One shot—one kill. A sniper’s creed. Only this time, he’s the one in the crosshairs.

Normal isn’t something Ethan “Phoenix” Vale has any experience with. And it definitely isn’t what he has planned for the future — unlike his ex-team leader, Cannon. The man already has the next six months of Phoenix’s life mapped out, starting with a joint mission with Hank Patterson’s company, Brotherhood Protectors. And saying no, isn’t an option.

Discovering Olivia Blake is part of the team almost has Phoenix breaking ranks. Heading for the Mexican border with no intentions of returning. She’s the one person he’d hoped to spend the rest of his life with, until he discovered she’d played him. The fact she’d been with MI6 all along only solidifies the reality that Phoenix isn’t cut out for civilian life. That, the two of them together might be more than the mission can handle.

Watching her back when the op goes sideways isn’t because Phoenix cares. Has unresolved feelings for her. And falling back into bed together is obviously a means of closure. Until he realizes that — despite the pain, the betrayal, the loss — Olivia’s still everything he wants. Everything he needs. 

But keeping her safe isn’t going to be easy. Not when the elusive Agent Smyth is determined to eliminate anyone  who gets in his way. And, for the first time in Phoenix’s life, he’s forced to face the fact that he might not be able to save everyone. He only hopes he can keep the girl, rescue his team, and not end up a casualty in a war he isn’t equipped to fight.

Three months later…


A decade in the service, seven with Delta Force, all erased in an instant. One ten-minute meeting, a stamp across his file, and he was out. No discussion. No options. Just…gone.

Phoenix clenched the folder in his hand, ignoring how the sound of the papers scrunching seemed to echo in the silence. Bounced around the interior of the truck as Cannon headed along the highway. His former boss didn’t speak, just kept driving, occasionally shifting his gaze toward Phoenix. As if judging when it was appropriate to talk. To cut through the tension slowly suffocating the space.

Never, if Phoenix had his way. In fact, the more he thought about it, the better disappearing sounded. Packing up his meager belongings and vanishing. Hopping a bus, a train. Hell, he could hitchhike to Mexico and see where the wind blew him.

Anything but staying with his former team. Having to watch them watch him, constantly questioning his sanity. They hadn’t come right out and told him—to his face—that they thought he was crazy. Didn’t change the fact he knew they did.

“You know, if you keep clenching your jaw like that, you’re gonna crack your molars.”

Phoenix exhaled, closing his eyes for a moment before sliding a glance toward Cannon. The last thing he needed was a damn pep talk. 

Cannon shook his head. “I don’t need to be Six to read your mind, kid. And I know nothing I say is gonna ease the sting of getting medically discharged, so… Talk to me.”

“First of all, you can stop calling me kid. We’re not in the service, anymore, and you’re not that much older than me.”

“In years, maybe. But when it comes to mileage—”


“I’d already been part of Delta for seven years when you joined the team. All that time…” Cannon shot him a quick glance. “It counts for at least double, so… You’ll always be a kid, comparatively speaking. And stop trying to change the subject.”

“There’s no such thing as mileage, and there’s nothing to talk about. I’m out. End of story.”

“Overlooking that you’d already suffered substantial injuries in that helicopter crash—that you’d been on the DoD’s watchlist since then—you had a building fall on you. A building, Phoenix. After which you dragged your busted ass back to your truck and proceeded to follow Gibson to his safehouse. Which you cased, wasting precious time you could have been getting medical help—should have been getting medical help—until you decided to break in and go a few rounds with your buddies. Do you know how many times Brady had to bring you back?”

Another sideways glance, and damn, the man had that death vibe in full force. Was compressing the already suffocating air inside the truck. Taking Phoenix back to when he’d first joined Alpha. How it only took a look from Cannon to instill the fear of god into him. 

Cannon pursed his lips as he shook his head. “I do, because Brady drilled it into my head. Repeatedly. The blood loss. The internal bleeding. Broken ribs, collapsed lung, damaged spleen… I’d go on, but he was talking so damn fast, by then, it was hard to keep track. Bottom line—you’re lucky you’re still breathing. Walking without some machine moving your parts for you.”

He sighed, then gave Phoenix’s shoulder a light fist bump. “I know it sucks, ki—Vale, but there is life after Delta. All you have to do is step up.”

And…there it was. The never-say-die speech. Which would be followed by Cannon outlining how Phoenix could become a contributing member of Wayward Souls. That he’d already passed his Recovery Agent test. How Cannon would get him special deputy approval with the Marshal service. Hell, his ex-team leader probably had a place picked out for him to live in, and a nice, but reserved, woman for him to date. His entire future served up on a platter.

Except where Phoenix wasn’t sure he wanted to “step up”. Do anything that reminded him of what he’d had. Correction, what he thought he’d had, because half of it had been a lie. The best part. Her. And, knowing he’d allowed himself to fall—to think he’d been in love, that he’d had a chance at a future he’d thought was out of reach—burned hotter than the explosion that had nearly killed him. Made him question if he had what it took to go civilian. If he even knew what love was.

So, the prospect of being around his insanely happy buddies without wanting to jump off the nearest balcony was a genuine concern. One he’d already suffered through for the past few months recovering. When none of them would let him go to the bathroom without an escort, let alone out the door. Paranoid he’d ditch them.

And he would have, if he’d had the opportunity. Or the strength.


Shit. His first name.

He made a point of meeting Cannon’s gaze. Holding it.

“You don’t have to go through this alone. We’re a team, remember? We’ve still got your back.”

“Right, except for the part where you all think I’m nuts.” Phoenix stared down Cannon’s death glare. “Sorry, I forgot you prefer the term ‘unstable’.”

Cannon grunted, then swerved the truck onto the shoulder. Gravel bounced against the undercarriage as dust swirled around the cab, blocking out the highway as the vehicle rocked to a halt a second before Cannon’s massive form loomed in close. Nostrils flaring. That vibe compressing any available oxygen.

Phoenix held his ground, arching a brow. “I was hurt, Cannon. Not deaf. Just because you didn’t say it to me doesn’t mean it wasn’t said about me.”

A clench of the other man’s jaw, and Phoenix wasn’t sure if Cannon was going to bite off his head then spit it out on the side of the highway, or if he might punch a fist through the windshield. Maybe both.

Cannon held his stare for what felt like hours before finally easing back—looking away. “You’ve always had demons, Ethan. More than your fair share. And yeah, it’s been challenging not to notice that they’ve been riding you harder than usual. That you’re inside your own head more than ever.” He turned—pinned Phoenix with that killer gaze. “But we don’t think you’re crazy, kid. Hurt, sure. Lost, definitely. But not crazy. And nothing time and being with people you trust won’t cure. You just have to let us in.”

“It’s been three months. All of which I’ve been sequestered in your damn loft. Or Six’s. Colt’s.” He snorted. “Time hasn’t cured me, yet.”

“That’s because you’ve been healing physically. It’s hard to get your head in the right space when simply breathing damn near blacks you out. And you weren’t sequestered. It was all part of the agreement to keep your ass out of the brig. Or have you forgotten the part where you eliminated a bunch of mercenaries? Shot a CIA officer? Left the base without approval… Any of this ringing a bell?”

“I was on medical leave pending a decision from the Review Board. I didn’t need permission. And Slader was an ex-CIA officer.”

“Still, Crow had orders, put his own damn ass on the line to make it all legit, and you staying put was one of those orders. Besides, we needed to make sure this Smyth asshole didn’t send a few wet squads your way.”

“Screw Smyth. I’m planning on taking him out, anyway, so…”

“You always were a stubborn SOB. And you’re not going after Smyth. At least, not yet. We still don’t have enough intel to identify the guy, and strangely, Slader isn’t helping in that department. But with him in custody, it seems Smyth has slipped back into the shadows. Guy’s probably worried about potential fallout if anyone puts those two ledgers together.”

Cannon waved his hand in the air. “We’ll all be vigilant, but now that you’re a free agent, not to mention mostly healed, you can transition back to work. Have the kind of freedom you’ve been missing.”

Phoenix looked away. Studied the dust blowing in a field. Anything to stop the restless roil of his stomach. Having to tell Cannon that he wasn’t sure he was up for the task. That, maybe, they should have just let him die. Allowed him to finally find the peace he couldn’t seem to achieve in life.


“What if you’re wrong?” He turned to face Cannon. “All of you.”

“Wrong about what?”


“How could we be wrong about you?”

“Believing I can be anything close to…normal.”

Cannon exhaled, staring Phoenix in the eyes. “After all the shit we’ve been through, none of us are normal.”

“But you didn’t draw down on one of your buddies. Make that two of your buddies. Or threaten to kill them.”

“If our positions had been reversed, I might have.”

“You know, the one thing I’ve always respected about you is your honesty. So don’t lie to me, now, Cannon. You’d never lose it. Period.”

“You weren’t here when Jericho nearly died. Had a mafia assassin after her. We all have something or someone that can drive us over the edge. Undo all that training. Which reminds me. Have you talked to Olivia?”

No. Cannon did not just mention the one thing that would make this entire situation worse. His friend wouldn’t do that. Wouldn’t kick Phoenix when he was already down. Already questioning his sanity. His worth.

A grunt. “That’s a no. Vale—”

“I don’t know anyone named Olivia. And, as far as I’m concerned, Anna died in the crash. No…” He cut Cannon off with a shake of his head. “She left me for dead, not to mention letting me believe she was dead for months. Whatever we had, it wasn’t real. I was a job. Nothing more. Besides, she’s gone. Vanished from what Crow said. Was ‘never really here’, according to his report.”

“One phone call. That’s all I’d need.”

Phoenix stared at Cannon. Noted the firm line of his mouth. The slight narrowing of his eyes. The man was serious. And Phoenix didn’t doubt his ex-team leader could unearth everything about “Olivia” in less than five minutes.

He stuffed a hand in his pocket—traced the edge of the smooth metal surface tucked deep inside. Anna’s dog tags. The ones he’d had hanging from his rearview ever since he’d walked out of Walter Reed. That he’d planned on tossing in the ocean before following them in until Smyth had interrupted him. 

Despite being fake, he hadn’t been able to get rid of them. Couldn’t seem to take that final step. A fact Cannon would capitalize on if he knew Phoenix still had them. Proof he was just blowing smoke where she was concerned. Lying to save what little pride he had left.

“Then, save that marker for a real emergency.” He motioned to the road. “Are we going to sit here all day, or are we going back to the office?”

“I guess that depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether you’re in, because I’ve got all day. All week, actually, so…”

“You’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer, are you?”

“Give us a chance. Six months. If, after you’ve had time to adjust, see what it is we really do, you decide it’s not for you—if you want to hitch a ride to Mexico and disappear—I’ll buy you a ticket. Hell, any one of us would personally drive you to the border. Just, let us be that first step.”

Those voices in his head. The ones that kept reminding him of his promise. That, if he hadn’t been at that warehouse three months ago, Crow would likely be dead. That it had been more than dumb luck or perfect timing. More like fate. That, maybe, just maybe, his team needed him, too.

He studied Cannon. The hard stare, stoic expression. No way the man was accepting anything less than Phoenix’s full surrender. In fact, he wouldn’t put it past his boss to hogtie him to a chair until he relented. No doubt with the rest of the team joining in. That his buddies might go as far as having that Brady guy drug him—just enough to sign some kind of contract that bound Phoenix to the company until Cannon had gotten his six months. Had a chance to fix whatever had come loose in Phoenix’s head. Slay his demons.

Not that he thought that was possible. That he’d ever be anything close to normal. Hard, when he didn’t have a clue what normal was. Hadn’t experienced anything that hadn’t been at the extremes. Growing up. Then, the Teams. Losing Anna—Olivia. His entire life had either been a version of Heaven or Hell. Mostly the latter. 

Another glance at that field outside the truck. The swirls of dirt kicking along the barren ground as the wind picked up. The lone scarecrow off in the distance. Nothing left to protect.

Exactly how Phoenix felt. A soldier without a war. A purpose.

“A chance, Phoenix. That’s all I’m asking for.”

He sighed. “Six months?”

“That’s what I said.”

“True, but are we talking physical time, or this mysterious mileage crap? Where the six months is really six years?”

Cannon laughed, and Christ, it made Phoenix jump. Actually jump because he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard his boss laugh before. Yell, sure. Usually at him. But laugh…

Jericho. She was the difference. Hell, Phoenix had damn near tripped onto his ass the first time the woman had walked into the loft. Not because of her, but because of the dopey smile on Cannon’s face. The one that said the man was completely committed to Jericho’s happiness. That his entire existence depended on the quality of hers. That, coupled with the rest of his buddies shacking up or getting married, and Phoenix had wondered if he was actually in a coma, and this was some weird dream.

It wasn’t, but it did make him feel out of place. Just like when he’d first joined the squad. The dark horse.

Cannon glanced over his shoulder then rejoined traffic. “Now, that’s more like the Phoenix I remember. Always a comeback.”

“Don’t think I didn’t notice how you avoided the question.”

“I’m just leaving it open. Which reminds me. I’ve got a job for you.”

He coughed, trying not to spit across the windshield. “How the hell do you have a job when I hadn’t even agreed to join up?”

“Please, you saying yes was just a formality. And the call came in while you were at the medical board meeting. Just so happens to be right up your alley.”

“Didn’t realize you took on suicide missions.”

A huff, but there was a hint of a smile. A throwback to their Delta days and Phoenix’s sarcastic wit. “I doubt there’ll be drones if that makes you feel any better.”

“So, just bad guys with guns.”

“Are there any other kind?”

Phoenix ran a hand through his hair, clenching his jaw against the stab of pain in his ribs. The one that wouldn’t seem to go away. “After all these injuries, I might have lost my touch.”

A snort. “So, you’re saying you’re only as good as the rest of us, now, instead of that freaking inhuman thing you had going? I can live with that.”

Cannon nudged Phoenix’s shoulder. “You in?”

“Do I get to know anything else before I say ‘yes’? Is ‘no’ even an option?”

“Normally, yes, but in this case… You’re my only option. And Hank will fill you in once you get to Eagle Rock.”

“Eagle what?”

“Eagle Rock, Montana.” Cannon winked at him, the fucker. Who winked, anymore? “As of right now, you’re officially on loan to Brotherhood Protectors. Welcome back to the team, Vale. Things are about to get crazy.”