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She’s too hard to like.
Harder to love.
Her fucking job comes before everything else.
Her ass is too fucking big.
She says fuck too much.
That about covered Ava’s conversation with her boyf—her ex-boyfriend, David, last Thursday in the LAX departure terminal curbside check-in. Conversation being a loose term for him yelling the above sins/faults/flaws at her while she stood there with her carry-on and laptop straps still tangled around her neck, the poor luggage steward looking on like he just wished he could climb into one of those bags and go anywhere but there.
It all started with coffee. A week ago, today.
Damn, she would have been coming home tomorrow, all rested and tan from a week in Barbados, her stress and tightly braided neck muscles relaxed and happily untied, glowing and sated from sex on the beach and post-vacay bliss.
Except that because of coffee, and that lovely list up there, her carry-on bag was still riding around in her back seat, she was still ruefully untanned and unsexed, and David’s luggage had gone on to reside somewhere in Barbados or to parts unknown, independent of him. Of course, that was Ava’s fault, too, showing up so late to the airport that when all hell broke loose in the breakup of the century, it was too late to pull his stupidly fancy designer suitcase.
Someone had to be getting a real charge out of his vast manly personal products and black soap body wash.
Again, she blamed the coffee. Not the fact that she was working late (not new) to wrap everything up before leaving for a week’s vacation (very new) and stressing out because she was leaving right as all the powers that be were deciding her fate. Her work fate, not like her life, but honestly there really wasn’t much difference. Hence, she rolled through a Starbucks drive-through—even though, yes, she was already pushing the time continuum to meet David at the airport—grabbing an iced latte to calm her nerves.
Because it does. And it did.
Then, you know, all those verbal arrows started flying, and well, she was sure they had their fifteen minutes of fame on someone’s Facebook feed.
But it was okay. If all had gone as planned, then Ava wouldn’t have had the week to do more stage-setting, ass-kissing, and work her aforementioned overly endowed ass off to prepare for today.
A good day.
It was going to be a good day.
A day that would make everything worthwhile and put all those barbed, poisonous words that David-the-asshat had thrown at her up on a high shelf in a tucked-away closet. She’d deal with them later. After she finally made partner.
A really good day.
Those words chanted on a long loop in her head, landing rhythmically with every click of her heels. They might have also been written in steam on her bathroom mirror earlier. Whispered almost reverently over her coffee cup a little before that.
Did the white and gray marble entryway to Burns & Brown glow a little brighter today, picking up the California sunlight through the giant plate glass windows? Was it a sign?
It fucking—effing had to be.
“Stupid fucking word,” she said under her breath as she entered the first available shiny, silver elevator. “I’ll stop saying it when I hear the magic sentence,” she said to her reflection in the wall-to-ceiling mirrored interior. It had to be a bitch to keep that so clean. “Something like—Congratulations, Ava James! You made partner after five hundred and fifty-six years!”
“You made partner?”
It was Jeff, the legal assistant down the hall, running in before the doors closed with a cardboard tray of coffees for the paralegals in his group. Poor Jeff always looked like he dressed in the dark—while still in bed asleep.
“Not yet,” she said, crossing the fingers on both hands and forcing a smile. “But I’m thinking positive.”
Actually, she was thinking panicked. Two showers and four outfit changes kind of panicked. It would be a good day. It would. But she’d be lying if that back closet in her head with the shit words didn’t keep pushing the door ajar.
“Don’t cross both fingers,” Jeff said, frowning. “That’s bad luck.”
Ava dropped her right hand as if it were on fire.
Not that she bought into that mumbo jumbo. She believed people made their own luck, and certainly not the superstitious kind, but today wasn’t the day to take any chances. It wasn’t her first rodeo. She’d been through this process twice and knew exactly what no felt like. Actually, the words were always we don’t feel like you’re ready at this time. She knew them backward and forward, saw them in her sleep, and felt them every time she looked her boss in the eye.
Ava counted through all the years of sacrifice with each beep of a passing floor. Every missed family holiday. Every vacation day she refused to take. Every late night, working weekend, declined happy hour, waning friends, and failed relationship in her thirty-six years. Every moment of life and love she’d given up for this fuc—this effing job.
The elevator slowed to a stop at the top, on floor twenty-five, and she backed up a step, realizing her fingers had curled tightly into her palms. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. No more negative thoughts. David, be damned. It was all up from here.
“Good luck,” Jeff said over his shoulder as he rushed out.
“Thanks—” she said, her word clipped short by her gasp as a blur of black shirt and a geyser of light-brown liquid filled her vision.
“Oh, shit!” Jeff exclaimed, his hands like a slow-motion replay, as he and the perpetrator attempted in vain to reclaim the tray and three plastic cups hurtling toward her.
Ava had a split-second moment of fear for her epidermis, as lids left the equation, coffee propelling up, sideways, and forward. Strong hands gripped her upper arms and the black shirt had solid mass behind it, as if he was trying to protect her after the fact. She didn’t have time to process that. All she could think of was to throw her hands up in front of her face. Scalding liquid, and all that.
She didn’t consider ice.
Piercing cold java, accompanied by five thousand ice cubes, soaked her entire front, from her face down to her left ankle. Ava sucked in a breath that sounded like she was inhaling her tongue.
“Fuck!” she shrieked.
Hey, it was warranted.
“Oh my God, Ava, I’m sorry!” Jeff began.
“Sorry,” echoed the man in a stilted British accent. Ava’s eyes were shut, but she felt the word vibrate through the chest she was grasping. It was a good chest. The second she blinked her eyes open, however, he let go, backing away in a rush toward the stairs, the bill of his cap pulled down over part of his face. “Emergency, sorry! Hope you’re all right, ma’am.”
“Sir, it’s—” Jeff called out. But the guy was gone, through the stairwell door. “Twenty-five floors down.”
All she saw was a black shirt and pants over a really nice ass, and ball cap over really dark hair, as she stood there dripping with her arms held outward.
“What the living hell?” she said, looking wide-eyed up at a bewildered Jeff, who didn’t seem to notice yet that he didn’t fare much better.
He looked her up and down, raising an eyebrow. “Damn, Ava, you’re—”
“Really glad you went with iced?” She nodded. “Yeah. Me too. Who was that idiot?”
“No idea,” he said. “Must have been a new runner, I’ve never seen him. Nice accent. But I would swear those were stripper pants he had on.”
Ava felt her eyebrows rise, momentarily distracted from her dilemma. “Say again?”
“Hey, I’ve been to my share of shows,” Jeff said with an brow lift of his own. “I know how the Velcro works.”
“Well, if that was a stripper,” she said, slinging more coffee from her fingers, “then he lacks some serious skills.”
Still had a nice ass. And chest. Jeff was right, the accent didn’t hurt.
Jeff sighed as he looked at the empty cardboard tray. “And he ruined my morning coffee.” He pointed discreetly. “You—might want to, um…”
Ava met his gaze, following it down to her white silk blouse. Her favorite sweet-yet-I’ll-fool-you-kick-ass attorney blouse she usually saved for court, that was now drenched and clinging to her equally soaked lacy bra. Which, in turn, was clinging to a couple of very pronounced, highlighted nipples now that they were on ice parade.
“Yep,” she whispered, pulling the ruined fabric away from her skin. “Why don’t I go do that?”
“I’ve got this,” Jeff called from behind her as she dripped down the hallway. “Good luck!”
“Luck,” she whispered, smiling at the double takes and polite smiles that passed her with no offers to help. “Yeah. That’s starting out well.”
Ava had never kept extra clothes at work like some of the other attorneys, which was something she would be remedying soon. Some of the partners never even went home during heavy caseloads or court, just showered at the first-floor gym and kept going.
That would be her. It could be her.
If she could just pull this off.
Hold your head up. Smile. Laugh this off. Act like a people person. Like a professional.
Don’t be hard to like.
Her steps faltered for half a second before pushing onward.
“Get the hell out of my head.”
“Wouldn’t dream of going in there,” said a familiar voice as he sauntered out of his office, empty coffee cup in hand.
“Morning, Dan,” she said, ignoring his retort as he fell into step beside her. Ava forced herself to slow her roll. Peopling and all that.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked, eyeing her up, down, and up again.
“I’m going for a new look,” she quipped, crossing her arms over the peep show. “Latte-dipped. All the cool kids are doing it.”
He leaned in, sniffing. “Aromatic.”
Dan laughed, leaning even closer. “No kidding. I could just about get my caffeine fix just breathing you in.”
Ava gave him a sideways glance and her three seconds of being socially on started to fade. Creep. He was up for partner as well, although she didn’t expect him to be a strong candidate. He did a good job, but he was slimy and underhanded. Not someone you wanted representing the firm.
“A British stripper getting on the elevator ran me over,” she said. “Abused three cups of coffee in the process.” She gestured toward his cup. “You know, you could just put a coffee maker in your office and never have to mingle with the masses.”
She said that with a chuckle, like nudge nudge, look at us making partner jokes, but Dan just shrugged.
“Then I’d never get to mingle with the masses,” he said, suddenly looking at her. “Did you say there was a stripper up here?”
“Not your brand,” she said.
“What, British?” he snorted.
“Ah. Well,” Dan said, pausing as he veered right down the hall to the breakroom. “Good luck today. I heard they voted last night. I got Burns a bottle of that Scotch he likes. Hope that stripper wasn’t your contribution, don’t think he swings that way.”
He pointed and made a little clicking sound with his tongue as he chuckled at his own wittiness, then disappeared into the breakroom doorway, but Ava’s progression froze.
What the hell did that mean? Was it done? There was another panel hearing on her calendar today before the final vote. Did Dan already have his?
What did that mean?
Ava could hear her breathing in her ears like rolling waves. Or maybe that was the blood rushing through her head at warp speed. Maybe she was about to stroke out, and none of it would matter anyway. It was, she realized, the scariest, most vulnerable moment she’d ever experienced. That was probably sad.
She made it to her office without memory of getting there, sinking into her chair. Pulling out a small towel from her bottom drawer, left from one of the maybe three times she utilized the basement gym, Ava absently blotted herself, scrubbing at her blouse as her brain self-destructed.
Was this normal? Did they always secretly vote before the partner hearings and no one knew? Why was Dan so confident? Was he just blowing smoke? Did someone in the know really tell him, and was that good or bad that no one told her? If it was about her—that could be a huge compliment that it was a no-brainer. An easy landslide early vote. Or…or it could be bad. Detrimentally, astronomically, soul-crushingly bad.
Swiveling slowly in her chair, she took in the modest furnishings, the tasteful muted prints, the minimalistic décor. The simple, pretty, little miniature Zen garden on her back credenza. No photos of kids or family. No friends or significant other. Slimy Dan had vacation snapshots in his office of ski trips and cruises with lots of smiling people. Granted, he could have just paid them to smile, but she didn’t even have fake friend pictures. Or vacation pictures.
Because she didn’t do vacations. Or people. No one offered to help her in the hallway, because no one really knew her. Ava kept to herself and kept her eye on the prize. She didn’t waste time on office drama or politics, therefore, she didn’t have any friends there. Or anywhere, really, now that David-the-asshat wasn’t in the scenario anymore. People sucked. Socially acceptable ones did, anyway. All they cared about were themselves. Ava saw through the bullshit and had no patience for it. That’s why she was a beast in court. It’s also why she was sitting there alone in an office with no pictures.
Ava liked the special ones. The weirdos. The ones that didn’t fit in or fall into a social norm. She had an especially secret soft spot for the homeless that made their temporary homes in the neighborhoods around the block from there. Now they were real. Yes, some were off their rocker a little, but some just couldn’t catch a break, or got over their heads into something. That could be her one day. It could be anyone. So, she always put a little cash aside for the breakfast run. She may not be able to do anything momentous, but she could pass out breakfast burritos on her walk from the parking garage to the office, hitting up a good ten people if she went the long way around.
A few of them she actually kind of got to know. Until they moved on, or…well, just disappeared, like a few she gotten close to. One in particular, a guy called Em that always made her laugh and gave her a boost, when he looked like he was the one needing boosting. She assumed his name was Emeril or Emmanuel or something, but it didn’t matter. He was nice. He asked about her day, wanting stories from the office. She always looked forward to his smile, until one day a few years ago he wasn’t there, and the others never talked. She’d learned that about them. Survival meant that you kept your mouth shut, and simply filled in the holes when one came open. Some of the best, most genuine people she’d ever met, even if half of them were high most of the time.
Hell, she didn’t even have a dog. Even goofy, rumpled Jeff had a couple of photos of his golden retriever on his desk. Jeff, however, didn’t work until nine every night, she was betting. Dogs didn’t generally keep their legs crossed that long. She could get a fish. She could put cute fish pics in her partner office.
Jen, an associate at the other end of the hall, did a lot of pro bono and charity cases, her walls full of snapshots of the clients she helped. Ava could take pictures of her homeless friends, but most would never let her and that seemed exploitive, anyway. Walking into Jen’s office, though, was like going to a health spa, it was so powerfully positive with good deed vibes. She didn’t even want to be partner or high-level one day, because she loved what she did.
Ava envied her. Jen represented so much of who she used to be when she first started out. All wide-eyed and wanting to change the world. Ava couldn’t tell anyone that, of course, because she was supposed to look all ambitious and partner-hungry now, which she was. She took her mission to gain partner status very seriously, working ruthlessly to get there. Every time she was around Jen for five minutes, however, she felt the pings. It reminded her of when she wanted to be one of those lawyers. Before she wasn’t.
“Ohhh,” Ava sighed into her hands, dropping her head. “My life is not normal.”
“Sorry to hear that, Ava.”
She swiveled back and stood so quickly that her chair toppled backward, taking the Zen garden with it. She was pretty sure there was an f-bomb or three involved, too.
“Are you okay?” Damien asked, resting a hand in his front pocket as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
He didn’t. Damien Burns was a walking powerhouse attorney in two-thousand-dollar shoes. He wanted for nothing. Money, clout, power, women. He was pushing fifty and always eating sushi and kale and knocking back green smoothies, so he might need a burger, but overall, he appeared to be one of the most powerful, fortunate assholes currently breathing air in California.
“I’m fine,” she said, smoothing her skirt, trying not to grimace at the wetness. “Sorry about that. I was concentrating on something—one of the couriers just dumped iced coffee all over me and—”
He held up the hand not in his pocket, and half of her celebrated the fact that it shut her up. The other fifty percent went on alert.
“I just got out of a meeting, and I have another one in five. Can you come down to my office?” he asked, already halfway out the door.
Her heart slammed around like a ping-pong ball.
He turned halfway back. “Is there a problem?”
“No!” she said quickly. “I’m on my way.”
Holy hell, no, there wasn’t a problem. Maybe this was it! The moment! The very good day. Ava took a deep breath to savor the seconds, smoothed her dark wavy locks, and followed him out.
Dominic never thought stripper pants would come in so damn handy.
By the time he’d run/vaulted/slid down twenty-five fucking floors to the basement gym, there was no way he would have been able to ditch the all-black stuck-to-him get-up on the fly. Not without ripping his nuts off and landing on his face. He was head-to-toe sweat, and yanking that Velcro in one move while landing at ground zero saved him probably a good minute of struggle. Struggle he’d never had in his twenties. Or even thirties.
As Dominic’s best friend still loved to tell him every chance she got, forty is where old starts. His version of forty, especially. Why? Because it was wrapped around a job requiring split-second decisions like this shit. Traversing twenty-five flights of stairs so the woman he’d baptized in iced coffee on the elevator at Burns & Brown didn’t get a closer look.
He’d been out of the game for too long. The old him would have never been that sloppy.
He’d dressed like a courier so that he would blend in, but that shouldn’t have even been a possibility. As it was now, not only did two employees see him cause a commotion and then duck down the stairway like a lunatic instead of staying to help like a normal person, but he was pretty sure the woman saw his face.
Dominic sure as hell saw hers. Up close and personal.
“Damn it,” he muttered, stuffing the black clothes, glasses, and cap into the duffel bag he’d hidden near the gym.
It was supposed to be an easy drop. No one notices the couriers, the guys in black they contract out at minimum wage to be their minions and deliver things all over town. Dressed like that, he got past security and walked the halls at will, right into Damien Burns’ office (because his possibly illegal wiretap told him that he and his secretary were both at a meeting), and planted the tracking device deep within the portfolio clearly labeled MMT, all without a hitch.
Of course, it couldn’t be that easy. It had been two years since he’d walked away from the agency, and in spy years that was like fifteen. All the hard stuff went smoothly, while getting on an elevator went south.
Of all the damn people at this firm, it had to be her. The one person there he almost gave a shit about. Almost didn’t want her to lose her job and possibly any credibility in the future over working for a criminally connected organization. Almost. She was vying for the next partner position, his little electronic ears had told him, so maybe that made her just as liable after all.
Dominic made the block, feeling like an idiot in the workout clothes he had layered under the black. Not his thing. Not even before he was old. Back then, he ate everything in sight whenever he wanted, but there was the military and the job and a hell of a lot of sex keeping him in shape. Now… Now, he just had to eat decently so he could still get the sex, because he wasn’t about to darken the doors of some loud, gyrating gym.
The peace of his truck soaked into his skin when he got in. It was his happy place, if there was such a thing. All black with dark windows, it always gave him half a wood to still feel like he could disappear. Reaching over into the back seat for his laptop, he plugged in a thumb drive to sync the tracker to his phone like Sam had shown him. If he was still on the job, he would have a whole room of computer gurus to hand it off to and magically have it appear on his phone.
Now he had himself.
The click of the back passenger door opening also had his .40 Glock in hand, cocked, and pointed.
“Put it back in your pants, Dom,” said a smoking-hot blonde in very little clothing as she slid in and crossed her legs.
The dick twitch that sight should have given him had nothing on the adrenaline rush he had to tamp down. He laid his gun down. “Jesus, Sam.” He ran a hand over his face to regroup. “You realize you just showed me your nipples—and are you not wearing anything under that miniskirt?”
“You wish,” she said, leaning forward to thump him on the head. “It’s my gun you see up there, Dom, not my hoo-hah.”
Dominic laughed and shook his head. “Why didn’t you dress like that back in the day?”
“Well, for one,” she said, adjusting her tits in her—whatever that was that was really just a scarf thing worn on her boobs. “It wouldn’t have matched the camo. And two—I wasn’t under as a stripper.” She grabbed a bag of chips from a grocery bag and opened it, cramming three in her mouth.
“Help yourself,” he said.
“I’m starving,” she said. “These chicks live on a Vienna sausage and a cheerio. It’s sick. And three, by the way?” she continued. “You couldn’t have handled it.”
“You’re probably right,” he said absently, clicking buttons.
Samantha Daring had been on Dominic’s team when they were in the Marines, and they’d had each other’s back since day one. When he got out and joined the CIA, Sam went the FBI route, but that buddy system never wavered. She was always there. That friendship was more important than any hot lay.
When his brother was killed on the job in an undercover drug raid gone bad and Dominic went into a downward spiral, Sam was the one to kick his ass and bring him back to the living. He quit the agency, but she supported everything he’d done since. Sort of.
She wasn’t crazy about his last six months’ activity, for instance.
“Okay,” Sam said with a resigned sigh, grabbing the laptop from him and balancing it on her knees. “Tell me what today’s crazy involves. What are you doing?”
He gave her a side-eye. “How long do you have?”
She gestured to her attire. “I’m on my lunch break.”
Dominic gave her the low-down on what he’d just done while he checked his phone, ignoring the increasing what-the-fucks shooting from her eyes. He left out the part about who he dumped the coffee on and his ridiculous reaction and exit. That was a longer story he wasn’t in the mood to get into.
“Have you lost your damn mind?”
“Many years ago,” he said in the awful British accent, adding a wink he knew would piss her off. “But the Cockney came out to visit, and the pants were awesome. You definitely saved my ass with those. No pun intended.”
She wasn’t amused.
“You did that with no backup, West. That’s fucking idiotic and stupid.”
Ooh, the last name. Proof that she was truly tweaked.
“Anything else?” he asked, back in his very American self, holding his phone up like a hint.
Sam yanked her hair back. “Moronic. Narcissistic. Foolish. Fucking stupid.”
“You’re repeating yourself now.”
“Yeah, well, you deserved that one twice,” she said. “Damn it, Dom. You have to stop this renegade shit. You were trained better than that.”
“What did it get me?” he snapped, meeting her hard gaze until she blinked. “Where were they when Mason got strung out and lost inside his own deep cover? Where were they when I begged them to pull him out?”
Dominic’s insides burned as the anger he kept just under the surface twenty-four seven spread itself wide. It wasn’t Sam’s fault. He had to dial it back. But he knew all the things she was about to say, and he wasn’t in the mood to hear them. That Mason was a grown man. That he’d gone into the DEA with his eyes wide open, taking the same deep cover kinds of jobs he, himself, had often taken, and was responsible for his actions. That he got himself hooked on the product and was too weak to get out or accept help. Too weak in the end to even protect his cover, and it got him shot between the eyes.
Sam didn’t say any of those things, however. Not this time. She just sat there letting him brew. Which was worse, because she was right. He may not be a spook on the books anymore, but protocol was protocol, and he knew while the shit was happening earlier that he was being sloppy. At the least, he should have let Sam know the full plan, not just that he’d be surveilling. She’d covered his ass too many times already.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You don’t deserve that.”
“We’re good,” she said, nudging him with an elbow. “We’re always good. But doing all this on your own to bring them down is suicide, Dom. You can’t single-handedly take down the Honduran drug cartel.”
Dominic heard the rustle come over the speaker and held the phone closer to his ear.
“Maybe not, but they’re sure not doing anything.”
“Dom, you know they—”
“It’s been two years,” he said.
“You could have grabbed that file yourself and handed it to me,” she said. “And we’d have him.”
“For a whole twenty-four hours,” he said. “You know that. His lawyers would have skipped him out.” Dominic shook his head. “No, I want him to go down. I want to cut the head off of one of the beasts that feeds—” The voices that spoke over his phone made him want to slam his hand in a door. Or one of them did. “Son of a bitch.”
“What?” Sam asked, her eyes going on alert.
Dominic closed his eyes as Ava James spoke, switching the audio to his truck speaker. Her voice came across in stereo, filling the space. He flashed on the split second he realized who he was holding in that elevator. Who had her hands splayed across his chest, drowned in coffee, shrieking obscenities, and about to look up at him.
He’d bolted like his ass was on fire. Why? No damn idea. Ava didn’t know who he was. There was no reason to show his hand like that.
What the fuck was wrong with him?
“Wait, is that—?”
He opened his eyes and met hers.
“I might need your help, Sam.”
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