Going undercover in a seedy New Orleans club to find her brother, Eve Hankova knows the dangers. But she isn't prepared for the blazing heat arcing between her and the customer who "buys" her for his exclusive pleasure. Like wildfire, it burns hot and out of control.
Navy SEAL Ashe Konig knows no other way to protect Eve from the Russian mob she's infiltrated at the club. But for this disillusioned loner, is it a suicide mission? As heavily armed mobsters breathe down their necks, the stubborn woman refuses to quit. Ashe doesn't know who poses the greater dangerthe ruthless killers who threaten their lives or the sweet innocent who threatens his heart.
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Asher Konig looked around Bourbon Street in the heart of New Orleans as something akin to shock crept into his gut. What was this place? Granted, he hadn't been home in years, but he felt like he'd landed on an alien planet.
The buildings were mostly the samepainted bright colors and adorned by elaborate wrought-iron balconies. The sweet smell of beignets still wrestled with the sour smell of vomit. People and music still poured out of bars into the street. But somehow, it was not the same. The vibe was all wrong.
Damn. He'd heard things had changed since Hurricane Katrina, but he hadn't guessed how much.
It wasn't just that so many storefronts and restaurants had new names. Or that the music forming a cacophony in the background was more generic pop now and less jazz or twangy zydeco. Or even that the throngs of people had changed. Even at a glance there were more out-of-towners, fewer locals, less authenticity. Less unapologetic seediness.
The French Quarter had been transformed into a sanitized tourist version of itself.
The whole casual, laissez les bons temps rouler culture was missing. Oh, the tourists were living their cartoon version of it, drinking and laughing and flashing bare breasts for beads. But if he looked closer, he saw hawkers urgently coaxing tourists and their wallets inside their establishments, vendors shoving schlocky souvenirs in people's faces. It was all hustle, hustle, hustle.
Hell, maybe he was the one who'd changed. A decade on the SEAL teams did that to a guy.
Not that he had actually wanted to come home after all this time. But his boss, Commander Cole Perriman, had sent him here with orders to "Effing relax and don't come back until you do." Translation: get your head together and stop taking stupid, suicidal risks, or else you're off the teams.
Secretly panicked by the unspoken ultimatum, he'd agreed to take this rare vacation in the hope that it actually would help him get his head together. He'd always been all about the job. He was the job. Also, his old man had died nearly six months ago, and he had yet to put his father's final affairs in order. It was time to get that unpleasant task out of the way.
It had been pure luck that he'd been downrange and way deep undercover, unable to get home after his father had his last and fatal heart attack. He'd been relieved not to have to face the people who would have genuinely mourned his old man's passing. Thank God Mom went first. She would never have survived burying her husband.
It wasn't as if Asher would have had anything decent to say to the bastard in farewell. Thanks for sucking as a parent. Thanks for never noticing anything I tried to get your attention and approval. Thanks for being incapable of love. Yup, it was just as well that he hadn't been able to make it home.
But he was home now. Such as it was.
How in the hell was he supposed to relax? Perriman had ordered him to do it as if he actually knew how to wind down. As if he wasn't always walking on the razor's edge, always a warrior, always ready to act or react. Even now, wading through the noisy, raucous French Quarter on a Friday night, he scrutinized every person he passed for hostile body language, for darting or furtive looks, for unusual bulges under jackets, anything to indicate a threat.
Frankly, being among this many people was making him more tense, not less. Crowds this dense were the perfect target for a suicide bomber
Wait. United States soil. Lawful, secure, peaceful soil. No terrorists lurking about as a rule. Jeez, he was wired tight. He shook his upper body in an attempt to release the tension across his neck and shoulders. Yeah. Like that worked. He was the goddamn job.
Frustrated, he yanked out his cell phone and texted Commander Perriman, More uptight than ever. I hope you're happy.
He'd known Frosty Perriman for his entire SEAL career. The guy had been one of his BUD/S instructors and had handpicked him to be in a super classified unit Frosty had been in charge of putting together and training. They specialized in rescuing kidnapped American civilians. The rescues themselves hadn't been the tricky bit. The hard part had been staying out of the damned news and keeping the existence of their group secret.
But the task force had run afoul of a congressional investigation a few months back when a journalist they'd been assigned to rescue had been killed before they could get to the guy. Never mind that their team hadn't been given enough intel to actually find the guy, and that they had scoured the mountains in the middle of nowhere for weeks, trying to track down the journalist and his captors. In the end, it had been a colossal CIA failure, but the SEAL team had taken the heat for it and was disbanded.
Of course, it probably had more to do with the current Congress not liking the SEALs doing anything secret and off the books. Meddling politicians. They wanted to poke their fingers into everything. It wasn't like the bastards did anything useful. They just wanted front row seats at the show. To feel like they were part of the Cool Kids' Club. And when the navy wouldn't let them randomly interfere, they threw a Congress-sized tantrum.
Bunch of freaking amateurs.
Someone jostled Asher from behind and he whipped around, hands at the ready to take names and break necks. The accosters turned out to be some sort of bachelor party. Plastic cups of beer sloshed, and someone slurred an apology as he bathed his own T-shirt with a generous portion of beer. Shaking his head, Asher stood down and moved on. Relaxing, dammit. He was supposed to be relaxingnot killing drunk kids. The same drunk kids he'd sworn an oath to protect and defend, along with the Constitution that gave them a sacred right to act like idiots.
Desperate to get away from the bright lights and sheer noisy wrongness of the place, he ducked down a side street toward a neighborhood that no sane tourist should have ventured into. But then, he was neither entirely sane nor a regular tourist. When the streets had turned into dark, dank alleys and the men lounging in doorways eyed him with as much hostility and suspicion as he eyed them, Asher breathed a sigh of relief. This was more his speed.
"Hey, big guy," a raspy female voice crooned from just ahead. "Wanna free drink? First one's on the house."
He eyed the hard-looking woman slouching beneath a hanging sign for some joint called the Who Do Voodoo. "Strippers or just booze?" he asked.
"We got girls," the woman drawled.
"And they're actually female under the hood?"
The woman grinned, revealing gaps on each side of her yellowed teeth. "No impersonators here, handsome. They're one block down on the other side of the street. C'mon in. You look like you could use a drink."
How exactly did that look? A shot of whiskey did sound good, though. Maybe several shots. In fast succession. Enough to wipe the whole stupid idea of relaxing out of his gullet for a while.
The music was loud, pounding against his skull when he walked into what turned out to be a pole-dancing club, complete with a raised stage and topless women gyrating without much enthusiasm. Jesus, they looked like children up there on stage. Or maybe he was just getting old.
Asher spotted a table in the corner well away from the stereo speakers and slipped into a seat with his back to the wall. He scanned the room and frowned. Trouble was brewing. Two men were glaring at each other from opposite sides of the catwalk that extended out into the audience. A stripper shook her booty between the two of them, for all the world looking like she was egging them on. Being a tease was what she was paid to do, but jeez. She was provoking the guys like crazy. Drunks and half-naked women never did mix well.
Sure enough, the fight broke out, and he watched impassively as a huge bouncer dived in to break up the fray. But what Asher didn't expect was a good chunk of the audience diving into the fight, too. When knives came out in multiple fists, he rolled his eyes.
Dammit, he didn't want to have to be a hero tonight. He was on vacation. But it wasn't like he could sit here and watch those jackasses carve each other up and possibly injure innocent bystanders. Not to mention that drawing weapons meant the cops would be called, and he really didn't need to spend all damned night giving statements to the police.
He sighed and stood up. Grabbing the collar of the nearest idiot with a knife, he disarmed the guy with a twist of the man's wrist so fast the guy didn't know what had happened.
Asher spun to face another drunk. A hard, quick fist to the chin and the guy went down. He wasn't unconscious, but he was stunned enough not to rejoin the fight right away. Asher stepped over him and disarmed two more men before the remaining drunks figured out a wrecking ball had swung into the fight, and they all staggered back from one another.
His shock-and-awe approach gave the bouncer time to get ahead of the knife wielders on his side of the stage and toss them out of the club, with a kick in the pants for emphasis on the way out the front door.
Shaking his head, Asher returned to his seat to watch the waitresses scurry around righting tables and hauling out broken chairs.
A slender arm appeared over his shoulder, and a glass of neat whiskey plunked down on the table in front of him. Startled, he reflexively grabbed the female wrist and gave its owner a yank. A young woman landed in his lap with a surprised oomph.
"Hey!" she protested. Eyes so blue they hurt to look at blinked up at him. Other sensations bombarded him all at once. A resilient tush pressing down rather suggestively on his man parts. A spectacular view of cleavage. Not huge breasts, but perfectly shaped. A nice handful. Slender limbs going every which way in his arms. Silky, straight blond hair wisping across a face that would be prettyreally prettywithout all that heavy makeup caked on.
But all of that paled before the bizarre sense of connection he felt with this woman as they stared at one another. Like they'd met before. Maybe in a past life. Not that he believed in any of that woo-woo stuff for a second.
"It's not wise to sneak up on a guy like that," he muttered. "Especially not after he's just disarmed a bunch of dudes with switchblades."
She stared up at him for a moment more and then, inexplicably, relaxed in his arms. Like she trusted him or something. As if she knew instinctively that he was one of the good guys. What the hell?
"You handled yourself well in the fight," she murmured.
"Are you Russian, too?" he asked. Everyone else in this joint so far seemed to be. He'd apparently stumbled into the local Slavic hangout.
"Russian by heritage, born and bred in New Orleans, though," she answered in an entirely convincing New Orleans drawl, her sapphire gaze flickering furtively toward the bar. Fear radiated off her.
His arms tightened instinctively around her sweet, now tense, body. A shocking urge came over him to carry her out of here, to take her someplace quiet and alone to to do what? He didn't take advantage of women. And he'd never been fond of hook-up sex. It always left him feeling cheap and more alone than ever. Was he so desperate for a human connection that the first chick to fall into his lap seemed like a gift from God? Hell, maybe Frosty had been right to force this shore leave on him, after all.
He frowned down at the girl now cowering in his arms. "Are you illegal?"
Her attention snapped back to him. Their gazes clashed but still managed to meld together as heat flared between them. Talk about instant chemistry.
She sounded a little out of breath as she mumbled, "I have to go. Let me up or else the owner will charge you for a lap dance."
He cast about for somethinganythingto keep her in his arms a little longer. "What's your name?"
He blinked, echoing, "Hank?" His arms loosened in surprise, and she leaped to her feet.
"Short for Hankova. You want another whiskey?"
"Sure Hank. Make it a double." Anything to get her to come back to him. To look at him again and thaw some of the ice encasing his heart.
He watched her hustle away from him toward the bar. Her legs were a mile long in black fishnet, and those seams running down the back of each leg, ending in little bows on the backs of her ankles, were the sexiest things he'd seen in a long time. He slugged the first whiskey without tasting it, let alone feeling the bite of it going down his throat.
Asher heard a commotion at the front door and tensedno doubt one or both of the drunks from before were trying to get back inbut the bouncer handled it and kept the troublemakers out. He released the tension from his body but wouldn't go so far as to say he actually relaxed.
His phone vibrated, signaling an incoming text, and he fished it out without ever taking his eyes off Hank. She moved around quickly and discreetly among the other patrons like she didn't want to be seen. Not that he blamed her. Roaming hands seemed to be epidemic around this place.
His jaw tightened a little more each time some bastard grabbed her ass and gave it a squeeze. When she made her way back to the bar to place an order and got a second's respite from the groping, he spared a glance down at his phone.
The text was from Perriman. Don't come back until you've relaxed, Hollywood. That's an order.
Hollywood. His nickname on the team and a reference to his movie-star good looks. As he recalled, Perriman had been the first of his instructors to start calling him that back when he'd been a snot-nosed kid with a chip on his shoulder, hell-bent on showing his father that he was a bigger, badder dude than the old man had ever been.
He silently cursed his boss in all of the many languages he spoke. Idly, Asher noted a patron ducking through a door at the back of the club. The passage was guarded by a beefy guy wearing a dress shirt and tie. The lap dance lounge must have been back there. Although as several more guys strolled into the back over the next few minutes and none returned to the bar, he began to suspect the patrons were going upstairs instead. Which meant this place was a front for a whorehouse.
Was Hank a working girl?
The idea didn't even faze him, as it turned out. He had to find a way to get to know her better. Seduce her. Have a passionate affairpaid or otherwise.
Except, he was on only a couple weeks' leave. Just passing through. For all he knew, she was looking for a long-term relationship. Permanence. Commitment. He had no right to pursue her randomly. His gut clenched in frustration at the thought of letting her slip away.
Speak of the devil. She was sauntering back toward him with a bottle of pretty decent whiskey and a shot glass balanced on her tray. She set both down in front of him and gave him a fleeting, secret little smile that only he could see.
"What do I owe you?"