Kabul, Afghanistan, six years ago
Talia Levine sat at the bar in the dingy Mustafa Hotel lounge, wiping the dirty rim of her wineglass with her shirttail. Three nights in a row, she’d landed in this beat-up old bar, ordered a glass of cheap red, and hoped for the best.
The best never happened. It never did in Kabul.
She damn sure wouldn’t have picked the Mustafa as her watering hole, but the American military contractors stationed in the city had, staking out the bar for their own. She had staked out an American contractor. Just one out of all the bad boys doing the same thing she was—nursing a cheap drink and wilting in the heat.
Like her, the men were a long way from home. Unlike her, they were in the bar seeking like-minded company and a relatively quiet place to drink away the physical and emotional dirt from the day.
Many were bored. Some were lonely. But none were easy. Especially not her target.
She took a long swallow of her wine, gaze dead ahead on the hazy mirror behind the bar, studying his reflection through the drift of smoke skimming the room. His back was to the wall, his eyes on his whiskey as he absently flipped a playing card back and forth between his fingers and listened to the conversation at his table.
Even if she hadn’t read his file, she’d have known he’d once been Special Ops, just like the men with him. Men who were now private military contractors, most of them with the Fargis Group. To a man, they all wore battle-hardened looks and a clear air of danger.
This man in particular relayed a coiled readiness, an underlying situational awareness that told anyone within striking distance that he was no easy mark. No one was going to get the drop on him. Anyone coming after him was going to die. No hesitation. No regret.
She’d be playing with fire once she engaged him, and as she watched him expertly flipping that card, she knew she regretted volunteering for this op. But the endgame was what drove her, and she’d take the same chance again if it meant getting what she was after.
When he looked up and made eye contact, she gave him a slow blink before averting her gaze from the mirror to her almost empty glass. This part of the plan required patience. And finesse. She couldn’t appear too eager, so they’d been playing this little game of peekaboo for a while now. All she had to do was wait. If all worked as intended, she’d get what she wanted and get out within a week.
Overhead, a slow-moving fan barely stirred air heated by a long, miserable day and fouled by strong cigarette smoke. She lifted her heavy braid, arched her back, and used a napkin to wipe away the perspiration dampening her nape. The action was mostly for his benefit. He was watching her again.
For three nights straight, she’d kept her distance but subtly relayed her interest with quick, well-timed glances or the hint of a self-conscious smile, until he’d finally started playing along. It was clear he was attracted to her but hadn’t yet decided how things were going to roll out between them.
She tipped the last of her wine to her lips and let him think about it a little longer.
“Buy you another?”
For a big man, he moved fast. He’d slipped into her personal space without making a ripple in the air around them. And while she was irritated that she’d let him catch her off guard, she was also relieved they’d finally moved past square one.
She glanced up at him. “Sure. If you don’t make me drink alone.”
He caught the bartender’s attention, made a circle in the air with his finger signaling for another round, and eased down onto the bar stool beside her.
“So . . . come here often?” His smile surprised her as much as the corny line.
He knew this was her watering hole. Just as she’d known it was his before she’d ever set foot inside. His, along with all the other mercs, spooks, and journalists who called it their home away from home.
“Can’t seem to stay away.” Her smile said, What’s a girl to do? “Must be the homey atmosphere.”
He grunted and made a cursory glance around the room—smoke-stained yellow walls, cracked marble floors, years of abuse and wear. “Yeah. Or the cheap booze. Any port in a storm, right?”
“What about you?” She nodded her thanks to the bartender when he slid a fresh glass of wine in front of her and a whiskey in front of her new friend.
“When the pickings are slim, you take what you can get.” He smiled again. Surprised her again. He had the look of a hard man, and everything she knew of his background said that he was. Yet when he smiled, there was nothing hard about him.
“Are we still talking about the hotel?” she asked, reacting to that smile.
He laughed. “Well, we’re not talking about you, ma’am. You class up the place.”
“Ma’am?” Whether it was an old-fashioned endearment or a holdover from his Army days, it charmed her more than it should have.
“Best I could do since I don’t know your name. Mine’s Taggart.”
Robert Andrew Taggart, to be exact. Known to his coworkers as Bobby or Boom Boom. It was the boom she had to remember to be careful of. He’d been Special Forces, but a mission had gone south a few years ago, and he and two of his fellow team members got tagged for the screwup. All three were given less-than-honorable discharges. Bitter and with no place to go, he’d signed on for military contract work and ended up back in Afghanistan.
His military history and his fall from grace might work for her. That and something as inherently basic as the difference in their chromosomes. She needed information. He had it. She’d do whatever she had to do to get it.
“Talia Levine.” She extended her hand.
His palm was warm and rough, and she held on long enough so he’d understand she had something more in mind than drinking together.
“You’re American, right?”
Another engaging grin. “What gave it away?”
She pushed out a flirty laugh. “Only everything about you.”
“Yeah, I need to work on that.” He leaned a little closer. “What about you? Can’t place the accent.”
“I was hoping I didn’t have one.” She smiled again. “I’m from D.C., actually. But of late, Israel, London, Baghdad . . . anywhere my assignments take me. War correspondent,” she clarified when he cocked a brow. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t what had brought her to Kabul. He was.
“Of course. Why else would a beautiful woman spend time in a sweatbox like this unless she was forced to?”
“Not forced,” she corrected. “I volunteered for this assignment.”
He sipped his whiskey, studying her face in a way that made her feel like a mouse in a trap when she was supposed to be doing the trapping. “So you’re one of those.”
She crinkled her brow. “One of those?”
“An ‘all for the sake of her career’ woman. Always ready to take reckless chances to get your story.”
“Now, how would you know if I was reckless?”
“Not to point out the obvious, but you’re in Kabul in the middle of a war zone. And you’re coming on to a stranger in a bar.”
“Wow.” She feigned insult. “That’s harsh.”
“That’s life,” he said with a shrug. “No insult intended. Maybe a little wishful thinking, though. You were coming on to me, right?”
She sipped her wine, aware of his gaze on her face. “I was still deciding.”
He chuckled. “And now?”
“And now I think I need to know more about you.”
He lifted a hand. “Me? I’m an open book.”
“Of course you are,” she said, letting him know he wasn’t fooling her.
He was good at this game. Just not as good as she was.
“Are you really any different from me in the reckless department?” she asked, now that the door was open. “You were military, right? I’m guessing Spec Ops. Most likely served more than one deployment in the hot zones. That would have been enough for most men, yet now you’re a civilian contractor.”
She wasn’t stating anything that wasn’t general knowledge around Kabul. The bulk of the Americans who ended up here had military backgrounds, and most were employed by civilian contractors.
“Seems to me that in the reckless-chances department, you’re way ahead of me.”
“So I guess it’s settled. We’re both a little crazy.” He lifted his glass in salute.
She did the same. “But you can’t say it’s not exciting.”
Another smile from the man who kept surprising her. “Yeah. This is definitely my idea of excitement. Watching the paint peel off the walls of this run-down bar.”
She toyed with the stem of her wineglass, then tilted him a measured look. “You’re not watching the paint peel now, are you?”
He wasn’t stupid. And he wasn’t slow. She’d just let him know she’d made her decision about him, and he turned that charming grin on her again. “No, ma’am. I certainly am not.”
According to his file, he was a man who kept to himself, and if he fit in anywhere, it was with men just like himself. Judging by his pleased look, however, that wasn’t altogether true. He wanted her company now. Which was exactly what she’d been counting on—but for an entirely different reason.
This was all business on her part. She’d taken an oath, and she’d do what was expected of her. Yet a surprising awareness arced between them, and for a moment, she let herself see the man, not the assignment.
Square-jawed, hard-edged, and tough as leather, his sandy-brown hair in a military cut. Still had the look of the Bronx street brawler he’d been in his teens.
And he had the most watchful green eyes.
He wore rugged and muscular like a tailored suit, and the truth was, he was very easy to look at. Especially when he smiled. When he smiled, it was oh-so-easy to romanticize and even picture him in another era. An adventurer, crossing the rough Atlantic on a tall-masted ship, braving the danger and uncertainty of the rough passage, and finally landing at Ellis Island with his fellow German, French, or Irish immigrants.
An electric silence had stretched out between them before she managed to fall back into her role. She glanced up at him. “Just so you know, I don’t make a habit of doing this.”
His gaze was intense but not judgmental. “So why me? And why now?”
She looked away, and when she looked back at him, tears pooled in her eyes. All she had to do was recall today’s horrible memory to rouse them. “Why you? Because you look about as lonely as I feel. Why now? I don’t know. Maybe . . . maybe because life—this life—is risky, and today I narrowly escaped with mine. Maybe because today I need human contact.”
“To remind you that you’re human?” His tone suggested he might need that reminder as well. And his eyes had warmed just enough to tell her she’d struck a chord—struck it hard enough that she might have felt a twinge of guilt for exploiting it if this mission weren’t so crucial.
“To remind me that humanity isn’t dead . . . even in the thick of this inhumane war.”
He studied her face and then his whiskey before knocking the rest of it down. Then he stood, dug into his hip pocket for his wallet, and tossed some cash onto the bar. “My room or yours?”