From the author of Edge of Betrayal—the Edge series returns with the climactic fifth novel, and an all-new explosive, romantic adventure...
In the world of covert operations, Bella Bayne knows how to get the job done. And with her work coming first, her personal life is coming in a distant second. Even though Bella would like nothing more than to ravish the rugged, handsome Victor Temple, she’s his superior so it’s a strictly hands-off affair.
When Bella gets a solid lead on the location of Dr. Norma Stynger—the twisted mind behind Project Threshold—she must team up with Victor if they are to finally bring justice to the madwoman. But when Norma’s daughter risks her life to help the team, Bella is faced with the impossible task of deciding who will live and who will die…
About the Author
Since launching her career in 2007, Shannon K. Butcher has penned more than twenty titles, including the paranormal romance series the Sentinel Wars; the action-romance series the Edge; and a handful of romantic-suspense novels and works of short fiction. Being a former engineer and current nerd, she frequently uses charts, graphs, and tables to aid her in the mechanics of story design and to keep track of all those pesky characters and magical powers. An avid beader and glass artist, she spends her free time making jewelry she often gives away in contests on her Web site.
Read an Excerpt
For Jayne, the best cheerleader ever.
Dallas, Texas, April 28
After two weeks of sleepless nights, little food and endless hours spent working beside a man who lit her libido up like the surface of the sun, Bella Bayne wanted nothing more than a little quality time with her vibrator and a solid eight hours of shut-eye. In that order. Instead, what she got was the man of her fantasies—highly inappropriate ones at that—standing on her front porch, making her mouth water far more than the fragrant bags of Indian food he was toting.
“Thought you might be too tired to cook,” said Victor Temple, the most perfectly formed male of any species ever created.
He stood a few inches over her five-foot-ten-inch frame, blocking out the streetlight behind him. He had aristocratic features that were made more interesting by the three scars decorating his face. They were small, but broke up the sea of masculine beauty enough that she could look at him without sunglasses to mask the glare of perfection. His dark blond hair was cut with military precision, falling in line exactly as he pleased. After several missions with this man, she’d learned he defied the laws of helmet hair in a way she still couldn’t understand. Blood pact with dark forces, no doubt.
His clothes were casual, but neat and extremely high-end. Victor came from money. Old, refined, nose-in-the-air money, yet she’d never once seen him flaunt it. No diamond cuff links, flashy cars, or pricey watches for this man. No, Victor Temple had way more substance than that, which was another reason she wished he was anywhere else than standing on her front porch. It was his substance combined with those stunning good looks that made him dangerous to her professional ethics.
“Hungry?” he asked.
Bella was hungry, but not for what was in those sacks. If not for the fact that she was Victor’s boss, she would have feasted on him weeks ago. But her strict no-fraternization policy meant she had to keep her hands and mouth off. Way off.
“You should be at home asleep,” she said, forcing censure into her tone. “If you think I’m giving you the day off tomorrow so a pretty boy like you can get his beauty rest, you’re wrong.”
“I slept more than you did while we were away. And when one comes bearing gifts, Bella, it’s customary for the receiver to at least pretend to be gracious.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t like pretending. And I’m not gracious.”
He smiled as if he found her amusing. “Only because you’re hungry, which I have learned over the past few weeks makes you cranky. Now step aside, Bella. I’m coming in to feed you. Then we have to talk.”
Talk? At this hour? That couldn’t mean good news.
He didn’t give her time to move. Instead, he stepped forward, and she had no choice but to step back or feel his body collide with hers. As nice as his body was, as off-limits as it was, she wasn’t sure she’d survive the crash without tossing him to the carpet and riding him until she got off. At least twice. Maybe then she wouldn’t be so cranky.
“Talk about what?” she asked as he strode past her like he owned her home, heading unerringly to a kitchen he’d never before even seen, much less navigated.
“It can wait until after food.”
His clean scent lingered on the air around him, crossing her path and making her drag in a deep breath to capture it. For a moment, the urge to bury her nose against his chest took over and she forgot all about why she didn’t want him here. She had to shake herself to get her brain working again. “You’re my employee in my home, honey. If I tell you to talk now, then that’s what you’ll do.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her, daring to give her a grin. “I’m off the clock. You can’t order me around. Deal with it.”
Fury struck her for a second before it turned to lust. She had no idea what it was about this man. She was the owner of a private security firm. She worked with badass men all day long, every day. None of them had ever held her interest for longer than it took her to flatten them in the sparring ring.
But Victor Temple was different. He got under her skin and made it burn. It didn’t matter that he was her subordinate, or that he was on loan from the US government to help her deal with a situation of nightmarish proportions. She couldn’t seem to be near him without wishing they were both naked, panting and sweating.
Maybe it had something to do with the one and only time she’d taken him on in hand-to-hand combat practice. They’d both been panting and sweating then, and while they hadn’t been naked, she was acutely aware of just how skilled he was. How perfectly built he was. Not overblown or bulging with showy bulk, his big frame was instead wrapped with sleek, functional muscles that rippled with power. She’d fought bigger men than him and won, but only Victor had been able to pin her to the mat.
She was a strong, independent, kick-ass woman, but even she had to admit she liked that in a man.
“I was half hoping you wouldn’t answer the door—that you’d be asleep,” he said.
“I needed to unwind a bit first.”
He lifted a wayward lock of damp hair that had escaped her haphazard ponytail. Only then did she realize just how close he was standing. Too close.
“Shower didn’t do the trick?” he asked.
No, but her vibrator would have if he hadn’t shown up. After all the time she’d spent with him recently, she wondered if she’d still be able to keep his face out of her fantasies. “There’s a heavy bag in the garage. A little time with that would have worn me out.”
He stepped away, leaving her feeling adrift for a second before she caught up with reality. She could not be drawn to Victor. She had to lead by example, and fucking her employee on the kitchen floor whether or not he wanted it was not the kind of tone she wanted to set for her workplace.
“You’re worried about Gage, aren’t you?” He glanced over his shoulder as he washed his hands. Muscles shifted beneath his tight T-shirt, adding fuel to the naughty fantasies she already had of this man.
Her gaze slid past him to the window over the sink. She didn’t want him to see how appealing he was to her. Even more than that, she didn’t want him to see her fear for Gage, who had willingly walked into the hands of a monster in the hopes of taking her down for good. No one had heard from him since. Bella had to stay tough, appear confident and provide leadership to her men. That included Victor.
She straightened her spine. “Gage has been gone for weeks. He was ordered to make contact with me as soon as he could. The fact that he hasn’t is more than a little concerning. Sweetheart, any sane person would be worried.”
Victor turned back around to her as he dried his hands. A flicker of sympathy crossed his features, making him even harder to resist. “He’s smart. And tough. I’m sure his silence is a sign that he’s working an angle with Stynger, not that he’s in trouble.”
“Easy for you to say. You weren’t the one who sent him into that crazy bitch’s hands.”
“He volunteered for the job. He knew exactly what he was doing when he let her men take him into custody.”
“He did it to save Adam from taking his place. I know Gage. The second he learned that Adam was his brother, his decision was made.”
“Are you saying that he wouldn’t have volunteered if it wasn’t to save Adam?” asked Victor.
“No, he was on board the whole time, but now that he knows he has a brother, there’s no telling what kind of sacrifice he’s making to keep Adam safe.”
Victor stepped closer, easing into her personal space like he belonged there. “There’s more at stake here than one man. Gage knows that. He’s smart enough to realize that the only true way to keep Adam safe is to take Stynger down for good.”
“That’s part of what worries me. It’s personal for Gage. If he gets the chance to kill Stynger, he’ll do it. Even if it means sacrificing himself.” Maybe he already had, and that was why no one had heard from him.
Victor must have read her mind. “He’s still alive, Bella. You have to believe that.” He came toward her, compassion shining in his bright eyes. One lean, hard hand was extended. She knew he meant to offer comfort, but she was too fragile for that right now. She had to stay strong, stay tough. As tired as she was, as worried as she was, it would be too easy for her to crack under the strain and let her emotions run free. One touch from him might be all it took to shatter her self-control.
She hadn’t cried in years—not since the night she killed her husband in a blind rage—she wasn’t about to start now.
Bella moved away before he could reach her. “I’m sure he’s alive,” she lied. “I’m also sure we’ll find him soon. I just have to keep looking and stay vigilant for even the smallest signs of his whereabouts. We’ve been on enough missions together that I know how he thinks.”
Victor’s hand fell to his side. “You’ll be a lot more vigilant after you get some food and sleep. You know him better than any of us. If we’re going to see some obscure sign he left behind, you’re the one most likely to spot it. But only if you’re not exhausted.”
She gave him a pointed stare. “I’d sleep better without one of my men in my kitchen, honey.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
She couldn’t remember, but that didn’t make him right. “If it’s that important to you, then feed me already so we can get to whatever it is you need to talk about. I’m wrung out.”
“Maybe the talk should wait until tomorrow.”
“I’m busy tomorrow. Talk now.”
“I don’t think so. Your blood sugar is too low for my peace of mind. It’ll only take a minute to warm up the food.”
She watched him move around her kitchen, opening cabinets and finding what he was looking for. The smell of curry filled the room, making her stomach rumble.
He set a plate of food in the microwave, pushed some buttons. Nothing happened. He frowned as he checked to make sure it was plugged in. “It’s not working.”
Bella went to his side and tried to make the appliance go with no luck. “Sorry. It’s one of the few kitchen tools I know how to use. I must have worn it out.”
“No worries. We have other options.” He opened her oven door and pulled out her box of business receipts, staring at them as if they might bite. “You keep paperwork in your oven?”
“It’s a handy spot. Nothing blows away when I open the windows.”
“What about when you cook?”
She laughed. “Honey, I work eighty-hour weeks, minimum. I spend more than half of my time out of the country, run a reputable business where lives are on the line every day, and you think I have time to cook? You’re adorable.”
A blush brightened his cheeks and made his glacier blue eyes stand out. She knew he was a poster boy for the military, all upright and honorable, but there was something about the clarity of his eyes that really sold the whole look. She swore she could see right through him, like he had nothing to hide.
No one was that honorable. Especially not her.
“Does your oven even work?” he asked.
Bella shrugged. “Who knows? Never tried it.”
He turned a knob to get the gas-fueled contraption working. She probably should have been paying attention to how he operated it, but all she could concentrate on was the way his fingers gently gripped the knob, giving it the slightest twist.
Her nipples puckered in response.
After a few seconds, his brow scrunched up as he turned the knob again. “Your pilot light’s out.”
“I didn’t want to set my receipts on fire. The IRS frowns on excuses like that during an audit.”
“Got any matches?”
She pulled a lighter from her junk drawer and handed it to him. He knelt down, making his jeans go tight over a manly ass that looked like it was carved by God himself. She was so busy admiring him, she barely heard his question.
“Did you move the oven out recently?”
Bella shook her head to get it set on straight again. “Why on earth would I do that?”
“To clean under it.”
She grinned. “So adorable. I just want to pinch your cheeks.” His ass cheeks, if she had her choice.
“Right. Got it. You don’t clean, either.”
“I have a housekeeper who comes in once a month to keep the place livable.”
“When was she here last?”
“I don’t know. While we were gone sometime. Why?”
He pointed to some crumbs on her floor next to a rusty brown smudge line, his face taut with concern. “Scuff marks. Someone’s moved your oven.”
Before she had time to follow why he was upset by her oven’s position, he turned on a flashlight app on his phone and shone it back behind the oven.
“Bella,” he said, his tone that same eerie calm he got during a firefight. “Turn around and walk out the way I came in. Don’t touch anything.”
Serious worry settled in between her arousal and fatigue. “What’s going on?”
He took her arm and forced her to start walking. “Someone tied what looks like an explosive device into your gas line. Time to go and call the bomb squad from outside.”
Randolph eyed Dr. Norma Stynger with caution as he entered her stark white office. She was dressed in a clinging black sheath dress and a white lab coat that did little to hide the bony lines of her aging body. She sat behind her white desk with a backdrop of white walls and a white tile floor surrounding her. The only color in the room was a worn, singed, brown leather journal and the bright red lipstick that made her mouth look like a bloody gash in her face.
She looked up at him, and the cold emptiness of her eyes hit him like a brick launched from a cannon. He let out a whoosh of air and struggled for his next breath.
“You’re late,” she snapped, her tone waspish.
Randolph knew better than to show fear. Dr. Stynger was dangerous in a way that was hard to predict, much less understand. His instincts had started shrieking the second he’d laid eyes on her, and over the past few weeks he’d come to realize that even that shrill warning hadn’t been loud enough.
He was always only one mistake away from having a hole drilled in his skull and electrodes shoved into his brain. It didn’t matter that he was tough as hell, deadly with just about any weapon ever built, and ruthless in combat. One snap of the freaky doctor’s bony fingers and he’d wake up a puppet, like all of the other tough guys here.
Randolph forced out a nonchalant shrug, keeping his expression flat. “Traffic.”
Her eyes narrowed, and even that tiny movement was enough to make his blood run cold.
“Is the job done?” she asked.
“It is. I put the drug in her hot water tank, just like you wanted.”
“And the explosives?”
“A woman like that doesn’t bake brownies. You should have let me rig the device to something she was going to use.”
“Adrenaline is necessary to initiate the chemical reaction of the drug. The threat needed to be real enough to create fear and paranoia, but not deadly. If she’s blown into a thousand pieces, not only do I lose an opportunity to see if the new drug works, it’s going to be much harder to autopsy her brain once I’m done with her.”
“You’d be better off taking her out. I used to work at the Edge. She keeps that place running. Without her, the whole structure crumbles and all the people searching for you go find new jobs.”
Stynger stood, and it was all Randolph could do not to back away. “I only need a little more time. Once the island facility is finished, they’ll never find me. If Ms. Bayne is killed, her men will never stop looking for the person responsible for her death. It’s possible they could assume it was me, even after you parted company with Ms. Bayne on such unfriendly terms.”
He’d been fired. One little mistake and she’d cut him loose. No one was even going to miss the kid he’d accidentally killed. She’d been a street rat, worthless. Certainly not worth losing his job over. Considering the dusty, poverty-stricken hole she’d lived in, he’d probably been doing her a favor by putting her out of her misery.
Bella had seen things differently. With the clout she had in the industry, Randolph hadn’t been able to find work since. At least not until Stynger’s job offer came along.
Then it had hit him. Stynger had hired him because of his unhappy ties to Bella. The good doctor had set him up to take the fall if things went wrong, and it was only now that he realized how she’d set him up. He’d drugged Bella’s water supply. He’d rigged an explosive device in her house. Even as careful as he’d been there could still be some piece of evidence tracing him back to the job. Some camera that recorded him near her home. If anything happened to her, her people would find it. And then they’d find him.
“You knew they’d come after me, didn’t you?” he asked, barely keeping his anger in check.
“I have no doubt that I’ll be blamed eventually, but by then I’ll be out of reach, hidden and protected by my gracious benefactors. And their army.”
Randolph had been played. The money she’d offered him was too good to be true. He should have known not to make a deal with the devil. There was no love lost between him and Bella, but he’d been an idiot to let his fury for the woman who fired him drown out his better judgment.
Too late now. His only hope was to move forward and do whatever it took to keep Stynger from eating him alive. Because as deadly as the men and women who worked for the Edge were, not one of them was anywhere near as soulless and evil as the woman standing in front of him. All that would happen to him if Bella’s men found him was he’d be killed. If Stynger turned her wrath on him, he’d pray for death.
“What do you want me to do now?” he asked.
The red slash of her lips curved up in a smile. “Just a little errand. It’s nothing, really.”
Bella didn’t call the authorities as Victor had hoped. Instead, she called in one of her employees who knew his way around explosives. Within thirty minutes, the device was disarmed and her house was being searched for other unpleasant surprises by a crew of people skilled enough to ease some of the tension radiating down through Victor’s limbs.
If he hadn’t seen the device, there was no way to know how long it would have stayed there, ready to blow. The fact that it hadn’t detonated when he tried to turn on the oven was a small miracle. Just the idea of it happening while Bella was home was enough to make him sweat.
Then again, Victor had spent the past several weeks sweating, constantly worried about a woman who would likely rather break his nose than welcome his concern. She took too many risks with herself while proactively guarding her employees. She was impatient. Impulsive. Sometimes even a bit reckless. And sexy as hell.
He knew better than to stare, but he couldn’t help himself once her back was turned. She had the body of an Amazonian princess—tall, lean, with just the right balance of softness to round out the rough edges that made her the tough, kick-ass chick she needed to be to do her job.
Tonight her black hair was damp from her recent shower, pulled up in a messy ponytail that made a man think about how it might have gotten into such tangled disarray. Friction from rubbing against bed sheets? Or a wall? A man’s fingers gripping her hair while he pulled her head back, taking her from behind? In every scenario he imagined, he was the one mussing his boss, and that was way out of line.
Not that his body gave a damn that she was his boss. No, his body wanted him to take her, claim her. Make her his in the most primal, uncivilized way possible. Over and over.
Victor’s very civilized, cultured parents would have been scandalized by the thoughts going through their son’s head. They had dreams for him that involved political office, exclusive charity galas and buildings named in his honor. His respect for them ran so deep, he’d never once thought about not following the path they had laid out before him.
She wasn’t at all the kind of woman a man like him dated. No connections. No vast wealth. No pedigree.
No hidden agendas.
Mom and Dad would hate her on sight. Maybe that was part of what made her so appealing—a youthful rebellion arriving twenty years too late.
The clingy black yoga pants and thin gray T-shirt she wore highlighted her curves, rather than hiding them. In the glow of her front porch light, he could see that her feet were bare, her toes tipped in a glossy hot pink polish that seemed completely out of place next to the weapon strapped to her hip. Her gun was the only thing she’d insisted on taking out with her that wasn’t already attached to her body. Not her purse, cash, keys or ID. Just her Glock.
He kept a close eye on her, making sure she didn’t do something stupid like run back inside to disarm the bomb herself. Instead, she sat on the hood of her truck, her hot pink toes propped on the front bumper. Tension radiated through her sleek body, and the promise of retribution was in her gaze as she stared at her front door.
“Any idea who did it?” he asked, taking up a position next to her knee. If she jumped down, it wouldn’t take much for him to grab her around the waist and restrain her.
He guessed that letting go, however, would have taken considerably more effort.
A large part of him hoped she would stay true to her impulsive nature and charge into the house just so he could have an excuse to manhandle her.
The one time he’d had his hands on her for sparring practice, it had been all he could do not to kiss her once he’d had her pinned beneath him. To this day he still wondered how she would have reacted. Would she have thrashed his ass and aimed a gun at his head for daring to take advantage? Or would she have welcomed his advance, melting beneath him in a way that had his balls tightening just imagining it? Sadly, his opportunity to find out was gone now. Lost.
“There is a long list of people who want me dead,” she said, answering his question with a shrug. “Once we analyze the tech, we’ll be able to shorten that list.”
“How long is long?”
“I’ve pissed off a lot of powerful, spiteful people over the years. Good thing they were too stupid to know I couldn’t cook or I’d be charcoal by now.”
The thought made some dark, feral part of him raise its head. “You knew you were in danger and didn’t have your house swept for devices before you came home?”
“I did. Either the crew missed it, or the bad guy did the job this afternoon, after the crew left.”
“How much time did the intruder have between the sweep and when you got home?”
She swung her foot, distracting him with the shiny polish and her pretty toes. “A few hours. The crew doing the sweeps had the rest of the team’s homes to do. Including yours.”
“Why not have them do your place last?” he asked. “You’re the biggest target, being the head of the company.”
Her tone was distracted, and her gaze held on the front door with absolute focus, as if she could will the cleanup team to come out faster. “I don’t have family since I disowned Payton. Not as many people would miss me as would miss the rest of the team. The bigger window of time is a calculated risk I’m willing to take to protect my people.”
Victor’s body tensed at her casual dismissal of her safety. He tried not to let his anger at her recklessness invade his tone, but failed. “Next time I’m checking your place out myself before you step so much as one pink toenail inside your front door.”
She slid from the truck in a single, controlled move. Feminine muscles rippled under her skin, and the scent of ripe berries flowed around her damp hair. She faced him, hands on her hips as she got right up in his personal space.
It took all his willpower to not grab her hips and drag her body up against his. Only the look of hostility on her beautiful face helped him hold his position. “If you think I need you to protect little ol’ me, baby cakes, then I’m going to have to fire you.”
“Because I don’t work with stupid people, honey. I may be a lot of things, but weak and helpless aren’t anywhere on the list. Or haven’t you heard about my past?”
Victor had heard rumors. And ignored them. “Office gossip doesn’t interest me. Your safety, however, does.”
“You were raised with genteel manners, so I’ll forgive you the slipup, but you’ll be happier if you don’t question my capability again. Especially not where my men can hear you.”
“Your men are inside your house. They can’t hear a thing.”
“Franklin,” she called without raising her voice.
A second later, a young man with wing-nut ears, a crooked nose and an eager-to-please vibe poked his head out of her front door. “Yes, ma’am.”
Bella gave Victor a look that screamed I told you so. “How’s progress?”
“The device is disarmed and removed. We’re packing it up now for analysis.”
“And the rest of the house?” she asked.
“Clean, ma’am. And I fixed your microwave.”
Franklin went back inside. Bella grinned, obviously pleased with herself for showing up Victor. “Kid’s got good ears. Handy as hell with tech, too.”
“So what now?” he asked.
“I go back inside and go to bed. You do the same.”
His eyebrows went up at the idea of going to bed with her. A thrill of excitement surged through him, settling in his cock, and it began to swell with eagerness.
“Your own bed,” she hurried to say.
“What about dinner? And our conversation?”
“The conversation you can have, at least for as long as it takes the team to clear out. After that, you’ll have to make an appointment with Lila to meet with me sometime this week.”
Victor had been with Bella every day for two weeks, searching for signs of Gage or the hidden lab of a crazy scientist who needed to be put down like the rabid animal she was. Sure, there had been other people on the team with them, making the task less intimate, but he’d still felt like they’d grown closer—close enough that he didn’t need an appointment to see her.
Apparently he’d been wrong.
Victor covered his irritation and disappointment. She was his boss. He had a job to do, both for her, and for General Norwood, to whom he owed his life half a dozen times over. Whatever it took to complete this assignment of taking down Dr. Norma Stynger, he’d do. Even if it meant controlling his inappropriate feelings for the woman of his dreams.
“Payton asked me to speak to you,” he said. “You have to stop ignoring him.”
“Like hell.” Bella held up her hand. There was a small cut along her palm. Victor wanted to pull her hand to his mouth and kiss away her hurt so badly he had to clench his fists to keep from reaching for her.
“You have to deal with him. He’s part of this whole mess.”
Fury burned in her gray eyes, turning them the color of cold steel and hot ash. “He caused this whole mess, sweetheart. He was there from the beginning, helping drag kids in for those experiments. He covered his tracks. Hid the truth. From all of us. Don’t sit there and tell me I have to deal with him. He’s lucky I don’t simply put a bullet in his skull for the betterment of mankind in general.”
She lurched forward, toward the house with the bomb still inside. Victor grabbed her wrist and pulled hard enough to make her turn to face him. “He’s trying to make up for what he did.”
Anger was a living, breathing thing inside her. He could see it coursing just under her skin, tinting it a dark, furious red. “There is no making up for mistakes that big. What he did was intentional. He hurt children. Took them from their families. He used them.”
She was hurting, and the wild feelings of anger and ferocity that evoked in him were barely controlled by his sympathy for the woman who stood before him now. He kept his voice calm and quiet, stayed as far away from pity as he could. Bella wasn’t the kind of woman who would react well to pity, no matter how well placed it might be. The children of the Threshold Project had been used as lab rats, subjected to experimental drugs and brainwashing protocols that were designed to alter them in fundamental ways. Permanently. Bella loved people who’d been part of that, and that made her as dangerous as those who had hurt those kids. “Who did you lose, Bella?”
She swallowed hard. Cleared her throat. “No one important.”
“That’s not the whole truth. Tell me.”
“It’s all the truth you’re going to get. And don’t bother searching the file, either. I’ve made sure everything was removed from the data we recovered. My life is my business. Only mine. Keep your nose out, Vic.”
“Victor,” he automatically corrected.
“I mean it, Victor. You stay out of my business or you’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me. Not if you want to keep your juicy government contract. You’re going to have to find a bigger stick if you want me to be a good dog.”
“I may not be able to fire you, but I can make you beg to quit.”
“If you think that, then you don’t know me at all. I don’t have an ounce of quit in me anywhere. Why do you think Norwood asked me to take this job? His daughter works for you, for heaven’s sake. The man isn’t going to put some wet-behind-the-ears kid on this assignment. He wants results.”
She closed the distance between them, dropping the anger from her expression until all that remained was a relaxed, almost wanton look. Her lips were parted. Her pupils dilated. Her gaze fixed on his mouth.
Victor didn’t know what the hell to think. If he wasn’t certain that she had no interest in him as a man, he would have been convinced she was about to kiss him. Instead, her voice dropped to a slow, sexy Texas drawl. “Honey, there are an awful lot of things a girl like me can do to a man like you that would make him beg for mercy. And only half of them would actually hurt. The rest would feel oh so very nice.”
She was right. She had much more power here than he’d first suspected. She might not be able to make him quit, but she sure as hell could make this assignment one he would regret for a long, long time.
Victor closed his eyes to block out the sight of her lovely face, and took a deep breath. “Do what you want, Bella. I’m here until the job is done, and right now that job means getting you to talk to Payton. Someone has to be in charge when you’re out looking for Gage, but none of the men will take orders from him anymore.”
“Because I told them not to.”
“But he’s the one with the most intel. You can’t just shut him out.”
“I can. I have. End of conversation.”
A grizzled old man came out of the house carrying a cooler. Victor recognized him but couldn’t place his name. He moved slowly, taking each step with measured care. No doubt the device was inside.
“We’re done,” said the older man in a voice as rough as crushed gravel. “We had to cut the gas line, so you won’t have any hot water. You need to find another place to stay tonight. We’ll do another sweep tomorrow in the daylight and fix your gas line.”
“I’d rather sleep in my own bed,” Bella said.
“Yeah, and I’d rather not be mopping up squishy pieces of you come morning.”
She straightened and squared her shoulders. “That one didn’t go off. There aren’t that many incompetent bombers with enough fingers left to do a job, but apparently, our guy was one of them.”
“Wrong,” said the man. “The work was solid. Set on a timer so the boom wouldn’t happen until the room had time to fill with a small cloud of gas. Whoever did this wanted to make sure you were in the blast, not just next to it. If you’d taken more than a few seconds to realize there was a problem and turn off the gas, you would have been one crispy critter.” He strapped the cooler into the back of his truck, inside a custom-built steel container.
Bella’s jaw tightened in anger, but the rest of her body was loose and relaxed—just like she always was before a fight. “I didn’t see the problem. Uncle Sam’s poster boy here did.” She hooked a thumb toward Victor.
The man’s bushy eyebrows lifted in a show of surprise. “Good eye. Bella assign you to a team yet? We could always use a man with a brain.”
“He’s spoken for,” she said before Victor could say a word.
The older man nodded in acceptance. “Fair enough. I’m taking the device to my place out in the country to dispose of it.”
“Have you gotten all the information from it you can?” she asked. “I’d really like to find the person who’s trying to kill me before they succeed.”
“I’ll do what I can before destroying it, but it’s not the kind of thing we can have sitting around while the eggheads do their thing. That’s a really good way to lose eggheads.”
“I understand,” she said. “I don’t want you to risk your fingers doing anything unsafe. You’re my man and I want you in one piece.”
“Yes, ma’am. We’re of a mind there. I’ll call you when I know more.” He got into his truck and pulled away slowly.
A minute later, Franklin and two other men came out of Bella’s place, carrying the gear they’d toted in.
“We’ll come back after the sun is up and do another sweep. Do you want me to stay here tonight and keep watch?” Franklin asked Bella.
“No. I got it.”
The young man’s face turned red and he shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “You know I can’t let you back in the house until the boss gives the all clear, right?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, pressing her breasts upward in a mouthwatering display that made Victor squirm.
“I’m the boss, Franklin,” she reminded him.
“Yes, ma’am. You’re my boss’s boss and I respect that. But he promised me that he’d beat the everlovin’ hell out of me if I let you go back in there. I’d really rather not have that happen.”
“Sugar, don’t you think I’d do the same thing if you tried to keep me out of my own home?” she asked, almost sweetly.
Franklin’s eyes widened. His ruddy skin went splotchy. He looked to the man next to him for support, but found none. He opened his mouth to say something, then clamped his lips shut.
Victor took pity on the poor kid and spoke up. “I’m sure she’s just teasing,” he said. “Bella has no need to resort to violence. She knows you’re only doing your job.”
She fixed Victor with a death ray stare. Her gray eyes narrowed, and he swore he could feel the heat of her anger blasting through his clothes. “I try to always reprimand in private, so you all should leave now. Victor and I need to talk.”
The men scurried off. She didn’t spare them so much as a glance. As soon as they were on their way down the street, she got right into his face. “Don’t you dare speak for me again. Ever.”
“You were scaring that poor kid half to death.”
“Good. Proves he has half a brain. You’d be smarter if you were a little scared, too.”
Victor tried not to scoff. Sure she was tough as nails and deadly in a fight, but he never once imagined she’d inflict violence that wasn’t deserved.
Perhaps that was his mistake.
“You want to hurt me?” he asked, refusing to so much as blink under the force of her furious stare. “Go ahead and try. I dare you.”
“We both know how it will end. You’ll be on your back under me, pinned and panting, unable to move until I let you go.”
Her pupils flared so wide he was sure it had to have hurt. “You got lucky once. Doesn’t mean it will happen again.”
“Anytime you want a rematch, I’m ready to go.”
She pulled in a deep breath. “I don’t have time to waste on your petty pissing matches. I have a company to run.” She turned and headed for her truck only to realize it was locked and the keys were inside her house. “Shit.”
She looked at her front door as if she was actually considering going back in there.
No way was Victor going to let that happen.
“Come home with me so you can get some sleep. I know you’re exhausted.”
She stared at him for a full ten seconds. He wasn’t sure if she was deciding whether to accept his offer, or calming herself down enough to speak. Either way, he stood there, taking the heat of her gaze for as long as she needed to give it.
Finally, she said, “Take me to work.”
“You won’t sleep at work.”
“I might. We have on-call rooms I could use.”
“I know you better than that. If you go to the office, you’ll work. And if you don’t get some sleep soon, you’re going to start making bad decisions. We both know you can’t afford to do that.”
“I know my limits. I haven’t reached them yet.”
“And if a new lead comes up tomorrow, sending you on another two-week chase after Stynger or Gage with no time to sleep? What then? Will that be past your limit?”
She closed her eyes for a split second, but it was long enough for Victor to see the dark stain that fatigue had left beneath her eyes, as well as the slight wilting of her slender frame. “I don’t suppose you’d front me the cash for a hotel room, would you? My purse is inside.”
He wanted her in his space, in his home. He knew that having her in his domain would change nothing between them, but the urge to drag her to his lair by her hair was clearly still encoded somewhere in his DNA. “When I have a perfectly good guest room available? Are you that afraid of me, Bella?”
She snorted. “Afraid of you? Hardly.”
“Then what’s the problem? We’ve slept in close quarters for weeks now and I haven’t groped you in your sleep. I’m not about to start now, considering how exhausted I am.”
Her gray eyes darkened to a deep slate color. Her nostrils flared as she breathed in, and the tip of her tongue grazed across her bottom lip, leaving a wet trail he ached to taste.
“If exhaustion is the only thing making you mind your manners, then we have a problem,” she said. “I think I should get that hotel room.”
“I’ll be good. My mother trained me to be completely civilized.” Or at least give one hell of a good performance. Not that Bella needed to know that part. Better she think he was a good lapdog, rather than the rabid pit bull straining at his chain in an effort to reach her.
Bella wasn’t his type. He had to remember that, despite the fact that his body disagreed. She came from a different world than he did. She wasn’t the kind of woman who fit into his carefully planned future. There was nothing refined or genteel about her.
Which only made him want her more.
“Fine,” she finally said in utter exhaustion. “Take me home. But if you so much as step one foot inside your guest room while I’m there, honey, I’ll break your kneecaps.”
For some reason Victor couldn’t fathom, his cock twitched in excitement at her threat of violence.
He grinned. “I’d like to see you try.”
Bella hated to admit it, but she liked Victor’s home.
It was in a nice part of town. Safe, but not showy. The house was beautifully built, but not huge. She knew he could afford way more, but apparently felt no need to do so.
Everything was done in calming neutral tones. The furnishings were of high quality, but didn’t have the ostentatiousness she’d come to expect from the ridiculously wealthy.
There was no clutter or dust. No dishes in his sink. Everything about the place was appealing, all the way down to the large gun safe he’d installed where a wine cellar had previously been.
“Your room is in here,” he said, opening a door on the opposite side of the house from the master suite. “The bathroom is stocked with all the basics. If you need anything else, just ask.”
The guest room was done in soothing greens and blues. One step onto the soft carpet made her worry that she might sink in all the way to the foundation. A giant bed sat in the center of the space, its covers turned down on one corner in welcome. She wanted to sink into its pillowy depths so bad, she nearly groaned in need.
“This is beautiful. Thank you.” She turned in time to catch him staring at her. “What?”
“Just adjusting to the idea of you being in my home.”
Now she felt like a charity case. “I really don’t want to intrude. I’ll just call a cab to take me to work.” She was in the act of dialing her cell phone when he covered her hand with his.
“I didn’t mean that in a bad way. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Why in the world does an inconvenience make you glad?”
“I like knowing you’re safe. When you’re under my roof, I can be certain that’s the case.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t used to men worrying about her—not even the ones who knew and understood what she did for a living. They all knew she could take care of herself, which made her wonder if Victor thought less of her abilities, or if he simply cared more.
“You know I can take care of myself,” she reminded him.
“Better than almost anyone I know,” he agreed. “But someone is out to hurt you, and no one is invulnerable to a bullet from a well-trained sniper. Not even you.”
The idea gave her pause, and sent a trail of apprehension snaking up her spine. She felt the need to hide, like she used to do when Dan came at her and the fear set in. It took an effort of will to shrug off the need to pull her hands away from Victor’s.
“Is your house sniper-proof?” she asked, half teasing.
“Metal shutters over bulletproof glass. Reinforced cement walls. Strategically designed landscaping that gives every advantage to us inside, and enough guns and ammo to wage a small war.”
“Wow,” she breathed. “Now I know what a guy like you does with all that money.” And it was damn hot, too.
Victor grinned. “Get some sleep, Bella. I’m nearby if you need me.” Something about the way he said it made her think he was hoping she would need him.
She clenched her thighs together to ward off the most pressing need she had for a man like him.
He shut the door to her room, leaving her alone.
Normally she enjoyed time to herself. She spent so much of her life working with clients and employees that she could go for days without any time alone. But now, standing on the plush carpet of Victor’s guest room, surrounded by beautiful things, all she wanted was to trail after him so she wouldn’t feel so damn lonely.
Not going to happen, so time to suck it up.
She turned and surveyed her surroundings. The space was too big. As safe as his house might be, there were too many places where a bad guy could hide.
The cozier bathroom on the far side of the room beckoned. She headed for it, closing the door behind herself.
The room was bigger than she’d first thought, with both a giant tub and a separate walk-in shower. There were two sprawling counters with sinks, and another at a lower height that she presumed was for putting on makeup.
All the surfaces in here were hard stone, glossy tile, or gleaming metal. The only softness she found were the thick rugs and fluffy towels waiting for use.
There was a closet on the other side of the bath. She went over, hoping for a smaller space she could burrow into and hide.
As soon as she realized what she was doing, she stopped dead in her tracks.
Bella didn’t hide anymore. She didn’t need to. Her husband was dead. She was strong. Deadly. No one could hurt her now.
She had no idea why the need to hide had come on so suddenly or was so strong, but she fought back, refusing to give in to the compulsion.
She was safe. Her only problem was her worry for Gage and not enough sleep or food for too many days.
That, and a raging case of lust for a man she couldn’t let herself have.
Bella made use of the toothbrush and toiletries set out for her. Then she stripped down to her panties so her clothes wouldn’t be a wrinkled mess when she went to work tomorrow morning. She slid into sheets so soft they had to have been woven from angelic spider silk. The cool brush of fabric against her skin made her shiver with delight, lighting up nerve endings everywhere. The sensation added to her lust, as did the knowledge that Victor lay only a few yards from where she did.
As need crawled through her system, she ran her hands over her skin, pretending that the hands that touched her were bigger and rougher. Victor’s face formed in her mind as clear as if he’d been lying beside her.
The thought gave her a naughty thrill as she drew her fingers over her abdomen and lower to glide beneath her panties.
She was wet. Hot. She needed relief so bad it made every muscle in her body tense.
There was no sleeping with this kind of lust clawing at her, so she did the only practical thing she could do and began working herself toward orgasm. Even one would be enough to ease her.
Victor’s image was with her the whole time. It was his hand that stroked her, his fingers that toyed with her nipples. When her climax washed over her, it was his name she cried out.
Finally, her body relaxed and let go of all the tension it had been hoarding. As she drifted off to sleep, she was almost certain that she could smell his scent filling the air.
* * *
Victor knew the sound of a woman’s orgasm when he heard it. But he’d never expected to hear that lovely noise come out of Bella Bayne.
Especially not calling out his name.
He let his hand fall from where he’d been about to knock on her door. He still hadn’t fed her yet, and in all the excitement, he hadn’t realized it until his own stomach reminded him.
There was no way he was knocking now. His cock was hard enough to rip his fly open if he so much as breathed too deeply.
It was better to leave now, before he saw the flush of her arousal staining her cheeks, and forgot he couldn’t fuck his boss. He didn’t know how long he’d last before he gave in to his need to come, but he knew that when he did, he’d be remembering the sound of Bella calling his name.
Bella had woken up in Victor’s guest closet, shivering with both cold and fear. She couldn’t remember the dream that had driven her to cower and hide, but that didn’t make it any less humiliating. Or any less frightening.
She was furious for reasons she refused to acknowledge—reasons too big for her to allow them to distract her now, while so much was at stake. She used that anger now, channeling it into a tightly controlled bundle of energy she burned to fuel her muscles.
Sweat dripped from her chin as she faced her opponent in the sparring ring, but she didn’t dare stop to wipe it away. If she did, Adam Brink would pounce.
Now that she knew Adam was Gage’s brother, she could see the similarities in them. They were both tall and lean, with sharp, angular features and keen minds. She’d once thought of Adam as her enemy, but he had since proved himself a formidable ally. Not only had he saved the life of more than one of Bella’s employees, he’d also made her friend and tech goddess Mira a very happy, very satisfied woman. So much so that Bella ignored the fact that Adam and Mira were breaking several company rules with their engagement and frequent bouts of monkey sex in the server room.
If only Bella could ignore those rules herself long enough to see if Victor was as tasty as he appeared. Maybe then she’d be able to get some decent sleep.
A sigh of longing slipped past her lips.
Adam moved so fast Bella hardly saw it coming. She was too slow to stop his attack, which earned her a position with her face pinned against the sparring mat.
“You’re distracted today,” Adam said with complete calm. None of the heat of their practice battle seemed to touch him.
Her elbow and shoulder begged for him to release her arm, which was currently twisted behind her back with great force. Talking with her cheek smooshed against the mat was hard, but she managed. “I let you pin me.”
He immediately let her go, lifting her back to her feet with one graceful tug. Behind him, not twenty feet away, stood Victor, watching her.
He was shirtless, showing off a body meant for a woman’s hands. And her tongue.
Lean, functional muscles gleamed with sweat under the gym’s lights. His shorts gave her a clear view of his long, strong legs. Even as tall as she was, as ripped as she forced herself to stay for her own safety, she knew without a doubt that there was more than enough room on his thighs for her to snuggle up in his lap.
The fact that the word snuggle even entered her vocabulary was proof of just how sleep-deprived she was. Women like her didn’t snuggle. They trained and worked and issued orders. They strategized and did paperwork and kicked ass when the need arose. Which was often.
The sharp sting of Adam’s hand against her shoulder refocused her attention.
“Does someone need a nap?” he asked.
This time Bella kept her gaze where it belonged—on her opponent—and made her move. Adam let her think she had the upper hand right up to the point where she landed flat on her back, her body completely immobilized beneath his.
The smell of his sweat invaded her nose. A sick swell of nausea clogged her throat. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. She was supposed to slip away. Stay on her feet.
Something dark and terrifying spewed out of the dark recesses of her memory. She’d been helpless like this too many times before. Trapped.
The memory of being strapped to a hospital bed flooded her mind. She was small. Weak. Something hot and biting was being pumped into her veins. It set the back of her skull on fire and made every muscle in her thin body strain and clench. It didn’t matter how hard she fought or how much she pulled on her restraints, there was no escape.
That memory melded into another, more recent one. This time she was older, bigger. Still, she was powerless to stop the violence coming toward her. Her husband’s hard hands bit into her skin, bruising as they tightened and pinned her arms down. His snarl of anger was proof of what would happen next—a precursor to the pain that was speeding her way. First the physical pain, then the emotional aftermath.
She had to fight back. Run away. But her body refused to cooperate. Instead, she went limp and weak, accepting her fate. This fear and violence was her home—where she’d been created to live. All the fight had been stripped from her, leaving behind only a weak, spineless shell. There was no avoiding the inevitable.
Adam’s weight shifted atop her, flinging her mind back to the here and now. Helpless terror still clung to her, fogging and jumbling her thoughts.
The need to fight, to flee, rose up, taking over her limbs. The victim in her retreated back into her cage, leaving the need to survive shining bright like a beacon of strength.
There was no technique to her efforts now—just pure instinct and rage. She didn’t care if she hurt him or herself. All that mattered was freedom.
She thrashed around, clawing and kicking at her captor. She couldn’t let him win. Couldn’t let him hold her down. Hurt her. Kill her.
Bella was not a victim. Not ever again.
The keen blade of panic cut through her, shearing away all reason. She heard her blood pound in her ears and saw her vision dim. The rough edges of her own screams barely penetrated the fog of her fear. Beyond that were the startled grunts of an opponent expecting her attack.
“Get off her!” A man’s hard order. She knew the voice, but couldn’t place it.
Friend or foe? She couldn’t remember. Better to run from him, too.
Her fingernails bit into sweaty skin. Her toes met dense flesh, hitting hard enough to shove a grunt from her captor and send a streak of pain up her shin.
Then he was gone. His weight evaporated as if it had never been. Her panic dissipated and vision cleared in time to see Victor’s arms extend as he bodily threw Adam to the far side of the sparring ring.
He landed well, coming up on the other side of a graceful roll. Apology was clear on his face, along with a dizzying dose of confusion.
Victor crouched beside her, blocking out the sight of all else. A look of concern creased his aristocratic brow. He didn’t touch her, but his hand hovered only inches away from her shoulder, as if he was thinking about it.
In that crazy, emotional moment, she desperately wanted his touch—something to ground her in reality, not that insane place she’d been inhabiting a second ago. A place she’d lived for too many years.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
The normal noises of the gym had gone silent. No one spoke. There were about half a dozen people present, and most of them were staring at Bella with varying looks of shock and worry. A couple were grinning, like they were certain her freak-out had been a joke.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Her face burned with embarrassment. Her whole body trembled. She wanted to stand and tell them all to mind their own damn business, but her throat was still constricted from her strangled screams of panic. She swore she could still hear them echoing in her ears.
Victor’s voice quieted so no one else could hear, but his tone was no less insistent. “Tell me you’re okay or I’m picking you up and taking you to a hospital.”
“Fine,” she managed to squeak out, though the weak sound was almost as embarrassing as her episode.
His lips flattened in acceptance, and she saw his expression change to the one he wore when he was getting ready to plow through an impossible task. He stood, and his voice filled the gym. “She just got the wind knocked out of her. Clear the room. She says employee meeting in fifteen minutes in the conference room.”
The gathered people looked at her as if expecting her to issue a different order.
Victor’s voice took on the boom of a drill instructor. “Move!”
Everyone scurried to obey except Adam, who gave her a long, scrutinizing look. “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he said.
She waved him away, hoping her hand wasn’t shaking too hard to reassure him.
He nodded. “I’m going back out to look for Gage again,” he said, and then left the room.
While Bella appreciated the privacy Victor’s lie had afforded her, she knew better than to believe it herself. She’d had more than the wind knocked out of her. Somewhere between Adam’s hold and her abrupt landing on the mat, she’d lost part of her mind.
You’re never going to escape the person you were. You’ll carry her with you for the rest of your days. Acceptance is your only option. Payton’s voice wriggled in the back of Bella’s memory, taunting her with failure.
She would not be that person again. Weak. Spineless. A victim. She was too strong for that now. Dan had tried to break her, but she’d survived. Unbreakable.
At least until today. Whatever Adam had done to her had thrown her back into her old self, where panic and fear ruled her every action.
What People are Saying About This
“Shannon K. Butcher’s talent shines.”—New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh
“You are always guaranteed generous portions of pulse-pounding action and romance in a Butcher tale!”—Romantic Times
“What an entertaining and thrilling series!”—Fresh Fiction
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Couldn't finish. This plot has gone on far too long. Not a very good security agency with poor leadership. I haven't gotten to the romance but got very tired of Bella and her sarcastic "honey" in every conversation with Victor.
J: Where is Shannon Butcher? This one doesn't quite seem like the author that I know. The main characters are way too wrapped up in wild monkey sex, that the story keeps losing its momentum and the suspense stalls. I keep trying to skip up to the main story as it relates to the other stories in the series, but I am half way through and getting tired of wading through all the "romance". It's just too much of it!