Rough Edges is available from the following online vendors on August 4, 2015, as well as at your favorite local bookstore!
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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…
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 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.
“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 slip-up, 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 knee-caps.”
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.”