For His Eyes Only, Masters and Mercenaries Book 13

A night he can’t forget

Five years ago, Nick Markovic found himself consumed by his quest for vengeance. The one time he managed to find peace was in the arms of Hayley Dalton. Being with her was like bathing in sunlight, and he ached to feel that again, but he couldn’t. He gave his oath to Hayley’s cousin Desiree, his partner at McKay-Taggart and Knight, that he’d never let his darkness infect Hayley’s innocent world.

A spark she can’t put out

It was years before that Hayley offered everything she had to Nick. After that one amazing night, all she wanted was to be his forever. Unfortunately, Nick’s reaction was to walk away from her and never look back. The warm and caring man she’d discovered was gone, and after Des’s death, he’d only grown colder. But when Hayley finds herself in mortal danger, she’s forced to seek protection from the man who broke her heart.

A flame that threatens to consume them both

Haunted by the women he failed, Nick can’t allow himself to grow close to Hayley again. Running to stay ahead of the powerful forces that endanger their lives, they travel from the lush Garden in London to the glittering lights of Rio. As the threat against her becomes clearer, he realizes that to keep her safe he must confront the demons from his past, even if it costs him a future with the woman he loves.


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Excerpt

Chapter One

Hayley stared up at the big building in front of her and wondered what the hell she was doing here. She should be anywhere but here. Anywhere on the planet.

Except home. Which had blown up.

It had been a ridiculously rough two days.

So this was The Garden. It didn’t look like what she thought it would. Shouldn’t it be way more gardeny? The stone structure looked pretty much like the rest of the buildings in London. Elegant, graceful, so very British.

A bit like Desiree.

Did he still mourn her?

Five years had passed and she was still a nervous idiot girl, with her heart thumping in her chest at the thought of seeing Nick Markovic.

She thought about the note in her pocket. It had come with the shipment of Desiree’s things from her apartment in Tokyo. Not that Hayley had known Des had an apartment in Tokyo. It had taken over two years to go through all of her cousin’s somewhat shady dealings and get through the odd requests of her last will and testament. It had all come down to the money going to Desiree’s mother and father, the property to her sister, and the contents of her Tokyo apartment getting shipped to Seattle along with two letters. One made out to Hayley and one to Nick.

And then the world had blown up.

“Damn it, Des. What have you gotten me into now?” She muttered the words to herself because it wasn’t like she had anyone to talk to. Five years had passed and she couldn’t walk into Nick’s office with a hottie on her arm because there were no hotties to be had. Five years and all she had to show for it romantically was a string of bad first dates and one boyfriend who slept with his undergrads.

Way to go, Hayley. Time to stop looking for dick. You’ve had the best dick you’ll ever have. Start turning to women.

She scored super low on the Kinsey scale. The sweet sanity of lesbianism wasn’t happening for her, but the sweet release of death would if she didn’t get her butt off the street.

Someone had followed her. Someone had been waiting for her as she’d gotten off the plane at Heathrow. She’d barely given them the slip by slinking into the bathroom and stealing another woman’s coat and scarf and blending in with the crowd. Had whoever was stalking her been smart enough to be a chick or a man more confident in his own masculinity, she would be a dead girl.

She glanced around, but the Chelsea street was quiet save for a few joggers and day-to-day folks milling about.

But that didn’t mean no one was watching.

She settled her backpack on her shoulder. That damn backpack contained everything she owned in the world. Every single thing.

If she’d skipped her office hours, she wouldn’t be here at all.

She walked up to the building and pressed on the doorbell.

“McKay-Taggart and Knight Security Services. Do you have an appointment?” A female voice came over the speaker.

Naturally she couldn’t open a door and walk into the lobby. “Uhm, I don’t, but I’m here to see Nikolai Markovic.”

“I’m sorry. You look super interesting and all, but we only work by appointment,” the sunny voice replied. And she sure didn’t sound British. That accent was pure Cali girl. What was a California girl doing as a London receptionist?

“I’m not here to see him professionally.” She was, but she certainly wasn’t going to pay him. Nope. All her cash was gone, too. Not that the seven grand plus change that she’d saved up would have bought much of Mr. Super Security’s time. Apparently when Nick and Des had gone private, they’d gone extremely posh, as her cousins would say.

“Oh.” A long sigh came over the line. “Look, I’m so sorry. Nick’s pretty good with the quick hookup, but he never goes back for seconds, if you know what I mean.”

“Believe me, no one knows that better than I do.” She had to get off the streets and fast. She was getting nervous. Who knew when Nick would get off work and if she could catch him as he went home? She had no idea where his home was and apparently he was completely unlisted. All she had to go on were Des’s instructions. “But the matter is of some urgency.”

Like I could be dead in the next couple of minutes if no one will let me in.

“Dude, are you pregnant?”

It took all she had not to roll her eyes, but she knew an opening when she saw one. She couldn’t risk Nick sending her away without actually laying eyes on him. Maybe he wouldn’t, but it was a chance she couldn’t take. “I am. We’re only a few months along, but I need his medical records. I need to talk to him.”

“I was joking,” the voice shot back. “Seriously, you’re preggo? And it’s Nick’s. Shit. I’m not the normal receptionist but even I know we’re not supposed to let people in without an appointment and vetting but god, this is awesome gossip. Like better than reality TV. It’s a real dilemma. Follow protocol and don’t get my ass handed to me or let the pregnant chick in and pop some corn. Are you an assassin?”

“No.” What the hell kind of place did Nick work in? Were they all high? “But that’s what I would say if I was an assassin.”

“Yeah, you would,” the voice replied.

“Okay, would an assassin know that he has a mole on his right butt cheek that looks a lot like a heart? I know because I saw it when we made our baby. It’s a girl, by the way.” Her father had taught her to use all her resources. Make the lie sound plausible.

Her father had been an excellent liar. And thief.

“Okay, I have to know, but seriously, I am a trained assassin so if you’re coming here to mow down Nick with some sweet, sweet moves, I got some of my own.” There was a buzzing sound and the door opened.

Hayley walked through despite the weirdness of that particular exchange. She would rather walk into a trap than get shot on the street.

She found herself in a lobby, but it certainly didn’t look like the lobby of an office building. Maybe a plush doctor’s office or like a place where wealthy women met for tea.

“Sorry, we’re short-staffed right now.” A second door opened and she was greeted by a young woman with shiny black hair and a ready smile. She was petite but there was something about her that gave Hayley pause. Her father had spent a good portion of her childhood training her to look for what he would call “easy marks.” It was so nice to be raised by a con man. Still, the training sometimes surfaced and she knew in an instant that the woman in front of her wouldn’t go into the easy mark column. “The boss and his wife are getting back in this evening and they’re bringing most of the group back. Today you’ve got me, the lost boys, Teresa, and Nicky.”

She wasn’t going to ask why the cast of Peter Pan was apparently here, but the relevant fact had been stated. He was here. In this building. Nick. The man of her dreams. The focus of the most humiliating moment of her life.

“I only need to see Nick. If you could please tell me where his office is.”

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” The woman’s face fell and suddenly there was a gun in her hand. A nice semiautomatic, from the looks of it. She didn’t hoist it up, but it was there at her side. “I was hoping for a juicy scene. Things have been boring around here. Okay, I’m going to need you to leave now.”

“Does she have to, Kayla?” A man with a heavy Scottish brogue stepped in the lobby. “She’s quite pretty. Hello there, love. You don’t want old Nicky. He’s a bit dull. Well, he has been for the past few months. Don’t remember a damn thing past then, but some women like that. I’m truly trainable.”

The woman he’d called Kayla rolled her dark eyes. “You see what I have to deal with? There’s so many of them. So pretty and such a big bag of cats when it comes to memory. And no, she can’t stay. She no longer amuses me so she’s gotta go.”

Hayley stood her ground. “So you can tell by looking at me that I’m not pregnant.”

“Your shoulders are up around your ears and your eyes slid off me when I walked in the room,” Kayla explained. “You’re uncomfortable, not victorious that you get to face down the dude who knocked you up. You don’t want to see Nick, but for some reason you are happy to be inside this building.”

So the chick was excellent at reading body language and Hayley had totally forgotten how to sell a con. It wasn’t her fault. She’d spent the last few years studying world history, not working a long game.

“I still need to talk to Nick, and if you think for a second that gun in your hand is going to get me moving, you’re wrong. Look at my body language right now and tell me if I’m lying.” Hayley held her hands up, showing she wasn’t hiding a weapon. “I’m not here to hurt him, but I’m not leaving without talking to him. Shoot me, but you’re not getting me out of this building any way other than an ambulance. And I think you’re bluffing because you don’t even have the safety off that gun.”

Kayla held her place, but there was something extremely dangerous about her stillness. Like a sleek panther waiting for the right time to pounce. “Why are you here?”

The hot Scottish guy held a hand out as though he knew exactly how dangerous the situation could get. “Why don’t you let me talk to the girl, Kayla? There’s no need to get nasty.”

“I’m not letting her stay so you can flirt, Owen. I know it’s been quiet around here, but you do know the rules.” Kayla turned back toward her. “Talk. What do you need Nick for?”

Perhaps it was time for a bit of truth. “Because Des sent me. Desiree was my cousin and I inherited the contents of one of her many hidden safe houses. Part of those contents delivered to me included two letters written shortly before her death. One to me and one to Nick. The one to me advised that if I ever found myself in danger, I should get to Nick and give him his letter as quickly as I could. So here I am. Always the obedient cousin.”

Kayla holstered the gun. “Damn. Now I can’t let you go, but I can give Nick the option. Give me the letter. You can stay here in the lobby with Owen, and Nick will let me know if he wants to see you.”

Not on her life, since that was what it might come down to. “If he wants the letter, he sees me.”

Kayla frowned. “I know how the family felt about Nick. He’s my friend and I’m not putting…” She stopped, staring for a moment. “You’re Hayley. Oh, my. That’s way better than some knocked-up chick showing up.”

“Hayley? That’s a pretty name for a pretty girl,” Owen said with a smile. “Does that mean we get to keep her?”

“It means Nick’s going to want to see her,” Kayla shot back. “Desiree told me about her sweet cousin Hayley. Apparently Des had to save her from Nick’s raging lust when she was an innocent twenty-year-old. Hayley, that is. Not Des. I don’t think Des was ever innocent. Not even from birth.”

Hayley felt her skin flush with embarrassment. Naturally Des had talked. Des always talked. She’d had a love-hate relationship with her cousin, but then most people did. Des had been larger than life and sometimes meaner than Satan. She could also be kind to people she cared about.

He wasn’t for you. His life is too rough. Better to leave him with me. I know why you did it and I don’t blame you, but I care too much about the both of you to allow it to happen. Ta-ta, love. If you ever need me, you know my number.

That was Des. She would pluck the love of Hayley’s life right out of the bed they’d made love in, then promise to always be there.

“If you’re done making fun of me, I’d like to see Nick.”

Kayla sighed. “I’m not making fun of you. I just have the world’s most boring sex life and I live for other people’s drama because I can’t seem to find any of my own. You know the sex you have while spying tends to be bad. Do you honestly think that pompous parliament guy I had to screw to prove he was defrauding the country and selling weapons to foreign dictators was good in bed? Because he wasn’t. He was as selfish a lover as he was a political figure. Come on. I’ll keep my mouth shut and this can all happen behind closed doors and I’ll go back to playing Monopoly with the lost boys. Half the time they forget what they’re playing at all and wander off. Like I said, my life is super sad.”

Kayla turned and opened the door.

Owen stomped up to Hayley. “Now you’ve made the lass sad.”

Kayla shook her head. “Don’t mind Owen. I’m fine. Though my life kind of sucks right now. I got left behind on the whole wedding-in-paradise thing because I’m avoiding an ex-lover who I might or might not have spied on.”

“You could give her something.” Owen held the door open for Hayley.

Give the crazy chick something? Like what? She didn’t owe the gorgeous, dangerous woman a damn thing. So why did she feel guilty that Kayla’s shoulders were slumped? Fine. It wasn’t like she didn’t know all the stuff anyway. Des had obviously told Kayla that Hayley and Nick had a relationship. “Nick wasn’t selfish. He was an incredibly giving lover right up to the point that he left me for my cousin. Still, he did pay for my cab. So there’s that.”

When Kayla turned, her smile lit up the room. “Seriously? That’s awesome. And Des could be a total bitch. A likable bitch, but a bitch, and not in the super-cool, I-want-a-squad-with-her way. Nick always seemed like a guy who would want to settle down at some point, and that was so not Des’s scene, if you know what I mean.”

Such an odd woman. Hayley stopped because Kayla wasn’t the only thing that was odd.

She was in a garden. A real live, ground-to-six-floor-roof garden.

It was the single most stunning room…building…she wasn’t sure what to call it…that she’d ever seen. She looked up and down and all around and what she saw was green and calm. There was a skylight overhead, and she realized the whole building was centered around this atrium.

“It’s prettier at night,” Owen said, standing beside her. “At night the blooms open and the whole world feels fresh and young.”

Kayla put a hand on his shoulder, a sheen of tears in her eyes. “It does, buddy. It’s beautiful at night.”

Something passed over Kayla’s face, something Hayley didn’t understand. Something about Owen.

It wasn’t her problem. She had too many of her own to deal with. She was going to dump this problem in Nick’s lap and find a way to move on with her life. She wasn’t going to get drawn into these people’s problems. They were Nick’s people. Not hers.

She didn’t have people anymore.

“The elevator’s over here. Nick’s office is on the third floor.” Kayla pressed the button that called the elevator. “Owen can show you in. I have to stay down here and monitor security until they get back from lunch. Don’t go too hard on Nick, okay? Sometimes he talks about you when he’s drunk or half asleep. He only ever talks about you in Russian, but I know a few words.’”

You could be the one to lead me out of this hell. You could be my guide, Hayley. I don’t know how to live in the real world anymore. I want this. I want you.

She shoved the words aside because they’d meant nothing. “I’m sure he was talking about Des. She was everything to him.”

Kayla nodded. “They were an interesting pair, to say the least. She was quite a character. Des knew how to keep a person off balance. She kind of delighted in it. I think he’s still hurting even years later. Like I said, go easy on him.”

The elevator door opened and Owen stepped in. He was such a gorgeous man despite the fact that his clothes somewhat hung on him. He had that red hair one only found in Scotland and Ireland. He smiled readily, but he looked as though he’d been through an illness. There was a gaunt look to his face that told her he’d been through something and was only now seeing the other side.

“Come along then, darlin’. Let’s get you up to see that big Russian bear and then perhaps you’ll let me show you around a bit. I’ve been told I’ve lived here for a few years. Of course, after the doctor got hold of me and pumped me full of her drugs, I forgot all about that and now the noggin is mostly empty. Don’t let that be fooling ya, though. I’ve quickly learned all I can about this place.”

Doctor? Before she could ask the question, Owen was continuing on.

“Yeah, this place is fascinating. I think you’ll love it here. Especially at night.”

“When the flowers bloom,” she said, thinking of what Owen had mentioned.

“And when the whole damn place turns into a sex club.” The gorgeous Scot winked her way. “That’s when the fun starts.”

“Wait. What?” Hayley felt her jaw drop, but the elevator doors had opened and Owen walked through.

“He’s this way. Yes, I think you’ll like it here.” Owen moved down the hall.

Hayley wondered exactly what she’d gotten herself into.

* * * *

Nick looked up as he heard the knock on his door. It was a bit of a lifeline, that distraction. It might keep him from giving in and pulling the vodka out of the bottom of his desk. He needed to keep that particular demon at bay until tonight when he could lock himself away and no one needed to know he couldn’t get to sleep without it.

No one ever needed to know that even the vodka couldn’t banish the ghosts that haunted him. The ghosts of both the dead and the living.

Five years had gone by and he still thought about that moment in the motel parking lot. That had been the moment that had decided his life. He’d chosen vengeance and death over peace and possibility. So often in his dreams he went back to that moment and chose again.

“Mr. Markovic?” Owen stood in the doorway and Nick felt the guilt that always rose in him the minute he saw his partner. Owen had been his closest friend and yet Nick hadn’t seen that he was in trouble. Owen was a shadow of his former self. Owen had betrayed the team on their last major mission and he’d paid dearly for it. He’d sold out Theo Taggart to Hope McDonald, a doctor who liked experimenting on military men. Owen had done it to save his mother and sister, though McDonald had murdered both despite Owen’s help. She’d then given Owen a dose of her experimental memory drug that had not only wiped Owen’s mind clean, but made him sick for months.

Nick knew he should have seen what was happening under Owen’s sunny exterior.

He’d lost a ton of weight, but sometimes when he smiled, Nick could see a hint of his old friend. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m helping Teresa manage the front office.”

He was nosing around Teresa was what he was doing. Despite the fact that the man had been wretchedly sick, he perked up around the sub.

He didn’t remember that he’d already screwed the poor girl over and she’d likely never give him the time of day.

What would it be like to forget all his sins?

“It’s all right. What do you need?” He wasn’t getting anywhere with the files in front of him. Files on the six men who, like Owen, had their lives decimated by Hope McDonald. The doctor was dead, but her legacy lived on in those men they’d taken to calling the lost boys. Men with families and lives somewhere out there. A puzzle Nick hadn’t been able to solve yet.

“There’s someone here to see you.”

Nick straightened up. He didn’t have any appointments today. There was nothing on his calendar at all because he was working the lost boys’ cases. He didn’t get clients walking in off the street. McKay-Taggart and Knight didn’t advertise and The Garden wasn’t a normal office building where one could wander in. No one knew where he worked. Unless it was someone Damon sent. He relaxed a bit. “Is Ezra back from wherever he’s been?”

Ezra Fain was a CIA agent they’d been working with a bit as they tried to figure out who the lost boys were.

Owen shook his head. “No. It’s a woman. Pretty thing, too. Says she knows you. Quite insistent.”

“Yes, I am. Could you please move? I’m not leaving until I see him.”

Nick froze at the sound of that husky American accent. It couldn’t be. He hadn’t seen her since the day of Desiree’s funeral, and even then it had been from a distance because the family wouldn’t let him in. He’d watched her, remembering the way she looked when she’d clung to him, wrapping her body around him while he drove into her.

And he’d remembered the way she looked when he’d told her he still wasn’t leaving her cousin.

Hayley Dalton pushed past Owen, barging into his office. She looked every bit as delicious and curvy as she had that night they’d spent together five years before when she’d found him after a nasty fight with Des. She’d offered him comfort and he’d taken her up on it.

He’d spent one perfect night in her arms and in the morning he’d gone back to his own terrible reality.

She’d been the funny, sweet, smart girl he’d enjoyed talking to when he was forced to spend time with Des’s horrible family. He’d liked her and he would never, ever tell her how close he came to walking away with her.

Especially not when she despised him. Not when she blamed him for her cousin’s death.

“You owe me, Nick. You owe me and I’ve come to collect.”

He was quiet for a moment. She was here. Right here in his office. She was standing there like a young Valkyrie demanding her due.

For the first time in years, Nick felt his heart rate tick up, his blood start to flow, like he’d been a clockwork man all this time and someone had wound him up slightly.

He stared at her for a moment, taking in the changes five years had brought. She was still breathtaking with dark hair and clear blue eyes, but she’d lost the charming awkwardness that had once marked the way she carried herself. She’d grown into her body, becoming both vibrant girl and devastating woman. She’d once shyly asked him to marry her, to run away with her and let her show him how well they could work.

The woman in front of him didn’t ask. She demanded.

Damn but that did something for him.

“Would you like to come in and have a seat?” He was pleased with how even his tone was as he sat back, gesturing for her to sit in the chair in front of his desk. “Owen, thank you for showing my friend to my office. Perhaps later we can meet up for a drink.”

Owen frowned. “Kayla wants me to listen in so I can give her all the gossip.”

Kayla was a brat of the highest order. “Tell my dearest friend that she should be minding her own business.”

“Apparently her business is boring right now,” Owen said with a shake of his head as he closed the door.

And left Nick alone with one of two women who dominated his dreams for the last five years. “You’re looking well, Hayley.”

“You look tired, Nick.”

He would give her that. “My job here is stressful at times.”

“Your job at the sex club?”

He bit back a laugh. It was said with the intolerance of youth. “No. I don’t actually get paid to go to The Garden at night. I was talking about my job here at McKay-Taggart and Knight. We work in the security field.”

“So the sex club is just for fun?”

He wished she would stop sounding like a prude. “I’m sure my boss makes money off it, too, but I don’t find that part of my life stressful.”

She was still frowning, the expression causing the cutest line in the middle of her brow. “Nick, are you screwing with me? Like you used to? There’s not a sex club, is there?”

Like he used to. He would tease her. Tell her all sorts of crazy stories about life in Russia and how he’d been forced to ride through the twenty-foot snowdrifts in order to get to his schoolroom. He would spend his time with Hayley at the family functions Des had taken him to. Hayley had been a changeling—a sweet soul left amongst the vipers. “There certainly is a club. These offices support McKay-Taggart and Knight. The club, bar, lounge, and locker rooms are all on the first floor and they support the dungeon.”

Hayley was pacing, her petite form moving back and forth across his office. “Dungeon?”

How much would he have to explain? “Have you ever heard of BDSM?”

Her clear blue eyes rolled. “I’m not stupid, Nicky. I’ve heard of BDSM. I read books.”

If she knew about BDSM, she read some dirty books. And the fact that she’d called him Nicky and not Mr. Markovic sent a thrill through him he hadn’t been expecting. “Then you understand that it’s more of a lifestyle club. Some sex might happen, but it’s not like there’s a nightly orgy.”

She turned a lovely shade of red. “I should have known Des would end up in a damn brothel.”

For the first time, anger flared through him. “It’s not a brothel. It’s a place where people find themselves. If you’re so sure of who you are, then you have no need of it. Good for you, Hayley. You’ve done something many can’t. You’re a whole twenty-five years old and need no more experience. I’m sure you have a husband by now who takes good care of you.”

“You know damn well I’m not married.”

“No, I don’t. Believe it or not, since the moment Desiree was buried, I haven’t kept in close touch with your family. Not that they would allow me to do so. I wasn’t even allowed to attend the funeral. I only knew your father had died because his accident made the news.” It was a huge open wound. He and Des had been…friends…lovers…something to each other for more than half a decade and he’d been barred from her final passage.

He’d been forced to stand back, a hundred yards away from where she’d been buried.

She hadn’t wanted to be buried. She’d wanted to have her ashes scattered across the globe by him, but her family had gotten a lawyer and now she was confined to the family crypt.

Somehow the thought of Des being trapped hurt him. Despite all the turmoil they’d had in their life together, he’d still cared for her. He’d thought about marrying her. Even though he’d known not to ask because marriage would have been like the crypt to Desiree.

Hayley’s arms went over her chest, a protective gesture. “I was against them barring you. Des wouldn’t have wanted that. You have to understand. My aunt and uncle didn’t know what Des did for a living. For years she told them she was working for the United Nations and that was why she traveled so often. They believed her. They thought you were trying to drag her down.”

He knew the story. He didn’t need it repeated to him. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does.” She took a step back and seemed to calm herself. Her hands came out in front of her, wringing slightly. “She would have wanted you there. She would have been angry about you being kept out. I should have said something.”

He shook his head. “It wasn’t your place. You need your family. I shouldn’t come between you.”

“I haven’t seen my English relatives in years. Not since I started college. I don’t go to many family functions anymore,” she admitted. “It wasn’t like they were lovely people or anything. I don’t know exactly why my dad insisted on going to those reunions. We were always looked down on as the poor relations.”

He’d wondered, too. Her father had seemed like a secretive fellow. Des would only tell him that Paul Dalton was a small-time con artist and part-time poker pro. Hayley’s childhood had been a never ending up and down, with the ground always shifting under her. “Des loved you.”

Hayley smiled, a wan lifting of her lips. “As much as Des could love anyone.”

Yes, she would have said the same thing. Des’s love always came with a warning. “Yes. So why are you here? How exactly do I owe you, dushka? I can think of many reasons you would come to me for retribution or compensation.”

Her skin flushed and he wished he’d been a bit more temperate in his speech.

Her jaw firmed and she placed her hands on his desk, staring him down once more. “I don’t think I need to remind you exactly why you owe me personally. I will remind you of what you told me that day. You said if I ever needed something, you would help me.”

“Are you in some sort of trouble?”

Her eyes slid away and she started to pace. Not once had she stopped moving. “Yes. I need protection, but more than that, I need a safe place to stay and I need an investigator to figure out why someone would blow up my house.”

Nick found himself on his feet in an instant. “What do you mean?”

Sometimes Americans spoke in hyperbole. He’d gotten used to it. Walt, a doctor on the team, talked about “blowing” stuff up all the time. What he really meant was changing things and rapidly. Surely that was what she meant.

“I mean my little two bedroom in the suburbs went kaboom, and not because of a gas leak like the cops are trying to tell me. Do you honestly think I could afford that place on my own? I bought it with the money my dad left me and I’ll never be able to rebuild it for what the insurance will give me. If they give it to me after they figure out it wasn’t an accident. Everything I owned was in that house. Every dish I’ve bought. Every stupid glitter turkey I picked up at an after-holiday sale because one damn day I was going to have enough friends to have a Thanksgiving party. Every book. Everything.”

He didn’t hold back. He knew he should, but he couldn’t leave her standing there alone. He crossed the space between them and opened his arms, wrapping her up and holding her.

She was stiff in his arms for a moment, and then her body cuddled closer and she let him hold her. “I could have been in that house. I didn’t have anything scheduled during office hours and I thought about going home early. It was only luck that I didn’t.”

She could have been lost forever and no one would have contacted him to let him know. He would have thought about her forever, never knowing she was gone. It struck him forcibly, the idea lodging in his gut like a stone weighing him down. He held her tighter.

“I’m so sorry to hear that, dushka. You can’t imagine how… You’re safe now.” He let his hand find her hair, touching the silk of it while her body shook.

She held on to him and cried for a moment. Her arms suddenly clutched him as though she was afraid he would let go.

He could have told her he had no intention of letting her go. None. He held her close and let her cry.

“We’ll get you new things. I promise. I won’t allow you to be uncomfortable.” Her childhood had been a vagabond existence. She’d talked that night about building a different life.

Imagine it, Nicky. We could have a house and friends who are always there. Friends we don’t have to track down. We could have a comfy couch and we would sit on it every Sunday morning and read the paper while we drink our coffee out of dumb mugs we bought for each other. You know. The kind that says World’s Greatest Lover or some silly thing.

She’d needed the shelter of a permanent home and she’d built it all by herself, and now it was gone.

And she’d come to him. When her world had gone dark, she’d run straight into his arms.

“I’ll take care of you, dushka. I promise. I’ll make sure you’re all right and I’ll deal with the authorities. You don’t have to worry about a thing.” His mind was whirling and he knew what a damn bastard he was. That hadn’t changed, but other things had in the last five years.

What kind of man was he that he could hold her while she cried, and all along think about the fact that all those reasons he’d walked away from her five years ago were gone now.

There was no Russian mob vendetta on his head, no vengeance he needed to seek. His job was a bit dangerous, but stable for the most part. He was more likely to be involved in tracking down corporate spies than the more dangerous kind. He had money saved up and he’d been granted British citizenship. He was stable and secure.

She felt so right in his arms.

She gradually calmed, her sobbing relenting to low shudders of her body against his. When she looked up, her eyes were red and yet she was still so beautiful. He stared at her, trying to remember the last time he’d seen such honest emotion. Only in scenes, really. It was the only place he allowed women like Hayley close to him.

Hayley reminded him of the boss’s wife. Penelope Knight was that open. Smart and funny and unafraid to allow her emotions to show.

Damon Knight was a happy man.

How long had it been since he’d been happy? Maybe not since that night he’d spent with her. Not truly happy. He’d had moments of passion, moments of fierce joy, but not a single time when he was content.

Not until this one. How shitty was it that he was happy her house had burned down because it had sent her to him? Okay, he wasn’t happy that her house was gone, but he wasn’t sad that she was here in his arms.

Did he deserve her here? It didn’t matter because she’d made the choice. She had wealthy family to turn to, but she’d come to him. She’d made her decision.

She sniffled and started to pull away. He immediately let go because he intended to take things slowly this time. The first time she’d come to him, he’d allowed his passion to take the lead. This time he intended to let his head rule over his damn cock. She’d been through enough. She needed to feel safe, and groping her wasn’t going to accomplish that.

“I don’t think talking to the authorities is going to help.” She wouldn’t look him in the eyes. She stared at the floor as she started to pace again. “I mean, feel free to talk to them, but I would prefer they not know where I am.”

“They have to know where you are. There are many forms for you to sign. You have insurance, right?”

“Of course, but it’s bigger than insurance settlements.”

He wished he was still holding her. “Any number of things could have happened. If the police believe it was a gas leak, why would you think differently? Who have you angered, dushka? Surely your students aren’t going to plant explosives simply because you gave them a bad grade.”

“It’s not about me. At least I don’t think so.”

He couldn’t imagine it, either. She was too kind and giving to call this kind of evil to her through her actions. “Have you had a boyfriend you turned away?”

That he could see. God knew he understood what it meant to be obsessed with a woman.

“There was one guy, but I seriously doubt Harrison would know how to build a bomb. No, he’s the kind of guy who would come after me in print. He makes a hobby out of tearing apart my professional papers. I tried to tell him that it only made him look like an idiot and his arguments are specious at best, but he still comes at me from every angle. Well, every literary angle. He’s an ass but not a killer.”

As he suspected. “You’re more than welcome to stay with me. I’ll handle everything, but I think you have to consider that the police are right and this was a gas line explosion.”

Her eyes came up, fire flashing there. “No. This is what you don’t get to do. This is what you owe me, Nick. You will work this case and you won’t charge me. You’ll provide me with a place to stay that’s safe and you will believe me when I tell you this wasn’t an accident.”

“You’re not the type of woman people try to kill. Why would you think this wasn’t an accident? It doesn’t make it any less tragic and it won’t make me want to help you less. You don’t need an excuse, Hayley. I’m happy you’re here. I want you here. Why don’t we go to dinner and we can talk this out? You don’t need some crazy story to make me interested in you. I’ve always been interested.”

“You arrogant bastard. Do you honestly believe I traveled halfway across the planet with some crazy, made-up story so I could maybe spend another few hours in your bed? If you’re bored and have nothing else to do, of course. We both know I’m not your type.”

He’d said those words trying to make the break with her as quickly as possible, trying to spare her the pain of regret. If she hated him, she would move on. Now it seemed to him neither of them had moved on. He was drifting aimlessly and she’d apparently had one serious boyfriend in five years. “I didn’t mean word I say that night. Please to come to dinner with me. I’ll explain. I would love nothing more than chance to explain.”

He was well aware his accent was thickening and he was dropping articles. It did when he got emotional and forgot to try to blend in.

She held a hand up as though she needed to keep some obstruction between them. “I didn’t come back here to crawl into bed with you, Nikolai. I came back because you’re the only person I know who I don’t mind putting up against these bastards. Here’s a news bulletin for you. I don’t have gas in my home, nor is there a line anywhere near my house. They’re lying and I don’t know why.”

“There could have been natural gas beneath the ground. The Pacific Northwest has many earthquakes.”

“Fine. It was all in my head. It’s all nothing more than science and the poor choice of living space. Fine. Explain away the cop who tried to shoot me.”

“What?”

“I thought they were being so kind. A little chintzy with the cash, but kind. They put me in a crappy motel, but it wasn’t until I went to get some ice that I realized I was the only one in the motel. It was deserted, at least the part they put me in. I was walking back to my room when I saw him.”

“Who? Do you know this man’s name?”

She shook her head. “Officer Harris. I recognized him from the police station. He’d been in uniform then. When he showed up to kill me, he’d changed. I watched as he kicked in my door. There was a gun in his hand. I didn’t see anything after that. I ran. That was two days ago.”

His chest felt tight. She was going to give him a damn heart attack. “Where have you been? How did you get to London? Bloody hell, woman, why did you not call me?”

She frowned his way. “First, stop yelling at me. Second, are you all right? Because you went pale and your eyebrow is twitching.”

“Because heart is about to give out.”

“Suck it up.” There was no sympathy in her eyes. “You’re of no use to me at all if you have a heart attack. So, to answer your questions. I hid in the woods until I managed to hitch a ride.”

“You did what?”

“Well, I couldn’t call a damn Uber. They require a credit card and I had to dump mine.” She paled a bit. “I’d taken my backpack with me because I wasn’t sure I could carry everything. Thank god I did or I wouldn’t have had anything at all. Still, I knew better than to use the cards and I dumped my phone. I caught a ride to Portland with a dude driving electronics in from Canada. Or that’s what he said. I was unaware there was a massive Canadian electronics manufacturer. I had some suspicions that he was hauling either stolen goods or bootleg meds. I’ve heard they do that now that the American healthcare system is in such disarray. And I don’t blame them. Do you know what birth control costs if you don’t have health insurance? Oh, I’m sure the docs will pass out the little blue pills like they’re candy, but do they think about who bears that burden?”

“Hayley! Focus.”

She’d always gone on and on when she was nervous. He used to find it charming. Now he simply wanted to get to the part of the story where she told him who he could kill.

Because vengeance, it turned out, was still on the menu.

Copyright Lexi Blake 2017