About the book
A Man with a Past…
Liam O’Donnell fled his native Ireland years ago after one of his missions ended in tragedy and he was accused of killing several of his fellow agents. Shrouded in mystery, Liam can’t remember that fateful night. He came to the United States in disgrace, seeking redemption for crimes he may or may not have committed. But the hunt for an international terrorist leads him to London and right back into the world he left behind.
A Woman Looking for a Future…
Avery Charles followed her boss to London, eager to help the philanthropist with his many charities. When she meets a mysterious man who promises to show her London’s fetish scene, she can’t help but indulge in her darkest fantasies. Liam becomes her Dom, her protector, her lover. She opens her heart and her home to him, only to discover he’s a man on a mission and she’s just a means to an end.
When Avery’s boss leads them to the traitorous Mr. Black, Liam must put together the puzzle of his past or Avery might not have a future…
Liam watched the girl with the dark hair walk into the light. Girl? She was a woman in every sense of the word. Avery Charles was twenty-eight years old, but from what he’d pieced together she’d likely lived through enough crap for two lifetimes. So why did she still look so bloody innocent?
The woman in front of him wasn’t his type. Not even close. She was too soft, too curvy, too much. Too serious, quite frankly. He preferred young women who just wanted a good time. But something about her drew him in. Maybe it was her background or the way her skin practically glowed when she walked into the great rotunda of the British Museum. She did it enough. She was here almost every day, and he’d stalked her, watching her move from room to room, studying each exhibit before her lunch hour was up. She would glide from the dark corners of the museum into the brilliant light of the atrium to purchase a sandwich she would eat before heading back to the Tube and work again.
And every day she would stop when the light hit her face. She would move from the dark, hushed rooms of the exhibits into the stark brilliance of the white marbled center of the museum. She would tilt her chin up and bask in the light as though taking a moment to soak it in.
Liam never left the darkness.
“Is that the mark?” Ian Taggart asked, his voice low.
He didn’t need to be so silent. The museum hummed with activity, but his boss was a cautious man. Paranoid, but then when everyone really was out to get you, it wasn’t paranoia. It was smart.
“Yes,” Liam replied, his voice equally low. “Avery Charles. She works for Molina. She became his personal assistant six months ago.”
She was his primary target for the moment. It had been easy to gather data on Molina. He was a public figure. Within minutes of confirming that Thomas Molina, philanthropist, was somehow involved with the rogue CIA agent his firm had been tracking for months, he’d had a full dossier on the man. Molina was considered a bit odd. He’d been injured as a teenager in a riding accident. He’d had several spinal surgeries and had been left with legs that never functioned properly again. He disappeared for many years, living a life of seclusion after his parents had passed away.
He was now in sole control of a huge multi-national company, but preferred to spend his time on a charity operation called United One Fund.
It had been easy to find Molina. His personal assistant had taken more digging.
“Do we know if she has any ties to Black?” Somehow Ian managed to make the question sound like a threat. “Sorry. Nelson. We should call the devil by his real name. Does she have any ties to Eli Nelson?”
That was the big question of the day. What was seemingly sweet Avery Charles, who had never had so much as a parking ticket, doing working for a man who did indeed have ties to Eli Nelson, rogue CIA agent? “I doubt it. If I had to place a bet, I would bank money on the fact that she’s just the personal assistant of one of the world’s leading philanthropists. She’s got a do-gooder vibe I can feel from here. It makes me a little nauseous.”
It made him a little horny, but there was no way he was telling Ian that. And no way to explain it because she just wasn’t his type. No way. No how. Well, she wasn’t his type now. He’d given up on soft, voluptuous women for a reason. They fucked with a man’s mental capacities. Nope. She wasn’t his type now. It was just that he hadn’t gotten laid in a while. That was the only explanation.
“Alex is looking into Molina. He’s running financials on those charities of his.” Ian frowned as he looked around. “I don’t like it.”
Ian Taggart didn’t like charities? There was a surprise since the man was practically a charity in and of himself. Liam knew he was alive today based on the man’s sense of charity. “From the press surrounding him, he’s practically a saint.”
Ian smiled, though on him it was more a predatory baring of teeth. “I don’t believe in saints. Sinners. Now, I can believe that.” He sighed as he looked back in the atrium. Avery was ordering a sandwich and a cup of coffee. “Have Adam and Jake moved in?”
Ian’s eyes shifted around the big room, constantly seeking a threat.
They weren’t carrying. He felt a little naked without a gun. It was too dangerous in such a public place, and they weren’t exactly here in a formal capacity. That was his fault. Everyone on the team had tried to talk him out of coming back to Europe, but it had been years. He’d changed. Perhaps it was past time to face his demons and honor his brother’s memory.
After he’d taken down Eli Nelson.
“They moved into her building last week. We were oh so lucky that her neighbor decided to leave town for a while and was forced to sublet the place.” Liam kept his eyes on Avery as she paid seven pounds fifty. She smiled at the bloke in front of her. How did the woman smile like that, bright and open after everything that had happened to her? She smiled as though she’d come through that crucible and could still have a full heart in her body.
Of course, it could all be an act.
“I think you’ll find Adam and Jake are paying enough to well compensate the lady,” Ian explained. His body went on alert, shoulders squaring. “Who the fuck is that? I thought you said she didn’t have a boyfriend.”
Liam felt his eyes narrow as Avery greeted the tall blond man. He was obviously British. It was all there in the cool cut of his suit and the deeply pretentious way the bugger air kissed her cheeks. He had to bend over because Avery was short. She was short and curvy, and the Brit bastard was looking down her shirt.
“I haven’t seen him before,” Liam said. A solid week of following her around and he hadn’t once seen her even look at a man who wasn’t carved of marble and brought back to London from some far-off place during the days of British Imperialism. The only man he’d seen her with was her boss. She would wheel him around St. James’s Park twice a week, settling a blanket around his unsteady legs before making the jaunt. Molina could walk with the aid of a cane, but the millionaire used a wheelchair on those walks of theirs.
Ian was already taking pictures with his phone. It had been adapted for Ian’s own use. High resolution, super focus. Any picture Ian took was immediately forwarded to headquarters for a little turn through Adam’s facial recognition software. They would have the bugger’s name and life story within minutes.
Why the hell did he want to kick the blond bloke’s ass? Days of watching Avery Charles and going over and over her tragic story had made him protective. She’d been through a lot. And the young Liam, the Liam he’d been before he’d lost his brother, would have been all over her.
Still, it was a bad idea to get protective of a woman who just might be involved in international terrorism.
She sat down at one of the long tables, blond bastard following her. He curled his tall body into the seat across from her as she began talking animatedly. He reached out, cradling her hand in his, but she almost immediately pulled away, grabbing her coffee mug.
No sex there. No intimacy. She was awkward, unsure about his physical affection.
“He’s not the boyfriend.” Ian almost certainly saw what he saw. Ian was a master at reading body language. Likely because he was an actual Master. And that was why Liam wanted Ian to see her in person.
“What’s your take on her?” Liam asked.
Ian had been watching her for two hours, since she’d gotten off the Tube at Holborn. Liam had been following her path for days, and she took the same trains without fail. She left the offices at Charing Cross and bought a bottle of water. Switched from Bakerloo to the Picadilly Line and got off at Holborn. From there it should have been a quick walk up New Oxford to Bloomsbury and the museum, but Avery seemed to always find a way to stroll and look at whatever minutiae caught her eye. And she often had a camera. One day she’d spent twenty minutes taking pictures of tulips in street boxes.
It was maddening. Boring. Dull as dishwater. And he’d started to wonder if she was seeing a world he didn’t see.
Ian leaned back, taking out the museum map he’d bought and pretending to study it. “I think she’s intriguing. Given what I know about her background, I would have expected someone a little more broken than she appears to be.”
Yes. That was the problem. Most women who had lost what Avery had lost would bear the marks like scars. It would be there in their eyes, but Avery’s were a clear, crystal blue. “It has been ten years since the accident.”
“That kind of pain never goes away.” Ian’s lips formed a grim line, and his eyes closed momentarily. When he opened them again, his face was a careful blank. “She lost her husband and her baby in an accident. She nearly lost the use of her legs. It might have been ten years since the accident, but I assure you, she feels it every day. Or maybe not. Maybe she’s not capable of love. I’ve met people who weren’t.”
“She works for a charity,” Liam pointed out. He didn’t like the cold way Ian was talking. Ian hadn’t been the one watching her day in and day out. Ian hadn’t been the one to see how she stopped and talked to people on the street and how she’d helped a lost kid. She’d hugged him and held his hand while everyone else just walked on by as though it wasn’t their problem.
Ian shrugged. “I worked for a vegetarian restaurant once while I was undercover. Didn’t mean I didn’t find animals awfully tasty. She’s getting a good paycheck from Molina. He’s paying for her apartment. Are you sure she’s not fucking him?”
“She goes home every night and she goes alone. Unless she’s fucking him at the office, I sincerely doubt it.” She wasn’t the type. Was she?
“I just find it odd that Molina could afford anyone and he picks her.” Ian folded his map. “Come on. Until we’re ready to send someone in, we need to keep our distance. Let’s get back to the club. Eve should be in town by now. Her flight was coming in this morning. And I want to see if Adam figured out who the blond guy is.”
Ian started to walk away. It was like the big bastard to think Liam would just follow along. But he did, because they needed to clear something up. Liam kept his mouth shut as they walked out the Russell Street entrance and into the light of day.
“What do you mean ‘someone,’ Ian?”
Ian never broke stride. “’Some’ as in being an undetermined or unspecified one. ‘One’ as in determining the specified some.”
Bastard. “You’re talking like you haven’t decided who’s going in after the girl.”
“Adam and Jake are doing the neighbor thing.”
“Yeah, and that’s not going to get us anywhere. She’s not going to invite her neighbors to come to lunch at her office or to sleep at her place.”
“Adam and Jake are pretty damn good at breaking in.” Ian turned toward the Tube station. “Ask Serena. She’d love to tell you that story. We’re lucky they married her and she didn’t sue the holy fuck out of us. Seriously, it’s one of the only good things that came out of that op. They got a collar around her throat and a ring on her finger. Presto, lawsuit disappears. And people say BDSM isn’t good for a man.”
None of which answered the question. “Don’t you try to replace me. This is my op. I found the connection between Nelson and Molina. This is mine.”
Ian stopped. A long moment passed. “I don’t know that you’re right for this girl. We might only get one shot to put someone in her bed, and she’s just not your type.”
“It’s my op. I’ll handle it.” He wasn’t sending someone else in. “Besides, who the hell else are you going to get to play the boyfriend role? Adam and Jake are off the market. Sean quit. Are you planning to romance the girl?”
Ian frowned again. “Alex asked about it.”
Motherfucker. “No. You can’t be serious. Eve…what about Eve?”
Alex and Eve were divorced and had been for years, but there was no doubt in Liam’s mind that Eve still loved her husband. Ex. Even he couldn’t keep it straight. Alex had been a bloody monk since the divorce.
“Alex is trying to move on, and that includes taking one for the team. You’re right. We’re low on males who don’t mind a little play with their work.” Ian growled a little, his frustration evident. “Damn it, I don’t want to do shit like this. I don’t like having to fuck for information.”
No one with half a tablespoon of morality did, but sometimes it was necessary. Eli Nelson was a danger to everyone on Liam’s team. If Liam’s instincts were correct, he might be a danger to everyone in the world. Nelson had already attempted to sell state secrets to China. Balanced against all the danger, hurting Avery Charles’s feminine heart was the lesser of two evils. “But this case is different. This is Nelson, and we won’t get anywhere if we try to play by the rules. He wouldn’t hesitate to fuck anything he had to in order to get the information he needs. We can’t either. There’s too much at stake.”
Ian settled the baseball cap he was wearing over his head, pulling out the Oyster card he’d bought earlier. Liam found his own. The little card was the gateway to the Tube and the easiest way to get anywhere in London. “I left the Agency because I didn’t like the man it was turning me into, but I’ll admit that I need to get Nelson. I need it. Until I see that man six feet under, I won’t be able to rest. He nearly killed my brother, and he used my team to sell this country out. The Agency hasn’t done shit to bring him in, so I’ll do it myself. Which is precisely why I’ll handle the girl. Send me her file. I’ll make contact tomorrow.”
He reached out and grabbed Ian’s arm. “No, you won’t. It’s my bloody fucking op, and I’ll take the girl.”
Ian’s eyes went positively arctic as he looked at the hand on his sleeve. “Watch it. Your Irish is up.”
Fuck all. Liam took a long breath and forced himself back into his bland Midwestern accent. He’d perfected it over the years because it was better camouflage than his real accent. For the first several years he’d worked at McKay-Taggart Security, only Alex and Ian had known his real voice. He needed to pull it together. “Sorry. It’s hard being surrounded by it.”
“Yes. A damn good reason for you to be at home.”
Liam had heard this argument about a million times. “I understand the way this city works better than anyone on the team, and I still have underground contacts. My op, Ian. And my mark.”
Ian’s voice got low, his mouth firming to a stubborn line. “Just see that the reason you’re staying is the op and not the girl. What I didn’t say before, but you’ve almost certainly picked up on, is the fact that she seems amazingly innocent and is very likely to be submissive. You know the signs. She’s been painstakingly polite and she defers to everyone. When the museum docent talked to her, her eyes slid right to the floor. She’s a sub and a sweet one at that. A dangerous combo for men like us. I’m not stupid, Li. The reason you hang out with club subs is that they’re hard core and just looking for some fun. That woman in there is not looking for a good time. She’s serious, and this can only end one of two ways. One, she’s dirty and you’ll feel like shit because you’ll send her to jail or a grave. Two, she’s clean as a whistle and you break her heart because if she’s as innocent as she looks, she’ll have to fall for you in order for you to get into her bed. And you’ll feel like shit. You’ve worked backup for years. Are you really ready to take the lead?”
He’d been a pussy for years, hiding behind his teammates and letting them take all the real risks. Sure he’d gotten shot at on occasion, but running the op meant taking responsibility for the health and safety of everyone involved, and that included Avery Charles if she was an innocent bystander.
Ian nodded. “Then it’s your op. But the minute Nelson rears his head, I take over.”
Ian pressed through the turnstile. Liam took a deep breath. One hurdle over. Now he had to figure out the best way to get close to Avery Charles.
It didn’t help that the very thought of sliding into her bed got his dick hard. Yeah, he couldn’t lie to himself. She might be some sweet, innocent thing, or she might be hiding something dirty beneath all that sugar.
Either way he knew exactly what Avery Charles was. She was trouble. Luckily he was a man who could handle a little trouble.
* * * *
Avery smiled at Simon Weston. He was a very nice man, and she was so deeply uninterested that she had to fight back a yawn.
And that really wasn’t a nice way to think. He’d been nothing but polite to her. She forced herself to focus in on him. Simon was very sweet and often made her laugh, but they were in completely different departments so they hadn’t had occasion to spend much time together.
Though he seemed to try to be around her. It was a mystery.
“I was telling Jason the other day that he simply had to try the new Indian place in Soho. The fish curry is amazing. Nothing like I got when I went to Bangalore, but it’s the best you can get in London.” Simon leaned forward a little. “You know we could go there for lunch one of these days. The food here can’t be great.”
It was overpriced, and she often had to scarf it down on her way back to Charing Cross, but nothing could compete with the views. She’d spent her hour looking through the Elgin Marbles rooms, carefully reading every placard, amazed that she was looking at the very same work that had decorated the Parthenon. She almost teared up thinking about it, but Simon Weston didn’t seem like a man who would understand that a bunch of ancient marble could fire her imagination. It pointed out to her that while she had many fascinating conversations with her very intellectual boss, she was lonely. Thomas was into economics and business. Though he tried, she could see his eyes glaze over the minute she started talking about art. Simon was the same way. And she was drifting. What had he said? Oh. The food. “It’s okay. A sandwich is a sandwich, though I’ve come to really love salmon and cream cheese.”
She had a bit of a distracted brain.
Simon’s fingers drummed along the table. “Rumor has it you come here every day.”
She stopped, hands in mid-motion of bringing her sandwich to her mouth. “There are rumors about me? Gosh, you guys must be really bored.”
She was the dullest thing in the world. Her great and grand scandal was forgetting to recycle on occasion. Well, that and the fact that everyone assumed she was sleeping with her boss. Which she wasn’t.
Simon grinned. He was quite adorable. He was tall and lean and had Hollywood-actor good looks, but he also seemed a bit calculating. She couldn’t figure it out, but there was something in the way he looked at her that made her feel like he was sizing her up and making decisions based on some matrix in his head. “Well, life at United One Fund can be quite boring, but with the boss in town, it’s picked up considerably. We’ve never met the big guy in person, you know. And meeting his lovely assistant was even better.”
Avery set her sandwich down, completely unable to figure out how to handle the problem of Simon Weston. He was a lawyer and had been with the company for almost a year. Like almost all of the employees of the Fund, as they liked to call it, Simon had taken a pay cut to work for a foundation known for its good works.
He was obviously a good man. So why did she think he had ulterior motives for pursuing her? Nothing in his manner told her he was attracted to her except his words. And why did she think she should follow her instincts? She didn’t have any. She barely knew how to function in the dating world. She knew next to nothing about men. Her only experience had been Brandon, and he was a distant memory now. When she thought about her husband, her memories were of a happy, sweet smile and the awkward way he’d loved her. They’d been so damn young. He was a ghost, and her memories were starting to fade. She was practically a virgin again.
Except virgins didn’t miss their babies.
Avery took a long breath and forced herself back into the moment. The moment was everything. Forward. Always forward.
She was well aware that every woman at the Fund thought she was completely insane for turning the tall, lean blond god of a man down. It seemed to be yet another reason for the rumor that she was sleeping with Thomas.
Her new neighbors were easier. The two Americans who had moved in after Mrs. Elenora Pettigrew had decided she needed the country air were perfect. They were gorgeous. Simply divine. They were easy to talk to. Well, Adam was. Jacob seemed to grunt a lot, but he was friendly enough. She could look at them all she liked because they were also gay.
At least she thought they were. She was confused here in England. No. They were Americans. They were gay. Straight American men didn’t wear pink polos with skinny jeans.
It would be easier if Simon was gay.
“I’m not gay.” Simon’s huffed words pulled her out of her head.
Damn it. Had she said that out loud? “What? I asked ‘what did you say’? Sorry. I missed it.”
He stared at her for a moment as though trying to decide if she was for real. She gave him her best dumb smile. She didn’t have to pretend. She felt really dumb. Socially awkward. She’d spent so much time alone, she sometimes talked out loud. It had worked when she was in the hospital and rehab for years at a time. No one questioned the insane woman who talked to herself. In the real world, she was odd to say the least, but she’d somehow managed to find a weird place for herself here in London.
Simon’s flushed face turned back to perfectly charming. “I was saying the Fund’s been more interesting with you around.”
“Is it because I routinely pratfall and tumble down the stairs?” Her leg gave out at the oddest of times. The staff had taken to calling her the Amazing Falling Woman. She gave regular shows at nine and noon. Everyone was welcome.
Simon frowned. “I don’t think that’s very amusing. You have a bad leg. People shouldn’t comment on it.”
She sighed. Why was he here when they were so obviously not suited? He was very proper, and she was a walking Three Stooges movie. “It’s the reality of the situation.”
“If the staff is making fun of you, I shall talk to Molina and have them fired.”
Yes, this was the heart of the problem. Half the time she was sure what Simon felt for her was sympathy. The other half she wondered if he wasn’t trying to move up the chain by getting close to the boss. “They’re not making fun of me. They’re helping me to laugh about it. It’s funny, Simon. I can be talking about the most serious subject in the world and sounding deeply intellectual and then I’m on the floor. Sometimes it takes a few steps for the person I was talking with to realize I’m no longer with them. It would be different if they were letting me lie there and laughing at me. They help me up.”
He sat back in his chair, his jaw a mulish line. “Still, I don’t know that it’s a laughing matter.”
If she couldn’t laugh, she would cry, and she was so tired of crying. It felt good to laugh. It felt good to work. It felt good to explore a whole world she’d never imagined she would see.
And lately she was wondering if it would feel good to explore more than museums and parks. She’d started to wonder if she could explore intimacy. But she knew damn well she wouldn’t be exploring it with Simon. Though he was truly a handsome man, with broad shoulders and lean muscle, there was no heat in his eyes when he looked at her.
And she needed to be wanted.
She decided to change the subject. “So you needed me to look at something?”
He nodded and reached into his briefcase. “Sorry. You didn’t answer your phone and this just came up. It’s a potential donor, but he wants to meet with Molina. We all know that you’re the one who gets to decide who meets with Molina. It’s a substantial donation.”
He passed the file to her. Two million and change. Yes, that was substantial. She glanced at the name. Lachlan Bates. She had no idea who that was. Molina was a bit of an introvert. There were only a few people he regularly met with. A few friends, like the one he’d come to London to see. She thought it rather funny that her very prissy boss made time once a week to meet his friend at a fish and chips place on the Thames beside the Tate Modern. She would have guessed Thomas wouldn’t eat anything so common as fish and chips. He was a caviar and foie gras kind of guy.
Simon pointed to his file. “He claims to be a self-made millionaire. Something about software or something.”
“I’ll take a look at the file and talk to Thomas about it. It’s odd, though. Usually donations this large go through Monica. I’m surprised it got on your desk.” She rarely dealt with actual donations, and it wasn’t Simon’s department at all.
He shrugged. “It just showed up on my desk with some other paperwork. Probably a mistake. I thought you would be the person to handle it. You’re the only one who calls him that, you know.”
She was well aware that Thomas Molina was misunderstood. For some reason the staff was completely intimidated by him, but he was sweet with her. Perhaps because of that wheelchair he would one day be confined to. She’d spent her time in one. They understood each other when it came to the pain of struggling just to walk. “It’s his name. I won’t wear it out.”
Simon stared at her. “I don’t get Americans sometimes. Come along. Let me walk you back. Perhaps I can convince you to have dinner with me.”
She had the best excuse in the world. Thank god for new neighbors. “I can’t. I promised to meet some friends for dinner.”
She’d agreed to help the new guys find some places. Adam and Jake claimed to be completely lost. Jake had been transferred by his American corporation to their London offices, and Adam wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Maybe he would like to do tourist stuff with her. She had Fridays off, and she was planning some day and weekend trips. It would be fun to have a companion.
If he didn’t figure out what a complete freak she was, she might make a friend.
Her small flat in the Financial District used to be Thomas Molina’s brother’s place. Now it was hers while they were in London. Thomas had generously offered her a room in his townhouse, but she’d needed a little space. After so many years alone but surrounded by people, she needed some independence. And she’d found some great places to eat. She was rather excited to share her finds with the new hotties.
“And I lost you again,” Simon said with a long-suffering sigh.
“Sorry. I drift. I will handle this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. We need all the funding we can get with the new Congo plans.” The Congo was on the verge of civil war or a spiral into the domesticity of true democracy. The Fund intended to help ensure the country had everything it needed to take the right path. Fed people were happy people. Educated people tended toward democracy. “I’m sorry about my plans tonight.”
“Of course,” Simon said. “Perhaps another time. At least let me escort you back to the office. You can explain to me the fascination this place holds. I can see a day or two, but you’ve been coming here for a while now.”
“And I could take another two months and still not see everything.” She wrapped her sandwich up. It could wait until she was back at her desk.
She began to follow Simon out of the light of the grand rotunda. Tomorrow she would visit the Egypt Galleries. And maybe she would find someone to talk to. Like that amazing-looking guy she’d seen here a couple of times. Tall, dark, and gorgeous. He seemed to be just as obsessed with the British Museum as she was. And today he’d even brought a friend. A blond Viking of a man.
He’d been beautiful, but nothing like the dark-haired man. She’d been thinking about him all week. Two chance glances at the same man and she was having dreams about him. It might not even have been the same guy.
Maybe she should stop reading those damn romance novels. They were giving her crazy expectations.
She followed Simon on to the train and thought about her green-eyed mystery man.
Copyright 2012 Lexi Blake