About the book
The second Perfect Gentlemen novel from the New York Times bestselling authors of the Masters of Ménage series.
Privileged, wealthy, and wild: they are the Perfect Gentlemen of Creighton Academy. But the threat of a scandal has one of them employing his most deceptive—and seductive—talents…
Recruited into the CIA at a young age, Connor Sparks knows how dirty the world can be. Only when he’s with his friends can he find some peace. So when an anonymous journalist threatens one of the Perfect Gentlemen, Connor vows to take down the person behind the computer, by whatever means necessary—even if it means posing as his target’s bodyguard.
Publishing a tabloid revealing Washington’s most subversive scandals has earned Lara Armstrong the ire of the political scene—and a slew of death threats. To keep herself from ending up a headline, Lara hires a bodyguard, a man as handsome as he is lethal.
When the bullets start to fly, Lara is surprised to find herself in Connor’s arms. But as they begin to unravel a mystery that just might bring down the White House, Lara is devastated when she discovers Connor’s true identity—and finds herself at the mercy of forces who will stop at nothing to advance their deadly agenda.
"I don’t really need a bodyguard.” Lara Armstrong took a sip of her chai tea and sat back, staring out the coffeehouse window. Everywhere she looked, people bustled by, their briefcases in hand, cell phones pressed to their ears. They were lawyers and politicians, along with their aides, and anyone else who thought they were important on the political spectrum. Soon, one of the people moving along this street would be a man sworn to throwing himself in front of a bullet for her.
Connor. No last name. Or maybe that was his last name and he hadn’t given her his first name. She wasn’t sure. She only knew that enigmatic Connor had commanded she meet him here at three thirty. Did he realize how bad traffic was going to get?
“Look, someone knows what you’ve been doing, L, and that means you need a bodyguard.” Her best friend, Kiki, traded a look with the only male at the table.
Tom sat forward, his hands around his nonfat latte as though he needed the warmth. “I don’t know. I kind of agree with Lara.”
Kiki rolled her dark eyes. “You always agree with Lara. You even agreed with her when she broke off your engagement. You’re a doormat.”
“I’m helpful and practical.” He frowned. “Look, she’s only received a couple of e-mails, and it wasn’t as if the sender attached a bomb or anything. The contents simply stated that they ‘know.’ Know what? That could mean anything.”
Lara sighed and lowered her voice. Only a couple of people in the world knew what she did for a living and she meant to keep it that way. “He knows I run CS.”
Capitol Scandals, D.C.’s most fun and informative news site. Oh, most people called it a horrid tabloid rag that aimed to ruin the lives and reputations of politicians and bigwigs, but Lara liked her description better. And she never ran a piece about any deserving public servant that she couldn’t verify. Well, at least not any serious piece. She didn’t personally know the size of the current president’s penis, though several confidential informants had used the words extra-extra-large.
“Shit.” Tom’s thin lips flattened further, and she knew she was in for a lecture. Unlike Kiki, who often wrote articles for CS, Tom thought the site was a horrible idea. “I told you something bad would come of this. You can’t expose the powerful people you do and expect to get away with it. I thought someone had finally realized you spearheaded the effort to remove vending machines from public schools or something.”
“Those vending machines never sell anything but processed foods. Kids should have healthier options in school,” she began.
Tom shook his head and every strand of his light brown hair stayed perfectly in place. “People don’t like it when you take away their sodas, L. They get crabby. Still, I was fairly certain no one would actually kill you over that. But running a tabloid that ruins high-powered careers? That might be a little different.”
Kiki nodded. “Exactly. Have you told your father?”
Lara winced. Her father knew about Capitol Scandals. He’d been very supportive when it had been a little site that reported on things like environmental bills and ran essays on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. When she changed the contents to the current iteration, she knew she’d tested him. He’d called screaming when she ran a not-so-glowing story about one of his closest allies on the congressional floor. She’d detailed just how much money the congressman had spent on hookers outside his district while those actually working in his district had lamented about a drastic downturn in income.
She’d been perfectly right to publish the story since the congressman had been running on a platform to bring new jobs and opportunities to his constituency. All the while, he’d been making deals with businessmen to send jobs offshore to Korea. So it really was a true-life metaphor for all that was wrong in politics.
Shortly after she’d published the story, the late-night TV talk show circuit had picked it up. While the comedians and hosts had laughed about the hookers, their viewers had also heard the very true news about backdoor deals, too. Lara had learned early on that she needed to catch the public’s attention if she wanted to do any good in the world. And she wouldn’t do that with a protest or a well-crafted op-ed piece.
“I’m not telling my dad about this. He already blackmails me. If he found out that someone else knows and is sending me semi-threatening e-mails, he would likely strong-arm me into moving in with him or something. It would be awful.”
It wasn’t as if she didn’t love her father. Her parents were amazing people. She couldn’t think of another man in the world who would support her the way her dad did. He’d been angry when he’d learned about CS, but he hadn’t outed her. And given that he was a senator from the great state of Virginia, he probably should have. Instead, he’d forced her to accept a condo in a swanky part of town. She could never have afforded her Dupont Circle pad on her own. She’d wanted a little lo in a more real part of town, but her parents had been insistent.
Luckily, she’d never had to decide whether or not to run a story about her father. He was madly in love with her mom and he played things straight. She’d never gotten a tip about him taking bribes or selling out his constituents. When she’d started Capitol Scandals, she realized a surprising majority of politicians thought they were acting in the public’s best interests. It was just that rancid 10 percent who really screwed things up for everyone else.
She’d created Capitol Scandals to call them out.
“Maybe you should stay with your folks temporarily. Your dad has a serious security system.” Kiki set down her mocha. “Not just a doorman named Moe who sleeps on the job.”
“Moe has a serious case of narcolepsy. You shouldn’t judge.” She shook her head. “Besides, I can’t risk working at Dad’s place for two reasons: One, I don’t know who’s watching him. I’ve long thought the CIA, the NSA, or DARPA listens in on all elected officials.”
Tom coughed but the noise sounded suspiciously like he’d called her paranoid.
She ignored him because she knew paranoia could be a lifesaver. “And two, if anyone ever learns my secret and outs me, I want my parents to have plausible deniability.”
“I don’t think they’d care. They would stand by you,” Kiki said.
Bringing trouble down on them was Lara’s only real fear. Well, that and global climate change. She fought for what she believed in, but she loved her parents, too. She didn’t want to cause her dad issues.
“I have a plan,” Tom said, getting serious again. “Hear me out. You close down the site for a while and come stay with me. I have a second bedroom. I can watch out for you. I am a Krav Maga god. We’ll hang, and the heat will die down. Then you can go back to fighting the good fight.”
She loved Tom, but she wasn’t going there again. There was a reason she’d broken off their engagement. There was also the fact that Niall thought she needed someone to watch out for her.
Niall Smith. Her heart gave a little shiver as she thought about him. Since he ran a small site that called for transparency in California politics, he’d come to her as a confidential informant. Nothing he’d sent her had actually panned out, but that wasn’t so surprising. Ninety percent of her leads were dead ends. But Niall had come to mean more to her than just a source. Over the course of a few months, she’d come to view him as something of a soul mate.
“No,” she said with a sigh. “I need to meet this bodyguard. I’ll talk to him and see what he thinks. He’s supposed to be a professional. He can give me advice.”
“He can give you protection,” Kiki argued. She was dressed in her normal Bohemian garb, a peasant blouse and a flowy skirt. She somehow managed to make it sexy. “You have to take this seriously. Whoever sent you that threat knew your personal e-mail.”
“But there wasn’t anything specific about the threat,” Tom argued, then turned to Kiki. “In fact, I’m not even sure it was a threat. Maybe we’re freaking out about nothing. What are the real odds that someone’s put all the pieces of the puzzle together? There are rumors everywhere about who runs CS, and not one of them mentions you, Lara.”
She wasn’t sure that was true. What might someone else know about her? She was Senator Armstrong’s vegan hippie daughter, whom everyone in the Republican party knew not to put on camera because she would use the opportunity to talk about policy as she saw it.
There really wasn’t anything else about her that would be considered even slightly gossip-worthy. Good grades in the right schools. A degree in political science that would probably lead to law school when she found the time. She’d broken her engagement an acceptable amount of time before the wedding. She hadn’t even dated in the two years since she and Tom had broken up. Capitol Scandals was the sum of her “nefarious” existence. She’d put everything she had into it, and she was finally scenting something big.
Could this new threat have anything to do with the anonymous stranger who claimed to know what really happened to Maddox Crawford? He’d hinted that if she figured out the truth, the trail would lead to something much bigger.
She merely needed to find a woman named Natalia Kuilikov. Just find one Russian immigrant, and the yellow brick road would open up and take her straight to Oz.
Lara found it interesting that her first big case and her first potential death threat had come so close together.
“I don’t know that there’s no threat, but simply figuring out who I am doesn’t mean someone intends to kill me. I might have overstated that,” she admitted.
“To your Internet guy?” Kiki wasn’t Niall’s biggest fan. She might have suggested on more than one occasion that he was likely a middle-aged creep looking for an online hookup. “He’s the one you told, even before you told me. Before you told Tom. I hate to say it, but you seem to have some stake in the guy and that’s why you’re listening to him.”
“Maybe you should listen to the people who have been with you for years. What do we know about this Niall guy? Next to nothing. You can’t just let this random dude start to dictate your life.” Tom hopped off his barstool and straightened his V-neck tee. “I’ve got to run. We have oral arguments on the McNally case tomorrow. Lara, call me if you need me. You know I’m always here for you.” He walked away.
Tom clerked for an appellate judge, so he was always talking about oral arguments and drafting opinions. She had to admit, watching Tom was one of the reasons she hadn’t given in to her parents’ pressure and gone to law school. He was endlessly writing other people’s opinions. She wanted to make up her own mind.
“Holy jeez. My mouth just watered.” Kiki’s eyes went wide as she stared beyond the door through which Tom had exited moments ago. “I finally understand what that means.”
“What?” Lara turned and caught sight of a man in jeans and a black T-shirt. He stood right outside the coffeehouse, his cell phone pressed against his ear.
His shoulders were so wide they almost spanned the window. He had to be six and a half feet tall, and his T-shirt molded to every muscle and sinew of his lean form.
He turned slightly, his profile coming into view. Lara realized then that mouthwatering was really just an elevated term. Drooling was more accurate. The man was stunning. His jaw looked perfectly square, though the lines of his face were far too angular to be beautiful. His dark blond hair was cut in an almost military style, accentuating his features. Manly. Handsome. Sexy.
His lips suddenly curled up in the hottest smirk she’d ever seen.
Caveman. Alpha male. And probably straight off some military base. While she could appreciate him on an aesthetic level, Lara preferred her men a little more civilized. “He’s very nice looking, Kiki.”
Kiki groaned. “Nice looking? There is nothing ‘nice’ about him. He’s dirty. He’s bad. And you can’t dare call him a boy because he’s all man.”
Lara adjusted her glasses. “I like Niall more.”
Niall had perfect surfer hair and the sweetest face.
“You’ve never met Niall.”
She shrugged. “But I know Niall’s soul. He’s more my type.”
“And by that you mean a thousand miles away and safely unobtainable.” Kiki slapped the table. “Damn it, it’s time you got laid. How long has it been?”
“Not long.” She put her head down and mumbled. “Two years.”
Kiki gasped. “You haven’t slept with anyone since Tom? Oh my god. I never imagined it was this bad. I thought you just didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I talk to you about everything and you didn’t think I would mention a couple of one-night stands?”
Her stare trailed back to Caveman Hottie. He really was amazing to gawk at. The slightest hint of a beard spread across his jaw. Though he’d probably shaved this morning, his masculinity wouldn’t be tamed or denied.
“It’s a muscle, you know. You have to use it to keep it healthy. I think your vajayjay has atrophied. That’s why you can’t think straight about this death threat stuff.”
“It’s not a muscle,” Lara argued. But it probably had atrophied . . . and maybe grown a few cobwebs because she hadn’t even played around down there herself in the longest time. She hadn’t had time. Even in her head she sounded prim, like she was already hoarding cats and newspapers in preparation for old maid–dom.
She had a sudden vision of that caveman putting his big hands on her. They wouldn’t be soft. When he touched her, she would be able to feel every callus and rough edge of his skin. He would have working hands, hands that had built things and protected people. He wouldn’t ask her what she wanted . . . but he also wouldn’t hesitate to give her exactly what she needed.
“Um, do you want to borrow my sweater?” Kiki’s question forced her out of her daydream.
“No. Why?” Lara turned, not wanting her friend to catch her staring.
“Yours is really thin and your nipples are giving everyone here a show,” she pointed out.
Lara crossed her arms over her ridiculously erect nipples. “Guess I was a little cold.”
Kiki gave her a skeptical glare. “How about we go and introduce ourselves to the hottie and see if we can buy him a coffee. Or better yet, we could take him to the bar next door, get him tipsy, and have our wicked way with him.”
“There’s a reason I’m known as Kinky Kiki, hon.” She grinned, looking back at the caveman. “I’ll go talk to him, and you can join us after you interview the bodyguard.” She glanced down at her watch. “He’s late.”
Lara checked her phone. Sure enough, she was supposed to have met the mysterious Connor five minutes ago. She’d gotten here early enough to have a cup of tea and assumed he’d join her. But now that she thought about it, he’d actually instructed her to meet him outside.
She nearly fell off her seat. There was only one person standing outside the coffeehouse.
That glorious hunk of man.
“Kiki?” she squeaked.
Her friend settled a designer bag over her shoulder. Lara had tried to convince her to buy a purse from a Nepalese women’s organization that supported indigenous children, but Kiki had replied that when Louis Vuitton supported them, she would, too. “Yes?”
“I think he may be my bodyguard.”
Kiki’s jaw dropped. “Holy shit. That man is supposed to be your close cover for the next few weeks? Why can’t someone want to kill me?”
Lara shook her head. Nope. She didn’t need a bodyguard. At least she didn’t need one as gorgeous as him. “I’ll call you later.”
“Make sure you do and it better be juicy.” Kiki’s gaze was still glued to the man outside.
Lara took a deep breath and strode toward the door to Fix her problem.
Connor stood outside the coffeehouse, his stare traveling the path he’d just walked from Union Station. He’d picked this as their meeting spot because he could walk. Tree hours on a train from Penn Station to D.C. had done little to elevate his mood. He would rather have had Gabe fly him here, but if Lara had seen him, he wouldn’t resemble a sad-sack ex-military man looking for a job, carrying everything he owned in the world in his beaten-up duffel.
He fully intended to play on the woman’s so instincts. If she had them...
A chalkboard sign beside him proudly announced that someone named Goldie Starshine would be performing tonight, and all proceeds would go to the global fair trade initiative.
Yeah, it was that kind of place.
He really would have preferred some seedy bar. He’d come to like the dark places of the world. He felt far more at home there. Lara Armstrong probably never went into bars. Or if she did, she only frequented hipster bars where the craft beer and red wine owed like a river and no one ordered Scotch because it might get in the way of their deep political discussions.
Of course, he could be wrong about her. She also ran one of the most infamous tabloids D.C. had ever seen. She qualified it by saying she only ran the nasty stuff so people would maybe pay attention to her op-ed pieces on saving dolphins, but he wondered. He was going to scratch under her carefully built exterior, and he knew what he would find. She would be everything he expected—a naive, vain little rich girl who didn’t know a damn thing about the real world.
Hell, she’d fallen for a cipher. Niall Smith, brave warrior for the California environment. Connor had created the online persona when he’d discovered Lara Armstrong ran Capitol Scandals. She, along with her site, were ass deep in the game he’d been playing for weeks—a game that had already cost one of his best friends in the world his life. Maddox Crawford had died to cover someone’s secrets. Gabriel Bond and his fiancée, Everly, had almost died, too. Someone was weaving intricate threads of deception and half-truths in an attempt to throw him off, but Connor Sparks was like a bloodhound. Once he caught the scent of something, he never let go. If someone had brought Lara Armstrong into this chess match, Connor had no compunction about using her like the pawn she was, because he refused to lose any more friends.
And he would not lose this game.
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. Since his intel on the girl indicated she was often late, Connor figured he still had a few minutes. He pulled the device free and glanced at the display.
“Hey.” He never refused Dax’s calls. He could likely be in a fight to the death with a foreign operative and would stop in the middle to shoot the shit with Dax. Sometimes he was fairly certain Dax was the only thing in the world that kept him grounded. He loved his friends— Dax, Gabe, Mad, Roman, and Zack were the only people he gave a damn about.
Except he kind of liked Everly. She was a good kid.
“Hey, buddy, you make it to D.C.?” Dax’s jovial tone belied the reason Connor was here, but then that was just like Dax.
He was careful with his wording in case she showed up and overheard any of his conversation. “I did. I’m starting the new job in a few minutes.”
“Are you sure you don’t need backup? I’m off for another couple of weeks. I could be down there in a heartbeat. If someone’s really trying to kill this girl, you could use an extra pair of eyes.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” He was certain the threat wasn’t real. He’d hacked her system and checked the security. He hadn’t found a trace of anything that shouldn’t be there. The “threatening letter” had been very vague. It was more than likely this was all a ploy to get her daddy’s attention and milk him for cash.
Poor little rich girl.
“Okay, but I’m ready to back you up. Hanging out here with Gabe and Everly is giving me a sweet tooth. Maybe I’ll go to a bar tonight and see if I still have some of the old magic.”
Connor shook his head even though Dax couldn’t see him. “Absolutely not. Let me call in some hookers. You won’t wake up in Vegas married to one of them. I hope.”
“Ha-ha. I only eloped once,” Dax insisted.
But Connor knew what that “once” had cost him. “Yeah, I’m trying to avoid horrific divorce number two. Do you ever think about her?”
Why was he getting so sentimental? Maybe he’d spent so much time pretending to be gentle Niall that he was actually growing a vagina. Or maybe it had been sitting next to a family of three on the way down here from New York. Young mom and dad with their infant. They’d been so careful with the tiny girl and with each other. He’d watched as they passed the baby between them.
He wondered if he’d ever have anything so fragile. Not likely. He was far better at wet work.
“I try not to think about it, but then I look at my bank account,” Dax replied with his usual dry wit.
“I wasn’t talking about your ex-wife. I meant Holland.” The woman Dax actually loved. The one he’d lost.
Dax was quiet for a moment. “All the time, man. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret what happened. Which is exactly why you should be careful with the Armstrong girl. I don’t think she’s what you think she is.”
“Because you’ve spent time with her?” He knew the answer to that one.
“No, obviously I haven’t, but I’m also a way better judge of character than you are.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Dude, you pretty much just shoot everyone.”
“Everyone deserves it.” He turned slightly and caught sight of a brunette wearing hipster glasses and what looked like a vintage sweater staring out at him, her mouth slightly ajar. He couldn’t help the smile that curled his lips up slightly. Little Miss Vegan was staring at him like he was a juicy steak and she wanted a bite. So much for her unrequited love for tender Niall. His sad-sack persona would have to strum his guitar on the Internet forever because Lara Armstrong might say she was attracted to good boys, but it looked like a bad one could tempt her. “And our girl is here. It’s showtime. Is Everly still working on her end?”
Recently, they’d discovered a trafficking ring operating under the auspices of a women’s charity. The International Women and Girls Education Foundation had been a front for the Russian mob. One of their big corporate sponsors had been Crawford Industries, run by their late friend Maddox Crawford. As far as Connor could tell, once Mad had found the connection, they’d killed him for it.
They’d also realized that one of the women who had been trafficked had worked as Zachary Hayes’s childhood nanny. The president of the United States had most likely been raised by a sex slave, and according to their lone lead, the only person who might be able to find her was Lara Armstrong.
He glanced back and she appeared to be arguing with her friend. The friend was much more his type. She was tall with lush breasts and looked like she knew what to do with a man. So why could he not take his eyes off the little intellectual fairy? That was what Lara reminded him of. A pretty little fairy with too-big blue eyes and bright thoughts and so much dark hair he wasn’t sure how she handled it.
“Yes, Everly is trying to track Deep Throat.”
He winced at that expression. Though he knew its historical context, it really did sound like a porn film. “Has she found anything?”
“Yes, but you’re not going to like it.”
He turned back because it looked like he was about to have some company. Lara had anchored her purse on her shoulder and seemed to be drawing her courage. He knew exactly what Dax was about to say. “He contacted Lara Armstrong.”
“Yes. We believe he’s sent her three e-mails in the last week. In the most recent, he told her to move to their backup means of communication. I don’t know what that is.”
So Deep Throat knew they were onto him. He would be looking for letters or faxes or perhaps a disposable cell phone. He needed to get into her condo, embed himself in her life. “I’ll figure it out. I need to go. I’ll call you if I need you, brother.”
“See that you do.” The line disconnected just as the door swung open and his quarry made her appearance.
Vintage sweater, check. Yellow dress, check. Purse that looked like she could shoulder the cares of the world inside, check. He’d expected her to look a little like the greenie version of Snow White. He hadn’t expected her breasts to be quite so round. They didn’t look that hot in her pictures. She always wore one of those damn sweaters that hid her body. Now he wanted to get a look at her ass to see if it matched her chest.
Instead, he raised a brow, looked her over, and used his deepest voice on her. “Miss Armstrong? You’re five minutes late.”
Her mouth opened, then it closed again. She had to crane her neck to meet his gaze when they were this close. A gentleman would have moved back and given her some space.
Connor Sparks wasn’t a gentleman.
“Mr. Connor?” She squared her shoulders as though she was preparing for battle.
“Just Connor.” He wasn’t about to give her an inch.
“Is that your first name or your last name?” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t actually late. I was waiting inside so I wouldn’t be late.”
“Our meeting was out here.”
“I assumed we would go in the shop.”
“You assumed wrong.” He’d meant to sit down with her in the coffee shop, but now it seemed like a better idea to keep her off-kilter. She would be comfortable in the coffee shop. It was her kind of place. She would be uncomfortable in a dark bar, and he saw just what he wanted across the street. “I was on a three-hour train ride with screaming children. I need a beer. Let’s go.”
He started across the street toward a bar with no windows. Dank. Skanky. Perfect. He didn’t look back, but knew from the sound of kitten heels clacking on the pavement that she was following as fast as her petite legs could take her.
“Connor, we should talk,” she said as she tried valiantly to keep up.
He gripped his bag and was gentleman enough to open the door for her. Hard rock throbbed from inside the joint. It looked dark, like the kind of place where secret meetings happened or where D.C.’s citizens went to drink when they didn’t want anyone they gave a damn about to know. It was definitely the kind of place where a fairy would need an escort.
“We can talk while I grab a beer.”
She stared at the door like it might be an opening to hell. “I think we can have a very quick talk out here.”
So she intended to back out of their arrangement. Connor couldn’t allow that to happen. He let the door close and looked down at her. What tack to take? He played out a few strategies in his mind but quickly settled on guilt. Anyone who gave as much of a damn about dolphins as Lara must have a well-developed sense of guilt. He could definitely use that.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’m being selfish. I’m just really tired after that long trip. I should have taken the flight straight to D.C. from L.A., but I wanted to see my mother. She’s in a home in the Bronx and I rarely have the money to get back there, you know what I mean? I didn’t mean to inconvenience you.”
Just like that, those blue eyes went wide with sympathy. “Oh, you didn’t. Not at all.”
His mother was likely fucking her way through some Southern Florida trailer park. The last time he’d seen her she’d had the temerity to ask him for money. He’d given her two hundred in cash and told her to never contact him again. Ah, the joys of family.
“Niall said you were a really busy lady.” He grimaced like he knew he’d done wrong.
The minute he said Niall’s name, she flushed. “No. I mean, I am busy, but I’m definitely not too busy for a friend of his.”
“He really thinks a lot of you.”
Another flush and he could tell she was feeling guilty about staring at him. What had she been thinking to get her to blush like that? He could play on that as well.
“I think the world of him, too. He’s really the smartest guy I’ve met in a long time. So emotionally intelligent. Um, maybe we should get that drink.” She straightened her shoulders again. Mentally, Connor added that gesture as another one of her tells.
Life was a lot like a poker game. A smart man didn’t play his cards. Instead, he played the players. Lara Armstrong would be a horrible card player. She telegraphed everything she was feeling, held nothing back. Oh, she probably thought she was good at hiding her emotions. Most people did. And most people were wrong. That little shoulder shake told him she was doing something she thought unpleasant for the sake of the overall good.
If she thought for a second that he was letting her slip out of his carefully laid trap, she was so wrong. He was close to figuring out her part in this mystery. Through her, he would locate Deep Throat and the mysterious Natalia. He needed to find her, talk to her, convince her not to talk to the press.
He would protect Zack one way or another.
“You don’t mind?” He opened the door again.
Her chin came up. “Not at all. It looks lovely.”
He had to smile as she strode through the door because it looked skanky, but he could see she was going to pretend this dark bar was perfectly respectable. She held her head high as she moved past him.
Then he got his first view of her backside.
Lush. Round. Perfect. Maybe this job wouldn’t be so bad after all. His palms itched to cup that sweet ass and force her Flush against his body. He would bet any sex she’d had was polite and deadly dull. Intellectual. There, dear, I’ve had my requisite physical release. Now you may have yours, then we’ll take tea.
Connor held in a chuckle. He would bet she’d never had a man hold her down and eat her pussy until she screamed, begged, and pleaded for him to give her his cock.
Damn. He was getting hard. He moved into the darkness where he hoped she wouldn’t notice he was suddenly sporting some serious wood.
The corner of the bar he led them to was surprisingly quiet, with the only illumination coming from neon signs and televisions showing every sport known to man. Lara looked around and seemed to select a table based on its cleanliness. She still opened that gigantic bag of hers and pulled out what looked like a set of hand wipes and gave the table and her chair a scrub. She looked up at him, offering one.
“I’m good.” So she was a clean freak, too. He’d been to the world’s worst places and likely exposed to just about every horrific disease he could think of. He could handle a little bar dust. He planted his duffel, and the waitress joined them.
She was dressed in the sexy version of a ref’s uniform. He ordered whatever was on draft and Lara actually asked about the wine.
“Red or white.”
“Sometimes the tannins in red upset my stomach, so bring me the white menu. Thank you so much.” She gave the waitress a smile.
The waitress shook her head and walked away.
“You know there’s only one white, right? She’s not bringing a menu.” He frowned. “I should have known. This isn’t your type of place, is it?”
“Oh, no. I come here all the time. Absolutely. I love it. Sports. They’re great. And I was joking about the menu. How was your mom?”
His mother was a craven bitch. “She’s getting along. She’s made friends. That’s good.”
“That’s great. Niall told me you were in the Army.”
“Navy,” he corrected. If she looked into his background, she would discover he’d been honorably discharged after fifteen years. He’d served under one Captain Daxton Spencer, who’d written Connor a stellar recommendation. “I was planning a career, but then my mother got sick and I had to come home to take care of the family business. I put all the savings I had into it, but unfortunately, our store still went under. You know how it is. Mom-and-pop stores can’t compete.”
A fire lit in her eyes. She’d written several articles about the demise of Main Street America so he’d planned his backstory accordingly. “No, they can’t. Big-box stores come in and undercut everyone else until they’re the only game in town. What’s going to happen when there’s no more competition? Monopoly. That’s what.” She stopped. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you would rather talk about something else.” The waitress returned, placing a mug in front of him and a wineglass in front of her. It wasn’t exactly white, more of a blush color. She sighed and picked it up anyway, likely looking to make sure the glass was clean.
“Let’s talk about the job,” he suggested.
Even in the low light, he could see her bite her bottom lip as though trying to find a way out of this. “Yes, I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. You see, Niall acted very quickly and he really didn’t talk to me about this job. He just told me he was sending you out here.”
“He acted so quickly because he cares and he wants you safe.” e beer was passable, but then he wasn’t a snob.
She nearly spit out her first taste of the wine. She somehow managed to swallow it, but moved the glass out of reach. “I am safe. This is really all a big mistake. I got a silly note and I overreacted.”
“I don’t know about that. Given the website you run, any number of individuals could want to hurt you. And I understood it wasn’t a note. It was an e-mail and it was sent to your personal address. I don’t think that’s silly. It’s serious.”
Her eyes had widened, giving her an even more fey-like appearance. “You know about the site?”
“Of course. Niall trusts me. I have to know everything or I can’t effectively protect you.” He enjoyed watching her sweat.
“I didn’t realize he would tell you that. It’s supposed to be a secret, for obvious reasons.”
As much as he loved making her squirm, he needed her comfortable for the moment. “Niall made me sign a confidentiality agreement. He said it was the same one your friends sign. You don’t have to worry that I’ll say anything. But someone knows or they wouldn’t have sent you that message.”
She sat back in her chair. “The e-mail doesn’t actually say anything at all about the website. It’s very vague, which is why I’ve changed my mind. I’m sure there’s nothing to fear. The truth is, I don’t need any upheavals in my life right now. I’m sure if I ignore it, this guy will go away. He’s very likely another journalist looking for a story. You know who my father is, right?”
Senator Armstrong. He was a fairly staunch supporter of Zack’s, who would likely recognize Connor’s legal name but the senator couldn’t possibly know what the hell he looked like now. The last time he’d had his photo taken was for his senior yearbook and he’d changed much since then. He was more muscular than he’d been as a teenager. His nose had been broken three times. He had a few scars and always wore his hair in a military buzz. He could meet any of Lara’s friends and family without them recognizing him.
“Of course.” He nodded. “Niall told me everything. You have a good relationship with him, right? Despite the fact that you’re on two different sides of the fence politically?”
“My dad is a good man. He just has this thing about taxes and small government. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. My point is that there are always reporters out there hoping to get something on my dad. That’s probably what this is. We have no idea what he’s referring to. He never actually mentions the website or my work. More than likely he’s fishing and he hopes I’ll freak out and do exactly what I’m doing. So I really think you coming out here was a mistake. There’s no job to do.”
“I wish you’d told me that before I traveled all the way from California.” Time to lay on the guilt. Then he shook his head as though he wished he hadn’t said anything. He gave her a slight smile. “Not an issue. I’m sure I’ll find work out here somewhere.”
“You’re not going back to California?”
“No return ticket, sweetheart.”
She softened immediately, leaning toward him as though she could understand for one second what it meant to be in a strange city with no resources. “I’ll buy you one. It’s my fault you’re here.”
That would salve her conscience? No way. He would need to figure something else out. Possibly Niall could convince her, but only if Connor stayed in D.C. He owned a lovely home in Langley that he wouldn’t be visiting because he needed to appear cash-strapped. It was a no-name motel for him. He threw some cash on the table and stood.
“No, thank you, Ms. Armstrong. I don’t accept charity. I’ll be fine. I’ve got a couple of bucks. I’ll find a place to stay. I wish you well.”
As he started toward the door, he felt her hand on his arm. “Connor?”
He turned, cocking an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“I really wish you would let me send you home.”
He bet she did. “It’s not an issue. You don’t need my services so I’m no longer your problem. If you change your mind, contact Niall. He’ll know where I’m staying.”
Maybe he should go for broke and hit a homeless shelter. Was that overkill? He stepped outside, knowing damn well she’d be hard on his heels. He needed a finishing touch. Ah, there it was. Perfectly placed, as though someone had known he would need it. Thank you, city planners. He walked a few steps to the bus stop and dropped down on the bench under the sign denoting it as a bus stop.
Sure enough, she practically ran out of the bar, all that hair flying behind her. Damn, but he was fascinated by her hair. It looked ridiculously soft and he wondered if she would gasp a little when he pulled it. Not too much. Just enough to sensitize her scalp, to let her know he could make every single inch of her bend to his will.
And there went his dick again. Unruly thing and yet it was kind of nice to know the fucker still worked. More than a few months had culminated into what could only be called a dry spell. He hadn’t picked up a woman like he usually did when he needed to burn off stress. It had been even longer since he’d spent more than one night with any woman, but if this worked the way he thought it should, he would be with Lara for a few weeks. He could be in her bed in a couple of days, if her interest level was any indication. Every report he had on her stated she practically lived like a nun. She hadn’t had a single serious boyfriend since she’d broken it off with her lawyer fiancé. She’d thrown herself into work. All it would likely take was showing her a bit of interest and a little affection.
He didn’t even want to try this without seducing her, Connor suddenly realized. He wanted her.
He really was a bastard.
She stopped at the edge of the street. 2nd Street NE was crowded at this time of day. Most of D.C. was crowded at any time of day. She looked up and down the street, obviously trying to find him.
She breathed a long sigh of relief when her eyes lit on him. “I thought I’d lost you.”
You couldn’t lose me if you tried, little girl. “I’m just waiting on the bus.”
“Oh.” A slow smile spread across her face. She sat on the bench beside him. “I take the bus, too. Though I prefer the Metro. It’s faster.”
“You don’t have a car?” He was a little surprised. Given her upbringing, he’d half expected she had a driver on call.
Her head shook as she settled her bag on her lap. “I have a hybrid, but I don’t like to use it in the city. There’s no reason to. Public transit is faster and better for the environment. And you meet the most interesting people on the subway.”
Yes, and also got to see a lot of public urination. Actually, he didn’t like the idea of her being alone on the subway at night. It would be a little like a cupcake running around a group of toddlers, only she’d look tempting in the midst of thugs with rape and murder on their minds. “You shouldn’t use the Metro late at night.”
She waved him off. “It’s fine. I have a rape whistle.”
“You need a gun.”
“I don’t believe in guns.”
Why wasn’t he surprised? He was sure she thought that if the government took guns away from good people, everyone would be safe. “Here’s the bad news, sweetheart. They believe in you. You don’t have to believe in a gun to get killed by one.”
She frowned. “Do you have a gun?”
“How did you get it on the train?”
Because he had paperwork that showed he was allowed to carry anywhere. It came with the whole high-level Agency gig, but he couldn’t tell her that. “I have a license to carry concealed.”
He had three guns within reaching distance, along with a couple of knives. He was practically a walking armory. But she didn’t need to know that, either.
“Wow. I don’t have any guns. I’m surprised Niall would be all right with them.”
This was a delicate subject, but he’d already thought about it. In fact, he’d gone over just about every scenario possible. “Niall understands that sometimes you have to protect the things that are precious to you. If someone is trying to hurt you, he would want me to use everything in my power to make certain you were safe.”
She sighed and turned to face him. “Maybe you could take a look at the message I received. What could it hurt for you to just stop by my place and take a look? I’m not very security conscious.”
He was in. Connor put out a hand. “You’ve got a deal.”
In the distance, he heard the sound of a motorcycle engine revving. Lara began to talk about where she lived and how long it would take them to get there at this time of day. She’d taken the Metro, but was more than happy to get on the bus if he preferred.
Connor turned and watched as some asshole on a crotch rocket started weaving his way in and out of traffic. It was an annoying little bug flying around the stopped cars.
“I guess we could find you a hotel close to my place,” Lara said.
Was she high? “Ms. Armstrong, if I work for you as a bodyguard, I need to stay with you.”
Someone honked as the motorcycle cut them off, making it across the intersection before the light changed. Lara completely ignored the little drama playing out on the street. “But I only have one bedroom.”
And he intended to be sharing that bed with her damn quick. “Hey, your couch is probably better than the room at the Y I would likely be at. Look, even if you decide you don’t need me, at least you can sleep well tonight knowing I won’t let anything or anyone come through your door.”
She bit that fucking gorgeous bottom lip, and he would bet she hadn’t been sleeping well. Would she sleep well in his arms? Would she cuddle up and lay her head on his chest and curl like a kitten around his body?
“I guess it would be all right for a night. You should know, though, that I cook, but it’s one hundred percent vegan.”
Damn. He was willing to do a lot for his friends. “No problem. I’ll eat anything you put in front of me and I’ll do the dishes. You cook. I’ll clean. We could be a good team.”
He would be the team leader. She just wouldn’t know it.
She smiled and he had to admit it was kind of breathtaking. When Lara Armstrong’s lips curled up, the rest of the world sort of melted away.
Staring into her blue eyes would have rocked his world if that buzzing sound hadn’t stopped with a hard squeal. Connor’s instincts flared and he looked up just in time to see the motorcycle stop and its black-helmeted rider lift a hand.
Connor caught sight of a semiautomatic in the rider’s fist—pointed right at Lara’s head.
It looked like his job started now.
Copyright 2015 Shelley Bradley LLC and DLZ Entertainment LLC