When former special ops soldier Dave Logsdon nearly hits a beautiful motorcyclist in the thick Oregon fog, nicknamed the Devil's Shroud, he never expects to be thrown back into a world of espionage, deceit and danger. But secret agent Nicole Steele is desperate for an out-of-the-way place to hide, and Dave's run-down yacht is the perfect spot. The emotionally wounded warrior is powerless to deny her request and his rising desire for her.
Nicole must decrypt the database she's stolen before it's too late. She soon learns the threat is bigger than she could ever imagine and U.S. national security is at stake. Will her unexpected bond with Dave survive once the enemy's identity is finally uncovered?
About the Author
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Nicole Steele, "Tazer" to those who knew how lethal she could be, slipped through the loading docks entry of the corporate headquarters of Ryan Technologies. Dressed in the white coverall and cap of the Acme Cleaning Services' staff, she blended in with others coming on to the night shift to clean the multistoried building.
Once inside, she claimed a cleaning cart and followed the other janitors to the service elevators. At 2200 hours she didn't expect many of the executives to be in their offices, most having gone home or out for drinks by now.
The three other contracted cleaners who entered the elevator car with her talked about their kids, sports and the price of gasoline. Nicole kept her head down, aware of the camera located in the upper corner, above the control panel.
A rounded woman with brassy orange hair, her gray roots showing, smacked her gum. "New at Acme?"
"Yeah." Nicole kept her answer short, abrupt, not inviting further conversation.
Undaunted, the woman prompted, "Got kids?"
"Guess that's why you can still find your hips."
Nicole shrugged without responding.
"I used to have a figure. Four brats ago." The woman snorted. "Now I figure life's too short to pass up a piece of apple pie and ice cream."
The others laughed and the car stopped on the seventh floor.
"Well, this is my floor. Have a good night." The brassy-haired janitor left the elevator and Nicole breathed a sigh.
Another stop on the tenth floor and again on the twelfth left Nicole blissfully alone. She rode the elevator up to the twentieth floor, two floors short of her target, Brandon Ryan's office. She'd take the stairs the rest of the way.
Having studied the building schematics and the security system camera points, she was prepared. As soon as she left the elevator, she rolled her cart to the door nearest the east stairwell, closest to the security camera for the floor. Digging her hand into her pocket, she unearthed the miniature can of black spray paint, ducked under the camera and sprayed the lens until it was completely covered in one short burst of paint, then checked her watch.
Ten after ten. She had exactly fifteen minutes to get into Ryan's office, download the data and get out. Another five minutes to leave the building and this operation would be complete. Short, sweet, uneventful. That's the way she liked it.
Nicole stepped into the stairwell, raised her hand to spray the camera in the corner and climbed the steps two at a time to the floor above. She blacked out the camera there and moved up to the next floor. Once on the top floor, she disabled the security camera and hurried to Brandon Ryan's spacious office, paid for by taxpayer dollars meant to be used to supply guns to the military. It was the potential other deals he was making with the opposing forces in the Middle East that had landed her there.
As a member of the Stealth Operations Specialists, Nicole was part of a very small force of secret agents called on by the President of the United States to handle situations neither the FBI nor the CIA could handle. Sensitive cases that only a handful of people knew about.
Her boss, Royce Fontaine, had prepared her for this mission; given her the equipment and knowledge that would get her inside and to the computer Ryan used to store the top-secret data concerning his organization's dealings.
Intel from SOS operatives in the Middle East had informed Royce the Taliban had new guns that looked suspiciously like those supplied to the U.S. military.
Nicole's job was to ferret out the information necessary to determine whether the Taliban had stolen the weapons or if Brandon Ryan was supplying them to the opium-rich leaders of the terrorist organization.
She'd spent the past two weeks schmoozing with Ryan, playing the pampered debutante to get closer to the renowned womanizer so that she could get a tour of his office and see the security layout in person. She'd gotten that and morea copy of his key card and a viable fingerprint she'd had imprinted on the thumb glove. Now she was putting her groundwork to use.
With security disabled, she moved quickly toward Brandon Ryan's office where she paused to slip a rubber glove over her thumb, the glove imprinted with Ryan's thumbprint. She ran the key card Geek had supplied her with and touched her gloved thumb on the scanner.
For a long moment she held her breath. Either the door would unlock or alarms would go off, alerting the security guards on duty to the presence of an intruder in the boss's office.
A soft click sounded. Nicole twisted the door handle and the door opened into a lushly appointed outer office with a beautiful mahogany desk blocking entrance to Ryan's inner office. His executive assistant, having long since gone home for the night, had been a pretty but determined young woman with a glare that could sear scars into a person's skin. Nicole hadn't given her more than a cursory glance down the straight length of her nose. Being a socialite had meant disregarding the peons surrounding Ryan.
Though she'd pretended to ignore the executive assistant, she'd been very aware of the woman and her position as the last line of defense against intruders into the great Brandon Ryan's inner sanctum.
Once inside his office, she pulled the door shut, leaving it cracked open enough so she could hear movement in the outer office. Then she eased into the plush leather chair behind Ryan's massive mahogany desk. As big as the expensive piece of furniture was, it didn't begin to fill the roomy office with the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sparkling lights of the Los Angeles skyline. Armed with a flashlight, she pulled out the sliding keyboard tray, stuck a flash drive in the side of the sleek combined video display monitor and CPU and went to work decoding the encrypted password. Geek, back at SOS headquarters, had been adamant. "All you have to do is plug it in. It'll crack the password within minutes."
As soon as she plugged in the flash drive, the monitor blinked to life, lighting the room. She pressed the button on the side to turn off the display, returning the room to near darkness, her vision taking a moment to adjust.
Nicole worried she might not have minutes. If the regularly scheduled cleaning lady happened by the office, she'd either be caught red-handed or have to find a place to hide until she left.
While the password hacking module worked its magic, Nicole pulled the drawers open, searching for anything that looked like evidence Ryan was sleeping with the enemy. His desk was clean, the drawers only containing designer pens and extra golf balls.
She rose from the seat, the leather so soft it barely made a sound. A bar in one corner had a cabinet below it. She checked the contents, finding only additional bottles of the best booze money could buy. The man was cocky and insanely rich. Too bad he was a lying bastard who betrayed his country. If he was selling guns to the enemy, Ryan was personally responsible for the deaths of American soldiers. His own countrymen, fighting for his freedom. He was just the kind of high-powered sleazebag Nicole liked to bring down.
Just like Rodney, her former lover who'd pilfered her access card, broken into the FBI data center, stolen secrets he'd had no right to take and ruined her reputation with the Bureau. She'd been placed on administrative leave during the investigation, but had resigned before they could fire her.
Young and naive, she'd believed Rodney loved her, when all the time he'd been using her to get to FBI data that would potentially compromise hundreds of undercover agents.
The horror of what she'd done stuck with her and would never go away. Since then, she'd refused to believe any man, no matter how true he might appear. She even kept her teammates at arm's length, preferring to distance herself than to trust her instincts, which had proved faulty in the worst possible way.
Nicole straightened and ran her hand over the beautiful crystal decanters containing alcohol Ryan had served her on her last visit. She'd pretended to drink, letting him run his hands over her silk dress. To a point. Then she'd laughed and stepped away, flirting with him enough to gain a moderate level of trust.
She snorted softly. Men could be so pathetically predictable.
A sound from the front office alerted her to someone else's presence.
Nicole shot a glance at the video monitor, still dark, the soft whir of the building's central air the only sound in an otherwise quiet office.
The outer office door closed with a sharp click.
Nicole dove for a closet, sliding in behind one of Ryan's spare suits hanging beside a crisply starched white shirt.
Lights blinked on, filtering through the gap she'd left in the door to allow her to peer out. Her hand went to the lipstick tube of pepper spray she'd placed in her pocket before starting out on her mission.
The carpet muffled any footsteps as Nicole strained to hear or to see the progress of the person in Ryan's office. Then she saw a man in a suit pass by. Crap. If he noticed the miniature flash drive poking out of the side of his monitor, he could disrupt the password hacking module and the download. That would make him aware that he might not be alone in the room.
Nicole held her breath, waiting for any indication of discovery.
The buzzing sound of a cell phone rang out in the silence.
"Ryan," he answered. After a moment he said, "I know. I'm here to download the data now. Yes, I understand how important it is."
While Ryan talked on the phone, Nicole eased the zipper down on her coveralls and slipped the garment over her shoulders, letting it drop around her ankles. She stepped out of it and smoothed her hands over the snug-fitting, black leather pants that molded to her body and the low-cut leather corset she'd worn beneath the coveralls. Pushing the hat from her head, she fluffed her hair and peered around the closet door at the man seated at his desk, his back to the monitor, and staring out the windows.
"Nobody will trace back to you. I guarantee it." He paused again. "I know the consequences," he said, his voice tight, strained.
Nicole eased out of the closet and crossed the floor. The man glanced up at that moment, catching her movement reflected off the darkened windows. Her gaze met Ryan's and she gave him a sensual smile and a wink.
Ryan spun in his chair, his hand still holding the phone to his ear. "Look, I have to go." He hit the end button and pushed to his feet. "What the hell are you doing in here? This room is off-limits."
Nicole shrugged, her breasts pushed higher in the corset, the effect almost working on Ryan. For a moment his gaze shifted to the rounded swells, then his jaw tightened and he glared at her. "How the hell did you get in here?"
She crossed the room to him. "The door was unlocked." Her brows rose, begging him to argue the point. "I'd hoped to find you here." Her hand curled around the lipstick tube of pepper spray. All she had to do was to get close enough to spray him in the eyes. He'd be effectively incapacitated.
"You shouldn't be here." He reached for the phone on his desk at the same time she raised the pepper spray and shot him dead on in the face.
Ryan screamed and grabbed for his eyes. "You bitch!" He staggered backward, tripped over his chair and landed on his back.
Nicole pulled a zip tie out of her back pocket, planted a foot on his side, rolled him onto his belly, and yanked his wrist behind his back, pushing it up between his shoulder blades.
"You won't get away with this. Argh! Why'd you have to use pepper spray? It's burning my eyes."
"Don't worry. It won't leave a scar on your lying, cheating face." With her knee in his back, she dragged his other arm up and secured the wrists together behind his back. Then with smooth precision, she secured his ankles with another zip tie. A soft ping indicated the password hacker had done its duty and the download had begun.
"What are you doing?" he demanded. "You're trespassing in my office. I could have you arrested and thrown in jail."
"Yeah, if you could get up." She sat behind his desk, switched on the monitor and checked the status of the downloading software. The status bar indicated already 40 percent complete. Just a little longer.
"You don't know what you're doing."
"Oh, I think I do," she said.
"The people I work for won't let you get away with this."
"They won't have a choice, now, will they?"
"They'll come after you. Kill you." He struggled against the bindings. "Damn, this is burning my eyes!"
"It'll only last a couple hours."
"You can't leave me like this."
"Oh, I think I can."
"You'll never get out of the building."
"Wanna bet?" The progress bar indicated 88 percent complete. Hurry, damn it.
"Any data on that computer is proprietary and fully encrypted. It'll do you no good."
"Help!" Ryan yelled.
Great. With a calm she wasn't exactly feeling, she pulled the tight roll of duct tape from her pocket, unrolled it and bent to slap it over Ryan's mouth. "There, now. Let's not disturb the cleaning staff. They have enough filth to clean."
He grunted and jerked, trying to tear into her.
Nicole glanced at the monitor. The status bar filled and disappeared, displaying the message Download Complete.
Now the fun began. With Ryan trussed up like the pig he was, it wouldn't be long before the security staff got smart.
Tucking the flash drive in the pocket of her black pants, she nudged Ryan with her toe. "I'll be seeing you in court."
The man grunted and rolled toward her in an attempt to stop her.
She grabbed the white coverall, slipped her legs inside, crammed her hair into a messy bun and shoved it into the cap. She grabbed a straight-back chair from the front office and dragged it into Ryan's office. Leaning it against the back of the door, she then exited the outer door of Ryan's office, the chair leaning against the back of the door dropping to the floor behind it. She tried to open the door, but the chair legs dug into the carpet on the other side, jamming it. It would take time to get to Brandon Ryan. The time she'd need to get out of the building.
As she stepped into the hallway, the elevator car dinged. Before the door could slide open, Nicole ran for the fire alarm and jerked the handle down, setting off a screeching alarm and blinking lights marking the exits.
Two security guards leaped out of the elevator car and pulled guns on her. "Halt!"
"Oh, thank God!" She dropped to her knees on the hallway floor. "Mr. Ryan is in his office. There's something wrong with him. I didn't know what to do. Please help him. Please. And hurry."
The two guards ran past her and through the open outer office door. As soon as they were through, Nicole rose to her feet, pulled a pocketknife out of her pocket, closed the outer door and stabbed the keyboard. Wires shorted out and sparks flew.