Flashpoint #3

“An enthralling, heart pounding masterpiece!”

New York Times bestselling author Annika Martin

Kirkus Reviews Best of 2018

CIA covert operator Savannah James is after intel on a potential coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she needs a partner fluent in Lingala to infiltrate the organization. Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan is the perfect choice, except he doesn’t like her very much. He doesn’t trust her, either, despite the sparks that flare between them, fierce and hot. Still, he accepts the assignment even though their cover requires Savvy to pose as his mistress.

They enter battle-worn Congo to expose the financing for the coup. A trail of cobalt, gold, and diamonds leads them into the heart of a jungle in which everyone is desperate to find the mother lode of ore and gems. Betrayal stalks them as they follow the money, but Savvy will stop at nothing to bring down the would-be dictator before he can ignite a firestorm that will engulf all of Africa.

Deep in the sultry rainforest, spy and Green Beret forge a relationship more precious than diamonds, but Cal knows Savvy is willing to sacrifice anything—or anyone—to complete her mission. As they near the flashpoint, Cal will have to save her from the greatest threat of all: herself.


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Chapter One
Camp Citron, Djibouti
Late May

Savannah James didn’t bother to look up from her computer screen to see who’d entered her office without knocking. A tingling in her neck told her Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan had arrived. The physical reaction was triggered by something subliminal and unknown. His scent? The sound of his footsteps?

Whatever the cause, the reaction irritated. “I take it you’ve spoken with your XO, Sergeant. For the record, you weren’t my first choice, so don’t whine at me.”

He pulled back the visitor’s chair and dropped into it, then propped his feet upon her desk in a clear demonstration of disrespect.

Lovely. He was going to be a joy to work with.

She closed the lid of her laptop and finally met his gaze, and there was that small, maddening flutter in her belly that always followed the tingle in her neck. He was the most achingly handsome man she’d ever met. He had the deep, dark brown skin of his Congolese mother combined with the tall, thick build of his Irish American father. Heavy brows capped warm brown eyes. His broad nose and square jaw could give several Hollywood heartthrobs a run for their money.

“You spooks just can’t help lying, can you?” He held her gaze. “According to my XO, you only asked for me.”

She smiled. She was a professional liar for Uncle Sam and would never apologize for that. He couldn’t goad her by calling her what she was. But in this instance, she’d spoken the truth. A CIA operator would be easier to work with than the handsome sergeant who was congenial and charming to every person on this damn base but her.

“I asked CIA to send a Special Activities Division paramilitary officer, but SAD can’t send someone right away, and timing is crucial, so I was forced to go shopping in Camp Citron’s Special Operations Command catalogue.”

“Am I to take that to mean I’m the right color and gender?” His voice held a hard edge.

“Exactly. Plus you speak French and Lingala.”

His eyes narrowed, lowering those thick brows. His head was shaved bare, and he sported a trim beard. He effortlessly exuded masculine energy that triggered a hunger she couldn’t bury deep enough, no matter how hard she tried. He was her only option. He was here, spoke Lingala, and SOCOM said she could have him as long as he agreed to the mission.

“I’m not the only one at Camp Citron fluent in Lingala. I can think of two other guys who speak it, and one of them also speaks Swahili, which you also might need in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, assuming that’s where your mission is headed.”

Lord, she hoped they wouldn’t have to go into DRC. “But they’re both intelligence officers. Glorified translators. I need an operator.”

His full bottom lip caught her attention. He signaled he noticed her stare by flashing perfect white teeth. “You saying you need a real man, Savvy?”

She rolled her eyes even as her belly fluttered at his use of the nickname. She ignored the ridiculous reaction. It wasn’t as if Savannah was her real name, so the nickname shouldn’t feel intimate. “I need an operator with native fluency.”

He dropped his boots to the floor, grin firmly in place. He obviously knew how handsome he was and that even she, coldhearted spook that she was, wasn’t immune. But then, he’d never lacked ego.

She stared at his perfect smile, her confidence in her plan fading. He’d never pass. His teeth would give him away. Too much orthodontia, too little khat. “You need to grow a longer beard. You need to look less like a broodingly handsome Luke Cage and more like an unkempt, hostile drug lord looking to enter the diamond trade.”

“Seems like my body armor—not my beard—will give me away.”

“No body armor, no Army uniform where we’re going. You’ll be sheep-dipped and trade in your M4 for a Kalashnikov.”

“You want a covert operator, grab a guy from Delta.”

She stood, walked around her desk, and closed the office door. It was time to tell him what she figured many on base suspected but few at Camp Citron knew for certain.

“What I’m about to tell you is classified. I’m not a CIA case officer. Nor am I an analyst.”

He snorted. “No kidding.”

She couldn’t help but smile. She’d done little to protect this secret with Special Operations Command. It hadn’t been possible or necessary. She crossed back to her desk. “I started as an analyst, went through case officer training and was one for a while. When I find someone I think would make a good asset, I let the case officer at the embassy know.”

“It’s Kaylea Halpert, isn’t it?”

She didn’t miss a beat and just rolled her eyes. “You think you’re the first person to try the guessing game on me?” He wasn’t, but he was the first to guess it in one try. Most assumed the case officer was a man. Few soldiers looked at Kaylea and thought she was CIA. Usually they were too distracted by the beautiful black woman’s curves.

Unlike Kaylea, whose cover as an embassy employee hid her true job, Savvy worked directly with SOCOM and, like the soldier who sat before her, was prepared to deploy on special ops alone or with a team at a moment’s notice.

Savannah James’s official cover was civilian public works liaison for Camp Citron, which gave her access to Djiboutian ministers and the right to come and go as she pleased from the base. But she wasn’t Savannah James, and she was hardly a public works liaison. She worked with a degree of autonomy that was rare in the intelligence community but completely necessary to be able to react quickly when opportunities arose to gather intel on particular individuals or organizations.

“I don’t run spies, but I’m privy to the intel they provide. I handle top secret tech like subdermal trackers, but that’s not my main job either. My actual title is paramilitary operations officer for the Special Operations Group within SAD.”

Cal looked skeptical. “I thought SOG officers were recruited from the military? Special Forces, SEALs, Delta. You aren’t military.”

She wasn’t, while he was US military through and through. He probably bled Army green. Worse, Sergeant Callahan had more than made it clear he was no fan of the CIA.

“Most do come from the military, but a few are recruited from within the CIA—especially the women.” She flashed a smile. “Special forces isn’t exactly a bastion of equality, and some jobs—like this one—require a woman.”

She cleared her throat. “Unlike other special units, SAD/SOG operatives are trained to operate with limited to zero support. When I’m working a covert op, I don’t carry or wear anything that connects me to the CIA or US government. If compromised, the US government will deny all knowledge of my existence.”

Special Operations Group was considered the US government’s most secretive special operations force, with good reason. Missions—conducted by teams or singularly—included raids, sabotage, and even targeted killings, hence the need for the US to have plausible deniability of their covert operatives’ actions.

She rested her hands on her desk. “I won’t force you to help me in this operation. You can say no and return to your A-Team. But I want you to know, I wouldn’t ask for your assistance if this weren’t important. The intel we recovered from Nikolai Drugov’s operation is time sensitive. We have a chance to strike a major blow for Team Democracy and take out the kleptocrats and warlords who have been preying upon the Democratic Republic of the Congo since before Mobutu changed the name to Zaire.”

This part made her nervous. If Cal said no, she was screwed. He didn’t like her, but his mother was from DRC. She’d left the country when it was called Zaire under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. For Cal, this could be personal, and she would appeal to that.

His lengthy silence had her sweating, despite the air-conditioning being set to frigid.

Finally, he said, “Seems like I should know what I’m agreeing to before I commit.”

She nodded. “I have intel collected from Drugov’s yacht and found information that another Russian oligarch, Radimir Gorev—a rival of Drugov, but also a business partner—is hosting an event on his yacht in Dar es Salaam next Friday. A gathering of warlords, drug smugglers, corrupt government officials, and wanna-be oligarchs. A nasty, old-fashioned cabal. Drugov compiled quite a bit of information on the other guests, including the fact that Jean Paul Lubanga will be there.”

“Who is that?”

“In my opinion, he’s the biggest threat to the relative peace of DRC.”

“Then why haven’t I heard of him?”

“Lubanga is quiet. Stealthy. And shrewd. After witnessing the mistakes of Mobutu, he’s doing his best not to draw attention to himself.” She grabbed a file from her desk and pulled out a picture of the man. “At present, he’s a government minister, the ultimate power in DRC’s vast mining and mineral rights industry. Analysts believe he’s working toward gaining the loyalty of the military, and once he has that…”

“He’s planning a coup?”

“It’s our job—my job—to find out. I think Drugov hoped to get Lubanga out of his rival Gorev’s pocket and into his own. The oligarch who can bring Russia the riches of DRC would be the second most powerful man in the country.”

“And why do you need me?”

“You’re my ticket onto Gorev’s yacht. Into the heart of the cabal. It’s an evening of business negotiations, sex, and drugs. Sex and drugs give him the kompromat he needs to keep his associates in line, while the business deals keep everyone rich.”

“And how do I get you ringside seats to this shitshow? Because I’m assuming you don’t plan to watch from the sidelines.”

“Warlords and oligarchs will never accept a woman at the table, unless she’s there as a toy.” Her gaze flicked down Cal’s perfect, soldier’s body. “You’re the businessman. I’ll be your sex toy.”

* * *

Savannah James, his sex toy. Now there was a thought that should turn Cal cold. Should being the operative word.

He studied the woman, finding it all to easy too imagine her in nothing but kinky strips of leather. He had zero interest in sadomasochism, but he had to admit, the accoutrements were sexy, and on Savvy, that kind of getup would be pure hot sin.

“What’s the timeline?” he asked, returning his focus to where it belonged.

“We head south the day after tomorrow. The meeting is Friday night, but before we can get invites to the party, we need to connect with some of Gorev’s associates on Thursday. They’ll extend the invite if you pass muster. If I don’t get everything I need at the party, we’ll stick around for as long as Lubanga is in Dar es Salaam. All told, it should take a week.”

“You hope,” Cal said.

“Yes. I hope.” She dropped back into the chair behind her desk. “I’ve gotten intel from Morgan’s crew on artifact trafficking.” Morgan was Dr. Morgan Adler, an archaeologist who’d sought protection at Camp Citron two months ago. Cal had met her when her car blew up two miles from the main gate.

“What does Morgan have to do with this?” he asked.

“We’ll use artifact trafficking to get that invitation. Gorev has a fondness for antiquities. You’ve got goods to sell and want to use them as your ticket to the big show, because precious metals and diamonds are where the real money is.”

He cocked his head. “You’ve got artifacts to sell? From Morgan’s project?”

She gave a sharp nod. “And another source.”

“Morgan’s not going to like that.”

Her eyes flattened. “Morgan is never going to know about it.”

True. At least, she wouldn’t hear about it from him. “Was Nikolai Drugov involved in artifact trafficking too?”

“I haven’t had a chance to delve deeply there. Connecting the dots takes time.”

When Savvy started playing dot-to-dot, she drew murals. Cal, he connected the same points and came up with a hangman every time.

“I need you, Cal. These men aren’t exactly feminists. An American woman dealing in artifacts and precious metals will be noticed in a way that a cowed sex slave would not.”

He snorted. “I doubt you can play cowed convincingly.”

She shook her head, her disappointment evident as she tsked. “Typical chauvinistic military asshole bullshit.”

“Typical spook.” She had no respect for military personnel who got the job done. He stood. “Find someone else to play master. I only work with trained soldiers.”

She tsked again. “Taking your toys and going home at one slight? I expected better from you. I’m slighted constantly—by you and everyone on this damn base—but I don’t whine about it. And for the record, I’ve had as much training as you. Plus, I’m trained to work alone.”

She stood and leaned on her desk. “I’m versed in special weapons and tactics. I can fight and kill unarmed. But unlike you, I’m expected to fuck to protect my cover. And if I don’t, and my cover is blown, our government will disavow me.” Her eyes hardened. “So yeah, I can act. My very life depends on my acting ability. It doesn’t matter if I can’t run ten miles carrying rocks like Special Forces, when my fate can turn on a badly delivered lie.”

She circled her desk to stand before him. “I can do everything you can do, Sergeant. Backward, while wearing high heels. So you can take your chauvinistic attitude and shove it up your ass.”

Standing before him was the fierce woman who hid behind a cold façade. There was far more to Savannah James than he’d imagined. And he could—and had—imagined a lot.

The woman was sexy as hell and pushed all the right buttons. She was danger and desire in one scary, beautiful package. “When we’re in public, you’ll be meek and subservient?” he asked.

“I never break character.”

“And when we’re alone?”

She ran a fingertip down his chest. Her eyes turned liquid with desire. And damn if his heart didn’t react to that.

“If I think we’re being monitored, I will stay in character.” She traced his neck upward from Adam’s apple to chin to bottom lip, her nail finding the skin under his short beard. “I will do whatever is necessary to get the job done.” She leaned close, bringing her mouth a breath away from his. Her scent was soft, sultry. Sexy. “My job is everything. My reason for living. And I protect it at all costs.”

Only now, when they stood so close, did he see the true emotion in her eyes, the lie of this husky-voiced seducer. She was showing him one facet of her acting, making him wonder if the surreptitious looks he’d received from her during their months in Djibouti had also been an act.

He’d egotistically believed Savannah James was attracted to him, and now he couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been playing him all along. Setting him up.

But why? It couldn’t be for this. No way could Savvy have foreseen the path that took them here.

Except she was a spook, and the way she connected intel was freaky. And in the case of Drugov, she’d been on the money. Savvy was the unsung hero of that op. She’d identified Drugov as worth watching. She’d convinced SOCOM to send one of Cal’s teammates to Morocco to help trap the man. No one would ever give her credit, but her work had stopped a genocide.

And she did it all without leaving Camp Citron.

“So, Cal. Are you…”—she let out a soft, throaty laugh—“in?” Her sex-kitten voice combined with her scent would haunt him when he tried to sleep tonight. Her finger traced a straight line down his chest, over his heart, heading south, stopping just short of his belt.

He could so easily picture her popping open his combat uniform buttons on the trip down. His erection caused his pants to bulge.

She was acting. He, clearly, was not.

In one fast motion, he lifted her and set her on her desk, planting himself between her spread knees. He slid a hand behind her neck. Her breath warmed his lips as he rocked into the cradle of her thighs.

His erection brushed against her, and her breath hitched, telling him what he wanted to know. The sound, the flash of heat in her eyes, those were real. If anything, she wouldn’t want him to know she was aroused. She’d have masked it, if she could.

But the queen of control hadn’t been able to hide that reaction.

Satisfied, he released her and stepped back. They were equally exposed. Vulnerable. Heated up.

A level playing field for a game in which she would almost certainly always have the upper hand. She was the spook. He was a simple soldier.

Like her, his life was the job, the job his life. And also like her, screwups meant death—for him or his brothers in arms.

“I’m in.” And he was, no hesitation. But then, he’d always been in, and it had nothing to do with Savvy’s sexy plea. His XO had made it clear he couldn’t turn this assignment down, not without pissing off his command. SOCOM wanted a mole in Savannah James’s operation. They wanted to know what the hell she was up to and why she operated unfettered by superiors in the CIA.

When Savvy asked for Cal’s help, she’d unwittingly elected him for the job. She was a spy for the CIA. He was a spy for the US Army Special Operations Command.