Matteo ‘Delta’ Valente ran out of his Californian bungalow a little too damn early in the morning. Hell, he’d only been home for a few hours. After jamming his aching arm through his hunter green utility shirt, he buttoned it, trying to multi-task as he unlocked the dark truck which awaited him in his driveway. He was running behind—again.
For fuck’s sake.
Damn, sleeping a couple of hours a night is bound to catch up with me sooner rather than later. He grumbled as he slipped on his dark sunglasses to protect his hurting eyes from the blistering sun. Even in January, the sun was still beating down on him stronger than a direct RPG blast. Or maybe it just seemed that way because he was so damn drained.
“Matteo!” An elderly lady’s voice called out quietly from behind him, her Italian accent pouring through.
He whipped around, checking to make sure she was okay. The tiny old Italian lady stood at the edge of her bungalow’s stoop, a worried look in her eye. Using his hand to flatten back his chaotic dark blond hair, he regrettably realized another thing. He was way past due for a shave.
“Mrs. Romano.” Delta attempted a polite smile at his neighbor, hoping she wouldn’t notice the gashes on his knuckles from the previous night.
Mrs. Romano fretted, wringing her yellow dotted handkerchief as she batted her eyelashes up at him. He gritted his teeth under her gaze, willfully rejecting any concern she had—or judgment.
“Lovely morning, Matteo.” Her voice fluttered, darting her eyes down her empty driveway to the street.
Every other neighbor on the street had bins out. It was garbage day. Immediately, Delta realized that she needed help—but she didn’t want to ask.
“Want me to take your bins to the street, Mrs. Romano?” He shot that same, self-assured smile, like he was the most relaxed man in the world. It was a mask he was used to wearing.
A wide, relieved smile crossed her lips. “Yes, son. Please.”
Wasting no time, Delta moved around to the back of her home and shuffled out her garbage and recycling bins. It was the least he could do to try to keep up the ruse. He wasn’t an idiot. People had been looking at him funny since he’d rotated back from Syria again, three weeks before. Maybe it was the bruises that didn’t seem to heal or the fact that he always looked like he’d been ridden hard and put away wet the night before. Whatever it was, home had stopped feeling like home. He didn’t belong there anymore.
As he finished, Mrs. Romano waited at the top of her bungalow stoop with a homemade pistachio biscotti for him. Her kind eyes and compassionate spirit reminded him of his late mother’s—the last memories he had.
“Thanks,” Delta grunted as he took the baked good from Mrs. Romano.
His stomach was rumbling from the lack of sustenance. He was used to pushing his body to extremes, neglecting his own needs for the sake of his platoon, but things were going too far now.
“You’re a good man, Matteo…a very good man.” Mrs. Romano’s voice cut into his thoughts, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. “When are you going to find a Mrs. Valente?”
Delta let out a loud, sarcastic laugh, sloughing off the question. Shrugging, he coyly took a bite of the biscotti and moved toward his truck, waving goodbye. All she saw was his façade, like everyone else. If she only knew.
Mrs. Romano’s gaze didn’t relent as he leaped into the cab. He was in a rush—but it wasn’t just because of where he had to be. It was because of what he needed to get away from. He was damn sure that Mrs. Romano wouldn’t think so much of him if she knew what lingered underneath the surface.
I’m not a good guy. Not even close.
Slamming the gears of his truck into reverse, he pulled out of the driveway of his place, saluting Mrs. Romano on his way out. The fun and games were over. Now, he really had to focus. He was on a mission that morning—and things could get ugly.
Barreling down Oceanside Drive, Delta flipped on the radio—local LA news—and listened to the newscasters talking about a body discovered in South Central in one of the roughest blocks. It had been on the news all morning—tragedy porn for LA’ers. Delta listened for any pertinent intel as he set his GPS for the crime scene. He had questions that needed answers.
Gripping the steering wheel, Delta rolled his shirt sleeves up to let a little heat off, revealing his winding tattoos. It was far too hot for long sleeves, even by LA standards. They were in the middle of a bizarre mid-winter heat wave. But he didn’t have a choice. He had to cover up. There were things he didn’t want anyone to see—like the fresh laceration on his arm that was only going to add another scar.
As he stopped his truck at a red light, he pulled off his sunglasses and absently traced his fingers over the long scar that ran from his cheekbone up to his temple and eyebrow. A little less than two years old, it was a reminder that he should have died in the Syrian mountains. Hell, he should have died in a lot of operations, but undeniably that one.
Now, he was on borrowed time. He could feel it. He was never wrong about those things. He was playing with fire and some sort of fucked up luck that was about to run out.
The light turned green, and he hit the gas hard, not wanting to think about how he was spending that second chance at life. It sure as hell would make a priest cry. His mother had always said that he didn’t need to be led into temptation because he already knew the way.
The drive from his bungalow up into South Central wasn’t fast, but he drove aggressively. He knew how to scare the piss out of LA’s richest, stalling out the fast lane in their luxury cars.
Revving his truck and nearly eating up some dinky coupe in front of him, he peeled off the highway. Rounding the streets in the impoverished neighborhood, he transitioned into a different type of vigilant and cautious. Those streets bled a type of desperation that he’d only seen in war.
Delta drove up to the vicinity of the taped-off scene and chose to park well off in the distance to keep a low profile. Before jumping out of his truck, he popped a black baseball hat on, pulling the brim down low for as much anonymity as possible. He adjusted his long sleeves across his muscled forearms so his unpolished appearance would help him not to stand out too much. He looked like any hungover blue-collar laborer who spent too much time at the gym. Then again, that pretty much described any SEAL.
He walked up to the periphery of a building that police were investigating—an abandoned commercial warehouse. Delta guessed that whoever owned the aging building had been hit hard in the economic crash, so they’d left it to rot. From the insecure doors and broken windows, he would bet that criminals and drifters had been trespassing for a long time.
Delta gripped the police tape surrounding the epicenter and glanced around to see if the cops off to the side had noticed him. They had their backs turned, just for a moment, so he took his chance. As he slipped past, he slunk around the building into the shadows, and he observed. He paused in an enclave, watching cops come and go from the building, listening to the broken conversations of the investigators.
In all his years in the special forces, he’d become skilled at going unseen when he needed to. He could be a goddamn ninja. A lot of it just had to do with confidence—and looking like he belonged. That had turned out to be damn useful the previous few weeks. He’d been on leave from work, but it hadn’t been a fucking vacation. He’d been working on something else—something serious. And, in true Delta fashion, he’d been going it alone.
Crouching low and moving slow, Delta approached a broken window near the back of the building. He checked inside, seeing the room was empty. A ton of blood was splashed across the concrete floor, but there was no body in sight. Fuck. Had the cops already moved the corpse out? He reached into his pocket, readying his cell phone to snap pictures of anything that could aid him. Delta scanned the room for pertinent info. The graying building interior had the feel of an unrealized horror film, and a chill ran up his back as he wondered what the fuck had happened there.
Voices echoed from the front hall of the building, and Delta ducked down outside the window. He could hear the voice of someone entering the room, calling back details of the scene to the front of the building. His first instinct hadn’t been wrong. The victim had been using. And, unfortunately, his second instinct had been right too. She was there.
His body stiffened and his skin prickled, awareness flushing over him. He’d never forget her voice, even though he hadn’t heard it for a while. He’d bumped into her at Carrick’s wedding, just weeks after they’d hooked up, but that hardly counted. Had it already been a year? Hearty, feminine, sincere—every word she said danced out of her mouth. As he tried to regain focus, he slowly looked up and into the open window, enough to fully take in her candid, clever words. Her voice alone ran a wave of sensation up his spine that surprised him, after all that time. But it was nothing in comparison to when he finally laid eyes on her.
Sergeant Kendra Larose’s natural blonde hair bobbed into view. Delta adjusted his position, getting eyes on the interior of the crime scene and a better view of her—a woman he hadn’t seen since he’d deployed, spending the year fighting enemies with half the resolve that she had. A woman who had grown to hate him—and rightfully so.
I can’t let her see me.
After she tucked a stray lock behind her ear, Kendra was focused on the warehouse floor. Delta’s cock twitched as he watched her shift on her feet, her hips swaying. Blood pumped through his shaft as he drank in her body—a form that drew him to arousal so quickly, without fail. Never had he met such a natural beauty as her. Some guys might find her ordinary or plain, but he found her simply intoxicating. There was always just something about her—something that really got to him.
Even at a distance, he admired the machinations of her clever mind. She was looking down at a cluster of blood where a body once had lain, her lips and nose twitching that certain way that showed when she was really deep in thought. She was on to something. How much did she already know? Delta tried to see what she was seeing. He flexed his jaw, wondering if maybe it wasn’t fate that they’d met again. On his own, tracing the source of the drugs had proven to be an impossible task.
And just as a familiar man’s voice echoed through the space, Delta realized he was biting the side of his cheek, breathing heavier than usual and gripping the edge of the window like he was going to snap.
“This city is falling to pieces.” The man scoffed, coming into view.
Delta recognized him immediately as Staff Sergeant Hunter Greenwood. Delta had met the guy a year ago, around the same time that he had met Kendra. The Navy had put on a one-week training course for partners in law enforcement, extending the invite to LAPD. At the time, Delta had shown Kendra the ropes—training her how to safely rappel, while realizing that he needed to train her on protecting herself from creeps. Something about the way that Hunter looked at Kendra…
“He’s another military vet.” Kendra shook her head and furiously scribbled in her notebook. “They’ve already identified him.”
Prickles ran up the back of Delta’s neck as he watched Hunter stalk Kendra in the middle of the crime scene. Everything in Delta’s body screamed for violence as Hunter licked his bottom lip, carefully examining her. The scowl on his face deepened as she furthered her point.
“What do you bet his blood has traces of doxycycline?” Kendra turned to her boss.
“Come on.” He shook his head dismissively, straightening his jacket. “It’s a common antibiotic. Stop.”
“This is real, Hunter. We’ve seen traces of it in the other two bodies.” Kendra glared at her staff sergeant, standing her ground. “There’s a pattern here. Are they being targeted?”
“For what purpose?” he asked, an underlying threat in his voice.
“I don’t know yet.”
Hunter stilled, clearly judging her. The man looked damn tired, like he hadn’t slept for weeks.
“Let’s not start jumping to conclusions,” Hunter snapped back, his eye twitching. “Anything is possible, Kendra. Let’s check with the gangs first.”
“Hunter, please. The first two have been soldiers, not gangbangers,” Kendra replied slowly, flipping through her notes. “But why? Who’s after them—?”
A flash of rage visibly taking over, he cut her off. “We don’t have any reason to believe there are links between cases. This is LA. Murders happen all the time.”
“But there must be a connection.” Kendra glanced between her notebook, the blood splatter and Hunter, apparently confused by his messaging. “It’s this doxycycline. Isn’t it known to be used by the military as an antimalaria drug?”
“You’re asking the wrong questions.” Hunter strode toward her, his face darkening.
“Yes, but doxycycline—”
“You don’t get it.”
“They were soldiers—” Kendra countered again but halted as Hunter’s hand whipped up into the air, matched by a growl escaping his lips.
For a split second, Delta’s protective instinct thrust him forward, ready to fuck the guy up. But Hunter had recovered, using his raised hand to smooth back his hair.
“Fuck,” Hunter grumbled, shaking as he regained control.
Delta stiffened, his eyes wide open. What the fuck is he going to do with that hand? Kendra stumbled back in surprise, audibly sucking in breath. But before Delta could jump to her side, the enraged staff sergeant spun and marched toward the front of the building. Whatever he was up to, Delta saw a man who was losing control—a man who posed a threat. He was a ticking time-bomb. Didn’t she realize it?
Stunned, Kendra stood there alone, tightly clutching her notebook. She bit her lip, trembling, as if trying to get back to work. Delta sat back, confused as fuck at what he’d just witnessed. Delta knew right then and there that he had little choice. Things had just gotten more complicated.
I have to protect her.
Pulling out black gloves from his pocket, he slipped them on, preparing to leave no trace of what he was about to do. The scene before him had validated everything he’d seen since he’d been back from deployment. The body count was climbing.
Moving around the building a little farther, he gained entry to the interior. As he stalked through the shadows, making note of everything he saw, he was careful not to disturb anything, not even caked-on grime from years of abandonment. In stealth-mode, he slid out of the hallway into the darkest corner of the large room, not too far from Kendra. For a split second, he found himself just staring at her, drinking her in—the way she poured over her notebook then sharply analyzed the room before her. He had no doubt that her cunning mind was finding every anomalous detail.
And, yet again, he was proven right.
“And why are you here?” Kendra’s exasperated tone echoed over to where he stood, though she didn’t flinch or glance up from scribbling in her notebook.
Delta sucked in his breath, wondering if she meant…
“Yes, you.” She turned her chin slightly and shot a warning into the darkness, seeming to slice into his core. “Do you think I’m daft?”
Releasing the air in his lungs, he stepped forward—confident and relaxed, offering her a sly look as he crossed his arms. His charming ruse was too goddamn easy for him to make people see his way.
“Sergeant.” Delta shrugged. He narrowed his focus on her, giving her that grin that women loved. “Here we are, crossing paths again.”
“Crossing paths?” She balked.
“That’s right.” He kept his gaze intense, his body squared.
Turning away, she scoffed, “You’re acting like we’ve stumbled across each other at the grocery store.”
She shook her head in deep discontent, seemingly impervious to his charm. A chill ran up the back of his neck, her rejection biting. He hated it—but deserved it. Still, he stood there, watching.
“I’m too busy for this right now.” She spun, crossing her arms tightly, as if shielding herself. Her body language screamed of a woman who would not be fooled again.
“Too busy for me?” Delta pushed.
“I’ll go back to my original question.” She raised her eyebrows accusingly. “Why are you here? This is a secure crime scene, so you don’t belong here. I don’t care what security clearances you say you have.”
All the air got sucked out of the room, and he found himself momentarily searching for a response. Her bright, intelligent eyes left no stone unturned and demanded answers. She anxiously chewed her lip, giving him a rare glimpse of her girlish vulnerability—the type of vulnerability that made him voracious.
“We have a mutual purpose.” Delta let his face become stone cold serious, imparting the intensity he felt.
“Which would be?” she asked.
“Keeping you safe.”