Operation Love by Linzi Baxter
Jared “Casanova” Dawson wiped the sweat from his brow and pondered if he increased the volume of the music playing in the training center’s speakers if it would drown out his boss’s voice. He’d escaped to the state-of-the-art gym to pour his aggression into a workout, except he couldn’t ignore the man next to him. He was certain Xavier Smith wouldn’t leave until they talked. Xavier had given him a job, but Casanova couldn’t recall any part of his offer letter where it stated he had to discuss personal shit.
“You’re right,” Xavier said as he climbed on the treadmill next to Casanova and set the control to an even jog.
Casanova’s heart raced, and it wasn’t because he’d hit mile nine on the treadmill. Nope he’d asked Xavier to dig into his past and investigate Ester, a nurse from the hospital. Seven months prior, he’d been on a mission, and all he’d had to do was protect Rose, his friend, Ginger’s, new fiancé. Ginger had received a text with the location of a target they’d been after for years. Only catch was Rose needed to come. The plan was to keep her in the van protected by him and another agent, while Ginger and a team searched the location. While secured in the van, he’d listened to Rose discuss a new spider a scientist had discovered in Africa. The sensors on the van to alert them of any interference were deactivated. She was going on about spider’s legs when the doors to the van blew, knocking him out. Rose’s scream had woken him from the daze, but it was already too late. The men who had attacked shot him in the gut, then pulled his teammate out the other side. He attempted to push through the pain and run to the front of the van, but the man who shot him was in the driver’s seat. He stomped on the gas, and the van lurched forward pinning Casanova and crushing his knee.
The military hadn’t sanctioned the mission, and he knew if something went wrong, it would cost him his career, but he was never the type to stand back and not help a friend.
When he woke in the hospital, the first thing he saw was an older nurse with the name tag Betty, but it was her eyes and the way her finger hovered over the band on his wrist that sent a chill down his spine. Her real name was Ester Rivera. He would never forget her deep brown eyes. His nightmares weren’t of his time in military; no, they were of her and the brothel she ran on the south side of Chicago.
Strange how one day could change a person’s entire life. The unsanctioned mission cost him his military career. He’d never thought past being a SEAL, because it was all he had, until Xavier Smith barged into his hospital room after receiving his military discharge papers and offered him a job. He agreed only if Xavier would investigate Nurse Ester himself. Casanova didn’t trust anyone else to look into the woman or what she did to him as a teen. He’d discussed only a sliver of his life with his former teammates, he’d never talked about the monster who had adopted him and his brother from foster care.
Casanova pressed the down arrow on his treadmill to reduce his speed to a fast walk. “Did you send me all the information you have?”
He hoped Xavier wouldn’t question his past or why he hated the woman.
Xavier tossed him an extra water from the cup holder. “From what I can find, she has no ties back to Chicago. She’d moved to San Diego ten years ago. Her previous address was linked to Dallas, Texas, but further digging showed it to be a false address. What I did find was she’s part of a larger organization involved with trafficking women. It’s time we bring the team in. I might run this place and have connections, but the team can dig up what you want faster. Hell, you were in the military. You should understand a team working together gets shit done a lot faster than one person. Give me one time a rogue teammate did good on his own.”
“You realize the company’s name is Rogue Mercenaries, right?”
“We do things outside the norm. Doesn’t mean we don’t do missions as a group. Speaking of the team—”
“No.” He didn’t want to talk about Grim, which Xavier usually tried to broach every morning during his run. Like the unbearable pain in his knee wasn’t enough during the jog. He didn’t want to think about the void in his heart too. The damn woman was everything to him, but one look into the nurse’s eyes and his past had rushed back. It had reminded him why he would never be good enough for anyone.
Grim was the light in a dark world. He hated the call name she’d got from her work with the CIA as an assassin. She was an angel in his eyes, which matched her real name, but he had to stop thinking about her.
She was his forbidden fruit.
“I didn’t start a mercenary business to become a fuckin’ therapist.”
“Never asked to discuss my feelings and shit.”
Xavier ignored him and continued. “You guys are all grown ass men and women, but Grim, damn it, she holds a special place in my heart. Don’t give me that look. You know she’s like my sister.”
Casanova had first run into Grim a few years prior on a mission in Panjshir. His SEAL team was sent to rescue six women. Everything went according to plan until Xavier showed up with his team and took the ladies. At the time, Casanova had thought Rogue Mercenaries was corrupt, but it later came out the military had bad intel and was about to hand the women back over to the enemy. What stood out most to him when they were on the side of the mountain arguing with Xavier’s team was Grim’s striking gun-metal-gray eyes. She’d made his mind go blank for a second, which he had never experienced before.
For a long time, he’d thought he could have a future, even if she turned him down every step of the way. He’d tried to prove himself, but he’d failed. He’d allowed Rose to get kidnapped, and now his past had come back.
“Are you listening to me?” Xavier asked.
“Yes, but I really don’t want to. If she’s like a sister to you, then why don’t you talk with her? Instead, you are here every morning, interrupting my run.” Casanova jumped the rails of the treadmill, pulled the red stop key, and turned toward the weight section of the room.
It seemed his boss didn’t plan to drop the conversation today as he followed Casanova and grabbed his own set of dumbbells.
Xavier sat on the bench next to Casanova. “Grim has a hard exterior, but inside she’s soft. I thought I was the only one to see it, but I’ve watched you with her over the past couple of years, and you see it too. The only problem is I can’t deal with tears, hence why you need to get your shit together.”
Casanova had only seen her cry once. It was the night she’d found out her sister was alive, but at the time they hadn’t known where to find her. For hours, she’d laid in his arms and bawled. It had crushed his heart he couldn’t tell her everything would work out, because in that moment he had no clue if it would.
It wasn’t until he’d assisted with the mission that destroyed his military career that they’d found her sister. Except Sarah didn’t want to talk to anyone after they rescued her from the glass cell underground. She slipped out of the hospital in the middle of the night without even leaving a note.
With the shitty hand he’d been dealt, fitness was his escape from reality, except Xavier had turned it into his therapy sessions.
“You know, boss, I’m not the only person who should talk shit out. How is the search for Sarah going? Or haven’t you looked because you can’t deal with tears?”
His former teammate, Ginger, had told him how Xavier held Sarah against his chest the night they rescued her and wouldn’t let the paramedics help her at first.
Xavier’s forty pound weight clattered to the ground. “This is not my therapy session, fucker. We are here to talk about you and Grim.”
The prior week, Xavier called him in to the office to discuss a quick bodyguard case. An A-list actor named Aaron Ross had needed extra security for his family for a trip to Los Angeles. Casanova had seen Aaron and his unconventional marriage across gossip magazines. The man was married to Daisy Ross, and they had a third partner Neal Cross. Neal owned one of the top network security software companies in the world. Aaron also came from a wealthy family.
The job had taken Casanova from San Diego for a few days, but he couldn’t forget about Grim or the fact they hadn’t found her sister after she disappeared from the hospital. When he’d returned for his debrief with Xavier, he’d spotted a folder on Xavier’s desk with Sarah’s name across the front.
“You want Grim to be happy? I think if you find her sister, it will help.” Casanova understood what it was like to be separated from a sibling. He hadn’t thought about his twin in years but it wouldn’t change the reason they had been taken from each other. Jay still had light in his eyes and a wonder for the world when he’d hugged Casanova goodbye.
Casanova switched to a heavier set of weights and did a few skull crushers. The burn in his muscles didn’t take his mind off the void in his heart though. No matter what, he missed Grim and their late-night binge of serial killer documentaries. He knew she loved them and wouldn’t turn him away when he showed up with a movie in hand, but that was before his past came crashing back.
He caught sight of himself in the mirror. His square jaw and pale blue eyes were a constant reminder of what good looks could cost someone. It cost him his soul. Many people paid thousands of dollars to plastic surgeons to have what, Hollywood considered model quality looks. Casanova knew he was handsome. It was why Ester had targeted him all those years ago. Even as a kid, he could sweet talk his way out of anything with a wink.
“Sarah doesn’t want to be found. She made that clear.” Xavier’s voice had an edge to it, and Casanova figured he wouldn’t press.
He didn’t know when Xavier had talked to her. He’d thought she left without a word. The boss’s lips were in a hard line, so he dropped the conversation. They worked out in silence before Xavier spoke again. “You know she has a list of all her kills and sends money to some of their family members?”
Casanova stopped mid rep. “How do you know this?”
“My employees might think they can hide their pasts, but I don’t hire anyone without knowing everything about them. I spent years in the CIA and know how easy it is for someone to double cross you. My first handler recruited me when I was still in high school. I kept up the facade of the school jock and my place on the debate team. It was all part of my cover. The government wanted access to my family’s company. My family owns an international shipping business. From the outside, my parents made it look like we were rich, but the company was headed for bankruptcy. My position with the CIA saved the company.”
He paused and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Grim loved the range. At the time, I was dating Sarah and she hated guns. So, I would take her younger sister to the range. I didn’t know my handler was watching me. Later, I found out they recruited her because of me. I’m not arrogant enough to think it was all on me. She never misses her target. The damn agency used her over and over. People joke about her having the highest assassination record in the CIA but it’s not a joke. Her kill list is higher than anyone could ever imagine. Fuck, you know what a kill does to a person.”
Casanova set his weights on the bench and rested his elbows on his thighs. He’d killed scum of the earth, and their dead faces still flashed through his mind. At times, he wondered if they had the correct intel, many had begged for mercy. Even a few said they had no choice, but he still took their life.
“Yes, I’ve killed a lot of men, but you don’t understand what it was like finding out Ester’s still alive.” Casanova ran a hand over his face. “Deep down, I knew she might have survived the shoot out in the back of her hotel. I didn’t wait to find out. I took a taxi, covered in blood, to meet my recruiter an hour before I boarded the bus to basic training. He didn’t ask questions, only offered me a shower and clean clothes. What’s worse is I left the others she hurt just like me behind and could only hope her brothel went under.”
“You were eighteen,” he said, like that made my decision okay.
“But I had years of adulthood where I could have gone back and made sure nobody continued what she did. How could you ever think I’m good enough to be around Grim? Hell, I’m surprised you even let me work for you. I’m nothing but a failure. Rose almost died because of me.”
“You could also blame me for the night Rose was taken,” Xavier said. “Every single one of us knew we were about to walk straight into a trap. None of us turned back. Our only goal was to take Carter down.”
“I’m glad he’s finally dead. I just wish I was the one to pull the trigger.”
Xavier smiled. “Let me tell you, it felt good to watch the life drain from his eyes. For years, I dreamt about taking the shot. The CIA isn’t happy I took him out. They knew all along he was a small fish in a larger organization. The director kept important information from me.”
Casanova couldn’t hold back the long sigh. “Does this mean we are going after the organization, or are you going to let the CIA handle it?”
“No, we are going after them. According to Seth, the organization Carter worked for has ties to Russia and the US Government. We already know half of Washington is corrupt. Now we have to find out who and take them down.”
Seth was an engineer Carter had kidnapped eight years prior. At the time, he was in the top of his field and worked for the government. When they rescued Rose and Sarah, Seth was among the group of other prisoners.
“When is Seth coming in?”
“He’s in the conference room now with Lucas.” Xavier looked over his shoulder to the door like he expected someone to walk into the gym.
“Is the team meeting with him?” Casanova hadn’t had a mission since he’d assisted Aaron Ross. He wanted to get back in the field to take his mind off all the other shit. Also, it would help him sort through the fact he had to take down Ester. He would take his time and make her pay.
“Yes. He and Lucas were meeting to talk tech shit. Shower and meet me up in the conference room. I want you on this op.”
Casanova nodded. “Is Marcus back from New York?”
Xavier shook his head. “No. I’m pairing you and Grim up for this mission. Since neither of you would stop and talk shit out, it’s time for me to step in and make you. Nothing’s better than being forced together on a mission and spending long nights stuck in a car together.”
After the incident that cost him his career, Casanova didn’t speak to his teammates for a month. He still didn’t answer their calls as much as he knew he should. Then there was the fact he lived in the duplex next to Grim. It had been a great idea when his friend needed someone to rent it. Now he dodged Grim at every chance, and she’d given up even looking in his direction.
“It won’t work.”
“She’s spiraling, and I’m running out of ideas,” Xavier said, before he downed the rest of his water.
“I could give two shits about her,” Casanova said, not wanting to talk about it anymore.
“Well, the feeling is mutual, asshole.” Her soft voice, which generally held an edge, wavered.