Virtues (Base Branch Series Book 8)

Virtues
Megan Mitcham

Copyright Warning

T
he unauthorized reproduction
or distribution of this copyrighted work is a crime punishable by law. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded to or downloaded from file sharing sites, or distributed in any other way via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 (http://www.fbi.gov/ipr/).

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real in any way. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.

P
ublished
by MM Publishing LLC

Edited by Jenny Sims

Proofread by Tina Rucci & Lynn Mullan

Cover Design by Deranged Doctor Designs

V
irtues

All Rights Are Reserved. Copyright 2016 by Megan Mitcham

First electronic publication: September 2016

First print publication: September 2016

Digital ISBN: 978-1-941899-19-9

Print ISBN: 978-1-941899-20-5

ISBN: 978-1-941899-21-2

F
or Diana
, the lady with all the virtues,

Thank you for being my forever cheerleader. From teaching me to ride a bicycle—looking the other way when I hit the asphalt, and then popped up with an expletive—to devouring everything I’ve ever written, pushing me for more, and everything between. You’re in my corner tried and true. Then there are the acts of love and kindness you perform for everyone else; visiting with the elderly, organizing craft nights, working at the church, adoring your children and husband while simultaneously keeping them in line, and last but not least, reminding everyone to laugh with your infectious smile and quips.

I appreciate you more than words can express!

Your niece,

Megan

1

C
ara had only come back
to protect her daughter. Anything more exposed her and put Rin in greater danger.

Why in the hell hadn’t she stuck to the plan?

The buoyancy unparalleled to any she’d experienced in the last seventeen years—since she’d last held her daughter in her arms, smelled her sweet skin, and awed at her heartbreaking smile—it might as well have been another soul-crushing dream. A casual cough shook the room. It crumbled her hopes and eviscerated even the ghosts of her dreams.

How fitting to see the future, to touch it and cling to its warmth, only to have it ripped away. Cara had forfeited her life for her daughter long ago. Today, she would forfeit her future for Rin. For Rin and Luck.

Before she heard the heavy cough rumble to a stop, Cara drew the CZ from its holster, turned, and extended the barrel toward the man blocking the only exit in the one-room warehouse apartment. She was ready to take his bullet and deliver her own because he’d gotten the jump on her. Yet the slice of high-velocity metal slamming into her flesh didn’t steal her breath. The casual smile, relaxed stance, and the sheer amount of high-tech weaponry hanging from his Kevlar vest sucked the air from her lungs.

Two feet behind Cara, Luck yanked Rin to his side, shielding her with his body. His draw was slow. His concentration divided between Rin and the situation. A situation they needed to vacate immediately.

Sweat rolled between Cara’s shoulder blades and down the curve of her rigid spine. She righted her aim. Three yellow dots mounted atop her pistol lined up perfectly between the stranger’s woodsy green eyes. Impressive, considering her usually easy grip had morphed into an unrelenting vise, and the tension at the base of her skull translated into a vicious migraine. Luck wasn’t the only one divided here. When Cara needed her battle-honed body the most, it betrayed her.

“I sure didn’t mean to break up a moment.” The stranger offered work-roughened palms and jostled his hips, shifting his weight to one side. His dominant side. Cara watched his right hand and the steady pulse in his thick neck. The twang in his accent screamed of a tug on the brim of a sweat-stained Stetson and sweet tea.

This one was a snake charmer, all right. Too bad she was a mongoose.

“Move on and you may live to regret it.” Luck always led with bravado, and he usually had the goods to back it up. Today, Rin was in the mix. This was no time for show. It was time for decisive action.

“I’m not here to cause trouble.” The soldier cowboy's honeyed drawl matched his words, but she didn’t trust anyone, not even herself.

“From my point of view, you’re nothing but trouble.” Cara cataloged the hint of a knife handle at his ankle, the blatant K-bar strapped to his left column thigh, and the Glock on his right hip.

“Cara Lee.” The stranger said her name with a familiarity that hinted of intimacy. “More than most, you should know…looks can be deceiving.”

He knew too much. Without permission, her throat quivered. She swallowed the words she’d counted on to get them out of there. If he knew her name, her ruse as a CIA operative wouldn’t work.

“I’d like y’all to come with me.” The bastard had the gall to offer his hand. She’d snap it off and toss it down the stairs as soon as she’d take it.

“No.” Cara stepped diagonally, placing herself two feet closer to the enemy and between him and her children.

If Rin hadn’t taken that job with the Department of Defense, Cara’s old enemy wouldn’t have dug up her false grave, figured out her trickery, and used Rin to find her. If Ansya Popov hadn’t held a grudge like the Grim Reaper, Popov would still be alive, Cara would still be dead, and Rin would still be safe.

This wasn’t the time for blame games. Though, currently, she blamed Luck for not following the plan. Damn her quasi-adopted son for falling in love with her baby girl and ruining everything. Double damn her for not realizing his adoration before she’d been able to pull him out of the field and off Rin’s protection detail.

A small red dot slid up the end of Cara’s nose and centered her brows, mirroring the bead she held on the wide-jawed stranger. He could probably take a bullet in that thing, waggle it, and go about the business of dismantlement. But he didn’t hold the line on her. The laser came from beyond the doorway and through the wall of square glass panes. The sniper nested on a rooftop far enough away the shot impressed her, as long as it didn’t splatter her brains on the walls with the pull of a trigger. Other dots accompanied the first. One landed on her boob before lifting to her heart. Go figure. Another lifted over her shoulder.

Rin, her baby girl who’d grown into a stunning and strong woman, whimpered. Cara’s heart shattered. She’d caused the person she loved the most in this world so much pain.

Cara lowered her weapon slowly and placed it in her holster. “I’ll go with you.”

“No, please,” Rin sobbed.

“I have a thing or two to say to Director Haskens.” Cara blocked her daughter’s plea and focused on the soldier cowboy.

“I don’t work for the CIA.” His lips pursed. Those big things could use their own rolling luggage, but they didn’t look out of place on him. Probably because he was so big. Hell, she hadn’t noticed them before. A thousand different thoughts and emotions were at play here, this non-CIA operative’s kisser being the absolute least of those.

“Then who?” she demanded.

“Can’t tell you. Not that you’d recognize it if I did.” His sweet confidence puffed to cocky.

“Please.” Cara snorted. The tension eased in her shoulders. She’d lived through an abusive marriage to the cheating man her government had trained her to seduce and betray. She could handle this kid. “I was dismantling a government while you were suckling your momma’s breasts.”

His thick brows knitted. A gaze far brighter than his drawl or years allowed shifted across her body, stinging every spot it rested.

“You’ve been on the run since I hit puberty.” His arms spread as if offering her a good look at the specimen he’d become. “That’s a damn long time to run. I can help you stop running.”

“By killing me?” Cara pushed her words through gritted teeth because he’d hit too close to the truth. His words left bruises.

That wide jaw shook one determined time. “By stopping the people who are looking for you.”

“I’ve already taken care of that.” Popov would never again hurt her family.

“The CIA?” He tilted his head in assessment and then finally shook it. “I have no doubt you could disappear and no one would find you again, but you’d never get the chance to have a life with your daughter. She’s the only reason you haven’t tried to fight your way out of here already.”

Her daughter. This man knew where to strike. It took almost no force. Just a whisper of precision and he had her on her knees. The only thing she wanted more than to spend hours, days, years with her daughter, the most beautiful creature on the entire earth, was to ensure Rin’s safety.

“We can clear your record and make it safe for you to stay Stateside with Rin.” The stranger’s gaze didn’t leave Cara’s as he dangled the dream over a chasm she’d have to cross to get to it. Because nothing was free. Nothing was easy.

Her heart scaled her throat, finding footholds in the sensitive flesh and making it impossible to swallow. Her mind fought to block the tempting images. As war hardened her heart, the vision of Rin’s blond hair pinned back with a veil, a simple bouquet clutched in graceful fingers, and her brilliant smile violated her resolve as though she were a hapless mark. She blinked the scene away.

The stranger’s eyes hadn’t moved, but his attention shifted. That intense weight lifted from her chest only to redouble. His interest had shifted over her shoulder to Luck and Rin.

“I’ll go with you.” Cara lengthened her spine and drew the brunt of his full scrutiny. “They stay.”

“They come,” he rebounded with little inflection. Her lips parted to rebut the point, but his head shook in one slow swing. “They ensure you won’t run.”

Every nerve in her system knitted, forming a suffocating blanket of mother fuck. This smooth-talking cowboy had her number. She might as well find out who’d given it to him before she vanished. “They go, but if you or your men hurt them in any way, my last act on this earth will be ripping your balls out of your sack and shoving them up your nostrils.”

A high whistle came from the doorway. It belonged to a stout black man dressed in similar tactical gear. The bore of his pistol slowly swept the room. Big lips, almost as big as the cowboy’s, puckered as the noise coalesced with the, “No shit!” of a third man in tactical gear who cluttered the doorway.

“She’s all yours, Bulldogger.” The black man’s lips spread into a bright, amused smile.

The third guy, his blond hair pulled back into a low ponytail, chuckled. “Ditto.” He held a shiny silver pistol pointed at Luck’s chest.

Cara’s gaze sliced back and forth between each of the guns and then back to Bulldogger… Whatever the hell kind of nickname that was.

“Noted, ma’am.” He nodded.

“I might just do it because you called me ma’am.” She glared.

“Sorry, ma’am. That’s how we do things where I come from. Nice and gentleman like.” His hips shifted, and his gaze lifted. “Damien Luck?”

Luck answered with a grunt.

“Man, I’m not going to hurt you or your lady love.” For the first time, his gaze blatantly studied the other people with Cara. Before long, it jumped back to her and narrowed.

“All the rifles aimed at my chest really give that warm and fuzzy vibe,” Luck smarted.

The cowboy held two fingers by his side for two seconds. In near synchronization, the dots vanished, and the two soldiers to his left holstered their weapons. Neither Cara nor Luck was green enough to think their respective chests didn’t still overwhelm the sniper’s scopes, but it was a gesture.

Those dark green eyes shifted behind her again. “I need you to drop your weapon.”

“Do it,” Cara ordered. What choice did they have?

The clank of metal on concrete filled the room.

“Kick it away, and then do the same to the rest of them.” Bulldogger’s heavy jaw jutted.

Scuffs and thunks littered the stale air, along with a curse or five as Luck removed his weapons.

Bulldogger nodded, glanced at his teammates, and canted his head toward Luck and Rin. The two walked past, giving her a wide berth.

“Cara?” His thick brows hiked as though saying, ‘your turn.’

A plan formed on the outer rim of her brain and congealed at the center. It was risky, but what was life without a little risk? She didn’t damn well know. Maybe one day. Then again, probably not.

Cara unholstered her CZ. With the barrel in her grip, she held it level and bent at the waist. The V of her soft cotton shirt gapped toward the floor, revealing the round tops of her breasts and a hint of her black lace bra. Her knees gave way to a crouch. She laid the pistol on the floor at arm’s length, stood, and stepped away.

“Much obliged.” His eyes sparked.

For a quarter of a minute, they stood and stared at one another. Triumph welled inside Cara’s beating chest.

“Now for the rest of them.” He grinned and indicated her lower half. “Ankle?”

“It was worth a try,” she sneered.

“No complaints here.” His grin morphed into a smirk.

She bent, yanked off her ankle cannon, holster and all, and hurled it at his feet. It hit the end of his boot and bounced off, spinning two complete rotations before coming to rest between them.

“Calf?” He pointed at her opposite leg.

A shuffle and tear at her pant leg revealed her eight-inch fixed blade. Again, she jerked off the weapon and tossed it at him.

“Midriff?” His gaze dropped to her middle.

“I thought you were a gentleman?” She glared.

“I’m not frisking you, but I have a feeling I’ll have to before this is all said and done.”

Pride pulled her to her full height, which, sadly, was about a head off his. Her arms spread wide. Meekly, she smiled.

Bulldogger smiled back, but there was nothing meek about it. The gesture shot adrenaline straight to her heart. Cara breathed steadily through her nose. He stepped forward and kicked the weapons farther from her reach. She didn’t need them. Another step brought him within swinging distance. Her shoulders relaxed.

His tread-worn boot landed inches from hers. Cara struck. Her right arm rocketed toward his stern nose. She intended to stagger him, relieve him of his sidearm, and hold his big ass hostage.

Circulation in her wrist ceased. The room tilted, and she met the concrete in a blink. All the air in her lungs sailed out of her body with a hurricane force gust. The easy talking cowboy wrenched her hands behind her back and splayed himself across her body. His thick legs pinned her to the cold hard surface. Stars danced in her periphery, but at the center, Rin’s mouth opened in a furious roar. Next to her, the lasers danced across Luck’s chest once again.

Cara relaxed, forfeiting the first fight of her life with embarrassingly little effort.

“Don't feel bad,” the cowboy whispered into her ear. “As soon as I got off my momma’s teat, I started wrestling steer.”

Now she knew why they called him Bulldogger. Fucking great.

Pressed against the chilly concrete, her cheek stung, almost as much as her pride. It wasn’t the man’s strength that skewered. His grip bit as much as any she’d endured. His forearms touted muscles as thick as her thighs. The irritating fact that he’d seen her attack coming miles before she’d moved jostled her front and center.

Had this easy talker really knocked the last of the fight out of her? Lord knew, she’d been fighting for too long. Cara didn’t want to fight or run, but she would until Rin was safe.

She choked in several breaths. “Fine. I have blades on my waist and left thigh.” Her right eye found Rin. “Stop fighting. I’m fine.” Luck wrenched her daughter’s clawing hand from his shirtfront, reeled her back to his side, and mumbled something into her hair.

Sandpaper roughened Cara’s cheek. The cowboy’s warm breath coasted over her jaw. “If you promise not to sling a blade in my neck or any other body part, I’ll let you remove them yourself.”

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