Read an Excerpt
Up in Smoke
A Crossing the Line Novel
By Tessa Bailey, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Tessa Bailey
All rights reserved.
You can take the man out of the SEALs ...
Connor Bannon stared across the empty conference room at the clock, watching the second hand tick past 3:00 p.m. Impatience prickled the back of his neck. He hated being late. Hated other people being late. If the navy had taught him one thing, it was how to show up on time. Even now, when his military career wasn't even visible in the rearview mirror and the consequences weren't nearly as severe, his ass showed up when it was supposed to. He couldn't be late if he tried.
Apparently he'd been banished into the midst of an undercover squad that didn't share the same quality.
Connor tapped his fist against his knee, breathing through the need to look at the clock again. The blank whiteboard and the room's six empty chairs mocked him. He didn't like going into meetings blind. It went against his nature to be unprepared, but he'd been given no choice. All he knew was Bowen Driscol and Seraphina Newsom were on the squad, sent from New York City to Chicago in exchange for favors, same as him. For the first time since his short-lived stint with the SEALs, he was going to be on the right side of the law.
Or the wrong side, depending on who was doing the asking.
He'd be working with cons, criminals who wanted to stay out of prison. That was where his knowledge started and ended, truly pissing him off. If they'd been given the same options as him, they'd decided helping the Chicago Police Department catch criminals such as themselves was the lesser of two evils.
Another valuable lesson he'd learned from the SEALs? If it doesn't look like a bomb, it's probably a bomb.
The door of the conference room flew open, crashing against the opposite wall. Connor's hand flew toward the small of his back, searching futilely for his gun — a gun the uniforms had taken away from him upon arrival, dammit. He shot to his feet instead, focusing on the ... threat?
"Relax, trigger. I like to make an entrance."
A girl sauntered into the conference room, her combat boots jingling with each step, as if there were bells attached. She wore a shirt that said Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe over a pair of ripped jean shorts that ended just below her ass. An ass that he'd noticed even before he registered her bright pink hair. Who the fuck?
She tossed a frayed canvas bag onto the table and sprawled into the seat across from his currently empty one, head tilting slightly as she regarded him. Amusement transformed her features from merely beautiful to interesting and beautiful. From distracting to the distraction he didn't need. Like she fucking needed the extra push.
Since when did he get mad at girls for being good-looking?
Very slowly, she looked him over. Connor felt her gaze slide over his crotch and bit back the urge to adjust himself, to hide the wood he'd sprung in honor of a girl who'd been in his presence for thirty seconds. He didn't like this. Didn't like feeling out of control of the situation. He let people see only what he allowed, but somehow this girl had walked into the room, said eight words, and thrown him off his game.
"Well." She sat back in her chair and winked at him. "I guess the nickname 'trigger' is appropriate in more ways than one."
Connor sat back down and dug his fingers into his knee, forcing himself to show no outward reaction. He hated the nickname she'd just christened him with, but he'd be damned before he let her know. "Your name, please."
Her lips twitched. "So formal, aren't you, baby?" A flicker of calculation entered her eyes before disappearing, but it told him to expect her next move. She dragged her full lower lip between her teeth and propped both feet up on the table, giving him a view of her thighs that clogged the breath in his throat. She crossed her feet at the ankles, but not before he glimpsed where those legs led. The tiny patch of denim covering her pussy. "Call me whatever you want. Just don't expect me to answer."
Jesus Christ. If she made him any harder, he'd have to excuse himself. "I wouldn't say your name unless I had a good reason."
She swayed her feet back and forth. "Give me your best one."
The urge to shift in his seat was strong. "You've already looked right at it."
Her feet stilled. He caught a flash of surprise and uncertainty, confusing the hell out of him. Had he read her signals wrong? One minute she was challenging him, and the next, she looked frozen in the headlights. Or maybe he'd just called her bluff? His ability to read people had been his saving grace more than once since being dishonorably discharged from the SEALs two years ago. Working as a street enforcer in Brooklyn for his cousin's underground crime ring, the skills he'd honed in the navy had been utilized on a daily basis. Often in ways he didn't like to recall, but forced himself to, anyway. To remember what he'd been reduced to.
But reading this girl was difficult, even for him. She'd flashed her thighs at him as if wanting a reaction, but when he'd given it to her, she'd clammed up. Whatever the reason, he refused to show another ounce of interest. He wasn't interested. This girl couldn't scream trouble any louder. He was through with trouble. Done.
"So." She finally recovered her entertained expression. "What kind of piece were you reaching for when I walked in?"
He simply narrowed his eyes at her.
"Hey, you're preaching to the choir. They took my favorite Ruger." She pouted. "Has my initials painted in Wite-Out on the side and everything."
Oh, I get it now. She's crazy. "Why are you here?"
His abrupt question didn't faze her. "Three o'clock meeting, same as you. Some people just don't value punctuality."
The way she smirked when she said it made him think she'd read his mind upon walking into the room. But that was impossible. Who the fuck was this girl? A tempting weapons enthusiast who also happened to be perceptive? He needed to know more. Just enough to solve the formula she presented, so he could pack up his curiosity and store it away. "I wasn't asking why you're in this room. What landed you on this squad?"
She inspected her fingernails. "Ah. The old what are you in for conversation. I don't want to play." Her boots abruptly hit the ground. "Just kidding, I'm in. But you have to go first."
"Impasse," she whispered, walking her fingers across the table. "I could guess why you're here, but you'd dislike that more than simply telling me."
Connor said nothing. He would dislike that. Guesswork had always been a source of irritation for him. He dealt only in facts. Again, he got the feeling this girl saw more than most people. The air of mayhem she wore like a second skin probably made people underestimate her. He wouldn't be one of them.
"You have a military background. But you're not there now, are you?" She leaned across the table and he caught a whiff of smoke. Not cigarette smoke. Like the strike of a match, or the lingering scent of incense. "It isn't difficult math, soldier."
"Don't call me that."
"You don't like trigger, baby, or soldier." Her tongue lingered against her top lip. "If you don't like any of my nicknames, better tell me your real one."
Connor almost laughed. Almost. The nicknames had been her roundabout way of getting him to spill his name first. He'd nearly walked right into it. Why were they waging a battle over something so minor? When this meeting started, they would find out each other's names anyway.
It was time to let this girl know he didn't play games. At least not the kind that took place while fully clothed. As he leaned across the table, he watched her blue eyes widen and knew she had to be a blonde underneath that pink hair. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were light, her coloring fair. She'd look goddamn perfect against my black sheets ... arms stretched over her head, unable to free herself. Not really wanting to get free at all.
"I never said I didn't like you calling me baby."
Dammit. Had he said that out loud? He'd decided not to show her any more interest. Once he made a decision, he stuck to it. Every time. He resented her for being the one to make him deviate. If she weren't leaning so close, her small tits pressing against the front of her shirt, maybe he'd have kept his resolve. He'd always liked women with bouncy little tits, and he'd lay ten to one odds she wasn't wearing a bra. "Maybe I just want to hear you call me that under different circumstances."
When her confidence visibly wavered, Connor wanted to curse. These contradicting sides to her were only increasing his need to know more, and he did not want to get involved. Couldn't afford to. Her chin went up a notch, and that show of fire amidst the uncertainty turned him on. "What circumstances would those be?"
Too soon. Too insane. He'd just met this girl. They'd be working together. He couldn't sit here in the light of day and detail the many activities he'd like to perform with her. Even if he wanted to, just to see her reaction. To see if she wanted him, too. But what would he do if she did? Drag her onto the conference room table, tug her shirt up to her neck, and get a look at those tits? He'd have to get her back to his apartment if he did that, damn the meeting.
Change the subject. "Why do you smell like smoke?"
Her eyelashes shielded her eyes a second before they flashed wide, hitting him square in the chest with the force of their impact. "I set things on fire."
Any other time, the expression on the hot, bearded ex-soldier's face would have made Erin O'Dea dissolve into a fit of laughter. It wasn't the usual response men gave her when she played the crazy card. Not at all. Maybe that was why she wasn't laughing. This guy wasn't typical. Didn't fit her profile of what men should be like. They all wanted to get inside her until she performed her fun little reveal. Surprise, sweetheart. I'm a convicted arsonist. You might be next.
Cue haunted house cackle.
They never asked why she'd done it or questioned the circumstances, simply vanishing into a puff of smoke. Exactly as planned. This guy wasn't vanishing, however. He hadn't flinched, not once, and the trickle of relief in her chest pissed her off. The words "proceed with caution" flashed across her consciousness, sparking and flaming around the edges. This man would ask why and question the circumstances. Having only met him mere minutes ago, she shouldn't be so certain of that fact, but it would be reckless to put him in the same category as other men who scared easily. His steady green eyes were so intent on her, she worried her mask might slip underneath the weight of them. She didn't want him to be the first person to ask her why. She didn't want anyone to ask her why. Her secrets were all she had. After you'd lived behind bars among hundreds of women with your privacy stripped clean away, you held on to what you could. You didn't let it go for a pair of muscular biceps.
This one just needed a few more nudges and he'd lose interest. It was possible he already had and could hide his emotions better than most. She knew all about that. Although some people, her stepfather mainly, wanted her to be certifiably crazy, it was probably only half true. Yeah, she was a little off. For good reason. The man sitting across from her would recognize it soon enough and stop looking at her like he wanted to devour her, bite by bite.
His gaze became too much to bear and Erin focused on the window. Only one pane of glass between her and the outside. She could survive anything, face anything, as long as that was the case. Which was why she was here. You could only dodge so many bullets before one caught you in the back. This place, this job, was her bullet between the shoulder blades. Woman down.
Working for cops. Hell must have been having a fucking snowstorm. She hadn't spit on the sidewalk on the way in for no reason. Cops were the enemy. The men and women who took away her freedom. Laughed as they stripped away her dignity. They thought handcuffs and a gun made them smart, but it only made them complacent. At age twenty-five, she'd already proven that. Twice.
The ex-soldier's raised eyebrow told her she was smiling. After what she'd just said to him, he probably thought that smile meant she was a lunatic. Mission accomplished. For the first time since she'd sworn off men, she regretted sending one running. But it was entirely necessary. This man — this big, rough-hewn male — was an enforcer. More than that, he had a brain working behind all that stoicism. Even if she were inclined to call him baby in certain circumstances, it would be disastrous. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out he would be dominant in bed. The way he was clenching his fists as if fighting for control, even with her a full two feet away, told her that. He'd be the type to hold a woman down while he pounded out his lust.
That image might have turned her on at one time. Now it terrified her.
Still. She allowed her gaze to drop to his lips. Who knew she could find a beard so appealing? It wasn't rugged, but close-cut. Well-maintained. He looked like a man who could survive on his own in the wilderness with nothing but string and a Windbreaker. Capable. Made of steel. What would that beard feel like against her cheeks, her chin? If she leaned a little closer across the table, he might let her find out. If he hadn't already decided she belonged in a straitjacket. Take a number, pal.
"You'd better decide now if this meeting is important to you," he growled. "Because if you keep looking at me like you want to kiss me, neither one of us is going to be here for it."
Hooo boy. Something she'd thought long gone shimmied in her belly. "That's pretty confident."
Erin drummed her fingers on the table before reaching one hand out, intending to tug his beard. "I'm just curious about what this feels like. In places."
He caught her wrist in midair before it made contact. "You touch me, you'll find out."
Ice formed beneath her skin, so freezing cold that it burned like blue fire. Her muscles tightened to the point of pain. She focused on her breathing. In and out. In and out. Just a little tug and her hand would be free. Nothing could contain her. She'd made sure of that. He might harness a lot of power in that muscular frame, but she didn't sense that he would use it on her. Unless she asked. Which she sure as hell would not.
Her brain commanded her to pull out of his grip, but her body wouldn't obey. She focused back on the window, zeroed in on the patch of gray sky visible through the glass. "Please let go," she whispered, furious when her voice shook.
He dropped her hand like it was on fire. She didn't like the way he was looking at her. Eyes seeing too much. Discarding theories, thinking of new ones. Like he knew a damn thing about what was wrong with her. Half the time, she didn't know.
"My name is Connor."
Erin went still. Inside and out. She felt warm all of a sudden, like someone had draped a fleece blanket over her shoulders. If she thought she'd had him at least partially pegged, she'd been wrong. He didn't have to give in to their silly name war. He'd done it because she'd shown a chink in her armor and he wanted to give her a victory.
"What about a tiny little kiss?" Shit. Where had that come from? "No tongue."
"This isn't summer camp." Those hands clenched. Unclenched. "If you want to kiss me, you'll get everything. I'm not going to hold back."
His gruff tone made her shiver. That voice held promises she couldn't begin to interpret. It had been so long since she'd let a man touch her, but she knew instinctively that Connor would be a whole new experience. One she definitely wasn't ready for and never would be. Still. She felt ... gravitated to him. She'd originally leaned across this conference table to unnerve him. It worked with most people. Invade their personal space until they back off for good. Now that she was this close to him, though, she found herself wanting to stay there. It didn't hurt that he'd released her hand without hesitation. Maybe it was premature or bad judgment on her part, but his action had made her feel safe. She didn't feel safe very often, if ever.
Excerpted from Up in Smoke by Tessa Bailey, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2015 Tessa Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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