Book 4 in the Body Armor Series
For the woman who’s his perfect match, he’s willing to break the rules…
The moment Brand Berry meets beautiful, driven Sahara Silver, the connection between them is electric. It’s also something he can’t pursue. Sahara wants him, sure—to join Body Armor, where his MMA skills, size, and cocky attitude make him perfect for her elite crew of bodyguards. For Sahara, the agency always comes first, and Brand needs more. Yet when she’s kidnapped by men searching for her missing brother, he doesn’t hesitate.
Somewhere along the way, flirting with Brand for the sake of business turned very personal. Despite his refusal to join Body Armor, it’s Brand who steps up when she needs him most. Now there’s no more time for games, and no point denying the hunger they both feel. They’ll escape together or not at all. But if they survive, can Sahara finally surrender control to claim this blazing passion?
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is Book 4 in the Body Armor Series
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“Brand Berry is here to see you.”
Surprised, Sahara glanced at Enoch, her right-hand man and very good friend. “Brand is here?” She immediately felt flustered. Absurd. “I wasn’t expecting him. Did I miss a meeting?”
“No.” Enoch lowered his voice in a conspiratorial way. “He said he only needed a minute of your time when you were free, and since you’re free right now—”
“Yes, of course. Show him in.” Even as she said it, a tiny unfamiliar thrill ran through her.
She’d made a point of surrounding herself with some of the finest male specimens on the planet—professional fighters that she’d turned into prime bodyguards, each of them in high demand. It was her vision for Body Armor, to get rid of the stuffy Men in Black clones and offer instead real men, with real muscles, certifiable machismo and lethal ability with or without a weapon.
No, she didn’t fire the previously established bodyguards; that would have been disloyal to her brother, who’d hired them. She simply reassigned them to the more boring cases, and overall they were happy with that.
Anything to do with a celebrity, a dignitary or a politician her elite team now covered.
She desperately wanted to add Brand to that team.
Thinking she’d have a minute, she was just circling out from behind her desk when Brand stepped in around Enoch. Instead of waiting in the guest area, as a client would do, he must have been hovering right outside her door.
Her toes curled in her high heels.
Enoch was on the small side, five-two, slight of build, with average brown hair and eyes. It was his keen intelligence and attention to detail that made him so perfect at his job.
But his size didn’t really matter when he stood next to a man who made most everyone seem small, her included. Brand was a big and badass professional MMA fighter with a solid steel frame of muscle all wrapped up in a cocky attitude.
Faded jeans molded to his thick thighs, going well with his running shoes and an ancient Aerosmith T-shirt that stretched over his chest and broad shoulders. Reflective sunglasses pushed to the top of his head made his golden brown hair messy. Darker brown eyes held her captive as he murmured, “Sahara.”
Leaning a hip against her desk, she drank in the rugged, virile sight of him. “Be still my heart.”
Wary exasperation rooted him to the spot.
Yes, she always spoke her mind. Why not? She was the boss and her employees knew her interest in them wasn’t personal. Of course, Brand wasn’t yet an employee.
Putting her hands together, her fingers extended to frame him in a square, she remarked, “A photo of you looking just like that could launch my new line of advertisement.”
He crossed his arms. “Advertisement for what?”
“Bodyguards with ability and sex appeal.” He’d look great on a billboard, maybe with a gun in his hand. She could already see it. Maybe she should ask Enoch to keep a camera at his desk for occasions like this?
When Brand just stood there, his expression amused, she smiled. “Tell me you’ve come to give me good news.” She’d been after him for a few months now to join the agency, constantly throwing out bait, trying to reel him in. He’d nibbled, but he wasn’t caught. Not yet.
“I came to talk about that, yes.”
Elation conflicted with disappointment. There were times when she hoped they could take a different path from employer and employee, one more personal, intimate.
But in the end, the business came first. Always.
She hadn’t given up hope for her brother, and when he finally returned, he deserved to find the company thriving.
She’d put her heart and soul into making that happen. There was no time for anything else.
“Perfect.” She tried to be excited, but it wasn’t easy.
“Actually,” Brand said, coming to stand very near her, “I’ve been offered another fight.”
That gave her pause. She’d thought he was done with the Supreme Battle Challenge, better known as the SBC, for very difficult, personal reasons that he’d shared with her, but not many other people. “I thought you needed to be around more for your mom.”
“My mother,” he corrected, “not my mom.”
For Brand, there was a huge difference between the two. Sahara knew because he’d explained it to her. “Right, sorry.” Still, the woman had suffered cardiac arrest and, due to complications, had almost died. Personal conflicts aside, Brand had overseen her care. “But don’t you need to—”
“I decided an influx of cash would be better.”
So he could pay for what was needed, instead of getting so closely involved? That too made sense given their backgrounds. “I see.”
“The SBC would reward me for taking the fight with a nice bonus.”
“Oh?” If that’s all it took, she could offer some signing bonuses of her own. “So how long do I have to wait for you to finish up—”
“It would be my last fight, but,” he said with gentle emphasis, before she could make assumptions, “I’m not agreeing to be a bodyguard.”
Her stomach bottomed out. This felt too much like losing, and by God, she did not lose. Determination stiffened her spine. “Tell me what it is you need.” More money, obviously. She could swing that. “Designated time off? Better benefits for dependents?” Working around that would be trickier, but she’d figure it out.
Brand shook his head. “Truth is, Sahara, I can’t see myself working for you.”
Wow. Now that hurt. Peeved, she moved away from him to sit in the chair behind her desk. A power position.
She met his gaze without flinching. “I see.” No, she didn’t.
“You’re too pushy.” He smiled as he said it, taking away some of the sting of that nasty observation. “And too used to getting your way. You love being in charge, but then, so do I.”
Never in her life had she been so offended. “Those insults are your way of telling me you don’t like me?” She rose from the chair again without realizing it, hands flat on the surface of the desk as she leaned toward him in challenge. “I got a very different impression.”
“I like you,” he confirmed, but then added, “because you’re not my boss.” He surprised her by mimicking her position until their noses almost touched over the middle of her desk.
She didn’t know where to look. His eyes drew her, so dark they were almost black, and always filled with wickedness.
Then there was his firm mouth set in that small, teasing smile that did crazy things to her. High cheekbones, a strong jaw, a masculine nose…
And oh, what that straight-armed pose did for his biceps.
She inhaled…and breathed in the scent of warm, musky male.
It seemed imperative to put some space between them so she slowly straightened.
Brand’s smile widened and he, too, straightened. “Coward.”
“Oh no,” she corrected. “But I have priorities that take precedence over…other things.”
He went back to crossing his arms. “Over me, you mean.”
“Nonsense. You are a top priority right now. I want you on the team.”
“The agency isn’t a team, Sahara. It’s you dictating and others following orders.”
She said through her teeth, “I’m the coach. I direct, encourage, and—” Bossed. “—cheer. Rah-rah and all that.”
Not with her, no. He laughed at her.
“Where did you work before you took over here?”
Was he genuinely interested or just trying to move past her obvious irritation? Not that she’d stay irate long. It was a waste of time. She was more about positive forward strides.
Or getting even.
For now she’d work on moving forward by answering his question. “Before Scott disappeared, he often had me involved with the business. I learned everything here from the ground up.”
“All right.” He probably thought she’d been pampered, placed in a high-paying position from the get-go. Nothing could be further from the truth. “When I was still very young, Scott let me sit in on meetings just to get a feel for things. When I turned eighteen, I worked as an attendant for the private elevator to his office.”
Surprise showed in his eyes, but he covered it by asking, “Was there an armed guard even then?”
“You say it like it was the Stone Age.” Feeling more confident, she again circled her desk but instead of getting closer to him, she moved to the wall of windows to look down on the Cincinnati traffic. “I’m thirty, so it was only twelve years ago. And yes, Scott always had top-notch security at the agency, including an armed elevator guard.”
“But instead of the guard escorting clients up to his office, he had you do it?”
“Yes. The guards were stationary, one at the main floor, and one at his office.”
Brand joined her, standing close at her back so that his stirring scent enveloped her. “I bet they got an earful before they ever reached your brother.”
Dear Lord, was that a blush she felt on her face? She didn’t embarrass easily—except that he’d nailed it perfectly. How many times had Scott remonstrated her for being too pushy?
“Sahara?” Brand prompted.
She wished she hadn’t worn her hair in her usual classic up-do. With her nape exposed, the heat of his breath sent swirling sensations to riot in her belly.
Brazening her way through the awkward moment, she flapped a hand and admitted, “I might have been a little nosy.”
“And a little opinionated?”
“Maybe just a smidge.” His closeness made her edgy, so she again moved away, very casually in hopes that he wouldn’t know he had her on the run. “After that job, I was a lobby receptionist.”
“Fired from the elevator job, or was it a promotion?”
Damn him, did he really have such a low opinion of her? Maybe he didn’t like her. That was something she’d never considered. She got along great with the other bodyguards who were all friends with Brand.
Or…did they feel the same way, too? Did they humor her in person while resenting her the rest of the time?
Disliking that possibility, she paused near her desk and, doing her best to keep the frown off her face, said, “A lateral move, actually.”
“Uh-huh. Did Scott tell you that?”
Scott had told her to quit harassing the clients—but she didn’t feel like sharing that part. Although, seeing Brand’s expression, she’d bet he already assumed as much. He seemed to know her too well.
Better than anyone else, in fact.
“Scott told me he wanted me to experience every facet of the business.”
“But you were never a bodyguard.”
She took pleasure in saying, “Yes, I was.”
Now Brand frowned, and she loved how intimidating he looked. He’d make an ideal bodyguard if only he’d realize it.
She tsked at the crude language, her idea of a reprimand. “Scott taught me to shoot. I’m actually pretty good at it.”
“I’ve never seen you practice.”
“Here, with my employees? Of course not.” She had to maintain some mystique. “Scott owned his own range elsewhere and now it’s mine.”
She smiled. “It’s private.”
He countered with, “Protecting a client isn’t always about shooting.”
“No, it’s mostly about intelligent decisions, good planning and quick thinking.” She let her gaze dip over him. “It’s one reason I thought you would do so well at the job.”
“Me, yes. But you?” His long strong fingers circled her upper arm. “You’re brilliant, Sahara, so no problem there.”
The assurance that he didn’t consider her stupid would have been nice, except that the moment he’d touched her, her thinking faltered. So did her breathing. And her heartbeat.
“I’ve never known anyone with a quicker mind than you,” he went on. “But when it comes to strength?” He lightly caressed her arm. “Physical strength, I mean. Does a woman like you, a woman who’s always manicured and polished, have any?”
Just that simple touch, his warm fingers brushing over her bare skin, on her arm, and her priorities got all mixed up.
At five-eight, she wasn’t exactly petite, but Brand still stood half a foot taller, and next to his chiseled bulk, she felt downright dainty.
Oh, this wouldn’t do. Sahara cleared her throat and made herself stare up into his eyes. “Brute strength? I’m definitely lacking.”
“Didn’t say you were lacking. In fact, I’d say you’re just about perfect, but not strong enough to tangle with someone intent on causing harm.”
“When someone is smart enough and quick enough, there is no tangling.” She gave him her best smug smile and pretended her knees weren’t weak. “I worked for three different clients. One job was glorified babysitting for a three-year-old while authorities tried to find a failed kidnapper.”
Brand’s expression softened to real concern. “The child—”
“She was okay. Her father, Mr. Drayden, chased off the masked man before he got away with her.”
Sahara agreed. “Drayden wouldn’t rest until he knew who the man was and why he’d tried to kidnap his daughter, and was assured he’d remain behind bars.”
“Did they ever get the guy?”
Sahara wanted to turn away, but that would be too revealing. “Yes. I shot him.”
After the briefest pause, Brand clasped her other arm, too. “Tell me what happened.”
“The sick bastard wouldn’t give up. In his second attempt, he crawled in her bedroom window. He…had a knife. So I killed him.” More brisk now, she explained, “He’d helped install the security system so he knew exactly how to shut it down. He claimed the girl was his, that he’d slept with Drayden’s wife. She denied it of course, and to his credit, Drayden believed her. That turned out to be a good thing because they found out the psycho had made the same claim about three other children. Apparently he fixated on kids and convinced himself they were his even though he’d never touched their mothers.”
His hold was soothing, but the last thing she wanted from him, from anyone, was pity. “The little girl, Mari, screamed from the gunshot, but she never saw the body. Soon as the guy hit the ground I scooped her up and got her out of the room, telling her it was just a loud noise.” Sahara could still remember the thin arms clinging so tightly to her neck, the shaking of that small body and the soft sobs after the scream.
Until that day, she’d never thought about having children of her own. She missed Mari a lot.
“How long were you on assignment with the family?”
“Two months. But the time flew by since I mostly played with Mari.” She twisted her mouth. “Afternoon tea with a G.I. Joe, a stuffed bear and a Barbie. Oh, the scrapes Barbie and Joe got into. The bear and I would just watch in amazement.”
Brand grinned. “You know, I can almost picture it, you in a tiny little chair sipping out of an empty plastic tea cup with an audience of toys.”
“Good times,” she said, then tipped her head. “Can you see me killing a man?”
After briefly locking on her eyes, his gaze moved over her face and settled on her mouth. “Yeah, I guess I can. If it came to protecting someone you cared about.”
Well, that was something anyway. “I had a shorter assignment with a twenty-three-year-old. I was only a year older than him and he had some serious misconceptions about the role of a bodyguard.”
“I spent more time fending him off than protecting him. He got impossibly grabby.”
Brand went back to scowling. “Your brother allowed that?”
“I didn’t tell him! That would have been like admitting I couldn’t handle the job, and it was an important one. He was a movie star’s son being hassled by a radical group that opposed the star’s last movie. Apparently, they didn’t understand fiction versus reality. They wanted to drive home their point by making his son miserable anytime he ventured into public. You’ll understand that it was all confidential so I can’t give names or details.”
“Sure. Tell me the part where you knocked the punk out.”
She grinned. “We’ve already surmised that I’m not physically powerful.”
He agreed by saying, “You should have quit.”
“I couldn’t. Scott chose me for the job because I was close enough in age to blend in. The boy didn’t want his friends to know he had a bodyguard. Guess it dented his macho pride or something.”
“First, he’s not a boy. At twenty-three, he’s a man. And second, I hope you dented the hell out of his pride.”
That was one of the nice things about Brand; he had a similar mindset to her and they often agreed on things. “Of course I did. We were at a club with his friends. He kept trying to force me to dance with him. I knew where that would lead with the octopus, so I refused. I could keep an eye on him from the bar, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He grabbed my wrist and wouldn’t let go.”
Expression darkening more by the moment, Brand asked, “What did you do?”
“I tripped him to the ground. That made him mad and he grabbed for me again.”
“To do what?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t want to find out, so I grabbed two fingers and twisted enough to break them.”
“Ouch,” Brand said with smiling satisfaction.
“He raged and decided it was time for us to go—with my wholehearted agreement. I had visions of the whole assignment going to hell, but it took an uptick when we stepped outside and the same group I was supposed to protect him from was there to mob him. That got him moving quickly to get in the car. On the way, I had to…ahem, assault a man who tried to drag my client back out of the car.”
“Assault him how?”
“With my knee.” She struck a pose, showing the knee she’d used and drawing Brand’s undivided attention to her exposed leg. “In a place where no man wants to get hit.”
Dragging his focus back to her face, Brand winced for real. “I gather that worked?”
“Like a charm.” At least that night, she hadn’t shot anyone. “When Scott heard the whole story, he tore into the client and his father, and got me a bonus with an apology from the boy.”
“Man-boy,” she compromised. “The third assignment was just a matter of escorting a local politician to and from a speech. It went off without incident.”
“How come you never mentioned any of this before now?”
“Why would I?” She rarely discussed her background with anyone, because those stories all centered around her missing brother and left her grieving the loss anew. “My history with the agency has nothing to do with the reasons why you should sign on.”
He turned speculative. “And you’ve been all about getting my agreement.”
“Yes.” She gave that a quick thought and asked, “Does knowing my history make you more inclined to—”
“Not really.” Gaze intense, Brand slid his hands up her arms to her shoulders. “You’ve always amazed me, with or without the history report.”
As he leaned closer—to kiss her, she was sure—she said desperately, “Work for me.”
Without a smidge of regret, he said, “No,” and then his mouth was on hers, his lips pressing, his tongue touching until she opened.
The second she did, his tongue slid in and she melted against him.
God help her, it was incendiary.