Smoke and Sin, The Perfect Gentlemen - Book 4
More than a decade ago, Roman Calder had a scorching affair with the sister of one of his best friends. Augustine Spencer drove him so crazy he thought of nothing but her. The only thing they did more often than heat the sheets was fight. Unprepared for the intensity of their relationship, Roman broke things off and concentrated on things that made sense to him: his career and putting his best friend, Zack Hayes, in the White House.
Gus Spencer is known to Washington insiders as the president’s secret weapon. Gorgeous and brilliant, Gus runs the press pool with the determination of a shark. No one dares to cross her, not when she’s known for having a spine of steel…but long ago one man melted her down. Despite the fact that she’ll never forgive Roman for breaking her heart, now that they work together she can’t get him off her mind.
When a dangerous investigation leads both Roman and Gus to London, the heat between them becomes unbearable. As they begin to unravel an international conspiracy, they find themselves falling all over again. But when a killer threatens their world, can they fight to stay together or will the sins of their past keep them forever apart?
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Air Force Two
Somewhere over Canada
Augustine Spencer glanced out the window. No lights sparkled from this altitude, high above the cloud cover. Only inky blackness stretched across the sky. In a few hours the sun would rise, and they would be in London. She hoped the new day would illuminate everything necessary. But for now, she found comfort in the shrouding darkness. In it, she could feel without prying eyes. And in it, she could plot her next move because she had a job to do and she wouldn’t allow anything or anyone to stop her.
Not even Roman Calder.
“Is this seat taken?”
She glanced up to find Connor Sparks standing over her. Ah, the most dangerous of the Perfect Gentlemen, as her brother and his besties had become known. Not that they would ever call themselves anything so silly as BFFs, but that’s what they were. If pressed, they might call themselves bros for life or something they’d deem appropriately masculine. They certainly believed in bros before ’hos.
Or they had until recently.
“I don’t think I can stop you,” she answered with what she hoped was a magnanimous smile.
Connor sank down beside her, an earnest expression on his face. It wasn’t a look she normally saw the former CIA agent wear. “All you have to do is tell me to go and I will. I hope you won’t though. I’d like to talk to you about something.”
Damn it. Whatever Connor had to say would almost certainly be about Roman. “Now that you’re working for Zack, I’m sure you have more than a few things to say.”
And she would take whatever shit Connor or his pals dished out because she couldn’t afford to get fired now. She was so close to the truth.
“It’s about Lara.”
The unexpected topic made her sit up slightly, though she tried not to betray how much he’d surprised her. Lara Armstrong Sparks was Connor’s new bride. She was vibrant and adorable, if a bit of a naive crusader. At least that had been Gus’s first impression of the girl. Instantly, she’d wanted to wrap Lara up so she couldn’t get brutalized by the real, cold world. Gus had been skeptical the brunette would actually find her happy ending. But maybe she’d underestimated Connor’s bookish wife. So far, this little Belle seemed to have tamed her dangerous Beast of a husband.
Under Connor’s watchful eye, Gus glanced over to find Lara in one of the seats typically used by the aides, all curled up with a blanket, eyes closed.
“Why didn’t she use the suite?” Air Force Two was smaller but still had the trappings of a luxury jet. This particular modified 747 had a presidential suite located under the cockpit, where the president and First Lady would shower, dress, and sleep—even hit the small gym, if they were so inclined. “Zack’s not here, and Roman never sleeps anyway. I’m fairly certain he made a deal with the devil for that advantage.”
Connor flushed slightly. “She thinks it’s wrong that the aides are forced to sleep in their seats while the president of the United States slumbers in luxury at the taxpayers’ expense. So she’s sleeping upright and hunched over in solidarity with the working man.”
Gus had to smile. Some of those aides came from the wealthiest families in the world. Oh, many of them were super-hard workers, but they were also the elite of the elite.
And Lara Sparks thought she would stand up for their rights. Sheltered little girl.
But even if Lara’s protest was a bit silly, nothing in the world softened Gus up quite like the underdog or someone willing to stand up for them. “Good for her. It’s refreshing to see someone give a damn about something other than politics around here.”
“My wife is different. She genuinely cares, but she hasn’t figured out that the world doesn’t work the way she wants it to. I know I should have left her at home, but she wanted to come with me and I…”
“Couldn’t say no.” She felt her lips tug up into a smile. The mighty Connor Sparks had been felled by a quirky, big-hearted girl. It was almost too much to fathom…and yet from what Gus had seen, they were perfect together. Balanced each other. Deep down, she was a bit envious.
Then she realized why Connor Sparks was probably sitting in front of her. Why he would take time from his solemn duty to talk to her. He was warning her off his wife. “Well, I hope you both have fun in London. I’ve got a crazy schedule, so I won’t have much time to socialize. You don’t have to worry about me.”
His intentions bothered her more than she’d imagined. Hurt, actually. She’d grown up with Connor. He’d always been Dax’s best of the besties. Then again, she’d also drifted away from everyone but Mad after… Well, after Roman.
In fact, she’d surprised herself by taking the job with the White House. Sure, she’d helped with the campaign. But when she’d been offered the position as second in command at the press office—working so closely beside Roman—her first thought had been to tell Zack to fuck himself, then suggest he fuck Roman, too. But they had been way too smart to ask her themselves. No, the bastards had sent Joy, knowing that Gus had never, ever been able to say no to her sweet friend. Joy, one of her best friends. Joy, who would have been First Lady if she hadn’t been killed. Joy, whom she suspected Roman had truly loved.
“Of course you have a full schedule,” Connor conceded. “But I was hoping Lara could help you. I’ve got some things to do and I can’t take Lara along. Can she…I don’t know, act as your assistant?”
Gus let out a breath of surprise. So he wasn’t warning her away? “What?”
“Hear me out. She’s incredibly smart. And…I’m worried that some of the aides are going to be mean to her. She doesn’t keep her opinions to herself and her politics don’t exactly align with the others around here.”
Because this world was cutthroat and ruthless, and every single one of those aides would rip a heart out if they thought it would get them one step higher on the ladder.
Suddenly, Gus felt a little more protective and determined to preserve Lara’s illusions.
“Is it true she runs Capitol Scandals?”
Connor’s eyes flared, then he chuckled. “I should have known you would figure that out. Yes.”
That adorkable girl ran one of the trashiest rags in DC. Of course, it also published some real, in-depth stories. Likely, Lara tried to clickbait people in by posting stories on the president’s love life in the hopes she could educate them on more pressing matters once she’d lured them to the site. Gus doubted the ploy worked, but she admired Lara’s hustle. “If she wants to follow me around, I can use the company most days, but I do have a few…plans that require privacy.”
He frowned. “You’re meeting a man?”
Nope. She was doing something far more important. She was going to avenge a friend—even if that meant bringing down her boss. But she couldn’t exactly tell Connor that. “You know I have friends in lots of places.”
Gus also had a reputation, so she knew what Connor would assume. In this case, it worked to her advantage. If she had a twinge about the fact that Dax’s bestie assumed she was blithely hopping into bed with a random guy, Gus shoved it down. Her friends knew who she was. Her mom and her brother accepted her. She refused to give a shit what anyone else thought. They could get on board or go to hell.
“I understand.” He was quiet for a moment, his eyes lingering somewhere on the floor as though he was trying to decide how to proceed. “Have you ever thought about cutting Roman some slack?”
Before she could think to temper the response, she shot back at him. “Every day. I think about how much rope it would take for that man to hang himself.”
Connor grimaced. “Wow. Okay. Look, I know something happened between you two a long time ago. But I think he’s still attracted to you.”
She scoffed, laughing hard at those words. A few heads popped up around her, disgruntled expressions crossing the faces of sleepy aides nearby.
Gus lowered her tone. “I seriously doubt that. Roman and I had a fling a long time ago. He’s over it. I’m over it. He made it plain that I wasn’t the kind of woman he wanted for more than a good time. He’s searching for a shy flower who will tend his home fires, never raise her voice to express an opinion of her own, and accept the fact that he’s married to Zack in all ways but sexually.”
“You think so? I wonder how he hasn’t managed to find his beacon of virtue yet.”
“Oh, he did. Unfortunately, she married his best friend, got shot, and died.”
A long moment passed, and Gus felt her stomach turn. She’d loved Joy. The truth was already ugly enough, so why had she added such a biting tone? Stress and having Roman so close…but so far away. He always brought out the worst in her.
She looked Connor’s way, not even trying to stop the tears that flooded her eyes. That was one thing she’d learned after all the bad stuff. Some tears were simply unstoppable. Rather than trying to save face, it was better to worry about things that truly mattered. She was kind and loving, even if most people didn’t know that. And she’d treasured Joy’s friendship. She would never again give others a cold shoulder because Joy’s death had taught her that life was short. She especially refused to bristle over some asshole who couldn’t love her.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “That was terrible and I didn’t mean it. I loved Joy very much. Please forgive me.”
He leaned over and patted her hand. “There’s the Gus I remember. You know, one of the things I always adored about you was that you could be a bitch from hell when necessary, but you have a sweet, gooey center. It’s why I want you to look after Lara. She’s a bit lost.”
Having her gooey center on display was uncomfortable, but she also wouldn’t take it back. She refused to change who she was.
But she did have some tough choices to make. Long ago she’d decided that action was better than reaction. Action was a step taken, based on who else was in the situation and how much she knew or trusted that person. Reaction was dependent solely on how someone else made her feel in a given moment, which was rarely ever wise or a proper representation of herself.
Therefore, she acted. She did not react.
Connor’s slip of a wife rose and stretched, then shuffled beside her husband, her ridiculously lush dark hair flowing all around her shoulders as she yawned. “Connor? Are we there yet?”
Action. The woman in front of her, though misguided, seemed kind and well-intentioned. That meant something to Gus. And in truth, Connor had never wronged her. Her beef was solely with Roman.
“We’re still hours away, Connor’s Beauty. You should totally throw the patriarchy out of the presidential suite and get some sleep for the proletariat.” Gus winked. She could speak liberal.
Lara’s eyes had widened. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
She looked so tired and she obviously wasn’t used to this fast-paced lifestyle. If Gus could say a few well-placed words and get the girl comfy enough to sleep, all the better. “Well, no woman has slept in that taxpayer-enabled suite since Zack took office.” She leaned in. “At least not one he didn’t pay. You should take it for all the sisters. And come to think of it, Connor here has been an underpaid warrior for our country for years, and what did he get? Craptastic motel rooms all across the Third World. You haven’t seen a shit-hole until you’ve been to the Sudan.”
“Then we have to claim that space for America,” Lara said with a grin, looking her husband’s way. “I’ll meet you there.”
Connor smiled as Lara strode toward the front of the plane, then disappeared. “You want to give me notes on how to handle my wife?”
He was happy. She missed the cocky, unapologetic Perfect Gentlemen sometimes, but it was good to see so many of them in love. It made her ache for the future Mad would never have. The hole his absence left was a hollow, gaping pang every day.
It also made her wonder if Roman would choose a wife and settle down soon. Gus didn’t know how or if she could handle it.
“Sure,” she teased Connor. “I’ll even type them up for you. And don’t worry about a thing in London. I know Roman thinks I’m going to cause trouble, but I really do have other things to do besides hang around and give him a hard time. Besides, he’s seeing that chick from the British Embassy while we’re here anyway. She’ll keep him plenty busy.” Gus tried to ignore the burn in her belly. “So if you’re worried I’ll play the jilted lover, the last place I want to be is on his radar.”
“You both say things like that, yet neither one of you has ever married,” Connor mused.
“Well, Roman has impossible standards, and I have a demanding career.” If there was one thing she’d learned early, it was that men didn’t like women with demanding careers, especially if the woman was smarter than their testosterone-laden counterpart. So she’d taken to viewing the men around her as chess pieces. Or if they were excellent in bed, playthings. That’s all. “I’m afraid I’m married to the White House.”
“And when Zack moves on?” Connor asked quietly.
She was always a girl with a plan. “Then I take on consulting work and make an incredible amount of money. Why the sudden interest in my future?”
Connor sat back. “You know, I suppose a man gets to a certain age or a certain place in his life, and he looks back, wonders where things went wrong. You know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve been reflecting, trying to pinpoint where things turned. We were friends, Gus. And then we weren’t.”
She didn’t like the sudden turn of this conversation. “It’s hard to be friends with a man who spends most of his time in classified locations doing things I’m not allowed to know about.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Gus. I would come home—and yes, by home I mean your home in New Orleans. One Thanksgiving we were fine, and the next you were cold and rebuffed my every attempt to talk to you. At the time I thought you disapproved of my job, but then I realized you’d stopped talking to all of us for about four years. Except Mad. Eventually, we started seeing you again, slowly and in small doses. But I’m not really sure what happened.”
Okay, so maybe she didn’t appreciate the softer, more caring Connor Sparks after all. The hardened spy had at least stayed out of her business.
She gave him a smile because the drama of all that tragedy was behind her, and sometimes the truth was the best way to hide a secret. “I’m sure you know that Roman and I spent a hot year together. When he finished law school, I suggested we make it official. He declined. We argued. It wasn’t pretty.” She shrugged as if age and wisdom had given her immense perspective, so she could dismiss that girl of her past. “I struggled with my embarrassment.”
Connor’s eyes widened. “I did not expect you to admit that.”
But he’d known, of course. It was there in his expression. He’d only been surprised she’d confessed to being cast aside, not that it had happened.
Dealing with any of the Perfect Gentlemen was always an intricate game of chess. Thankfully, she’d had a lifetime to become a master.
Then again, they’d had equally as long to figure her out. Did Connor have any idea what she actually planned on doing in London? Is that why he’d taken this sudden interest in her and her visit? Had Zack sent Connor to find out how close she was getting to the truth?
“It happened a long time ago. I assumed Roman had told you. If not, there’s your grand mystery. Getting dumped sucked, and I didn’t want to face any of his friends.”
“But you stayed close to Mad.” Connor shook his head, his jaw tightening. “Damn it. Of course, you did. The two of you had a thing for a long time. Mad was damn good at taking advantage of a situation.”
“Don’t,” she bit out with gritted teeth. “Don’t you talk that way about Maddox. He wasn’t like that.” Yes, it would be smarter to let Connor think whatever he wanted to, but Mad was no longer here to defend himself, and she couldn’t let anyone, even Connor, malign the one friend who had stood by her side when no one else had. “He never took advantage of me. What we had was mutual and friendly. My relationship with Mad was probably the healthiest of my life, so do not say another bad word about him.”
During that terrible first year, Mad would show up at her DC apartment some weekends with a bottle of tequila, a stash of movies, and a pizza, and he would get her through. She had no idea how she would have survived that first year without the grueling work schedule and Maddox Crawford. Taking the DC job had saved her in so many ways. If she’d gone back home, her mother would have known something was wrong and meddled.
After the pain had subsided and Gus had gotten some distance, Mad still appeared occasionally, but instead of crying her way through ridiculous chick flicks, she and Mad had fucked like bunnies, both of them secure in the knowledge that they were friends and nothing more.
Then Mad had finally lost his heart and won over Sara Bond, the girl he’d wanted for so long. Gus had let him go and fondly wished him well.
“Hey. He was my friend, too. I wasn’t maligning him,” Connor promised, staring at her like she’d given him some important information. “I was only worried about you. And I miss Mad, too.” He stood. “Thanks for whatever you can do to take Lara under your wing.”
“Of course.” She would probably have fun getting to know the woman who had conquered Connor’s cynical heart. Everly, Gabe Bond’s wife, loved her. So did Holland, Gus’s new sister-in-law. That made Lara a part of the sisterhood, and Gus took that seriously. “And you can tell Roman he has nothing to worry about. He doesn’t need to tense whenever I walk in a room. I’ll do my job and stay completely out of his way. Everything will be ready when Zack lands in four days. I’ll make sure of that. So Roman can simply broker deals and smoke cigars in the good-old-boys’ clubs and take credit for everything, as usual.”
“Your claws are showing, Gus.”
“My claws are always on display. It’s why I’m so effective at what I do.”
“Have you thought about the fact that being close to you is hard on him, too?”
Not once. “He hired me because I’m the best and he needs me. That does not mean he doesn’t find it distasteful to deal with me. I know the score and exactly what he thinks of me. He views me as…let me see if I can remember the description verbatim… Ah, yes, a man-eating anaconda who squeezes the life out of her victims before she swallows them whole.”
“Jesus,” Connor breathed. “All I’m saying is that maybe this is a great opportunity for you two to give each other a second chance.”
She frowned at him. “I can’t think of anything I want less.”
With a sigh, Connor walked away, shaking his head and muttering something she probably didn’t want to hear.
Gus reached up and turned off the overhead light, then lost her gaze in the vast darkness out the window once more. There was no such thing as a second chance. She’d learned that when she’d miscarried her baby. When her father had perished. When she’d lost her dear friend to a bullet. When she’d realized Mad had gone down with his plane.
But there was something she could do for the kindest, most misunderstood member of the Perfect Gentlemen, one thing she could offer Mad even now.
“I don’t know why she didn’t wait and come with the rest of the press office.” A man’s murmur reached Roman’s ears.
He stopped at the sound. It was late and the plane was quiet, but there was always a hum of activity. These were people who never really slept. Roman had taken the plane’s office, locking himself away to get some work done—and to stop himself from doing something stupid like reaching out for Gus. Like pulling her body against his to see if the perfection he remembered had merely been a dream.
Thirteen years had passed, and he wanted to know if foolish youth or a faulty memory made him compare every single woman in the world to Augustine Spencer and come up lacking—even the one woman he’d thought he could marry, the one woman he’d thought he could love.
“Probably because the Ice Queen has a plan to be someone’s pain in the ass.”
“Well, I’m staying out of her way.”
Roman knew precisely who they were talking about. Among the White House staffers, Gus was known as the Ice Queen. Elizabeth Matthews, Zack’s press secretary, was Glinda the Good Witch. What none of the fuckers understood was Liz was every bit as ruthless as Gus. She simply ruled her kingdom with a soft smile and easy words. But none of that charm would work if she didn’t have Gus as her enforcer.
Just like Roman was Zack’s. While Gus’s moniker had become the Ice Queen, Roman was known as the Hitman. He did the dirty work so Zack could keep his hands clean. The funny thing was, if he and Gus didn’t share such a shitty history, they would probably be good friends. They would certainly understand each other. They played the same role and should be good about helping each other out, laughing at the trash talk they endured.
“It just chaps me. Bitch thinks she’s better than us. I bet that whore got her job by spreading her legs for Hayes.”
Roman saw red. It was a sad fact that politics could still be a good-old-boys’ network, and because she was female, Gus had to hear the kind of slurs no one would ever have dared to speak about him.
He refused to listen to anyone malign her now.
Roman stepped out of the shadows and was damn happy to see both aides turn pasty white. “What did you say?”
“Mr. Calder, I didn’t realize you were still awake.” The kid with the nasty mouth couldn’t be more than twenty-eight years old. A fucking baby who was about to learn the world didn’t revolve around him.
“I’m always awake and I’m always listening. And I would very much like for you to repeat what you just said.”
The second little asshole proved that he was smarter, but merely a kiss ass. “Mr. Calder, Austin was only joking around. It’s late and we haven’t slept. We say stupid shit when we’re tired.”
“I’m not tired. In fact, I’m quite energetic and my mind is working overtime. But if Austin is that weak, he’s not cut out for this job. Since that’s the case, I’m wondering how he’s going to get home because he certainly won’t be on a plane with me.” Sometimes it was good to be the Hitman. He had no idea how Zack ever juggled everyone’s fucking feelings. “Austin should understand that when we land, he needs to find his way back to the States, go directly to his office, clean it out, and hope we never cross paths again because I’m being patient right now. If we meet again, I won’t be.”
“Mr. Calder…” the friend began.
Roman turned to him. “I don’t know your name. Do you want me to know it?”
The aide shook his head. “No. No, I’m good.”
Austin opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly they weren’t alone.
Connor put a hand on Austin’s shoulder. “You should keep your mouth shut or we’ll give you another way off this plane, and it will likely not include a parachute. And if your father, the senator, has a problem with the fact that Roman fired you, please let him know that Air Force Two has security features that include cameras in this cabin. What you said was recorded and we’ll release it if necessary. Your father’s progressive views on women’s issues are well known. How will his constituents feel about his son being a misogynist douchebag?”
That shut Austin up and fast. His nameless friend was smart enough to ease the fired aide away from what could become the killing zone. Because Roman wanted to wrap his hands around the fucker’s throat and see how blue he could turn.
“Do you have any idea how crazy-eyed you look right now?” Connor asked once the two young fucks were gone, glancing around the now empty area. “You made that dude piss himself and managed to send all the other aides huddling together at the back of the plane. Oddly enough, all on one side because I think they’re too afraid to go near Gus.”
Good. He didn’t feel like company anyway, at least not theirs. The only person he wanted to see was the one person he wouldn’t let himself be near.
“If I ever hear the aides talking about any of our female employees like that again, I’ll do the same. That kind of talk will not be tolerated here.”
“I think they get that now. But if you think the outrage in your expression is for any random female employee, you’re in even deeper denial than I thought.” Connor nodded toward the office. “We should talk.”
That’s the last thing he wanted, but Connor could be stubborn, like a dog with a meaty bone. He stepped back into the large office reserved for the president. “Lara walked by fifteen minutes ago. She said something about the patriarchy and how she was taking over the presidential suite in the people’s name or some shit. Shouldn’t you join her? It isn’t like that room has seen any action in years. The president before Zack was five hundred and fifty years old and Zack…well, he’s a monk these days.”
“That’s not what the press thinks.” Connor shut the door, closing them away from prying ears and surveillance. He crossed to the bar and poured himself a glass of Scotch. Two fingers. Neat. Like they’d managed to find ways to drink it since before they could purchase the stuff legally. “I noticed Zack’s been out on the town a lot lately. You, too.”
“You know why he’s doing that,” he muttered, almost under his breath. For Elizabeth. He had to sell the illusion that she was nothing more than an employee.
Someone was manipulating Zack Hayes’s presidency and had been even before he’d been elected. Mad’s death a few months ago had brought the conspiracy to light. Now they had uncovered the fact that the Russian mob had woven tendrils into the very fabric of Zack’s life, perhaps even from birth. They’d already discerned that Joy’s death hadn’t been a botched assassination attempt by some lone lunatic to off then-candidate Zack Hayes. No, a network of criminals had actually murdered his wife in cold blood to ensure the sympathy vote landed him in the White House. Now high-level officials in his administration jetted to London, and Roman intended to use this official trip to find out if the conspiracy included the death of Zack’s mother eight years ago. Roman’s gut was telling him that Constance’s car wreck in the British countryside hadn’t been an accident at all. That the woman, alcoholic or not, had known far more about this possible conspiracy than anyone had guessed.
In the midst of all the chaos, Zack had realized he had one weakness his enemies could use against him. Elizabeth Matthews, his press secretary—and the only woman who’d ever truly both knocked him on his ass…and stolen his heart.
After seeing the evidence that his wife had been murdered, Zack had shoved distance between himself and the fiery blonde. Then he’d started dating a string of well-known actresses. The fallout between Zack and Liz had been silent and chilly…but ugly. Then the gossip had begun, and some of the cattier circles of the press had dubbed Zack the Playboy President. Roman had joined him, going on empty double dates that ended in polite goodnights because he was getting too old for casual sex.
These days, he wanted sex to mean something, to fill some emptiness inside him. To make him feel whole again, as he hadn’t in over a dozen years.
God, he fucking craved Gus. How could the woman be more beautiful all these years later? Sexier? More magnetic?
“I think he’s hurting Liz in ways he didn’t count on,” Connor said solemnly. “What is any of this worth if he can’t be happy when we untangle the plot?”
“What’s any of it worth if Liz dies? Like Joy and Mad?” He slumped back against the fine leather of the seat, feeling a headache coming on. “It’s better if she’s alive and unhappy at the end of this. At least then Zack has a shot at explaining everything to her. She’s a smart woman. She might understand.”
“Maybe. But smart women can also hold mean grudges,” Connor pointed out. “I think Liz might take exception to being kept out of the decision-making process.”
“He’s doing it to protect her.”
“Think she’ll care? Women often have different ideas about how relationships should work. By the way, are you planning on introducing Gus to your British girlfriend?”
Roman stared at his friend. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Connor’s lips curled up in a secretive smile. “The little blonde, Darcy Hildebrandt? She seems pretty damn determined to get her hooks in you.”
“We’ve been planning the president’s state visit together. I don’t intend to date her.”
“Yeah? She can’t stop telling everyone how late into the night your meetings run, especially Gus.”
“Gus is smart enough to know when another woman is trying to get a leg up by shoving the knife in. I’m not foolish enough to think no one knows Gus and I used to have a thing. Darcy is just playing the game.”
Though strategically speaking, he should actually consider dating Darcy. She fulfilled every item on his list. Competent and logical. Check. Sexual attraction. He hadn’t taken it for a test drive, but he could see the appeal. Educated and familiar with the grind of life in politics. Check and check. Married to her career. Absolute check.
Yet he couldn’t bring himself to even think about moving them beyond a simple working relationship. He blamed Gus. Did she think he was sleeping with Darcy? Was that why she’d been so testy lately? Was she jealous?
Connor waved him off. “Yes, they’re all smart women, which is precisely why I’m worried about Gus. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Did you know she’s been investigating a member of Zack’s detail? A guy named Matthew Kemp?”
“What do you mean by investigating?” Roman scowled.
Gus worked in the press office. She was known for her spot-on oppo research. Gus was excellent at digging up dirt, even when it was buried super deep. But someone in Zack’s detail should hardly be construed as the opposition.
“I mean someone requested all the personnel records on Agent Kemp. Zack brought me in to take a look at the procedures and see if anything stood out,” Connor explained. “Sometimes the devil is in the details, and a sleeper agent will make mistakes that can be found by looking at the minutiae of his or her job. The press office asked for the records. I tracked it down to Gus.”
“Are you telling me that Zack thinks Gus is a fucking sleeper?” Maybe he would exorcise his rage by getting his buddy on the phone, and if Connor’s accusation was true, he would cuss out the president. Then he might have to quit. But there was no way he would investigate Gus as a freaking spy.
Connor rolled his dark eyes and knocked back half his drink. “Don’t be so dramatic. Of course he doesn’t. It’s simply something I found while looking for potential spies. But I can’t figure out a reason for the press office to sniff around a Secret Service agent. Naturally Gus had a perfectly logical reason for requesting the records. She’s working with an author on a ‘profiles in courage’ style media campaign. No details about the actual agents, of course, but she wanted to get the backgrounds right.”
“I’ve heard nothing about this.” What game was Gus playing? He frowned as he realized what her intent most likely was. He knew Matthew, one of the strong silent types. He was also thirty-two and movie-star gorgeous. He was the kind of man who thought leg days were a thing. “Is she running a check on one of her boy toys?”
She had plenty of them. Gus could rip through a group of men with the voracity of a Valkyrie in battle. She left them all whining and mooning after her because she didn’t often go back for seconds. The two times she’d kept a lover for more than a few nights, she’d carefully vetted the man. Did she have her eye on Matthew now?
Could he find a viable reason to fire the guy?
“I don’t know. I suspect that’s what she wants me to believe,” Connor admitted. “I’m worried though. Gus isn’t an idiot. Neither is Elizabeth. Have you thought about the fact that if we don’t bring them into our investigations, they might start their own?”
Connor was high. “You think she’s starting an investigation into a Secret Service agent as a service to her country? C’mon…. He’s younger, and according to other women in the White House, as Secret Service agents go, he’s the hottest. How could he be wrapped up in our conspiracy? You do realize he wasn’t even born when some of this crap likely started.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s not involved. I only found this out yesterday. I haven’t had time to go through his records myself yet, but I will. Did you know he’s come in with the advance team?”
“Another sign that Gus is scratching an itch.” It explained why she’d been so set on getting on this plane instead of coming to London in a few days with Zack and Elizabeth. She wanted to get to know Matthew better, and he would be on call 24/7 once Zack got to town.
“Did you know she’s made five trips to the City in the last year?” Connor asked.
What was he trying to imply? “I’m sure I have, too. New York isn’t far. We all go in from time to time.”
“Gus tends to go home to visit her mother when she has time off. Instead, she’s been taking trips to New York, and I can’t tell who she’s meeting.”
Because she was probably meeting a lover. Or shopping a book deal. “Damn it. I bet she’s talking to publishers. We’ve all been asked to write about Mad. We’ve all turned them down.”
“Why do you always think the worst of her? She couldn’t possibly be a spy, but she’ll sell out her friends?” Connor asked. “Don’t get me wrong. The feeling is mutual. She totally thinks the worst of you, too, but I’m surprised you would accuse her of doing something like that. She loved Mad.”
Her relationship with Mad had been one of the sore spots between him and his long-time friend. Roman and Mad got along right up to the point that Gus’s name would come up. Mad had never forgiven him for the night he’d taken Gus home after her fall down the stairs. He hadn’t shown back up, hadn’t even called for weeks afterward. Once he finally had, he’d been cool. Roman had always wondered if Gus and Mad had started their “fun times” up again that very night. “She and Mad were fuck buddies.”
“I knew they were friends with benefits, but I think their sex was about comfort, not just orgasm. And not love.”
“When did you get into pop psychology, Connor? Look, I’m sorry. I’m wound up and having Gus around doesn’t help things.”
“So fire her or reposition her.”
Fire Gus? He’d just found a way to get back into her life…even if she tied him up in knots. He was so fucked up. “She’s too good at her job. I can’t move her. We need her.”
“Then suck it up, buttercup, because I’m telling you she and Liz are up to something and we need to figure out what before it bites us all in the ass.”
“You really think so?” A plotting Gus was a dangerous Gus. And a sexy one. She was never hotter than when she was playing the game.
“I do.” Connor seemed to relax now that Roman was taking him seriously. “I’m sending Lara in. Gus is going to let Lara follow her. I told her it’s because I’m worried about how the other aides will treat her.”
“Ah, you’re appealing to Gus’s underdog syndrome. She can’t stand it when the bullies show up. She tends to prove she’s the biggest, baddest bully of them all.”
“Yes, and you know she’ll love Lara.”
“She’ll view Lara as a wide-eyed baby bird she needs to protect from predators.” But there was something Connor wasn’t thinking about. “What exactly do you expect Lara to do? Spy?”
Connor laughed, a deeply amused sound. “No. I wouldn’t send my princess in to do that. She would be terrible. I’m going to let nature take its course, then carefully question Lara about what’s going on with Gus. She’ll never know what I’m doing. We’ll simply be talking about her new friend. Lara loves to talk about her friends.”
And she made them quickly. She also tended to be loyal, something Gus could use against them. “I think this is going to backfire on you. Gus is excellent at getting baby birds to follow her. And I’m worried about getting the women together in one room.”
Revolution. A coup d’état. Gus taking over and steamrolling everyone. “Up until now the women have been mostly low key, but—”
“BS, my brother. Everly and Lara can cause some serious trouble. There’s still an APB out for Everly, I’m fairly certain. They managed to nearly start an international incident at the Lincoln Memorial.”
“My point exactly. They can be dangerous.” Roman nodded. “Now imagine adding Gus to that mix.”
Connor breathed out. “Wow. I need another drink.”
He wasn’t alone. “Pour me one, too.”
It was going to be a long week.
Copyright Black Oak Books, LLC