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"I should have fired you a long time ago," Aaron Trueno said to Talia Gibson. He'd loved her. He'd hated her. And deep inside, he knew that he'd screwed her over. But she'd screwed him over, too.
She gave him a confused look. "Why are you going off about the past? Here? Now?" She made a grand gesture at the office they were seated in. "While we're working?"
"Because I felt like it."
She huffed out a breath. "You have no right to blame me."
"Oh, yeah?" He shifted in his chair and glared at her from across his desk. "You're the one who ended it."
"And you're the one who hooked up with Jeannie."
"Yeah, after you called it quits."
"Don't twist the facts." Talia was attired in a designer suit and gold jewelry, with her stiletto-heeled legs crossed, looking as dangerously beautiful as she'd always been. "I gave you your chance, and you married her instead of me."
"My chance?" he snapped, his office closing in on him, even with its floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular view of Los Angeles. Although he'd made a vow to Jeannie, he'd never really loved her, at least not the way he should have. They'd been divorced for a little over a year, but their marriage had disintegrated soon after their son was born. "It was more like an ultimatum."
"I wanted a commitment."
"By nagging me every time I turned around? By trying to force me to propose?"
"I didn't do that."
"The hell you didn't."
"So that's why you married Jeannie? Because I pressured you and she didn't? Get real, Aaron."
Frustrated, he thought about his ex-wife. "At least Jeannie is remarried now."
"Yes, and to a non-Native man. Imagine that? She found a way tobe happy with someone from outside her culture."
"Her husband isn't like you, Talia. He respects her heritage."
Her blue eyes bore into his. "You didn't give me a chance to respect yours."
He stared right back at her. "You and I were together for five years. How much more time did you need?"
"It wasn't a matter of time." When she angled her head, a shimmer of sunlight caught her hair, enhancing the golden color. "It was a matter of principle. You never introduced me to your family."
"You're well acquainted with Thunder," he shot back, referring to his cousin and business partner.
"You work for both of us."
"Thunder doesn't count. He isn't a traditional Indian. And neither is Dylan," she added, bringing up Thunder's younger brother.
Aaron didn't respond. What was he supposed to say? That when he was a boy, he'd promised his dying father that he would marry someone from his mother's tribe? Talia knew all of that. She knew what had been expected of him.
Of course that was water under the bridge. Or it should be, he thought. Only Talia still drove him crazy.
He glanced at the file on his desk. They were supposed to be discussing a case. Aaron co-owned SPEC, a company that offered a variety of personal protection and investigative services, and Talia had been his top P.I. for eleven years. During that time, they hadn't allowed their emotions to get in the way. Or so they told themselves. But it was lie, a burden they both had to bear. Every so often, they battled their feelings.
Aaron knew he shouldn't have gotten involved with her in the first place. But eleven years ago, when she'd walked into SPEC with her resume, he'd wanted her.
So he'd hired her, intent on seducing her, even though Thunder had warned him that he was treading on perilous ground. Talia wasn't the sort of woman a man could seduce, at least not without repercussions. But Aaron had done it anyway, ignoring his cousin's foreboding advice.
"It was just supposed to be an affair," he said, narrowing his gaze at Talia.
"And it was," she quipped. "Until we were stupid enough to fall in love."
"Yeah, stupid." Aaron frowned. Sometimes he wished he had married her. And other times he cursed himself for giving a damn.
"How's Danny?" she asked, tossing him an emotional curveball by mentioning his son.
"He's fine. He's turning five on Saturday." Aaron paused, throwing her a curveball, too. "Do you want to go to his party?"
She flinched. "I know when his birthday is."
"Of course you do." But that didn't stop her from avoiding the invitation. "Danny still has that fluffy lamb you sent to the hospital."
"He does?" Her expression softened. "I remember how scared you were. Worried about how premature he was."
Aaron nodded, knowing that Talia had prayed for his child. But he didn't want to think about her kindness, not while he'd been married to someone else. Instead he wanted to grab Talia, to bruise her lips with his, to punish her with his passion.
"We should get to work," she said, morphing into business mode.
Aaron couldn't seem to switch gears. He was still thinking about kissing her.
"The Julia Alcott case," she reiterated, reminding him that Julia and her mother, Miriam, had disappeared purposely, running from the loan sharks Miriam had borrowed money from, then neglected to pay.
But what Julia and Miriam didn't know was that the loan sharks had hired a hit man to find them.
And kill them, Aaron thought. "You're right," he said, forcing himself to think about something other than Talia, to allow the missing women to take precedence in his mind. "We should get to work."
Talia studied her ex-lover, grateful that he'd quit looking at her with a deep-seated hunger in his eyes. She needed to stay focused on her job, not fall prey to the past.
Of course Julia's past was relevant. Talia was anxious to make a break in her case, to do whatever she could to help the FBI locate Julia and Miriam before the unidentified assassin did. "Thunder suggested that we devise an undercover operation."
"He told me that, too."
"Are you okay with it?"
He shrugged. "You and I have always worked well together."
She wanted to disagree, but she couldn't. His comment about firing her had been ludicrous. She and Aaron were cut from the same career-minded cloth. "We'll have to let the FBI know what we come up with. They're the primary law enforcement investigators in this case, and we agreed to share information with them."
"We should concentrate on the personality profiles the feds created on Julia and Miriam." He indicated the file on his desk. "That should help us with the operation."
Talia picked up the folder, but she didn't need to open it. The report had arrived yesterday, and by now she and Aaron had memorized it. "According to this," she said, fingering the manila edge, "Miriam probably convinced Julia to hide out in Nevada so she could sneak off and gamble."
"Yes, but it also states that Julia would probably be wise to her mother's tricks." He took the file from her. "Why don't we start with Gamblers Anonymous and see if Julia talked her mother into attending any meetings."
Talia sat forward in her chair. "I'll get a list of GA locations in Nevada."
"I think we should focus on the open meetings, the ones family and friends can attend. I doubt Julia would trust Miriam to go alone. Who knows? Maybe we'll get lucky and come across Miriam and Julia at a meeting. Or the hit man," he added.
"Especially if the other participants trust us. One of us can pose as a gambler, and the other can be a family member."
"How about spouses?" he asked, snaring her gaze.
"Spouses?" she parroted.
"We can take on the role of a married couple." Talia forced herself to breathe. "That's not funny, Aaron."
The hunger in his eyes returned. "Do I look as though I'm kidding?"
No, she thought. He looked as though he was capable of seducing her, of making her fall in love with him all over again.
"I don't want to be your wife. Not anymore," she added, memories floating too close to the surface. In spite of his ultimatum claim, there was a time when marrying him had been her agenda, the very thing she'd wanted most.
"That's exactly why this cover will work. Our marriage can be in trouble." The hunger got deeper, darker, much more intense. "We can use the chemistry between us. The heat. The anger."
He was right. Their cover would ring true. No one, not even the hit man--if they happened to cross his path--would believe otherwise. "Then you should be the gambler. The one who screwed up our marriage."
"Sure. Why not? I'm good at that." Cynicism sharpened his voice. "Just ask Jeannie. She'll tell you what a lousy husband I was."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" At this point, she was doing her damnedest to protect herself. Talia had grown up with a house full of men, with a blue-collar father and three testosterone-pumped brothers. She was used to fighting for her rights. But battling her way out of love was a whole other ball game. "I'd rather not think about what kind of husband you were."
"You better get used to my lousy disposition if you're going to be my undercover wife." He dragged his hand through his hair, pulling a loose strand off his forehead. Aaron had sexy hair, dark and straight and unyieldingly thick.
She frowned at him. Everything about him was sexy, right down to the slashing cheekbones that boasted his heritage. Aaron was from two nations: White Mountain Apache and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians.