Too Hard to Handle (Black Knights Inc. Series #8)

Too Hard to Handle (Black Knights Inc. Series #8)

by Julie Ann Walker

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Overview

A USA Today Bestseller!

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Julie Ann Walker continues her red-hot Black Knights Inc. series in rough-and-tumble Peru

"The Man" is back
Dan "The Man" Currington is back in fighting form with a mission that takes him four thousand miles south of BKI headquarters, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. He's hot on the trail of a rogue CIA agent selling classified government secrets to the highest bidder, when Penni DePaul arrives on the scene. Suddenly the stakes are higher, and keeping Penni safe becomes Dan's number one priority.

And this time she's ready
A lot has changed since former Secret Service Agent Penni DePaul last saw Dan. Now a civilian, she's excited about what the future might hold. But before she can grab onto that future with both hands, she has to tie up some loose ends-namely, Dan Currington, the man she just can't forget. And a secret that's going to change both their lives-if they can stay alive, that is.

Black Knights Inc. Series
Hell on Wheels (Book 1)
In Rides Trouble (Book 2)
Rev It Up (Book 3)
Thrill Ride (Book 4)
Born Wild (Book 5)
Hell for Leather (Book 6)
Full Throttle (Book 7)
Too Hard to Handle (Book 8)
Wild Ride (Book 9 — coming April 2017!)

Praise for Full Throttle:
Heart-pounding...Walker has outdone herself." -Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"Quick witted and action packed." -RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
"Amazing...took me on the ride of my life." -The Book Whisperer
"A wonderful, intense story with fabulous romantic tension." -Tome Tender

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402294549
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Series: Black Knights Inc. Series , #8
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 136,644
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Julie Ann Walker is the USA Today and New York Times Bestselling Author of the Black Knights Inc. romantic suspense series. She is prone to spouting movie quotes and song lyrics. She'll never say no to sharing a glass of wine or going for a long walk. She prefers impromptu travel over the scheduled kind, and she takes her coffee with milk. You can find her on her bicycle along the lake shore in Chicago or blasting away at her keyboard, trying to wrangle her capricious imagination into submission. For more information, please visit www.julieannwalker.com or follow her on Facebook www.facebook.com/jawalkerauthor and/or Twitter @JAWalkerAuthor.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Goose Island, Chicago, Illinois

Thursday, 5:28 p.m.

"Calm down, dude. If you keep going on like this, your brain will explode. And I really don't want to get any of it on me."

Penni DePaul recognized the voice of the man speaking as she followed the redheaded behemoth named Geralt through the narrow gate on the side of the big warehouse that housed Black Knights Inc.

"It's not my head I'm worried about," came a booming bass response. "It's yours. I mean, Ozzie, man, you know that woman is buckets o' crazy, right?"

"Maybe," Ozzie replied just as Penni rounded the corner, stopping when Geralt's gigantic biker boots took root atop the patio pavers. "But if she is, she really puts the hot in psychotic. Am I right?"

Peeking around Geralt's massive back, Penni's eyes landed on Ethan "Ozzie" Sykes. He was sitting in a bright red Adirondack chair with his back to her. And from what little she could make out, he was looking pretty good for a guy who'd nearly had his leg blown off. The leg in question was secured in a brace and propped on the stone lip of a big fire pit built into the center of the courtyard behind the warehouse. The courtyard itself was surrounded by outbuildings and a fifteen-foot-high brick wall topped by razor wire and a crap-ton of security cameras.

To the inexperienced, Black Knights Inc. looked as it was meant to look, like the work area and living space for a group of rough and rowdy guys who built fantastical custom motorcycles in a not-so-nice part of town. The latter requiring all the high-tech security, don't you know? But Penni wasn't inexperienced. She was well aware of the cold, hard facts behind BKI's chrome and leather facade. On her last assignment she'd worked with Ozzie and two more of the Black Knights, and she could say without a shadow of a doubt that they did a whole lot more than design shiny things that ate asphalt for dinner and roared like steel beasts.

The motorcycle shop was nothing but a front for the most secretive, most whispered-about government defense firm ever to be redacted from all of Uncle Sam's files. Granted, it was a really excellent front, considering that the three guys she'd worked with during The Assignment-that's how she'd come to think of the mission that had changed her life forever-had all been a little bit scruffy and a whole lot tattooed. Handsome-as-sin Hells Angels look-alikes...

"And if you must know," Ozzie went on, "I happen to like crazy. It makes for really interesting conversations. Besides"-he took a swig from a beer with a red label that read "Honker's Ale"-"she seems like she'd be a hellcat in the bedroom."

"Kee-rist, man!" The guy who belonged to the bass voice was sitting at a picnic table laden with what appeared to be huge vats of potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans. He plunked his beer bottle atop the table's surface with enough force to send foam geysering from the longneck.

"I know that pretty face of yours means you're used to women throwing themselves at your feet," he added, "but the only reason she flirted with you at the bar last night is because she's a fuckin' reporter who's been nosing around this place for years looking for a fuckin' story. So even if a nutso in nylons is your screwed-up idea of a cup of tea, her fuckin' J.O.B. should make any appeal she has shrink up quicker than an Eskimo scrotum."

The man certainly had a mad penchant for colorful descriptions. And f-bombs. And scars. His craggy face was lined with more than its fair share.

Penni didn't know exactly what she'd expected to happen after the taxi dropped her in front of the mammoth gates of BKI and she told Geralt, who'd been manning the gatehouse, that she needed to talk to Dan "The Man" Currington. But it certainly wasn't to be led to a backyard barbecue complete with smoking grill and three guys lounging around on mismatched lawn furniture while arguing about the merits and drawbacks of getting jiggy with some nameless newspaperwoman. The third man was wearing a green John Deere baseball cap and strumming an old Martin six-string, looking for all the world like he was completely ignoring the other two.

The smell of cooking meat hung heavy in the cool breeze. It competed with the wet, fishy aroma of the nearby Chicago River and the hoppy deliciousness of the open beer bottles. In fact, if it weren't for that whole security-camera/razor-wire thing they had going, Penni would have said the air around Black Knights Inc. was less supersecret spy-guy lair and more laid-back, good-ol'-boy hangout.

"Yeah." Ozzie nodded vaguely, scratching his chin. "The reporter thing is a bit of a drawback."

"A bit?" Scarface sent Ozzie an incredulous look, prompting the man playing the guitar to finally jump into the fray.

"I don't know why you're surprised, mon ami," he said and Penni instantly identified his smooth-as-silk voice and sweet-as-molasses accent from a phone conversation she'd had with him during The Assignment. His name was Rock. But while the famous Rock was big and bulky, this Rock was lean and wiry...and sporting a pretty spiffy pair of scuffed-up alligator boots. "You know Ozzie can't see past the upside of a thing, especially when that thing has boobs, until ya point out the downside of a thing."

Ozzie turned to grin at Rock. And even though he was in profile, Penni noticed the expression looked a little...different from the one she'd seen on his face three months ago. It was duller. Sadder. Harder somehow.

Her mind returned to the hotel bombings in Kuala Lumpur-the ones that had left her colleagues, her friends, dead-and started picking at the memory like a scab. What lay beneath burned and ached, but she'd learned a thing or two over the past few months. One of which was how to take a deep breath and push aside the ugly thoughts so they didn't rise up and overwhelm her in grief. She wasn't entirely sure time healed all wounds as much as it simply taught a person ways to stanch the chronic bleeding.

Geralt, heretofore known in her mind as the Carrot-Topped Colossus, must have sensed a lull in the men's debate. He cleared his throat and said, "Speaking of skirts"-his accent was one hundred percent Windy City, his words running together like cars colliding on the Eisenhower Expressway-"we got one here who says she's looking for Dan Man."

Penni was trying to decide whether or not she should take offense at being labeled "a skirt" when Scarface and Rock jumped from their seats. Ozzie craned his head around the side of the Adirondack chair. And suddenly she was...

Not scared, exactly. In her thirty-three years she'd faced down a lot worse than three flag-waving, gun-toting, pretend motorcycle mechanics. But now that she was here at Black Knights Inc., on the brink of telling Dan that she hadn't been able to get him out of her head since The Assignment, and that she-

"Agent DePaul!" Ozzie crowed, pushing up from the chair and grabbing the crutches leaning against it. He hobbled over and threw an arm around her shoulders, squeezing her tight. The move was made awkward by the crutch shoved in his armpit. "Forget about my fantasy shag-o-rama with ace reporter Samantha Tate," he told Rock and Scarface. Shag-o-rama? Christ almighty. "Because my future wife has just arrived!"

Uh-huh. Sure. Because while they'd worked together in Kuala Lumpur, Ozzie had gaily-and quite insincerely-asked her to marry him at least a half-dozen times.

She turned to grin at him now, grateful for his exuberant welcome and the balm it was to her frayed nerves. But her smile faltered when she saw his eyes.

He was different.

Gone was the spark, the bright golden glow that seemed to shine from within him. Now there were shadows lurking behind his sapphire irises. Deep shadows. Dark shadows. Shadows that told her all his good-natured joking was a studied act, a slick veneer to cover up what was hurting and broken inside him.

She wasn't sure if it made her feel better or worse, knowing she wasn't the only one irrevocably changed by The Assignment. On second thought, she was sure. Worse. It definitely made her feel worse.

But what are you going to do?

Keep on keeping on, that's what. A phrase her father had taught her to live by.

"Your future wife, huh?" she asked Ozzie, determined to play along. If he insisted on wearing a false happy face, far be it from her to pull off his mask. "What makes you think I'll take you up on your offer of marriage this time when I've turned you down every time before?"

"Well, why else would you be here?" He wiggled his blond eyebrows. "I mean, it's obvious you've come to your senses and decided to make me the happiest man on the pl-"

"Dim your love-lights, you oversexed jackass," Scarface said, crossing his arms over his chest when he came to a stop in front of them. He was a mountain of a man. Close to six-and-a-half feet of bulging, flexing muscles. "I'm blinded by the bullshit shining in them."

"Oversexed? Me?" Ozzie's tone and expression epitomized incredulity. "You're one to talk. I'm surprised every morning that Becky can walk out of your bedr-"

"Not in front of our guest," Scarface growled, leveling Ozzie with a look Penni was surprised didn't curdle the latter's balls. "Especially not before the introductions have been made."

"Typical." Ozzie shook his head. "You can dish it, but you can't take it."

When a vein the size of a garden hose appeared in the center of Scarface's forehead, Ozzie quickly relented and officially introduced Penni to Richard "Rock" Babineaux and Frank "Boss" Knight, a.k.a. Scarface. After shaking the men's hands, Penni turned to extend the gesture to Geralt and thank him for the escort.

The giant redhead ran a hand over his bristly crew cut and said with a dramatic leer, "Believe me, the pleasure was all mine. And if you decide not to take Ozzie up on his offer of ball-and-chaindom, how about you and me grab a cup of joe before you leave, yeah? Ya see"-he had the audacity to slow wink at her before turning a smug smile toward Ozzie-"I've always had a thing for NYC accents, especially when that accent comes with a broad whose legs go all the way up."

From "skirt" to "broad." She wasn't sure it was an improvement. And didn't everyone's legs go all the way up to...well...wherever all legs went? Hips, usually?

"Back off, you big ginger!" Ozzie bellowed, pushing Geralt's shoulder but failing to budge the Carrot-Topped Colossus an inch. "I saw her first!"

"Oh, sure." Geralt made a face. "‘I saw her first.' The go-to gambit of small-minded men with even smaller d-"

"Gentlemen, please," Penni interrupted, her head spinning with the whirlwind that was her first five minutes at Black Knights Inc. And then there was her stomach... It was so jittery at the thought of what she was about to do that she marveled her lunch was staying down. She'd been so peaceful, so serene when she'd made the decision to come. But now that she was actually here, on the brink of confessing everything? Yeah, no. And Ozzie and Geralt? Well, they weren't helping a damned thing.

Her father's voice echoed inside her head. When you find yourself in a gaffle, Penelope Ann DePaul, the only way out is straight ahead.

Her dad had been chockablock full of little adages like that.

"It's not that I'm not extremely flattered at being reduced to the chew toy in a game of tug-of-war between two big, slobbery dogs..." She lifted a brow, letting both men know when she used the term "dog" she wasn't referring to the four-legged variety. She was fully aware this little tête-à-tête had nothing to do with her and everything to do with them having an excess of testosterone, which forced them to latch on to any excuse to growl and posture and insult one another. Men. She shook her head. "But I really do need to talk to Dan."

Geralt had the good sense to bite the inside of his cheek and turn the color of the cherries they put atop the charlotte russe pound cakes back in Brooklyn. But Ozzie? He just grinned wider. The good-looking lout.

"We'll let you talk to Dan," Boss said, narrowing his eyes, "if you can assure me this doesn't have anything to do with that bad business in Malaysia."

To her utter horror, when she opened her mouth, what initially came out was, "I-I-I-" Hello? What sorry sonofabitch had gone and tied her tongue in knots? Swallowing, she tried again. "I'd really rather discuss this with Dan, and I-"

Before she could finish, three women burst from the back door of the warehouse, laughing uproariously. There was a petite blond with a lollipop stick protruding from her mouth. She was carrying a huge casserole dish filled with...peach cobbler, by the smell of it. Beside her was a tall, curvy woman with an amazing mass of chestnut hair. She was holding a baby swaddled in a Chicago Cubs blanket-the little bundle cooed and burbled and waved a pudgy fist in the air. Bringing up the rear and rounding out the trio was a dusky-skinned, dark-eyed beauty who walked over and slapped Rock on the ass before she realized there was a stranger in their midst.

"And who do we have here?" the black-haired woman inquired, snaking an arm around Rock's waist. Rock brushed an inky lock away from her face and bent to press a tender kiss to her temple.

"Vanessa," he said in that sweet southern drawl that screamed Louisiana bayou, "this is Agent Penni DePaul."

Penni opened her mouth to remind him that she and Vanessa had spoken on the phone during The Assignment and to correct him on that whole "agent" business, but she closed it again when he quickly introduced Becky, the blond, and Michelle, of the chestnut hair. Penni also made the acquaintance of the cooing baby, one Jacob Michael Sommers, Jr. Or JJ for short.

These people are more than coworkers, she realized with a start after Becky set the casserole dish on the picnic table and walked back to the group, popping the sucker from her mouth so she could drag Boss down to steal a loud, smacking smooch. They're family. A big, noisy, loving family. Dan's family. And I'm intruding on them. On him.

Okay, sure. She'd known before she ever hopped on the plane headed west out of Reagan National Airport that just because Malaysia had been the catalyst for her making some huge decisions about the path of her life, it didn't mean Dan had done the same. And she'd been fully aware that just because what passed between them during those hellacious twenty-four hours had turned out to be momentous for her, it didn't mean it'd held the same importance for him. But now, after seeing the impressiveness of Black Knights Inc. in person, after meeting the host of people who filled Dan's life, she couldn't help but wonder if he'd given her as much as a passing thought.

She considered tucking tail and running. It would be so easy to turn around, walk out that gate, and forget she ever-

No. No! She wasn't a coward. She'd come here to say her piece. And you can bet your ass that's exactly what she was going to do. Squaring her shoulders, she glanced around at the faces staring at her expectantly and blurted out, "I sort of feel like a broken record here, but I really need to-"

"Talk to Dan," Boss finished for her. "Just as soon as you tell us what this is all about. Because if the Secret Service has a problem with the way he handled things in Kuala Lumpur, then it's me you need to be having a conversation with, not him. When it comes to BKI, the buck stops right here." He hooked a thumb toward his football-field-sized chest.

See? Family. Sticking up for each other and closing ranks when it looked like she was trying to insert herself into the middle of them. Once again, a sliver of doubt lodged in the back of her brain. All right already, who was she kidding? It was more than a sliver. It was a full-fledged log of doubt.

"It doesn't have anything to do with that, I swear to you," she assured him. "What I want to talk to Dan about is sort of...well..." Geez, this is getting awkward. "It's personal."

"Hmm," Boss hummed.

Hmm? That's all he had to say? Just...hmm?

Apparently so, because for a couple of eternal ticks of the clock, they all just stood there. Her looking at them. Them looking at her. The baby burbling and the meat sizzling on the grill. Somewhere on the river behind the outer wall a tour boat passed by, the guide regaling the passengers with stories of Baby Face Nelson and Al Capone.

Finally, Becky waved a hand through the air and laughed. "Whew! Is it just me? Or did this barbecue turn into a tension convention? Penni"-she crunched down on the sucker, chewing noisily-"you don't have to tell this big lug anything." She nudged Boss with her elbow, making him grunt. "Because the truth is, Dan's not here."

"He's not? Where is he?" Penni should have known better than to ask that question. All she received in answer were shuttered stares. "Uh-huh." She nodded. "Sure, I get it." When she caught herself rubbing a finger over the little bump on the bridge of her nose, she quickly dropped her hand and tightened her fingers into a fist. "Can you at least tell me when he'll be back?"

Becky looked up at Boss. She obviously saw acquiescence in his face-although Penni couldn't make out anything behind his intense scowl-because she admitted, "We don't know. Could be days. Could be months."

"Months!" Penni squawked, her heart plummeting so fast she was surprised she didn't see it lying on the pavers at her feet. And those shoulders she'd just squared? Despite her best efforts, they drooped dejectedly. She'd screwed up her courage and come all this way...

"I think we should tell her where he is," Michelle murmured, the first thing she'd said since the introductions.

Penni looked up to find the woman bouncing the baby and eyeing her intently. She blinked and considered digging a finger into her ear because she wasn't sure she'd heard correctly.

Obviously Boss was having the same problem. He shook his head. "Excuse me, Shell? What the hell did you just say?"

"Yes." Michelle nodded, still looking at Penni. "I definitely think we should tell her where to find him."

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