About the book
A woman on a mission
Phoebe Graham is a specialist in deep cover espionage, infiltrating the enemy, observing their practices, and when necessary eliminating the threat. Her latest assignment is McKay-Taggart Security Services, staffed with former military and intelligence operatives.They routinely perform clandestine operations all over the world but it isn’t until Jesse Murdoch joins the team that her radar starts spinning. Unfortunately so does her head. He’s gorgeous and sweet and her instincts tell her to trust him but she’s been burned before, so he’ll stay where he belongs—squarely in her sights.
A man on the run
Since the moment his Army unit was captured by jihadists, Jesse’s life has been a nightmare. Forced to watch as those monsters tortured and killed his friends, something inside him snapped. When he’s finally rescued, everyone has the same question—why did he alone survive? Clouded in accusations and haunted by the faces of those he failed, Jesse struggles in civilian life until McKay-Taggart takes him in. Spending time with Phoebe, the shy and beautiful accountant,makes him feel human for the first time in forever. If someone soinnocent and sweet could accept him, maybe he could truly be redeemed.
A love they never expected
When Phoebe receives the order to eliminate Jesse, she must choose between the job she’s dedicated her life to and the man who’s stolen her heart. Choosing Jesse would mean abandoning everything she believes in, and it might mean sharing his fate because a shadowy killer is dedicated to finishing the job started in Iraq.
Jesse Murdoch sat back in his chair and thought about looking around for the cameras because sometimes the boys liked to play pranks on each other. Like the time Big Tag had filled Adam’s office with balloons. It had seemed like such a lighthearted little trick until Adam had popped the first sucker and discovered they had all been painstakingly filled with lemon pudding. It had been retribution for Adam eating the last of Ian’s beloved lemon-filled donuts, and it was a video they still played at office parties from time to time, along with the video of Eve finding the psychotic clown Halloween decoration in her closet and losing her shit and Grace trying to track down a mouse only to discover it was being radio controlled by her husband who—according to that tape—was never sleeping in their bed again.
So when Simon sat him down in the conference room and started his speech about Phoebe Graham being a spy, he’d looked for the candid camera.
He knew he had a reputation for not being the brightest bulb in the bunch, but damn, did they really think he was that stupid?
“Sure, Phoebe’s a spy. I always knew it.” Sometimes it was best to go along with these things. It helped him to fit in. Of course once the gig was up, he was going to find a way to get Si back. His brain was already working on how he could replace every single one of Simon’s slick suits with unitards. Bright-pink ones.
Ian leaned forward. “Jesse, I need you to take this seriously.”
Big Tag was good at never cracking up during a prank. “Absolutely.”
Alex McKay sighed. “He’s going to need proof. God knows I did.”
“Yes, I need proof.” He couldn’t wait to see what they’d done. Phoebe would think it was a hoot.
And maybe it would make her laugh. Maybe if he could find a way to make her laugh, she might want to move past the “friends” stage they’d been stuck in forever. If he could find a way to get through the veil of sorrow he so often felt from her, maybe she would see how much he cared, how much he wanted to make her happy.
Simon took off his suit coat and hung it over his chair as he started to pace. They were really playing this for all it was worth. He looked every bit the concerned friend. “I didn’t want to do this today, not with the baby shower and all.”
Alex held up a hand. “It’s fine, Simon. Chelsea thinks something’s going down today and we’re going to trust your wife. Besides, other than Chelsea, we’re trying to keep the women out of this. If we can handle it quietly, it’s all for the better. The baby shower is keeping them occupied. Phoebe, too.”
“Adam and Jake are keeping an eye on her. They’ve been tailing her for days,” Ian said, his voice grim. He turned to Jesse. “I hate to do this to you, and you have to know if I thought I could get rid of her without you knowing about it, I would do it. I know what it feels like, man.”
Jesse sat up because not even for a prank would Ian Taggart talk about his feelings. “You’re joking, right?”
His gut was suddenly in a knot.
“I wish I was,” Big Tag replied. “I have to apologize because I’m the one who approved her hire.”
“Could we save the recriminations until after Jesse knows the truth?” Simon asked.
It was stupid. This whole thing was some sort of misunderstanding because there was zero chance that Phoebe Graham was anything but a sweet, sexy, caring woman with an unfortunate addiction to Harry Potter.
Except the one time he’d offered to take her to Harry Potter World, she’d cried and hadn’t talked to him for a day. He’d thought it would be a way to please her, but she’d shut him out and wouldn’t tell him why.
He’d actually started to wonder if she went out with him because she was a woman who struggled to say no. She wasn’t ever going to return his affection, but she certainly wasn’t some spy.
“It was the way she moved,” Simon said. “I never paid much attention to her. I think she was too relaxed that night when we had to flee from The Collective.”
It had been months before. Simon had called and given him the code words that basically told Jesse to get his ass in gear because shit was going down. He’d been on a date with Phoebe. Well, he called them dates. Once, he’d heard her tell Charlotte Taggart that they weren’t dating. It felt like dating to him. He’d bundled her up and picked up Simon and Chelsea in time to avoid what would have been Simon’s arrest on trumped up murder charges. He’d dropped Phoebe off at her place and then they’d been on the run.
“What are you talking about? How does she move? Half the time I’m trying to make sure she doesn’t break her leg or something.” She was charmingly klutzy. He hated to admit it, but he kind of liked it when she stumbled because he always managed to catch her. She was smarter than him, but he could protect her. It was probably the only thing in the world he had to give her.
He’d been a grunt during his service days, and even here at McKay-Taggart he knew his real value was the fact that he was willing to step in front of a bullet for his brothers or their wives. He didn’t mind being the one to protect Phoebe.
“It’s all an act. Jake took some video of her when she didn’t think anyone was watching. She’s well trained. I would suspect she’s taken more than one form of martial arts. Did you know she takes a Krav Maga class on Saturdays?” Simon asked.
“So she wants to be able to defend herself.” He thought that was a good idea.
“Jake couldn’t roll tape there, but he caught a glimpse and said she could practically teach the class herself,” Simon replied.
“In long-term cover these are the things that ruin an operative,” Ian mused. “She’s trying to hold on to one thing that makes her who she was before she took the assignment. She’s trying desperately to stay strong while she looks weak. She should never have taken that class. She only signed up for it three months ago. I would be very interested to know what pushed her to do it. It’s reckless for a woman who’s made all the right moves so far.”
“Or she’s a woman who wants to defend herself. That’s not a crime. It’s smart.” They were being paranoid.
“Chelsea hasn’t been able to break her cover yet. Adam gave it a shot, too. Do you know what kind of backing it takes to imbed a false identity so well those two can’t break it?” Simon asked.
“So we have to assume she’s an operative either for a foreign entity or something more nefarious,” McKay added. “Did you run her past Damon?”
Tag nodded. “None of his MI6 contacts were willing to say they know her, but that doesn’t mean shit. None of Damon’s new guys could ID her. I think we have to look at worst-case scenarios here.”
“Since when do you not go there?” McKay asked with a shake of his head. “You always go to the worst-case scenario first. So she’s either a foreign operative or a Collective plant.”
They were leaving out a scenario. “Or you’re wrong about her.”
McKay looked at him with sympathy. Fuck, but he hated being pitied. “We’re not wrong.”
He was starting to get a little mad. It was obvious to him that they’d been investigating his girl behind his back. She might not have slept with him, but he still cared about her, protected her. She would never wear his collar, but he had some claim on her. They should have told him the minute they had suspicions, but no, he was poor Jesse who got himself fucked up in the war. They were never going to take him seriously.
Well, buddy, why would they? You’re the one who goes crazy from time to time and kills a bad guy with your bare teeth. Chelsea is likely still having nightmares about that. Do you really think they trust you?
Phoebe was the only one who took him seriously. She was always asking about his job and what his thought processes were. Hell, he would bet she was the only one in the world who actually imagined he had a thought process.
“Jesse, I get it, man. You care about her.” Tag was staring at him. “She’s got you by the balls, but I need you to think clearly and I need you to hear Simon out. He didn’t do this because he wanted to hurt you. He did this because you’re his partner. We’re doing this because we’re your brothers, and you know how I feel about that.”
“Fine.” They were putting him in a corner. He wasn’t ready to walk away. He needed this job. Shit. He needed them. McKay-Taggart was the first family he’d ever really had. His father had died before he’d been born and his mother had dumped him on his granddad’s porch not long after. His grandfather had been a mean son of a bitch who cared way more for his cattle than his only grandson. He’d fit into his Army unit, but they were all gone now. He wasn’t ready to lose this. “What makes you think she isn’t exactly who she says she is?”
“How did they know, Jesse? How did The Collective and Ten know where we were that night?” Simon asked.
He could come up with a couple of scenarios. “They could track us on traffic cams.”
“Possibly, but we were careful to get into a neighborhood that was unlikely to have cameras,” Simon reminded him. “Now it is possible that one of the groups after us that particular night searched until they found us the next morning, but then I need an explanation on why your vehicle was tagged.”
“What?” He’d gotten his Jeep back about a week after they’d returned from Italy. “My Jeep didn’t have a tag on it. If it does now, it was probably put there after the motel fight.”
They’d been forced to leave it in the motel parking lot. It would have been easy for someone to place a tracking device on it then.
“You also have bugs all over your apartment.” Simon’s voice was tight. “How many people have you let in? Alex installed your security system himself. Chelsea and I spend a bit of time there. Who else?”
He couldn’t quite meet Simon’s eyes because there was only one answer to that question. Jesse didn’t have parties. He didn’t have friends outside of work. His whole life was spent at that sad little apartment or at work or on the occasional date with Phoebe that sometimes ended with them watching TV at his place.
He remembered the first night they’d gone back to his apartment. He’d been surprised because she didn’t seem to want to be alone with him. He’d gotten a little excited, his cock hardening at the thought of getting her into bed. He’d planned the whole seduction out in his head as they’d driven to his building. Thankfully his years in the military had forced a routine cleanliness into his life so he hadn’t had to worry about his place being a mess. Not that there was much to mess up. He had a TV and a sofa and Grace and Avery had taken him out to buy him all the things he needed for a rudimentary kitchen. Serena had given him a couple of sets of sheets. She’d been excited about the thread count or something, but he could have told her that anything felt like paradise after sleeping in a rat-infested hellhole for months.
He’d been happy about that damn thread count though when he’d thought Phoebe would be sleeping on it. But the minute they’d gotten to his place, she’d pulled out the Harry Potter DVDs.
I want to share this with you. Please, Jesse.
Yep, he’d fallen asleep halfway through the first one.
It would have been so easy for her to slip off the couch and plant her bugs. Easy for her to have gone through his pathetic things so she could get a better perspective on how to handle him.
Had she been listening to him for months? Did she hear the way he cried at night when the nightmares got to be too much? Did she hear the way he paced the floor and told himself over and over again that it was all a dream and he was here and he was Jesse Murdoch. He was Jesse. He wasn’t the man they tried to turn him into.
“I told you we should have brought Kai into this,” Alex whispered furiously Tag’s way.
“Kai isn’t a member of this team,” Tag pointed out. “And he’s also out of town. He’s in DC for the week.”
Kai Ferguson was his therapist. He was a psychiatrist specializing in extreme PTSD. Ian had said he’d brought Kai in to help with Sanctum because Eve didn’t have time to go through all the applicants and keep up evaluations on members, but Jesse knew the truth. Tag had basically bought Kai in an attempt to see if he could fix Jesse.
“I don’t need Kai.” He spent hours and hours with Kai and he didn’t seem any closer to being normal. He still had the dreams and he still felt the beast deep in his gut always, always waiting to come up.
He still heard that voice. Dark and rich. Foreign.
You are my creature. You belong to me and you do my bidding. You’re my dog.
He slapped at the side of his head, trying to get that voice out.
“Damn it.” Tag was on his feet. “Get Eve in here.”
“Don’t. He’s fine.” Simon sat down in the chair beside him. “You’re hearing it again, but you’re not there, Jesse. It’s all right. I was thinking about seeing that new comic book movie this weekend. What was it? I think the lead is called Thorp or something.”
“He’s Thor.” Jesse breathed a sigh of relief as the voice faded and he was solidly back in the now where Simon often purposefully screwed up the names of comic book characters so Jesse would correct him. Shortly after they’d been paired up, his very staid and British partner had professed a deep and utterly false love of all things comic book and they’d started going to the movies or to comic book stores. Simon looked so out of place, but it had gone a long way to build trust between them. Simon Weston had been the first person since Iraq to sacrifice for Jesse Murdoch.
“And it isn’t a Thor movie this week. It’s a new Avengers. Thor’s just in it.” Somehow talking about something normal always seemed to bring him back.
“Well, Chelsea’s very excited,” Simon allowed.
Chelsea was an out-and-out dweeb, and Jesse loved her like a sister. He turned to Simon. “Chelsea thinks Phoebe’s bad?”
God, he sounded like a kid begging someone to tell him the world wasn’t so evil.
“Chelsea thinks she’s certainly not what she says she is,” Simon explained. “But then she also made me promise to remind you that because something isn’t what it seems, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. Please tell her I followed instructions. She was very specific.”
He couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t true. He took a deep breath. There came a time when a man had to choose. He chose her. He loved this group, but he was falling in love with her. Maybe Chelsea was trying to tell him something. Maybe she was trying to tell him that the time had come to trust his instincts and his instinct was to protect and love Phoebe Graham.
“She’s not a spy.”
Tag’s head fell back and he groaned.
He was going to lose his job, but he had to do what was right. He knew how it felt to be falsely accused. He knew how it felt to have absolutely no one in the world who had his back. He’d gone back to his hometown and they’d turned on him.
He wasn’t going to leave her alone.
His phone buzzed. Text. He thought about ignoring it since almost everyone who would text him was in this room, but as his friends started arguing, he decided it was a good way to not have to listen for a moment.
He didn’t recognize the number.
If you want to know the truth, meet me in the walkway between Elm and Main Street. 10 minutes. If you aren’t there, I won’t bother you again.
The truth? The truth about what? He didn’t have time to deal with any mystery text. He needed to deal with Phoebe.
The door to the conference room slammed open and Liam O’Donnell strode through followed by his new partner. Erin Argent was the newbie at McKay-Taggart, but Jesse was pretty sure she already fit in better than he did. Tag sent her out into the field without a qualm. She’d already run an op on her own, taking down a ring of corporate spies with the ease of a woman who had spent half her life in the military, and not at the grunt level Jesse had been at.
“She’s on the move,” Liam said, his voice tight. He was carrying a shoulder holster complete with a SIG Sauer that he handed over to Tag.
“She walked out of here about three minutes ago,” Erin explained. There was no way to miss the anticipation in the woman’s voice. Erin was a full-on adrenaline junkie. The minute an op was over, she requested another one. While the rest of McKay-Taggart seemed to be settling down and having babies and buying houses, Erin spent her off time base jumping.
He didn’t like the thought of someone as competent as Erin going after Phoebe. Phoebe was an accountant. She had no idea how to handle seasoned operatives.
Jesse stood up. Something was going on. If his apartment was bugged, then someone was watching him, but he couldn’t accept that it was Phoebe. Maybe it had something to do with that text. He knew he should say something about it, but the situation with Phoebe took precedence. “Fine, I’ll follow her myself. This is stupid. She’s probably going out to pick up something for the party.”
“I don’t think so,” Li said. “She told Grace they had everything ready and then she slipped out.”
“She was actively trying to not be seen.” Erin grinned a little. She had a wealth of fiery red hair she kept in a neat ponytail and freckles across the bridge of her nose that proved all that red was natural.
He wasn’t sure Erin didn’t have an overactive imagination. She seemed to fit right in with Tag and O’Donnell. She went to the worst possible case scenario just like Tag and she could down beer like O’Donnell, though he’d slowed down since having a son.
“I’m going to follow her.” Jesse was sick of this shit. He was sick of feeling like the only person left out of the joke.
“Adam and Jake are tailing her.” Ian looked down at his phone. “They’ve got her. She walked into that fast food place up the street two minutes ago.”
“See. She’s guilty of being hungry and not wanting a salad.” They were all paranoid.
Tag pocketed his phone and nodded to Li and Erin. “Li, would you please set up a nice place where we can spend some time talking to our accountant?”
“You’re setting up a fucking interrogation room?” It wouldn’t be comfortable. It would be a room where Tag would hold her until he got the answers he wanted. Tag would scare the shit out of her. Phoebe already got nervous around the man. This would send her over the edge.
Tag turned his way, and this wasn’t his friend. This was his boss, his CO. “You will stand down, Murdoch, or I swear I will have you in lock-down until this is over. If you can’t handle this, tell me now and I’ll make sure you don’t move an inch out of this room until this is all over.”
He couldn’t let that happen. “I’m cool.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Tag said. “You can observe, but nothing more. This is not your op. Simon, you keep a leash on him. He watches from a distance. Is that understood?”
“Yes, boss.” Simon put his suit coat back on. “We need to hurry if we’re going to catch her. Tell Adam to keep close watch. I used to use public loos to change clothes and lose a tail.”
Tag slipped the shoulder holster over his massive form and checked the clip on the SIG before holstering the gun. “Alex, you don’t have to go. Eve will likely kick your ass if you miss the shower, so please feel free to coo over baby gifts while the rest of us take care of business.”
McKay sent his best friend a happy middle finger. “Fuck you, Ian. I’m not staying here and might I say, I can’t fucking wait for Charlotte to have that baby so you can join the rest of us.” He turned to Erin. “Let me borrow your piece.”
“I swear I will beat the shit out of you if you hurt her, McKay.” Erin seemed unnaturally affectionate toward her Berretta M9 which she’d named Bertha. Jesse really thought it looked more like an Agnes. She handed the gun over, handle first. “I don’t see why I’m stuck here. She knows me the least. It would be very simple for me to take her out. I promise I won’t even feel bad about it. All that weak shit gets to me. I believe in Darwin, so I could shoot her very easily.”
And he was so done with her. “You shoot her and we’ll have a fucking problem, Erin.”
“Is that right, Murdoch?” She got right in his face. “You think you can take me?”
He felt his blood pressure rise, his hands turn to fists. He didn’t fight with women, but then Erin liked to play with the boys. If she threatened Phoebe, she would find out that he could put her on her ass. “I know I can.”
“Down, both of you.” Tag turned to his latest hire. “Look, Xena, I know you want to prove you’re some kind of female warrior or some shit but that dude right there occasionally loses his damn mind and rips people’s throats out with his bare teeth, so back the fuck off him.”
Erin looked him over. “Actually that kind of makes me like him more. Fine. I won’t touch the klutz. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of on Murdoch’s side here. If she’s an operative, I’ll eat some of Li’s haggis.”
Liam shook his head. “Damn me, girl, but we’re going to have to give you a geography lesson. I’m bloody Irish, not Scots. Why da fuck would I eat haggis?”
She shrugged. “They all sound the same to me.”
Ian pulled his phone out and whatever was there made his jaw tighten. “We need to move. She’s on Main but she’s walking. We can catch her.”
Copyright 2015 Lexi Blake