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Excerpt: Dance with the Devil by Kit Rocha

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USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Kit Rocha returns to their explosive post-apocalyptic action/romance series, The Mercenary Librarians, with the next thrilling installment, Dance with the Devil.

POWER IS NEVER GIVEN, ONLY TAKEN

Tobias Richter, the fearsome VP of Security of the TechCorps is dead. The puppetmaster is gone and the organization is scrambling to maintain control by ruthlessly limiting Atlanta’s access to resources, hoping to quell rebellion. Our band of mercenary librarians have decided that the time for revolution has come.

Maya uses her wealth of secrets to weaken the TechCorps from within. Dani strikes from the shadows, picking off the chain of command one ambush at a time. And Nina is organizing their community—not just to survive, but to fight back. When Maya needs to make contact with a sympathetic insider, Dani and Rafe are the only ones with the skill-set and experience to infiltrate the highest levels of the TechCorps. They’ll go deep undercover in the decadent, luxury-soaked penthouses on the Hill.

Bringing Dani face-to-face with the man who turned her into a killer. And forcing Rafe to decide how far he’ll go to protect both of his families—the one he was born to, and the one he made for himself.

Victory will break the back of Power. Failure will destroy Atlanta.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Dance with the Devil by Kit Rocha, on sale 8/16/22.


ONE

Hubris. It got ’em every time.

Dani cast a sidelong look at the man walking next to her. Though he looked about a decade younger, Christopher Bianco was forty-six years old, which meant he’d been born just before the Flares, when the world went dark. He was too young to remember the solar storms that had damaged power grids beyond repair, toppled entire governments, and left the survivors scrambling to regain some semblance of order. But growing up in the chaotic aftermath of those events—freezing, starving, struggling just to stay alive—must have shaped the man he’d become.

And Dani knew a lot about that man. Bianco had never been married, bore seventeen separate identifying tattoos and scars, and liked whiskey and redheads. His brown hair was burnished with hints of gold, and his wide, easy grin was more suited to a twentieth-century movie star than a murderer. But a murderer he was, nonetheless—commanding officer of the Golden Lions, an up-and-coming Protectorate squad that had been thriving under Captain Bianco’s leadership.

She smiled back at him.

“So where are we going?” he asked, the grin lingering in his voice.

“Wherever the night takes us, of course.”

He laughed. “I should demand details. You could be dangerous.”

“I could be,” she agreed solemnly. “Would it change your mind?”

His hand slid across her lower back to lightly grip her hip. “Not a chance.”

Dani tossed her newly auburn hair over her shoulder and barely managed not to roll her eyes. She was as fond of a good game of cat-and-mouse as the next person—more, if she was being perfectly honest—but it wasn’t as much fun when it was work.

And work was all she had lately. It turned out that mounting a guerrilla campaign against an all-powerful corporate dictatorship like the TechCorps monopolized your life hardcore, even with the workload split between an even dozen people. You had to monitor digital transmissions, gather intel from the streets, conduct a little creative spycraft, support the community in case of retaliation, and somehow manage to fund the whole damn op.

And then there was Dani’s specialty: quick, bloody strikes against strategic targets.

Tonight’s strategic target let his hand drift down until he was practically groping her ass. Dani gritted her teeth and lovingly imagined throwing an elbow at his face.

Patience.

He was steering her toward an alley just off of Forsyth. She’d checked it out during her reconnaissance earlier—it was a narrow dead end, no more than two and a half, maybe three meters wide, littered with garbage and broken glass. It was secluded, grimy, and disgusting.

It was perfect.

“Nice place,” Dani murmured dryly.

The hand on her hip tensed, and he whirled her around a split second later. Her back hit the pitted brick, and he loomed over her, a tiny smile on his lips. “Only the best for you, darling.”

Oh, he was smooth. She had to grant him that, from one practiced honeypot to another. It was part of what made Captain Bianco a strategic target, after all. He had a knack for covert work, was adaptable and quick on his feet, and his instincts were top-notch.

Still, as much as she admired his dedication to the fine art of seductive deception, it was getting late. And she had a job to do.

Almost there.

His smile only grew as Dani slowly wound one hand in the front of his shirt, his lips curving as genuine amusement sparkled in his eyes.

So she asked the question she was supposed to ask. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing,” he practically purred. “It’s just . . . you have no idea you’ve been made, do you?”

Finally.

“Made?” She tightened her hand in his shirt.

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. The near-silent shuffle of boots tickled Dani’s ears, and she turned her head just far enough to see four shadowy figures file across the narrow mouth of the alley, effectively forming a human blockade.

“You brought your whole crew,” she murmured. “I’m flattered.”

“I don’t know if you’re brave or crazy, lady, and I don’t care.” Bianco’s silky voice hardened. “You’ve been taking out Protectorate squads, and now it’s your turn.”

“So . . . what? You haul me in like a good little boy?”

“Not exactly,” he countered. “Terminate on sight.”

So much for negotiation. She watched as Captain Bianco drew his arm back, his fingers already curling into a wicked fist.

Dani considered the situation.

A few things were immediately obvious. First: they knew what she’d been up to, that she’d been targeting Protectorate squads for elimination, but almost certainly not who she really was. If they had, Captain Bianco’s orders would have been very, very different.

A random, murderous rebel who’d gotten lucky a few times while facing off against their men? The TechCorps no doubt considered that woman dangerous—and expendable. But Danijela Volkova, former Executive Security operative turned legendary assassin? One of only two survivors of an experimental nerve-rewiring procedure that had left her with superhuman speed and reflexes, not to mention impervious to pain?

No way would they let her slip through their fingers. Not when they could haul her back to one of their labs and dissect her like a fucking frog.

Second: the Golden Lions had turned the alley into an efficient killbox by deploying across the mouth of it like a firing squad, but they couldn’t use it as one. They wouldn’t risk their CO’s life. No, they’d try to take her down via nonlethal means, then finish her off.

Finally, third: she had to be at the top of her game. All of her previous targets had been varying degrees of oblivious or overconfident. The Golden Lions would be neither.

She dodged Bianco’s fist as it flew toward her face. It crashed into the wall instead, shattering brick and bone. He grunted in pain, but he wasn’t about to let a crushed hand interfere with his mission. He reached for her with his other hand, already calling out an order to fire.

His second mistake. Dani grabbed his lapels and spun him around, putting him between her and his men. They fired their Tasers, long-range models that used wireless signals instead of cords and took forever to reload. They were designed to deploy an electrical current as soon as they burrowed into flesh—in this case, Captain Bianco’s back.

They worked like a charm. The good captain went down, and Dani turned her attention to his men.

Two of them started reloading their Tasers. A third charged at Dani, while the fourth went straight for his gun.

Smart.

An old fire escape hung off the wall overhead, with only a few rusty bolts still securing it to the building. Dani took a running leap, grabbed the lower edge, and swung out, kicking the advancing Golden Lion in the face. His neck snapped with a sharp crack just as the metal frame pulled loose, and she reached for her knives as she fell. She hit the ground rolling and came up with her blades in her hands.

This was her sweet spot, the part of the hunt that made all the makeup and simpering worth it. Direct, decisive action to address a specific, discrete issue.

See a problem, stab a problem.

The armed soldier fired high, aiming for her head with the kind of confidence that spoke of excellent marksmanship. Dani ducked the shot and went in low, slicing across the front of his thigh. The blade bit deep, tearing through reinforced cloth, skin, and muscle.

She let her momentum spin her around, away from the hot spray of blood, and buried her knife in his back, right between the fourth and fifth ribs, angled to avoid the shoulder blade and penetrate the left ventricle of the heart.

The other two attacked in tandem, having abandoned the Tasers in favor of the close-quarters benefits of their own knives. Dani ducked slashes and stabs and watched, waiting for an opening.

The one on the left dropped his guard, and she grabbed his hair and dragged her blade across the side of his throat, opening his jugular vein. She dropped him, trusting the blood loss to quickly render him unconscious, and headed for his buddy

Instead, a rough hand wrapped around her ankle, almost dragging her off her feet. Captain Bianco had recovered from being Tased by his own men—and he was pissed.

Dani stomped on his forearm with her free foot, sacrificing her balance for the blow. His radius and ulna snapped under her boot, and she fell to the pavement with a jarring thud.

Bianco scrambled to grab her, even with a busted hand and a broken arm. Dani dropped an elbow to his temple and pushed him onto his back, pinning him there with one knee on his chest. Then she looked him dead in the eye as she finished him off with a blade to the heart.

It was probably more consideration than he’d ever offered any of his victims.

There was no time to linger over the thought. By Dani’s count, there was one more left. She pushed up onto her feet, then used her momentum to swing around, blade first.

Straight toward Rafe, who had just dropped the last Protectorate soldier.

Even she didn’t have time to pull the attack. She released the knife instead, letting it fly across the alley as she stumbled against his chest. He caught her deftly, big hands locking around her arms. He hoisted her without apparent effort, swinging her around so his body formed a wall between her and the alley.

The gesture was one of protective instinct, but his expression was furious. “What the hell are you doing?”

How dare he? “What the hell am I doing? What the hell are you doing, Morales? I almost stabbed you in the fucking face!”

He took one shuddering breath, then another, like he was fighting for control of his temper. The moonlight slanted across his features, highlighting his impossible cheekbones and silvering his dark skin. He looked like a statue of a beautiful, angry god, and he ground out each word between clenched teeth. “You came out here to take on a full Protectorate squad. Alone.”

Of course she had. If you were going to bait a trap, you didn’t do it with a pack of wolves. You did it with a single helpless lamb. Dani opened her mouth to tell him so—firmly and obscenely—but caught the telltale glimmer of a laser sight.

A sniper. She almost sighed. Why couldn’t Captain Bianco have been a little less competent?

She shoved Rafe hard, pushing him back against the wall as the shot rang out. It pinballed off the wall, scattering razor-sharp shards of brick. Dani went for Rafe’s pistol, but he already had it in his hand.

He fired, and the sniper’s body plummeted from the roof. Rafe was already turning back toward her to resume his argument by the time it hit the cracked asphalt. “Alone,” he repeated. “I thought we discussed having backup on all missions.”

“When possible and necessary.” She waved a hand at the grungy alley. “This was neither.”

“Dani—” He bit off whatever he was going to say and threw up his hands. “Do you think I would have tried to stop you? I know you can handle yourself. But it’s dangerous out here, woman. We all need someone to watch our back.”

Normally, she would have agreed. In this case, however, the situation was . . . delicate. Her plan had hinged on Bianco knowing that she was luring him into a trap, but not realizing that she was on to both his awareness and his intention to turn it around on her. With so many variables at play, the best way to keep it all straight—and minimize casualties in case of disaster—was to fly solo.

She retrieved her knife from the spot where it had landed, blessedly not in any puddles of mystery fluid. “I know you worry, and I get it. But some things, I just have to do on my own. It’s my job.”

Rafe’s soft sigh echoed through the alley behind her. “It’s my job, too. You don’t always have to go it alone.”

He said it like she didn’t know, like she hadn’t considered asking Nina to join her undercover or getting Conall to surveil her encounter with the Golden Lions. But that was Rafe—given the choice between solitude and surrounding himself with others, he’d always pick people. Anything else was just unthinkable.

The thought made Dani’s skin itch. She loved Nina and Maya with all her shriveled black heart, and she was even learning to like the Silver Devils—most of them, anyway. They were her family, for fuck’s sake. If they needed her, she’d be there—anytime, anyplace. No questions asked.

And they were always there for her. It wasn’t their fault her brain didn’t work that way. Dani’s history—personal and professional—had instilled in her an almost pathological self-reliance. She knew it, and she’d tried to overcome the knee-jerk panic that gripped her when she thought about asking for help . . .

But things weren’t pathological if you could just stop doing them, were they?

She covered her discomfort with an irritated grumble. “Can we have this conversation elsewhere? Like, someplace with fewer dead bodies?”

“Just a second.” Rafe knelt beside Captain Bianco and methodically checked the corpse’s clothes. When he rose, he held a small but sturdy tablet in his hand. “Conall would kick my ass if I didn’t bring this back.”

He pulled a small roll of shielding wrap from one of the many pockets on his tactical pants and began rolling it around the purloined tablet. Back at Protectorate headquarters, the analysts monitoring the Golden Lions’ mission status would be watching the signal blink out of existence, taking with it any hope of tracking the device.

At least, that was how it was supposed to work. In Dani’s estimation, it was worth the risk, but barely. “You think Con’ll be able to get anything useful from it?”

“Probably not directly.” With the device secured, Rafe stowed it in another pocket. “But he’ll pull anything he can get for Maya, and maybe something will spark for her.”

Maya would probably want the man’s grocery receipts, if they could manage to dig them up. “Intel is intel, I suppose.”

Rafe fell into step beside Dani as she squared her shoulders and walked as casually as possible out of the alley and turned toward home. After half a block in silence, he sighed softly. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I know you can handle your shit.”

“You’re not sorry. You’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

“Probably. Doesn’t mean I’m not sorry.” He shot her a sidelong look. “It just means you’re really good at riling me up.”

Oh, there were layers of meaning in that statement—layers Dani chose to ignore. “Whatever. It’s who you are. Don’t apologize for it. I don’t plan to.”

“Fair enough.” He fell silent again.

Dani stifled a sigh of her own. She looked around for a distraction, but the streets were strangely quiet. There were no revelers headed home from a night at the bar, no spirited conversations happening on front stoops—even though there should have been.

Winter had crept over the South, but the night was warm, almost balmy. Normally, folks would be taking advantage of the break in the cold to get out and enjoy some fresh air. But the people of Southside— and Five Points, particularly—had damn good instincts for danger. They didn’t know a handful of their own were waging war against the TechCorps, but they knew something was up. They felt the tension, like a taut rubber band about to snap.

So they stayed inside, and she and Rafe might as well have been alone in the world.

As they crossed under a flickering streetlight, Rafe reached out, his fingers barely grazing her hip. “Can I at least check to make sure you’re not bleeding?”

She almost shuddered. She was too wound up for this right now, and he was too impulsive. If he started running his hands over her skin, searching for wounds she couldn’t feel, they’d wind up stumbling into another dark alley. Their first time would unfold against the filthy brick, her wrists pinned above her head, his coffee-rich voice low and demanding in her ear.

Dani was no stranger to bad decisions, but this one? Could destroy everything.

Part of her wanted to do it anyway

Instead, she brushed him away. “Captain Bianco and his Golden Lions meant business, Morales. If they’d managed to hit me hard enough to count, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

A muscle in his cheek jumped. He was clenching his jaw, hard—no doubt biting back another argument. Finally, he blew out a breath. “Fine, but you’re letting me check when we get home, or I’m waking up Nina to do it.”

“I can take care of my—” A low noise pricked at Dani’s ears, a strange mix of whir and whine. Instantly recognizable.

She ended up dragging Rafe into an alley anyway, pressing one finger to his lips before he could speak. His gaze clashed with hers for a tense moment before he looked up, tracking the approaching drone.

It wasn’t strange to see TechCorps surveillance drones canvassing Southside. They’d send a few out every now and then, and they’d get them back in pieces. The people in this part of Atlanta liked their privacy, and they’d gladly bring down any drones that crossed their paths.

But she could tell by the sound that this wasn’t one of the older drones the TechCorps usually deployed, the ones they didn’t care if they lost because they were a mere step shy of being decommissioned anyway. This was top of the line, new, with five different types of cameras, heat-seeking capabilities, and even small armaments.

This one was looking for them.

Dani held out her hand, one eyebrow raised expectantly. Rafe hesitated, then drew his pistol and handed it over without bothering to disengage the biometric lock. Out of habit, she swiped her thumb over the small scanner plate, and she felt a small jolt in her midsection as the trigger mechanism unlocked.

It was strangely intimate, like having the key to someone’s apartment or the passcode for their computer system. Of course, he could have given the entire team access to his firearms. But somehow, Dani didn’t think so.

She leaned past him, curling one hand around his upper arm as the drone came into view. The weakest spots were the three articulation points where the propellers attached to the main body, and Dani took aim. She shot out the first two, and the drone pitched and rolled before crashing to the street in a shower of sparks.

Rafe was on it in a heartbeat, disabling its broadcast capabilities with a flick of the knife he’d pulled from his pocket. Dani stood there, useless, as he dug out the memory and programming module next. She could shoot one of these things down, but she didn’t know how to harvest any valuable intelligence from it.

Dani was a walking weapon, only capable of destroying things.

Rafe wrapped the modules with more of the signal dampening tape, then finished off the drone by yanking out the main control board. Wires and screws both snapped like gossamer threads in his grip. He probably could have torn the thing in half without strain.

But he didn’t. He tossed the whole mess aside for the scavengers and rose effortlessly.

“Here.” She shoved his pistol at him. It was all she meant to do, but with the painful reminder of her own shortcomings ringing in her brain, she found herself trying to justify her decisions. “I don’t do it to fuck with you, you know. Come out by myself. It’s just . . .”

His brow furrowed. “Dani, you don’t have to explain.”

“You’re a unit,” she told him haltingly. “You and the rest of the Silver Devils. You were trained that way. You lived that way. But that’s not how it was in Executive Security. We were . . .”

She didn’t even know how to describe the sense of isolation that had been drilled into her during her training as a TechCorps bodyguard. It was rigorous and thorough, with the latest technology and the highest quality—and most brutal—instructors, but Ex-Sec recruits were never meant to function as teams. They would guard their assigned executives. And they all understood that, eventually, they would die doing it. But they didn’t work together.

“We worked alone,” she said finally. “We always worked alone, and that’s a hard habit to break. That’s all.”

Rafe holstered his gun, his eyes not meeting hers, his voice gentle. “Well, you’re not alone anymore. You can be annoyed by us if you want. I’m annoyed by Conall daily.”

He was changing the subject to a nonthreatening topic, awkward in his eagerness to coddle her the way he would a feral stray. And Dani let him, because she wasn’t sure what else she could do or say.

“Conall is all right,” she declared. “Except when he starts making fun of my paper files like I’m some thousand-year-old fossil. It’s rude.”

“Maybe, but is he wrong?”

“Look—”

She fell into the flirtatious banter. It wasn’t comfortable—nothing about dealing with Rafael Morales was—but it was familiar, a dance whose customs and steps she knew intricately, because she practiced them all the damn time, for work and for play. The dance was easy, mindless. She could lose herself in it.

In another world, Dani didn’t have to think about this. Their lives weren’t so intertwined, and she and Rafe could simply enjoy one another. They weren’t worried about implosions and awkwardness and the potential fallout if things went bad and they suffered a nasty breakup. They knew they could part ways easily, and never look back.

In another world, they had already become lovers.

Too bad Dani lived in this one.

Copyright © 2022 from Kit Rocha

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