter and the one who got away—the one her family
drove
away—and things take a turn for the interesting. When the weekend is over, Adeline isn’t ready to give up her second chance that easily.

An unexpected fresh start leads to an unlikely—but absolutely perfect—pairing in
Getting Him Back
, a male/male contemporary romance from bestselling gay romance author K.A. Mitchell. Ethan may have followed his high school sweetheart to college only to get dumped his first day there, but he’s not going to let that stop him. And then there’s Wyatt. Mysterious, grouchy…hot. And possibly not gay. New college goal? Get Wyatt into bed and into Ethan’s life.

In Anna del Mar’s debut romantic suspense,
The Asset
, a woman fleeing from her sinister past must defy her fears and risk her life to care for a wounded warrior, a SEAL who will push the limits of his broken body and protect her to his very last breath. Don’t miss this first Wounded Warrior novel.

If you’re looking for a melt-your-panties hot erotic romance read, look no further than
Wolf’s Ascension
by
Lauren Dane. Attacked by werewolves. Mated to the Alpha. Declared a queen. Kari is having an unusual day. In the Cherchez wolf pack, loyalty is earned, not given. For Andreas, the pull he feels toward Kari cannot be ignored, a physical bond immediate and unbreakable—though Andreas wants to win Kari’s heart as well as her body. And be sure to watch for book two,
Sworn to the Wolf
, on sale in March 2016.

In the explosive follow-up to Joely Sue Burkhart’s darkly erotic romance
One Cut Deeper
, life on the run with an assassin isn’t what Ranay thought it would be. In fact, parts of it more closely resemble a sex-fueled vacation—until duty calls. The FBI believe Charlie’s brother is working for a human trafficking ring, and Charlie is the only one who can bring him down.
Two Cuts Darker
brings you back into the world of dark romance but delivers the same satisfying happy ending.

The only doctor who can stop a man-made killer flu couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a grenade launcher—so his bodyguard, Sergeant Ali Stone, has her work cut out for her in
Viral Justice
,
the last book in the Biological Response Team romantic suspense trilogy by Julie Rowe. And you can still pick up
Deadly Strain
and
Lethal Game
wherever Carina Press ebooks are sold!

Tempted to off your significant other for forgetting Valentine’s Day again? Satisfy your more murderous urges with our two mystery offerings this month.

Jonathan Watkins combines mystery with romance in
A Devil’s Bargain
. Past sins and dark secrets threaten to blow apart the lives and careers of criminal defenders Issabella Bright and Darren Fletcher when their friend, Theresa Winkle, is charged with the vicious murder of a man behind her bar—a man Darren learns is connected to his own family’s corrupt history and to the one case that has haunted him for years. Go back to the beginning of their romance, and indulge in all of the fantastic Bright & Fletcher mysteries now available:
Motor City Shakedown
,
Dying in Detroit
and
Isolated Judgment
.

In Brenda Buchanan’s latest Joe Gale Mystery,
Truth Beat
, a newspaper reporter struggles with unreliable sources while covering two explosive stories—the apparent murder of a priest who stood up to his church and a spate of increasingly destructive bombings.

Last, this month I’m excited to present a new romantic suspense series that I’ve been highly anticipating from Carina Press author Nico Rosso. Undercover agent Art Diaz had no choice but to drag Chef Hayley Baskov into the world of Russian mobsters, but when her tentative trust turns to full passion he vows to stop at nothing to protect her during the final strike. Be sure to pick up the first in the Black Ops: Automatik series,
Countdown to Zero Hour
.

So kick off your shoes, curl up in your favorite cozy spot, and treat yourself to a Valentine’s month of books. (When it comes to books, one day of indulgence is never going to be enough.)

And then look forward to next month, with releases from Shannon Stacey in contemporary romance, Dee Carney in paranormal romance and j. leigh bailey in male/male romance.

As always, until next month here’s wishing you a wonderful month of books you love, remember and recommend.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Executive Editor, Carina Press

Dedication

For Ami. We’re still cooking.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Angela James for guiding me toward romantic suspense. Her encouragement and the support of the Carina staff are big reasons writing romance novels is so rewarding. Also much appreciation goes to my new editor Rhonda Helms, who made this process like an awesome conversation over a few beers.

Chapter One

Hayley Baskov always knew opening a restaurant was a risky proposition, but she’d never expected just how dangerous serving food could be. If all her plans had worked out, there would’ve been four walls around her, an industrial kitchen with a staff and a front door to pace the flow of customers. Instead, she manned a steam cart outside a shady Russian nightclub in a sketchy corner of San Diego, California.

Plans hadn’t worked out.

But she wasn’t ready to quit.

So far, business was going as well as possible. The night was cool enough to reveal the breath of the people standing in a long line on the side of the building, waiting for the doorman to mercifully let them in. Techno music bass thumped inside the Sea Weed and thundered louder each time the door opened. But the doorman only let a few of the partyers in at a time, leaving everyone else out in the chilly air in their thin designer jeans or short skirts.

Which turned the people into the perfect customers for Hayley’s warm pelmeni. The pork dumplings simmered in broth, sending waves of unctuous steam out to the partyers waiting impatiently. When Hayley had first pushed the heavy cart up the hill from the closest parking spot she’d found, she’d cursed her ex, Burton, every step of the way. But now that customers were breaking away from their line to drop five bucks for three pelmeni in a small paper boat, she had little time to think of how she’d wound up on this particular stretch of sidewalk.

Dudes in long shoes ambled up, chose whether they wanted a side of sour cream or vinegar then returned to the line with their food, thin napkin and plastic fork. Hayley watched the domino effect. The people in line around the customers would crane their necks to see what they were eating, then stare at her cart, then check their wallets, then skip over to her.

Girls balanced expertly on platform heels and maintained the shortest skirts Hayley had ever seen. They even managed to keep their glossy lipstick perfect while eating. Their shoes clicked back to the line. Hayley knew they’d make it inside long before most of the guys.

How would Hayley do in the club? She was wearing jeans and a chef’s coat. Not the best fit for this venue. But that was how it had been for a long time. While the other kids had been clubbing and tearing it up, she’d been working. Catering gigs had carried her through high school. After that was culinary school and any kitchen jobs she’d been able to land. After-hours parties for Hayley and her friends had consisted of sitting around an alley behind a restaurant and killing off whatever wine bottles the customers had left unfinished.

It would feel good to get polished up like these girls sometime and do a little strutting. Especially if she could stomp past Burton on her way into the club. That justice would be way better than if he saw her sweating over her steam cart and hustling dumplings near midnight. But there’d be no revenge without money, and no money without selling food by any means necessary.

“Five dollars. Cash only,” she explained again and again. “Family recipe. All homemade.” After a taste of the dumplings, no one could doubt the truth.

Once her aunt had seen how serious Hayley had been about cooking, the older woman had given her the recipe and worked with her in the kitchen until she’d perfected it.

“No, I don’t have a restaurant.” Hayley tapped the butt of her metal spoon on the top of the steam cart. “You’re looking at it.”

She should’ve had a place by now. The lease was paid on a decent space with good visibility, but there wasn’t enough money left over to pump any life into it.

Fucking Burton.

Man, she’d love to stomp on his chest in a pair of those high heels.

“No, this is the line.” A guy in a trucker hat and sunglasses had grown impatient and pushy, and Hayley pointed him toward where people were patiently lined up. “Seriously, she was before you.” Hayley took care of the woman, then served for the man. “See, no one has to wait for long.”

The guy paid and took his food, grumbling, “Been waiting to get in the club for two hours.”

Second thoughts banked any excitement she’d developed about a night out at a club. If that dude and his entitled attitude populated the dance floor, she’d want no part of it. But the effervescent thrill of flirting with a decent guy would be nice. She stirred the broth in her cart and tried not to count how many weeks or months it had been since she’d felt the heat of a nearby body instead of the stove.

“You’re killing it tonight.”

She glanced up from her food to see the man who spoke. His voice rasped, like he didn’t use it much. From the look of him, he didn’t need it. His fit body said volumes. Even in a T-shirt and a nylon bomber jacket with a trim knit collar, his muscles showed. But he wasn’t a bodybuilder or a gym rat. He had the physique of an athlete. Or a fighter. She suppressed a swivel in her hips, as if her body was testing to see how they could bob and weave together.

He stood casually at the side of her cart. The man must’ve cut in front of everyone. She would’ve noticed a strong profile like his if he’d been waiting. “The line’s over there.”

“I know.” He nodded and scanned over the people, giving her another opportunity to trace his defined jaw, angular nose and shaved head as he was outlined by an exterior light on the side of the club building. He brought his gaze back to hers. The guy was supremely confident, but there was also a playful glint in his dark blue eyes. “I’m Art. You can call me Art.”

“Hayley. But you can call me Chef Baskov.”

An easy smile made him look downright dangerous. Bedroom dangerous. This time the swivel in her hips was too strong to stop. But she was partially behind the steam cart, so he might not have witnessed her tight, needy grind.

What was his angle? Flirting with someone while the person was trapped working seemed a bit below his game. He looked too wise for that. Art appeared around her age, old enough to have a past.

Not that she minded a flirt with him, as long as he didn’t screw up the flow of people to her cart. Business came first.

He took a deep breath of the steam coming from the cart, closing his eyes for a moment, then locking his gaze on her again. “I’d like two orders.”

She informed without chiding him, “I showed you where the line was, Art.” She pointed with her slotted spoon. More than a few of the waiting people started to get restless and glared at him.

When Art returned their looks, they quieted and steadied themselves into an orderly queue. Whoever he was, he wasn’t with the other party people. He had a different purpose at the club. She’d known a few shady dudes, the kinds of guys who’d get you exclusive ingredients like Wagyu beef and heritage pork for “special” prices. Art’s purpose, though, was direct. To what end? It wasn’t difficult to recognize he was a man with a hard edge. But there was no threat in him when he brought his attention back to her. She felt his latent energy, though. This man could get dark.

“I’m not like them. I’m working.” He glanced at the club.

“Had a feeling. You’re not wearing dancing shoes.”

His work boots were more rugged than stylish. Was he security? But not just a bouncer. He didn’t have the requisite black T-shirt, and carried himself with a different swagger.

He stared at his boots as well for a moment. “I’ve stood in a lot of lines. And faced front lines, you know?” A new resonant depth shone in his eyes. “Don’t like them.”

“We have to be fair, though.” She was careful with the rapport they’d already built. “Let me take care of all these customers, then we’ll put your order together. Special.”

“You’re right.” He relaxed some, and the people in line took a long breath with him. “But I can’t wait there.”

“As long as you give me room to work.”

“I’d never get in your way, Chef.” He took a step back.

She kind of missed having him closer. It was just a little flirting, a little spice, but she was willing to see where it might go. She’d always been interested in different flavor combinations, and getting stirred up with dark and edgy Art would definitely be something new.

“But, man, smelling that takes me back home.” He didn’t look like the other Russians in town, but breathed in the aroma with real appreciation. “Don’t think I can stay too far away. Tell me you make
draniki
.”

The potato pancakes were a particular favorite of hers, simple and satisfying. “You bring the beer, and I’ll fry them up.”

“I’ve had a lot of raw deals in my life.” A deep edge cut into the glint of his eye. “But if you’re serious, Chef, I’ll come through on this one.”

Art was put together, head to toe. Taller than her by at least half a foot. His hands were broad, and she caught glimpses of scars across the knuckles. But for someone so capable, he looked like he was searching for something.

His quiet need triggered hers, reminding her how alone she’d felt. Every struggle, even pushing the cart up the hill at the beginning of the night, had been Hayley’s. Her friends and family had been close, but a partner to shoulder the burden and encourage her on this difficult path had been absent for quite a while.

Whether or not Art was that kind of guy was way too early to tell. Yet he was clearly hungry for sensations other than food. Feeding him might satisfy her immediate wants, too. And he was built to satisfy. Tan. Strong. And that clever spark that let her know he’d pay close attention between the sheets. Her pulse bumped a bit faster.

There were quite a few people to get through in the line. She served them while thoughts of a steamy fling with Art distracted her. His body kept drawing her attention. He moved with awareness, constantly scanning the area. Legs balanced, but never static. At times he’d curl his long fingers around the lapels of his open jacket, and the cords of his neck flexed.

How could this guy go hungry? She saw the way the other women waiting to get into the Sea Weed peered at him. He wouldn’t have to go home alone and would be shaking all the furniture in a bedroom by the time Hayley would be cleaning out her cart in her friend’s backyard.

“My turn.” He stepped close again.

She wasn’t able to puzzle out his intent for a moment and just stared at him. Her heart raced harder to catch up to the new thrill.

“The line’s gone. Two orders, please. Both with sour cream.” He was talking about the food, while she thought he might be indicating other needs for her to fulfill.

An urgent heat rose into her cheeks and along the top of her chest. Switching gears out of her mental bordello, she focused on the dumplings, hoping the steam would justify her blush.

“You didn’t eat dinner?” she asked. Victory swirled in the broth. She was on her way to selling out of pelmeni.

“Some new tapas place. Too fancy for me.”

She knew of only one new Spanish restaurant. It was expensive and exclusive, and the chef ran the kitchen like a submarine captain with his finger on the trigger of nuclear annihilation. Art’s mystery deepened. How the hell had he gotten in there?

“One of these is for me,” he continued, taking a paper boat of dumplings. “The other is for my boss.” Tipping his head, he indicated the front door of the club. Standing at the edge of the light, near the burly doorman, was a refined man with silver hair and a perfectly tailored suit. The man was so confident he had to be a crook.

And Art worked for him. Making him a...?

“Also—” Art pulled out his wallet and slipped a bill out. “He owns this place.”

All the heat of the steam cart couldn’t keep a cold chill from surrounding her. The traditional risks of opening a restaurant were blown away by the inherent threat of authority held by the man at the door. She’d parked herself outside a club owned by the Russian mob and was poaching his customers.

Art maintained his small smile and somehow didn’t menace her with the new imbalance in the power dynamic. The money he held was a hundred-dollar bill.

“I can’t break that and still make change for anyone else.”

He blinked, like he didn’t understand anything she’d said. “Tip.”

“I appreciate it, but...”

Slow and deliberate, he placed the bill on the cart. “I understand about running a small business.”

“Does your boss?” She tried not to stare at the eerily tranquil man by the door.

“We’ll see.” He gave her a sympathetic look.

So even when he was on the clock, he could be human. But she knew not to let a sense of relief make her too comfortable. “It’s a free sidewalk.”

The edge returned to his eyes. “Nothing’s free. You know that.”

“I do.” She’d paid for a lot through her life with money and sweat and had gotten very little back.

He took the second tray of food and tipped his head toward his boss. “I’ll put in a good word with Rolan, but I think your pelmeni will do most of the talking.”

His smile was only slightly reassuring. He was working for the guy who could make life very difficult for her. This stretch of sidewalk had paid well. It was a small start, but a start. She didn’t know if she’d be able to muster any energy to overcome yet another setback.

Art walked the food over to his boss, leaving her alone on an island. The people waiting for the club watched her, but didn’t approach for food. Wary, they glanced at the boss, and she busied herself organizing the cart so she didn’t watch him eat the food. It would’ve been interesting to see Art eat, though. He appeared to take the world in with all his senses. Where would her food take him?

He wasn’t the one she needed to win over, but she wanted to see him taste.

Damn it, they were still eating when she finished distracting herself with a jar of relish and peeked up toward the club’s door. The boss nodded his head with approval. Art chewed slowly, savoring.

She fought the urge to duck back behind the cart. She was a chef, had earned the title, and would watch as people ate every bit of her food. Showing any weakness now would send the wrong message to the man Art called Rolan. Not that she was going to be too ballsy with the Russian.

His lean body radiated supreme confidence from within his lustrous suit as he strode toward her. Art remained close at his side, always picking apart the environment with keen awareness.

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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