Former sheriff Winston Starr doesn’t think about the past. That dark day when he lost the sweet, innocent woman he’d loved, dead because of his mistake in a mission that had gone horribly wrong.
Now an operative with Stark Security, he’s left Texas behind, focusing only on his work and closing his heart to love even as his soul screams for revenge against the scum that killed his Linda. When old friends reveal new evidence, Winston learns that not only is Linda alive, she faked her death in the ultimate betrayal.
But things are not as Winston believes, and he soon finds himself on the run with the woman who ripped his heart out. Now, the only thing stronger than his rage is his desire for the woman who destroyed him.
Destroyed With You is Story # 5 in the Stark Security - Standalone Novels series.
Destroyed With You - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 12/15/2020 Story Type Book Secondary Characters Damien Stark Ryan Hunter Noah Carter Series Stark Security - Standalone Novels Place in Series Story #5 Genre Contemporary Romance Romantic Suspense
I never meant to hurt him.
I never wanted to deceive him.
I regret the past every day, but I’ve learned to live with remorse. With loss.
I’ve learned to live in the dark.
Mostly, I’ve learned to live without love.
Now, I hold tight to the memory of the days we had together. I hug them close, soaking in the sweet brilliance of those long-ago moments. Shared glances. Stolen kisses. Long, sunny afternoons in bed, my skin hot and slick against his.
I close my eyes and let myself go back. I ignore the pain. The loss. The grief. I cling to those moments because they are all I have. All I can ever have.
I won’t ever be with him again. I know that.
Even if he wanted me—and, dear God, why would he?—I couldn’t say yes.
He was in love with a woman who didn’t exist. His Linda, he’d called me, but he’d been talking to a ghost. I might be flesh and blood, but I’m not real. I’m not sure I ever have been.
He’s the only man who’s ever made me feel whole, but I can’t be with him.
Even if I had the courage to tell him my secrets, it wouldn’t matter. All he would see is a woman he never knew. A woman he could never love.
Everything that had once been between us would evaporate in that moment, and where would I be then?
Still alone, but with my memories torn apart and my fantasies shattered.
At least now I can cling to the past. I can pull it out and polish it, making it shine in my memories. I can hug it hard and wish that things could have been different.
That, though, is impossible.
I can’t be anything other than the woman I am.
And the stone cold truth is simple. At the end of the day, I’m not the woman he loves.
I never really was.
“And he really didn’t tell you anything?” Emma leaned against Old Blue, Winston Starr’s ancient Ford pickup.
He was Colonel Anderson Seagrave of the Sensitive Operations Command, an elite intelligence branch of the National Security Council known colloquially as the SOC. Seagrave’s call had interrupted Winston while he was celebrating with his friends at Emma’s sister’s engagement party.
“All he said was that we needed to meet,” Winston told her.
The dark night air hung thick around them. A light breeze off the ocean carried cool air toward them, but Winston didn’t notice. On the contrary, he was hot. Burning from within. His mind and senses on overdrive as he turned all the possibilities over in his head, reaching one inevitable conclusion.
“But he must have mentioned Texas,” she prompted. “After the call, you told me you’re going back to Texas.”
Winston nodded. “Tomorrow. Apparently, he’ll tell me the rest when I see him tonight.”
“You,” Emma stressed, her hazel eyes narrowing. “Not us.”
“You don’t answer to Seagrave anymore,” Emma pointed out. Once upon a time, Winston and Emma had been SOC operatives, but those days were long gone. Now they were both in the private sector, working for the Stark Security Agency, an elite organization founded by billionaire Damien Stark after the kidnapping of his youngest daughter.
“No, ma’am,” Winston drawled. “I don’t.”
Emma scowled up at him, definitely not fooled by his supposedly casual demeanor. “If he’s sending you alone, it’s not about the Texas operation. By the end, our missions overlapped too much. He’d send both of us if there were lingering threads.”
She frowned, then sucked in a breath as she locked eyes with him. “Linda,” she said, her tone managing to be both hard and sympathetic. “It must be something to do with Linda.”
His throat tightened at the sound of his wife’s name, and he slid his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking. He missed her. Even after more than four years he missed her with an intensity that bordered on pain. No, it was pain. A deep, potent ache that still lingered. Long after gunshots would have healed or bones knitted, he still felt it. The loss. The guilt. The stabs into his heart. The claws ripping at the fabric of his life.
His blood had drained away the night he’d lost her, and he’d been a hollow shell ever since. She’d been an innocent, caught up in something she knew nothing about.
It should have been him, dammit. If there was any true justice in the universe, it should have been him they’d killed that night.
But here he was, hale and hearty, at least on the outside. On the inside, though … well, inside, he was as dead as she was.
He went through the motions, sure. Did his job. Laughed with his friends. But he wasn’t a whole man. Not anymore. Probably never again.
As if taunting him, the sound of laughter drifted on the breeze. He glanced at the house. Emma’s little bungalow was all lit up, and inside their friends continued to drink and laugh. Her sister and Quincy were getting married, after all. Proof positive that life went on.
Winston told himself that was a good thing.
Emma was waiting for him to answer, and he forced a casual shrug. “Might be somethin’ else. Nothing to do with Linda at all.” He heard the West Texas twang in his voice and wanted to swallow the words. He’d mostly gotten rid of the accent, but it tended to become more prominent when he was upset or confused. Or drunk.
He was a bit of all three tonight.
“Bullshit,” Emma said. “You don’t believe that any more than I do. You’ve made it perfectly clear you weren’t ever going back to Texas, much less to Hades,” she added, referring to the aptly named county seat where he’d served as sheriff. “He knows that. He wouldn’t send you back unless it was not only important, but important to you.”
Winston drew a breath, trying not to feel numb inside as he lifted his head to meet his friend and sometimes partner’s eyes. “It may be nothing. Might not even be Hades.”
She shook her head, the action freeing a lock of red hair from where she’d pulled it back into a messy ponytail. He could practically see the wheels turning behind those hazel eyes as she said, “I’m right. You know it. I know it. He called you at night on a weekend. This isn’t a casual thing. There’s a reason, and we both know what that reason is. And if you’re going to Texas, then I’m going with you.”
He could see her stiffen. Could practically hear the protest before it left her lips. “Dammit, Starr. Don’t do this to yourself. Remember me? I’m the one who knows you. I’m the one who was there. And I’m the one who’s going to stand by you and remind you that it wasn’t your goddamn fault.”
“Emma, don’t even—”
She held up a hand to cut off his words. “No. No. If you’re going back there—if you’re going to dredge it all up again—then you’ll need a friend.”
“Dredge it up?” He shook his head. “Emma, darlin’, I won’t be dredging anything up. It never went down in the first place.”
He watched the emotions play over her face, and for a moment, he pitied her. Emma Tucker was used to getting her own way, being in command. Getting told no didn’t sit well with her.
Well, too bad. He stood a little straighter and rolled his shoulders, because he wasn’t backing down. Right now, she belonged right here in California with their friends. With her sister. And mostly, with Antonio Sanchez, the man she loved.
Winston hadn’t had a woman in his life since Linda’s death. He damn sure wasn’t going to steal even a single moment of that bliss from Emma or Tony. Slowly, he reached over and placed a hand on her upper arm. “I’m going alone. And I’ll be just fine.”
“You’re a stubborn son of a bitch.”
“Funny. That’s what Linda used to say.” He managed a smile and felt some of the sadness that had been pooling in his gut ease when she returned it.
“Promise you’ll call. Anytime. Day or night. You need to talk—hell, you need to just sit in silence with someone else breathing—I don’t care. You call.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said, cocking his head toward the open door where Tony now stood framed in the glow from inside. “Some things a man doesn’t like to interrupt.”
She shot him a crooked smile. “Only you, Starr. We went through hell together in Texas, and I meant what I said. You need anything, you call. Any time, day or night.”
He nodded gravely, surprised by how touched he was by the ferocity in her voice. “I may take you up on that.” He cocked his head toward Tony. “He know about Texas? That we knew each other before?”
“Not much. Mostly that it’s where we met. That our cases overlapped.”
“You tell him the rest if you want. Couples shouldn’t have secrets. And you two make a good couple.”
She held his gaze. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said again. “You were undercover. You couldn’t tell her.”
“Oh, I could have. My mouth works just fine. I didn’t. And she’s dead.”
“Winston, don’t. You’ve been beating yourself up for years. You’re probably black-and-blue from kicking your own ass.”
He almost smiled. She wasn’t wrong.
“Even if you had told her, nothing would be different. Do you think she would have left you?” Emma shook her head. “That woman adored you. She would have stayed by your side, and in the end she’d be just as dead.”
She reached out and took his hand, then squeezed it hard. “It was their fault, not yours.”
God, how he wanted to believe that. But all he said was, “I’m gonna get out of here now. Give Eliza a hug for me.”
She sighed and dropped his hand. “You should stay.”
“Probably. It would be the social thing to do. But I’m not feeling too social at the moment. And I told Seagrave I’d come by before ten.”
“Everything okay?” Tony called.
Emma turned toward him, and Winston took the opportunity to open Old Blue’s door. “No,” he replied before he slid behind the wheel. “I really don’t think it is.”
“Austin?” Winston frowned at the man seated at the battered gray table across from him. “You’re sending me to Austin, not Hades?”
Winston shook his head, trying to sort through the confused emotions running through him. “No, I—” He drew in a breath, forcing himself to lean back and look at the man who’d once been his commanding officer. “I assumed this was about Linda’s death.”
“Did you?” Anderson Seagrave settled back in his wheelchair, his fingers steepled under his chin. In his mid-forties, Seagrave had dark hair that was starting to gray at the temples, and an undeniable air of authority. “And what were you expecting I’d say? We brought down the Consortium years ago. Hell, you practically wrapped up that operation single-handedly.”
Winston swallowed. That wasn’t a time that he was proud of. He’d been so consumed by rage at Linda’s murderers that he cut corners he shouldn’t have, going so far as to kill Horace McNally, the man he learned had ordered her death.
That had been his breaking point. He’d been in no danger, could have easily apprehended the man. But he’d killed him instead. A single bullet to the brain. And the only regret he’d felt was that he hadn’t made the bastard suffer.
Those had been harsh, messy days, and the Consortium had been manipulating the city with murder and greed and corruption. Emma and Seagrave both told Winston that they understood. That what he’d done was justified. And that McNally would have suffered much worse in prison. McNally dabbled in child prostitution, after all. And that meant that in prison, he would have ended up somebody’s bitch. Or much more painfully dead.
Winston had agreed with everything they said. He’d done right taking out that worm. But in doing so, he’d broken his own code. Broken something in him.
He’d retired then, leaving both the SOC and his position as sheriff, a job he’d taken as a cover in the first place, but had grown to love. He’d moved to Newport Beach for no reason other than it was Linda’s favorite town. He hadn’t needed to work—he’d learned after her death that Linda had a surprisingly large insurance policy on her life—and so he’d volunteered at an animal shelter, filling his days with the warm love of dogs and cats who didn’t care about his failures.
His nights, though, he kept free, wanting only to be alone with his memories.
He knew he should forgive himself. After all, he hadn’t killed her. The Consortium deserved the blame and his hatred. That was the cold, hard truth.
And yet he’d played a role, too. He should never have married—not when being attached to him put a target on her back. He’d been selfish, believing that their love was special. Magical. Thinking his love would keep her safe. Being selfish and stupid enough to believe that he’d die if he couldn’t have her.
Well, now here he was. He didn’t have her. And he was mostly dead inside. Or he had been until Seagrave had come to the shelter one day. He’d told Winston that if he truly believed he was culpable, then he should be doing something to right those wrongs. He should be back in the game, fighting the bad guys.
It had taken some soul-searching, but Winston had agreed. He’d expected to sign on with the SOC again. Instead, Seagrave introduced him to former tennis pro turned tech billionaire Damien Stark.
Stark and Ryan Hunter, Stark’s friend who headed the Stark Security Agency, were the only ones in the organization who knew about Winston’s connection to government intelligence operations. Even then, they didn’t know he’d once been a full-on operative with the SOC. Seagrave had told them only that he’d been “attached” to the Hades investigation in his role as sheriff. Not a lie, but hardly the full truth, especially considering he’d applied for the sheriff position while officially on the books at the SOC.
Which meant that until Emma had join Stark Security, all anyone else at the SSA believed was that he’d been a small town sheriff who’d played once or twice in the big leagues before signing on with the elite organization.
That, and the painful truth that Winston had left Texas after his wife had been killed by a car bomb.
Working for Stark Security hadn’t erased his pain, but it had been a balm. Now, though…
Well, now the pain and the memories had come flooding back from nothing more than the mention of Texas.
“If it’s not about Linda, then what the hell is this?” He heard the edge in his voice and didn’t try to tamp it down. “You just toss Texas in my face? You of all people?”
Seagrave didn’t even flinch. “I said it isn’t about her death,” he said gravely. “At least, not exactly.”
Winston frowned, too curious to be angry at his friend for what sounded like bullshit game playing. “What the hell, Anderson? Was there someone else pulling McNally’s strings? Someone we missed at the top level of the Consortium? Because if there is, you point me toward the S.O.B., and I swear I will take him down in record time.”
He’d spent years undercover in Hades, first landing the job, then living the role as a rural county working with the city and county officials. The higher-ups in every office from the mayor’s chambers to the police department had been corrupt down to the bone, dabbling in everything from drug-running to blackmail to massive government and civilian fraud tied to the oil and gas industry.
After Linda’s death sparked that final, violent surge, the SOC and Winston had essentially shut down the spiderweb of illegal operations. As far as he knew, only two men had managed to escape the net. They’d been lower level flunkies who’d gone on to other illicit operations in other parts of the country.
One, a man who’d been known as the Serpent, was now in SOC custody thanks to Emma and Tony’s latest operation. The other, Cane, was dead. And good riddance to him.
The possibility that there were other players still running free made his blood boil. He’d thought he’d burned through his fury in the passing years. Now, he knew he hadn’t. The embers still glowed, ready to ignite at a moment’s notice.
He drew a breath and met Seagrave’s eyes. “Tell me,” he demanded. “Tell me who we missed and I’ll bring you his head on a platter.”
“I have no doubt,” Seagrave said. “But it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Winston sat back, eyeing the commander, trying to read what the man wasn’t saying. And, more importantly, why he was dancing around the very reason that he’d called Winston in. “Then explain it to me.”
“You’re here because of a woman,” Seagrave said flatly. His shoulders sagged as he sighed, looking older than his forty-something years. “Hell, Starr. You’re here because of Linda.”
Winston frowned, certain his confusion showed on his face. “You told me when I walked in here that this had nothing to do with her death.”
“I didn’t exactly say that. And yet, you’re right. It has nothing to do with her death.” He lowered his hands from the table to the wheels of his chair, then maneuvered back before rolling around the table toward Winston. Billions of dollars in government tech at his disposal, and Seagrave still preferred a manual wheelchair to one with bells, whistles, and other “gizmos,” as he called them.
“Don’t play games with me,” Winston said. “You know better than anyone how much her death destroyed me.” Emma had been transferred out soon after the bombing, so even she didn’t fully know the dark pit into which he’d sunk after the forensics team positively identified Linda’s DNA. Teeth. Two teeth was all they found in the bombed out shell of a car. But that had been enough to prove that the love of his life was dead.
Seagrave met his eyes, then took a remote control from a pocket on the side of his chair. He pressed a button, and a video screen whirred down from the ceiling. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re not going to like this.”
Winston said nothing as the lights dimmed.
As the room darkened, the screen lit up and an image came into view. A bustling sidewalk in an urban area. Austin, maybe. Or, hell, it could be Manhattan. Seattle. Even LA. No way to tell at glance. Not from the angle of the lens focused more on the pedestrians than the surroundings.
“What are we—”
The words stuck in his throat, the answer staring him in the face.
Oh, dear God, he was looking at his Linda.
“This is old footage,” he said, his entire body going cold as fear and hope warred for dominance in his soul. “It has to be.”
Winston’s eyes locked on the screen. “When was this taken? And where?”
“Last week,” Seagrave said, and Winston’s stomach did a somersault. “In Seattle.”
“So, you’re saying what? That for some reason a government intelligence organization just happened to stumble across footage of a dead woman walking the streets of Seattle?”
“You know better than that.” Now the voice was gentle.
“How long?” Winston had to clear his throat in order to continue. “Your people have had her under surveillance. Tell me how long you’ve known that she’s alive. And then tell me why the fuck you didn’t bring me in on this earlier.”
“Dammit, Anderson, I–”
“That’s an order, Starr. Watch the damn screen.”
Winston watched as she entered an office building, realizing then that the footage was taken by a drone. It rose, the aspect ratio widening to take in the full Seattle skyline as it ascended higher and higher, finally hovering across the street, but level with the roof-line of the building she’d entered. The image zoomed in, focusing on a roof access shed with a closed metal door.
A few moments later, the door opened and a man stepped out. He surveyed the roof, frowned, then checked his watch.
Soon, the door opened again. At first, no one emerged, but Winston could see that the shadowy figure in the doorway was a woman. His gut constricted, and when she stepped onto the gravel and tar rooftop, he realized that he’d stopped breathing.
The man turned to her, his arms extended in greeting as he took a step toward her. Her mouth curved into a smile so familiar it made his heart ache. His body tightened with an unfamiliar longing, then recoiled when she lifted her hand to reveal the gun that had been concealed in the folds of her skirt.
She aimed. She fired.
And then his Linda turned her back on the body, slipped through the doorway, and disappeared from sight.