“You’re in great hands, Aspen,” Ben Wilde assured her as the elevator doors opened, and he turned to flash her a quick smile. “My brother’s protection firm is the best in the business. You don’t need to worry any longer.”
If only. But she’d been busy worrying for quite some time. Not that Aspen Gray let her worry or her growing nervousness show. She never did. She’d learned long ago that in order to succeed in this world, you always had to project an air of confidence and poise, even when you were so nervous that your knees wanted to knock and it felt as if you might vomit at any moment.
She’d been that nervous the first time she met Ben Wilde. She’d walked into the law school class, surrounded by so many people who were worlds away from the rough life she’d grown up living, and she’d been sure they would realize she was a fraud. The seats in the class had been full…well, except for one chair. The one next to Ben. He’d offered it to her with a wide grin—his trademark smile—and then he’d offered her his friendship.
She was counting on that unwavering friendship to seriously help her out of the rather terrifying situation that she’d found herself facing.
“Complete discretion,” Ben assured her as he held the elevator door. His gold wedding ring gleamed. She’d danced at his wedding. Been thrilled for him and his bride. She and Ben had always only been friends. It was a rule she had. She never wanted sex to get in the way of a good friendship, and Ben was a good friend…so good, in fact, that he’d been willing to help her out, to give her the VIP treatment at his brother’s business, after she’d called him out of the blue.
“Discretion is of the utmost importance,” she agreed, pleased that her voice came out all cool and steady as she and Ben began walking down the lushly carpeted hallway. The main Wilde office was located in Atlanta, in one of the big skyscrapers, and when her gaze darted to the left—to the line of windows there—she could see the killer view. “That’s why, you, ah, mentioned my requirements to your brother?” Aspen asked delicately.
“Don’t worry. You’re certainly not the first client to want undercover protection. The agents here know the drill. They are all about making a good cover story.”
She released a quick breath of relief. Excellent. Because the agent she was hiring today—that individual would need to accompany her back to her home in Pensacola, Florida. And then things would get…tricky.
Be careful what you reveal. Play this game wisely.
Ben walked them past an assistant and straight to a heavy, wooden door. He didn’t pause, just swung it right open with a typical Ben flourish. Her shoulders stiffened, her chin notched up just a bit, and Aspen marched inside to meet the man who would—
She stopped. Her eyes were locked on the man behind the desk. A man who wore a black t-shirt that stretched over the muscled arms that were crossed over his chest. A man who wore ragged jeans and dark boots that he currently had propped up on the edge of the gleaming desk. A man who had green eyes that seemed to blaze with electric energy as they pinned her. His face was all hard angles and planes, and he probably shouldn’t have been handsome. Maybe he wasn’t, technically, but he was sexy. The kind of rough and hard and hot sexy that just poured naturally from men that you knew were going to be trouble.
And he was currently sweeping that hot stare of his slowly over her body.
“I think there is a mistake,” Aspen said immediately. She’d been promised a former soldier. One of those true-blue types who would protect and defend at all costs. She’d specifically requested such a man. Not a guy who seemed like he could easily spend his days hanging at her friend Ramsey’s old bar, a place frequented by some of the most dangerous criminals out there.
I don’t need more trouble in my life. She’d like less, please.
“Yeah, the mistake is that Eric is going to kick your ass for sitting in his chair,” Ben fired as he closed in on the other man. “Gideon, you know better. Eric gets oddly territorial about shit like this.”
Gideon just shrugged his massive shoulders. “Eric got held up. Told me to start the meeting without him.” He uncrossed his arms. Pointed one rather large hand toward Aspen. “She the client?”
No, she was just the woman who’d randomly wandered in from the street. Her eyes narrowed on him. Of course, she was the client. But he was not the man she’d requested. “I think we need to review my requirements.” She sounded prim. Not her intention, but he was throwing her off her game, and when she got thrown off…she tended to get extra icy.
When Ben’s gaze cut her way, she realized that he’d noticed her little, ah, tell. He’d figured it out back in their mock courtroom days.
“Requirements, huh?” Gideon nodded. Then he carefully lowered his feet. Slowly rose. And he was a big one. Maybe six-foot-three. All muscle. All power. If she was looking for someone high on the physical intimidation scale, then he’d be a great fit. But she wasn’t looking for that so much. She needed…
“Blending,” Aspen blurted. “The agent I hire today has to be able to blend into my life. It is imperative that none of my friends or work associates realize that I have hired a Wilde agent.” Because the agent’s job wasn’t just to watch her ass—though that was certainly a bonus. She needed someone to help her find out who the hell was messing with her life. Aspen winced as her stare held Gideon’s. “Sorry, but I don’t think you are going to blend so well.”
His lips hitched into what could have been a smile. “You’d be surprised.”
Doubtful. Few things surprised her these days. Except, perhaps, the not-so-little matter of being stalked by a dead man.
Before she could speak, Aspen heard the door open behind her and fast footsteps entered the office.
“Sorry I’m late,” Eric Wilde began in his deep and rumbling voice. “Minor emergency.”
She turned toward him, wondering what counted as “minor” in his mind.
Eric grinned at her. He’d always been a bigger, rougher, slightly scarier version of Ben. “Aspen! Great to see you again.”
She hurried into his embrace. The Wilde brothers had always been good to her. Maybe too good. If they knew all of her secrets, would they still treat her the same way?
His arms closed around her. For a moment, she felt safe. Yes, this was what she craved. Safety. Wasn’t that why she’d turned to Ben? Why she’d used her connection to get in and have this meeting with Eric? She was desperate, and safety was what she needed.
“Ahem.” A loud throat cleared. Gideon. “This reunion is touching as hell…” He did not sound as if he meant those words. In fact, he sounded rather annoyed. “But could we get along to the business at hand?”
She backed away from Eric, but held his gaze. “I don’t think he is going to do at all.” Again, she was prim. Dammit.
Eric’s eyebrows rose. “Why not? Gideon checks off all your boxes.” He walked around her and headed for his desk. He frowned at the chair, then cut a suspicious glance toward Gideon.
Gideon smiled. Almost angelically.
Her stomach did what had to be a nervous dip. Because of the situation she was in. Not because of that smile. It had better not be because of that smile. The last thing she needed was to suddenly develop an attraction to this—this—
Eric lowered into the chair and raised one finger. “You want someone who is former military.”
Yes, because she’d been looking for the clean-cut, true-blue—
Another finger. “Someone who is skilled at undercover operations.”
Again, yes, because she wanted this guy to blend in her life, and big, bad Gideon hardly looked like—
Another finger. “Someone with a track record of success regarding investigation cases.”
“Great success,” Gideon cut in to say with a roll of one shoulder. “Though, you know, I don’t like to brag.”
“Since when?” Ben muttered.
Gideon winked at him.
Wonderful. So they were all friends. Good for them. But she wasn’t looking for a friend or a buddy or—or someone who made her stomach do weird twists. She was looking for a man who could help save her ass and keep her secrets.
But, apparently, Eric wasn’t done lifting his fingers because now he had a fourth finger up in the air. “You wanted someone who could move to your home and stay there for an indefinite period of time.”
Gideon’s eyes were on hers. “I think a beach trip sounds great.”
She would not growl at him.
A fifth finger was up in the air. Eric might as well be waving at her. “You also wanted someone who was not afraid to get his hands dirty.”
“I like being dirty,” came from Gideon.
She swallowed. “I just bet you do.”
He flashed that angelic grin, and she blushed. Blushed. What in the hell?
“Were there other criteria that I missed?” Eric wanted to know. “Because if so…”
“He has to play my lover,” she said with her spine as straight as could be and her chin still up. “He has to be comfortable acting like we’re romantically involved. Other people have to buy that we are together. I can’t have anyone in my life back home knowing what is happening.” Because then there would be too many questions. Questions that she could not—would not—answer.
“Don’t worry.” Gideon stalked toward her. “I know the drill.” Closer. Closer. His scent—crisp, masculine, and oddly compelling—wrapped around her. “Not my first time at bat.”
Fabulous to know.
He stopped right in front of her. His green gaze seemed to burn. “I’ve done this gig before.”
Good for him. Why was it so hot in there?
“I play your boyfriend. I stare at you like you’re the only person in the world.”
Um, his stare was pretty intense.
“I get pissy as hell when other men get close because I’m possessive, and I want everyone to know you’re mine.”
“I stay close to you because I can’t stand the idea of you being separated from me.”
His voice had gone all growly and…hot. And she had to admit… “Fine,” Aspen snapped. “You can act like you want me. Got it.” Someone give this man a cookie.
His long lashes—why were his lashes so thick, damn him—lowered. “Right. I can act like I want you.” He backed up a step.
She sucked in a breath. “It’s just...” Find a way to explain this! “My associates know the type of man I am usually with. It’s not—”
“Me?” he finished. His lips quirked, and Gideon jerked a thumb toward Ben. “Let me guess…you’re usually with someone like him. Fancy suit.”
“Thanks for noticing it,” Ben replied with a pleased smile. “I bought it last week.”
“Perfectly styled hair. Pretty boy face.”
“Hey!” Now Ben was annoyed. “I like the phrase ‘classically handsome’ if you don’t mind.”
Gideon grunted. She took that to mean he did mind. Or maybe he just didn’t give a fuck. Fair enough. He continued, “I can be anyone. Not an issue. You want me in a suit, I’ll wear a suit. You want me to cut my hair. I’ll cut the hair. Doesn’t matter how I look, though, what matters is that I do the job.” His gaze still held hers. Still burned. “And trust me, anyone who sees us together will believe that I want you more than anything else. I will sell that we’re lovers, and then I’ll do the important part of my job.” His eyes narrowed. “I’ll protect you. I’ll make sure you can sleep well at night. And I’ll find whoever the hell it is that has you running to Wilde because you’re so scared.” A brief pause. “Even though you do a damn good job at hiding your fear.”
“You have a very good sales pitch,” Aspen allowed as she smoothed her hands over the front of her black pants.
“Thanks for noticing.”
She knew he’d deliberately thrown out the same words Ben had used. Her breath rushed out. “Are you really good or are you just being cocky?”
“I’m not good. I’m fucking fantastic.”
Her heart surged in her chest, and Aspen slanted a glance toward Eric.
He’d lowered his hand. Eric’s expression was serious as he inclined his head. “I was lucky to have Gideon join my team. He’s former Delta Force, and one of the toughest bad-asses I know.”
“Now you’re just flattering me.”
When she glanced back at Gideon, she found his eyes were still on her.
“He’s got a case closure rate that can’t be beat, and I can give you a list of his previous clients who will all vouch for him. He’s protected rock stars, tech CEOs, and several heads of state. If you want low profile, he can give you that. If you want safety, he will provide it. I trust him completely or I would not be recommending him to someone I consider a friend.” A pause. “You’re important, Aspen. Ben and I aren’t screwing around with your safety.”
“Damn straight,” Ben chimed in to say.
Aw, they were so sweet to her. She blinked quickly. Didn’t cry. Never cried. But Ben and Eric had no idea just how rattled she really was. Mostly because they didn’t know her, not down deep where she kept all of her dark secrets. “Thank you.” Okay, time for a reevaluation. She did trust Eric. His reputation was first-class, and he’d always been wonderful to her. If he said Gideon was the agent for her then… Aspen held out her hand. “I’m Aspen Gray, and I guess I’m now your girlfriend.”
His hand swallowed hers. She could feel the calluses on his fingertips, but his hold was surprisingly gentle. “I’m Gideon Ranier, and I’m the man who’ll walk through hell for you.”
She licked her lower lip. “Hopefully, that won’t be necessary.”
His gaze was on her mouth. “You never know…”
“Kid gloves,” Eric Wilde announced flatly.
Gideon watched as the door closed behind his new client. Ben had just taken her out for coffee. An unnecessary move—coffee could have been brought into the boss’s office, but Eric had been the one to suggest that Aspen be taken down to the break room…which had been code for…I want to talk with Gideon alone.
“You understand me, Gideon?”
He could still smell her. He could have sworn she actually smelled like candy apples. Crazy, right? But at Eric’s question, Gideon’s head turned, and he met the boss’s stare. “I understand. I’ll be sure to give her the deluxe treatment.”
Eric shook his head. “I’m not screwing around here. Aspen is important to me and my brother.”
Yeah, he’d gotten that—her importance had been clear in the way-too-long hug that Eric had given her and the protective pose of Ben’s body when he’d been near Aspen. For some reason, both actions had made Gideon feel twitchy. “What’s the story there?” He sauntered closer to Eric, acting as if he didn’t care but…
Fuck it. I do. And that was going to be problematic.
“The story is that she’s a client. A true VIP. You’ll be on your best behavior with her, and you will damn well make sure that she is safe at all times.” Eric looked down at his laptop. Tapped quickly. “I’m assigning Elijah as your backup. He’ll stay close for whenever you need him.”
It was standard practice at Wilde to send out two agents. But… “Not sure Elijah will go so well with the cover story we have going on.”
“He’ll be in the background. No exposure. Elijah knows how to stick to the shadows.”
Sure, he did. And Eric was trying to distract him. Because just saying that the gorgeous Aspen was a VIP didn’t cut it. They had plenty of VIPs. None of those VIPs had ever warranted Gideon being pulled off another case and flown in during the middle of the night so that he could be reassigned. Obviously, Aspen was special. “Your brother involved with her?”
Eric glanced up. “Ben is married. Happily.”
“But…before. I read her file. She’s a lawyer, too. What did they do, hook up in law school?” And why was he tensing as he waited for a reply?
Eric shut his laptop. “They are friends. Just as I am friends with Aspen. She has been in our lives for a long time, and we value her. Understand?”
Gideon understood that Eric’s voice had gone cold and hard. So he nodded. Then took his time approaching the desk. “It would help if I was given more background on her.”
“Aspen will tell you everything she wants you to know.”
That was nice and vague. “Not usually the way it works.” He motioned toward the closed laptop. “Don’t you have a dossier prepared on her? One that tells me everything I could ever want to know and more about the client?”
“Not in this case. In this case, you are being told that Aspen Gray is a criminal defense attorney from Pensacola, Florida. She is single, has no children, and currently has a stalker in her life.”
His back teeth clenched. He hated stalkers. Stalker cases could go bad—very bad—fast. Obsession was always dangerous.
“As for any other material in Aspen’s life, she’ll tell you what she wants you to know.”
And that was some bullshit. “I’m walking in blind?” Because she’s some magical VIP? “I need to know more in order to figure out the stalker’s identity!”
“I’m sure she will reveal more when you’re down in Florida with her.” It seemed to be a dismissal. “Don’t forget your sunscreen.”
It was a dismissal. “Damn, man. What…does she know where you buried bodies or something?” This was not standard operating procedure.
A muscle flexed in Eric’s jaw. “When my brother was in his first year of law school, he was partying at a local club.”
Sure, fine, he knew Ben enjoyed a good—
“A man tried to rob him when Ben left that night. Ben was with some friends, including Aspen. Most of those friends ran away at the sight of the drawn gun. Aspen lunged in front of my brother right at the same time the robber decided to fire his weapon because he didn’t like that Ben wasn’t turning over his wallet.”
Gideon rocked back on his heels. “Damn.”
“She took a bullet to protect my brother. So, yes, she’s VIP. She will always be VIP. I don’t care what secrets she wants to keep. She can tell me as little or as much as she likes. She’ll have protection, and Wilde will eliminate any threats that come after her.” His eyebrows rose. “Any other questions?”
“Yeah, why the fuck didn’t Ben marry her right then and there?” A woman who would jump in front of a friend to protect him? Put a ring on her finger.
“Aspen has never been interested in Ben that way. He told me the first day they met, she shut him down on that score. For the best, of course, because we both know how insane Ben is for Courtney.”
Yeah, they did.
And Eric was right. The friend relationship between Aspen and Ben was definitely for the best because…I want her.
Ben’s loss. My gain. He’d felt the attraction the instant he’d seen her. The surge of awareness that had crackled through every nerve and cell in his body. He’d faked his relaxed pose when Gideon had really wanted to surge to his feet and rush to her and ask…
Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting for you.
But the whole world was a little mad.
When the door had opened, her lips had parted. Her eyes had flared. Gorgeous eyes, deep and dark. And she’d sucked in a quick breath. He’d been sure she felt the same attraction, too, but then she’d said, “I think there’s a mistake.” Her voice had been cool and poised and sensual as she’d tried to fire him…before he’d even really gotten the job.
You won’t get rid of me that easily, sweetheart. “Don’t worry,” Gideon assured Eric. “I’ll make sure she gets the deluxe treatment from us.”
“Yeah, that is not reassuring.” Eric’s eyes had narrowed. “Your job is to pretend that you’re involved with her. Not to actually be involved with her. There is a difference.”
“Sure. Right.” He was great at pretending. Did it all the damn time. Acted like he was normal and that a consuming darkness didn’t eat at him as he thought of all the battles he’d faced. The friends he’d lost. The lives he’d taken. Yep, he pretended constantly. Smiled when he was supposed to. Headed out with work buddies so he wouldn’t look like a hermit. Did all the things while being ice cold inside.
Except he hadn’t felt cold when he was near her.
It was past time that he went and found his new client. Gideon turned on his heel and marched for the door. Then stopped. “One more question.”
For the moment. Gideon looked over his shoulder. “What happened to the guy who shot her?”
Eric’s face tightened. “He got away. Ben was busy stopping the blood flow and working to keep her stable. He didn’t see where the bastard went. By the time the cops got there, the shooter was long gone.”
The back of Gideon’s neck prickled. That happened sometimes. When something felt off. “A robbery,” he said.
“And you never tried to find the man who nearly shot your brother? And who did shoot your friend? You, with this giant, million-dollar business…?” He wasn’t buying it.
Eric’s fingers were still pressed to the closed laptop. “I looked.”
Sure, he had. “And?”
“And I couldn’t find him.”
Red flag. Because Eric had a ton of resources.
“The client is waiting,” Eric murmured.
“Can’t have that.” He saluted the boss. “Don’t worry, she’s in good hands.” Once more, he made for the door.
“You’re not supposed to put your hands on her.”
“Gideon! Stay on your best behavior!”
Didn’t he always? Oh, no, wait, he didn’t. His bad. Gideon opened the door and headed out to find Aspen.