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My heart is pounding in my chest as I run to the van. My adrenaline is still at its peak, and I know from past experiences, albeit not to this degree, that it’s going to keep me going for a few hours to come. Then the fatigue will hit like a freight train. The alpha team files into the van first, followed by bravo team. We’re not even strapped in before Laci hauls ass out of there. Michael eyes Delaney as he removes his Glock 18 from its holster.

“You want to tell me what the fuck just happened? Your team was in charge of the perimeter. That doesn’t mean just on land, but air as well.”

“It was a Black Hawk . . . stealth. It wasn’t on our radar, and Laci contacted you as soon as it was visible.”

“That’s a big fucking problem then,” Michael states.

“I’m sorry, Michael. I know I fucked up.” Delaney fidgets in his seat.

Michael checks the magazine of his gun by popping it out and in. Then checks the chamber before putting it away. He doesn’t say anything else to Delaney the rest of the way back to the Collective, and neither does anyone else.

The van pulls into the access tunnel. Bravo team disembarks first. I can see the General and Sonja standing at the mouth of the tunnel. Michael’s hands ball into loose fists as he takes a deep breath, stepping out of the van. The General is in his face as soon as he steps over the threshold.

“What the hell happened out there, Michael?”
“It was an ambush. Somehow, they knew we were coming. Luckily, no one was injured or killed. With that kind of firepower someone should’ve been,” Michael responds as he continues to walk down the corridor. He doesn’t break stride as he exits the tunnel. I guess he knows the General will keep pace. Not to mention, I think he’s too angry to stand still.

“I don’t give a shit about that. The mission was a failure!” The General shouts.

When it comes to missions, Michael’s mind only works one way. His main concern is getting to the bottom of the faulty intel that put him and his team’s lives at risk. It’s obvious the General doesn’t care about our lives, and the weight of that is heavy on Michael’s shoulders. Michael suddenly stops, looking at Brianna.

“Maybe it was just bad intel.”

“Bullshit! My intel was spot on. Maybe, it was the follow through,” Brianna snaps back.

The General speaks up, stopping their banter. “Michael, this was your mission, your responsibility. This falls squarely on your shoulders-”

I have to intercede at that. “It wasn’t his fault. Everyone did the best they could. Why are you yelling at him?”

“Shut up!” Michael’s tone is like razors.

His eyes are daggers as they bore into mine. His words are so sharp and sudden, I flinch. The look in his eyes, I’ve seen that anger before, only never directed at me. Michael turns his attention back toward the General.

“I understand, sir. My mission, my responsibility. I’ll fix it.”

“Really? And how do you plan on doing that?” The General asks.

“Go over the intel, my execution, whatever it takes. I’ll find him.”

“For your sake, you better hope so.”

The General walks away. Michael heads toward Comm to speak with Vivian. He never once looks back at me. I can see Sonja looking at me from the corner of my eye. She has plenty to say, and I can tell it’s eating at her not doing so. Refusing to look at her doesn’t stop her from saying what’s on her mind.

“One day soon you will realize your place here. There is a time to speak up and a time to be quiet, and this was the time to be quiet. We’re not looking for advocates here, Shyira. We’re looking for people who can do the job, and not make excuses when they screw up,” Sonja scolds me as if I’m a child.

“It wasn’t an excuse. It’s the truth. We did the best we could under the circumstances.” I had to defend us. It’s clear Michael wasn’t going to.

“Your best wasn’t good enough,” Sonja states, walking away.

What the hell? It must be a power thing with her and Michael, always having to have the last word. I need a friend to talk to after the way Michael just treated me. The only true friend I have in this God forsaken place is Godfrey, and that’s exactly where I’m going.

“What’s up, brown sugar,” Godfrey asks as I walk up to his station.

“Michael just went off on me. All I did was defend him and he acted all, persona non grata. I mean, I don’t get it. We did the best we could. It wasn’t our fault the intel was bad. We went where we were told to go.”

“Be that as it may, coconut. You could give your very best and it will never be good enough for them. Don’t be too hard on yourself, besides that chopper got off, what? One hundred rounds before you or Michael, could even try to get off five. It was an impossible situation, and as far as Michael goes,” Godfrey shrugs. “He doesn’t like people making excuses for him. He takes responsibility for his mistakes.”

“That’s the thing, Godfrey. It wasn’t his mistake. I was there and there wasn’t anything any of us could’ve done differently to change the outcome.”

“That’s what makes him so good, luv. He will work night and day until he finds and captures Oscar Benet himself.”

I know Michael well enough by now to know Godfrey speaks the truth. I’m tired. Today has been a long one. To say I’m ready to go home is an understatement. Thanks to Cruella Deville, I wasn’t able to debrief right away. I head to Comm to see Vivian for my report. However, I do not expect what I see when I arrive. Brianna and Michael are in, what looks like a deep conversation. Michael changed out of his combat gear into dark blue jeans that fit like they were made for him, and him alone. His shirt is baby blue, the color of the clearest summer sky. I know why he chose that shirt, but can’t figure out why he wants the attention. What’s he up to?

“Perhaps I was too quick to place blame. I was angry because I was ill-prepared. I failed my mission. Not to mention, I put your life and the rest of my team’s lives in danger. Please forgive me,” I hear Michael say.

My jaw damn near hits the floor. Michael never apologizes to anyone, let alone for a mission he knows wasn’t his fault. But yet, here he is with half his body resting on the table while one straight leg touches the floor, very casually apologizing to this woman.

“Give me one more minute, Shyira, and I’ll be right with you,” Vivian says, acknowledging me. The mere mention of my name doesn’t even momentarily break Michael’s conversation with Brianna.

“Apology accepted. We all make mistakes from time to time,” Brianna replies. Oh, so confident. I shoot Michael a look. I can’t help myself. Brianna just told him to his face that she thought the mistake was his. This conversation is not going to end well.

“Let me make it up to you. How about I take you to dinner?” Michael asks.

What the fuck. Have I been transported to the twilight zone? Did he really just ask her out?

“That’s not necessary. I already accepted your apology. Nothing else is required,” she assures him.

“I don’t see it as a requirement, Brianna.” Michael amends as he lightly brushes her fingers with his. “I happen to enjoy your company.”

Damn, my mind rings out. I know he’s good, but seeing him in action shines a whole new light on his skills. My heart is hammering in my chest. This is actually happening, and right in front of me. What the hell happened to no fraternizing with the employees? Brianna is eating out of the palm of his hand. She beamed at his slightest touch, and I know Michael has her. He has to see me standing here. The man notices everything. He just doesn’t give a shit. I won’t lie; the realization stings a bit. My stare is heavy, and full of . . . too many things to name. None of it matters, because he won’t look at me to even notice I’m bothered. Somehow, someway I will figure out how to get this extremely gorgeous, yet extremely frustrating man out of my mind.

“It’s against protocol to date Collective personnel, Michael.”

“Why put a title on it? Can’t it just be two people who enjoy each other’s company getting a bite to eat?” he asks, coyly.

“I don’t think so, Michael.”

“Okay, I’m willing to start small. How would you feel about a cup of coffee?”

Brianna looks up at him as his stare slowly starts to break her down. Much like it’s done to me on multiple occasions. Michael’s aware of exactly what he’s doing to her. He’s done this a thousand times, to a thousand other women he’s had to seduce. I know her answer is yes before she speaks the word because that’s what mine would’ve been.

“Fine, but don’t think because you happen to talk me into a cup of coffee that means I’ll eventually have dinner with you.” Brianna stands, no longer able to hide her smile.

“Of course not.”

Yeah right, at this point you’ll do whatever he asks of you. Wow, I sound bitter. Michael helps Brianna into her coat before turning to grab his black sport coat. He finally looks at me. I try to mask it, but the hurt is still very much present in my eyes. He holds my gaze until I look away. He’s brazen to say the least. I look for something in his eyes, anything to indicate that taking Brianna out is an order, and not of his own volition. Unfortunately, they’re steel, giving away nothing. I turn to Vivian speaking more harshly than I mean to.

“Are you ready yet? I have plans tonight, and you’re going to make me late.”

I cringe at my outburst. I can’t believe I’m letting Michael get under my skin like this. And of course, in my usual fashion, I let the whole of Comm know it. I have to get better at hiding my emotions. Not just for my safety here, but for the safety of my team in the field. It’s very important in our line of work. Michael heads down the corridor, calling over his shoulder.

“Have fun on your date, Shy.”

“You don’t get to call me that. That name is reserved for my closest friends and loved ones, and you don’t qualify as either, Mr. Varro.” I shout at Michael’s retreating back.

Shit, I can’t believe I did it, again. He doesn’t respond to my rant only waves at me with his fingers, never turning around. I’m fuming. I can’t help myself. The thought of Michael laughing with Brianna at my expense is a belittling thought. It’s good I’m angry, and I will hold on to that. Better angry and hate him than care too much, right? I can’t afford another outburst on his behalf. The only way I will be able to do my job successfully is not to have the sort of feelings I have for him. I make it home a little before seven and find a note stuck to my door, it reads:


I made us reservations, be ready by 7:45.


It’s simple, but it makes me smile. I hadn’t realized how much I’m actually looking forward to going out with him. Maybe it’s possible to have a normal life despite Michael’s warning about developing feelings for Griffin. Jumping in the shower, I promise myself to keep an open mind, allowing Griffin and me a real chance.

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