About the book
A loss he can’t forget
Since losing his twin brother, Theo, in the line of duty, Case Taggart has felt dead inside. The former Navy SEAL has dedicated himself to his family and their business but he can’t help but feel stuck as he watches everyone else move on with their lives. Only meeting the beautiful Mia brings Case out of his misery, until he discovered she was just a reporter looking for a story. Betrayed, he turned his back on her and never looked back.
An attraction she can’t deny
Mia Danvers can’t get Case Taggart out of her head. Though they hadn’t been lovers, she’d felt more for him than for any man she’d ever met. Growing up in the shadow of her over-protective, older brothers, she felt free when she was with Case and she longs to feel that way again. She knows that if she can find any trace of Theo Taggart, Case will be forced to let her back into his life. Months of searching have finally paid off and she knows this is her second chance.
A desperate search
Case and Mia follow the clues they hope will lead them to Theo and the villainous Hope McDonald, but the search becomes increasingly dangerous. From Dallas to South America and beyond, dark forces work against them and threaten their lives. With each step forward, Case and Mia are pulled closer together and forced to confront their mutual attraction. But when the truth about Theo is revealed, Case may have to make a choice between his brother and the only woman he’s ever loved.
Mia Danvers stood outside the building that housed her target and shivered a little. Not because of the cold but because of what she was about to do.
Moth to a flame.
Or rather very stupid woman to a freaking gorgeous, two-hundred-pounds-of-muscle cowboy commando.
Why him? Why did it have to be Case Taggart? He was so far from the men she normally dated as to be ridiculous. She liked smooth men, polished and a little on the metro side.
Men who didn’t make her heart pound just by walking in a room. Men who didn’t make her insane.
Her cell phone trilled and she practically jumped at the chance to not walk into that building. She glanced down at the call. Her brother Brandon. Her sweet brother, the one she was closest in age to.
The one who could turn violent so quickly. The one she worried she would lose one day.
“Hey, Bran. What’s up?” She was supposed to be in Austin. This trip to Dallas and then on to South America was completely unscheduled and very secretive, and she was hoping to keep it that way. Oh, her oldest brother would figure out something was up eventually, but she’d given the pilot of one of the smaller corporate jets her best sob story and a bottle of expensive Scotch. Surely Drew wouldn’t miss one little tiny luxury jet. 4L Software had several.
“Why are you going to Colombia?”
Damn it. Did they have a locator chip on her? Or maybe they had a psychic on hand to always guess where she would get into trouble next. She wouldn’t put it past them. “What? Why would I go to New York? I don’t have any friends at Columbia University.”
A deep chuckle came over the line. “Oh, baby sis, you know how I love your plotting and I so enjoy watching you make Drew crazy, but I also love you. And keeping you alive is important to me. So I’m going to ask again and be more precise in my language. Why is there a corporate jet headed for Cartagena, Colombia? You know, it’s that place in South America. Supposed to be lovely. Also the site of many corporate kidnappings, which is why we have to have insurance for anyone who heads down there. Are you chasing a story?”
She was chasing a ghost and she needed Bran to keep his mouth shut or big brother would be chasing her. “It’s sensitive, Bran, and I need you to not tell Drew about it.”
“All right.” Her brother sounded calm and collected, but then he almost always did. Bran appeared to be the most laid back of her brothers. With his charming manner, it was an easy mistake—right up to the moment he went berserk. Never on her. Never on any woman. Bran loved women of all shapes and sizes and ages. He was the man most likely to drop whatever he was doing to make sure an old lady crossed the road safely, but when it came to other men he could get nasty. Especially if he thought one was mistreating a female. Naturally he chose to hang out in strip clubs where he could get his rage on regularly.
She often wondered if Bran’s volcanic anger went back to that moment when they’d been children on the run. To that one moment in their shared childhood when they’d been so brutally separated. She didn’t remember as much about the time their parents had been killed as her brothers, but that one memory was stamped on her brain.
Please, Bran. Please, don’t leave me.
“I’ll keep my mouth shut with Drew as long as you stop back here and pick me up,” he conceded. “I have no idea what you’re up to. I’ll let you do what you need to do, but you have to have backup.”
“I’m getting it right now. I’m meeting with Taggart in a couple of minutes.” He just didn’t know they were meeting. According to her source, Case wasn’t home. She was going to do a little breaking and entering to prove to that infuriating man that she was more than some crazy rich bitch.
The trouble was she was fairly certain he didn’t mind two of the three descriptive words in that sentence. She could remember him vividly grinning at her and calling her a crazy bitch. He’d given her the hottest, sexiest smile and he’d almost kissed her.
It was the rich part that seemed to bug him. It didn’t matter that it was her brother who was insanely wealthy. All that mattered was he apparently thought she was spoiled and entitled, and all because she might have lied to him the slightest little bit. It had been a teeny tiny lie that had nearly gotten his friend’s brother incarcerated for several murders he hadn’t actually committed, but she’d meant well.
“You’ve got a bodyguard?” Bran seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. “That’s good. That’s exactly why we’ve been in talks with McKay-Taggart, but you do understand Drew’s trying to keep that under wraps, right? He and the big, scary Taggart are working on something. I’m not sure what.”
She knew. They were working on trying to find a woman named Hope McDonald. Once Ian Taggart had figured out that her brother wasn’t working for the shadowy group known as The Collective, he’d enlisted Drew as an ally. Unfortunately, she was fairly certain they were looking in the wrong place and she had contacts that might pan out. One of them had sent her a photograph a few hours before.
The trouble was this guy was a paranoid weirdo freak who would bug out if commando dudes showed up at his place. Tony was the sweetest man, who also likely had several mental health issues he should deal with, paranoia being the chief among them. If she showed up with an army of ex-military men, he would likely shoot himself then and there.
If those ex-military men allowed her to go at all. They seemed to be taking a very hard line on protecting the women and children on this op. For all she knew, Erin Argent had no idea the Taggarts believed her lover was alive.
If she’d gone to Drew with her intel, he would have passed it on to Ian Taggart and Taggart would have left her out. Tony would run and her best shot at finding Theo would be gone.
Her best shot at proving to Case that she was more than a rich brat would be gone.
Maybe it made her a stupid girl, but she couldn’t handle not knowing. She had to know if it could work with him because her brain wouldn’t think about anything but the way it felt when his hands were on her.
She hadn’t even slept with the man and she was running off to Colombia to try to save his brother from the clutches of an evil corporation, and she was probably going to get shot, but it might be worth it.
She really was a crazy bitch.
“I’ve got a bodyguard and it’s going to be okay.” Unless her bodyguard took exception to her breaking and entering and kicked her out on her ass. In that case, she had two guns, a pocket Taser, and some nasty pepper spray. And she knew damn well how to use them. “I’ll call when I get back. It shouldn’t be more than a few days.”
“What’s his name? The bodyguard’s? I’ve talked to a couple of them. I liked the Cajun guy. He seems solid. I want his number.”
Why? Why did her brothers have to be overgrown guard dogs? Sure their childhood had been marred with murder and tragedy, but damn it, she needed them to not give a shit for a few days. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Once she was in the air, she would be safe.
“Mia, I need a number or I’ll have to tell Drew,” Bran insisted. “Riley’s in New York checking out something but I’m sure he’ll be interested, too.”
She cursed in her head and kicked at the bike stand in front of the building. And fuck all that hurt. “Fine. It’s Case.”
There was a long pause on the line. “Case, as in the guy you want to sleep with but he’s a manwhore douchebag and you’re too smart to sleep with him Case? That Case?”
Hypocrite. “If women used that line of thinking on you, Bran, you would never get laid, and yet I happen to know that you do. How many strippers have you gone through? Is there one left in the Austin area who hasn’t seen your penis?”
He chuckled over the line. “Probably. I have to hope so or I’ll need to move.” His voice went deep again. “And that simply proves that I know what I’m talking about when I talk about manwhores. He might be a good guy, Mia, but he’s not going to love you. He won’t let himself love you. He’ll use you and walk away, and while he might feel like shit if he’s got a conscience, he won’t change his mind.”
“You met him once, Bran.” They’d met in Austin a few months before. Ian Taggart had come down with his wife, Sean and Case, and a man named Liam O’Donnell, who seemed to be doing much of the legwork on the operation. She’d sat by utterly fascinated with the group she’d met while tracking a killer a few months back. The man who had killed her college roommate and had nearly taken out Kori and Sarah was now dead, and the friends she’d made at Sanctum had forgiven her, but Case Taggart had barely spoken two words the whole time he’d been there.
I’ve got more important things to do than play house with a spoiled rotten princess. You don’t want me. You’re just bored. Go back to your wealthy lovers, Mia.
She wasn’t sure what the hell he’d meant by that. She’d broken up with her fiancé a little while after she’d met that caveman. She’d realized Jeff was nothing more than easy to get along with. They’d fallen into dating and she liked him, but she hadn’t known what chemistry was until she’d met Case.
And she hadn’t known what she wanted sexually until she’d taken the class at Sanctum.
“I only needed to meet him once,” Bran insisted. “I also happen to know that he has some deviant sexual proclivities. I have to tell you that I don’t approve.”
She felt her eyes narrow. “You want to explain what you mean by that?”
Something in her voice must have gotten to Bran because he backpedalled like a pro. “I was just saying that I don’t think he’s the man for you and you should think about that.”
“No, you just told me you don’t approve of the man because he belongs to a sex club. I belong to the same sex club. You want to talk about my sexual proclivities? Let’s get into yours if we’re going to throw everything on the table. You want to slut shame me, brother, I can toss that shit right back in your face.” She didn’t take the shame crap from anyone.
“I never said that word. Not once. I’m not worried about the sex, Mia. I’m worried about the fact that you’ve suddenly decided you want a man who likes to hit women for sexual pleasure.”
She sighed. Something had happened in Bran’s past. She wasn’t sure what it was, but his time in foster care after their parents’ deaths had been the worst. Drew and Riley had gone into a group home together. Mia had been adopted by the best parents in the world. And Bran had gone through home after home after home. He’d been a sweet boy one day and the next he’d been alone, his privileged world destroyed, and when Drew had managed to put enough money together to get him out of the system, he’d been a different human being altogether.
“It’s not like that, Bran. It’s wholly consensual and I have all the power.” At least in the dungeon she did. The Dom might nominally be in control, but the sub made the real choices.
The choice to trust her partner, the choice to let go and enjoy the moment, the choice to throw off all those silly rules and be herself.
Of course outside the dungeon, Case was the one with the power. The power to tell her no. The power to rip her heart out of her chest.
She glanced down at her watch. If she didn’t get a move on, he would find her standing outside.
“I’ll back off,” Bran said quietly. “But you have to know I’ll kill him if he hurts you.”
She wasn’t sure Bran was thinking properly. Case Taggart had been a Navy SEAL before being recruiting into a CIA black ops program. He was fast and deadly and he wouldn’t hesitate to defend himself. Bran only had rage on his side. The good news was while Case might break her heart, the man would never, never hurt her in a physical way.
Not in any physical way that wouldn’t lead to an orgasm.
“I have to go, Bran. Please, if you’re going to tell on me, at least give me a day. This is important.” It might be the most important thing she’d ever done. She’d been a journalist for the last five years and she’d tried to do good in the world. But this felt like more.
Theo Taggart had been kidnapped by a woman who was torturing and using him. He’d already spent months away from his family. He didn’t even know that when he’d “died” his girlfriend had been pregnant with his child. Erin had given birth to their son today.
If she could find Theo Taggart and bring him back, that would be one less kid in the world without a dad.
Sometimes she missed her father so damn much. She could barely remember him and yet she felt the hole in her heart. TJ Taggart shouldn’t feel that hole.
Whether or not Case decided to take a chance on her, she couldn’t leave his brother out there alone in the world.
“You tell Case to call me. All right? I’ll keep my mouth shut, but god Mia, try not to blow anything up. Or bring down the whole country.”
That had only been once and it had been a small country with a terrible dictator. It was good it had come down. “I promise.”
“I love you, sis.” The line clicked and she was alone again.
She pocketed her phone and tried to concentrate on her mission. Case’s building was nice and had good security, but she’d discovered that a smiling girl with a hint of cleavage could get just about anything done. It was mere moments before a man in a suit came out and she sprinted up to catch the door.
“Thanks,” she said, giving him her biggest smile.
“You’re welcome.” He winked her way as he strode out toward the street.
Thank god not everyone was as security conscious as Case Taggart. The good news was she’d memorized the code for his alarm and she was actually quite good at picking locks. Hopefully he hadn’t changed the code, but she was counting on him being lazy about that. The lock picking skill was something she’d picked up from one of her many adventures. She hurried up to Case’s corner unit on the third floor. Luckily, at this time of the evening most of the young professionals who lived in the building were still at work. But just in case, she rang the doorbell and waited a few seconds. Nothing. One more ring and she was sure he wasn’t home.
She got out her handy pick and torque wrench and went to work.
She’d learned this particular skill from a cat burglar she’d met in Italy. It was all about moving the proper pieces into the right place and at the right time. She liked to practice. There was something soothing about unlocking a door someone wanted to keep her out of.
Was she being a complete idiot? Was she trying to force her way into Case’s life when he’d made it so plain he didn’t want her?
The locked popped with a little snick and she was in. No going back. There was too much on the line.
She would be respectful. She would text Case and explain where she was. The last thing she wanted to do was catch the man off guard. He would probably shoot her and not even feel bad about it. Definitely she was texting him. Mia walked through the door and got a glimpse of his dark apartment.
They’d been out several times, but he’d always gone over to her place. At first she’d thought it was because he was a guy and likely had a mess of an apartment he was ashamed of. She should have known Mr. Navy SEAL would have a pin perfect place. The only reason he’d insisted on going to her place had been so he could spy on her.
She was going to have to find a light before she let the door close.
How would he handle the fact that she was the one bringing him this lead? Would he be pissed that she was bugging him again? Or impressed with her abilities?
Before she could think about the answer to that question, something massive hit her against the chest, gripping her arm and wrenching it back before she had a chance to fight. She tried to kick out, but the big bull of a man easily outmaneuvered every trick she’d learned in Krav Maga class. Mia found herself shoved hard against the wood of his door, something cold and metallic at the base of her neck.
Case. Her intel had been faulty. He was here and he was not thrilled to have a guest. She pressed back against him because she couldn’t breathe. That was when she realized at least part of Case was happy to see her. Something thick and long rubbed against her backside and she could have sworn he was sniffing her hair. He was so close and the threat of danger in the air kind of did something for her. Maybe it made her a total pervert, but her body was heating up simply being close to him. The man had a gun to her head and she was kind of hoping his hand would shift because he was so close to cupping her breast.
A long moment passed, the world seeming to narrow. The threat was heavy in the air—violence or sex. She knew which way she would go. Her heart thudded in her chest, her nipples hardening. She leaned back into him.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Mia?” His voice was rough, his arm tightening around her.
What was she doing? She was practically dry humping the guy who held a gun on her. Presenting. He had a gun to her head and she was presenting to him. She couldn’t be that girl. Could she?
“I thought I was being clever. I…god, Case will you please put the gun down?” Her voice was breathless. “And the other…you know…I can feel it against my back. Unless that’s another gun.”
“I think I’ll wait until the police get here. You stay right where you are.” He was unmoving. She wasn’t going anywhere until he let her go.
Shit. And double shit. Now she had to talk fast and try not to give away the fact that she was aroused as hell. “Case, I came here for you. I came straight to you because you know they’ll both leave us out. We can do all the work, but big brothers will leave us behind when it comes time. We have to stick together.”
For a second she thought he wasn’t going to let her go. She could feel the heat of his breath against her neck and she prayed his lips followed.
He took a step back from her and she bit back a groan of disappointment. For a second they had been connected. The gun hadn’t meant a damn thing because he would never use it on her.
Case stepped away, leaving her cold and flipping the switch next to the door, flooding the room with light. “If this is something about the op my brother is running with yours, then talk to Ian.”
She forced herself to turn around and then she felt her jaw drop. He wasn’t wearing anything. Well, he was wearing a towel, but so very much of him was on display. A whole lot of gorgeous tan skin was right there, and damn but that boy worked out. The towel was wrapped around his lean waist, riding low on muscled hips. He was so drool worthy and the sight of that big freaking gun in his hand was an odd turn-on. Not to mention the fact that the towel tented out admirably. It looked like Case was built on big lines everywhere. “Really? You walk around like that?”
Like a flipping Greek sex god.
He gave her his big old gorgeous jerk smirk and put a hand on his hip as though he knew exactly what she was thinking. “Darlin’, I just got off the phone with my girlfriend. She’s good at getting me revved up, so to speak.”
That was a kick to the gut. It had been months since she’d last seen him. He’d gotten a girlfriend? A sub? Had he taken a sub? Kori hadn’t mentioned a sub, but then she likely wouldn’t talk about Sanctum since Mia hadn’t been there in months. She wasn’t sure she would even be welcome. No one had told her her membership had been canceled, but she wouldn’t be surprised.
Was she pretty? Thin? Mia wasn’t thin. It almost never bothered her. She wasn’t that girl who worried about her weight, but Case made her vulnerable. If he had a girlfriend, then he was dumb because she was so obviously the one for him. If he couldn’t see it, then she wasn’t going to beg. She would do what she came to do and then he could get back to his tiny, thin sub who likely never ever disobeyed him or lied to him for perfectly good reasons. “I didn’t come here to talk about your love life. I came here because we need to work together.”
A single brow rose over his blue eyes. “So you decided to break in?”
Yeah, now that seemed like a stupid thing to do. What had she been thinking? Of course he hadn’t been sitting around for months waiting for her. He likely hadn’t thought about her at all. “I didn’t know when you would be back. And I kind of thought it would prove to you that I can be a good partner. I have skills, too. I thought if I was waiting here for you when you got back from whatever you were doing, maybe you would take me seriously for once.”
“Oh, I take you seriously. You seriously annoy me and now you can leave.”
She stood her ground. “I’m not going until you’ve listened to me. Drew told me to stay out of this and I have for the most part, but I never stopped looking. I never stopped trying to find him.”
Case went still as she pulled a folder out of her massive bag. “Who?”
She heard it in his voice. It was a little hopeful question. He’d been hoping and praying since that moment he’d found out his brother was dead. She knew it because it’s what she would have done. She loved her brothers. They were obnoxious and way too interested in her business, and if one of them died she would be devastated. If she thought for a second one of her brothers was out there and being horribly tortured, she would move heaven and earth.
Case had known that pain for almost a year. It didn’t matter that he had a freaking girlfriend and might never be able to love her. None of that mattered. He was a man who needed to save his brother and she was going to help him.
“Theo.” Mia handed him the grainy printout Tony had sent. “I found Theo and we’re going to get him back together.”
Case stared down at the photo. She’d memorized the damn thing. It showed two men, both holding AK-47s. One still had a mask over his face, but the other had slid it up so his features could be seen. She’d known immediately who he was. Case and Theo were fraternal twins, but they looked enough alike that they could be mistaken for each other. Case had a tighter jawline, his eyes slightly wider than his younger brother’s. He was the tiniest bit bigger, maybe a half an inch and ten pounds of muscle.
She’d studied Case, mooned over him like a teenaged girl, so she knew damn well what he looked like. The man in the photograph was Theo Taggart. She’d known it before the facial recognition software had confirmed it.
“Where?” Case’s voice sounded harsh and deep.
Tortured, as though he was being hurt along with his brother.
“It’s from a bank heist in Colombia.” She hated telling him that, but she couldn’t hold out on him. It was far too important.
More important than her heart.
“Where in Colombia?” His eyes narrowed, staring at her. That gorgeous jawline of his had gone tight.
“Cartagena. I have a friend there. I’d put out the word to my network that we were looking for him and Tony came through with that. He makes a careful study of everything that goes on around him, including certain police frequencies he shouldn’t be involved in.”
Case nodded and turned, stalking toward the back of the apartment. “Excellent. I’ll need his number and an address. Write them down for me.”
There was the arrogant bastard. She started to follow him. “It’s not going to work that way. I have to take you there. Tony is difficult to say the…oh. My god.”
He was naked. He’d tossed off that towel and his backside was the single most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. It was sculpted and muscular and just freaking perfect but his back… What the hell had happened to his back? He had a deep scar that ran across the skin of his back from just under his left shoulder blade down to just above those gorgeous cheeks.
It wasn’t the only scar. There was a circular one on his thigh and some others.
So much pain.
“You know it’s usually considered polite to knock before entering a gentleman’s bedroom,” he said, his voice deep. He didn’t hurry up though. Nope. He simply reached for his boxers and slowly put them on like a reverse-strip-tease, you-can’t-touch-this show.
“Like you’re a gentleman,” she said with a huff.
He stepped into his jeans and turned, those big hands of his working the fly. “Did you get an eyeful? I suppose I should be happy you didn’t faint at the sight of all those ugly scars. I suppose those college boys you mess around with don’t have ugly scars.”
She rolled her eyes and started to mouth off to him and then stopped. Surely the man knew how freaking gorgeous he was. He had to know, right? “The scars aren’t ugly, Case. I think you need them. You would be too pretty without them. And I’m very sorry for staring at your backside. It’s obvious you put in the glute work.”
He frowned as though he’d expected something totally different out of her. “You were staring at my ass?”
Maybe this hadn’t been the right way to go. She felt her skin flush. “It’s a nice backside. I’m a woman. I looked. And what college boys? You have a distorted view of my dating life. I’m not exactly hitting the frat parties. You do know I’m twenty-six, right?”
“How do I know anything about you? You lied about everything.”
And they were right back to the core of their issues. She’d told one teeny, tiny lie while in search of a greater truth. It wasn’t even like she’d gotten away with it. No, the hacker gods of McKay-Taggart had found her out very quickly and used her because they’d suspected Drew was working for some super-secret evil organization. “I would suspect by now you’ve gone through my every record, Case. And it wasn’t like I was lying without a purpose. You know why I did it.”
Because she’d lost her best friend and no one would believe her. No one would talk to her about the investigation. They’d called it a random murder, but she’d known it was far from random.
He shook his head and moved to his closet, grabbing one of what seemed to be an endless supply of black T-shirts that molded perfectly to his chest.
She’d seen the man in leathers, a vest covering his torso. The line the vest left uncovered hadn’t told the tale. All she’d seen was perfect skin, but without the shirt or vest, his chest was another network of scars.
She wanted to touch them, to trace them under her fingertips and then kiss each one.
Of course, his girlfriend would probably object.
Stop it. Get down to business. Stop thinking with your girl parts because they obviously have terrible taste in men since they seem to only want stubborn, assholey cowboys who have about as much forgiveness in their hearts as a dried up well.
“I know that you should have been honest,” he said as he pulled on his boots. He sat on the edge of his bed, working to get the beat-up boots on his feet.
“Yes, just like you.”
His blue eyes narrowed, staring her down. “I was trying to make sure you weren’t working for the people who murdered my brother.”
“And I was trying to do the same damn thing for my friend. When I started this, I thought Jared murdered my friend and Kai and your family were covering for him.” It was what she truly couldn’t understand. They’d both done the same thing for roughly the same reasons, but he wouldn’t even look at her much less get back to that moment when he’d kissed her.
God, that had felt so real. It killed her that he’d been playing a game.
“Supposition, and ridiculous supposition at that. We’ll have to agree to disagree, Mia. Could you forward me all the material you have?”
He hadn’t changed at all in the months they’d been apart. He still wasn’t willing to listen to her or give her a chance to change his mind. “This is all the material I have.”
He held a hand out. “All right. I thank you for this. I need to get to Ian’s.”
She held the folder out for him. It wasn’t like she didn’t have a copy. “Did you hear a word I said?”
Going to his eldest brother was the last thing she thought they should do. Ian Taggart would take over and he wouldn’t care that the situation was delicate.
“Heard and understood. You’re not going to Colombia. Go back to Austin. If you really want me to, I’ll update you when I can.” He started back to the living room.
She followed hard on his heels. “You’re not leaving me behind. I meant what I said, Case. Tony won’t talk to you.”
“I’m pretty damn good at making people talk, darlin’.”
The way he said darlin’ made her heart pound, but now she realized he used that deep tone of voice on every female. She wasn’t special.
And it didn’t matter. She was doing this for a little boy who might never know his father. “Not Tony. He’s ex-CIA and if he even gets a hint that someone’s after him, he’ll run and you won’t find him.”
His eyes narrowed. “Or you’re lying to me again in a desperate attempt to get what you want. What is it this time, Mia? Is it another story? Or is this a play for attention? Is big brother ignoring you?”
She stopped, finally getting it through her thick skull that he didn’t want her.
She’d brought him the best lead she could find. From what she could tell, this was the best lead anyone had found on his brother and it didn’t matter. She stared at him for a moment. She was insanely crazy about this man and he couldn’t give her the time of day.
Did she want to be this girl? The one who begged and pleaded and took the scraps?
Without another word, she moved to the door. He didn’t want to have anything to do with her, then she would have to move on. No matter how much it hurt.
She walked toward his door. She could be at the private airfield in twenty minutes and Cartagena roughly six hours later. Seven, depending on when they could take off. She would get to Tony long before the Taggarts could do their damage and she would send them all the information she uncovered.
Then she would move on.
If Case Taggart couldn’t see that she was the right woman for him, she wasn’t about to waste more time on the man.
God, why did her heart ache? Why was it so hard to keep her feet moving?
In her head she did a mental checklist. She had everything she needed. When she got to Colombia, she would hire a car and go to the hotel. She’d already sent the message to Tony. He would send her a time and meet place.
Hopefully she could get it all done before the Taggarts put boots on the ground in South America.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” Case was the one following her now.
She stopped in the middle of his living room, turning on him. The sight of his living space alone should have proven to her they wouldn’t work. It was too neat, Spartan. There was nothing of the man himself in this place. No photos, no little mementos. There was utilitarian furniture, a massive TV, and an Xbox. Mia’s apartment was messy and filled with sentimental crap. He would hate it.
Like he hated her.
“Does it matter?” She was suddenly so tired. She’d dreamed of seeing him again and while she hadn’t expected him to welcome her with open arms, she also hadn’t thought he would show her outright hostility.
“It does if you’re planning on chasing this lead yourself and fucking over what might be my only shot at saving my brother.”
This was the moment she should walk away. The Taggarts could rise or fall on their own. She’d done enough.
If she thought for one second that they could not only find Tony, but also get him to talk, she would walk. The problem was she was the only person who could do this job. She was stuck between a rock and a hard place and it was obviously time to get to work on her own.
This trip had been a fool’s errand and she wouldn’t make the same mistake again. She would move forward. When it came time to turn the investigation over, she would do it, but until then she was on her own.
“Go home, Mia.”
She understood what he meant. He didn’t care where she went as long as she wasn’t bugging him. “Good-bye, Case.”
She started to turn, but he was right there, his big hand on her elbow. He twisted her around and she stumbled slightly, landing against his chest.
“Tell me why you came, Mia. Stop the bullshit.”
She might just be using her pepper spray tonight. “Do you think I faked that photo?”
“No.” His hand was still tight on her arm. “Not even you would do that. But you could have sent it to me. You should have sent it to Ian. But no, you came here to me, to my house, into my bedroom. So tell me why you’re really here. Maybe if you’re honest with me, I’ll give you what you want.”
“You seem to know everything. Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?”
“Because I think those fancy boys you play around with aren’t doing it for you, darlin’. I think you want to see what it’s like to go to bed with a man who gets his hands dirty. Is that what you want? A quick roll? Because I might be willing to do that for you.” His handsome face was so close to her own.
All she would need to do to bring their lips together was go up on her toes.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t willing to degrade herself. Not even for him. The sweet Case she’d known, the one who treated her like she was special, like she made him happy, had been a lie. This was the real Case. The other one had simply been his cover.
The great thing about the way he was holding her was how very easy he made it to bring her knee up and send his balls back into his body cavity.
She heard him hiss and then she was free. “Tell your girlfriend she’s got a real jewel on her hands. And thanks, Case. I think I just got over you. I’ve carried this stupid torch around from the moment I met you. It’s good to see those true colors shining through. If I come up with anything, I’ll let Ian know. Good-bye, Case.”
He’d taken a knee, one hand cupping the balls she’d so recently injured. “Mia, stop. We need to fucking talk.”
But she’d said everything she needed to say.
With tears in her eyes, she left his apartment, his building, and his life.
She would find Theo, but she was done with Case.
* * * *
Dear god, he might never have children. Not that he wanted them. Maybe he did. He let out a groan as the pain washed over him.
Did she have a damn bionic knee?
How the hell had he managed to maintain an erection? Shouldn’t his dick have shriveled up and maybe died after what she’d just done to him? But no, the damn thing was still hard as hell and likely pointing her way. His dick was a divining rod when it came to that blonde bitch goddess.
Fuck, but she was mean, and he was ten kinds of perverted because that did something for him.
He needed to get up off the ground and go after her. He needed to apologize because he’d been a dick.
He needed to go after her because she was right. They had to work together. If she knew someone who could take him to Theo, they definitely needed to work together.
Months had passed and he wasn’t any closer to getting his brother back. Theo was out there and every day was hell for him.
He should have known it would be Mia who brought him what he needed. Mia, who had lied to him. Mia, who invaded his every dream. Mia, who looked at him with those kick-me-in-the-gut eyes.
He managed to grab his phone and keys and forced himself to walk out. He had to catch her.
“Whoa, Case, was that who I think it was?” a familiar voice asked. “You ready to head out?”
Michael. He was standing outside Hutch’s door with a six-pack of beer in his hand. Hutch lived two doors down and he was going to ride over to Erin’s with him and Sean. Apparently Michael was going with them.
His partner was right on time to witness his horror.
Mia. Fucking gorgeous, lying, way too good for him Mia. Now he could call her Mia of the Sharpened Knee. “Can you stop her?”
Michael’s eyes widened. “I could and then I would likely get ye old restraining order in the mail. I try to avoid those. She had some crazy eyes on her. I thought you two had decided to play nice.”
There was nothing at all nice about anything that had ever happened between the two of them. Except that first night and that had been her way of manipulating him. Hadn’t it?
She would already be out on the street by now. Likely she’d had a car waiting.
What had been her plan? She’d obviously wanted him to go to Colombia with her. He’d had a vision of being alone with her in a foreign country. He would have to protect her because she could be so very reckless. Hell, she’d tried to go after a serial killer on her own. He couldn’t leave her alone, so they would have to share a room.
He could let nature take its course and finally find out how it felt to sink himself into Mia Lawless.
He groaned because she might have done some nerve damage to that very part of his body he wanted to sink into her.
“Dude? I don’t think you should do that out in the open.” Hutch had opened the door and was staring at him. He was a lanky kid in his mid-twenties. Case had worked with him during his CIA black ops days. Hutch was a hacker of the highest order, but apparently he couldn’t tell the difference between self-preservation and masturbation.
“Maybe we should go inside for a minute.” Michael moved them inside Hutch’s place. “Apparently Mia took exception to something Case did.”
A look of horror crossed Hutch’s face. “Dude, did she actually bust your balls?”
Case gritted his teeth and forced himself to move. He’d taken bullets before and still completed his mission. It was kind of his specialty. He took a licking and kept right on ticking. The fact that his balls were flattened against his pelvic bone wasn’t going to stop him. “Did she say anything to you?”
“She walked by like a woman on a mission,” Michael explained. “If she even recognized me, she didn’t acknowledge it.”
He wondered if Hutch had a bag of frozen peas lying around somewhere. There wouldn’t be any at his place. Definitely not, since he usually ate out or at one of his brother’s houses, but now it seemed like an oversight. When a man was involved with a crazy chick like Mia, said man needed to keep something cool to rest his balls against at all times.
Because she was fucking mean.
And she’d found Theo.
God, she’d found Theo and he’d treated her like a piece of ass. She made him absolutely nuts. He never treated women like that, but then he’d never had one twist his guts up only to find out she had a fiancé.
They might have broken up at this point, but she’d been engaged when they met, engaged when he’d kissed her the first time. She’d been engaged to a Harvard-educated lawyer who worked for her brother. Case had seen their engagement picture. It had run in the Austin society pages. He was all shiny and polished, in what was likely a thousand-dollar suit and expensive loafers, and Case had been wearing the same pair of shitkickers since he’d gone into the Navy. He’d probably paid forty bucks for them and he’d wear them until he couldn’t patch them up anymore.
Still, he shouldn’t have behaved the way he did. He wasn’t that guy and he wasn’t about to let her turn him into that guy.
“She is on a mission.” He managed to keep himself standing by leaning against the arcade machine Hutch had in his living room. The entire apartment was a geek’s paradise. “She just left after kicking me in the balls, though I have to admit I likely deserved it. I need to stop her.”
Because there was no way her sweet ass wasn’t on a plane to Colombia tonight. She could say anything she liked. He knew her. He knew what she was capable of. If she’d walked out, it was so she could go on the incredibly dangerous mission herself.
Luckily, he had his ways of stopping her.
“Do you want me to see if I can catch her?” Hutch asked. “Though if she’s in a ball-busting mood, I kind of want to stay out of it. She’s got that look, you know.”
Yeah, he knew it well. Crazy eyes. Crazy, gorgeous, a man could get lost in them eyes. “No, she’s gone. I think I need you to do something else for me. I need you to find out what plane she’s about to be on and delay the fucker. She’s headed to Cartagena. While you’re at it, I’m going to need you to find a man in Colombia named Tony.”
Hutch stared at him. “Seriously? Nothing more than Tony? Because I’m betting there’s more than a few.”
He needed to think strategically. It wasn’t his strong suit. He preferred to kick ass. It was what he was good at. “Mia said he’s ex-Agency.”
Of course, sometimes Mia stretched the truth. What if she wasn’t in this case? What if there really was a mentally disturbed ex-operative out there who happened upon his brother’s whereabouts, and the only person he would chat with about it was Mia Lawless Danvers?
It was a long shot, but then so was finding his brother.
“Okay.” Hutch reached into a glass container he kept on the bar and pulled out a Red Vine. It was his candy of choice when hacking, but then Case was pretty sure the kid was made of sugar. “That narrows things down. I’ll be right back. Do you know what airport she’s using? Airline? I’d prefer not to shut them all down. Tends to get the feds on my ass.”
What airline would Mia fly? He could guess that one. The last time Ian had flown out to meet with her brother, Drew Lawless had sent the private jet. “She won’t fly commercial. Look for a 4L Software executive jet. She’ll be using that.”
“Dallas Executive,” Michael said. “It’s the airport my father would use.”
His father was the head of Malone Oil and a billionaire, so Michael would likely know.
“A real 4L jet. I bet it’s tricked out, man. I bet he’s got the best fucking Wi-Fi in the sky. Is he beautiful? Does he glow and shit?” Hutch sighed a little.
Case bit back the need to vomit. Drew Lawless was the youngest billionaire in America and he’d earned it the new-fashioned way. He’d created a tech empire and now all the geeks worshipped at his feet. “He’s a dude. He definitely doesn’t glow.”
He was actually quite intelligent and he’d definitely not wanted his sister to be anywhere near Case.
Hutch was having none of it. “He’s a software god. I bet he glows. I’ll stop his sister from going to South America. Should I send the cops in after her for the brutal assault on your junk, man?”
“Just delay her.” He wasn’t sure what to do. He only knew he needed more time to make the decision.
Hutch strode out of the living room back toward his office.
Case opened Hutch’s freezer. How much ice cream could one man eat? It was all in pint tubs. Couldn’t the dude have a couple of popsicles or something? Case couldn’t shove a pint of Chunky Monkey down his jeans.
“It’ll get better in about ten minutes,” Michael assured him with an amused expression on his face. “The flaring pain, that is. The ache will be with you for a while.”
“Had your balls busted much?”
“I grew up on a ranch. You haven’t felt pain until a horse you’re shoeing manages to kick you there.” Michael handed him a beer.
Hell, it was cold at least. He put it on his aching crotch.
He didn’t even have beer at his apartment right now. He’d counted on Theo to buy food and shit for so long that he was just empty. While Theo had been in Africa, his sisters-in-law had made sure he had groceries. They’d tried since Theo died, but he’d held them off. It was pathetic to have Grace and Charlotte have to take care of him.
So he’d moved through his days drinking protein shakes and eating takeout and keeping his place like he’d kept his bunk in the Navy. He was only messy when he was happy. When he was miserable he tended to keep his place perfect and pristine, as though he had to control something.
Welcome to his world. Everything was neatly in its place and meant absolutely fucking nothing.
Mia’s apartment had warmth and light and she loved to bake. She looked cute with all that blonde hair piled high on her head and an apron around her curves.
He’d definitely thought about ordering her to cook for him wearing nothing but that silly apron of hers. Her nipples would peek out and he would be able to see that luscious ass. They could make a game out of it. When she was bad, he could spank her with a spatula, and when she was good, he would sit her in his lap and feed her, his hands moving over her, caressing her.
Fuck that hurt. She’d found a way to make his damn erections unbearable.
“I actually meant for you to drink that.” Michael had popped the top on his beer.
He still would. He wasn’t picky.
His cell trilled and he looked down. Shit. Sean. He was picking up Case and Hutch to head over to Erin’s and help her settle in with TJ. Someone would be spending the night with them for a week or so until Erin found her groove.
He picked up the line. He had to come up with a way to get out of going over there tonight. “Hey, brother.”
“Grace and I are downstairs. You guys ready? Tell Hutch if I find him slipping Carys pixie sticks again, I’ll murder him and force him to pay my daughter’s dental bills. Doesn’t he have a skateboard or something? Because he could hang on to the rear bumper.”
Case didn’t have time to negotiate a truce right now. “Something’s come up. I’m going to be a little late so I’ll bring Hutch with me.”
Sean was quiet for a second and then his voice was deeper, going serious. “Anything I can help with?”
He should tell his brother. He should tell Sean and Ian and get Li up here.
If she was right and this dude would run if they didn’t play this Mia’s way, was he willing to risk it? His eyes drifted over to the folder she’d left that contained the first glimpse of his brother he’d had in months.
What would Theo want him to do?
Protect Erin and his son first and foremost. Protect them from harm, from hurt and loss. Erin couldn’t lose Theo twice. If they couldn’t get him back, it was better for her to think he’d died in her arms, that he’d been dead all this time. She needed peace in her life right now, needed to bond with her son.
If she knew Theo was alive, Case wasn’t sure what she would do. The trouble was if no Taggarts showed up at her place tonight, she would know something was happening.
And then there was the fact that Ian would take over. Ian would make all the decisions and Case would be expected to fall in line.
Ian would make decisions about Mia and that didn’t sit well with Case.
“It’s Mia. She showed up and we…well, let’s just say it ended with her getting a little violent. I need to talk to her.”
Sean chuckled over the line. “I always liked that girl. Get out to Erin’s if you can. If you can’t, just text me to let us know you’ve got something else to do. You know I always thought you two could be good for each other. Whatever you did, it might be helpful to beg.”
He wasn’t sure begging would work. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to work because he knew anything he got from Mia would be short term. A woman like Mia didn’t get serious about a man like him. “Bye, Sean.”
Michael was staring at him, his eyes narrowed. “You just lied to your brother.”
Maybe he’d worked with Michael for too long. “I did not. Mia was here. I’m trying to find her so I can talk to her.”
“Not buying it. Oh, I get that Mia was here and you had a fight, but you wouldn’t be delaying her plane and potentially getting Hutch thrown back in jail over a lover’s spat.”
“We aren’t lovers.” And that was a major part of the problem. The chemistry between them was so palpable. There was always heat between them and he was getting fucking tired of not indulging it.
If Mia wanted to ride a cowboy, why the hell was he acting like a horrified virgin? If she wanted to use him for sex, for a walk on the wild side, why the hell couldn’t he do the same? Maybe after they fucked for a few long days they could act like adults around each other.
“You know what I’m saying.” Michael leaned in. “What’s going on? You made a decision to not tell Sean something. I watched you do it.”
He was such a fuck-up. This was precisely why Ian didn’t trust him. “Mia’s got it in her head to go chasing some story in Colombia. It’s about The Collective.”
Michael whistled. “How ironic is that? You fuck up your relationship with her because Big Tag thinks 4L might be a Collective company and now she’s going to get herself killed investigating.”
Yes, that summed up the situation nicely. “That’s why I’m delaying her.”
“Okay, what’s the plan? Are we stopping the investigation or helping her?”
The ache had set in, but Michael had been right. It was somewhat better now. He couldn’t tell Michael what his real mission was, but he wouldn’t hate backup. Mia was slippery. And things could change when he got boots on the ground. He wouldn’t take over the op the way Ian would. He would have his team lay low and watch out for Mia. They might not even have to know what they were looking for.
“If I don’t help her, she’ll do it anyway,” Case mused.
“Or you call her brother and he stops her.” Michael summed up what would likely be the most practical plan of all. It was also the one he wouldn’t use.
He couldn’t do that to her. Yes, it would be the smart play, but Mia was wild. He liked her wild. He didn’t want to see her brother force her into some glass case where she was nothing but a pretty face at a party. Mia was passionate about her work. He’d found that out the hard way. Besides, he knew damn well what it felt like to be in the shadow of an older, brilliant brother. It was hard to step into the light. He couldn’t shove her back there. “No. We back her up.”
“Cool. Colombia is hot this time of year. I’ll pack swim trunks and work on my tan.” Michael set down his beer. “Am I driving to the airport or do you want to do it?”
“They’re way less likely to tow you.” One of the perks of being an heir to Malone Oil.
Hutch walked back in, carrying his laptop. “Okay, delaying Mia’s plane was a breeze. She wasn’t actually scheduled to take off for two hours, but now she’ll find herself stalled for a rather lengthy maintenance evaluation. She’s now scheduled to leave at ten p.m. But the interesting part, and by interesting I am referring to the part most likely to get us all murdered in our sleep, is about a man named Tony Santos. He’s definitely ex-Agency. I just called Ten. Ten says Tony is batshit crazy but has a thing for blondes. When Ten wanted information out of Tony, he had to send a blonde.”
What kind of exchange was Mia planning to make? “What else did Ten say about him? Can I catch this fucker and make him talk? I’m a blond. You telling me I’m not his type?”
The idea of Mia flirting with some crazy dude made him…well, it made him a fucking crazy dude.
Hutch frowned. “Are you serious? I think Ten was talking about women.”
Sometimes Case understood why his brother smacked his more ridiculous employees upside the head. “Can I find him and take him?”
If Ten thought he could, maybe he could leave Mia out of that part. He would indulge her, let her go with him, but he wanted her out of the truly dangerous shit. If this guy had worked with Tennessee Smith, he was dangerous.
Hutch shook his head. “According to Ten this guy was one of his best and he knew how to make himself scarce. I think if you’re going to take him, you better be damn certain you get him because he’ll disappear and he won’t resurface for a very long time.”
Michael nodded his way. “Your call, brother.”
He had to make a decision. God, he needed Theo. Theo was the voice of reason. Theo was smarter.
Theo could die and this time it would be all Case’s fault.
“Saddle up. We’re going on a little trip.”
Hutch stared at him, his face serious for once. “But there’s cake at Erin’s.”
“And there’s a severe beating for you right here if you don’t go and pack.” Yes, Ian had it right.
“Wait, does this have something to do with Mia Lawless?” Hutch seemed to have missed the important parts of their conversation.
Michael sighed. “If he wasn’t so good with a computer…”
If Hutch thought he might meet his hero, he would be easier to deal with. “We’ll be commandeering that 4L jet. You can sit exactly where Drew Lawless sits.”
“I bet they have awesome cake.” Hutch ran back to start getting ready.
Case walked out with Michael, who promised to pick them back up after he’d packed. Case made his way to his place. He had some packing to do, too.
He would play this her way for now, but she was about to find out that he had some rules of his own.
Copyright 2016 Lexi Blake