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He had two weeks to gain the information he needed to stop terrorists with weapons of mass destruction from entering the country. But everything his six-man team had done so far had been a bust.
Undercover operative Jamie Cassidy sat with his back to the wall in the far corner at the Yellow Armadillo, a seedy, small-town bar on the backstreets of Pebble Creek, Texas. Country music streamed from overhead speakers; the place was dark and dingy, the food was fried within an inch of its life. But the beer was cold, the only nice thing that could be said about the joint.
"So you have no idea who the new boss is?" he asked the scrawny farmhand across the table.
Billy Brunswik fingered the rim of the tattered Stetson on his lap, his eyes on his empty glass. A cowboy tan left the top of his forehead white, the rest of his face several shades darker. His checkered blue shirt was wrinkled and smudged with dirt, as if he'd been wearing it for more than a day or two. He silently shook his head.
Jamie had his own cowboy hat and jeans and shirt to fit in, a far cry from his usual commando gear. In a place like thisa known hangout for smugglersbeing spotted as a government man could quickly earn you a bullet in the back.
He waved the perky blonde waitress over for another round for Billy but didn't return her flirty smile. His attention was on the man across the table. "It's tough. Believe me, I know." He waited until the waitress left. "In this economy, and they cut off work. Hell, what are you supposed to do? Who do you go to now?"
"Nobody knows nuthin'." Billy set his empty glass down and wiped his upper lip with the back of his calloused hand, then pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco and tucked a pinch between gum and cheek. "I can barely buy groceries for the girlfriend and me, I'll tell you that."
Jamie watched him for a few seconds, then slid three twenties across the table. "I know how it is."
Billy was on the cash like a duck on a june bug, the bills disappearing in a flat second. He looked around nervously, licking his crooked yellow front teeth. "I ain't no snitch."
Jamie gave a sympathetic nod. "A man has to live. And I ain't asking for nothing that would get you in trouble. Just need enough to show the boss I've been working." He shrugged, playing the halfhearted customs agent role.
Billy hung his head. "I do work a little," he admitted. "When nobody's lookin'. Just some weed."
"Who do you kick up to?"
"Ain't nobody there since Kenny."
And no matter how hard Jamie pushed the down-on-his-luck farmhand after that, Billy didn't give up anything. Although he did promise to get in touch if things changed.
Developing an asset was a slow and careful business.
Jamie left the man and strode across the bar, looking for familiar faces as he passed the rows of tables. The two border towns his team watched, Hullett and Pebble Creek, had their share of smugglers, most of them lying low these days. He didn't recognize anyone here today.
He paid the waitress at the bar, stepped outside into the scorching heat then shoved his hat on his head and rubbed his eyes. He'd spent the night on border patrol, then most of the morning running down leads. His legs hurt. The doc at Walter Reed called it phantom-limb pain.
He resisted the urge to reach down and rub his prosthetic limbs. It did nothing for the pain, and he hated the feel of the cold steel where his legs should have been.
He strode up to Main Street, came out by the bank and drew a hundred out of the ATM while he was here, since Billy had cleaned him out. Then his gaze caught on the bookstore across the street. Maybe a good read would help him fall asleep. When on duty, his mind focused on work. But when he rested, memories of his dark past pushed their way back into his head. Sleep had a way of eluding him.
He cut across traffic and pushed inside the small indie bookstore, into the welcoming cool of air-conditioning, and strode straight to the mystery section. He picked out a hard-boiled detective story, then turned on his heels and came face-to-face with the woman of his dreams.
Okay, the woman of every red-blooded man's dreams.
She was tall and curvy, with long blond hair swinging in a ponytail, startling blue eyes that held laughter and a mouth to kill or die for, depending on what she wished.
His mind went completely blank for a second, while his body sat up and took serious notice.
When his dreams weren't filled with blood and torture and killing, they were filled with sex. He could still do the actone thing his injury hadn't taken away from him. But he didn't allow himself. He didn't want pity. Foreplay shouldn't start with him taking off his prostheticsthe ultimate mood killer. And he definitely didn't want the questions.
Hell, even he hated touching the damn things. Who wouldn't? He wasn't going to put himself through that humiliation. Wasn't going to put a woman in a position where she'd have to start pretending.
But he dreamed, and his imagination made it good. The woman of his dreams was always the same, an amalgamation of pinup girls that had been burned into his brain during his adolescent years from various magazines he and his brothers had snuck into the house.
And now she was standing in front of him.
The pure, molten-lava lust that shot through his gut nearly knocked him off his feet. And aggravated the hell out of him. He'd spent considerable time suppressing his physical needs so they wouldn't blindside him like this.
"Howdy," she said with a happy, peppy grin that smoothed out the little crease in her full bottom lip. She had a great mouth, crease or no crease. Made a man think about his lips on hers and going lower.
He narrowed his eyes. Then he pushed by her with a dark look, keeping his face and body language discouraging. Who the hell was she to upset his hard-achieved balance?
He strode up to the counter and paid with cash because he didn't want to waste time punching buttons on the card reader. He didn't want to spend another second in a place where he could be ambushed like this. The awareness of her back somewhere among the rows of books still tingled all across his skin.
"I'm sorry." The elderly man behind the counter handed back the twenty-dollar bill. "I can't take this." He flashed an apologetic smile as he pushed up his horn-rimmed glasses, then tugged down his denim shirt in a nervous gesture. "The scanner kicked it back."
"I just got it from the bank across the street," Jamie argued, not in the mood for delay.
"I'm sorry, sir."
"Everything okay, Fred?" The woman he'd tried to pretend didn't exist came up behind Jamie.
Her voice was as smooth as the kind of top-shelf whiskey the Yellow Armadillo couldn't afford to carry. Its sexy timbre tickled something behind his breastbone. He kept his back to her, against enormous temptation to turn, hoping she'd get the hint to mind her own business.
Then he had to turn, anyway, because next thing he knew she was talking to him.
"I'd be happy to help. How about we go next door and I'll help you figure this out?"
The police station stood next door. All he wanted was to go home and see if he could catch a few winks before his next shift. "I don't think so." He peeled off another twenty, which went through the scanner without trouble. Next thing he knew, Fred was handing back his change.
"I really think we should," the woman insisted.
Apparently, she had trouble with the concept of minding her own business. He shot her a look of disapproval, hoping she'd take the hint.
He tried to look at nothing but her eyes, but all that sparkling blue was doing things to him. Hell, another minute, and if she asked him to eat the damned twenty, he would have probably done it. He caught that thought, pushed back hard.
"Who the hell are you?" He kept his tone at a level of surly that had taken years to perfect.
The cheerleader smile never even wavered as she pulled her badge from her pocket and flashed it at him. "Brianna Tridle. Deputy sheriff."
He looked her over more thoroughly: the sexy snake-skin boots, the hip-hugging jeans, the checkered shirt open at the neck, giving a hint of the top curve of her breasts. His palms itched for a feel. If there was such a thing as physical perfection, she was it.
Any guy who had two brain cells to rub together would have gone absolutely anywhere with her.
Except Jamie Cassidy.
"I'm in a hurry."
"Won't take but a minute." She tilted her head, exposing the creamy skin of her neck just enough to bamboozle him. "I've been having a hard time with counterfeit bills turning up in town lately. I'd really appreciate the help. I'll keep it as quick as possible, I promise." The smile widened enough to reveal some pearly white teeth.
Teeth a man wouldn't have minded running his tongue along before kissing her silly.
Certainly not Jamie.
Okay, so she was the deputy sheriff. The sheriff, Kenny Davis, had been killed recently. He'd been part of the smuggling operation Jamie's team was investigating. A major player, actually.
After that, Ryder McKay, Jamie's team leader, had looked pretty closely at the Pebble Creek police department. The rest of them came up squeaky clean. A shame, really. Jamie definitely felt like his world would be safer with Brianna Tridle locked away somewhere far from him.
She was too chirpy by half.
He didn't like chirpy.
But if she wasn't a suspect, she could be an allyif he played his cards right. Although poker wasn't the first thing to spring to mind when he thought about playing with her. He could no longer feel the air-conditioning. In fact, it seemed the AC might have broken since he'd come in. The place felt warm suddenly. Hot, even.
He loosened the neck of his shirt. "Fine. Five minutes."
He held the door for her, regretting it as she flashed another gut punch of a smile. She better not read anything into that basic courtesy. He'd been raised right, that was all. He couldn't help it. He wasn't falling for her charms, no way, he thought as she walked in front of him, hips swinging.
The gentle sway held him mesmerized for a minute. Then he blinked hard as he finally focused on one specific spot. Was that a small firearm tucked under her waistband, covered by her shirt? Hard to tell with his eyes trying to slide lower.
He looked more carefully. Damn if the slight bulge wasn't a weapon. She'd been armed the entire time and he'd never noticed. He was seriously losing it.
He drew in a slow breath as they walked into the station. On second thought, forget developing her as an asset. Working with her would probably be more trouble than it was worth.
He was going to tell Brianna Tridle where, when and exactly how he'd come into possession of the stupid twenty-dollar bill in question. Then he was walking out and not looking back. If he had even a smidgen of luck coming to him, he'd never see her again.
"I really appreciate this." Bree measured up the cowboy with the bad attitude.
Not a real Texas cowboy, actually. He was missing the Texas twang, his general accent making it difficult to pin down from where he hailed. And he wore combat boots with his jeans. It threw off his cowboy swagger. He had shadows all around him, his aura a mixture of dangerous and sexy. He was hot enough to give women heart palpitations on his worst day.
Not that that sort of thing affected her. She was a seasoned law enforcement officer. "And your name is?"
"Jamie Cassidy." He didn't offer his hand, or even a hint of a smile as he scanned the station.
She'd bet good money he didn't miss many details.
Fine. She was proud of the place, clean and organized. The dozen people working there were the finest in South Texas. She would trust each and every one of them to have her back.
While he examined her station, she examined him.
He stood tall, well built, his dirty-blond hair slightly mussed as he took his hat off. When he ran his fingers through it in an impatient gesture, Bree's own fingertips tingled.
He had the face of a tortured angel, all angles and masculine beauty. His chocolate-brown eyes seemed permanently narrowed and displeased. Especially as he took in the metal detectors she'd had installed just last week.
Lena, the rookie officer manning the scanner, held out a gray plastic tray for him.
Bree offered a smile. "We just upped our security. If you could hand over anything metal in your pockets and walk through, I'd appreciate it."
She was in charge of the station until the new sheriff was elected. They'd had an incident recently with a drunk housewife who'd come in to file a complaint against her husband, then ended up shooting a full clip into the ceiling to make sure they believed her when she said she would shoot the bastard if he came into her new double-wide one more time with muddy boots.
She'd been a bundle of booze and wild emotionsthe very opposite of Jamie Cassidy, who seemed the epitome of cold and measured.
He scowled as he dropped his cell phone, handful of change and car keys into the small plastic tray. "I'm going to set the alarm off." He tapped his leg. "Prosthesis."
That was it, then, Bree thought as she watched him. The reason why his walk had been off a smidgen. "Not a problem, Lena," she told the rookie, who was staring at him with dreamy eyes. "I'll pat him down."
"No." His face darkened as his gaze cut to hers.
They did a long moment of the staring-each-other-down thing. Then his lips narrowed as he fished around in his shirt pocket and pulled out a CBP badge.
Customs and Border Protection. And the plot thickens. She tilted her head as she considered him. Why not show the badge sooner?
Maybe it was a fake. She'd worked pretty closely with CBP for the past couple of years. She'd never seen him before. If she had, she would have definitely remembered him.
She widened her smile. Defusing tension in a bad situation always worked better than escalating it. "I need to check you just the same. New procedure. Sorry."
For a second he looked like he might refuse and simply walk away from her. She kept her hand near her firearm at her back, ready to stop him. She preferred to do things the easy way, but she could do it the hard way if needed. Up to him.
But then he seemed to change his mind and held out his arms to the side. She wondered if he knew that his smoldering look of resentment only made him look sexier.
"It'll only take a second." She ran her fingers along his arms first, lightly. Plenty of muscle. If he did change his mind and began causing trouble, she would definitely need her service weapon.
She moved her hands to his torso and found more impressive muscles there. She could feel the heat of his body through his shirt and went faster when her fingertips began to tingle again, a first for her during pat down. What on earth was wrong with her today? She tried to focus on what she was doing. Okay, no shoulder holster, no sidearm here.
"Almost done." She squatted as she moved down his legs, pausing at the sharp transition where the living flesh gave way to rigid metal. Both of his legs were missing. Her gaze flew up to his.
He looked back down at her with something close to hatea proud man who didn't like his weaknesses seen.
"Enough." He stepped back.
But she stepped after him. "One more second."
Awareness tingled down her spine as she pulled up and reached around his waist, almost as if she were hugging him. And there, tucked behind his belt, she found a small, concealed weapon.
She removed the firearm carefully, pointing it down, making sure her fingers didn't come near the trigger. "When were you going to tell me about this?" She checked the safety. On. Okay.