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
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Too Hard to Handle
By JULIE ANN WALKER
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Julie Ann Walker
All rights reserved.
Friday, 4:55 p.m.
"You eat another bite of that damned guinea pig and I swear the next thing you'll see is my Technicolor yawn."
Dan "The Man" Currington glanced over at his friend and teammate and lifted a brow. In the two days they'd been in the little city nestled in a high valley of the Andes Mountains, Dagan Zoelner had yet to sample the local delicacy. And since it was an unwritten rule among operators — and men in general, come to think of it — that outgrossing each other rated just under out-insulting, outshooting, and outfighting each other, he reached into the tinfoil-wrapped snack he'd purchased from a street vendor, pulled off a drumstick, and sucked the juicy grilled meat from the bone. The devil in him insisted he chew slowly and make nom-nom noises.
Zoelner's upper lip curled back. He shuddered and scooted to the opposite end of the bench, tucking his chin into his scarf.
Mark one for the Dan Man! Dan put a checkmark in the W column of his imaginary scoreboard of life.
"For the record," he said, licking his fingers and absently noting the way the cool, dry air whispered down from the mountaintops, interrupting the rhythmic burble of the fountain at their backs and teasing the ends of his hair, "I've eaten way worse. Undercooked, day-old goat meat in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq comes to mind. That shit'll grow some pretty radical hair on your chest. I guarantee."
Although they were lounging lazily on a park bench in the big square in the center of the city, Dan's eyes clocked the movements of every tourist that passed by him. Cusco was bustling with travelers hoping to make it down to Machu Picchu before the rainy season set in and the area around the ancient Incan ruins turned soupy. But it was one particular face he was looking to find, the same face he'd been looking to find for what was beginning to seem like an eternity. Fuckin'-A.
"Also for the record," he continued conversationally, keeping up the appearance that he and Zoelner were just part of the crowd, sightseers out enjoying the day, "they don't call it guinea pig. They call it cuy. And it's kinda g —"
"Since apparently we're putting things on the record today," Zoelner interrupted, "I'd like to add that, for the record, it's a rodent."
"So's a rabbit. A guy like you musta eaten a rabbit at some point, right?"
"Wrong." Zoelner shot him an emphatic look. "When it comes to meat, I'm a fan of the big three. Beef, chicken, and pork. The holy trifecta of barnyard animals. And what the hell do you mean by a guy like me?"
Dan stuck his tongue in his cheek. Zoelner had been pricklier than a porcupine the last forty-eight hours. And Dan would have chalked up his bad mood to the fact that they'd yet to complete their assignment to capture and exfiltrate hombre numero uno on Uncle Sam's shit list, except that Chelsea Duvall had joined their little clandestine venture two days ago. And that had made their dynamic duo a tension-filled trio and —
"He means that besides being a grumpy Gus pain-in-the-butt, you're a guy with a job that requires you to go on missions to the ass-ends of the earth, where the holy trifecta of barnyard animals sometimes isn't on the menu." A rusty-sounding female voice echoed through their tiny earpieces.
And speak of the devil.
"Funny. I don't remember opening this conversation up to comments from the peanut gallery." Zoelner scowled. He always scowled when talking to Chelsea ... or about Chelsea. The two had been coworkers back in the day. And Dan supposed they were sort of coworkers again, given that Chelsea had officially been named the CIA's liaison to Black Knights Inc.
"And for the record," Chelsea continued, as if Zoelner hadn't spoken, "rabbits were part of the scientific order Rodentia until sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. They've since been reclassified to something called Lagomorpha, which means they aren't technically rodents anymore, but —"
"I don't give a fiddler's fuck what they're classified as," Zoelner interrupted. "My point is, I haven't eaten one. And in case you were both unaware" — he slid Dan's half-consumed snack a wary glance — "there's always chicken available. Always. Or beans! Dear God, what's so wrong with getting your daily dose of protein from an innocuous little legume?"
"Nothing's wrong with it," Chelsea admitted. A subtle smacking noise sounded over the airwaves. "It's just that beans are bland, not nearly as tasty as other, say, meatier choices."
Zoelner blanched just as a bus made to look like a trolley car trundled by on the brick street in front of them, belching exhaust fumes into the crisp mountain air. "Are you eating something, Chels?" he inquired hesitantly.
"I skipped lunch," came Chelsea's reply. "And when I heard Dan chewing, I realized my belly button was rubbing a sore spot on my backbone. So I asked the baker's son to go out to get me a snack."
"What kind of snack?" Zoelner ventured to ask.
Zoelner made a retching sound and Chelsea's low, husky laugh resonated in their ears.
Dan shook his head. He, for one, was glad she'd joined them. She added some much- needed comic relief to two guys who, due to their natures and a few karmic punches in the gut from life, were typically sullen and withdrawn.
"I was thinking about our sleeping arrangements, Chels," Dan blurted. Number one, because it was sure to freak Zoelner out. And number two, because he was bored as shit. From the very beginning, this assignment had been nothing but schlepping ass from one South American city to the next, following leads that either turned out to be a whole lot of hooey, or else didn't pan out because the CIA kept fucking things up by being all bull-in-the-china-shoppy. The overeager sonsofbitches. And for the record, this current lead was looking to wind up at the same deader-than-dead end, so what was the harm in stirring the pot that held Dagan Zoelner and Chelsea Duvall and livening up his day?
Sure enough, Zoelner turned to him, eyes wide, expression plastered with What the hell are you doing? Dan let his eyelids hang at half-mast and paired them with a shit-eating grin.
"What do you mean?" Chelsea's tone was cautious.
Dan's grin widened. "I was just thinking it's sorta unfair for Zoelner and me to get the soft feather bed and leave you on that rickety ol' cot." The room they'd rented above the bakery a quarter mile from their current position had approximately the same square footage as a Triscuit, smelled strongly of powdered sugar and yeast, and came equipped with one full-sized bed and one pint-sized cot. Masquerading as a group of money-tight backpackers in order to keep a low profile came with certain disadvantages.
"Besides," he continued, "Zoelner doesn't like it when I'm the big spoon. And I refuse to be the little spoon. So I was thinking maybe if this lead doesn't pan out, you and I could switch places tonight, and —"
"No!" Chelsea and Zoelner barked in unison. Dan had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. Zoelner flipped him the bird by way of pretending to scratch his eyebrow with his middle finger.
"I'm perfectly fine with the cot," Chelsea insisted.
"And I don't let you be the big spoon because I'm afraid of what you'll do to me in your sleep," Zoelner added. "Every damn night you dream about that chick you worked with in Kuala Lumpur. And then you moan and whisper, 'Penni, oh, Penni!' It skeeves me out."
If Dan was the blushing type, he would have been red from the tops of his ears to the tips of his toes. As it was, he simply swallowed and hoped Zoelner couldn't see how just the mere mention of Penni's name made his blood run hot.
"Penni?" Chelsea asked, the timbre of her voice that of a woman who smelled gossip in the air. "Ooooh, do tell, Dan. And don't leave anything out. I could use a good romantic story. The tediousness of this assignment is getting to me."
The smirk Zoelner sent him was evil enough to scare the devil himself, and Dan could do nothing but tip his head, giving the guy points for summarily turning the tables. "You won that round, you big penis-wrinkle," he whispered from the corner of his mouth. Louder, he tried to sidestep the issue. "And tedious, Chels? Really? You've only been doing this two days. Try three months!"
"Yes, yes," she agreed. "You poor, abused clandestine government operators. I'm sure there's moss growing on your weapons as we speak. Now stop stalling and spill."
So much for sidestepping ...
"Nothing to tell," he insisted, the cuy having lost its appeal. He folded the tinfoil around the little carcass and tossed the whole thing in the trash can a couple of feet from the end of the bench. Fishing in the hip pocket of his jeans, he snagged a pack of Chiclets — the only gum he'd been able to find in all of Peru — and popped a couple of the candy-coated squares in his mouth. The taste of spearmint exploded on his tongue.
"Nice try," Chelsea snorted.
"Fine." He sighed, sending Zoelner a look that promised slow, painful retribution for bringing up this particular topic. "Agent Penni DePaul was part of the Secret Service detail attached to the president's daughter when el Jefe" — that's how the boys and girls of BKI always referred to the commander in chief ... when he wasn't in the room with them, of course — "saw fit to send me, Steady, and Ozzie in to provide backup support. Penni and I had to work together when everything went to hell in a handbasket because of Winterfield's black-hearted treachery."
Even had el Jefe not tasked BKI, and Dan specifically, with bringing in the asshole, he would have considered it his own personal mission. Not only did he have an inherent stake, given the hell he'd been through in Malaysia, but he'd also decided this job was the perfect opportunity for him to show all his friends and teammates that he was back to being an asset and not just a grief-stricken asshat. To thank them for putting up with his sorry self when he'd spent a year sitting at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, followed by another year doing his damnedest to crawl back out.
But fat lot of headway I've made on the mission so far. Winterfield was still in the wind. And Dan couldn't think of a more ridiculous way to try to catch the guy than sitting around and hoping to see him pass by. But their Intel had only specified that Winterfield might be meeting a buyer in Cusco so ...yeah. Whatcha see is whatcha get ...
"And after it was all over?" Chelsea prompted, dragging his mind back to Penni. Although, in truth, in three months it'd never strayed all that far from the woman. Which was a problem. "Then what happened?"
"What do you think happened? The only thing that could happen, given she's a Secret Service agent and I'm ..."A widower. A drunk. A —
"A wannabe street punk from Detroit Rock City?" Zoelner supplied, pronouncing it Dee-troit.
"Hey, don't knock Motown, man," Dan harrumphed. "As Kid Rock once said, 'Cars and rock 'n' roll. It's a good combo.'"
"I think Dan meant that she's a Secret Service agent and he's a supersecret, legally suspect, blacker-than-black operator," Chelsea added not so helpfully.
"Legally suspect?" Now it was Zoelner's turn to harrumph. "How many times do we have to go over this? It's not that what we at BKI do for the president is illegal necessarily. It's just that we sort of skirt around the edges of international law ... or find the loopholes. And you're one to talk. The evil shit The Company has been known to get up to makes all of us at Black Knights Inc. look like angels sent straight from heaven."
"That mighta been pushing it," Dan mumbled, hoping Zoelner had distracted Chelsea from the topic at hand.
He should have known better. "Zip it, Z," she said, "and let Dan finish."
Dan envisioned her pulling a bowl of popcorn into her lap and hunkering down for a long, sordid tale. So he was doomed to disappoint her when he finished succinctly with, "Long story short, we went our separate ways."
For a couple of seconds, silence reigned in his earpiece. Then she made a rude noise. "Why do men do that?"
"Do what?" Zoelner asked.
"Leave out all the good parts?" she grumbled.
"Because those good parts are filed under None of Your Goddamn Business," Dan informed her as a vision of Penni as she'd been the last time he'd seen her, mourning and exhausted, flashed through his head.
Agent Penelope Ann DePaul had the understated, honest type of beauty most men didn't immediately pick up on. But the more you looked at her, the more breathtaking she became. Because not only did she have dark, shiny hair, deep brown eyes — kind eyes, that's the first thing he'd noticed about her — and a set of legs that should be illegal, but she was the sort of woman who displayed innate grace and tended toward straight talk. The kind who'd never faked a laugh or an orgasm or —
The thought of Penni in the throes of rapture, what she would look like with her head thrown back, her long neck arched, was enough to have the moron behind his zipper twitching with interest. And just in case Zoelner hadn't yet noticed the untimely bulge behind his fly — the man had a mean eye when it came to details — Dan hooked an ankle over the opposite knee and surreptitiously stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket, pulling the material over his lap.
"Fine," Chelsea harrumphed. "Be that way. But at least tell me this." Dan groaned as if his nuts were caught in a vise. "You're dreaming about her every night, right?"
Roger that. Dreams so hot, so vivid, he was surprised none of them had been wet. And considering he was currently sharing a bed with Zoelner? Yeah, talk about having some explaining to do.
Then again, he supposed his current dreams were better than the nightmares he'd been suffering for most of the past two-plus years. Nightmares of his wife covered in blood and dead in his arms, shot by a psycho right in the courtyard of BKI where she should have been safe, where he should have kept her safe ...
He shuddered, hunching deeper into his jacket. He figured he was past the worst of his grief. He no longer spent his days wishing for death. But thinking back on that awful evening was still like scraping a fingernail over a raw nerve. He suspected it always would be.
Living in the past is victimization. Living in the future is manipulation. Live in the present ...
One of the many mantras he'd picked up at AA whispered through his head, and he did his best to shake off the heavy weight of heartache that made him want to reach for a drink. Instead, he concentrated on the now. Easy enough when Chelsea got tired of waiting for him to respond and inquired, "So then why haven't you tried to contact her?"
"Well, 'cause she made it pretty clear she didn't want —" His words came to a halt so fast he thought maybe his larynx came equipped with air brakes.
"What?" Chelsea demanded impatiently. "What did she make clear?"
Dan ignored her, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.
Zoelner immediately sensed the change in him. "What?" he asked, casually reaching inside his jacket pocket for his weapon. "You have that feeling again?"
He was referring to the creepy, crawly sensation Dan had suffered since they landed in Cusco. One minute he was fine. The next minute, it was like a whole colony of invisible ants skittered over the back of his neck and scalp. "You don't feel that?" he asked.
"Dude," Zoelner said, "look who you're talking to. I pretty much live in a constant state of paranoia. I think it's a factory setting Langley installed."
"That and the ability to blend into a crowd and go statue-still at the drop of a hat," Dan added, never before having seen anyone quite as chameleonlike as Zoelner.
"Eh." Zoelner shrugged. "That has less to do with Langley and more to do with my old man."
"Oh, do tell," Chelsea piped up. She was determined to get a story out of one of them.
"Some other time," Zoelner said. "Like, maybe next century."
Whatever Chelsea said in response was lost on Dan because he got another jolt of bad juju.
Excerpted from Too Hard to Handle by JULIE ANN WALKER. Copyright © 2015 Julie Ann Walker. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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