Step One: Appearances are everything when you’re taking a walk on the wild side.
People believe what they see—so be sure to give them one hell of a show.
“I’m a badass. Want to say those words with me? You know, say them until you believe them, and they sink into your very soul.”
Seth Wellington blinked and realized that he’d been staring into the crystal whiskey glass in his hand for far too long. The limo cruised along, sliding down the rain-slickened streets, and the faint hint of seductive perfume teased the air around him. Her perfume. Smelled like freaking lilies or roses or just something beautiful. His gaze drifted from the whiskey he hadn’t tasted and over to her.
Harley Adaire sat across from him in the limo. One foot—adorned in a spiky, black, two-inch heel—swung lazily. His stare started on that foot, then drifted slowly up the tempting expanse of her legs—tanned, toned legs—then toward the lower edge of the black dress that skimmed her thighs.
His breath rushed out.
Up, up, his gaze went, past the middle of the dress that dipped at her waist, then higher as the dark material stretched over what he suspected were truly spectacular breasts. Then, higher still, his focus shifted to the long, thick tresses of hair that spilled over her shoulders. Hair that looked completely dark now, but in the sunlight, faint red highlights could catch fire within that darkness. As he continued his perusal, Seth took in her face. The face that had been slipping into his mind far too much lately.
Right, like images of her body don’t slip into my head practically nonstop.
A curving jaw. A delicate nose. Wide eyes. Not brown, not gold, either. Somewhere in the middle. Deep and so bold. When those eyes locked on you, a man felt it to his soul.
Seth sure felt her stare seeming to sink through him. While he’d been looking at her, beautiful Harley had been taking her time studying him, too. And he could clearly hear the disappointment in the sigh she expelled.
“They are going to eat you up and spit you out.” A dire warning.
Seth blinked. “No, please, tell me what you really think.” Talk about insulting. Way to rip into a man’s ego and shred it on the pavement.
“I think you’re GQ perfect.” She waved an annoyed hand his way. “Which, honestly, you look fine.”
“Thanks. Your compliments are killer. Not sure if anyone has ever told you that, so just in case, do let me be the first.”
“It’s the attitude that is way off.” She leaned forward. The top of the dress dipped. “It will be what sinks us.”
His jaw locked. Do not look at the top of her dipping dress. “Attitude?”
“I am a badass.”
“So you keep telling me.” He cleared his throat and put down the whiskey. He’d originally thought a drink might help to settle his nerves, but now he realized he didn’t want to go into this meeting with anything less than a completely clear head. After all this time, I am finally so close to my goal.
“Not me. The line isn’t for me. You. You are the badass. You are the one who is supposed to be projecting this devil-may-care, I-can-take-on-the-world-and-burn-it-down-if-I’m-bored vibe.” She made a tsk-tsk sound. Actual tsk-tsk. “Instead, I look at you, and the vibe I get is prep-school grad.”
His shoulders stiffened.
“Ivy League player.”
Seth’s hand shoved through his hair.
“Bored rich kid turned equally bored—and somewhat jaded—man.”
The hand that had just shoved through his hair flattened on the leather seat next to him.
“Again, they will eat you up and spit you out.” She huffed out a breath. “God, you are so lucky to have me right now.”
Only, he didn’t have her. Not really. What he had—
“With me as your bodyguard,” Harley plowed on, “you at least have a chance of coming out alive. But you seriously have got to listen to me. Do everything I say in there, or some very, very dangerous people—real badasses, not pretend ones like you—will realize that you are trying to scam them. Then they will dump your body in a place where it will never be found.” Her lips pursed. “Actually, this is Louisiana. I suppose they could just drop you in a swamp. Bloody you up a bit, and then let the gators take care of everything else.”
“You are an absolute ray of sunshine.” He stared straight into her eyes. “And I am grateful every day for the moment we met.”
Her smile came, immediately lighting her eyes to a more golden hue even as she stretched her full lips and let the dimple on the right side of her face wink teasingly at him. “You mean that poignant first moment when I tased you? Our electric initial meeting.”
Yep. That moment. The one that was burned into his memory. Because the woman sitting so casually across from him—telling him that he might very well wind up as gator bait—had originally met him when she pumped who the hell knew how many volts of electricity into his body.
“In my defense,” she murmured, clearly fighting her smile…as if the memory of him shuddering brought her pleasure, “I did think you were a bad guy who was running away. I believed you were a murderer. And, seriously, pro tip, innocent men shouldn’t run.”
He rolled back his shoulders. “They do if they are being framed.”
Her fingers snapped together. “That’s the whole vibe we need to recapture,” Harley exclaimed. Her normally sultry voice had ramped up with excitement. “Channel the bad guy vibe you used to have.”
The woman was making him crazy.
Harley gave two encouraging nods. “We want the people that we are about to meet to believe you’re a murderer. And not a pampered rich kid playing at undercover work.”
A muscle jerked along his jaw. “I’m not playing at anything.” He was also far, far from a kid.
“Oh.” She leaned forward more. Her top dipped more, too.
Dammit. He’d looked. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Her tongue swiped over her plump lower lip. “Did I strike a nerve?”
Lots and lots of them. “You’re working for me, Harley. I’m the one who gives the orders.” At the time, hiring her had seemed like such a brilliant plan. The woman clearly knew how to take care of herself. After all, she worked for Wilde, the best security agency in the country. Or, at least, that was what Eric Wilde, the owner of the place, claimed. The company catered to the rich and famous. If you wanted discrete protection, Wilde was your go-to for service.
Because of the rather unusual situation in which Seth found himself, he’d needed some discrete protection. The kind of protection that would fly right under the radar. He was currently in a mess way, way over his head, and having a bodyguard at the ready in case things went to hell?
But the longer he was with Harley, the more he started to doubt the sheer brilliance of his plan. Instead of brilliance, he felt like it edged more and more toward madness. “Maybe I should have hired someone else.”
“Why?” Her foot swung lazily. “You have the best.”
“I have the one with the biggest ego, clearly.” He turned his head to peer through the window. They were almost to the Garden District and their destination. “You were convenient.”
Her laughter filled the back of the limo. Warm, husky, and utterly amused. “I assure you, you are the first man who has ever used that word to describe me.”
“I knew you when I made the job offer,” he continued through gritted teeth. Harley is definitely not convenient. A miscalculation. He’d learned that fast. “I’d seen you in action.” He had. The woman could handle herself well when danger unfolded. She didn’t hesitate to go after targets twice her size, and she kept an arctic cool about herself. And… “I didn’t want my enemies to know I had a bodyguard at my side. I needed a confidant who could help balance the scales so they’d be caught off guard.” Once more, his gaze slid back to her. “You look defenseless as hell.” She could definitely catch people off guard.
Her full lips tugged down into a pout. “Now you’re hurting my feelings. Is this because I said you were a pampered, rich boy? Want me to take it back?”
“You know my words are a compliment.” Unlike yours. “You want to look defenseless and seductive.” He waved his hand toward her. “It’s all part of your vibe. You like to catch people by surprise so they underestimate you. That’s what I needed. Someone my enemies would underestimate. They won’t think you’re a threat, and that can help me in a pinch, but…” His words kind of drifted away.
Shit. He was going to have to finish talking. “There’s having something in theory,” he muttered. “And then having to deal with it in actual practice.” Fear slid through him. Not for himself, but for her. Who the hell would have thought that he’d ever be worried about his bodyguard’s safety? But here he was. Here they were. “If my targets find out I’m lying, you’ll be just as much gator bait as I will be. Because I pulled you into this mess, we’ll die together.”
She kept waiting. No hint of fear showed on her face. No hesitation at all. I am a badass. Right, that was pure Harley Adaire.
As the tension stretched between them, Harley finally said, “Death is a risk on every job that I take from Wilde. Your case isn’t anything special.”
“Uh, I think it is. You’re usually watching bored celebrities or keeping crazed fans away from rock stars. You’re not—” He broke off and glanced toward the front of the limo. The privacy shield was in place, blocking them from the view of the driver, a driver who wasn’t really his employee. Instead, the man taking them to this late-night meet-up with plenty of shady characters was an FBI agent. Seth’s life seemed to suddenly be filled with Feds.
Mostly because it was the FBI pulling the strings on his current nightmare world. When it turned out that your father was a murdering mob boss with more ties to the criminal underworld than anyone else…there was a penalty to be paid. You didn’t just get to go skipping off into the sunset.
You got a swift trip right into the middle of hell. Courtesy of dear old dad’s contacts.
“I’m not—what?” Harley asked, and Seth realized he’d just left the words hanging in the air. Before he could think of something to say, she added, “I’m not currently watching some billionaire with a death wish as he decides to infiltrate a criminal underworld for shits and giggles?” She slid from her seat and came to sit right beside him. Her leg brushed against his even as her enchanting scent wrapped around him. Was that perfume? Or was that just pure Harley? And why was he practically gulping in her scent like some kind of obsessed stalker?
Then her words registered, and Seth stiffened. “I’m not doing this for shits and giggles.” Not even close. His plans had been in motion for a long time.
“No?” Careful doubt. “Then is it because the Feds are making you do this? You haven’t quite been clear with me. Another issue I have with our partnership. You can’t communicate worth a damn.”
It was hard to communicate when you were keeping so many secrets. “Things are on a, uh, need-to-know basis.”
“Bullshit.” The word slid from her lips like a caress.
That word should not have been sexy. In no universe was bullshit a sexy word. The problem was that Harley was sexy.
And she wasn’t done. Her measuring gaze seemed to look for cracks in his armor. “You hired me because you said you wanted someone you could trust at your side.” Her body pressed a little closer to him. “Well, here I am. Right at your side.”
He swallowed. “You are very close right now.” Wonderfully close. Nope. Not an option. Get back on track, man.
“Your details on this operation have been scant. I get that you’re working with the Feds. My own dives and intel pulls showed me that. Only I don’t understand quite why you’re doing it. You have a fortune at your fingertips. Houses all over the world. You could jet off on a plane tomorrow and never look back.” Her head tilted to the right. “Instead, you’re in bed with the Feds and you’re about to risk your life by walking into the devil’s den.”
“I’m not in bed with the Feds.” He wasn’t in bed with anyone. And if he was…let it be Harley. Dammit. This attraction was getting out of hand. “I’m working the cases with them, I’m here now because someone has to clean up all the blood my father left behind.” Gruff and truthful. His father had killed so many people. He’d lied. He’d betrayed. And…he wanted me to be just like him. Plenty of people—the wrong people—thought that Seth was, in fact, just like his father. Edward Wellington. Also known as Big Eddie Wells. And there had been plenty of other aliases. When it came down to the bitter truth, his father had been a murdering monster. Like father, like son?
Most in the underworld believed that to be the case, and that was why the Feds were trying to use him.
Flying away? Never looking back? Not an option. The Feds wanted to use him, and he, in turn, intended to use them. A symbiotic relationship. Of sorts.
“You want to clean up the bloodshed your father left. That sounds almost badassy.” A nod from her. “Excellent first step for your new persona.”
“Harley—” He’d been doing this persona just fine for quite a while without her. He wasn’t completely inept. Now he was just getting insulted.
“You picked the right bodyguard, Seth.” Her stare didn’t waver. “I do slide under the radar. Story of my life, always being underestimated. That happens when you’re five-foot-three and have crazy doe eyes that make people think you need protecting.”
He would not describe them as doe eyes. Maybe when she’d been a kid, but now they were intense. Deep. Filled with passion.
“One day I realized that instead of letting that make me angry, I’d just use other people’s low expectations against them.” A shrug that just had her brushing against him even more. “It works for me. I can make it work for you, too. But you have to listen to me. You have to trust me. Just as I have to trust you.”
He did trust her. Wasn’t that why she was in the limo with him? He trusted her more than he did the Feds. The Feds were working their own agenda. Harley was…his.
His, um, bodyguard. His confidant.
“I’ve been around the type of people you will find waiting for us. They are people that can smell blood in the water and come in faster than any shark. Leave your manners at the door. If someone gives you shit, then you shove it right back in their faces.”
His mouth opened. Closed. Maybe he should take her advice.
“Act like you can kill someone in a second if they piss you off. Act like you are the one with the power and nothing else matters. You don’t have fear. You see what you want, and you take it. Done. They aren’t going to respect you if you have nice manners, Seth. They don’t care if you went to etiquette classes when you were a kid and you know which fork to pick up at a fancy dinner. They’re only going to respect you if they think you can kick all of their asses.”
Hell. “This is supposed to be a business meeting. Not a fight.”
“The business is death and murder. Accept that and things will go much easier.” Her hand rose and patted his cheek.
Patted. Like he was a baby or a puppy or some such annoying BS.
“Everything in your new world is a fight,” she informed him. “It just might not look that way on the surface, but it is. Elegance is a lie. Beauty is a trick. And civilized behavior? That’s the greatest scam they can play on you.”
His father had certainly been a master at that scam. And he thought I would be just like him. Her hand started to slide away, but Seth’s fingers rose to curl around her wrist. “Maybe I’m not as civilized as you think.”
Her smile came again, making that distracting dimple wink. “I hope you’re not. I hope you’re completely savage under your cold veneer.”
“I can be whatever the situation needs me to be.” Harley didn’t know it yet, but one of the reasons the Feds had been so eager to use him? He could be a chameleon. A trait that had been honed to knife-point sharpness over the years. Information about him that most wouldn’t know? If he needed to be savage, he could be the most brutal bastard in the room. Thanks for the life lessons, Dad. If he needed to be the polished businessman, he could play that part in his sleep.
Evil. Good. Everything in between—he could be that. And so much more. The Feds had been damn gleeful the first time they’d seen him in action. He’d been in action several times over the last few months. He’d already nabbed more than his share of criminals in stings that the bad guys had never seen coming. And can’t tie back to me.
Harley might think he was playing some amateur-hour show, but she was about to see that he could bluff his way through just about anything. “Have a little faith. I’m more than you expect.” A delicate pause. “I have managed several operations just fine without you.”
“Well, if you had bothered to fully explain things to me, then I wouldn’t be so worried. And I wouldn’t feel like I needed to lecture you on stuff. I hate being the lecturing one.”
They hadn’t exactly had time for long chats where he revealed all his secrets. Not that he was big on revealing his secrets to anyone. He’d basically gotten Harley’s agreement to come on board as his bodyguard, he’d signed contracts with Wilde, and then he’d received the news that they had to haul ass to the Big Easy. And off they’d flown. “I told you to trust me. I’m not going to crash and burn. I can handle myself.”
“I hope so.” A slightly disgruntled mutter from her. “Just how many operations have you done solo?”
He couldn’t answer that, not without getting a whole lot of federal agents pissed at him. So he stared at her and realized he still held her wrist. Whoops. He should let her go. He didn’t. After all, part of the big masterplan was that he was supposed to pretend she was his girlfriend. That way, no one would know just how lethal she could be. A beautiful, bombshell girlfriend was something to be admired, not feared. They wouldn’t know to fear her until it was too late. “Are you armed?” Seth suddenly asked her. They were close to their destination, and he didn’t think they would let her in the door if she had any weapons on her. After they’d gotten settled at the hotel, he’d received the message about this little meet and greet, and he’d been told explicitly…
No weapons. Not from anyone attending this exclusive gathering.
It was supposed to be a neutral meeting zone. No weapons meant nobody died. Hopefully. He was so new at this freaking thing. Working with a partner was a completely different undertaking for him. Mental note—you do have to start sharing more with Harley. Not everything, of course. Just…more.
“Why don’t you frisk me and find out?” she dared.
Heat immediately pooled in his eager dick. Another major problem that he hadn’t anticipated when he first proposed their partnership—just how much he would want Harley. Okay, fine, he had known that he wanted her. It would be pretty much impossible not to want her because she constantly oozed this whole blend of sexiness and temptation. Sultry. That was what she was with her curves and sensual lips and bedroom eyes and—
“I am armed. I’d never let you go into any meeting without being able to protect your back.”
Her words yanked him out of the haze that should not have consumed him. “They’ll find the weapon. The game will be over before it starts. They said no weapons.” He was sure he’d told her that before they left their hotel suite. But things had been pretty frantic, so maybe he hadn’t.
Her face leaned closer to his. “They won’t find anything on me. At least, not if you get into the role you’re supposed to play. Stop being so good. Stop following rules. Try making the rules instead. People do what you order or you tell them to screw off.”
The limo slowed once more. Only this time, it wasn’t slowing to turn. They’d reached their destination. It was showtime, whether he wanted it to be or not.
She’s got a weapon on her. It will be found. Someone will hurt her. His hand jerked from hers and flew down to her thigh. He heard her swift inhalation as his fingers touched the silk of her skin and then—
“We’re here, Mr. Wellington.” The limo driver—and undercover FBI agent—had opened the limo’s door for them. Brent Marchello leaned inside, and his expression didn’t change even a little when he saw Seth’s hand curled around Harley’s thigh. An intimate position. Considering that Seth’s mouth was also inches from Harley’s, it would definitely look as if they’d been interrupted at an untimely moment. “Sorry to interrupt,” Brent added, voice carrying quite clearly in the air.
“We weren’t finished.” Harley’s husky voice. “Too bad. Guess we can conclude later, hmm, Seth?”
No, they could not because she would be searched, the charade would be over, and they’d both be potential gator bait. But, before he could say any of those things, she’d already slipped gracefully from the limo, and he had no choice but to follow her.
Seth climbed from the car and automatically swept his gaze to the mansion that waited behind the high, wrought iron gate. Nestled in the heart of the New Orleans Garden District, the mansion was a massive, stone-covered beast that rose from the shadows of giant oaks.
Harley nestled her body close to his. Even with her heels, he still had to bend his head toward her as she murmured, “Private and gated street. Got guards about every fifteen feet. Cameras strategically positioned to catch every movement. Security here is top notch.” She sent him a teasing smile. To onlookers, it would probably appear as if she was whispering something sweet and seductive to him. In Harley speak, maybe she was. She continued, “The guys near the front door both have holsters under the suit coats. So much for no weapons. Or was that a rule that only applied to invited guests?”
They were so screwed. His fault. He should have made certain the woman didn’t have a weapon on her. I was distracted. Too close to my end goal. Not thinking clearly.
Now what to do?
If they jumped back into the limo and sped away, what then? All of his plans would go up in smoke and he’d probably find a price on his head—and Harley’s head. No, he had to do this. At least try to do it. Squaring his shoulders, he offered his arm to her. She took the offering, laughing lightly as if she was having the time of her life—hell, maybe she was—and they headed up the stone walkway as the limo driver slammed the door shut behind them.
“If I had to guess…” Harley’s voice drifted lightly on the wind. “I’d say this house was built around 1915. It’s all in the architecture, you know. Truly, a magnificent home. Three stories. And would you look at that courtyard…”
He was just looking at the goons who’d opened the gate that guarded the house. Harley had been right before. The street had been private and gated, but a second gate led to the home, as well. The two men in suits opened the gate without a word, and Seth nodded curtly toward them because that seemed to be the thing to do.
He advanced toward the front of the house, knowing his quarry waited inside. So close. But the men at the door—men Harley had tagged as being armed before—shifted their positions. He saw the bulge of their holsters, too. Damn. Instead of waiting to the side, the men were now blocking the entrance to the house.
“Mr. Wellington,” one greeted, voice pleasant. Well, pleasant enough. “I’m sure you understand that we need to frisk you. That’s a rule for attending the private party tonight.”
Right. Because this wasn’t a one-on-one meeting. He could hear the faint hum of music coming from inside the sprawling mansion. Other limos would have dropped off guests during the night, too. Standard procedure for an event like this.
“No one gets in without being searched,” the man on the right said. He was smaller and stockier than his partner, with dark hair while the other guy had bright, blond hair. “Orders from our boss.”
Seth let go of Harley and raised his hands. “Knock yourself out.” He was impressed by his own bored tone. Have one hell of a good time. You won’t find a weapon on me.
They immediately patted him down. Fast and thorough. “Yeah, that’s my dick,” Seth said when the blond got a little too close. “Though I have been told it’s quite the impressive weapon on more than one occasion.”
The blond rolled his eyes and backed away.
Had that sounded badass? Or douchey? Did it matter? The search was over. Seth reached for Harley’s arm.
“She has to be searched, too.” From the blond. “Like I said, no one gets in without being searched.”
“Oh, darling, it’s fine.” Harley laughed. “What do I have to hide?” She put her hands in the air and did a little twirl. “Where would I even hide it?”
The blond reached for her.
Seth tensed. This was about to go south.
The man’s hands slid over her hips.
What the fuck? Rage built inside of Seth. Rage and jealousy, and Seth got one hell of an idea.
Then the blond bastard put his hands on her thighs and began to lift up her skirt—
Seth launched at him before he could second guess the plan bursting in his head. His body slammed into the blond’s as Seth shoved him aside. “You don’t put your fucking fingers on her.” He caught Harley’s hand. Pulled her behind him. Then both of his hands clenched into powerful fists. “No one touches her but me. Ever. Understand? If I say my lady doesn’t have a weapon, she doesn’t have a weapon. And if you want to call me a fucking liar, then do it. Then I’ll break your face, and I’ll leave this house, and you can tell your boss how you screwed up the meeting he requested.” The words hurled out in rapid-fire succession as his shoulders heaved. Shit, that had just kind of erupted. He cleared his throat. “Cool?” No, there was nothing cool about this scene.
Harley’s fingers pressed to the base of his back. “He didn’t find a weapon, darling. He knows I’m clear.”
“Fuck what he knows.” Seth didn’t take his eyes off the other man. “You don’t put your hands on her. I break the hands that try to touch what belongs to me.”
The blond wet his lips. “She’s clear. You can both go inside.”
His partner yanked open the door for Seth.
Seth rolled back his shoulders. “That’s what I thought.” His hand reached back, and his fingers twined with Harley’s as he pulled her to his side. As they crossed over the threshold that would take them into the house, he leaned close to her. His lips brushed over the shell of her ear as he whispered, for her alone, “Was that badass enough for you?”
He could have sworn that he felt her shiver in response.
“Maybe I was holding back a little with you.” A careful breath to her. “Guess you’re not the only one who has been underestimated?”
Her head turned. Her eyes were wide. Impressed. “I won’t make that mistake again.” Husky and low. For him alone.
He was glad as hell that she approved, but the truth was—as they crossed into the foyer and the door shut behind them—Seth knew he was in way over his head. This wasn’t some small op like the ones he’d handled in the past. Those had been the little fish.
Now he was stepping out of the pond and into a swirling ocean. Big league time.
They’d gotten past the first obstacle. But that had just been the beginning.
Let’s see if we manage to survive the rest of the night. He exhaled.
I am a badass.