“I want to know everything about her.” Dexter “Dex” Ryan put his hands on his hips and stared at the computer screen. Or rather, at the woman on the screen. “What she eats for breakfast. How she likes her coffee. Her favorite color. What makes her laugh. What makes her cry. What she fears—”
“Uh, Dex?” Antony Kyle paused with his hands curled over the keyboard. “Is this…personal? Because, I mean, I don’t know if we should really be using agency time to spy on your new girlfriend.”
Dex smiled and clamped a hand around Antony’s shoulder. A very hard clamp. Then he leaned in close to the other man’s ear. “Have you forgotten?” he murmured. “I am the agency. So if I say that I want you to investigate someone, if I say I want to know every single thing she does and every secret she has…then, obviously, it’s agency business.”
“Obviously,” Antony replied, but his voice said he was far, far from convinced. “And you wanted me to do this job for you instead of one of your normal techs because…?”
“Because I trust you. One hundred percent.” He did. There were only a handful of people in this world that he truly trusted, and Antony was one of those select few. A top operative, Antony’s tech skills had come in handy more times than Dex could count. By day, the man ran a huge, billion-dollar gaming business. But by night…
He works for me. “Now come on, man, stop dicking around. I know you can get the job done for me.”
Antony’s shoulders stiffened. “Well, of course, I can.” His fingers flew. “It’s me. But I just wanted to state—on the record—that I wasn’t down with helping you stalk your new girlfriend.”
“I am not stalking…” He stopped and sucked in a deep breath. “Someone is feeling pissy tonight.”
“Someone was pulled away from a date to handle your shit, so yep, pissy. Right here.” The light from the screen reflected off Antony’s glasses as he leaned forward.
Dex lifted his hand from Antony’s shoulder even as his gaze tracked to the screen Antony viewed. Hell, the room was full of computer screens. After all, this location was the best surveillance and data collection center on the East Coast. Completely off the books. Completely contained.
“Lacey Amari is an operative for Wilde.” Now Antony was pulling up data left and right. “She’s worked there for approximately eight months.”
Dex already knew all about her involvement with the security and protection firm—that involvement was what had brought her onto his radar in the first place.
“Parents are deceased.” Another box opened on the screen nearest Antony. “Jason and Elora Amari died four years ago but…” He frowned. Tapped more. A new box popped up on the screen. “Jason Amari wasn’t listed on Lacey’s birth certificate. No father’s name was listed.”
Dex’s arms crossed over his chest. “You haven’t said anything to surprise me yet, Antony.” Frustration rolled in his voice. “I wanted more from you. Why do I pay you the big bucks if you can’t impress me?”
“You don’t pay me the big bucks. I make that on my own.” Antony glanced back at him. “I’ve had like…two minutes to work. Two minutes. You can’t expect miracles.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Of course, I can. They are the only thing I expect.”
Antony’s lips parted. He didn’t speak. Just stared. Then, finally… “Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to work when you are breathing down my neck? Like, literally, breathing on me.”
A long sigh broke from Dex. “Fine. Don’t appreciate me.”
“I do not. Especially when I’m trying to stalk—I mean, research—your new girlfriend.”
“Not fucking stalking,” he growled. It wasn’t. It was intel gathering. A normal tactical routine. Antony knew this crap. “You have an hour. Get me good intel. Then dig even deeper and get me better intel.” He inclined his head toward the screens. “But before I go, I want to know exactly where Lacey Amari is.”
“But…but how am I supposed—”
Dex rattled off her phone number. “Get her location from that. We both know you can.” Seriously? Was Antony going to play amateur on him?
Looking disgruntled, Antony quickly obtained her location. He even did a step better and hacked into the security feed at the club where Lacey was dancing.
When the feed appeared, Dex’s body tensed. Lacey was dancing way too close to some jackass who had his hands clamped on her hips. What. The. Hell?
“She likes to dance,” Antony noted dryly. “So I discovered something else about your target. She appears to be a, um, very good dancer. She’s limber. Flexible. Look at how she can undulate her hips and—”
“Fuck off, Antony.”
“Yes, consider me fucking off.”
Dex’s gaze narrowed on the security feed. Lacey’s dark hair was loose and tumbling over her shoulders. Her jeans fit her legs like a second skin, and the sexy, white top she wore slid off one shoulder. The dick dancing with her had his hands way too close to Lacey’s pert ass.
I will be breaking those hands.
He forced his back teeth to unclench. “In an hour, I expect you to have intel I can use.”
“Uh…if you could be more specific—”
“I already have been specific.” There was no audio with the feed, just a visual but the music in the club had obviously changed. The couple started gliding together slowly. Unacceptable. “I want to know everything about her. Good, bad, and all the secret parts in between.” He turned on his heel. “Now excuse me, but I have to make sure that bastard gets his hands off my fiancée.”
“Oh, sweet hell.” Antony’s shocked voice followed behind him. “That poor woman is engaged to you?”
He paused at the door and looked back. Antony’s horrified stare was on him. Dex tossed the guy a grin. “Not yet, but before the night is over, she will be.”
Lacey Amari forced a smile to her lips. She loved dancing. It was the perfect way to let off steam after a long day, and her day had been killer. Emphasis on the killer part. She’d ended her protection detail for a Broadway actress by stopping the stalker who wanted to attack the woman. The takedown had been textbook, but facing off with someone who had a gun aimed at her had left Lacey battling the after effects of a vicious adrenaline rush.
Dancing usually helped her with the rush.
But the fellow before her—Aidan something—was getting a little too close. She could tell by the look in his eyes—and the expression on his face—that he thought the night was going to end with more than just dancing.
He was wrong. She didn’t pick up strangers in bars. With her line of work, she knew exactly how dangerous the world could be. No, when it came to lovers, she was very, very selective.
And that was probably why she was in the middle of a dry streak.
Aidan’s fingers trailed over her side. “The band is about to play something slow and romantic. I’d sure love to have you in my arms again while we—”
“First, stop touching her.” The voice was low, hard, and coming from right behind Aidan.
Lacey couldn’t help but gasp because that voice—oh, no. It was familiar to her. And not in a good way. More in the please-God-let-me-be-wrong kind of way.
“Second, you’re wasting your time. She’s not sleeping with you. You’re playing a million miles out of your league, and you just need to be grateful for the time that she spent with you. Call that a win and drag your ass over to someone else.”
Lacey knew she wasn’t wrong about the voice. It was definitely familiar. The kind of voice that would haunt your nightmares.
Aidan had stiffened. His gaze was on her face as the speaker delivered his flat announcement. Aidan’s hold tightened on her.
“So, you’re still touching her, and I did warn you about that. It was my first point—”
Aidan spun to face the other man. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the guy telling you to get lost.” A shrug. “And you’re the guy who needs to listen.”
Aidan puffed up his chest in that annoying way men could do as he headed—with his chest out—forward. “Like I need to listen to anything you say!”
“Um, Aidan,” she began. This wouldn’t end well. Aidan was completely outmatched, and he didn’t even realize it.
Because he was facing off against Dexter Ryan. She’d been right about the unforgettable voice, and now that she could see his face…
Tall, broad shouldered. Carrying a relaxed air of power. With kind of a…screw-the-world attitude clinging to him. He wore battered jeans and a faded t-shirt. He didn’t look at all like the type of man who managed one of the world’s biggest spy operations.
But he was.
“Your hair is darker,” she blurted. It was. She was sure it had been a bit blonder the last time—
“You know me, sweetheart,” Dex murmured without looking her way. His focus was on Aidan. “I am a chameleon.”
Yes, because the super spy looked just like all the other guys in that club. He didn’t look like the most dangerous man in the room, even though she knew with utter certainty that he was. She was sure that Dex could have Aidan crying on the floor in less time than it would take for her to blink.
“Sweetheart?” Aidan fired a glance back at her. “You involved with this jerk?”
Involved? Ha. “Not in a million years.” Her answer was automatic. She stayed away from trouble. She didn’t get into a relationship with it.
Dex smiled at her.
His smile made her stomach feel a little odd. It was a sweet smile. Almost tender.
Then Dex winked at Lacey. “Don’t make promises that you don’t intend to keep.”
She hadn’t made a promise. She’d flatly said “not in a million years” because it was a true statement and—
“You’re still here.” Dex waved vaguely toward Aidan. The band had started to play another of their slow, romantic tunes. “This is getting old,” Dex added. “You’re between me and my lady, and I need to talk to her so…I’ll ask nicely just one more time. Ahem. Get the fuck out of my way.”
That was asking nicely? Lacey could only shake her head. What would it sound like when he wasn’t being nice?
A snarl escaped Aidan. He jabbed his index finger into Dex’s chest. “Listen, asshole….”
Uh, oh. “Um, Aidan, you don’t need to—”
Too late. Dex had grabbed him—or rather, he’d grabbed the finger that Aidan had shoved into his chest. Dex did a quick twist, applied what she knew had to be wicked pressure, and had Aidan on his knees, with his hand locked behind his back in seemingly the next second. “Didn’t your parents ever tell you,” Dex asked in his cold, emotionless voice, “that you don’t put your hands on other people?”
“Dex!” Lacey surged forward. “Let him go. Now.”
Dex looked up at her. Smiled once more. And kept right on holding Aidan’s hand behind his back. “You look lovely tonight. Is that a new top?”
He wasn’t serious. But, yes, it was new. “Let go of his hand before you break the man’s fingers.”
Dex actually pouted. His lips curled down as he said, “Am I the kind of fellow that would do something like that?”
“You are exactly the kind of bastard that would do something like that.”
He shook his head. “You wound me. I was simply defending myself.”
She rolled her eyes. “Let him go.”
“L-let go…” Aidan gasped.
“Fine.” Dex immediately freed him and stepped back.
Aidan rose slowly, a bit shakily, and glared at Lacey.
Hold up. Why is he glaring at me? She’d defended him! If it hadn’t been for her, he would have still been trapped by Dex.
“Your ex is an asshole!” Aidan spat. He fisted his fingers. “And you are not worth my time.”
Her jaw dropped.
Aidan began to storm away.
Dex casually stepped into his path. “Hello.”
“If you will remember, I was counting points with you earlier. I think I started with my first point, then my second, and I feel I must end our conversation with our third point.” He smiled. “A very important point that you should never, ever forget.”
Uh, oh. She knew his smiles were dangerous things.
“Third…” Dex tilted his head and let his gray gaze sweep over Aidan. “She is worth far, far more than you are ever capable of giving. That’s why she was out of your league from the beginning. She just wanted to dance, not to fuck, and if you ever give her attitude like that again—if you ever look at her with that much rage in your eyes again—you’ll be sorry. You want to fight someone, come at me. Only me.”
But Aidan wasn’t in the mood to fight. He was in the mood to get out of there, fast. He shouldered his way through the crowd and didn’t look back.
“You have terrible taste in men.” Dex watched Aidan leave. “I mean absolutely horrible. What in the world were you thinking?”
She tapped her right foot.
His gaze slowly swung back to her. His smile came again and lit his eyes. “Want to dance?”
“You are not serious.”
He waved toward the dance floor and all the cuddled-up-close couples. “This is my speed, and I’d love to dance with you.”
Unbelievable. She shook her head and marched past him. She hadn’t seen Dex in weeks—a situation she was very grateful for—and now he’d just popped back up to ruin her night for shits and giggles—
His hand wrapped around her wrist. His touch seemed to send a surge of pure heat all the way through her body. She sucked in a sharp breath as her heart lurched. What in the heck?
Lacey swung toward him.
“I’m a pretty good dancer. Maybe you should see my moves before you reject me.”
“Unnecessary.” She yanked her hand from his grip. He’d been very careful with her, touching her gently, but she swore that she could still feel the imprint of his fingers on her skin. “I can reject you just fine without seeing or knowing anything else. Now, good night.”
With that, she turned on her high heel and stomped for the door. It had been a long day, a tiring night, and the adrenaline would be plunging from her system soon. Once she got home, she’d want to crash. Maybe she’d enjoy some ice cream, then a long night in bed while cozied up in her favorite jammies.
The bouncer gave her a wave as she exited, and, once outside, Lacey turned to the left. Cabs lined the street, but she wasn’t going to take one. No sense in doing that, not when her apartment was just a few blocks away. Her spine stayed straight and her gaze darted around to scan the area as she—
Lacey stilled. Huffed out a breath. “Do you enjoy following women?”
The faint rustle of a footstep reached her ears. “I was merely making sure you arrived home safely.”
She whirled to confront him. “I’m more than capable of looking after myself, Dex. I can handle any trouble that comes my way.”
He studied her as he closed in, and she couldn’t help but feel a wee bit like a bug who’d just been caught in a spider’s sticky web. “You can handle trouble,” he agreed. “That’s one of the many things I like about you.”
Her head tilted back as she stared up at him. Her mother had been a dancer, and Lacey had gotten her slight build and petite height. She’d always been envious of her taller friends, but she’d clocked out at five-foot-two, and she’d learned to deal with being perceived as fragile. Delicate. At first, she’d hated the way others viewed her. Then she’d decided that if they underestimated her, that was their problem.
And her advantage.
“In fact,” Dex continued in his rumbling voice, “your ability to handle trouble is the reason I sought you out tonight.”
“And here I thought you just liked to dance the night away.” No, she hadn’t thought that. Not even for a second. When he’d appeared behind Aidan, she’d known that Dex had come to the club for her. An unnerving realization. “Are you planning to follow me all the way home?”
“I told you, I want to make sure you’re safe—”
A couple hurried past them, and Dex stopped talking. Secretive Dex. Of course, he wouldn’t want to talk with others around. Lacey shook her head. “Look, I’m not interested.”
“You don’t even know why I’m here.”
“You’re trouble, Dex.”
The streetlamp fell on his face and let her see the half-smile that slipped over his lips. “Thank you for noticing.”
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
“I think it was.”
He thought—Her lips thinned. “How did you know I was at that club?”
He leaned toward her, and his scent—rich, masculine, and…oddly yummy to her—teased her nose. “Want to know a secret?”
He was so close that onlookers would probably think they were about to kiss. They weren’t. Absolutely were not. But… “Yes.” She wanted to know his secrets.
“I can find you,” he told her quietly. “Anywhere. Anytime.”
Her eyes narrowed. “That sounds like some serious abuse of power. Better be careful, or someone will report you to your bosses at the CIA.”
He laughed, and the sound sent a shiver over her. Not a bad kind of shiver. It should have been bad. But no…It was the good kind of shiver. The kind that told her she liked his laughter.
The kind that told Lacey her dry spell must have lasted way, way too long. Especially if she was now starting to think anything about Dex was sexy.
“I don’t have bosses at the CIA. I am the boss.” Spoken with utter confidence.
She wasn’t so sure she bought that line. “You’re in charge? Then how come I don’t ever see you out there with the press or talking to senators in clips on the evening news?”
“You won’t ever see me in scenes like that. I’m too busy doing the dirty work. The bloody shit that keeps everyone safe.” His voice had hardened.
This time, the bad kind of shiver slid over her.
“You’re cold.” His hands reached out and curled around her. He tugged her closer to him and began to rub her arms.
“I do not understand you, Dex.”
“I’m trying to make you warm. Sorry, I don’t have a coat to offer but—”
“I’m not cold.” If anything, standing this close to him, having his hands on her…she was feeling pretty hot. “Let go.”
He did, but Dex didn’t back away. “I want five minutes of your time.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve already spoken with you for five minutes.”
“Let me be more specific. I want five minutes, in your home, alone with you. I want you to hear me out, and then, I want you to accept my offer.”
A surprised laugh burst from her. “That is not going to happen.” Arrogant much?
He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Then you have nothing to fear. Give me those five minutes, and I’ll get out of your way.”
Her lips pressed together. “I don’t trust you.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Like she was going to believe anything she said would have the power to hurt him.
He shrugged. “Do I get my five minutes?”
She spun on her heel. “Yes, fine. But only because I don’t want you pulling some crazy stunt like hanging out in my hallway all night long. Or showing up at my work tomorrow—or…whatever. I’ll give you five minutes, and then you leave me alone.”
“If that’s what you want.”
She cast a suspicious glance back over her shoulder. Alarm bells were blaring in her head. He’d just sounded entirely too satisfied.
And a satisfied Dexter Ryan was a scary thing.
“Talk to me, Antony.” He was in her home. A good start. But he was far from sealing the deal. Dex cast a quick glance down the hallway. She’d disappeared into her bedroom, and he had to be ready before she came back. His hold tightened on the phone. “Don’t exactly have time to waste here.”
“She doesn’t drink coffee. When she goes to the coffee shop on the corner, she just orders hot chocolate, even in the summer.”
Dex pinched the bridge of his nose. “Not helping.”
“She loves horror movies. I checked her streaming history, and I think she must be addicted to the B movies, you know the really crazy ones where—”
“The ones where the dumbass techie gets his ass kicked because he can’t give me anything I can use?” Dex snarled.
Silence. Then… “You seem stressed.”
Yeah, understatement. Antony didn’t understand the stakes in this particular game. “You could say that.”
He heard the tap of keystrokes in the background. Then Antony revealed, “I think Santana is her favorite band. She plays Black Magic Woman over and over—”
The bedroom door squeaked open.
“I need more,” Dex urged. “Come on, buddy. Do not let me down here.”
Dex turned so he could have a clear view of the hallway. Lacey had just left the bedroom. She’d ditched the heels but still wore her jeans and the sexy top. She was headed straight toward him, and her delicate jaw was hard with determination.
“Wait…wait! I just found a record of a payment that she sent to a PI. Oh, that guy is a sleaze. I’ve heard about him before. Total loser.”
She was closing in.
Talk faster, Antony.
“Accessing his records now. The man has like, zero security on his system. Anybody can just hack right in. Like, seriously, I bet some eleven-year-old kid could—
“Hello, Lacey,” Dex said clearly. She’d stopped right in front of him.
Her head tilted back. Her scent—a light, quick breath of roses—drifted to him.
“She’s there? Of course, she’s there.” Antony’s voice was tight. “Shit. Shit. Motherload. That’s what I’ve hit. As in, her mother. Lacey went to the PI because she wanted him to investigate the death of her mom and dad. Their car crash looked like an accident, but she wanted proof and he couldn’t deliver so—”
“I have to go now,” Dex interrupted him. “Someone very important is here.”
“You’re not even going to thank me, are you? That is rude. So rude.”
“Thanks for updating me,” he forced the words out.
“Aw, you’re welcome, bro—”
“Keep working on the assignment. I have faith in you. You’ll deliver everything else I need to know.”
“That means I can’t go home yet, doesn’t it?” A long sigh.
“Damn straight.” Dex hung up the phone. Smiled at Lacey. “I like the toenail polish.”
She automatically peered down at her feet. So did he. How about that? Lacey Amari had cute feet. Small feet and dainty toes—toes with a deep purple polish on them. And she even wore a toe ring on the second toe of her right foot.
Okay, that was kinda sexy.
“You are not here to talk about my feet.” Her head tilted back up. He’d shoved his phone into his pocket when she looked down. “Your five minutes are ticking down, and so far, I have not heard anything that—”
“Your boss at Wilde gave approval for you to join me on a case.”
He opened his mouth to reply—
“No.” Lacey shook her head. “He wouldn’t do that. Eric knows you piss me off.”
“I do? Hmm. Unusual. Most people find me charming.”
“I don’t think that they do.” As if imparting a secret, she added, “You don’t have the best people skills.”
He would not smile again. “I am fantastic with people. I can always get them to do exactly what I want.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t mean you have good people skills.” She turned away. Moved to sit on the overstuffed and extremely comfortable-looking couch in the corner. “It just means you probably threaten folks far too much.”
She wasn’t necessarily wrong. She wasn’t necessarily right, either. Regardless, time to get down to business. “I spoke with Eric Wilde and told him that you would be very useful on a case that I’m working. He agreed with me.”
A furrow appeared between her brows. “Eric didn’t mention this to me.”
“Didn’t he? Odd. Anyway…” A shrug. “We will be leaving tomorrow, so I need you to pack your bags. When you pack, think both warm and sexy. Can you do that?” He glanced at his watch. “I don’t believe that even took a full minute.” He turned on his heel and headed for the door.
He stopped. “You don’t want me to leave. I get it.” He looked back at her. “Because you feel that hard attraction between us, too. But, hey, if we’re going to be working together, you need to—”
Dex broke off. Just stopped. Because he’d been talking out of his ass while he tried to figure out how to play the scene with her, but while he’d been rambling, Lacey’s expression had just become ever-so-revealing. Wonderfully revealing. At least, for a fleeting moment, anyway.
“You’re crazy.” She leapt to her feet. Her face flushed. “There is no attraction between us.”
Well, well, well. He was attracted to Lacey. He’d be insane not to be. The woman was sensuality personified. All of that tumbling, dark hair. Those deep, dark eyes. Her plump, red lips. The curves of her body. The huskiness of her voice. The way she smelled so good and—
“And we are not working together!” She stormed toward him. “Eric would have called me if I had been assigned to work with you.”
He exhaled. Turned to fully face her. “You’re right. You haven’t been assigned to work with me.” That was the frustrating part. “Eric said the choice was yours.”
Her gaze searched his.
He could feel her confusion, but he wasn’t about to reveal too much. In his world, need-to-know was a true way of life. “I still have a few minutes, so how about I lay some things out for you?”
A grudging nod came from her.
“I need someone with your skills to help me on a case.”
“There are plenty of skilled agents at the CIA,” Lacey dismissed. She tucked a thick lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t buy that in all the massive ranks of folks at your agency, you can’t find at least one person to do the job.”
“I can’t use one of my agents. I need someone unaffiliated.” A pause. “I need you.” Her in particular. As to why it had to be her, well…need-to-know. She didn’t need to know that part, not yet. Maybe never. “The case starts tomorrow. It will continue for an indefinite amount of time. We’ll be traveling to Colorado, so you’ll need to pack clothes that you’d take on a ski trip. And…like I said…” He had to clear his throat because of the mental image that popped into his head as he added, “Something sexy.”
Her hands went to her hips. “Why in the world would I pack something sexy? If I happened to be crazy enough to sign on for this case. And, by the way, I’m not.”
The lock of hair had fallen forward again. He wanted to brush it back and let his hand linger against the smoothness of her cheek. What in the hell? His hand fisted. “You’d be going in undercover. So would I. The clothes are to help with the ruse. Make it more believable. If you come in a burlap sack, that won’t be believable.”
Her incredible eyes—deep chocolate with flecks of gold—narrowed. “Just what is this undercover mission, exactly?”
Well, it was now or never. Since a man only had one chance to get this deal right…Dex dropped to one knee in front of her.
“What are you doing?” Lacey’s voice notched up.
He reached for her hand. Curled his fingers carefully around hers. “Lacey Amari, would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
Her lips were parted. Her eyes now huge. Shock covered her face.
He waited, knowing this was the big moment and—
“No, absolutely not. I would never, ever marry you.”