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Cabe got out of the gun-for-hire business the hard way—by nearly dying. Except then his former boss calls in one last favor for one final job. The mission should be simple: get a message to a retired operative in Alaska. But it puts Cabe face-to-face with the one man he doesn’t want to see and can never forget. Not after all the secrets and lies. Not after Brax almost killed him.
Brax Hughes lived hard and retired young to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Well, that was the plan, but before he can hang up his sniper rifle, he has one last mission: win back Kyle Cabe. Brax wants another chance, wants to come clean, but after months of lying to Cabe, he knows he could face a bullet—or worse—when they meet again. And they will meet. Brax made sure of that.
With a storm moving in and someone lurking outside the cabin, time is running out. Brax needs to talk fast and keep his weapons ready. And his best weapon is the truth.
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The blistering cold seeped through Cabe’s insulated jacket as he crested the ridge. He stopped moving long enough to check out the short stretch of open land in front of him. Then he cursed his former boss for calling in a favor and dropping him in the-middle-of-fucking-nowhere, Alaska.
A thin layer of ice crusted over snow. White blanketed the area, hanging off trees in clumps, weighing down branches until they looked ready to snap in half. Bad weather never bothered him before, but he hated everything about this assignment. The rough free climb to get there. The snow. Going in blind. All of it.
This time, the encoded operation briefing file had consisted of only one page. These coordinates, a timeline that had given him three days to get there, and a cryptic message. Not even a contact name or photo of a target. Just a code he needed to memorize and hear from whoever he found out here, then the three words he’d been told to deliver: Holly Trent Clear.
The lack of information made him wonder if he’d been sent on a one-way assignment. Lured in so someone could sneak up behind him and put a bullet in his brain. Possible, but good luck to anyone who tried.
Cabe had no idea what the hell it all meant. Didn’t actually care. He got paid whether he understood the endgame or not. And this operation demanded in-person communication, so whoever waited on the other end for this intel must need it to stay under. Possibly maintain the pretense of being dead. That was the only explanation for the inability to get a message out here any other logical way.
With the help of binoculars, he could make out the cabin in the distance—small, tucked into a round of trees and, like every other thing around here, coated in a layer of drifting snow. If he hadn’t been looking for the place, he might have missed it. Well, he wouldn’t. Others would, but he’d been trained to hunt, track, and eliminate when necessary.
One last scan of the area for signs of life and then he moved. Already dropped into a doubled-over crouch, he traveled inch by slow inch as he listened for any sound that could pinpoint his objective. Watching for a potential attack that could come from any direction, human or even unmanned drone.
His gun never wavered, and he kept his knife close. He’d have to adjust his aim to account for the thin gloves, but without them he’d be risking frostbite and he’d vowed not to go down that road again. Not after the last time almost cost him two fingers. His thumb still ached in the cold.
He crept along the edge of the cleared area and disappeared into the line of trees where the layer of snow was only a few inches, instead of feet, deep. Dodging and sliding, never making a sound as he used one trunk after another as a shield.
When he stood fifty feet out from the cabin, the air grew still. It wasn’t his imagination or a change in weather. He had company. Trained company. Someone who knew how to slink in and stay hidden. He admired the training that led to skills like that but wasn’t really in the mood for a chase.
He mentally flipped through his options and settled on pretending to let his guard down. Nothing lured in prey faster than a signal the attack could end fast. That worked for Cabe. Ease the other person in, letting him think he had the best hand. Or her—Cabe didn’t take women attackers for granted. He might be bigger, but he never discounted a woman’s stamina and ability to gain the advantage.
Ignoring years of training and instincts that rarely misled him, Cabe dropped his hand. Just an inch, but enough to suggest he’d need an extra second to shoot. Never mind the knife in his other hand.
The blade slid down from inside his sleeve, the tip edging against his wrist. When a hand wrapped around his biceps and yanked, Cabe pivoted. The snow made his movements clunky, but momentum worked in his favor.
A blur of black flashed beside him. He heard a grunt as he caught his attacker off-balance and slammed him into the nearest tree trunk. Cabe elbowed the guy in the gut as the blade fully slipped down into his other palm and he grabbed the hilt. He shifted, but the other man was a half step faster.
It all happened in less than three seconds and ended with a weight pressed against the side of Cabe’s skull. He knew the sensation. A gun. His breath rushed in and out as he calculated the pressure he’d need to put into a backward kick to take the attacker’s leg out and shift the gun out of shooting-him-in-the-head range.
“You’re getting old or sloppy. Not sure which.” The deep voice rang out in the late quiet afternoon.
It can’t be. It absolutely can’t be.
The owner of that voice was very dead. He’d been taken out. One shot execution style, or that’s what the briefing Cabe had stolen said. He remembered the day, the very minute, he’d read the news. He’d wanted to celebrate and shout about how karma was a nasty fucking bitch, but he’d ended up looking into the bottom of more than one empty vodka bottle and not feeling anything but numb.
But that voice haunted him. Husky and so tempting as it licked against his balls. It had played in his head for months until his hatred finally squashed it out and forced his brain to forget. Or so he’d thought.
Certain he’d finally lost what little was left of his mind, Cabe turned around for a better view just as his attacker pulled up the ski mask covering every inch of his head. Cabe couldn’t deny the face in front of him after that. Same dirty-blond hair, cut military short. Those intense blue eyes, so bright and clear, telegraphed a certain genuineness that Cabe believed in. He’d never suspected he’d been set up a year ago until the shots had rung out and he’d dropped to the ground in a pool of blood. Even now Cabe had to fight the urge to rub the puckered scar on his chest, though for once he appreciated the reminder of his idiocy. Now he could prevent a repeat of that mistake.
“Braxton Hughes.” Cabe hated the kick to his chest that came with saying the guy’s name. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
Brax grinned. “Good to see you too, Kyle.”
Only Brax would dare to use the first name Cabe despised. Brax’s cocky self-assurance hadn’t slipped. Add in that face and the scruff around his mouth and chin. It all drove Cabe wild, and in just a few seconds he slipped right back into the old habit of imagining Brax stripped naked and stretched out across the bed. Any flat surface.
Yeah, that was enough of that shit. Cabe tore his gaze away. Only for a second because this was not a guy to be trusted for any longer. Still, just looking at Brax brought memories of those sex-fueled months long ago rushing back.
Cabe shook his head, hoping to knock out the remaining mental images from that time. But no luck. “Fuck.”
“We’ve already done that.”
Cabe didn’t need a reminder of that, or any part of their history. He had a bigger problem to deal with right now. “I saw the photos.”
Brax shook his head. “Not real.”
The words made sense, but Cabe’s mind refused to process it all. He could almost feel his brain trying to reboot. “The blood. Your body.”
He could not let the sick memories invade his brain. It had taken weeks after first reading the file to be able to close his eyes without calling up the image of Brax’s mangled head. Despite all the anger and betrayal, seeing the man he’d slept next to for four months blown apart only made Cabe’s recovery all the harder. He’d wanted to stay furious, let the rage fester, but thinking Brax was dead added a whole layer of guilt and confusion to the process.
The only way Cabe had gotten through it was by shutting out the loss and concentrating on the deception. Letting it fuel him until he’d vowed to get up from the rehab bed and disappear forever, to leave that line of work and never return.
“It was all fake, man.” Brax said the words like he was talking about the weather. No emotion. No inflection. “All of it.”
Not uncommon in their work. Assignments went bad, people turned, and you had to regroup. Go under, get smarter, hide in another country, change names and become someone else. More than one operative had turned to surgery for the extra security that came with a new face. Cabe knew all of that but still couldn’t stop blinking and as he tried to wipe out the vision in front of him.
And now he had a new layer of Brax’s deception to deal with. “I was in rehab and you were dead.” That was part of the timeline in Cabe’s head. They’d gotten together, had four months, then one day he walked out of the shower and Brax shot him.
Cabe spent the next eleven months trying to recover while he figured out what the hell happened. Half hating Brax, and half not. It all led to right here. To this place.
“That’s what you were told.” Brax blew out a long breath. “It wasn’t true.”
Just another lie. “You mean that I was in rehab—because of you, you son of a bitch—and you were, what?” Cabe glanced around. “Out here building your dream cabin?”
Forget the cold and the wind. Anger heated inside of him, threatening to spew.
“You were recovering and so was I.” Brax held up a hand as if trying to fight off any argument that might come. “There was a shooting, but I survived . . . just like you did.”
Wrong thing to say. And so careful. “No thanks to you.”
“We can talk about that.”
No fucking way. Cabe tightened his grip on his knife, let the handle dig into his palm. He needed to forget this part, to tuck it away and examine it later because right now he needed to do this last job and get the hell out of there. Get as far away from Brax and his lies as possible. Away from everything and this life.
Stay focused. “You’re the assignment?”
Brax exhaled again. “Cabe, look—”
“Just answer the question.” The briefing file and the code. Those were the only things that mattered now. Cabe concentrated on those.
“Do you have a message for me?”
In a flash, Cabe’s good intentions blinked out again. Seeing Brax standing there, alive and so damn sure of himself, made something inside Cabe snap. Forget work and this assignment. Forget it all. “Yeah, kiss my ass.”
This time Brax winked. “Done that too.”
There it was. It hit like a punch, a reminder that Brax would use any weapon, including Cabe’s attraction to him, to win. No way was he getting sucked in a second time.
Cabe called up every memory of that damn rehab bed to stoke his anger. “Screw the assignment and message, and whatever it is you need. I’ll shoot you, leave you to bleed out, and claim I found you that way.”
Throughout the conversation Brax never moved except to drop the hand with the gun to his side. Didn’t step back and give Cabe space. Didn’t even twitch. “Is that anyway to greet a guy you used to—”
“Don’t.” Cabe didn’t want to walk down memory lane. Not the one that led to clothes on the floor and fucking against the wall. “I’m not here for that.”
Brax nodded. “Right.”
“And you’re forgettable.” Cabe felt the need to say it, so he did. Also took two steps back because being almost on top of Brax made Cabe waver between killing the guy and things that would be so much worse. He slipped the knife back up his arm and into its protective sheath. The gun stayed right where it was—in his hand and ready to fire if needed. He decided to keep it aimed at Brax, just in case.
“Forgettable?” Brax’s head tipped to the side. “Really?”
No, that was the part that truly sucked. Big-time sucked. Cabe inhaled, trying to fight off the cold settling in his bones and the memories floating through his head. “I can’t believe Myers sent me to help you. If I had known you were alive . . . If I had known where you were . . .”
“You would have tracked me down and killed me.”
Sounded good to Cabe. “Possibly.”
As usual, Brax didn’t back down. If anything, he came out swinging even harder. “At the very least, you would have refused the assignment.”
“Yeah, nice try. We both know it doesn’t work that way.” Brax shifted his feet, covering his tracks and evidence of their quick fight. “Ted Myers would not allow that.”
Ted Myers, the head of Cantor Industries, the nondescript name for the company Cabe worked for up until three weeks ago. He’d officially quit. Not that Myers accepted the resignation. Once a man joined his undercover squad of assassins sent in to even the playing field in international conflicts, Myers considered him an employee for life. Funny how that wasn’t mentioned in the employment agreement . . . not that Cabe had one of those.
Well, that was enough thinking about retirement. Technically, he was done and out of the game, but he’d agreed to do this one last favor. Not that he’d had a choice. Myers called him in with the reminder of how he’d planted all the leads and covered every track so Cabe could continue to pretend he was dead now that he was out of rehab. Even the government thought he’d been killed.
He now lived off the grid and with a new identity in New Mexico, far away from anything or anyone that could connect him to his past. And he had a future to get to. “I need confirmation you’re really my assignment, and we’ll get this done. Then I’m out of here.”
Brax started shaking his head before Cabe had even finished the comment. “Not possible.”
A rough gust of wind blew over Cabe, but he barely noticed. His instincts were too busy kicking in. “Excuse me?”
“Lower the gun, Cabe.”
Not happening. “Explain first.”
“We’ve got bad weather coming and your limited hours of available daylight are almost over. That will leave you at negative eight degrees with little light as you climb over rocky terrain with limited equipment and no partner. A guaranteed death wish.”
Cabe eased up on his aim. “I’ll be fine.”
“There’s no way for you to head back over that mountain until at least tomorrow. Even then, I can’t promise the weather will hold out. One good gust and you’ll be at the bottom of the next ravine.”
“I’ll take my chances.” In a race between falling to his death and dealing with whatever Brax had planned, Cabe knew he stood a better shot with the mountain. Still, he lowered the gun to his side, ready to fire if Brax even twitched.
The corner of Brax’s mouth lifted. “We can share my cabin.”
That suggestion didn’t even need a second of thought. “No fucking way.”
Now Brax’s smile nearly lit up the darkening sky. “I see your language hasn’t gotten any better.”
“You’ve earned it.”
The smile faded. “How do you figure that?”
“Last time I saw you, I’d barely pulled up my pants before you tried to kill me.”
“You look fine to me.” And Brax took his time looking. Glanced up and down Cabe’s body, hesitating here and there.
Cabe wasn’t getting sucked in again. The last round of fucking with this guy nearly killed him. “Yeah, leaving me to die didn’t work. Guess you’re the one who’s slipping.”
Brax’s gun disappeared when he put his hands in his jacket pocket. He nodded toward the cabin. “Maybe we should head inside and talk about what really happened last year.”
“Give me the retrieval code before I follow through on every fantasy I’ve had for the last eleven months and kill you right here.” A sharp silence followed the comment. It hung in the ice-cold air for a second as they engaged in a staring contest that bordered on lethal.
Brax glanced away. “That’s what your fantasies about me have looked like?”
He whistled. “Not very flattering.”
Suddenly Cabe felt the full intensity of the cold. The chill seeped through the specially designed jacket as his joints tightened from prolonged exposure and lack of movement. He needed to end this or risk serious damage. “You have ten seconds.”
“You’re not going to shoot me at the eleventh second.”
“Test me.” But Cabe didn’t bother to aim again. “Give me any reason.”
“Fine.” Brax held his hands in the air in mock surrender. “You win.”
That was too easy. The Brax that Cabe knew, self-assured, almost too confident, wouldn’t back down so fast. He was younger, faster, and a better shot. Cabe knew because he’d trained Brax. Mentored him, screwed him, then really gotten fucked by him. The only questions he had, ones he’d likely never get an answer to, were why Myers was in contact with Brax at all and why he didn’t share the news of Brax’s sudden recovery from being dead. Myers extinguished traitors. He didn’t pass messages to them or cover for them.
Cabe listened to the warning bell wailing in his brain. “I’m still counting down. Just so you know, I’m at eight.”
“Then let’s get you that code.” Brax started walking. Didn’t seem to care or worry that Cabe stood behind him with weapons ready.
“Stop.” Taking one more step would only prolong the inevitable. Cabe needed this meeting to end before the reality of Brax being alive and all the implications of that hit him full force and dragged him to his knees. “You can tell me right here.”
“There’s something I need to decode the message and we need to go inside for that.” Brax nodded toward the cabin. “Hey, you’re the one who wants this over nice and neat. No talking. Fine, but that means going inside for a second and no shooting.”
Cabe didn’t trust Brax at all, so he kept his gun right where it was in his hand. “I’m almost disappointed you’re giving in without a fight.”
“That makes two of us.”
Cabe had never been the open and chatty type, but during the six months Brax was forced to play dead it looked as if Cabe had gone emotionally comatose. Brax shouldered most of the blame for that. He’d had a reason for every move and every play a year ago, but the gruff guy standing across the room was not ready to hear about them.
“Give me the code,” Cabe said as he kept watch out of the small window over the sink.
“Soon.” And by that Brax meant as soon as they worked everything out. God knew how long that would take.
“Now, Brax.” Cabe started moving. Pacing as much as the ten-by-ten space would allow. “I gave you until we were inside, and we are now. So, get whatever you need and let’s get this done.”
Lucky for Brax they had all the time in the world because Cabe was not going anywhere. Even if that meant drugging him. He would stay and eventually listen. That was the plan, but his plans regarding Cabe had a way of imploding. Like the one where he had to play dead instead of getting to Cabe’s bedside and explaining right away. Now they had this gulf between them and all these lies, and bridging it would take time.
Still, Brax took a second to watch Cabe. He usually stalked, lean and fast like the predator he was. Totally in control of his body and never flinching when it came to getting the job done. Cabe followed the rules. Brax never did, but he admired Cabe’s dedication. Did more than admire when it came to his looks. The near-black hair and eyes, the brooding.
Cabe liked sex and guns. He didn’t shy away from dirty talk. He was half-wild the first time Brax dropped to his knees and took him into his mouth. Before that day they’d never talked about their personal lives or the attraction that spiked between them every time they brushed past one another. Brax hadn’t even been sure Cabe was gay or could admit it. Until his zipper came down and then it was clear they wanted the same thing.
Now Brax had to figure out how to get them back to that head space. Myers said he’d help, but there were limits. Cabe had to want this and right now he looked half-ready to climb out of his skin. The uncharacteristic fidgeting.
“I thought you retired.” Brax actually knew, so he didn’t bother to ask it as a question.
Cabe stopped moving around. “We’re not doing this.”
“Small talk.” Dishes clanked in the sink as Cabe shifted things around. “I need the confirmation code.”
He sure as hell wasn’t making this easy. “I’m holding off for your own good. If you try to leave, you’ll die.”
Cabe turned around nice and slow. His mouth had pulled tight and tension showed in every line of his body. “So?”
Not exactly the answer Brax expected. “Since when do you have a death wish?”
“I don’t.” Cabe rested the heels of his hands on the small counter behind him and leaned back against it. “I meant ‘so’ as in ‘why would you care?’”
The chip on his shoulder grew bigger each second. Brax took the blame for that, too.
Cabe had never been easy. He was older, more hardened by the work, less trusting in general. He didn’t believe in much except a personal code about finishing the job no matter what. Despite the rules and all the secrecy, he handed back any assignment that included children or targets he deemed inappropriate for a hit list. Other agents tried that move and disappeared. Myers—former Special Forces and an all-around controlling bastard—did not tolerate any question of his power.
But Cabe did not compromise. Not with his sniper-like ability to wait out a target, hide and kill without blinking. Brax always assumed Myers viewed Cabe as a man you wanted on your side.
Brax wanted a hell of a lot more than that from Cabe.
I loved the story and both Cabe and Brax are on my list of favorite M/M couples.
HelenKay Dimon has got one heck of an imagination–and she uses it to its full extent in this quirky little short.
Stranded is a totally unexpected Holiday read that comes full circle in a very unique way.
[HelenKay Dimon] never disappoints, delivering great romances.
Intensive holiday romance ala trained killer-style. M/M Romantic suspense fans should check it out.