“Ah, shit.” Vic Andrews, butthead supreme, listened to the churn of the ocean’s waves. Or was it his life skittering off its axis?
Gina laughed that belly laugh of hers and he couldn’t help smiling. He extracted himself from her lush little body and rolled off. The St. Barth sand stuck to his back. Yep, they’d worked up a sweat. Salty sea air invaded his nostrils and he inhaled, letting the moisture flood his system.
Jesus Hotel Christ.
What had he been thinking? He’d been heading back to his room after closing down the resort’s bar and there she was, the girl—er, woman—of his dreams, crying on the beach. No condition for her to be in after witnessing her brother’s marriage to the love of his life.
Vic didn’t mention the fact it was 3:00 a.m. and she was alone on a secluded beach where any drunken asshole, like him, could have at her. Although technically he wasn’t drunk. Buzzed maybe. Big difference. Besides, they’d been at a wedding. Buzzed was allowed.
Gina moved and he finally turned toward her. “I’m—”
“No, absolutely not,” she said. She swiped at her curly mane of dark hair. Her face gave away nothing, but that meant squat. Gina knew how to hide bad moods.
The whoosh of the ocean lapping against the shore distracted him and he stared into the blackness.
“What did I say?” he asked.
“You were going to apologize. I don’t want to hear it.”
Apologize? Him? “I’m not sorry.” He touched her arm. “Are you?”
Please don’t say you’re sorry. Please.
That would be all he needed. He’d just freakin’ obliterated the sister rule Mike had invoked nearly a million—maybe two million—times. The sister rule was Man Law, and Man Laws were about the only rules Vic followed.
He only wanted to check on her, and before he knew it, voila, the clothes were off, the condom was on and they were humping like bunnies right there on the beach. At least no one saw them. All the well-meaning people were asleep.
Gina brushed sand from her legs and stood to straighten the sliplike dress he’d shoved up over her hips. The silky fabric glided over her curves, and the activity in Vic’s lower region made him groan. A thirty-five year-old mother of three, and she was killing him. He should be ashamed.
She was right there. Right there. And, because he’d probably never get the opportunity again, he should grab her and—
“I’m not sorry,” Gina said. “Not about the sex. I’m sorry about other things, but this, I loved.”
Vic retrieved his pants and stood. Gina and her honesty. Good or bad, she just put it out there and didn’t worry about the repercussions. He guessed it came from losing her husband at the age of thirty-one. She had nothing to lose.
“I need to go,” she said, watching him with her big brown eyes as the moonlight drenched her face. He put his shirt on. Did she have to look at him that way? Particularly when he wanted a replay.
“Aren’t the kids bunking with your folks?”
“They are, but you know how Matthew is. He might search for me.”
Fifteen-year-old Matt, her eldest son, took his job as man of the family seriously.
“Right. Okay.” Vic motioned toward the resort. “I’ll walk you.”
Gina held up a hand. “I’ll be fine.”
Nuh-uh. No way. “I am going to walk you. It’s late and you shouldn’t go by yourself.”
Hell, she shouldn’t have been out here alone in the first place, but he knew she’d tear him a few new ones if he said it.
She stood there, peering up at him and—God—she was fantastic. She had a classic oval face with high cheekbones and a nose he knew she hated. For over two years now he’d imagined running his finger over the little bump in it, but never dared. Every inch of her seemed perfectly imperfect.
Blown sister rule.
Gina shoved her fingers through her curls. “We screwed up. I can’t believe it. We’ve been so good.”
“We didn’t screw up. We had a simultaneous brain fart. Again.”
She laughed and shook her head.
“Anyway, walk me to the edge of the beach. You can see my room from there and can watch me go up.”
“Gina, what’s the big deal? Nobody will know we just—” he waved his hand, “—you know.”
“It’ll be better if you don’t walk me. With his mental radar, Michael is probably waiting by the door. On his damned wedding night. I swear he’s a freak. He should stay out of it.”
Oh, boy. She was getting fired up. Maintenance mode. His friend needed protection. They were both ex-special ops, but they didn’t stand a chance against all five foot three of Gina.
“Mike loves you. He’s trying to protect you.”
“From you? You’re his best friend.”
Vic ran his hands over her shoulders. “Yeah, but I’m not right for you.”
“The circumstances aren’t right. That’s true, but he doesn’t have to keep reminding me.”
“He does it to me too.”
They strolled to the edge of the beach, and he squeezed her hand. Don’t go. Just stay for a while.All he wanted was more time with her. Not a lot to ask.
On tiptoes, she brushed a kiss over his lips. A little hum escaped his throat. What the hell was that?
“I had a great time,” she said. “You were just what I needed.”
“I think a ‘but’ is coming.”
“We can’t do this again.”
She pulled her hand from his and hauled ass toward her room. Away from him.
He waited while she went up the stairs and she stopped in front of the window of the room next to hers. A minute later the door opened and Matt came out. He turned and, apparently using his Spidey sense, looked straight at Vic.
And we’re busted.
Man Law: Never get caught.
Six Weeks Later
“You got me,” Vic said when Lynx picked up the phone.
Whose number had he just called? Knowing Lynx, he probably talked some unsuspecting blonde into letting him use her phone. His old army buddy now worked for the State Department and was completely paranoid about their calls being traced. When Lynx wanted to speak with Vic regarding sensitive matters, he sent a fax—a fax for God’s sake—from the FedEx store down the street from his D.C. office. Vic would call him back from a secure line—in this case a prepaid cell phone.
“You’re in a jackpot.”
Vic sat straighter in his desk chair. “Translate.” Lynx had a flair for drama, and being in a jackpot could mean a whole lot of bullshit things.
“The job you did for us last month.”
A car horn honked from Lynx’s end. He must be outdoors. “The Israel thing?”
“Yeah. The brother is pissed at you.”
“There’s a shocker. The sheikh should be pissed at someone.”
Namely Vic, who’d been hired by a secret U.S. government agency to take out the sheikh’s little brother, an Osama wannabe. Mike, the CEO of Taylor Security, liked to call them off-the-books jobs.
“No,” Lynx said. “He’s pissed at you. Your cover is blown.”
Vic’s shoulders went rock hard. He’d need a sledgehammer to get them loose again.
“What the fuck, Lynx?”
“Hey, I’m just giving you rumor mill here, but it’s coming from a good source. My contact at the agency accidentally let me find out. The sheikh threw money at someone who threw money at someone, and now he’s got your name.”
He shot out of his chair, every muscle in his body seizing. “Son of a bitch. Who gave me up? There can’t be six people who knew about that op.”
“Please. With the kind of money this guy can toss around, anyone can be bought.”
Vic grabbed a pencil from the desk, snapped it in half. “Did I get set up?”
“No. Someone got greedy.”
“My ass is in the wind?”
“Yeah. Watch your six. Gotta go.”
Vic punched the button to end the call. He’d wipe the phone clean and destroy it later. No harm in being careful. He stared out his corner office window. Just a businessman enjoying the June sun while the Chicago lunch-hour crowd swarmed the lakefront path. People everywhere.
Deep breath. Work the problem. When he’d taken the Israel job, the agency told him it was a solo mission. He’d sneak into the country as a tourist using a fake passport, and if he got into trouble, no one would pull him out.
He didn’t get into trouble.
He’d completed his mission.
For his country.
And now his cover was blown. Sure sounded like a setup.
The hammering in his ears started, and he stacked his hands on top of his head. This could be crap. Lynx said it was a rumor.
Vic hustled down the hall to Mike’s office and found him at his desk. Early in Vic’s army career, he and Mike were Rangers together and they had a history of saving each other’s asses.
“I got a problem,” Vic said as he stormed into the office and shut the door behind him. He took three deep breaths. Focus.
Mike snapped his head from his computer and stared. His dark eyes had an intensity that drove the ladies wild, but these days he was a one-woman man.
“You heard me right. I got a problem.”
Vic had maybe uttered those words three times in the fifteen years he’d known Mike. Each time, someone had been injured or dead. Mike leaned back in his swanky leather chair. Felix Unger’s contemporary twin could have decorated this place. Everything in chrome, with sharp angles and fancy art. One lone stack of paper sat neatly bundled to the left. Mike didn’t go for mess.
“Remember the job I did last month? Lynx just called. My cover is blown. The sheikh spent big bucks to find out who I was.”
Mike squinted. “Those fuckers gave you up?”
“One of them, yeah.”
“Do you know who?”
“Hell no. And it’s too damned bad, because I’d like to break his fucking knee caps.”
Pain shot through Vic’s jaw and he lightened up on the teeth grinding.
“Okay,” Mike said. “We can assume they’re gonna come after you.”
Vic stalked the office. Crap. Sweat beaded down the sides of his face and he swiped at it. He was losing it. Fear was not something he allowed himself, but this rattled him. When was the last time that happened? How about never? The last few months had been this way, though. Something gnawed at him, eating away his insides.
Five years with Delta Force ensured he could take care of this problem, but he didn’t want to do it in a city that had welcomed him when he left the military.
“We got a whole army of guys here ready to cowboy up,” Mike said. “We could even bring a few back from overseas.”
They had at least five hundred men in the Middle East protecting U.S. officials.
“Hell, I trained most of them and you want to put them on me? I can take care of myself.”
Fuckin’ A, bubba. Maybe Vic’s ego was getting in the way, but at thirty-six years old he’d had a whole career of spec ops training. Offering him protection came as an insult.
Mike shook his head. “Hey, asshole, did I say you couldn’t? All I’m saying is we put some muscle around you. Eyes in back of your head.”
Eyes in the back of his head. Mike had been his eyes for years now. Wasn’t he the one who’d given Vic a job when he needed one? Now they were partners. Mike handled high-end security, and Vic handled the civilian contractor assignments. The neutralizing-terrorists stuff.
“There’s no credible threat yet. I’m supposed to tie up man power for a maybe?”
Mike shrugged. “But you think it’s solid, or you wouldn’t have come in here.”
He had him there, and Vic scratched his head. The hammering in his ears went bye-bye, leaving behind the wilting end of the adrenaline rush.
“I brought a shit storm on us.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Are we having a moment here or what? Don’t get ahead of yourself. Let’s see what happens. Meantime, put a team together and I’ll sign off.”
“We may not need them, but I’ll put something on paper.”
“Right. Let’s get someone to sweep your car and your apartment building. Just to be safe.”
Vic nodded. “Already on it.”
“Watch yourself,” Mike said.
This sucked. He should fight this alone, but knew if this guy came after him, he’d need a team. The gut shredding began. People, maybe his friends, were going to die.
And it would be his fault.
Gina had three checks for her brother to sign, one of which was for a company credit card maxed out by an overseas operative. Michael wouldn’t be happy.
A quick stop in the ladies’ room on the third floor allowed her to freshen up. She never knew when she’d run into Vic, but it always helped to be prepared. She fluffed her hair, checked her lipstick and gave herself a once-over in the full-length mirror. She wore the champagne pencil skirt and matching silk blouse her sister-in-law picked out. Not bad. Pretty darn good actually.
Roxann liked helping her choose age-appropriate clothes for the thirty-five-year-old she was, rather than the coed look she’d gotten used to. Gina liked her low-rise jeans and T-shirts, but maybe she was in a rut. A deep one. For four years now.
The romp on the beach with Vic made her realize she needed to make changes. To stop clinging to the person she’d been before Danny died. That person evaporated when a burning building collapsed on her husband and destroyed her world. Accepting the new normal hadn’t come easily, and she’d been fighting it by not altering the tangible things like wearing clothes Danny liked or hanging his uniform in the bedroom closet so she’d see it every day. Keeping things the same meant preserving some part of her cherished husband.
This included focusing on their children. On making them whole when half the parent base had disappeared. Putting their needs first and hers last. Wasn’t that what good mothers did? But somehow Gina the woman got lost, buried under the rubble of a burning building.
The time had come to dig out. Enter Roxann and her all-around good taste. Despite her penchant for classic clothes, Roxann could find things with a little funk to them. She made for a great sister-in-law, and Gina reminded Michael every day he’d better not blow it.
With a final flip of her hair, she left the ladies’ room and headed for Michael’s office. Vic stepped into the hallway, turned and smiled the slow wicked smile that always sent her heart into overdrive. Add the green eyes, the messy blond hair and the oh-so-sexy goatee, and a girl was done for.
“Hey, you,” he said. “What’s going on?”
Gina stopped a foot or two in front of him. Otherwise, she’d get whiplash trying to look up at all six foot five of him.
“I have checks for Michael to sign.”
He glanced toward Michael’s office, then back at her. Something was off. She searched his face, took in the rigid jaw, the crease between his brows and—bam—his eyes. Missing today was the twinkling mischief that promised a girl he’d put a smile on her face but wouldn’t relinquish his emotional armor while doing so.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “You seem distracted.”
He smiled the player smile this time. Like that would work on a woman raising three children. Puh-lease. Surely she’d lost her mind thinking he’d admit something to her. “Forget I said anything. If you need to talk, let me know.”
She stepped around him, but he reached for her and a zing shot through her arm. Damn. After that glorious night on the beach he couldn’t touch her without her body betraying her. Not that he’d touched her since then. On the contrary, he usually acted like she had a skin rash.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right. I am distracted. No big deal.”
“Fine. Just know my offer stands.” She held up the checks. “I need to get these to Michael.”
He pushed a curl from her cheek. What was with him today?
“Look at you.”
Vic shrugged. “You look…different.”
Different? What the heck did that mean? “New outfit. Rox helped me with it.”
Enough of this already. Because, really, she didn’t have time. She was getting nowhere with him when all she wanted was to get somewhere. And then he went and did it. He tilted his head and parted his lips just so slightly and a burst of heat exploded inside her. Suddenly, the hallway seemed tight. Closing in as his stare filled the space. At any second, it would occur to him that he should attempt to mask his feelings. The idiot hadn’t yet realized his ability to hide from her dissolved two years ago in her basement. That had been the first time she’d noticed the look and it still tortured her. Damn him for bringing it all back.
Her fingers twitched at the memory. Kneeling on top of the dryer battling the water that had shot from the pipe and doused her. And Vic staring at her in a way that made her miss having a man to curl up with.
“Holy shit,” he had said.
The words cut through the sound of gushing water and penetrated her focused struggle with the valve. “The handle is stuck.”
His gaze traveled along the ceiling, darting along the pipelines. Slow. Considering.
“Idiot,” she screamed, “the valve is here.”
He stepped around the large puddle forming on the cement floor and stormed to the back corner of the basement. “No kidding, but I’m not getting wet when I can cut the main supply.”
“The main supply?” What?
And suddenly, the river slowed to a trickle. She stared at the pipe, gave it a whack with the wrench. Bastard pipe.
For two years she’d been living as a single mom, dealing with appliances that failed, shoveling snow, getting the car serviced. Never mind raising three kids whose moods shifted like swings in the wind. She been doing it all, hadn’t she?
Without a man.
Until the flipping water valve got stuck. With Michael not around, she’d been forced to call Vic when all she wanted was to take a bat and smash that stupid valve to a million little bits. Just destroy that piece of crap. She pounded her fists on the washer because she didn’t need this evil, blasted, hateful valve making her feel like she needed a man.
Vic stood a few feet from her, hands on his hips. Did his lips quirk? She swore they did. No, sir.
She flicked the wrench at him. “Don’t you laugh. I’ll come down there and beat you to death. You will be bloody if you laugh at me.”
He remained silent. One of his better choices, because she was just mad enough to let him have it. She tossed the wrench down, pushed her saturated hair from her face. “I’m sorry I called you an idiot. That was mean.” She held her hands wide. “Look at me! I’m soaked.”
“Oh, I’m looking.”
The rumble in his tone drew her attention and she found him, head tilted, lips slightly parted, eyes focused on her…chest.
The one encased in a soaking-wet tank top.
A white one.
With a sheer lace bra underneath. Lovely. Her very own wet T-shirt contest. She gasped and spun away because…well…Vic. Never before had he done this, and heat poured into her cheeks.
Two years she’d been without a man’s hands on her. Two long years without passion. Without sex that left her loose limbed and quivering. And he had the nerve to look at her like he wanted nothing more than to put his hands on her.
Wait a second. Why not? She deserved attention. Didn’t she?
Besides, he had great hands. Big hands that let a girl know he’d take care of her.
And then she lost her mind.