Don’t Trust A Killer

September 18, 2018 – Dark Sins, Book 1

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Don’t Trust A Killer
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To catch a killer…you have to use the perfect bait.

FBI Agent Bree Harlow is working the biggest case of her career. She’s undercover on the hunt for a killer who has murdered three women—and she isn’t going to stop until she brings down her prey. She’s scored a job at Fantasy, the hottest club in New Orleans, and she’s just caught the attention of the club’s owner, the sexy and dangerous Kace Quick. Everyone knows the guy is shady—and probably linked to every criminal activity in the Big Easy. She shouldn’t find him so attractive. Shouldn’t want to do anything but lock the guy away. After all, he is her chief suspect.

Be careful…sometimes, you can’t see the danger coming.

Kace knows there is far more to Bree than meets the eye. He isn’t a fool, and he can spot a Fed from a mile away, though he does admit that Bree is the sexiest FBI agent he’s ever seen. He lets her play her game, though Kace plans to keep his hands very far off his gorgeous new problem. Then the attacks begin. Attacks all focused on Bree. And suddenly, it’s not a game any longer because Kace isn’t about to let his FBI agent get caught in the crossfire.

To hurt a man, you have to destroy what he wants most.

Kace has a powerful enemy working in the darkness—a man who wants to destroy Kace by making him look guilty as hell. Kace is being set up for murders he didn’t commit. And now, the killer has locked onto his next victim—Bree. Despite Kace’s best efforts, he has let Bree get too close. For the first time in years, Kace cares about someone else—a fatal flaw. And the killer in the dark can’t wait to make Kace pay for past sins…The killer thinks he can hurt Bree, and by hurting her, the mighty Kace Quick will fall.

Things aren’t always as they appear…

Bree won’t be anyone’s victim. She’s not the damsel in distress—she’s the woman ready to take down a murderer. She’ll break every rule in the FBI’s precious handbook in order to protect the lover she knows is innocent. Kace is hers, and Bree won’t let anyone hurt him. She’ll catch the real killer, she’ll prove his guilt, and maybe, just maybe, Bree and Kace can stop their world from going down in flames.

Sex, murder, and lies…just another day in the Big Easy…

Author’s Note: DON’T TRUST A KILLER is a complete, stand-alone novel that contains 80,000 words.

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Chapter One

Kace Quick was tall, dark, sexy as every sin imaginable, and…quite possibly, a cold-blooded killer.

Bree Harlow released a slow breath as she was escorted into his office. The place was high-end, fancy. Reeked of money. Kace had plenty of money, after all. Money to burn. He owned most of the clubs in New Orleans and several casinos over in Biloxi. His name was whispered by those who feared him, and by those who wanted to bring him down—the local authorities—it was cursed.

“Have a seat, Ms. Harlow.” His voice was rumbling and low, with no hint at all of the South flowing in his words. She knew he’d been raised in New Orleans, though. Brought up in the foster care system. He’d gone from having nothing to controlling one of the biggest empires in the South.

The cops thought he was as dirty as they came. Tied to every sin in the city.

He turned toward her, moving away from the window that let him look out over the busy street below. His eyes—the most electric blue that she’d ever seen—locked on her. And for a moment, all Bree could think was…

Sin.

Yes, this man knew all about sin.

His dark hair was thick and heavy, shoved back from his forehead. He didn’t wear some fancy suit, though she knew he could afford anything he wanted. Everything. Instead, he wore a black t-shirt that stretched over his wide shoulders and powerful arms. Jeans encased his legs. Comfortable, faded. Still…sexy. The guy oozed sex appeal even as he gave off a dark, dangerous vibe that she was sure most women found irresistible.

She wasn’t most women.

Bree finally took the seat he’d indicated. She’d play his game, because she could not afford to screw this up. The leather squeaked beneath her as she eased into the chair. “I, um, didn’t expect to meet with you.”

He headed toward her. Bree tensed but…

He just propped one hip on his desk, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared down at her. “Why the hell not? It’s my club.”

“Uh, right.” She cleared her throat. “But I’m just here applying for the waitress position and—”

“And you don’t think I care about the people who work for me?”

She hadn’t thought he’d want to be in on this interview, no. She’d figured it would take her days to work her way up to him. But if fate was going to be kind and put him in her path right then, who was she to complain? Bree glanced up at him, holding his bright blue gaze. “There are a lot of…stories about you.” It was a gamble to say those words.

One dark eyebrow rose. “Stories?”

“Y-yes…” She let her voice tremble.

His gaze raked over her. “Bree Harlow. Twenty-five years old. Fresh from Asheville, North Carolina.” His lips hitched into a half-smile. “What in the hell are you doing in my city, Bree?”

“Looking for a job.” Her hands twisted in her lap.

He laughed. Like his voice, the laugh was deep and rumbling. Sexy. The guy had the sex appeal down to an art. “There are plenty of waitressing jobs in North Carolina. I don’t think you needed to come all the way down here to find one.”

She slowly exhaled. “I wanted a fresh start.” This was going to be tricky. Truth and lies could always be tricky.

His eyes narrowed on her. “What are you running from?”

What have you got? She’d spent the last ten years running from all kinds of things.

His jaw—square and hard—tightened. “A lover?”

“I wanted a fresh start. That meant I needed new people in my life. A new place. So, I came here.” She held his gaze, but it was hard to meet his intense stare. She’d seen his picture before. Learned everything that she could about the man before she’d crossed the threshold into Fantasy, his new club.

But…

Seeing him in person was different. The guy was bigger, sexier, and a whole lot more dangerous. She’d had to pass four guards just to get into his office. Guards who’d raked her with their hard stares. The big boss was insulated, and getting this in-person meeting with him…

Hell, yes. Major score.

Now, if she could just manage not to screw up this part and actually land the job, she’d be golden.

Kace lifted a hand, rubbing it over the faint stubble that covered his jaw. The guy’s face could have made him a model, if he had been into the whole not-being-a-criminal thing. High cheekbones, long blade of a nose. Sensual lips.

“When did you arrive in New Orleans?”

She was prepared for the question. “Three days ago.” Truth.

“And in that three days…” His head tilted as he studied her. “What sort of…stories …have you already heard?”

Bree bit her lip.

His gaze dipped to her mouth. No warmth appeared in his eyes. Slowly his stare drifted up once more. “Ms. Harlow?”

“The lady at the bed and breakfast where I’m staying…Ms. Queen knew I was looking for a job. She told me about this club, but said I had to be careful.”

“And why is that?”

“Because you’re a criminal.” There. Bree waited for his reaction.

There was none. No laughter at the crazy claim. No denial.

Just those blue eyes staring hard at her. Trying to see through her.

“And you want to work for a would-be criminal?”

Sound desperate or you’ll lose him. “I just want to work. I’m down to my last hundred, and I need this job.”

“A job working for a criminal?”

Her heart pounded harder in her chest. “Are you a criminal?”

“I don’t know…are you a waitress?”

What in the hell was that supposed to mean? Her lips parted.

But Kace laughed again. “There are lots of stories in this town. Some people say I’m a criminal, some say I’m a savior. It’s really all in who you ask.” A pause. He leaned toward her. “I wonder, what will I be to you?”

His gaze had finally lit with something other than ice. She would have needed to be blind in order to miss the sudden interest in his stare. Lust. Her heart jerked. She was in so much trouble.

“Let’s find out, shall we?” His hand lifted up, and he tucked a lock of her hair behind Bree’s ear. “You’re hired.”

A smile curved her lips. “Thank you.”

Kace frowned at her. “You have a dimple in your cheek.”

Her smile dimmed.

His fingers slid to her cheek. “It’s cute.”

His touch was making her nervous. His fingers were warm and slightly callused, and… “I think there is a miscommunication here.” Abruptly, she rose. So did he.

Their bodies brushed. He was taller than she was. Bree wore tennis shoes and stood at five-foot-five without heels, so she had to tip back her head to stare up at him.

“Miscommunication?” Kace repeated. He didn’t back up. He didn’t give her space.

“I’m not here for sex.”

He laughed. The sound rolled right over her.

She didn’t laugh back. “I’m looking for a waitressing job. Nothing more. If the job is contingent on me playing nice with you—”

More laughter. The guy looked as if he was truly amused. “Oh, sweetheart, I never play nice. That’s just not who I am.”

Right. Crime lord. Charmer. Killer? The stories said he was all of those things and so much more.

But he’d stopped touching her. That was something, wasn’t it?

“Sleeping with me isn’t part of the job, don’t worry about that.”

Her cheeks went red.

He blinked, as if surprised. Then his hand rose again—

Her fingers grabbed his wrist. “Stop.”

“I didn’t expect the blush. You surprised me.”

The fact that his hand seemed to burn her—that surprised Bree. She felt an electric spark run the length of her hand, and she immediately let him go. “I’m a good waitress. I’ll always show up on time, and I’ll stay as late as needed. I won’t cause trouble, and I’ll get the job done.”

“No trouble? Really?” Now he walked around her, letting his gaze slide up and down her body. She couldn’t help but tense. “I find that hard to believe.”

Her gaze slanted to the left. Locked on him.

“You look like trouble to me, Ms. Harlow.”

No, she didn’t. She’d dressed in deliberately casual clothes. Jeans and a white t-shirt. She’d wanted to appear unthreatening. A little desperate. Even though the truth was that she was a lot desperate. This job was absolutely necessary to her.

“Have you waited tables before?”

“Yes.” Now she moved and tapped her hand on his desk. Her resume sat there. “I’ve done a lot of waitressing work. I’ve done bartending work. I can handle anything.”

“I guess we’ll see if that’s true.” He rolled back his shoulders. “Like I said before, you’re hired.”

Her breath left in an excited rush.

“Start tonight. Be here at seven p.m. We don’t open until nine, but you’ll need some training. And clothes.” He motioned vaguely toward her. “All of my waiters and waitresses have a particular uniform. For the women on the first floor, it’s red heels, black pants, and a black blouse. I provide the uniforms for everyone, so be sure to stop and get outfitted before you leave today.”

“Thank you! I really appreciate—”

“If you fuck up, you’re out.”

Well, wasn’t he the blunt one? Her chin notched up. “I won’t fuck up.”

A faint smile curled his lips. “That remains to be seen.”

Then he headed back for his desk. Sat down. She assumed he was dismissing her, so Bree hurried for the door.

“I want to hear the stories.”

She stilled, her fingers reaching for the doorknob.

“Before you leave, tell me, exactly, what you’ve heard about me.”

Her tongue slid over her lower lip. Carefully, Bree schooled her features before she turned toward him. “I heard you were a killer.”

Kace didn’t even blink.

“Those who cross you don’t get second chances. You eliminate threats to you. You make your own laws. You do whatever the hell you want.”

His fingers tapped on the desk. “That all you’ve heard?”

No, not even close. “Two…two women were found murdered in New Orleans recently. I heard the cops think you were involved with their deaths.”

His smile came slowly, and it was a strange sight to see. So charming. So warm. She imaged the devil would smile just that way. “Who has been telling you all these stories? Especially since you’ve only been in town a few days…Three, wasn’t it? Surely, they didn’t all come from the talkative lady at your bed and breakfast. Although, I do know Ms. Queen. Most of the town does. She certainly enjoys her gossip.”

No, all of the stories hadn’t come from Ms. Kelly Queen. “The news,” she blurted. “I saw about—about the two women on the news.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you see…or hear.”

“I don’t. That’s why I’m in your club right now, asking for a job.”

“From a man who many believe to be a murderer. Interesting. You are interesting, Ms. Harlow.”

There was something about the way he said her name…

“Some women get off on danger. They like to fuck criminals.”

She shook her head.

His eyes narrowed. “Is that a no? You don’t enjoy that dark thrill?”

“I was shaking my head because this is the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had.” That statement, at least, was the absolute truth.

“Ah, so you do get off on danger. Good to know.”

Her lips pressed together.

“Relax, Ms. Harlow. I have a strict policy about not having sex with my employees. You’ll have to look elsewhere for your rush.”

“But—but those two women—” Bree pushed when she probably shouldn’t have.

“I didn’t have sex with those women, despite what the media says. And what the cops think. I wasn’t involved with them romantically. And, in case you were wondering but weren’t quite brave enough to ask…No, I didn’t kill them.” His hands flattened on his desk. “I didn’t kill Lindsey Marshall and Ciara Hall. I didn’t strangle them and dump their bodies behind the St. Louis Cathedral so that some poor, unsuspecting tourists could find them the next day.”

Bree swallowed. His voice had been completely flat, dead of emotion while he spoke.

“Still want the job?” His bright gaze seemed to mock her.

More than ever. “Yes.” Another swallow. “And at least now, I know my boss isn’t a killer.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Right?”

He didn’t smile at her, but she could have sworn his eyes gleamed. “The guard outside of my door is named Remy St. Clair. He’ll take you to see the floor manager and get you squared away with the uniforms. I’m sure there’s some paperwork somewhere for you.” His voice sounded disinterested, and he was already turning toward his computer.

“Thank you.”

She waited. He didn’t reply. So, Bree cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she said again, louder.

He let out a little sigh as he finally looked up at her. Kace seemed confused about why she was still there.

“It’s polite to thank someone,” she told him in a very calm voice, “when the person does something nice for you.”

A furrow appeared between his brows. “What on earth makes you think I did anything nice for you? Didn’t we cover this already? I don’t—”

“Do nice, right. It just seems nice.”

Now he leaned back in his leather chair. Kace seemed to like leather. Or maybe he just enjoyed expensive things. Judging by the paintings on the walls—she was ninety percent certain the one to the left was a Jackson Pollack—Bree was going with option B.

“Ms. Harlow, I haven’t done anything nice. You’re hired on a temporary basis. Let’s call it probation, shall we? It’s the same for all my employees. If you want something permanent, you’ll have to make it through the night.”

Why did he make it sound as if surviving the night was some incredible feat? She could do a night of waitressing, no problem. She’d done it before. Over and over again. “I’ve got this.”

“We’ll see.” He motioned to the door. “Good-bye.”

The phone on his desk rang. He picked it up, not even waiting for her to leave the room.

But that was fine. She’d gotten the job, and she’d gotten a one-on-one interview with the big boss himself. Talk about a stroke of luck. Sure, he might act like an asshole, but she’d known exactly what he was before she’d strolled into his club.

Bree opened the door and found a tall, muscled, dark-haired man waiting for her. Had to be Remy St. Clair. Unlike Kace, this fellow was dressed in a fancy suit, a gray one with a white shirt tucked underneath. He stared at her from unblinking, chocolate eyes.

“You’re hired.” He didn’t seem overly surprised.

She glanced back at Kace’s office. “You could hear us?”

“No, but you’ve got a great ass, and he doesn’t usually say no to blondes with good asses. The customers will like you, and that’s good enough for Kace.” He turned on his heel. “Follow me.”

She’d happily follow him, despite the ass comment, because when he led her through the corridors, she got to see all sorts of things in the club. The VIP area was on the second floor, filled with dark, one-way glass. There were dressing rooms, storage areas, and— “Um, I’m sorry, is that a trapeze?” She’d stopped in the middle of Fantasy’s main floor, her gaze darting to the ceiling.

Remy stopped, too. He looked up. “Yep.” He sounded absolutely bored out of his mind.

“Why is there a trapeze here?”

He sighed. “You’re not going to be on it, so why worry?”

“But—”

Remy turned toward her. “That’s the big reveal. The surprise. The club is called Fantasy for a reason. Kace is going to have performers out here doing one of those crazy Cirque-type shows. Flying through the air. Contorting. The show will start at midnight, and, according to Kace, it will be absolutely killer.”

Bree glanced around the area. “Will there be a net?”

“Hell, no. That’s not exactly exciting, is it? Where’s the danger if a net is involved?” He started walking again. “Come on. This way.”

“So, this place is—”

“A high end, very high-priced fantasy environment. Kace will have performers walking through the crowd. Performers who will be wearing very distinctive attire so they won’t be confused with regular staff.” He stopped before a door marked “Management.” His gaze pinned her. “Something you should know. Kace doesn’t tolerate anyone messing with his staff. There will always be bouncers on the floor. Guards close at every moment. If something goes wrong, someone scares you, then all you have to do is signal.”

Good to know. “How do I signal?”

“You fucking scream, baby. Then one of us will come running.” He swung open the door. “Hey, Abby, got some fresh meat for you.”

***

Bree walked out of Fantasy, her new uniform tucked under her right arm, her steps sure and certain. The club was located near the end of Bourbon Street, just steps away from the infamous Jean Lafitte’s bar. As she hurried onto the street, a horse and carriage came rolling by, the wheels churning as the driver told the family in the back all about Lafitte’s haunted bar.

She didn’t glance at the carriage. Instead, Bree made her away across the street. Then she turned into an alley. Slid between two buildings. Every now and then, she’d look over her shoulder and when she was sure that she was clear…

She headed for her planned rendezvous. The building she approached appeared abandoned. The windows were boarded up. A “No Trespassing” sign was attached to the old porch. She didn’t climb onto the porch. Instead, Bree entered via the back of the old house. And as soon as she stepped inside…

“Excellent job, Agent Harlow.”

Her team was waiting for her. The FBI agents all faced her, smiles on their faces.

Dominic Grant lowered the headphones he’d been wearing. “Heard every single word.” He gave a low whistle. “Thought I’d piss myself when you said that you’d heard the guy was a killer.” His green eyes gleamed. “Took some balls.”

She was covered in sweat—and the sweat wasn’t just from the fact that it was still humid in October. The New Orleans heat was like a suffocating coat, but her sweat came from the fact that she’d just had a face-off with the man suspected of being a serial killer. The New Orleans Strangler.

“Told you that it would be easy for you to get in,” Grayson Wesley said with a slow nod. He was the special agent in charge of the investigation and the whole reason she was even involved with the case. She’d just graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, and Grayson had called her in. He’d specifically requested her for this case, and she had no idea why. He’d done a stint as a lecturer at Quantico, and she’d loved his profiling discussion. The cases he’d talked about, the way the agents had been able to track the killers just based on psychological assessments—that was what fascinated her. She’d always wanted to profile. Her desire to understand and unmask killers was the reason she’d joined the Bureau. She wanted to be out in the world, stopping monsters. She’d had that one goal for as long as she could remember.

Ever since monsters destroyed everything I cared about.

And now, she had the chance do it. Her first real assignment as an FBI agent. Sure, she wasn’t making the profiles just yet, but that was okay. She was working undercover. Getting close to the target. Closer than anyone had gotten before.

“I knew you’d be just his type,” Grayson continued with a slow nod. His brown hair was brushed back from his high forehead, and his eyes glinted with approval.

A little shiver slid down her spine at Grayson’s words. She knew what he meant, of course.

The other two victims who’d recently been found in New Orleans—Lindsey Marshall and Ciara Hall—had also both been blondes. Lindsey’s hair had trailed down her back in a tangle of beautiful curls. Ciara’s blonde hair had been styled in a short pixie-cut, one that accentuated her delicate features…and that had left her neck completely exposed to the killer. Both women had been strangled, their necks marked with deep bruises in death.

Bree tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “I’m scheduled to go back to the club tonight.” But they’d know that. Bree was wired, and the team had been listening to every single word she said to Kace.

Karin Miller approached quickly. A few years older than Bree, the redhead gave her a reassuring smile. “The hardest part was getting inside.”

Grayson shook his head. “No, the hardest part will be finding evidence to nail that bastard. He’s walked for years. Bribed the local PD. Gotten away with every fucking thing imaginable, but it ends here. Kace Quick is a killer, and we’re going to lock him away.” His gaze held hers. “You’re the bait, Bree. Reel him in. Let’s make this jerk pay for what he’s done.”

When Lindsey’s body had been discovered behind the St. Louis Cathedral, Grayson had immediately known her case was different. When she’d looked at the crime scene photos, Bree had understood why. The woman had been strangled, a long, white scarf left around her neck, and her body had been perfectly positioned by the killer. Then…too soon after, the second body had been found. Ciara Hall had been murdered in the exact same way, strangled. But this time, a long length of white, hemp rope had been coiled around her neck. She’d been placed behind the St. Louis Cathedral, too.

Two dead women. The same MO. Grayson had started looking for links between them, and he’d found one major link, all right.

Kace Quick.

Kace Quick…Fifteen years ago, the guy had been charged with murdering his girlfriend, Brittney Lang. A young woman with blonde hair who’d been found strangled. Kace had been eighteen years old at the time. He’d been crucified in the Press, but at the last moment, a new witness had come forward, a girl who had provided Kace with an alibi. Kace had been found not guilty.

Grayson believed that Kace had killed Brittney Lang. He thought that long-ago witness had lied. And he believed that Kace was killing again. That Kace had a preferred victim type.

Women who look like me.

So, when Grayson had started a task force to look into the New Orleans Strangler—a moniker the local reporters had adopted—Grayson had called her in because he wanted her to get close to the chief suspect.

Kace Quick.

Sexy. Dangerous. Killer?

Time to find out.

Bree squared her shoulders. “I’ll get the job done. Count on it.”

***

A soft knock rapped at the door. “Come in,” Kace called, not even glancing up from his computer.

The door creaked open. Footsteps were swallowed by the lush carpet. And—

A throat cleared.

Sighing, Kace looked up and found Remy frowning at him. “There a problem?”

“I’m not sure about the new girl.”

He let his brows climb.

“You want a full background check on her?”

That was typical. Kace always wanted to know exactly who he employed—and what secrets those individuals might be hiding from him. Secrets could be very dangerous. “Of course.”

Remy nodded. He didn’t leave.

Kace waited.

“I don’t trust her, Kace.”

Ah, finally. Remy wasn’t normally the type to hold back. “Well, that makes two of us.”

Remy blinked. “If you don’t trust her, then why—”

Now Kace stood. He stalked around his desk. “You think I don’t know what she is?” He laughed, but the sound held no humor. “Come now, my friend, you and I have been in this business a very long time.”

Remy inclined his head.

“I could practically smell the fear coming from her.” He’d seen the nervousness in her stare. Bree Harlow had been scared to death to be in the same room with him, yet she’d stayed. And she’d asked her questions. Very deliberate questions. “Our girl is green. Far too green for this case.”

“You think she’s a cop?”

“She’s not local. I know all the local cops.” Especially cops who looked like her.

Golden eyes. Golden skin. Red, lush lips. Her hair had been a dark blonde and cut in a bob to fall just above her shoulders. Totally straight, her hair had emphasized her high cheekbones and framed her heart-shaped face. The woman was gorgeous. Curved in all the right places and gifted with a voice that sounded better than Saturday night sin.

And he would have bet his life that she was a Fed.

Kace rolled back his shoulders. “The FBI wants to pin Lindsey and Ciara’s murders on me. They’ve been practically salivating, but they don’t have enough to go on.” They had jack shit. “So, I think they’ve stepped up their game.”

Remy tensed.

Kace pretended not to notice. Remy could be so touchy about things…things like murder, for example. With the secrets that Remy carried, Kace would have expected something different. But, oh well.

Remy’s brows lowered. “If you think she’s FBI, then why the hell would you let her even step foot in Fantasy?”

Now Kace had to laugh. Why? “Remy, Remy, Remy…” Kace slapped his hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Didn’t you look at her? The woman is just my type.”

Remy seemed to stiffen even more. “Boss…”

“Don’t worry. I promise, I’ll just scare this one.” Scare her. Maybe seduce her. Maybe do both. It all just depended on how he was feeling. He was definitely in the mood to teach the FBI a lesson. “Of course, she has to make it through the night first.” He headed for the door.

“Kace…”

He laughed again. “The grand opening. Our big show. Bree Harlow arrived just in time.” Kace threw a final glance over his shoulder. “I promise you this, the night will be an absolute killer.”

Chapter Two

“Perfect, you’re here on time.” The tall, gorgeous redhead gave Bree a quick once over. Bree had met Abby Johnson, the floor manager at Fantasy, right after Kace had given her the job. And now that she’d come back for her night shift, Bree’s first order of business was to check in with Abby.

Abby waved Bree forward, her gaze sweeping over her body. “Uniform fits. You look great.” She gave an approving nod. “Go get scanned and you’ll be ready to learn the shift routine.”

Bree paused. She’d been about to walk past Abby and head for the staff area. Now, though, she glanced at the manager and asked, “Scanned?”

Abby blinked her hazel eyes. “You weren’t told about that part?”

Bree shook her head.

Abby blew out a quick breath. “Nothing really. Takes all of five seconds.” She offered Bree a reassuring smile. “The security guys run a quick scanner over your body. It’s just a precaution.” She glanced down at the clipboard in her hand.

“A precaution for what?” Unease slithered through Bree.

Abby looked up. “To make sure you’re not a cop.”

Oh, shit, oh, shit. Oh, shit.

Then Abby laughed, a light, quick peal of sound. “God, your face is absolutely hilarious right now.” She came closer, still smiling. “Relax. It’s just standard operating procedure for Kace Quick.” Another laugh. “The guy is paranoid to the extreme, but you’ll learn that fast enough.” She leaned toward Bree and whispered, “He always insists on every staff member being scanned before a shift. Sometimes, the business that is discussed in his club isn’t exactly, well…” Her words trailed away.

So, Bree finished, “Legal?”

Abby simply stared at her. “According to Remy, there was an incident once. A waiter tried to come in with a listening device on him. Thought he’d get some incriminating tidbit on Kace. Didn’t happen.”

“What did happen to the waiter?”

“Hell if I know. You don’t screw around with Kace Quick and just walk away.” A shrug. “The scan is required for everyone. Seriously, they just wave a wand over your body. They don’t get to touch you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

It wasn’t. She was worried about the damn listening device that was tucked inside her bra.

“Get the scan and then come back to me. When you’re all clear, I’ll start giving you table assignments for the night.”

Before Bree could respond, someone called Abby’s name. Abby hurried away. “Seriously?” Her voice rose. “The trapeze is supposed to be higher than that. How many times do I have to tell…”

Bree sucked in a sharp breath. Then another. Then she tried to figure out what the hell she was supposed to do. The security guards were to the side, and, jeez, yes, they were scanning the other staff members. If she didn’t go toward them, it would look suspicious as all hell.

And if she went toward them, she was busted. She’d be kicked out of the club before the shift had even started.

Her gaze darted around, frantic. There—the restroom. She made a beeline for it and—

“Hi…Bree, isn’t it?” Remy was in her way. Wearing a new suit, a black one this time, and still looking like a big, brick wall.

She gave him a quick smile. “Yes, it’s Bree.”

“Ready for your first night?”

No. But she would be, once she got rid of the listening device.

“Abby tell you that you need to check in with security? It’s standard practice, every single night.”

Bree forced a light laugh. “It’d be nice if the customers had to get scanned, too.”

He didn’t laugh back. “We keep an eye on them. Don’t worry.”

“Ah, right.” She side-stepped. “I have to go to the ladies’ room, please excuse me—”

“Kace wants to see you.”

Her heart shoved hard into her chest.

“Right now,” Remy added, and his dark eyes seemed extra cold. Before she could say another word, he took her arm and escorted her to the big boss’s office. And with every single step they took, one thought flashed through Bree’s mind…

Oh, God. This is so not good.

She stumbled, her high heels tripping her. She would have gone down, but Remy caught her. He pulled her close and their bodies collided. She pushed against him and straightened up. As she straightened, Bree smoothed her hands over her shirt, slipping her finger inside and toward her bra strap. “I’m…sorry.” She turned away, just for a moment. “I am so clumsy.” Her hand moved to her side. Her fingers opened. She dropped the small transmitter.

“Better be careful in those heels. You don’t want to get hurt.”

Deliberately, she moved one heel to the right. The soft crunch sounded way too loud to her ears, but Remy didn’t seem to notice the sound. He just took her elbow again. “You don’t keep the boss waiting. Remember that.”

***

“Kace, Ms. Harlow is ready for work.” Remy stood just inside of Kace’s doorway, with Bree at his side.

She is fucking beautiful. The thought immediately ran through Kace’s mind as he sat behind the desk, and he was damn glad that he was sitting. Because his dick took one look at Bree and immediately jumped to happy attention.

There was something about her. Something that hit him on a primal level. He’d had the same reaction the first time they’d met. He’d taken one look at her—and wanted. Lusted.

A big problem.

“Leave us alone,” Kace ordered, aware that his voice was too rough but not really giving a shit.

Remy backed out of the office without a word. He shut the door with a soft click. Bree stood there, her hands at her side, her feet encased in a sexy as hell pair of red heels. She wore the standard black pants, and the low cut, scooping black blouse—but on her…

Bree looks good in black. Good enough to eat.

Her golden skin and her blonde hair were emphasized by the dark outfit. Her breasts pushed against the top of her blouse, and the pants showed off her narrow waist. Dark shadow and mascara made her golden eyes seem even bigger, and the slick, red lipstick on her mouth made him hungry to taste her lips.

“Is there a problem?” Her voice was careful, her expression guarded.

He sighed and reached into his desk. “There could be.”

Bree stiffened.

He rose, pulling out the security wand—the same wand that his men used to check personnel. He’d been burned in the past, so he didn’t take chances any longer. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice…

And you’ll wish you’d never been born.

His hand curled loosely around the end of the scanner. “I thought we’d do this check here.”

“Why?” She backed up a step. Ah, a bad move. Didn’t she know that showing fear would just make her more tempting to him? “I, uh, Abby told me that the check would be performed by the guards—”

Taking his time, he walked around the desk and headed for her. He was still aroused, and if the woman glanced down, she’d sure as shit notice the fact. But her wide-eyed gaze was on his face. And he could practically smell her fear. Baby, you’ve obviously got plenty to hide. She was truly the greenest agent he’d ever seen.

Why was he doing the check himself? The real reason was because he didn’t want his guards getting rough with her when they found the listening device. He had no doubt the woman was transmitting. So, he’d decided to check her out himself. When he found the device, she’d confess her lies. He’d escort her out. He’d show the FBI that he didn’t dick around. That he was on to their games.

That would be the end of his fun with Bree.

He couldn’t very well fuck an agent investigating him. Could he?

“My references checked out.” She seemed absolutely certain of that fact.

Too certain.

Inclining his head, Kace agreed, “They did.”

Her smile came and went, the dimple an all-too-brief flash. “Then what’s the deal? Why do I get special treatment?”

He stopped in front of her. His left hand lifted and touched her cheek. “Maybe because you’re special.”

Her breath caught.

“Don’t worry. It will only take a moment.”

Her lower lip trembled. She truly had gorgeous lips. He’d like to lick that lower lip. Like to suck it. Bite it.

Make her moan.

“Extend your arms from your sides for me. Then brace your legs apart.” When she complied, he began to run the scanner over her left arm—

“Is this legal?” Bree blurted.

He had to bite back a laugh. “It’s entirely your choice. You can walk out the door right now, if you want.”

But he could see the knowledge in her eyes. If she didn’t agree to the scan, then he’d know she was hiding something. And if she was wearing a transmitter, then sweet Bree was about to be exposed. It was a lose, lose situation for her.

“I need this job. I’m not going anywhere.” Her slightly pointed chin lifted. “Do it.”

Taking his time, he scanned her left arm. Then her right. When he brought the wand over her chest, he saw her tense. Kace paused. “Something you want to tell me?”

“Yes, this is a huge invasion of privacy. It’s total bullshit, and you shouldn’t treat your employees this way.”

“A waiter came in once.” Kace didn’t move the scanner. “This was at another club, my place in the Quarter, Nightmare. The guy said all the right things. Did all the right stuff. And then I caught him wearing a wire as he tried to find evidence of money laundering.” Money laundering, drugs, you name it—the guy had been looking for everything. “He didn’t find any evidence, of course, because I’m not a criminal.”

“Of course,” she murmured back, her long lashes sweeping down to conceal her gaze.

“Now, a scan is part of the employment process. Should have been in the paperwork you completed.”

Her lashes lifted. “I don’t remember reading anything about a security scan.”

“It was there, should have checked the fine print.” He had to smile at her. He’d miss her when she was gone.

Wait. Where the hell had that thought come from?

And, actually, the part about the scans hadn’t been in the paperwork. If it had been, how would he have caught her unaware? Catching her this way would be so much fun. Then he’d be able to shove the truth right back at the FBI jackasses on his trail.

“Are you going to finish? Or just keep that over my chest all night?”

She had bite. Nice. Since she wanted him to finish, he slid the scanner lower. Bree tensed, but the wand didn’t make a sound.

Interesting.

He knelt in front of her, scanning up her legs.

Nothing.

Except, well, she had great legs. Phenomenal, really.

He swept her whole body, being quick now, and the scanner didn’t go off even one time. He’d circled her during the scan, but now he returned to stand in front of her.

“That was painless.” A wide smile curled her lips and flashed her dimple. “And I get to do this every night with the guards? How much fun for me.”

“No, you’ll be doing it with me.” The words rapped out. Suspicion was heavy inside of him. The scanner hadn’t gone off, the woman wasn’t transmitting, but Kace still didn’t trust her. Not for an instant. And when he didn’t trust someone…

“Wow. I get lots of special attention.” Bree retreated a step. “Better be careful, or I’ll start to think you’re interested in me.” She turned her back on him and headed for the door. “I’ll start to think you want to break that super important rule about not getting involved with employees. I’ll start to think—”

“I want you.”

She froze. “What?” Her head whipped toward him as she spun around.

With slow, deliberate movements, Kace strode to his desk and put down the scanner. She’d surprised him. I would have bet the woman was wearing a transmitter. He would have been wrong. He wasn’t often wrong. “I want you.” He slanted her an amused glance. “You’re hot as hell. What straight man wouldn’t want you?”

“But—”

“But I don’t always take the things I want. And you’re off-limits.”

Bree sucked in a quick breath.

“I can keep doing the scans for you each night because you seemed…nervous…when you were with Abby.”

“How do you know—”

He pointed to his computer. “I can see the club’s security cameras anytime I want. I saw you with Abby. I saw the fear on your face when she pointed to the scanning area. I thought I’d help you. I contacted Remy and got him to intervene.”

“Because you…want me.”

“Because, despite what you obviously think, I’m not a cold-hearted bastard. I can be kind.” He could also be very, very cruel. But he’d never be that, not to her. At least, he hoped that he wouldn’t have to be. “If you’re scared of the others, you can always come to me. I’ll take care of you.”

“I can take care of myself, but thanks.” Once more, she turned away.

“Fine, then when you report tomorrow night, just have the guards scan you. You now know what a painless process it is.” He was pushing her, deliberately. Because if she was some sort of undercover cop or agent, she’d want to be around him. She’d want to be as close to him as possible. She wouldn’t pass up the chance—

“I’ll come back to you tomorrow night,” Bree said quickly, not looking at him.

Since she wasn’t looking, Bree missed his satisfied smile. She wouldn’t pass up the chance to have one-on-one time with the man she was investigating.

“I prefer to do the scan up here. I like the privacy.” Now she did throw a hard glare over her shoulder as she added, “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Whatever you say.” He had a club opening that was waiting. And speaking of that opening… “If anyone gives you shit tonight, tell Remy.”

“I know the signal.” Her voice seemed amused.

He wasn’t amused. “No one messes with my staff. Don’t take shit. Don’t hesitate to call out if you need help.”

Her glare had vanished. Now confusion filled her stare. “You actually seem to care.”

“Why the surprise? Don’t you know, sweetheart, even monsters protect the things that belong to them?”

“I don’t belong to you.”

You could. But instead of saying that, he just shrugged.

A moment later, she was gone.

Remy poked his head inside. “Boss?”

He could still smell the faint scent of lavender in the air. Her scent. “Make sure no one lays so much as a fucking hand on Bree tonight. If some fool gets out of line, you kick his ass out of my club, got it?”

A nod. Then… “So…no wire? No transmitter?”

He smiled. “Nothing.”

“Maybe she’s just a waitress. Just a woman who needed a job. You tend to be so damn suspicious of everyone.”

With reason. Betrayal was a fact of life for him. That was why he didn’t trust anyone.

And why he would never let his guard down around the ever-so-tempting Bree Harlow.

Chapter Three

“Two whiskeys, one apple martini, and a Hurricane.” Bree passed out the drinks at the table. Her feet ached in the heels, her spine felt as if someone had twisted it like a pretzel, and she’d only been on the floor a few hours. Jesus, she was out of practice. “You need anything else?”

The people at the round table were already taking their drinks. Murmuring their thanks.

She backed away.

The club was bursting. Voices and laughter filled the air. Opening night was a huge success, and the big show hadn’t even started yet. A quick glance at her watch showed her that it was just minutes until midnight. She’d been busting ass since her shift started, determined to prove herself to a watchful Abby and to Kace—wherever the hell he might be.

As she headed back to the bar, Bree’s gaze darted around the area. VIPs were immediately led upstairs. She hadn’t been up there yet. That area had a separate group of waitresses and waiters. They didn’t wear the black uniform. Instead, they were dressed all in white.

Was the real action up there? The dark deeds? She’d bet money it was. But she had to start at the bottom. Had to work her way up—

A hand slid over her ass. She spun around, shoving out hard with her right hand. “What in the hell?”

The guy—looked like some frat boy—winked at her.

She pulled back her fist, ready to punch him in the face—

“You’re out of here.” Remy’s hands slapped down on the frat boy’s shoulders. “You and your whole crew.”

The guy gaped. “But, but I didn’t—”

“You did,” Bree snarled at him. “I’m not part of the entertainment.”

The security team closed in. They grabbed the whole table and kicked them out in seconds.

She saw Remy lift his hand to his ear. He’s wearing an ear piece. “Yeah, boss,” he said. “I got them.”

Her gaze flew around.

She didn’t see Kace.

Remy grunted. “Kace wants to know if you’re okay.”

“Where is he?” Watching…on his computer? Or maybe behind that one-way glass in the VIP area? Or—

“I’m right here.”

Or maybe he was right behind her. Shit. Bree spun around.

He smiled at her. Looked absolutely killer. He’d changed into a suit—black. The crisp, white shirt underneath the suit coat was unbuttoned a bit, making him look sexy and casual. The shadow on his jaw was a little darker. His eyes seemed to drink in Bree. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she told him. The noise around her seemed to dim. “Just taking care of my orders.”

He waved Remy away and stepped closer. “The next man who touches you without your permission will get a broken hand.”

“Uh…that’s…” She wasn’t sure what that was. Nice that he was watching out for her? Scary as all hell that he could order physical violence so easily? Both?

“Broken hands send strong messages. Word will spread that no one can touch my staff here again.”

“You have a very hard way of doing things, don’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

The lights flickered.

He leaned toward her. “The show is about to start, Bree. When the lights go down, you don’t wait the tables. Everyone just watches the performance.”

Okay, right. He’d walk away and—

“Want to watch with me?”

Before she could answer, Kace continued, “I think I want to stay close to you in the dark. Just to make sure no other assholes think they can touch you.”

“You giving this same attention to all the waitresses?”

“They’ve already cleared the floor for the show. You’re the only one out here.”

A quick glance showed her that he was right.

Kace offered his hand to her.

She took it. Felt that strange spark that flared when they touched.

“It means we’d be fucking incredible in bed.”

Her lips parted.

“That heat you feel when we touch. Yeah, we’d probably set the sheets on fire. Something to think about.” But his voice was completely mild as his fingers curled around hers, and he led her across the club. He didn’t take her upstairs. Instead, they went to a reserved table, right in the front. One that was just a few feet away from the performance area. He pulled a chair out for her, surprising her with the old-school gentleman act. Something she hadn’t expected from him.

How can a killer be so charming?

He sat next to her. She noticed that Remy stayed close by, slipping into the shadows.

The overhead lights turned off. A spotlight slid onto the performance area. Faint glows came from all the tables. Not real candles, but flickering light that sure appeared genuine.

“It’s all about the illusion,” Kace murmured as he reached out to tap the glass candle holder on their table. “The real thing is too dangerous in a place like this. All those candle flames—hell, one drunk knocks them over and Fantasy would light up. These are just battery powered. They flicker and give the appearance of real candles.”

“You like illusions?”

“Everything in my world is an illusion.”

Music filled the air. Romantic. Slow.

The first performer came out. A blonde woman in a glittering costume, a costume that seemed to be composed of diamonds—and nothing else. She lifted her arms, and long silks unfurled from the ceiling. She grabbed the silk and immediately flew into the air. Unable to help herself, Bree smiled.

“You like the show?” Kace murmured.

“I used to be a dancer.” The truth tumbled out as she watched the woman fly and twist in the air. The performer rolled up in the silk, then tumbled down, over and over in quick succession. “Studied gymnastics for a while, too.” She’d had big dreams back then. Plans. Her mom had wanted her to be a prima ballerina. She’d gone to competition after competition and—

No, don’t go back there.

Those dreams had all died with her parents.

The performer was stretching into a full split, holding the dark silks as wind blew against her. Bree laughed in delight. “You’ve got a wind machine?”

“You were a dancer?”

Her head turned toward him. He wasn’t watching the show. Under the faint light, she found his gaze on her.

“I like hearing truth from you, Bree. It sounds different.”

“I’ve always given you the truth.” She’d made a mistake. Let down her guard. “I was a dancer in another life. Back when I was a kid. I stopped dancing when I was fifteen.” All of that was truth. He could believe her or not.

“I bet you were incredible.”

“No.” Her smile felt sad. “But I did enjoy it.”

The silks were gone. A man and a woman came out. The spotlight hit them, shining on their blood-red costumes right before the trapeze lowered. The man grabbed the bar, then swung down so that his knees were locked around it. Hanging upside down, he reached for his partner as the trapeze began to lift into the air.

She grabbed his hands as the crowd erupted into applause.

As the trapeze went higher and higher, the two began their act. The man flipped the woman, once, twice, and on the third loop, she landed up on the bar, standing between his legs as he continued to dangle upside down.

“They are incredible.” Bree couldn’t take her eyes off the show.

“This is the first club of its type down here. I’ll be opening one in Vegas later this year. Everyone in Vegas loves a good show.”

“I…I didn’t know you had business in Vegas.” Their voices were low, barely whispers, and Bree realized that she’d leaned close to him. Their heads were near, and to onlookers, it must appear as if they were about to kiss.

“It will be my first venture there. Figured it was time for a change.”

Before he could say anything else, Remy emerged from the shadows. He leaned down and whispered something in Kace’s ear. She tried to catch the words.

Shipment. Delayed. Trouble.

“I have to go.” Kace stood. “Stay here for the rest of the show. And come to see me before you leave.”

Then he strode into the darkness.

***

“How do you know Kace?”

Abby stood in front of Bree, her gaze suspicious. They were in the staff area, near the row of lockers that the waiters and waitresses used for storage. It was nearly four a.m., and Bree just wanted to slip away.

Only Abby was blocking her path.

“He’s the owner of the club.” Bree tried for a careless shrug. “I met him when I got the job.”

Abby lifted a brow. “He doesn’t let every waitress sit at his table.” Her arms crossed over her chest. “You screwing him?”

“No!” The denial was fast and furious. “I’m not, I’m—”

“Easy, jeez. Chill out. I don’t care if you are. I just need to know.” Abby glanced over her shoulder, then crept closer to Bree. “Because if you’ve got a thing going with the boss, then I need to make sure you’re putting in a good word for me. You know, telling him what an awesome manager I am and all of that.” Abby winked.

Bree’s breath expelled in a fast rush. “You are awesome.” That was true. Abby had checked on Bree throughout the night, and Bree had seen her monitoring all of the first-floor staff the same way. “But I’m not sleeping with him.”

Abby gave her a quick smile. “Yet.”

“He doesn’t sleep with the staff!”

Now Abby looked confused. “Why in the hell would you say that?”

Uh… “Because he told me?”

Abby laughed as she slammed her locker shut. “Don’t believe everything that Kace says. The man is a charmer.” Her gaze came back to Bree. “But he’s also—” Then she stopped, seeming to catch herself.

Bree wasn’t about to let that go. “He’s also what?”

Abby looked over her shoulder. A few other waitresses were talking just a few feet away. “He’s a good boss.” Abby straightened her shoulders. “You did a great job tonight, Bree. See you again tomorrow.” Without another word, she hurried for the door.

Bree watched Abby in silence, then she quietly closed her locker. Were the other women watching her? She could have sworn she felt their eyes on her, but when she looked their way, they turned their heads. “Good night,” she called to them as she ducked her head and headed out. Just when she reached the door—

“Wish I could sleep with the boss. He’s hot as fuck.”

Her cheeks burned as she caught the comment from one of the other waitresses. Great. Everyone thought she was screwing Kace. She kept her head down, and she hurried through the club. No one stopped her as she made her way to Kace’s office, and Bree figured he’d spread the word that the guards weren’t supposed to stand in her way. She even passed by Remy, and he just backed up at her approach.

“He’s waiting for you.” Remy gave a slow nod.

She offered him a weak smile, one that fled right before Bree stormed into Kace’s office. Bree swung open that door with authority and—

He was on the phone.

“Right. One million and that’s fucking it.” He lifted a hand toward her as he kept talking on the phone. “Do I sound like I give a shit? Get it done or disappear.”

What? Who said stuff like that? Uh, obviously, Kace. Kace Quick.

He ended the call without another word. Then he leaned back in his chair. Stared at her. He’d changed clothes. The suit was gone. Now he wore a t-shirt and a battered, leather jacket. Beneath the desk, she could see his jeans as he stretched out his long legs.

Her hands twisted in front of her. He was just staring. Had he forgotten that he’d asked to see her? “You said I needed to see you before I left.”

His mouth hitched up. “You made it through the first night. Dammit. I’m going to lose my bet with Remy.”

She blinked.

“Didn’t think you would. I mean, you come in here, looking like some well-bred debutante, and carrying a total BS resume. You’re fragile as shit. I think a strong wind would knock you down. I take one look and say, no way does this woman belong in my world.” His gaze slid over her. “No way.”

His words pissed her off. “You don’t know me.”

“You look like a lost princess. Shouldn’t you be in some fancy world full of ball gowns and ballerinas? I mean, that is what you did, right? Dance?”

Pain was a thick knot in her stomach. “My parents died when I was fifteen years old. The life I’d had then died with them.” She didn’t know why he was grilling her, but she was going to give him the truth, then he’d better back the hell off. “A debutante? No, I was on the street.”

Now his gaze jerked to hers.

“There was no family to take me in. Foster kids at fifteen? We’re not exactly scooped up by willing families. We’re automatically labeled as ‘special needs’ because of our ages. I got sent to a group home. I got locked away there until I turned eighteen, and the minute I did, I was on the street. Gladly on the street.” She’d hated that group home and the icy cold that always seemed to consume the place. “I waited tables every single day. And night. I know how to do this job. I don’t need some jerk like you giving me a hard time because—”

He rose to his feet. “I’m sorry.”

Why did he sound so sincere?

Kace stalked to her side. He stood near her, and as crazy as it seemed, Bree could have sworn that his pose was…protective.

“I’m sorry about your parents.” And there was sympathy on his face. “I’m sorry that you lost the life you had with them. I said you were a princess because that is what you fucking remind me of. A woman who should be showered with presents. Someone who should be protected and treasured.”

Her shoulders stiffened. “I don’t need anyone else protecting me.” She could do that job just fine on her own.

“My mistake.” His eyes gleamed. “I think I misjudged you.”

“It happens a lot.” She was always being underestimated, and normally, it didn’t bother her. She did her job, and she proved them wrong. She had waited tables when she’d left that group home. She’d worked her way through college. Graduated at the top of her class. Gotten into the FBI. All on her own. All without anyone’s help or protection.

She wasn’t looking for some white knight. Hell, no. And even if she had been…that role would never go to a man like Kace Quick.

“It won’t happen again,” he told her softly. “There is far more to you than meets the eye.”

He had no idea.

“And what about you?” Time to do her job. “Are you just the criminal or is there more to you?”

His smile had her breath catching. “Sweet Bree. Since we’re both being so incredibly honest with one another, there are a few things you need to realize about me.” He wasn’t touching her, but she could feel the warmth of his body all around her. “First, I don’t like the word ‘criminal.’ It implies I’m breaking laws. And, since I’m not in a jail…” His sentence trailed off. “Well, I’m obviously a law-abiding citizen. So, let’s not use insulting labels with each other, hmm?” His eyes twinkled a bit, and she could have sworn he was laughing at her.

“My bad,” she said, and her words indicated that clearly, it wasn’t her bad.

“Next up, I’m not some horrible monster. I have never hurt anyone in this world. At least, not anyone who did not deserve the pain that was coming to him.”

What kind of confession was that?

“I have friends, and I have enemies. You never want to be one of my enemies.”

“What happens to your enemies?” Her voice had gone even softer.

He stepped closer. His body almost brushed against her. “Any fucking thing I want.”

Her heart was pounding too fast in her chest. “And your friends?”

“I take care of them. I protect them.”

“I already told you—I don’t need protection.”

“Maybe you don’t. Not today. But if that should change…”

She had no idea what the guy meant. Nothing was going to change. Except she might find evidence to toss his ass in jail. With that in mind… “What happens to your lovers?”

His head tilted. His pupils seemed to expand.

“I heard about the friends and the enemies. What about the lovers?”

His hand lifted. Cupped her cheek. “Trust me, sweetheart, my lovers never have complaints.”

“So much arrogance,” she muttered. “And you need to stop calling me sweetheart.”

He smiled. “It’s not arrogance. It’s honesty.” Then he winked. Winked.

“I cannot figure you out.” Absolute truth. “You are not what I expected.”

“Then maybe we were both wrong.” His hand dropped.

Why did she immediately miss his warmth?

He turned his back on her. Headed toward a closet to the right.

“You need to learn to tell people good-bye,” she groused. “When a conversation is over, tell the person.”

He opened the closet, but angled to frown back at her. “What are you talking about?”

“A moment ago, you just hung up on the person you were talking with on the phone.”

“Because I was done with that jackass.”

She wondered who the jackass had been. “And right now, you just walked away from me. If you’re done with our chat and I’m free to go, tell me—”

“I’m not done with you.” He pulled out a helmet from the closet. “I was just getting you safety gear.” Taking his time, he returned to her. Then he pushed the gleaming, black helmet into her hands. “You ride?”

“No.” Never.

“That’s okay. I’ll be driving. All you have to do is hold on.”

“I am not getting on a motorcycle with you.” She shoved the helmet back at him.

Kace didn’t take it. “You walked here for your shift. It’s four a.m. You seriously think I’m going to let you walk back to your place at this hour? What kind of boss would I be if I did that?”

“You are not giving all your staff members a ride on your motorcycle.”

“No, tonight, it’s just you. Because you’re the one who walked here alone.”

Okay. Why was she fighting him? For her cover, she needed him close. But… “You’re dropping me at the door. I don’t want you getting ideas. You’re not sleeping with me.”

He laughed.

She was starting to find his laugh sexy. That was a problem. Her eyes narrowed at him.

“What is it?” Kace asked.

“Swear to me. Swear to me right now that you did not kill those two women I saw on the news.”

All traces of humor left his face.

“Because the cops think you did it. The media is running wild with the story. And now you’re asking me to hop onto a motorcycle and ride off into the night with you.” She shook her head. “I need some kind of reassurance here.” If she weren’t working a case, no way in hell would she get on the motorcycle with a man like him.

“I swear to you,” his gaze held hers, no wavering at all, “that I did not kill Lindsey or Ciara. But when I find out who did kill them…” His jaw hardened. “You don’t want to know what I’ll do. They were good women. They didn’t deserve what happened to them.”

“No one deserves that,” she whispered back. “No one deserves to feel that much fear before death. To have some bastard take your life away.”

A muscle flexed along his jaw. “I’m seeing you home safely tonight. All of my staff members are taking precautions. Leaving with someone they trust, leaving in pairs. The tourists packed my bar tonight because half of them wanted the thrill of being in a would-be killer’s club.”

She still held the helmet. “And the other half?”

“They just love a good show.”

Bree bit her lower lip.

“Trust me,” he rasped. “I’ll take care of you.”

Her shoulders rolled back. “It’s not my home, okay?” She turned and headed for the door. “It’s just a place I’m staying at in town. A bed and breakfast. I told you that during my interview.” She hadn’t been in a real home, not in a very long time.

“Bree?”

He was behind her. She felt his hand brush her shoulder. She wouldn’t stiffen. Would not. But she glanced back at him.

“Trust me,” he said again.

She didn’t reply. A few moments later, they were heading out the back of the club. A motorcycle was parked nearby. Remy waited there, glancing around the dark alley. When he saw them, he appeared to do a double-take.

“Ah, boss…” Remy began.

“I’m taking Bree home. I’ll check in tomorrow.” He climbed onto the bike. Had the engine revving hard and fast.

Bree held tighter to the helmet.

Remy was watching her. Was that suspicion in his eyes? It was so dark that it was hard to tell for certain.

Kace extended his hand toward her. “Put on the helmet, sweet—uh, Bree.”

He’d stopped calling her sweetheart.

She put on the helmet. Squared her shoulders. Then she reached for his hand. His fingers curled around hers, and the electric shot of desire was there again. A surge of need that leapt between them. She didn’t know what the hell that was about. Unexpected. Unwanted. But so very, very strong.

Bree straddled the motorcycle. She locked her arms around Kace’s waist.

Trust me. His words played through her mind again. And as they shot through the darkness, Bree thought…

No way.

There was no way in hell she could ever trust a man like Kace Quick.

Chapter Four

Kace braked the motorcycle in front of the small bed and breakfast in the French Quarter. Bree’s arms were still around him, her body pressed to his back. He liked the way she felt against him.

He liked her.

Too much.

She slid away from him, hurried off the bike, and pushed the helmet at him. “Thanks for the ride.” Bree tucked her hair behind her ear. He liked it when she did that. She seemed nervous when she reached for her hair. Hesitant.

He was learning her tells. Learning all her secrets. And the woman had plenty of those. He knew that Bree Harlow was a liar, straight to her core.

He’d brought her home so that he could see where she lived. So that he could apply the right pressure on the owner of the bed and breakfast and get more information on Bree.

She’d made it through the first night at Fantasy. One night down, so many more to go.

When she turned away, he reached out and snagged her hand. His left still gripped the helmet she’d pushed at him, but his right hand circled hers. “You feel it, don’t you? When we touch?”

A quick nod. Ah, more honesty.

“What are we going to do about that?” Kace knew what he’d like to do.

“Nothing.” Her voice was breathless. “You don’t sleep with your staff, remember?”

“Right.” He tugged her closer. “I could fire you.”

“And I could sue you,” she shot right back.

God, he could like this woman. I think I already do. “Good. Don’t ever take shit from anyone.” He let her go. “I’ll stay here until you get inside.”

She blinked. It was too dark for him to see the gold of her eyes clearly, and he hated that. He rather enjoyed seeing the emotions flash in her eyes.

“Can’t figure me out, can you?” Kace laughed softly. “Don’t worry. I’m having the same trouble with you.”

Her gaze was on his mouth. No, no way. She wouldn’t—

Bree leaned forward and pressed a quick kiss to his lips. The kiss lasted all of two seconds. It was the most chaste kiss he’d ever felt in his life.

And he couldn’t remember anything turning him on more.

But she immediately backed away. “OhmyGod. What did I do?”

The laughter came from him again. “You kissed me.”

Why did I do that?” Bree sounded horrified.

So Kace decided to help her out. “Because you want me. And I want you.” They could be honest about this part, at least. “It’s going to be a problem.”

She snatched her hand from his.

“Be warned, Bree. Next time, I’ll kiss you. It will last longer. Be way deeper. The problem is, if I start, I’m worried I may not stop.”

“There is no next time.”

Then she marched away, hurrying up the steps and into the bed and breakfast. All of the lights inside were off, and he didn’t like that. Darkness could be dangerous. Especially for someone like Bree. In this town.

So he sat there, and he waited, and when the lights flashed on in the upstairs room—what had to be her room—he finally shoved the helmet on his head. He saw her shadow walk past the window. Bree was in safe for the night. She was—

A second shadow joined hers. A bigger shadow that surged toward her. A shadow that grabbed her.

Oh, the fuck, no.

***

“What in the hell happened tonight?” Grayson had lunged from the shadows and locked his hand around her arm. He swung Bree around to face him. “You stopped transmitting! I got nothing but static all night long, and then I find you coming home with him!

The guy had been waiting in her room? The last thing she’d expected was to find her boss hiding in her closet. Okay, technically, he wasn’t in her closet. He’d been standing where—near the window of the bedroom? “I had to ditch the transmitter.” She lifted her chin. “Turns out, Kace Quick is a very paranoid man. He gets all of his workers scanned for listening devices every night.”

“What?” Shock slackened his mouth. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, and I would have thought the FBI’s intel would have picked up that little tidbit! I mean, I was walking in there blind. I barely had enough time to yank out the device and crush it beneath my heel.” She’d deliberately stumbled into Remy so that she could pull out the small piece of tech. “Kace scanned me personally. If he’d found that tracker on me, he would have kicked me out on my ass.”

Grayson was still holding her arm. “He brought you home tonight.”

Yes, and things just weren’t adding up. “Kace has a protective streak.”

“Bullshit. He’s a killer, he has—”

The door to her room crashed open. “Get the fuck away from her!

Kace stood in the doorway, his face dark with fury and his hands clenched. He didn’t wait for Grayson to comply. Instead, he rushed across the room and grabbed the other man.

Kace was bigger than Grayson, by a few inches, and more muscled, and when he locked his hands on Grayson—

Oh, hell. He’s about to assault a federal officer! “Kace, stop!” She yanked free of Grayson and put herself between the two men. “Stop!”

His gaze flew to her face. There was so much fury in his stare. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“I saw his shadow. Saw him grab you.”

He’d seen all of that from the street?

Bree, are you sure that you’re okay?”

He’d seen that—and then rushed to help her.

She looked over his shoulder and saw the owner of the bed and breakfast, Kelly Queen, frowning and clutching her robe to her chest. Kelly Queen had to be pushing eighty, but she usually moved with the spry energy of a woman half her age. Her bright red hair shot from her head in corkscrew curls. Ms. Queen was definitely not looking pleased. The lines on her face had thickened into an angry scowl.

This was bad. “I’m fine.” Bree tried to appear calm. “I’m okay. Really.”

“You aren’t supposed to have visitors here. Not at this time,” Ms. Queen announced, her voice a little too high and sharp. “You’re disturbing the other guests.”

Were the other guests all in the hallway, craning to see what was happening in her room?

“Who is he?” Kace demanded as he glared at Grayson. “And why did he have his hands on you?”

The best way to handle this—truth. Or at least, part of the truth. “Grayson is my ex.”

A growl came from Kace.

Grayson’s fingers slid over her shoulder.

Get your fucking hand off her.” Kace’s voice was lethal.

Grayson’s hand tightened. “I think you’re misunderstanding the situation.”

“Oh, Lord,” Ms. Queen said. “Lord!” It sounded like she started to pray.

“Am I misunderstanding?” Kace stared at Bree. “Did you know he was going to be in your room tonight?”

“No.” Another truth.

“Did he grab you when you entered?”

“Yes.”

His jaw clenched tight, Kace gritted, “Do you want him here?”

I want you all to leave!” Ms. Queen cried out before Bree could answer. “Leave! I can’t handle this! I know who you are, Kace Quick. I know—”

He turned toward her, and, voice without emotion now, he said, “Ms. Queen, I’ll be leaving in just a moment. And I’ll make sure to provide a very generous donation to make up for the trouble. If you don’t mind, though, how about you exit this room and shut the door so I don’t provide more of a show for your guests? Shut the door and tell everyone to go back to bed.”

Her mouth gaped, then closed. Then she was scurrying out and slamming the door shut. Bree heard Ms. Queen’s voice in the hallway as she instructed the other guests to return to their rooms.

“Bree,” Grayson was still gripping her shoulder. “I don’t know who this bozo is…” Ah, obviously, he was playing along. Like he had a choice. The only other option was to reveal the truth about who they were. “But he needs to get the hell out of here.”

Kace didn’t speak again. He just moved—fast. He lunged forward and grabbed Grayson’s hand, wrenching it from Bree’s shoulder and then whirling. When Bree blinked, she realized that Grayson was on his knees, his face was tight with pain as Kace held Grayson’s hand—and arm—at a very unnatural angle.

“Let him go,” she whispered to Kace.

He did. Immediately. He also moved to stand protectively near her. His attention remained fixed on Grayson. “Get the hell out,” Kace ordered flatly. “Don’t come near her again. If you do…”

Grayson was on his feet. Glaring. “What? What will you do to me?”

Kace…smiled. And the cold smile in itself was a promise.

Grayson turned his glare on Bree. “We aren’t finished.”

No, they weren’t. She needed to brief him on everything that had happened, but this sure wasn’t the time.

“You are finished,” Kace assured him. “Bree might have been yours once, but from here on out, she’s mine.”

Now she jerked in surprise. “I’m not anyone’s.”

“Get your ass out of here,” Kace barked to Grayson. “And if you see Ms. Queen, you be nice to her.”

Grayson stormed out.

Silence.

Bree turned toward him. “You didn’t…” She cleared her throat. Kace thought he’d just saved her from a jealous ex. How should she respond to that scenario? What should she say? Maybe… “Thank you.”

“I’ll talk to Ms. Queen. He will not be getting back in to see you.” Kace’s eyes narrowed. “What in the hell is the story? Does he live in New Orleans? Did you come down here for him? Or did—”

“I’ve been trying to get away from him. It’s over.” Their physical relationship was over. Had been for a while. It had been over almost before it began. “I’m not going back to that place with him again.”

Kace’s eyes studied her. “Good.” He leaned toward her, and Bree thought that he was going to kiss her—

He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Get some rest.”

Then he walked toward the door.

She stood there a moment, gaping after him. Kace Quick was supposed to be the big bad in the city. And yet he’d just rushed to her rescue. Since when was the criminal the hero? Or…was it possible…were the others wrong about him? Because he was not fitting the profile that she’d read on him. He wasn’t cold and calculating. He was white-hot. Burning with emotions. “I don’t get you.”

He swung his head toward her and gave Bree a fleeting smile. “If I don’t leave now, I’m going to kiss you. Hard and deep, and we already talked about where that would lead.” He rolled back his shoulders. “I didn’t like that SOB being here. I didn’t like his hand being on you. I find that—where you’re concerned—I’m a bit predatory. Possessive.”

“We just met.”

“Yeah, like that matters. Some connections are primal. That’s what we are. Primal. And if you try to say you don’t feel it, too…” A shrug. “You should know, I’ve figured out how to tell when you lie.”

No way. But… “I feel it.” Her admission. She found herself walking toward him. Pulled to him. He turned to fully face her, putting his back against the door. “No one has ever tried to save me before.” That was another truth.

“Then you’ve been hanging around with straight-up assholes.”

She laughed. “You…are an asshole. Everyone says so.” Yet she closed the space between them. Put her hands on his shoulders. Curled her fingers over his jacket.

“I am. Don’t deny it.” His eyes gleamed. “But I am an asshole who would never hurt you.”

“Kace…”

“Step back, or I’m taking your mouth.”

She didn’t step back. And it wasn’t because of the case. Wasn’t because she was supposed to be getting close to him. Supposed to be learning all of his secrets. She rose onto her tip-toes. She brought her mouth closer to his because she wanted him.

Primal. Primitive. Yes, that was the way it was between them.

She wanted him.

Nothing would have stopped her right then. Nothing.

This time, the kiss wasn’t chaste. She met him with her lips parted, and his tongue immediately plunged inside. He didn’t kiss her softly. Didn’t treat her like she was some fragile piece of glass. He ravaged her mouth. Kissed her with rough hunger, savage need. His mouth fed on hers. His hands curled around her hips, and he lifted her up, moving her higher so that she felt the long, hard length of his cock shoving against her.

She gasped into his mouth. Realized that her nipples had gone tight and that she was arching against his cock. Realized it wouldn’t take much to have her raking her nails down his back—his naked back. Because the need was that hot. That consuming.

A firestorm, burning her alive.

“Stop,” she whispered against his mouth.

He did. He lowered Bree to her feet. His breath sawed in and out, and the lust was clear to see on his face. “Much better,” he muttered.

Yes, that kiss had been way better.

“There’s a bed behind you, Bree. Want to fuck?”

Well, things had been better until then.

“Just kidding, sweet Bree.” His fingers skimmed down her cheek. “Go to bed. Alone. You’re safe tonight.”

It was barely night. Dawn would be there before she knew it.

“I’ll see you back at Fantasy. Nine p.m. sharp.”

She wished that she could understand him. “Are all the things people say about you true?”

A half-smile curled his lips. “No.”

Bree was starting to think—

“The truth is one hell of a lot worse. Don’t forget that.” He inclined his head. “Night, Bree.”

And he left her. She was still aching for him, still turned on, and still trying to figure out if Kace Quick truly was a monster. Or if maybe he could be something more.

***

When Kace got back to the street, Bree’s ex was long gone. Too bad. He would have enjoyed beating the shit out of the guy. Why the hell did the joker think he could just break into Bree’s room? I didn’t like his hands on her.

That would be a problem. Kace knew he was getting far too involved with Bree. And they’d only just met.

He climbed onto the bike, but didn’t start the motorcycle. Instead, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the wallet he’d taken from Bree’s ex. The fool hadn’t even noticed it when Kace had made the grab. Mostly because Kace was good with his hands. When he’d been a teenager, he’d spent his nights lightening the loads of tourists along the streets. A little bump barely felt at all by most people, and he’d had cash in his hand.

This time, though, he wasn’t interested in cash. He wanted to know who the hell that bastard had really been. Because the fellow had looked familiar. Kace opened the wallet. Saw the FBI badge inside. Fucking hell.

FBI Special Agent Grayson Wesley.

Rage burned inside of him. He shoved the wallet back into his jacket. Grabbed for his helmet and then was surging into the night. He wanted Bree, but he’d be damned if he let her use him. There was no way he would fall into an FBI trap.

Maybe it was time to show the Feds just who was the real boss of this town.

***

He didn’t take her body to the St Louis Cathedral. He was tempted, oh, so very tempted. But the cops were watching that location. He’d left two bodies there for the cops to find, and the uniforms had staked out the space, being ever so vigilant now.

They had no imagination. They didn’t get that the whole city was his. He could do anything he wanted.

So, he chose another spot. He headed out onto the trolley tracks, picking the Canal Street Station. The first trolley wouldn’t come out until closer to six a.m. He hoped the driver was paying attention. If not, maybe one of the riders would find his lady.

He carried her across the tracks. The darkness hid him so well. He didn’t put her on the tracks, that seemed too obvious, so he put her on the side. Spread her out.

Her hands were still bound together. She’d been a fighter. A surprise, that. His gloved fingers trailed over her cheek, and her eyes flickered open.

“Hello, there.” He was glad that she’d woken up for this part. This was the best part, after all.

Her lips parted. He knew she’d scream. They always tried to scream, so he jerked tight the rope that he’d wrapped around her neck. Only a wheeze slipped from her lips as he pulled that rope so taut. Her body jerked and twisted as she strained against him, and he just kept his fierce grip on the rope. Her mouth was wide open, her eyes so wide. The light from the Canal Street Station provided him with just enough illumination to see—

“Hey!” The shout had his shoulders stiffening. “What are you doing?”

Fuck. No one should have seen him. No one should be there, but some piece of shit bum was staggering his way.

He let go of the rope around her neck. She pulled in a gasping breath. Still alive.

The bum was ruining everything. Hating it, he pulled out the knife from his boot. And he shoved the blade into her chest. Her blood poured out, wet and disgusting, but he’d done the job.

He whirled and ran as the bum screamed out after him. The bum was screaming as loud as he could, and for a moment, he thought about killing that bastard.

Then he saw the flash of police lights in the distance.

Get away. Get away. He leapt across the trolley tracks and ran fast for the vehicle he’d stashed nearby.

His victim had been found before she’d taken her last breath. But he didn’t worry. She wouldn’t survive. There was no way she’d live to tell the world who he was. He’d aimed for the bitch’s heart. She’d bleed out.

I have her blood on me.

Shit. He had to get rid of the evidence. He’d made his first mistake that night. His first and his last.

The Feds won’t touch me. I’m invincible. They can’t touch me…