A man like FBI special agent Ash Stryker would never be caught dead at a speed-dating event. But that's where he tracks down Claire Molenski, a computer programmer suspected of selling government information. When he rescues her from a botched kidnapping, he realizes not only that she's innocent, but also that the only way to protect her is to pose as her boyfriend.
Claire knows that their relationship is a ruse. Once the case is closed, she'll never see Ash again, and that scares her almost as much as the abduction attempts. But the way he acts toward her makes her wonder just how much of an act their relationship really is. And if she'll be able to survive long enough to find out.
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Special Agent Ashton Stryker's heart pounded fast and hard with anticipation and a rush of adrenaline. He was about to meet the greatest threat to national security in his career with the FBI's antiterrorism division. Ash's responsibility was to neutralize that threat.
A bell chimed, announcing his time up with the woman across the table from him. She may have said hi. He wasn't certain; he hadn't been paying any attention to her. His target was farther down the long table, smiling at the man whose hand she shook before he moved on to the woman to her left.
Had she passed anything to him in that handshake? Ash wasn't close enough to see, but there were other eyes on her. Other agents had her under surveillance, too.
Ash stood up and took the next chair down the table. He was getting closer to her. The bell chimed again, announcing the beginning of the next five minutes.
"How can you look like that and be so socially awkward?" the woman across from him asked.
His focus on his target, he only spared the woman a glance. She was probably old enough to be his mothermaybe his grandmotherwith iron-gray hair and small reading glasses hanging from a chunky gold chain around the neck of the sweatshirt embroidered with cats. "Excuse me?"
"You haven't said anything to the women before me," she said. "Of course when you look like thatthe epitome of tall, dark and handsomeyou probably don't have to say anything. You could grunt and women would go home with you."
He felt like grunting with frustration and impatience, but then she might take that as an invitation. "I'm sorry," he said. "This is the first time I've come to one of these things"
"It's called speed dating," she said. "You only have five minutes, so you have to talk fast."
"I would rather listen," he said. It was what he did. Listening was how he had found the threat. He'd picked up chatter on wiretaps and other surveillance and then he'd found the post himself.
"Oh" the older woman fanned herself with one of the drink menus "you look like that and you'd rather listen. No wonder you've never come to one of these things before. You haven't had to. Why are you here tonight?"
Obviously he couldn't answer honestly. Ash was no rookie when it came to going undercover; he'd had some dangerous assignments over the years, going deep undercover in terrorist camps and militia groups as well as a motorcycle gang.
But he had never gone speed dating before. A couple of chairs earlier, someone had run a stiletto heel up his pant leg. Another woman had tried to give him her room key. There was danger here, too. So Ash had to be careful to not blow his cover.
"Why?" the woman asked again, her voice sharp with impatience that he hadn't answered yet.
She definitely reminded him of his grandmother, at least as much as he could remember of the austere woman from whom his father had run away as a teenager. After he'd gotten married and had Ash, he'd come back to visit, but Grandma hadn't approved of Ash's mother any more than she had her own son.
Because the woman was kind of intimidating and because it was easier to sell a cover if you told as much of the truth as possible, Ash replied honestly, "I want to meet someone."
The woman emitted a wistful sigh. "You will," she assured him. "You will."
He glanced down the table again to where the threat chatted easily with the man across from her. He was bald with no neck and an ill-fitting suit. Was he a buyer?
"Ooooh," the woman across from Ash said as if she'd just learned something momentous.
Had he given himself away?
He turned back to her and found her studying him through the thick lenses of her small glasses.
"You already have your eye on someone," she said, and she pointed down the table at the threat.
Ash swallowed a groan. He had given himself away. So he offered the woman a sheepish grin. "Am I that obvious?"
She shrugged. "I'm observant. I don't think she's noticed you at all, though. And in my opinion, you could do better than that pale little blonde."
It could have been the crimson shade of her tight dress or the pale yellow of her hair that made her skin look translucent. But he knew it wasn'teven while he admired the fit of that dress and the bright shade of lipstick on her wide mouth and the shimmer of her light hair.
The woman snorted derisively. "She looks like she hasn't been out in the daylight for years."
Ash knew why Claire Molenski looked that way. She hadn't been out in the daylight for years. And if he had his way, he would be locking her back up again soon.
He just had to catch her before she and her greed put into motion an economic and security catastrophe of epic proportions.
Claire's head was throbbing, and the smile felt frozen on her face. Her lips were so dry that they were now stuck to her teeth, so she couldn't pull them down again. This is what you wanted, she reminded herself.
A new life. A life that wasn't so lonely and empty.
She doubted she was going to find that new life in the dining room of the Waterview Inn, though. Most of the guys were much older than she was and some, from the deep indents on their ring fingers, were not as eligible as they claimed. In fact, when she sneezed, one pulled out a handkerchief for her and whipped out his ring as well, which rolled across the grape-leaf-and-vine-patterned carpet.
She giggled as he chased after it. But then that strange feeling assailed heras if everyone was staring at her. She looked around the room but noticed no one overtly studying her. Maybe she was just paranoid because she hadn't been out in public for a whilefor a long while.
That was the whole purpose of coming here. She could have just signed up for online dating. But she'd wanted to go out and actually meet real peoplepeople with personality and character. Only she hadn't yet met anyone she cared to date. The bell dinged again, so she drew in a deep breath to brace herself for the next man to take the chair across from her.
First she looked at his hands, which he'd braced on the table in front of him. The ring finger held no telltale indentation. So she glanced up, and the breath she'd drawn escaped in a gasp of surprise.
Very pleasant surprise. This man wasn't too old for her. His hair was thick and black, and his eyes were a piercing blue. So piercing that he seemed to peer right through her. Had it been his stare that she'd felt earlier?
"Hello," she said. "My name's Claire."
So many of the other men had remarked that it was odd that such a young woman had such an old-fashioned name, but he just nodded, almost as if he'd known her name. But she had never met him before; he was the kind of man a woman would never forget meeting.
So she was definitely just paranoid.
"What's your name?" she asked when he didn't freely offer it.
"Ash," he replied almost reluctantly.
She floundered around for something clever to say, but her mind was blank. Maybe it was because he was so damn good-looking; maybe it was just because she had no idea how to date anymore. It had been too long.
She had read some books about how to flirt when dating. But none of what she read came to her mind. It remained blank, which was a novelty since she was usually unable to stop thinking.
"What do you do for a living, Claire?" he asked.
Several other men had asked that same question, but she actually wanted to tell him the truth. "I work with computers," she said.
She was more like a deprogrammer, but she didn't want to explain that. Legally, she really couldn't. So she just nodded. "Yes, it's boring. What about you?" she asked. "What do you do for a living?"
"Government job," he replied. "It's boring, too."
"Politics?" she asked. With that face, she could see him smiling at voters, kissing babies, shaking hands
He shook his head. "That probably wouldn't be boring."
"Probably not," she agreed. "So you have a desk job, too?"
"Sometimes," he replied.
He had that whole mysterious thing going on, which had probably worked well for him with some of the other women. But Claire wasn't looking for complicated. She'd already had enough of that in her life. She was looking for simple and open and honest and funwhich was why none of the other men had worked for her, either.
Finally the smile left her face. She didn't have the strength to make the effort to fake it anymore. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't be here."
Maybe she wasn't ready. Maybe she hadn't done enough research. Maybe it was that feeling of being watchedeven if she was totally wrongthat unnerved her.
"Aren't you available after all?" he asked.
Again she felt as if he asked a question to which he already knew the answer. She shook her head and tried to shake off her uncharacteristic paranoia. "That's not it," she said. "I'm just not ready."
She pushed back her chair and stood up as he stood up, too. He towered over her in height and breadth with his impossibly wide shoulders and chest. His black sweater and dress pants made him look incredibly handsome and incredibly imposing. She definitely wasn't readyespecially not for him.
She couldn't believe someone like him would have even come to a speed dating event. He had to have women throwing themselves at him constantly. He didn't belong here, either. But she would leave it up to him to figure that out.
"I have to go," she said, and now panic was joining the paranoia, pressing down on her chest so that she struggled to draw a breath.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I need some air " She whirled around so quickly that she knocked over her chair before rushing from the room.
His deep voice called after her, "I hope it wasn't something I said."
A woman Claire passed on her way out laughed.
"That's not likely."
Claire heard nothing else but the sound of her own pulse pounding in her ears. What about that man had made her so nervous?
She hadn't even waited for the bell to ding before leaving him. For some reason she hadn't dared. Maybe it was the feeling he already knew things about her that she hadn't told him that had unnerved her. Or had it been the way he had looked at heras if he could see right through her?
Or maybe it had just been the way he lookedtoo handsome. Dating him would be like going from a bicycle to racing motorcycles. If she was going to start dating, she needed to start on the bicycle with training wheels.
She had taken a room in the hotel for the night in case she'd had too much to drink and hadn't wanted to risk her life or anyone else's by driving. But she had barely taken more than a sip of her glass of wine, so she could drive herself home. She would feel safer in her apartment than this hotel. As she crossed the lobby, she felt as if even the eyes in the portraits were following her. She didn't need to go up to the room since all her overnight things were still in her oversize purse. So she headed straight for the front doors.
Night had fallen since the speed dating event had started. Even with the streetlights, the parking lot was dark. This hotel was outside the city of Chicago, so it had no parking garage and no valet service. She had to find her own vehicle but at least the lot was just out in front of the hotel.
She was reaching inside her bag, digging for her keys, when someone grabbed her. A strong arm wrapped tightly around her, binding her arms to her sides, as the man lifted her off her feet. She parted her lips to scream, but a big hand clamped down hard over her mouth, muffling her cry for help and nearly smothering her.
Or maybe it wasn't the hand but the handkerchief it held against her mouth and nose that smothered herwith the sweet, cloying scent of chloroform.
If she didn't fight fast and hard, she would soon lose her chance.
And maybe her life.
"I lost eyes on her." A voice emanated from Ash's earpiece. It was a two-way radio that transmitted what he said and what the other agents said. "She's gone."
Claire Molenski had stepped through the front doors of the hotel and disappeared into the darkness. Ash had followed her from the dining room, but at a discreet distance that had only drawn the attention of the older woman who had earlier noticed him staring at Claire. The woman had winked at him, either teasing him or encouraging him. Ash had waited only a few minutes before exiting those lobby doors and stepping into the lot.
"Where the hell has she gone?" he asked the question more to himself than to the other agents who could hear him through their earpieces. He hadn't been far behind her.
"We lost the visual on the subject," another agent remarked.
Ash cursed. How had she slipped the surveillance so easily? The woman was a bigger threat than even he had realized. And from the minute her name had come to his attention, she'd had his full attention. He'd known this woman was going to be dangerous.
He stepped deeper into the shadows of the dimly lit parking lot. And he heard something. Something muffled and softlike a crying kittenwas just loud enough to draw his attention. There were plenty of strays in the questionable outskirts of Chicago. But was it a trick? A lure?
He moved carefully between the parked cars, keeping low so that no one noticed him. But he noticed a dark shadow, probably of a man, bent over as he lifted something from the asphalt. Lights flashed on as a car started, dispelling the shadow to the image of a hulky bald-headed man. The light shimmered off the pale blond hair of the woman that the man carried.
Her head lolled back, her eyes closed. She was either unconscious or dead. That cry Ash had heard must have been her last weak attempt to scream for help. Had he heard her too late? But if she was dead, why was the man carrying her? To dispose of the body?
Ash reached beneath his sweater and drew his gun from his holster. He could have spoken into the radio and signaled for help. But then he might have also made the man aware of his presence. And if he was going to overpower him, he needed the element of surprise.
So he crept through the rows of parked cars as the driver of the vehicle with the lights honked and rolled down his window. Ash had thought it was an accomplice. But the driver called out, "Is everything okay? Is she okay?"
"Just had too much to drink," the man murmured, his accent so thick the words were hard to comprehend.
The driver hesitated yet, his car idling in the lot. He must have realized what Ash hadthat the situation wasn't right. At the very least it wasn't what the man claimed. Ash had only seen Claire take one sip of her wine and no more. Had it been drugged?
Maybe that was why she had rushed off the way she had. But she had been clear-eyed and coherent then. Whatever had happened to her had happened after she'd stepped through the doors of the hotel and out of Ash's sight. It had happened so damn quickly that he'd nearly lost herand still might.
"Why don't we call hotel security?" the driver suggested.
The man slung Claire over one arm and pulled a gun with his other. He pointed the barrel through the open window of the car. "Why don't you mind your own damn business?"
Chivalry forgotten now, the driver sped offtires squealing as the car careened out of the lot. The car had drawn the attention of other agents, who ran across the lot toward the man.
Ash stepped from the shadows, the barrel of his gun pointing at the man's heart. Claire was slung over his other shoulder, and so small that Ash wouldn't hit her if he fired. Or at least he hoped he wouldn't
"She is my business," Ash said. "So you can put her down now or you can take a bullet."
The big man scoffed. "You will shoot me?"
Ash shrugged. "Either I will shoot you or one of the other FBI agents will."
All around them, guns cocked. Ash hoped all of those guns belonged to fellow agents. But some could have belonged to this man's associates. Would he have attempted this abduction alone? Which country or group might they be from?
"Put her down," Ash said.
"I could kill her," the man threatened.
"If that was the plan," Ash said, "she would already be dead. But then she wouldn't be worth anything."