Aziza and I were not friends, we weren’t enemies, and we certainly weren’t lovers…we were liars. The biggest lie of all, the one I’d been telling myself for years, had become damn impossible to keep up. But the constraints of reality had never stopped me before, no sense starting on a boat speeding into the shadowed heart of the Amazon river basin at zero dark thirty.
“You’re not happy to see him!” I scolded myself. “You’re just glad the stubborn, prideful, stupid…man isn’t dead.” Because if anyone or anything was going to kill Michael Cooper, it was going to be me!
I growled over the sounds of the tropical storm battering Marakata Cay.
Pulse punching, I scrolled back through the video capture dated nearly twenty-four hours ago. The heavily bearded profile blending into a small crowd of people before disappearing into the thin blue air of Rio de Janeiro most definitely belonged to an alive and well Michael Cooper.
What the hell are you doing in Brazil?
If he was even still there.
Twenty-four hours may as well have been a month. He could be anywhere now, even in a morgue. It wasn’t like he hadn’t made serious enemies working for Beryl Enterprises. As our Director of Defense and Specialized Operations, he contracted with major private sector corporations as well as notable governments for high-level security solutions. His teams were often called in to deliver asset reconnaissance and recovery, be it intel or high-value targets. And occasionally those clients required more direct and unconventional warfare resolutions. It was these uniquely focused, clandestine operations that often put Beryl Enterprises in the crosshairs.
Concerned for his safety, I’d boldly asked Coop to relocate his home office from Dubai to Marakata Cay—the crown jewel of Beryl Enterprises. I’d proposed it would help shield both him and Omar Zaki’s private island. But it certainly hadn’t been my main motivation.
I’d truly believed he’d felt the same attraction, connection, to me that I did for him. Sure, our relationship was primarily professional. But for the past year or more our virtual meetings had lingered long after all work talk had been settled. We’d joke and laugh, talk about life. What had started as fun flirtation had quickly turned into something special.
Oh fuck it, I thought we were in love.
How could I’ve been so wrong?
I’d risked much more than my heart and pride when I’d dared ask him to make good on the flirtatious dance we’d been doing for years. And what had been his response? To send Brecken Wolfe, his top operator, here in his stead. To take off on an indefinite vacation while avoiding all forms of contact. To go completely off grid while simultaneously evading all SIGINT—every CCTV camera and satellite surveillance mechanism known to man. To freaking ghost me!
But why go to such great lengths to stay undetected? Was it to dodge me, or was something else going on?
Coop had been acting off for months now, and if it wasn’t because he’d been fighting his feelings for me, then why? Someone else? Something even worse? Just because I hated him didn’t mean I’d stopped caring. Hoping.
My nerves knotted tight enough to fray as I fretted over what I might discover. But I couldn’t hide from the truth any longer.
Ignoring my heart overfilling like a balloon and bursting on every beat, I replayed the loop in slow motion. I should’ve been scanning the background for clues as to what exactly Coop was doing in Rio, and more importantly why he’d slipped up and gotten caught when he’d expended great effort the past month to stay off grid. Instead, my questions and frustration evaporated as I paused on the singular image of him. He looked just like when I’d first met him over ten years ago—a little angry and a lot tired. Hardened from too many tours in the sandbox. Handsome as sin. Hot AF.
Despite the shitty resolution, those deep, ocean eyes of his managed to steal my air and throttle my heart.
“I’ve missed you, My-sharky,” I whispered on a sigh.
The pet name was his butchered reiteration of mushaeghib—the Arabic word I often called him in frustration. It meant troublemaker and it fit him as well as calling him my shark did.
He was my protector. My warrior. My worst freaking headache. I wasn’t about to lose him forever and have him become my greatest heartache, too.
My gaze traced along his jawline. The carved edges were now covered by a thick, rough beard. He hadn’t shaved in a month, but the dark mass cloaking those panty-melting dimples of his looked more like a year’s worth of growth. Same with the wild, black licks of hair.
My eyes drifted to the slight protrusion of his tongue. Suddenly it was if his lips weren’t on my computer screen or thousands of miles away in Brazil anymore. They were here on Marakata Cay right where I wanted—needed—them. My conjured vision of him had blown through my bedroom door with the same force as the tropical storm pelting my windows.
Dear Lord! My head needed to be examined. I’d spent weeks terrified I’d never see Coop again. I was furious at him for inexplicably leaving. Frightened, confused, hurt…and though it was tough to admit considering we’d never even touched, my heart had been wrecked when he’d vanished without a trace. Yet a stupid screenshot of him could still completely derail me with delusions and desire.
How could one gorgeous, but frustrating—infuriating—man have such a massive effect on me? I was a capable, intelligent, task-driven professional. As Omar Zaki’s right hand, I had authority over the Beryl Enterprises empire, which included multiple specialized operations teams full of cocksure alpha men.
So why couldn’t I control my own thoughts when it came to one, very annoying, smoking hot, Michael freaking Cooper?
The man had a way of slipping up on me and taking over my mind the same way scents of plumeria and rain had slid beneath my balcony’s French doors to saturate my room. Being unable to stop myself from jumping his bones was half the reason I’d kept him in the Dubai offices and far away from the island for so long. I had too much to lose to be getting sexually involved with anyone I had true feelings for.
Asking him to relocate had been reckless and impetuous.
The mere sight of him, even on a computer screen, melted my resolve and my body like butter on a beach. Now was no different.
I wanted him here—not just here…here with me—more than I’d ever wanted anything.
As I had so many times before, I imagined him on the island. Actual flesh and bone in my room…on my bed…against my body. His lips traveling down my neck, still wet from the rain as they slid across my skin. His hot mouth hungrily cutting between my breasts, leaving a buzzing trail of need in its wake.
I tugged apart the perfect little bow at the waistband on my pajama bottoms as I spread my knees. My body needed him even if it couldn’t have him. Careful not to let my tablet fall, I gazed at Coop’s image while turning my wicked imagination loose. Instead of the streets of Brazil, I envisioned those beard-roughened cheeks of his were buried between my thighs. Sliding my hand down, I let my fingers do all the things I wanted his tongue to do to me.
Wild images of Coop flooded my head. Lifting me, covering me, filling me. The gusting wind and slapping palm fronds of the real world muted. Sounding in my passion-fogged brain were the near-realistic hollow thuds of the bed knocking rhythmically into the wall followed by a husky voice, “Aziza…”
Imagining him saying my name sent me right up to the edge. Right out of my body. My strangled reply caught along with my breath, “Com…in—”
A very real, ear-splitting creak of the bedroom door jolted me out of the fantasy. Hard. I jerked upright as my eyes shot open to a large man’s darkened profile coming through the doorway. Coop? Here? For real?
I scrambled to hike my pajamas back up and cover my lap with the sheets as a voice that did not belong to Coop speared my heart. “Sorry to bother, ma’am.”
My tablet slid, crashing to the floor along with my hopes.
“Oh, shit.” Brecken Wolfe flipped on my light. “You all right, Zee?”
“Yeah, yes, I’m okay. I just wasn’t expecting you.”
Before disappearing, Coop had sent Wolfe to Marakata Cay by promoting him to the newly created Chief of Island Spec Ops position. In other words, he was Coop’s idea of a solution. Like Coop, most of the elite operators were tall, muscular, and looked like they hunted all their meals with their bare hands. But Wolfe’s Nordic features, keen glacial eyes, and dirty blond, braided Mohawk gave him a distinct Viking flair.
“I mean, you surprised me. I didn’t hear you…” Watching him salvage my computer from the floor, I grappled for the words. Wait… Had the bed knocking actually been Wolfe knocking on the door? Ugh. Clearing my throat, I removed a dangling AirPod from my ear. The other one must’ve become lost in my pillows. “Had my buds in.”
“Sorry about that, I could’ve sworn I heard you say to come in.”
Come in…coming… Same thing. Good Lord! I wanted to die of embarrassment. One of my employees had just walked in on me while I got off on the fantasy of another employee.
Seriously, Aziza? Seriously?
Thankfully my hand wasn’t still down my pants as he handed the computer back to me.
It wasn’t like it would’ve shocked him. Sex of all kinds abounded on Zaki’s private island. At many times Marakata Cay was a hedonistic oasis. Two weeks ago we’d hosted a whole seminar series devoted to self-pleasure, for fudge sake! But…I was me. Between being much younger-looking than my thirty-two years, female, and having the black hair and olive skin tone of my father’s Arabic roots, I had to fight for respect with the powerful people I worked with. Many of whom preferred to dismiss me as some glorified harem girl of OZ’s.
Better than them knowing my real relationship to Omar Zaki, I supposed.
I dared a glance at Wolfe, knowing the heat from between my legs had shot to my face. From his stoic expression, I couldn’t tell if he’d realized what he’d walked in on. “I was on a video chat,” I fibbed.
Wolfe grunted. “I knew that bastard didn’t take a vacation. Freaking workaholic barely takes a piss break.”
Lowering my eyes, I realized my screen was still zoomed in on the man I’d been using every resource at my extensive disposal to basically stalk like a scorned ex-girlfriend. Shit. The cherry topping off my mortification sundae—Coop was not only Wolfe’s direct supervisor, but they were also close friends and former SEAL teammates. If it got back to him that I’d completely disregarded his privacy and tracked him down…or worse, he found out I was clinging to some romantic notion of us when he so clearly didn’t see me the same way… Ack!
Ruining our friendship was the last thing I wanted to do. If we were even friends. Nothing was certain where Coop and I were concerned. A lesson I seemed determined to learn the hard way.
I pushed out a thought-clearing breath. Before I could change the subject, Wolfe mused, “I knew something had to be up when he missed Will’s funeral. What’s the scoop?”
SEAL funerals were the only reason Coop had ever unexpectantly taken time off work, and even then he stayed in constant contact with me and our Intelligence and Activity department. Skipping his former teammate’s funeral had raised red flags for me as well, but I wasn’t ready to collaborate with Wolfe.
As OZ’s figure head, I often had to think on the fly. While I wasn’t proud of it, deception had become an art form for me. But this had to do with Coop. My Coop. My-sharky. And not knowing where he’d been for the past month had sent my normally functioning brainwaves into a swirling cat-five hurricane. I resorted to playing dumb, despite speaking English better than my native tongue. “Scoop?”
“Is something going on with the emerald mine?”
I narrowed my eyes. If it weren’t for Sapien, the cutting-edge biometrics software suite Beryl Technologies had in development for the CIA, I might’ve never known where Coop had disappeared to.
“How did you know he was in Brazil from just one screenshot?”
Wolfe shrugged. “I didn’t. It was just a guess.”
“Good guess,” I muttered, disappointed he didn’t have more information than I did. But at least I had an angle to deflect him with. “We were testing the advances to Sapien and Mr. Cooper agreed to play hide and seek.”
Mr. Cooper? Yeah, that didn’t sound sketch. I doubted anyone had ever called him ‘Mr. Cooper’ in his life.
Wolfe hiked up his brows, but all he said was, “Must be magic if it caught the Ghost.”
Ghost. Another one of the mythical Michael Cooper’s nicknames. This one a throwback to his Navy days when he and another of his teammates, Nikolas Steele, had been MIA in the Hindu Kush, but how apt it was. The infuriating man sure knew how to ghost a girl! Figures, Navy SEALs did everything to the fullest.
I focused back on Wolfe. “You didn’t guess Brazil. Or if you did it was an educated one. Show me what you saw.”
Wolfe moved closer, bracing one hand on the ebony pillar of my four-poster bed as he pointed. “That sign there? It’s in Portuguese, and Coop is wearing a Flamengo football jersey, the most popular team in the region. The only football Coop acknowledges is American-style, and the only team he roots for is the Texas Longhorns. The hair, beard, clothing… He’s blending in as a local.”
While I’d been impressed with Wolfe’s competency as a career operator over the past few years, I hadn’t worked closely enough with him to see this analytical side. No wonder Coop had entrusted his former teammate to keep OZ’s private island secure in his stead—the eagle-eye SEAL didn’t miss a detail.
His attention stayed trained on the screen in my hands as his fingers worked to zoom it out.
“Yep, two more men in the crowd are dressed just like him as well. See, the police shield shape is Santos, and that green one is another Flamengo. And…” Wolfe zoomed in again, this time on a woman whose backside extended a good foot and a half from her tiny frame.
It wasn’t just big, it was…
“Looks like one of those balloon animals, doesn’t it? Nowhere else on the planet will they do a butt-job like that, nor should they.”
He straightened, towering above me. His cocky grin told me he knew I was impressed. “Sometimes it takes more than software to see the world.”
I swallowed and glanced away. I hadn’t realized it was so obvious how sheltered I was on Marakata Cay. My virtual reach might’ve been global, thanks to Beryl Enterprises’ extensive technology, but physically leaving wasn’t an option. Not even when I desperately wanted to chase after my runaway heart.
I glanced back. Wolfe’s ice-blue eyes had dropped to my lap. The waistband of my flannel pajama pants gaped and the drawstrings dangled. I jerked my comforter over the swathe of naked skin, hoping I hadn’t just flashed my kus at Wolfe.
He spun on his heel and headed for the door. With a throat-clearing cough, he grunted, “Send Mr. Cooper my apologies for interrupting your game of hide and seek.”
Shit shit shit. I squeezed my eyes shut, blocking out his broad back as he retreated with a snicker.
Unfortunately, like everything I wanted, ripping my covers over my head and screaming would have to wait. I was just as much a workaholic as Coop. A slave to the island and a slave to OZ. And Spec Ops didn’t make a habit of coming to my bedroom in the middle of the night unless it was important.
“Wolfe, stop. You needed something?”
“Oh shit, right.” He shook his head as if to refocus. When he turned back, his professional expression was firmly in place. “We’re getting notifications of a ship in distress. Colt’s got a rescue boat almost there now.”
I set my tablet aside. Had I really been so consumed with chasing after an unrealistic, unrequited crush that I’d missed a ship getting near the island?
“How close are they?”
“We’re the only ones who can respond.”
“Exactly how close? Coordinates.”
Wolfe rattled them off and my mouth went dry. I swung my legs out from the covers, twisted my waistband in my fist and headed for the bathroom to change. “I’ll let Zaki know.”
“Is that necessary? It’s kind of late.”
Having only recently moved from Coop’s lead team in the Dubai offices, Wolfe hadn’t much experience working directly under Zaki. Typically all of OZ’s directives went through the Intelligence & Activity branch, me, or Coop. But knowing OZ’s exacting standards and enigmatic temperament, employees generally feared the reclusive billionaire. Big, tough Vikings were no exception.
I didn’t have time to put Wolfe at ease, but I needed him focused on the situation and not on his employer. “Marguerite has been changing unused bed linens for days. Zaki isn’t big on sleep. Trust me, he’d be more upset to be left in the dark.”
“If you’re sure. I mean, I’ve got everything handled.”
I fought to keep the snap from my voice as I straightened him out. “No, you don’t have everything handled. Unknown people are coming to the island. Have I&A get full background profiles of all passengers, surviving or not. I want ownership details on the boat, purpose of their trip, and what the hell they were doing in those coordinates. Advise Colton to do SSE and use Obsidian Protocol.”
“Obsidian Protocol?” he asked.
While Sensitive Site Exploration, or the gathering of any intel, was par for the course on ops, the various protocols on Marakata Cay were not. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explain. “Meet me in the war room in thirty.”