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There was nothing like a short, glittery skirt, long legs encased in smoky stockings and spiked do-me heels to make a man sit up and take notice.
And Simon Barton considered it his duty to watch this particular woman currently shimmying her hips rhythmically on the dance floor. The investment firm's holiday party was in full swing, complete with barely dressed women, many soon-to-be-regretted-when-sober PDAs, an open bar and a lush buffet.
For a people watcher, this party was better than the circus, juggling clowns andSimon noted one guy slipping his hand down the dress of the sloshed woman draped over his lapa porno flick, all rolled into a single package.
But he only had eyes for one woman.
Not because she was gorgeous. Although she was.
Long black hair fell in curls almost to the tiny waist of a vivid green dress that had as much sparkle as her hips had personality. The fabric hugged a body made to bring grown men to their knees, long sleeves and a high neck giving the illusion of modesty at odds with the sexy placemat that passed for a skirt. Legs way too long for such a petite body were encased in smoke black stockings leading all the way down to a pair of strappy sandals so high, Simon could only wince. The woman was fascinating.
Not because she seemed to have this knack for making herself invisible, despite her striking looks. Although she did. Every time one of, from what Simon could tell were the high muckety-mucks wandered past, she shifted. Unobtrusively placing another dancer, diner or chit-chatter between her and the higher-ups.
And not because she was a puzzle. Although, oh yeah, she was. One he was sure he'd solve. Sooner or later.
Because she was the key to his future.
He felt, rather than heard, his cell phone ring in the pocket of his slacks.
His gaze still locked on the overblown beauty on the dance floor, Simon pulled out his phone. He glanced at the readout, grimaced, then stepped into a quiet corner where his view was unimpeded, but the sound was muted.
"I thought you were on assignment."
"I wrapped it up. Now I'm on personal time."
"Watching Maya Black is a personal thing for you?"
Christ. Did Hunter have eyes everywhere? Simon gave an infinitesimal wince, his eyes still on those lush hips encased in holiday green. "A man would have to be three-times dead not to have a personal reaction to watching a woman like her."
"How'd you find her?"
"I'm a trained FBI agent," Simon said sardonically. "An assumed name is a piece of cake."
"You hacked her file?" Hunter's words were matter-of-fact.
Simon shifted his eyes off the sweetly swaying hips to inspect his fingernails. "would I do that?"
"In a heartbeat."
Whether he knew it or not, Hunter was Simon's mentor. The man whose career he'd used as a template for his own. Simon wanted nothing more than to climb the same ladders and spark the same attention. The Deputy Director was considered the elite of the elite. A man with a reputation for making the rules work for him, even as he worked around them. Assignment to Hunter's department was Simon's Holy Grail. There he'd rise through the ranks at least twice as fast as anywhere else. But Hunter's team was so exclusive, he only brought in major players. Agents who'd made huge busts.
Busts like the Black case. Simon's gaze wandered back to the tempting sway of Maya Black's hips. Since it was totally inappropriate to lust after a suspect, he tried to convince his body that the surge of energy he felt at the sight of her was because she was his ticket to a major promotion.
"Why are you watching her?" he challenged, tossing the ball back in Hunter's court.
"Who says I am? I might be watching you."
Simon's laugh garnered more than one appreciative female glance. Not unusual. He got a lot of looks from ladies. Sometimes he used the advantages his tall, well-built golden-boy looks offered. other times he ignored them.
This time, he nodded at a couple of them, but shifted his weight, making it clear he wasn't looking for more. He might not be on the job, per se, but this was all business.
"Maya Black isn't a person of interest. You're out of bounds."
Simon shrugged that off. He figured boundaries were a fluid thing. He only paid attention to the ones that served him.
"She's got a record," he pointed out. "Arrest, no conviction."
"She was guilty."
"We don't know that. No," Hunter interrupted before Simon could haul out his well-worn argument, "we don't. We have conjecture, speculation and a whole lot of circumstantial supposition."
What they had were sloppy agents who had obviously been incompetent. Maya Black had been busted for computer invasion, breaking into the files of a well-placed businessman with a bad reputation. The case should have been open and shut, but the arresting officers had neglected to confiscate all of the computers on site when they'd brought her in. Within hours, the evidence had disappeared, the arrest compromised. Maya Black released.
Simon shook his head in disgust.
"She was running a Ponzi con with her old man and bungled it. If the agent in charge had been patient, he'd have had a solid case."
"That's your opinion," Hunter said, his tone one degree colder than before. It took Simon a heartbeat to remember that the agent in charge of the Black case was Hunter's father.
"It doesn't matter. I'm not here on official business. I'm just here, checking out the view," he hedged, returning to the reason for Hunter's call.
"You're stepping on dangerous ground," Hunter warned.
"I live for danger." That wasn't the official FBI motto, but Simon had seen enough of it in his nine years with the agency that he figured he had the right to use it as an excuse.
"Don't die for it," Hunter responded in typical fashion before hanging up.
Simon grinned. You had to like the guy. He was crazy smart, scary intuitive and could kick some serious ass, too. And he didn't hold the reins too tight on his agents. Which was why Simon wasn't too worried about stepping outside the lines in this matter. Hunter was more about results than he was about micromanaging. Yet another reason Simon wanted that transfer. Working with the elite would let him hone his skills, and fast track him toward his own shot at Deputy Director.
Something he'd dreamed of since he was a kid. That dream had been the impetus to haul himself out of the dregs that was his childhood. Not just to survive, but to thrive. Making that dream come true would prove, not just to him, but to everyone who'd ever doubted him, that he was more than the loser with no future.
Which brought him back to the voluptuous delight laughing and doing the twist by the twinkling lights of the ten-foot Christmas tree. She was hot. She was sexy. And she was his ticket. Not to the next rung on the ladder, but to jumping up three or four rungs at once.
Tobias Black was a legend. Reputed con artist who'd done more jobs than a hooker in the financial district at lunchtime. He was slick, quick and according to most, untouchable. Intel had him retiring to go straight about five years back, but the statute of limitations wasn't up on all of his crimes yet. Simon knew that busting the old man, where so many had failed over the years, would be a guarantee of fame, accolades and a corner office in FBI headquarters, D.C.
He hadn't figured out how, yet. But he was pretty sure the guy's only daughter would be his key. He just had to wait for the right break. That he'd already been waiting for two years, checking in on Maya from time to time, didn't bother him. Patience was a weapon he'd honed to a razor-sharp edge.
Every few months he laid over in San Francisco to do a little recon and see what she was up to. Sooner or later, she'd get edgy and tire of this straight game she was playing.
Sooner or later, she'd give him the opening he needed.
Then he'd have her.
And his future would be set.
"Whew, I need a break." Maya DeLongue slid the fingers of both hands into her hair and lifted it, trying to get some cool air on the back of her neck. "It's crazy hot in here. Can we get a drink?"
"Sure, sugar." Her date wrapped his hand around her waist, pulling her close. Always wary of public displays of affection that might call attention to her, Maya shifted, taking Dave's hand off her waist and making a show of holding it instead as he led her from the dance floor.
Braverment Investments knew how to show their employees a good time. Plenty of alcohol flowing, just enough food to blunt the worst of the booze overload and music loud enough to prevent the employees from actually having to socialize. It was a hit.
A tension headache brewing, Maya already regretted coming.
She'd spent the last three years trying to be average in her version of the witness protection program, or in her case, the criminal protection program. Her position in IT at Braverment was perfect for her. It paid enough to keep her in the style her tastes required, in a company large enough to let her hide in plain sight. But the powers-that-be probably wouldn't be too big on hiring a gal who'd spent her formative years specializing in computer hacking.
But average was lonely.
So she'd promised herself that this season she was going to quit hiding away. She had to be able to hide her true identity and have a fun, average life at the same time. So she'd forced herself to shimmy into a little green holiday dress and play the part of a social butterfly.
Sighing, she shifted in her Jimmy Choos and stepped through the wide glass doors onto the rooftop balcony. The cold December night wrapped around her body, making her shiver. The view of the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge more than made up for the chilly weather, though.
"Hey, Carly," she greeted when they reached one of the many tables scattered under the night sky. "Can we join you?"
Maya wasn't especially fond of the other woman, another assistant at the investment firm they both worked for. The busty blonde was ambitious, backstabbing and didn't play well with the other girls. But Maya knew she had to play nice with people like Carly to keep their knives as far away from her own back as possible.
"Sure," the blonde agreed, puffing on her cigarette and checking Dave out before waving a hand to indicate the empty chairs.
"Can I get you ladies drinks?" Dave offered.
"Martini," Carly agreed instantly.
"I'll stick with water," Maya said. Seeing their looks, she excused, "I'm a little dehydrated from all the dancing."
The truth was, she didn't drink alcohol. Ever. But neither did she like explaining herself, so she kept that little fact private.
She folded herself into one of the chairs, enjoying the way Dave's gaze roamed over her legs. In her quest for a normal, average life, she'd finally given herself permission to date a guy she might have a future with. Sure, this was only their third date, but she had high hopes for Dave. He was nice.
"A martini and a water," Dave said, his eyes glommed on to her thighs. "Got it."
With a grin and a wink, he turned on his heel and hurried back into the party. Maya sighed. It was pretty obvious that someone thought he was getting lucky tonight.
"He's hot. Are you two serious?" Carly asked.
Maya glanced at the blonde before her gaze followed the path Dave had taken. He was hot. Sorta. Sorta-tall, sorta-dark, sorta-handsome. Sure, that sexy bad-boy edge that usually drew her was missing. But that was the point. That made him safe, which was priority number one.
"We're having fun," she said, sidestepping the question. "How about you? Are you here with someone?"
They spent the next few minutes exchanging desultory chit chat. Maya's gaze wandered, noting the twinkling lights framing the balcony, the few occupied tables and the noted lack of excitement she was feeling.
She'd been doing this normal life thing for three years now. In part, to prove she could. But mostly because she'd never had normal growing up. Like some kids craved the exotic, she'd craved average.
But she'd come to realize that average, after a while, was pretty damned boring. Hence Dave. And he was a nice guy. She just didn't feel any real excitement, any wildly hot energy between them.
Maybe it was time to move on?
She was still mulling that idea, and just what it would mean to her life, when Dave returned with the drinks. She listened to him and Carly chat and wondered what it was like to be that carefree. For a girl who'd been calculating the odds since her toddler years, the concept was totally foreign.
"Maya, you don't mind if I borrow your friend for a dance or two?" Carly asked, slinking to her feet in a move worthy of the most sinuous snake in the jungle.
Maya smirked when she saw the slight bulge of Dave's eyes as he got the full impact of Carly's double Ds. She couldn't blame him. The view was mesmerizing, in a train-wreck kind of way.
"Sure," she said. Then she added, "But just a couple dances. I expect him back in the same shape you're borrowing him."
Dave laughed like a giddy schoolboy, but Carly caught the message. Her vamp smile dimmed a notch, then she nodded before leading Dave away. As they entered the room, though, Maya saw the other woman's hand slip over Dave's ass.
She should be jealous. Pissed, even. But she wasn't. Why not? He was a nice guy. And he fit perfectly into her average life. Her nice, average boyfriend. Someone to ease her loneliness. Maya sighed, wishing the cool night air would clear her head of all the confusing thoughts.
She stood to walk toward the balcony wall and get a better view of the Golden Gate, but accidentally knocked her water bottle off the table as she rose.
It spun across the outdoor carpet toward the shadows. She hurried over to grab it just as it rolled to a stop at a pair of feet clad in highend cowboy boots.
Maya sighed. A cowboy in California? Oh, please.
Keeping her eye roll to herself, she stopped a foot away and checked out the rest of the wild west show. Her mental sneer shifted as her gaze climbed up long, long jeans-clad legs, a leather belt around a narrow waist and a chest that begged to be nuzzled. The collar of a dark green shirt was opened, his jacket looked pricey and she let her gaze finish the climb.
And felt the earth shift just a little.
Oh, baby, he was gorgeous.
A square jaw and slashing cheekbones were the perfect frame for a face that could sell magazines, cars and women's souls. Long-lashed eyes echoed the green of his shirt, his lips were kissably full and the only thing keeping him from being a pretty boy was a scar, high on his cheekbone.
One side of his mouth quirked in amusement at her inspection as he bent down to grab the bottle.
"Yours?" he asked, his voice declaring his right to wear those thousand-dollar cowboy boots. Cultured, rich and definitely Southern.