Stalked in Silver Valley
Book 9 in the Silver Valley PD Series
Hunting a ruthless enemy, revisiting her darkest fears.
Forced marriage to a Russian gangster left Kit Danilenko with PTSD. Now she devotes all her time to taking down organized crime. When Kit is paired with undercover agent Luther Darby on a covert mission, she’s wary of the attraction simmering between them. Their work requires trust, though, and Kit and Luther forge a connection—fragile and tentative, but unlike anything she’s ever known. Can it withstand the haunting threats of mobsters on their trail?
From Harlequin Romantic Suspense: Danger. Passion. Drama.
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
Stalked in Silver Valley
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Stalked in Silver Valley
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Luther tried not to grind his teeth, but what the heck was going on? He wondered if the pressures of the ROC case had blinded Colt to the point that he couldn’t see how green and timid Kit Danilenko appeared. Luther had no problem working with a rookie, but for the final, most important part of this case—not so much.
Worse, a surge of an emotion he had zero time for rose in his gut, filled his chest with heat. He had a reflexive need to protect Kit. He didn’t know the woman, for heaven’s sake.
But she’d be a beautiful woman to get further acquainted with. He ran his hand over his face, giving himself the split second to re-center, get his thoughts out of his crotch.
“That’s why you’re the best man for the job, Luther. I wouldn’t pair Kit with just anyone.” Colt’s words jolted him from his mental ire, and he immediately felt a flood of remorse. He’d missed what Colt had said.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if both Colt and Claudia didn’t recommend you.” He aimed his comment at Kit, who sat a bit straighter. The wariness in her blue eyes had turned to defiance. He swore he saw sapphire sparks in her large irises.
Yeah, he’d interpreted her take on him accurately.
“I mean, we’re in the middle of ending the most influential crime ring in the US since the Latin American drug cartels came on the scene. It makes sense that we’ve both got the training it’s going to take to finish it up.” Luther tried to clean up how he’d spoken to her but wanted to groan with frustration. He sounded like an idiot.
“You’re not going into anything more than a surveillance mission, Luther. Kit’s the SVPD surveillance expert, and her TH training makes her one of their best, too.” Colt resumed control of the meeting and Luther took his cue. But he didn’t stop checking out the partner he’d be working with for the next several days, according to Claudia.
She was small, but he wouldn’t think of her as petite. She grasped the arms of her chair with slim but capable hands, and he noted there was no ring on her left hand. Not that he was interested in her marital status, or lack thereof.
He forced his attention to Colt. “Any op against ROC can become more than what we planned for.” He knew it firsthand and had almost died in several stakeout ops that had blown up into full-on shoot-outs.
“As Colt said, I’m experienced with surveillance, and being mostly behind the scenes. If it grows into something larger, we can always call in backup. This isn’t my first op, Luther.” Kit spoke as if she were siding with Colt, making it clear she didn’t expect their op to be more than a snooze fest.
“First or five hundredth op, each should be treated as your only op.” His words were sharper than he’d intended but he couldn’t ignore the thrill of seeing how she reacted to them. To him. Her cheeks flushed and her breath hitched, making the curve of her breasts–
Stop. Now. He needed an extra long workout today.
“You’re both right.” Colt cleared his throat. He didn’t look comfortable playing mediator, and Luther wanted to kick himself for putting his new colleague in this position. “It should be a fairly straightforward mission once you’re in the field.”
Colt’s reminder that they’d be alone, in the middle of nowhere, wasn’t what Luther needed, not with Kit sitting right next to him, with his libido sending definite messages about how attractive Kit was. All he’d been through in the botched affair with an ROC mob wife apparently hadn’t taught him a dang thing. Already Kit’s eyes distracted him, and earlier a glimpse of her legs caught his attention when she walked in.
Luther didn’t do distractions.
“I’m confident Kit and I have the experience between the two of us to do whatever the mission requires.” Maybe if he said it aloud fifty times, he’d get his head back on the mission and off what Kit’s presence was doing to his dick.
Kit hadn’t gotten involved with anyone since Vadim’s arrest. Even in her very unhappy marriage she’d never had the urge, or opportunity, to even consider cheating on her husband. Men were an enigma to her, on so many levels. Why wouldn’t they be when she’d been brought to the States from a small town in Ukraine, under false pretenses as a teen, and within a month was married to a man three times her age?
Luther Darby, however, was different. Her palm still tingled.
Stop. It’s the anxiety.
But she wasn’t feeling all doom and gloom, the way her panic attacks hit her. And she hadn’t had one in a very long time. Her attitude toward life in general, had improved greatly in the past year. Never better, in fact.
“ROC plays for keeps, that’s a certainty.” Luther’s low voice shook her out of her self-analysis. It was oddly reassuring since he was someone she’d just met.
“They take no prisoners.” The words slipped out and she risked a quick glance at Luther. Colt knew her story, but to this agent she was no one but another colleague. The desire to show him she was competent surged.
What did her friend, and Annie’s grandmother, Essie, who owned Silver Threads yarn shop, always tell her? The astute septuagenarian’s words echoed in her mind as she tried to focus on Colt’s speech. “Soul recognition is the most powerful force on Earth, maybe even in Heaven, too.”
A tiny snort escaped her lips and Colt looked at her as he spoke, probably wondering what the heck she was thinking. She gave her best listening expression and mentally chided herself for getting distracted by a man she’d known all of seven minutes, tops.
“We’ve already got the best of the best working all aspects of bringing ROC down, but there’s a gap.” Colt shuffled the papers in front of him. He had a computer like everyone else but still preferred to print the intelligence reports to aid in his analysis of the information on the computer. “As you both know, Dima Ivanov remains at large, and we believe Ludmilla Markova is with him.”
“If he hasn’t already killed her.” Kit wished she could take the words back. Why did she have to say everything that came into her mind? Seemed the intensive therapy she’d gone through while getting her criminal justice degree had unleashed her inner bigmouth. Being free of the fear-induced repression living with Vadim had caused was welcome and necessary to her survival. Offering her opinion all the time, especially when not asked, was another thing.
“Why do you think he’d kill her?” Luther’s query took a lethal slice to her theory. “I think he needs her alive to get what he wants.”
Kit shrugged. “It’s what ROC does. They eliminate anyone who poses a threat. We can’t be sure, but it’s pretty clear from what we’ve learned from the prison guards and other inmates that Markova was running her own drug distribution ring from prison. A kind of anti-ROC. She added meth and cocaine to the heroin, which she cut with fentanyl. Ivanov is not one to put up with a double-crosser, and one who’s built upon a business he took years to establish.” Her voice didn’t waver, but she wondered if Luther heard the slight accent she’d been unable to drop no matter how much she studied English. She was perfectly fluent and had lived here for almost a dozen years. Yet when she was nervous or tired, her Ukrainian accent came through.
“You can’t make assumptions with ROC. That’s what gets officers and agents killed.” Luther was suffering no fools, and somehow she instinctively knew he placed her in the “fool” category. What was the man’s story?
None of your business. She needed to talk to Annie or her therapist about this.
“There will be plenty of time to discuss your theories on the case over the next month.” Colt interrupted them, a bemused expression on his face. Kit had noticed that Colt’s handsome face had become more deeply lined as the ROC case ground on. Silver Valley had lost too many people to heroin ODs, and the demands on SVPD and all law enforcement agencies were overwhelming on the best days.
“You said there was a gap in our op?” Luther quietly prompted Colt, and Kit had to admit he did it in a respectful manner without any of the arrogance she’d witnessed other, invariably less capable, men emit.
Colt ran his fingers through his silvering hair. “Yes. The latest intelligence indicates that Ivanov is holed up not very far from here. We’d assumed he’d left the state after we recovered the data Markova had stolen from him. We’re still not certain if Ivanov knows what she stole.” Colt referred to last summer, when SVPD and FBI had discovered that Markova, a former Russian FSB agent and now the right hand to Ivanov, had stolen key overseas account information from the ROC kingpin. It appeared Markova was looking to either take over ROC herself, or make a break from it with the billions she’d be able to take from Ivanov. But the FBI and the Treasury Department, along with Homeland Security, had frozen all of the accounts that Markova’s stolen data revealed. It left ROC and especially Ivanov incredibly vulnerable.
“It doesn’t make sense that he’d stay anywhere near Silver Valley.” Luther spoke, and Kit took the chance to check him out. He sat back, his black slacks tightly stretched against his lean thighs. He’d crossed his ankle on his knee and his hand rested on it. A very strong, capable hand. Because he’d rolled his sleeves up, she saw the controlled strength in his forearm, another stamp of his masculinity.
What was going on with her? This had to be the insta-lust that Annie spoke about with the other girls when they all had Friday night Girls’ Night, after the knitting circle. It shouldn’t shock her so much, as Kit was twenty-six and had sexual needs. Her therapist insisted she would eventually be comfortable with a man after the years of abuse. But wouldn’t that happen more slowly, over months? Not this intense awareness of the man sitting on the sofa next to her.
“Kit, what do you think?” Colt’s query jolted her out of her confusion. Heat rushed to her face, and she knew her pasty white skin radiated beet red.
“I…ah, I don’t think we can be sure about anything.” At Colt’s raised brow, she shook her head. “Sorry, I drifted there.”
“Luther’s point that Ivanov would most likely move heaven and earth to get far away is valid, but the reports that came through last night and early this morning have him in an area approximately twelve miles from here, in the middle of the Cumberland Mountains. It looks like our worst fears.”
Kit gripped the chair arms. “Ivanov is going to force the meeting with the remaining ROC hierarchy?”
“That’s what Claudia thinks, and I agree.” Luther interjected. “It appears to me that Ivanov must still have hidden accounts, resources that the FBI and Treasury didn’t seize. Or maybe Markova’s the one who has them. It would explain why she hasn’t made her escape—even with Ivanov’s cruel streak, she’s well trained and would have no problem killing him.”
“You think they’re planning for Ivanov to regain control of ROC, with Markova as his second, instead of only being his best operative?” Kit reasoned aloud. “That makes sense to me.”
“Do we have an exact GPS loc?” Luther pulled out his phone and started tapping in notes.
“No.” Colt shook his head. “If we did, I wouldn’t need you two for the assignment.” Colt turned to the large chart on his wall that depicted the entire Susquehanna and Cumberland Valley area, in the middle of which sat Silver Valley. He pointed to a small valley. “The report caught a burner phone’s signal here. There are at least forty or so hunting cabins, but it’s impossible to know which one he’s in, if any. For all we know he was just passing through.”
“Men like Ivanov don’t casually pass through a remote hunting location.” Kit couldn’t hold back. “You are planning to go in and apprehend him, right?”
Colt’s eyes widened. “No, no, nothing like that. We can’t take any chances with either of them. Which is why I need your expertise in comms and you need Luther with you. FBI will do the eventual arrest, with a lot of backup from us, S.W.A.T. and other LEAs.” Colt’s gaze moved to Luther and the men exchanged some kind of silent message. Kit shifted in her seat, knowing that as an unsworn officer she wasn’t always privy to all the details of such a sensitive case. And she certainly wouldn’t be part of the actual takedown, when it was planned. It didn’t make her desire to be fully cut in on all the information any less, though. Not for the first time she silently damned the mental illness that limited her participation in taking Ivanov and ROC down once and for all.
“What do you need from us, Colt?” Luther spoke with familiarity. Kit assumed he and the police chief had worked together before and ignored her feelings of being left out. Another fallout from her trauma, needing to be in control of everything. She was a professional colleague, not some young girl whose friends were purposely cutting her out.
“We need constant monitoring of the area. We’re looking to determine if Ivanov is there, and if he is, which cabin he’s in. We want to know if Markova is with him, and if she is, is it willingly or is he holding her hostage?”
Luther nodded. “Although it’s hard to believe Markova would stay anywhere unwillingly. Her prison break last winter was a feat only the most highly trained FSB pro could pull off.” As she observed him, Kit was struck by his outward calm and professionalism. It reflected in his eyes, too, but she still detected that hint of guardedness toward her and possible concern that she was his competition. Maybe he was an agent used to working on his own and thought a local police officer, especially an unsworn one, was a pain in the butt.
“What do you need me to do, sir?” She spoke up, wanting them both to know she’d do whatever tasked with.
Colt paused and looked at her. She had the distinct feeling he was reluctant to tell her. He’d shown signs of being a bit fatherly toward her when SVPD had rescued her from her ex, but had displayed nothing but pure professionalism since she’d been sworn in.
“Kit, this is where your expertise with the Russian language comes in. Luther has rudimentary language training but your skills are impeccable. Luther is going to be running the op, and while you’re fully capable of handling all and any sticky situations that arise, I want you to fully focus on keeping Luther informed on whatever Ivanov and Markova, if she’s there, are saying.”
“No problem. Will we be using the unmarked comms van?” She’d been trained in how to operate the equipment in the back of the nondescript white van that was SVPD’s workhorse and communications headquarters during undercover and other operations. It was her favorite place to be during an op, where she knew she was helping as much as anyone else in her position, freeing up a sworn officer to knock down doors.
Colt scratched his head. “Ah, no. You will have the top equipment with you—” again, another quick glance at Luther “—and Luther here will bring you up to speed on any of the tech you’re not familiar with. But you’ll both be staying in a hunting cabin. I need you to go undercover as hunters.”
“Perfect timing with deer season opening next Monday.” Luther referred to the Pennsylvania State holiday that was ten days away and took place the Monday after Thanksgiving. Schools were out to encourage children to spend time with their families. Indeed, many hunted, and many more spent the day doing early holiday shopping.
“As long as you’re sure I won’t become a liability to Agent Darby, I’m in. We have almost a week to prepare, unless you need us out there sooner?” She wasn’t authorized to use a weapon in the line of duty. Not until she was completely cleared by her psychiatrist. Truth was that she enjoyed being unsworn, a nonuniformed SVPD employee, more than she’d ever imagined she would.
“That should be fine. You both need time to get to know one another. I’ll leave you to work out your abilities between the two of you.”
“I have zero undercover experience. But if you want me to hole up in the cabin and monitor comms, that I can do.” She spoke up to make sure Luther knew what he was getting into, working alongside her.
“You’re being too modest, Kit.” Colt looked at her for a long moment, and when she remained silent, he spoke to Luther. “Kit was a key player in bringing in Ivanov’s top henchman in Silver Valley just a little over two years ago. Without her courageous actions we might be fighting a lot more than Ivanov and Markova at this point.”
“I’m impressed.” Luther’s compliment was like receiving a special treat from a teacher, back in her hometown in Ukraine. It was always nice when someone saw her for her intelligence and capabilities and not as a piece of meat, like Vadim had.
Save it for the therapist.
“I don’t have a weapon, you should know. I’ll be dependent upon you if there’s any kind of shoot-out.” She smiled, trying to inflect the American humor she so adored, but it was hard to tell if Luther caught it.
“I’m a fast draw.” His reference to Western cowboy culture infused her with a sense of well-being, and she laughed.
Colt spoke up. “You’ll be safe, Kit. Luther is tops in this business, and he’ll have a small arsenal of weapons. My hope, of course, is that you won’t be needing anything but the comms gear, and that you’ll sit tight while the FBI arrests Ivanov and Markova.”
“How many federal agents are in the area?” Luther kept tapping notes into his phone.
Colt shook his head. “That’s just it. We’d normally already have their full support but they’ve had to send help to the northwestern part of the state.”
“The white supremacist cult?”
Colt nodded. “Yes. It’s bigger and badder than the one that tried to take over Silver Valley a few years ago, and LEA statewide has their hands full with it. We’re going to have to commit several SVPD officers to it soon, but I was able to buy more time in order to get the last of ROC out of here.”
“Thank goodness for Trail Hikers.” Kit was in awe of the agency that had helped bring Vadim to justice and give her life back. Not to mention providing her with a job that gave her life purpose and a deeper meaning. An ability to give back to the community.
“You sound like you’ve worked with TH a bit, then?” Luther’s question was for her.
“Yes, during the op that Colt already mentioned, and as needed for different cases more recently. My language ability and understanding of cultural references is my specialty.”
“It sounds like we’ll be well matched, then. I can read Russian and speak it conversationally, but some of the more subtle references to Pushkin go over my thick skull.”
Kit laughed. “If you even know who Pushkin is, you’re doing okay.” Pushkin was to Russian language and storytelling what Shakespeare was to English.
“Who the hell is Pushkin?” Colt looked like the one who was left out of the conversation, and Kit sat up straighter as she briefly explained Pushkin’s significance to Russian culture.
“Okay, well, I’ll let you worry about that.” Colt’s mind was on bringing down ROC without losing any officers, not Russian literary history. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“How long will the operation take?” She needed to make sure she filed her current reports before she left and make arrangements for someone to watch Koshka, her beloved tuxedo cat. Another great thing about getting rid of her ex—she could have whatever pets she wanted in the tiny apartment she rented in downtown Silver Valley.
“‘Undercover means as long as it takes.” Luther answered, and when she looked at him, his eyes were clear but she saw a shadow that made her mental hackles spike again. Did Luther Darby resent her presence in this operation?