Who’s Protecting Who?
Eli Conners expected hired mercenary Ray Vereker to be a tank of a guy with forty tattoos–not the feminine ideal with lethal combat skills. While Eli certainly needs Ray’s help, the rest of him is thinking he might have something to offer her…
Ray’s as good as any man when it comes to storming enemy compounds and loading an AK-47, but who could blame a girl for succumbing to mind-blowing temptation in the steamy jungle? But now it’s back to business. If only Ray wasn’t feeling hot, bothered, dizzy…
Suddenly, Ray’s precise, no-nonsense mission is veering wildly off course, derailed by raging hormones, out-of-control desire, and a delirious love that is completely unexpected…
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She’d already signed the contract.
Backing out now would blow her reputation with the agency, and besides, this mission would be a piece of cake. There was no reason to drag her feet. She needed the money, she was free at the moment and it’d be a routine run, nothing more, nothing less. It’d be easier now than in the past. Everything had changed.
She shook her head at that errant thought. True, she was older now, wiser, more settled. But at the core, she was the same – unacceptable to most, invaluable to others. Her skills, an innate part of her, were still finely honed. She knew what she could do, and damn it, she’d do it. Hell, she’d missed doing it.
So why, when she pushed the door open and stared into the dim, smoky room of the bar, was her heart so heavy in her chest? It wasn’t the depressing gray cloud that hung thick in the air, not only from cigarettes, but from disgust and ambivalence and antagonism. This was far from a happy place, but then, she’d known it wouldn’t be. By necessity, it was an obscure hole in the Chicago slums where meetings like this one, with people like her, could be handled with discretion.
It was stupid to borrow trouble or dwell in indecision. Doing so undermined her credibility, so instead, she’d concentrate on getting this over with fast and easy, with no complications.
She had everything planned out.
Flipping her bangs off her forehead, she strode into the room, ready to get things started.
Several heads turned her way, scrutinizing her, making note of her appearance. Calculating. For much of her life, she’d gotten undue attention for one reason or another, most of the reasons uncomplimentary. She’d long since gotten used to the stares and the whispers. She ignored them all and with luck, they’d show her the same courtesy.
Peering through the obscuring smoke, she scanned the tables and booths, searching out each darkened corner. Country music blasted through tinny speakers, vying with the boasting and bragging of drunken men. It was the typical atmosphere of a seedy bar. Without thinking, she rubbed her stomach, sick with a rush of vivid memories that never failed to surface.
Then her gaze locked onto his. Wow. The past faded away under the impact of the present – his impact. She felt… invaded.
Bright hazel eyes, radiant in the otherwise dismal interior, held her captive. She stared at him; he stared back.
Never before had she seen such intense emotion in a man’s expression. For a moment, it knocked her off guard. Without moving, he appeared turbulent, frustrated, filled with determination and impatience.
Because of his situation, or because she’d arrived late?
She watched him a moment more, taking his measure. He was bigger than most of the men she knew or had worked with. And he had a more self-assured air. That he’d be trouble she didn’t doubt – he pretty much screamed it with a capital T. But how much trouble, that’s what she needed to know.
Lounged back in his chair, he allowed her perusal, and even took the time to look her over, too. But then, amazingly enough, he dismissed her by giving his attention back to the entrance of the bar.
Cynical amusement nudged away the lingering nervousness. He hadn’t realized her identity? She wasn’t what he’d been expecting? Typical. And for a second there, she’d thought he might be more astute than the others.
Anticipating his reaction when she introduced herself, she started toward him. He sat in a solitary table at the far end of the room, his back to the wall so he could face the bar, a rear exit to his right. It was a guarded position she would have chosen, but probably just coincidence for him.
She wove her way around tables, drunks and proffered drinks without once taking her eyes off him.
As was her usual habit at such meetings, she’d dressed in plain black clothes. It made it easier to disappear if necessary, and didn’t draw added attention that more complimentary clothes might have.
Her long sleeved tunic hung to mid thigh, loosely fitted so it wouldn’t impede her movements should she need to take physical control of the surroundings. Her jeans were slim, her low-heeled boots only ankle high. She never wore jewelry – in fact, she didn’t own any to wear – but she did carry a black briefcase. The case was an annoyance, but it usually proved necessary to have it handy.
When she stopped in front of him, his gaze came to her face, arrested for only a moment. Then slowly, very slowly, he looked her over again, his attention lingering in certain places like her chest, below her waist, her thighs. His look was so intimate, so personal that it brought on a mélange of sensations – outrage, disgust and strangely enough, heat. Surely not embarrassment, she told herself. She was too old and far too jaded to be disconcerted by the likes of him.
His visual inspection was appreciative and felt like a tactile touch. Damn it, she didn’t like being touched, not without permission.
Her eyes narrowed, prompting him to a softly uttered, reluctant rejection. “Sorry, honey. It’s unfortunate, but I’m already busy tonight.”
The nerve. Despite her exceptional control, antagonism bristled to the surface. Her every movement rigid, Ray hooked a chair and drew it out. She seated herself, placing the briefcase at her feet for safekeeping.
He cocked one dark brow upward and braced his forearms on the rough, scarred table. The new position emphasized the width of his shoulders, the brawn of his arms. She’d expected another wimpy, slim GQ look-alike, but this man could be a barroom bouncer. He wasn’t bulky, just big and hard and solid.
Added to the fine physique were the eyes of a predator, now filled with annoyance. He leaned toward her with a scowl.
“I’m Ray Vereker,” she drawled, stopping him in his tracks. She didn’t say anything more, didn’t offer her hand in polite greeting. She just waited for the usual signs of disbelief and disparagement.
They were slow in coming.
Rather than gape, he leaned back and studied her anew. If she’d thought his earlier perusal was intimate, it was nothing compared to how he looked at her now. For a lesser person, for someone without her skills and background, it might have been an unnerving process. His eyes were such an unusual shade of hazel, cat eyes, bright with intelligence, almost menacing. They went from heated notice to cool regard.
Deciding to mock his up-close and personal inspection with one of her own, Ray draped one elbow over the back of the chair and slouched down in the seat to get comfortable. Wearing an air of unconcern, she took in his appearance from his dark brown hair cut in precise lines to his straight, masculine nose and high cheekbones to his mouth, now flattened with irritation at her boldness. He had a stubborn jaw, she noted, proving he’d be plenty of trouble, indeed.
The black Tee he wore looked softer than heaven, fitted over that broad chest. Even his open jacket screamed wealth, made of fine leather and deliberately scuffed to appear fashionably worn. The watch on his thick wrist probably cost as much as her truck. Maybe more. And his nails were impeccably clean.
Thanks to the table, she couldn’t see below his waist, but she’d be willing to bet the rest of him was as sturdy and strong as what she could see. Maybe it was a good thing half of him was hidden. Half was about all she could take at one time. The man made her heart race.
Though she doubted he’d ever been in such a ramshackle bar in his life, he didn’t look the least bit ill at ease. Even her presence, which had to be a shocker, hadn’t really rattled him.
To be honest with herself, she admitted he was very fine to look at. She appreciated strength and self control. From what she could tell, he had both in spades.
Not that it mattered. He was still rich, and given what she’d seen so far, too arrogant for his own good. What fool came into such a place and advertised himself as an easy mark? By wearing the watch and the jacket, he’d done exactly that.
He was a fool, all right. And for the next few days, she owed him her service.
As the silence stretched on, Ray sighed and crossed her legs. She knew his tactic. He hoped to remain silent so long that she’d begin to babble nervously. He underestimated her. He could sit in strained silence as long as he wanted. Time was money, his money, and she didn’t mind wasting it if he didn’t.
He looked at her mouth, rubbed his own, then pinned her in place with a laser sharp gaze. In a flat tone devoid of any telltale emotion, he said, “I requested the meanest son-of-a-bitch they had.”
She gave a slow smile. “I know what you requested. I have your papers with me.”
She lifted one shoulder, held up her hands to indicate her presence. “They complied.”
Eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose, muttering under his breath. Ray noticed that his hands were large, sprinkled with brown hair. They looked like capable hands, not the pampered, smooth hands of a rich boy.
Catching herself, she jerked her attention back to his face. He scrutinized her, then asked with some disbelief, “Do you have any idea what it is I want from you?”
With a touch of disbelief, his gaze slid all over her again, appraising, before both brows lifted. Ray never moved a muscle. He could look a dozen times if it made him feel better. She wouldn’t be changing.
“I assumed ‘Ray’ would be a man.”
“Assumptions are nasty things. They can get you into trouble.”
He waved that away. “What’s your real name?”
“Ray is my real name.”
“Your whole name then.”
“Why does it matter?”
Ray could feel his growing tension deep inside herself. It was an odd sensation, one she’d never experienced before. She half expected an explosion at any minute and braced for it, making herself tense too.
“I’m wondering,” he said slowly, his unnerving attention on her mouth again, “if there’s some feminine nuance I’m missing.”
She smirked. “In me, or my name?”
His gaze snapped back to hers and he barked a laugh. “Honey, despite the hard attitude, your appearance is most definitely un manly.”
He said that with… interest? No, no way. She was lousy at judging men and their various moods in regards to the whole man/woman thing, but she understood reality very well, thank you. No man in his right mind would be thinking of anything but the mission. Not with her. Not now.
And most definitely not after the mission ended, when her special skills had been revealed.
During her ruminations, the silence grew and finally, because she had no reason not to, she said, “Ray Jean Vereker. But I go by Ray and only Ray. You’re given fair warning right now not to use my middle name, ever.”
Oddly enough, her warning evoked amusement. Oh, he didn’t laugh, didn’t even smile. But she saw the mischievous twinkle that entered those mysterious eyes. “Yeah? Or what?”
Done with the small talk, with the nonsense, Ray said, “Or I’ll walk out and you’ll be left to settle for the second meanest son-of-a-bitch there is.”
End of Excerpt
is available in the following editions:
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September 1, 2003