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You should have seen the look on Nova's face when Tazer face-planted him on the mat at the gym." Creed Thomas clapped a hand on Casanova Valdez's back.
Casanova chuckled, remembering that day. "Hey, no one told me she was a black belt in judo. And look at her." He pointed to Steele. "She looks like a damn powder-puff model."
Nicole Steele, also known as Tazer because most people didn't know she'd hit them until they were lying flat on their backs, glanced at the tips of her fingernails. "Looks can be deceiving." That was the dichotomy who was Tazer. Completely at ease, but ready for anything.
As he sat at the table filled with his teammates and a select few residents of Cape Churn, Oregon, Stealth Operations Specialist Casanova Valdez was surrounded by people he liked and trusted. His teammates. They meant the world to him. He liked his job, the people he worked with, and he felt he was contributing to the greater good of society. But something was missing.
His gaze followed Molly McGregor as she served the other occupants of the dining room at the McGregor Bed & Breakfast, where the team had chosen to gather with members of the local community to celebrate victory.
He and Tazer should have been on their way back to D.C. The next flight out would be the following morning. They hadn't even left Cape Churn when they'd received the news. Thank goodness. They'd been having lunch at the Seaside Café when their flight from Portland had been canceled due to a mechanical issue with their plane. At that point, Gabe had invited them to a victory dinner at the McGregor Bed & Breakfast his sister operated. It gave Nova the chance to see the pretty bed-and-breakfast owner again. He couldn't seem to get her out of his mind.
Molly's movements were quick and efficient, her every greeting accompanied by a sunny smile. Light blond hair swung about her shoulders, falling in long loose curls down her back, her green eyes sparkling as bright as the crystals dangling from the chandelier that hung from the center of the spacious dining room. She treated every guest like family, making them welcome and including them in her happy disposition. Nova liked being around her. She made him feel as if he'd come home when he walked into McGregor Manor. He hadn't felt that way since his grandparents had died.
"Bet you think twice when you flirt with a woman, huh, Nova?" Creed elbowed him in the arm, bringing him back to the conversation and his friends gathered around the table. Their hostess, Molly McG., ducked out of sight through the swinging door to the kitchen.
His lips twisted in a wry grin as he recalled the first day he'd met his teammate in the gym at headquarters, the beautiful and deadly Nicole Steele, or Tazer as they'd nicknamed her. "Tazer schooled me," he admitted.
"Damn right." Tazer's lips curved in a sensuous smile as she leaned back in her chair, so beautiful she could easily have graced any glossy magazine cover. Instead, she, too, was a member of the elite SOS team, sworn to protect the country and step in when other federal agencies weren't enough. "And what did you learn?" she asked in her smooth, husky tone.
"Never underestimate a beautiful woman." Unfortunately, he hadn't learned the lesson well enough the first time around. A trip to the jungles of Bolivia, falling in love with the daughter of a drug lord, and losing her and almost losing his life had been the lesson he'd learned the hardest. A face-plant on a gym mat didn't even compare.
"Well, no matter how you met, I'm glad we're on the same team," Creed said. "Without your help, the entire Western Seaboard might not be here today." Creed raised his glass. "To success."
Everyone at the table raised their glasses to toast.
Nova lifted his glass of water. What they'd done had been deemed a preemptive strike against a terror cell planning to attack and devastate major cities on the West Coast, including Seattle and Los Angeles.
"To success." Nova sipped the water, wishing it was whiskey. Alcohol and driving on a foggy night didn't mix, and he had a long drive ahead of him to get to Portland. The rescheduled red-eye flight departed in the early hours of the morning and he didn't want to get up at zero dark thirty to try to make that drive from Cape Churn in a hurry.
As soon as he could bow out gracefully, he'd be on the road. In the meantime, he enjoyed visiting with his coworkers and new friends. Especially the owner of the B&B, who was as nice to look at as a field of white daisies. Molly McGregor, that perpetual smile on her face, breezed in from the kitchen carrying a pitcher of water. She topped off glasses around the dining room.
Sure, he'd sworn off commitment a long time ago. But that didn't mean he'd sworn off women. A man would have to be blind not to appreciate her.
Molly was the sister of Gabe McGregor, the local cop who'd helped them find and neutralize a very dangerous man. The man responsible for trafficking uranium into the United States. Their target had been in the market to sell the uranium to a warped individual creating dirty bombs with enough explosive power to blow Los Angeles and Seattle off the face of the planet.
A backhand to his chest woke Nova out of his musings, yet again.
"Hey, now, don't be getting any ideas about Gabe's sister," Tazer said. "I might get jealous."
"Since when have you ever been jealous of another woman?" Creed asked.
Tazer pouted. "I was jealous of one last week in the airport. Her Jimmy Choo shoes had me ready to knock her over and rip them off her feet."
"And who's Jimmy Choo?" Gabe asked.
Sitting beside him, his wife, Kayla, laughed out loud. "A designer, silly."
Gabe glanced around at the others. "Am I missing something? Since when are shoes worth killing for?"
Kayla rolled her eyes. "You're such a man."
"Tazer has a fetish for shoes." Nova glanced at his female teammate. "I'm surprised you restrained yourself."
She admired her fingernails. "They didn't look my size, or I'd have found a way."
"Everyone all right here?" Molly stopped by their large table, her hair escaping the clip holding the sides up and back away from her face. "I'm sorry, we're just packed tonight." She pushed a loose strand behind her ear. Her hand drifted down the long column of her throat to where her shirt came to a V over generous breasts.
Nova's pulse beat a little faster and he shifted in his chair. He hadn't been this attracted to a woman in a long time. Not since
"What's the occasion?" Kayla asked.
"Tonight is the first night of the First Annual Ghost Hunting Weekend at the McGregor B&B." Molly glanced around at the packed dining room. "I never dreamed a ghost hunt would draw such a crowd. I had a group from Seattle sign up a month ago and then a couple more joined at the last minute. One from Portland and the other from Eugene. And I only posted it online, no other advertising."
"People love their ghosts and legends," Gabe said. "Supposedly, this house is haunted."
"Shh." Molly pressed her finger to full, luscious lips and winked. "You'll steal my thunder. I'm telling the legend as part of the event."
Nova found himself wishing he could press his lips where her finger was. He shook himself. Now wasn't the time to be enthralled with a woman. As soon as he could catch a plane, he'd be on his way back to D.C., to headquarters to see what his boss, the head of SOS, had up his sleeve for his next assignment. Perhaps it would take him to another part of the world.
The more he moved, the better. It was all part of his plan to stay ahead of his demons. Stay busy and don't stagnate. New places, new people, new assignments involving lots of action helped him to forget.
Creed leaned close to Nova. "You're thinking about her again, aren't you?"
His jaw tightened. "How could you tell?"
"One minute you're staring at a pretty girl, the next, your face gets darker and your eyes narrow. You're scaring the locals."
Nova made a conscious effort to maintain control over his face and expressions. No use bringing everyone down just because he couldn't forget what happened two years ago.
As easily as slipping into the shower, Nova slid into the past. He and Sophia Cardena had been swimming naked in a spring-fed pool surrounded by the jungle. He'd been deep undercover for four months and had fallen for the drug lord Alfonzo Cardena's daughter he'd been using as his in. His liaison with Sophia had smoothed the path to the leader's confidence and allowed him inside the compound hidden away in the darkest jungles of Bolivia.
At first he'd faked being in love with the beautiful Sophia. But after being in her presence and learning that she was as innocent as her father was corrupt, Nova had fallen for the dark-haired beauty.
Unfortunately, on their way back from the pool, through the trees and bushes, Nova had pulled Sophia to a stop. He'd twirled her around in front of him and kissed her. Knowing he'd be leaving soon, his intelligence-gathering mission coming to a close, he didn't want things to end between them. He'd made the mistake of daring to dream he could have a life with a woman in it.
The DEA would have taken over with the information he'd compiled and sent back to SOS. He'd been about to ask Sophia to go with him, to get away from the jungle, claiming he had to make a trip back to the States to visit a sick grandmother.
He'd prayed she'd go along with him and trust his lie until he had her away, and before the DEA moved in and the war on drugs commenced.
Only, the bullets started prematurely. When he'd turned her around in front of him, the loud crack of a rifle shot split the air.
Sophia fell against him, her eyes wide with her surprise, her mouth open on her last gasp.
The bullet had gone straight through her heart. Within seconds, she was dead, her hand in his, dragging him to the ground.
More bullets flew overhead. Though he'd covered her body with his, it had been too late.
One shot. That was all it took.
"Want a shot?" Creed nudged him, holding a bottle of tequila and a glass in front of him.
Nova pulled himself back to the present, the coppery scent of Sophia's blood still clinging to his memories. "What?"
"I asked if you'd like a shot of tequila, but you were obviously somewhere else."
"Good, because for a moment there you looked ready to kill. You really aren't here tonight, are you?"
No, he wasn't, but he'd wallowed long enough. A drink might take the edge off the painful memories. Just one wouldn't impair his driving skills. He nodded. "Nothing a shot of tequila won't cure."
Before Creed could pour the shot, Tazer reached across and placed her hand over the shot glass. "No way. He's driving me to the airport tonight. I need him sober."
"Right." Creed set the empty shot glass on the table. "Not all of us are staying for some R and R." He glanced across at his fiancé, Emma Jenkins. "Thankfully, I am. And I know I can use a few days of downtime."
Molly moved away from their table and back to the crowd on the other side of the room. "If you all are done, I'll bring out dessert and we can begin with the legend of McGregor Manor."
The group of young and older people set down their forks and knives and offered up empty plates to Molly.
When she teetered under a stack of dishes almost as big as she was, Nova leaped to his feet and offered to help.
"No, no, I've got them," she said, her face pink from the strain.
"Yeah. I can see that." He took half, his fingers brushing against hers, sending a shot of adrenaline skimming through his body, and something more. Awareness-powerful, hot and completely arousing.
Molly's eyes flared, the green irises darker, the color in her cheeks deepening. Had she felt it, too?
Rather than drop the dishes and explore this phenomenon further, Nova gathered the remaining plates from the nearby tables, stacking them on top of the ones he'd taken from Molly, and followed her into the kitchen.
"You can set them beside the sink. I'll wash them later." She waved a hand toward the sink, refusing to lock gazes with him.
He moved around the center island, close enough to touch her, but avoiding contact. Unfortunately, he couldn't avoid his body's reaction to being alone with Molly.
As directed, he set the plates on the counter beside a sink full of water frothing with suds.
Molly washed her hands, making even that routine action sexy. Then she gathered a large tray of key-lime tarts and hurried backward through the swinging door into the dining room.
Left to himself in the kitchen, and too turned on to risk reentering the dining room with his friends, Nova scraped the leftovers off the plates into the trash can, rolled up his sleeves and started washing the enormous stack of dirty dishes. His mother had always said empty hands were the devil's tools. For some reason, he was on edge and in need of something to keep him busy. Maybe a little mindless dishwashing would calm him.
He was halfway through the plates when Molly entered, calling over her shoulder, "I'll be right back with coffee."
When she spotted him, she yelped and pressed a hand to her chest. "Oh, my. You scared a year off my life. What are you still doing in the kitchen? You're a guest."
He shrugged, his shirt damp with water he'd splashed onto it. "I thought you could use an extra set of hands."
"I would have done them later." She bit her bottom lip, the green of her eyes sparkling in the overhead light. "But thanks. You didn't have to do that."
"I know." He wanted to bite that lip and suck it into his mouth. Nova fought the urge to reach out and pull her into his arms, shocked by the raw need coursing through him.
Molly grabbed a full coffeepot and backed toward the swinging door, pausing as she pressed her shoulder to the door. "You should be out there enjoying your dessert with the others."
"I'll sit when you join us."
Before he'd finished his words, she was shaking her head. "Not possible. This is my busiest time of the day, besides breakfast. I rarely sit."
He dried his hands, gathered a second pot of coffee and turned toward her. "Then let me help you."
With a smile that lit up the room, she said, "Thanks. It is a little busier than I'm used to."
Together, he and Molly made it around the room, pouring coffee into mugs and then gathering the dessert plates as the guests polished off the last of the miniature pies.
The ghost hunters and Nova's own table of friends pushed back and stood, moving toward the dining-room door.