You may already know and love New York Times bestseller Liliana Hart’s J.J. Graves or Addison Holmes series, or perhaps you’re discovering her here for the first time. Either way, we’re betting you’ll love this advance taste of Hart’s brand new Gravediggers series of romantic suspense novels. The first book, THE DARKEST CORNER, comes out later this month, followed by GONE TO DUST in June and SAY NO MORE in July–so you won’t have to wait long to enjoy the whole series!
Read on…if you dare!
Former black ops agent Deacon Tucker is thought to be dead. But no one knows that he’s tasked with saving the world from the most disastrous terrorist attack yet. When he discovers Tess Sherman, a Texan mortician, has the ability to stop the terrorists, he struggles with the consequences of sharing with her the secrets to stopping the destruction … and more importantly, trusting her with his heart.
There was something about the time between three and four o’clock in the morning. When people with good intentions were tucked safely into their beds. When those without them crept into the alleyways like rats. And when warriors got shit done.
For Deacon Tucker, that meant it was time to get dirty.
The rain slapped against Deacon’s face like tiny daggers. Lightning flashed—followed by sharp cracks of thunder—and the smell of ozone, wet dirt, and urgency lay heavy.
Deacon pushed his shovel deeper into the soggy ground, the muscles in his back straining as he lifted a mound of dirt and tossed it onto a pile over his shoulder. The four other members of his team did the same, each one stripped down to nothing but black cargo pants and combat boots, covered in a thick layer of mud. They worked in silence, an unspoken communication and familiarity between them.
The cemetery was old. It was a place where the oldest headstones told stories and the newer ones told a person’s worth. It was where generations of those who shared blood now rested—a place for the elderly who had lived long and full lives and the young who had been taken too soon.
Heavy iron gates closed it off from the public after dark, and towering oaks had been planted in rows some hundred years earlier. Gnarled roots made the ground uneven, cracking the drive that snaked between the rows of headstones.
They worked by flashes of lightning and the sliver of moon that peeked around thunderheads. Everything was cast in shades of gray—from the pale marble of the headstones to the silver shimmer of water droplets as they collected on leaves and rained down on them. Black trunks speared menacingly from the ground—the branches creeping over them like bony arms.
The clank of metal on something solid made Deacon stop and look up at his brother in arms.
“I’ve got something,” Axel said, letting his native Australian accent slip through. He pounded the tip of his shovel a couple of times against the top of the coffin.
Deacon nodded. “Let’s get him uncovered. He’s been here two days already. He doesn’t have much longer. Grab the chains,” he instructed Colin.
Deacon returned to the task at hand, doubling his efforts to clear the mud and water rapidly filling the hole. It was fortunate the casket was waterproof and had a rubberized seal around the lid. The rain had come steady for more than twenty-four hours, and changed their original timeline of removing Levi Wolffe from the ground the night before.
A man’s life was at stake, and Wolffe had already been through more than most. It was going to be traumatic enough for him to wake up in a different country, surrounded by faces he’d never seen before, and unsure whether he’d been captured by the enemy. Fishing through the lies to get to the truth would take time.
Deacon knew exactly how Levi Wolffe was going to feel.
“Fuck me, this is a never-ending battle,” Axel complained. “There’s no way we’re digging this thing all the way out of the muck.”
“All we’ve got to do is uncover the handles on the sides,” Deacon said. “We’ll let the Bobcat do the rest.”
“Got it, mate.” Axel tossed his shovel out of the hole. “Give me a boost, will you?”
Deacon steepled his fingers together to make a sling and braced himself against the casket so he wouldn’t slip. They were close to four feet down into the hole, but with the rain and mud, getting out wasn’t going to be easy. Axel put his hand on Deacon’s shoulder and his foot in the sling, and then grabbed for Dante’s hand as he was boosted up.
The casket was an upper-end model—they had to be, for what they were used for—made of glossy oak and brass. Colin tossed Axel the chains, and he looped them through the handles on each side, using a carabiner to hold them together.
“Elias is ready to roll with the Bobcat,” Axel called out, extending his arm to help Deacon out of the hole.
Deacon was two hundred and thirty pounds of solid muscle and a couple of inches over six feet. His boots and knees couldn’t find purchase in the mud, and his grasp of Axel’s hand was slipping. He finally grasped Axel’s arm with both hands, hoisted his feet onto the coffin, and used his legs to push off, launching himself out of the grave.
Axel moved out of the way at the last second, and Deacon flew right into the pile of mud they’d dug up. He heard the snickers from Dante and Colin and took a fistful of mud in each hand as he got to his feet, launching it at them in quick succession. Elias’s howls of laughter could be heard from inside the Bobcat.
“They’ll both be out for vengeance now,” Axel said, lips twitching in as close to a smile as he ever gave.
“I hope so,” Deacon said. “I’d hate for things to get boring around the office.”
The rain was coming down hard enough to rinse some of the mud from his torso, and he lifted his face to the sky to wash it from his cheeks. The thong tying his hair back had come loose and dark strands clung to his face. Thoughts of a hot shower and a beer were becoming a priority. Right after getting Levi Wolffe out of the ground.
“It was my understanding that Winter wasn’t bringing any more of us in,” Dante said as they hooked up the chains to the Bobcat and moved back out of the way. His accent was English, but he had the Italian genetics of his namesake. Dante was as refined and suave as any man Deacon had ever known. His clothes were always tailored, his haircuts expensive, and his knowledge of the finer things in life unparalleled. Standing in the pouring rain, covered in mud, was probably grating on him immensely.
“That’s what she said, but who the hell knows what her plans are.” Deacon had been wondering the same thing. “She only tells us what she thinks we need to know.”
“Which isn’t a bloody thing,” Dante said.
It was a sore spot for certain. Deacon had served his country for most of his life. He’d been recruited by the CIA during his third year of college, the high scores on his aptitude tests and his skills for languages having alerted interested parties. His course in life had been clear from the moment that recruiter had left him. He’d gone on to get a master’s degree and the necessary field training, which he’d also shown an exceptional aptitude for. In twelve years of covert ops, he’d never had a sleepless night after completing a mission. He’d gotten the job done. Until Eve Winter had gotten ahold of him, and everything he’d thought he’d been fighting for was turned on its head.
He didn’t like being kept in the dark. He understood the hierarchy of a rank structure and the necessity of secrets. You couldn’t survive in the CIA without that understanding. But his handler had once told him, “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” Deacon had never been a fool.
Eve Winter had saved him, and for that he was grateful. He’d never be anyone’s pawn again. But here he stood, in a cemetery in the middle of the night, digging up a man who was about to have his entire life turned upside down.
Elias reversed the Bobcat, and mud spewed beneath the wheels as the chains drew taut. Inch by inch the casket was dragged out of the grave. The rain was relentless, the thunder a continuous rumbling growl. And the men stood in the middle of it, like marionettes on a string, doing the bidding of people who sat warm and comfortable and safe in their homes.
Once the casket was free and the chains unhooked, Deacon, Axel, Colin, and Dante got two to each side and lifted. Their boots slurped and sludged as they made their way to the black panel van that was owned by the Last Stop Funeral Home. A magnetic cling with the funeral home logo was attached to each side of the van.
The whole setup was bizarre, and Deacon had wondered more than once if he really was dead, only to be caught in limbo between one world and the next. But several years had passed since his own revival, so he guessed he was here to stay.
Until The Directors decided he wasn’t.
They slid the casket in the back of the van and slammed the doors shut.
“Poor bastard,” Colin lamented, shaking his head hard enough that water droplets flew into the air. “He has no clue what he’s about to get into. That the life he knew is over.”
“Dead men don’t talk,” Deacon said.
“Yet here we are.” The anger in Colin’s face was palpable. His eyes blazed with hatred for the government machine that had confined him.
“Save your anger, Col,” Axel said. “What’s done is done. It’ll get easier over time.”
“Is that what you tell yourself as you watch your wife from afar? As you wait for her to find someone new to take your place?”
“Enough, Colin,” Deacon said. “We all do what we have to do to cope. Our only focus right now should be getting this poor bastard back to headquarters.”
Elias used the Bobcat to push dirt back into the hole, and the others tossed their shovels and other equipment into the back of the van. The burial site for The Gravediggers was at the far corner of the cemetery, next to a thick copse of trees and two plots of unmarked headstones where paupers had been buried more than a century before.
The Shadow crew would send a team to make the area look untouched. By the time they were finished, sod would have been laid and all traces of mud tracks would be gone. They specialized in cleanup. The Shadow was never seen. They did the work and provided the resources for The Gravediggers. The Gravediggers couldn’t do their jobs without The Shadow.
Colin and Dante climbed in back with the casket and closed the doors from the inside. Deacon took his place behind the wheel and Axel got in beside him. Elias drove ahead of them in the Bobcat, returning it to the storage shed where they kept the lawnmowers and other cemetery equipment.
Deacon backed the van around the curve and then put it in gear, navigating his way out of the twisting turns of the cemetery. He idled behind the menacing, black iron gate, waiting for Elias to open it once he parked the Bobcat.
“As soon as we drop the new guy, I’m heading home for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep,” Colin said.
“We’ve got a ten o’clock briefing,” Axel told him.
“This is how many fucks I give,” Colin said, his hand popping between the space of the driver and passenger seats, his thumb and forefinger pressed together. “What’s she going to do? Kill me? Oh, wait. I’m already dead.”
Deacon exchanged a concerned look with Axel. Colin was the newest recruit, but he wasn’t adjusting like the rest of them had. His anger was manifesting, and his attitude was deteriorating. Not qualities Deacon wanted to see in a man who was supposed to watch his back.
“I can’t be the only one who’s tired of being dicked around by that frigid bitch,” Colin pressed on. “Does Eve Winter have your balls in such a stronghold that you’ll listen to her lip service without question?”
Axel’s eyes hardened. “There’s a chain of command, mate. We’ve all been in the game long enough to know it. We’re here for a purpose.”
“Except it’s not my country I’m fighting for,” Colin said. “Just like you’re not fighting for yours. We’re all goddamned traitors.”
“Bullshit,” Deacon snapped, his temper finally pushed too far. “We’re fighting for every country. There are times to ask questions, once you know the right questions to ask. But foaming at the mouth because shit isn’t the way it always was doesn’t do a damned bit of good for anyone. Be smart, Col. If you think Winter won’t cut you off at the knees and bury you alive, you’re mistaken.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re the golden boy. The first that was handpicked. And you know The Directors personally. You have a voice.”
Deacon rolled his eyes inwardly. That was an illusion, but one that he had no intention of disputing, for the innate sense of power and authority it gave him among the other men. The Directors thought he was as dead as the president and the director of the CIA did. Eve Winter might report to The Directors, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have her own cards up her sleeve. Deacon also knew the fact that everyone but Eve Winter thought he was dead made him very, very expendable.
Elias hopped in the back and slammed the door, and Deacon took off. The tension in the van was thick enough to choke on, and it seemed everyone would be better off with a little bit of sleep and space.
The cemetery they used as an extraction point was a good twenty-minute drive from Last Stop, where their headquarters were located. The location was strategic, just as everything else about their existence—or lack thereof—was. The Gravediggers might be the heart and soul of the operation—the men who did the dirty work—but dozens more worked in The Shadow, making sure the billions of dollars that never showed up in any government expense report were well spent. It wasn’t cheap faking the deaths of elite agents all over the world and transporting them to the United States under cover.
They’d been driving down side streets, staying off the main road, for a few minutes before Axel let out a low whistle. “Shit. You seeing what I’m seeing?”
Deacon let out a slow breath. They were almost to the county line. And just on the other side of it was the town that had become his prison, ironically named Last Stop.
Truth be told they all enjoyed playing the good Samaritan. It broke up the monotony of training and typical missions—and by typical he meant dangerous as fuck, because Eve didn’t send them on jobs that other agencies could do. And every once in a while, jumping into the fray and being the hero reminded them of the men they’d been once upon a time. Before their armor had been tarnished.
It wasn’t the wisest move interfering in a job so close to home, but they all shared one thing in common—the need for risk in their day-to-day lives. Some would call them adrenaline junkies, but it was more than that. It was a trait all those in special ops had in common. It was the difference between turning down the dark alley just for the hell of it and moving past it safely.
They looked for risk in all things. Even sex. The rush of fucking in a crowded room and wondering if someone would see, or taking sex to its limits with the tightening of a belt around a slender neck. Risk was risk. And tonight the risk was an armed robbery.
Deacon grinned. “Yeah, I see them.”
He lifted his foot off the accelerator, but didn’t hit the brakes. He didn’t want to scare them off.
“What’s going on?” Elias asked, sticking his head between the seats.
“Burglary in progress,” Deacon answered.
“Oh, good. We’re cutting it close as it is. It’s almost five o’clock. Sun will be up in another hour.”
“Are you suggesting we let them go?” Axel asked, his voice even, as if he didn’t care one way or the other. But Deacon knew Axel was the one who’d been left with the most humanity—the most compassion—of all of them. Only a man who felt deeply would still cling to his wife, after all, even though she thought he was dead.
“Of course not, mate,” Elias said, mimicking Axel’s accent. “But you know Winter will be pissed if she finds out. The mission comes first. Always. No distractions. And right now, our only mission is getting Levi Wolffe back to headquarters.”
“In or out?” Axel said, his voice hardening.
Elias sighed. “You know I’m in. But she’ll find out. She always does.”
“Fuck her,” Colin said dismissively.
“Very mature,” Deacon said. “I’m telling you, brother, one day she’s going to hand your ass to you on a platter.”
“I’m French,” Colin said. “I’ve never met a woman I can’t handle.”
The others hooted, and Deacon just shook his head. The French had never met a woman like Eve Winter. He wasn’t really a hundred percent sure she was even human.
“Let’s make it quick,” Elias said. “We’ve still got to send the van off to be detailed. The sexy Miss Sherman is bound to notice all the mud inside one of her transport vans.”
“Stop calling her that,” Deacon growled. “It embarrasses her.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault she can’t see what a package she is. I wouldn’t mind helping her discover it, though. All that freakin’ red hair. Drives me crazy when she sticks those pencils in it to get it out of her face.”
Deacon gritted his teeth and shot Elias a look that told him he’d better shut up or he’d end up with a fist in his face, but Elias’s crooked grin mocked him in the rearview mirror.
“I can’t imagine how she’s managed to keep her distance from you as long as she has,” Dante said smoothly. “You’re so charming.”
“You’re in America now,” Elias told him. “Women like straightforward men. I’m amazed the British have managed to populate the country as long as it takes you to make your move.”
“There’s nothing wrong with romance,” Dante said. “Besides, I haven’t had any problems with an empty bed since I’ve been here.”
“It’s that accent,” Elias said. “Puts the rest of us at a disadvantage.”
“Or maybe it’s just that I have manners.”
“If you blokes don’t mind,” Axel said, interrupting their argument, “our new friends are armed. And since we’ve already agreed to deviate from the mission, maybe we can take care of business and get the hell out of here.”
“Visual on two suspects,” Deacon said before things could escalate. “Weapon visible.”
“Thanks, Grandpa,” Elias said. “Lord, the two of you need to loosen up. It’s like we’re in that movie with all the retired spies.”
“I liked that movie,” Axel said. “I could still kick your ass when I’m in my fifties.”
Elias snorted. “In your dreams, mate. I was a SEAL.”
“In other news,” Deacon broke in, “the homeowners are either contained inside or they’re dead.” Sometimes he felt like he was the only adult in the room. An unusual feeling considering the level of expertise the five of them had.
“Let’s hope everyone is still alive,” Elias said. “Dead bodies are a pain in the ass to deal with.”
“There you go. Always looking on the bright side.” Deacon pressed his foot on the accelerator. “Picking up speed. In and out, boys. Clean and easy.”
“I’d rather just kill them,” Colin said. “It’s not like we’re going to wait around for the police one way or the other. The world doesn’t need any more scum.”
“Maybe you’ll get lucky, bro, and one of them will shoot at you first,” Elias said. “Maybe it’ll knock that stick out of your ass.”
Deacon heard the familiar sound of magazines being checked and loaded from the back, along with a lot of smart-ass comments he blocked out. The two males loading the big-screen TV into the maroon minivan were barely older than teenagers. Hell, they were probably using one of their mother’s vans to transport the stolen goods.
“Hang on,” he called out and made a hard left into the driveway of the house that was being robbed. He flicked on his brights at the last second, and it came as enough of a surprise to the amateur burglars for both the boys to drop the TV and put their hands up to shield their eyes. He turned the wheel hard, mud spewing up and hitting the windshield, and then the back doors flew open and all hell broke loose.
“Down on the ground!”
“Drop your weapons!”
Deacon and Axel pushed open their doors to join in the fray. Two rounds were fired off in rapid succession, one hitting the open back door just a few inches from Deacon’s head, the other burying itself in the mahogany casket.
Elias didn’t hesitate to return fire, hitting the shooter in the thigh. Deacon breathed a sigh of relief. They really didn’t want to deal with the mess of a dead body. And it wouldn’t put anyone in Winter’s good graces.
The shooter tossed the gun to the ground and went down, pressing his hands down on the wound. He was crying and making a racket, so Elias chopped him in the back of the neck to get him to shut up.
“What the hell kind of person shoots a casket?” Elias asked the other boy, who stared back at him wide-eyed, his hands raised.
“I . . . I don’t know,” the boy answered.
“I think that was a rhetorical question,” Deacon said, binding the boy’s hands behind his back with a zip-tie he’d pulled out of his pocket, and then making sure the other one wasn’t in danger of bleeding to death before tying him up too. It didn’t look like the bullet had hit anything major, so he left him where he was and pulled out his phone to call the local cops.
Axel and Colin had gone inside to check on the homeowners, and they were back out within a couple of minutes.
“They’re alive,” Axel said. “Tied up and sitting in the bathtub.”
“Bloody lucky,” Dante said.
“For us or them?” Elias asked.
Deacon disconnected the phone. “Cops are on the way.”
“Anyone want to look inside the casket and see if our new teammate is still among the living?” Elias said it jokingly, like he did most things, but they all knew if anything happened to The Gravediggers’ newest recruit, Eve Winter would make them wish they were all dead.
Axel hopped into the back of the van. “I don’t suppose anyone has a casket key?”
“There’s one in the toolbox behind the driver’s seat,” Deacon said. “Tess keeps an extra there in case of an emergency.”
“I can’t imagine many people understand the true meaning of a casket emergency,” Elias said.
“Yet, here we are,” Deacon responded dryly, checking his watch. They might have another five minutes before the cops showed up. They needed to move quickly.
Axel found the key and shone his flashlight at the tiny hole at the other end of the casket, where the key was supposed to be inserted. It worked like a crank, and he spun it several times to loosen the lid.
They all gathered around and used their flashlights. And then Axel very carefully opened the top half of the casket where the bullet had gone in, and they all peered inside.
“This never stops being creepy as shit,” Elias said. “Pale motherfucker. He looks dead to me.”
“He’s supposed to look dead,” Deacon said. “He’ll get some color back once the serum starts to work. Speaking of the serum, go ahead and administer it to him. I don’t like how long he’s been underground.”
“I don’t see where the bullet entered the casket,” Dante said.
“Thank God for hardwood,” Axel said, using the casket key to push inside the tiny bullet hole from the outside. “It didn’t go through.”
Metal hit metal. Deacon really hadn’t wanted to have a confrontation with Eve over the death of one of her men. It had become hard enough lately to hold his tongue. She was a stone-cold bitch, and was entirely unapologetic about it. The job—the mission—always came first. Over her men and certainly over the life of everyone else. Anyone was expendable. The only thing that kept him from going rogue was the fact that she did have to answer to The Directors, so someone was holding her in check.
Who the hell knew? Maybe if he had to answer to The Directors, he’d be a stone-cold son of a bitch too. What he did know was that the lines blurred a little more every day. Sometimes he wondered if they really were the good guys.
“Let’s move,” he said. “I hear sirens.”
Deacon got behind the wheel once again. The others closed the back doors, and he was reversing out of the driveway and heading toward the funeral home before Axel got back into the passenger seat.
“You know,” Axel said. “Our first worry was what Winter would’ve done if that bullet had hit her new recruit.”
“And?” Deacon asked.
“What we need to be worried about now is what Tess is going to do when she sees that bullet hole in her van. That redhead’s got a hell of a temper she keeps repressed.”
For the first time that night, Deacon smiled. Maybe he was as bad as Elias, because suddenly all he could think about was seeing the sexy Miss Sherman in a full temper, and he wouldn’t mind it one bit.
Don’t forget to pre-order a copy of THE DARKEST CORNER, out May 23!