Chapters One & Two from Counterplay

COUNTERPLAY

PHANTOM, INC.

 

Reviews:

 “If the undercover-FBI-agents-faking-marriage-to-infiltrate-a-mafia-family premise doesn’t hook you, the thrilling suspense, sizzling chemistry, and unexpected twists definitely will! Debra Elise has written a page-turner!” ~ Amazon Bestselling Author Asa Maria Bradley

 

“A Heart-racing, Thrilling, Suspenseful Read With Secrets, Mysteries, Fun Banters, Webs of Truth+Lies, Action, Real Identities, Sexy times & A Heartwarming Love. DEVOURED it in A few hours!  Loved Jack & Coryn!” ★★★★★ Romance Book Lovers’ Haven Blog ~ Toonasa

‘This book has great suspense and mystery intertwined with powerful corrupt family ties, high level deception and hot chemistry between the two very strong minded agents, great secondary characters.’ ~ ★★★★★  ~ Rhonda, Goodreads Reviewer

 

CHAPTER ONE

An itch of awareness traveled along the back of Coryn Westwood’s neck as she locked up the import shop. She’d learned long ago to listen to her body’s involuntary responses to her surroundings. She knew, without a doubt, she was being watched.

The first time it’d happened, she’d written it off to stress. The second, well, she’d been struggling with non-stop guilt and looking for ghosts in every corner. Discovering your former partner, your dead former partner, had led a secret life would do that to a person, even a Special Agent of the FBI.

But being watched three days in a row? No, it wasn’t her hyped-up imagination. Or whatever the Bureau’s head docs wrote off as her way of processing losing a partner in such a brutal manner. Someone had been watching her leave the shop for the past three days, she’d stake her reputation on it.

Whoever was stalking her was no ordinary criminal. If they were, they would have attacked by now. She’d bet her treasured vintage Coach handbag they had ties to her case. And if they broke her cover, she wasn’t going to play nice.

Coryn fumbled the shop keys and let them slip through her fingers. A slow scan of the street as she knelt proved nothing out of the ordinary. She caught her reflection in the shop’s window as she straightened her five-foot-six frame, catching a quick flash of a long, black coat flapping behind a tall figure. She noted mirrored aviators and dark scowl upon the man’s prominent jawline.

She adjusted a lock of her hair and turned down the tree-lined sidewalk. Her intent on feeding her grumbling stomach was forgotten, replaced by luring her prey to a less open location. Keeping her pace steady, she continued past her original destination, Trinity Falls Pizzeria.

She’d planned on treating herself with a slice from her favorite pizza place as a reward for not telling off her last customer of the day. Coryn had desperately wanted to tell the snobbish woman where to stick her black Amex card after she’d turned her nose up at the shop’s inventory. She’d missed lunch and now her stomach protested as the spicy scent of sauce made from scratch and melted cheese reached her.

She sighed, kept her gaze forward, and using her peripheral vision glanced at the glass storefronts along Main Street to track the man following her. The city had done a fantastic job of restoring the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century buildings by keeping the multipaned ornate windows fashionable during that period.

She kept the leisurely pace as she contemplated who her shadow could be, and more importantly, why now? Over the last few months, she’d worked hard at cultivating her cover, one of an importer of fine-home furnishings.

Hunger now forgotten; her mind raced. Who could have tagged her? Someone from the Marcozi family? She’d been careful, dammit. Not once had she deviated from her new persona—Coryn Thornton, import shop owner, wife to a tech expert conveniently and perpetually away on business.

Why get sloppy now? If it were someone working for Marcozi, why not confront her or threaten her? Scare tactics were a tried and true tactic of the mafia. And so was murder, but rumor had it Costas Marcozi, the West Coast Mafia King, was attempting to go legit. She didn’t buy it, and she’d do anything to prove it.

If she were a gambler, she’d bet it had something to do with her partner’s death.

Another glance in the window showed the man had shortened the distance between them and was now keeping pace with her on the opposite side of the street; his features undefined as the ever-present clouds blocked the late afternoon autumn sun.

As a group of teenagers passed her, she ducked into the alley between a credit union and a florist shop. She crouched behind a city dumpster and waited. Footsteps sounded, growing closer. She reached for her Glock then thought better of it. Too many pedestrians on the street. She didn’t feel the need to play TV cop, not until she had to.

The sound of steps slowed; her heartrate zoomed as the man approached her hiding spot. The leisurely pace pissed her off. Amateur. Follow her for days, then act like he was taking a walk in the park. Her stomach growled, her hunger fueled her anger, and this fool wanted to play cat and mouse.

When he finally passed, she jumped out. Coryn shoved her shoulder into his side, grabbed his right hand and twisted the dark-haired stranger’s arm, and shoved it up behind his back before pushing him into the brick wall. Too easy, her brain screamed. He wanted to be caught. This was not someone who wanted or needed to stay invisible.

She spread her feet wide and took stock of the man who’d finally made his move. She torqued his arm up higher. “Who are you?”

His response was a whoosh of air as she put all her weight into pushing him flat against the brick wall. She guessed he had close to sixty pounds on her; however, she kept in top physical condition and thrown heavier men over her shoulder when the situation called for it. “You have ten seconds to talk, or I start breaking fingers.”

He shifted his long legs, which brought her flush against his back. She recovered and regained her balance. In the silence, heavy breathing was their only communication, but as she gazed at his profile, a moment of panic overtook her.

A flash memory played—graduation night, seven years ago from the FBI academy. A chance encounter in a dark, smoke-filled bar had ended before it’d begun. Hands down the most embarrassing night of her life. Coryn attempted to shake the memory, but her stomach did a funny flip, and unwelcomed sparks traveled down her spine. But the tiny shocks rocking her body at the contact with the heavily muscled back of the stranger refused to go away.

It may have been years, but she’d remember this man’s profile and split chin anywhere. Jackson Knight. And wasn’t it just her dumb luck the man attached to the chiseled jawline was the only agent she ever wanted to get naked with.

Dammit. She needed answers, not a sexual reawakening. It was annoying and unprofessional.

Coryn took a quick look toward the opening of the alley to make sure no one was watching as she tried to buy more time. To think—to take the time to tuck away thoughts of an infatuated young woman and replace them with her next move without tipping him off that she recognized him. “The silent act won’t work. I’ve got all night, so talk.”

His response was a low, raspy chuckle. “Sweetheart, I appreciate the ten seconds, but don’t you recognize your own husband?”

At his words, she started in surprise. She’d forgotten the deep baritone of his voice, but not the awareness it had always ignited throughout her body. She ignored her feelings and focused on the implications of his words. Coryn sucked in a deep breath before she counted to ten. When that didn’t calm her, she tried twenty.

After weeks of threats, and against her assurances she could handle the operation on her own. It looked as though she’d be forced to set up house with a man she’d once drunkenly offered herself to, only to be rebuffed. Christ.

She should have never created a world-traveling, barely-home husband as part of her backstory. She’d left Trinity Falls a few times over the past months on the pretense of meeting her husband for a weekend getaway so she could travel back to headquarters without suspicion.

She loathed not being in control. Braxton Hewitt, her first partner right out of the academy and the current Deputy Director of the FBI’s Cyber Response Branch, was in for an earful as soon as she figured out what the hell was going on.

“Why are you following me? Why not call or—”

“I have my reasons, and I’d be happy to share them. However, the way you’re pressing into me, well—it’s giving me…ideas. So, unless you want me to act on them, I’d suggest releasing me. Besides, I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Braxton sent me. He’s done waiting and asked me to…help out.”

Coryn rocked back on her heels and released his arm. When he turned around, she was able to look her fill at her unexpected undercover husband. His deep laugh lines and weathered appearance enhanced the face she remembered so well. The young agent she’d pegged him for was instead the FBI instructor she’d daydreamed about. They’d spent weeks trading glances—hers shy, his interested with a touch of lust—as he taught Ethics in Cyber Surveillance. Hers had turned from shy to bold as the class neared its end. Then the night of her graduation she’d hit on him. Not her best moment.

She focused on his profile and took note of his grin which didn’t quite make it to his eyes, eyes that conveyed a life lived hard. His lack of a response to her threats and his penetrating stare screamed experience. In an instant, she knew he was no longer just the hunky computer nerd she’d been drawn to. A slow realization of what his presence meant to her operation robbed her speech.

Before she could form a thought and request the code word she’d never thought to use, he took advantage of her confusion and grabbed her by the shoulders. Dazed but not totally witless, she raised both arms to defend herself.

Too late. His height and weight advantage won out. He leaned in and pushed her back against the cold, brick wall.

“No answer, Coryn? Tell me, were you able to secure the couples-only invitation for the yearly Marcozi family retreat after all? Because, if so, I’ll be glad to report your success to headquarters.”

He knew very well she hadn’t; otherwise, he wouldn’t be here. Why hadn’t Braxton given her a heads up about him? She’d been running the investigation her way, with little interference from headquarters. Her goals were clear: find her former partner’s killer and take down the Marcozi crime family.

Jack leaned in and nuzzled her neck, and her heart rate leapt instantly. What the hell? She refused to acknowledge her instant physical reaction as his hard body nicely lined up with hers. And dammit, why hadn’t she worn her Gucci shoes today? She could have used the three-inch heels to look him in the eye, well maybe in the chin, and if need be, as a weapon.

“Wha-what do you think you’re doing?” He was too close. She couldn’t think. She planted her heels, bent her knees, and put as much of her weight into her upper body. She dipped her shoulder and pushed. He pushed back and pressed his hard body into hers once again.

Her hesitation cost her, but she wasn’t giving up. She lifted a leg to knee him in the groin, but he anticipated her move and pressed his tree trunk sized leg into hers. Gone was the easygoing grin of moments ago.

“Special Agent Westwood, is that any way to greet your husband? Your little move on me has brought us some unwanted attention. So, I’m asking you to play nice, relax your leg, and pretend you’re over-the-moon happy to be back in my arms.”

Coryn peered over his shoulder toward the opening of the alleyway. Sure enough, two older ladies were pointing towards them. Oh, he’d pay for this little display. But she was smart enough to know he was right, and if she had to play the besotted wife until they were in private, so be it.

“Fine. But maybe now would be a good time to tell me what I’m supposed to call you besides asshole?” She knew his name; she simply needed to hear him say it.

“Jackson Knight, at your service. Jack to my friends, but since we’re…married…you can call me anything you want.”

His husky voice pissed her off then turned her on. Arrogant Bastard. She had a weakness for cocky, arrogant men. But why him? Why was an instructor from the FBI Academy in the field?

Her throat now dry, she swallowed, “Agent Knight—”

“Just, Jack. Oh, and the last name is Thornton, same as yours.”

 Coryn pushed hard on his chest. He didn’t budge. “Whatever. I expect you to authenticate who you say you are, and—”

Ignoring her, he lifted his chin, captured and held her narrowed gaze. “Listen, there’s a restaurant I want to try just a few blocks away. We can have dinner. Have a drink, or two, and spend some time getting reacquainted…Popeye.”

He released her and took a couple of steps back. She lost her balance at the sudden move and let out a frustrated sigh. He reached out to steady her but she brushed off his help.

“Funny, you look nothing like Popeye.” He grinned.

She’d chosen the silly code word, never thinking it’d be put into play. She watched as Jack’s gaze traveled down and back up her overheated body. This just got real. His use of the word ‘reacquainted’ crushed any hope he hadn’t remembered her.

He winked and flashed her a heart-stopping grin. “Let’s go.”

The damn man expected her to drop everything and follow his orders. No way in hell. She was the lead agent, and he was about to find out what happened when you messed with one of her operations. Lord save her from arrogant, sex-on-a-stick special agents or whatever he was.

***

Jack waited at the opening to the alley and watched as Coryn glared at him. She took her time straightening her short jacket, adjusting her skirt before picking up her purse next to the dumpster. He held her gaze as she made her way toward him. She was pissed and gorgeous, and their little tussle had given him the taste he’d wanted, but never took, the night she’d graduated from the academy.

 First he needed to find out if she was playing both sides. He hadn’t expected to be drawn to her physically. Again.

It didn’t matter. It couldn’t. According to Braxton, the agency wanted him to look into the possibility there had been a mole from Marcozi’s organization on the op that had ended in Ty’s death and now this one led by Coryn.

In fact they suspected not just any agent tied to both ops. Just Special Agent Coryn Westwood. If it was Coryn and she had anything to do with Tyler’s murder, then becoming involved with her on a personal level wasn’t going to happen. No matter how she made his heart race.

He locked eyes with her as she stepped into his personal space. Tension rolled off Coryn matching his own. One thought slammed into him…formidable. And sexy as hell. Her gorgeous face tipped back, her eyes, dark and flashed a challenge he couldn’t deny.

Well, he planned on winning this little battle of wills. If he thought this mission would be a cakewalk, her look of determination gave him pause. Perhaps a change up in his initial plan was needed. Besides the stubborn bent of her chin, he noticed a hint of desire in her eyes.

A desire which echoed his own.

 Shit. Playing husband had sounded so easy. But now? Now he needed to bury the insta-attraction before he did something stupid and kiss her.

Jack waved her toward his car which sat parked down the street. Her back ramrod straight as she strode towards the Jaguar he’d leased. He’d been warned about Special Agent Westwood, aka Coryn Thornton. Still, the dossier had nothing on the live and in-person spitfire he’d held in his arms. He watched as she walked away. Her curves held his attention a few seconds too long. She glanced over her shoulder, a smirk on her face as she caught him looking.

“Nice car. How’d you swing this ride? Definitely not an expenditure Braxton would have approved.” She eased into the dark brown leather seat, buckled up and crossed her arms.

He wondered at the edge in her voice and tucked it away for later scrutiny. At least they had one thing in common. Neither of them were fans of the Deputy Director.

Jack swung into the high-performance car and leaned over the console banging his elbow on the steering wheel. He should have gone for a car that better accommodated his six-two frame. “Braxton has nothing to do with me driving this car. I could care less whether Braxton approves or not.”

He watched as her mouth opened and closed. She stared at him a full twenty seconds before she took a deep breath. Lord, she was cute when thrown off balance. Her dark-brown hair was still mussed from earlier, and he found himself itching to tuck the stray pieces behind her ears.

“This has been my op for the past four months, so let’s start with who are you, really? I believe it’s past time you enlightened me, dear.”

Hell, how much to tell her? Jack glanced again at Coryn. Her gaze had not wavered. He knew she’d wait as long as necessary to find out his motives. Jack wasn’t about to tell her the real reason for his insertion into her operation. Not until he found out if she played a role in Ty’s death. No, he wasn’t sharing anything until he knew exactly who he was working with.

Jack merged the car into traffic. “Such a deep question for so early in our relationship. I’ve been many things in the past twenty years. To be honest I’ve never really thought to question myself, ‘who am I?’ I’ve never sat under a tree and meditated, nor have I gone on a journey of self-enlightenment, or any of that touchy-feely crap.” He flashed her a grin and waited.

No response. Not a lift of her mouth, or a relaxing of the shoulders. Tough cookie. He looked ahead and let out a sigh. “So, while I’m sure those two things are beneficial to some, that’s not what you’re asking, is it Coryn?” He looked at her from the corner of his eye and watched in fascination as she took in a deep breath before she answered. The move brought his eyes to her chest and another bump to his heart rate.

“Do you often use humor to deflect serious topics? Or maybe you enjoy messing with people’s heads instead of being professional?”

Lord, this woman was trying his patience and the fit of his pants. What was it about her that had his engine on overdrive? Dealing with her sharp tongue while imagining it on his cock was not something he’d anticipated. He wasn’t used to being questioned. He was the one who gave orders, and they were followed. Otherwise, someone could end up dead. Shit, he needed a cold beer and a colder shower to reset himself.

“Only when I feel the situation warrants it. And professional, Agent Westwood, is my effing middle name.” His voice laced with barely controlled anger, he took a deep breath and continued on. “I’ve given you the code word. It should be enough for you to get on board with the fact we are now working together.” He swerved the car to avoid a broken down delivery truck and cursed himself.

“By spending our time arguing over protocol, we could very well be compromised because of your inability to deal with a change in plans. Hell, life was a lot simpler when I was in the corp.” He tore his gaze from Coryn and focused on the traffic. This Coryn was nothing like the introspective and shy agent-in-training who’d offered herself to him after too much wine. No, the Coryn sitting next to him was full of challenge and he needed to up his game to match.

“Are you kidding me right now? The corp? How long has it been since you were an active Marine? If you think—”

He braked for the light, and before Coryn could protest, he grabbed her chin and silenced her the best way he knew how. He claimed her lower lip and suckled lightly before taking full possession of her mouth. Liquid fire rushed through his veins as a pang gripped his heart.

He expected a shove at the very least, but what he received in return was one hell of a hot response. A throaty groan greeted his deep, wet kiss. Her reaction made him wish they were anywhere but in a cramped car.

So, this was what had been missing. Excitement from the get-go. Instant knowing. And it scared the holy living hell out of him.

Pretending to be Coryn’s husband might turn out to be more enjoyable than he could have imagined yet equally dangerous to his wellbeing. Playing house with a smart-mouthed, sexy-as-hell FBI agent, one who made him forget other women with a single kiss, …almost made him forget she couldn’t know his real purpose for crashing her operation.

She leaned into him and ran her hand up along his neck, threaded her fingers into his hair and tugged—hard, right before she bit his tongue and pulled out of his grasp.

“Ow! Dammit, what was that for?” he asked.

“If you try that again, next time I’ll draw blood.”

He glared at her as she straightened her blouse and brushed her hair off her face. However, she couldn’t fix the blush high on her cheeks or her increased breathing. Score one for him.

He watched as her breasts rose and fell confirming she was as affected by the kiss as he was. But to avoid further fighting, he needed to come up with a good reason for the kiss. Jesus, how’d this situation get stuck on fast forward? Crazy effing hormones.

“Don’t get so worked up. I saw someone looking our way and didn’t want to take the chance it was one of your customers who might worry about you being in a car with a man. So, I took the opportunity to play the part of a couple reunited after months of separation. Besides, it was just a kiss.” A horn blared. Jack looked to see the light had turned green and hit the accelerator.

“That’s a lame excuse and you know it, Jackson.

Jack switched the topic to tame the blood flow which had headed south of his belt, “Tell me about Teresa Marcozi-Rizzi? How much have you been able to insert yourself into her life?”

Coryn opened her mouth to answer, and quickly slammed it shut. Re-crossing her arms over the breasts he’d be dreaming of later tonight; she lifted her chin and avoided his gaze.

“No dice. I was here first. It’s you who has a story to tell before I agree to release any information. You first, cowboy.”

Jack shook his head and chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Coryn’s gaze drifted to his face.

He cleared his throat. All humor fled as he took in her thin lips and steely stare. “I think you and I are going to get along better than you think.”

“How do you figure?”

“We’re both bull-headed and skeptical. Two things you need to stay alive in this business.” Jake raked his gaze over her taking note of her flush face. “And the over-the-top chemistry doesn’t hurt either.” He couldn’t resist baiting her. “Admit it, we’re hot for each other.”

“Wow. You’ve learned all this in the fifteen minutes we’ve been together? Color me impressed. Your time would be better spent trying to convince me why I should trust you, professor.”

“Honey, you should know better than anyone reading people is crucial. Otherwise, we end up dead. My instincts tell me you’re going to be a challenge, yes, but never boring and worth the effort.” He reached over, squeezed her hand and grinned.

She yanked her hand away and looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. “First, don’t call me honey. Second, I already have a partner. She and the others working for me can handle the tech side. You being here now means I need to rethink my strategy in dealing with Teresa and her father. So hold the flowery speeches for now. I need a drink, and you said something about dinner. How about we take it a step at a time since it doesn’t look like you’re willing to go away, hmmm?”

“Coryn, don’t kid yourself, you’re stuck with me for the duration. And I’m not a professor. I was a substitute instructor at the Academy for a very short time. And now…I’m not.” Jack pulled up to the valet stand and exited his side of the car. “Here we are. You ready?” He studied Coryn’s profile as she looked at the marquee on the building and did a double take.

“You’ve got to be kidding, right? I’ve got a better idea. There’s a nice steakhouse two blocks down, let’s go there.”

They were parked in front of Maria’s Ristorante, owned by Marcozi and where the notorious mafia kingpin spent most of his free time. Jack had done his homework before he’d taken the job. He also knew Coryn met Teresa for lunch here at least once a week.

“Coryn, it’ll be fine, and it’s necessary for Marcozi, his daughter and your customers, to see us together. Besides, don’t you want to meet your husband’s new employer?”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

As they waited for the valet, Coryn attempted to play catch up to what was happening. She turned Jack’s earlier words over in her head, specifically the just a kiss statement. She stubbornly kept her gaze off of Jack and focused on the building.

Just a kiss? It was so much more. She’d never been kissed quite so… thoroughly. Lost in the moment, she’d let herself feel, for the first time in a long while. She’d spent years shutting her emotions down and doing her job. Not allowing herself time for personal entanglements beyond a few nights here and there, nights best forgotten.

Romance and finding “the one” were not her thing. Yet Jack’s kiss made her yearn for more. More of him. More from life. Unfortunately, the timing sucked. She couldn’t get caught up playing happily-ever-after with a man she’d once lusted after years ago.

What were the true motivations of her boss sending him in now? She would be forced to share intel with him. Information she hadn’t shared with anyone else.

No matter how many nerve endings he lit on fire with a simple touch or searing kiss, she needed to continue her hyper-focus on discovering two truths. Two truths which had nothing, yet everything, to do with why she wanted this case so badly. The first being to find out who killed her former partner, and the second would be to find out why every lead she tracked down on her deceased father led to the Marcozi crime family.

She couldn’t let anything, not even her own happiness, keep her from her personal mission or nailing Marcozi for the attempted hacks into the US stock exchange.

Now Jack arrives out of nowhere, and her body turns traitor on her. It was all happening too fast. His dark, military shorn hair fit his rugged unforgettably striking looks, and his dimpled chin made her fingers itch to trace his jawline with her tongue. And his broad shoulders were her kryptonite. As a matter of fact, he reminded her of the actor who played Superman and her hormones were ready to be rescued.

He stirred up too many questions and not enough answers. And wait a minute. How did he know what her long-time customers looked like? And how the hell had he pulled off getting a job with Marcozi?

While she’d been stewing over… well, everything, Jack had opened her door and stood looking down at her. She took in a deep breath and counted to ten. She looked up at him, temptation wrapped in a leather jacket, sporting a grin she couldn’t read. She’d keep her guard up until she decided if he was friend or foe.

Coryn caught him checking out her exposed legs, and when their gazes connected again, he upped the wattage in his smile. Awareness and yearning slammed into her. Get yourself together girl. This is not real, it’s all pretend. This is what Quantico trained you for, dealing with the unexpected, relying on logic over emotion.

Jack wasn’t Prince Charming, and he wasn’t going to sweep her off her feet and make everything better. It was time to take back the upper hand and let him know she was in charge. There’d also be no more kissing. Maybe.

“Honey, you ready?” Jack asked.

She knew he asked in a loud voice for the benefit of anyone listening, but it struck a chord. She’d never before been called honey, or any term of endearment. She wasn’t sure she liked it.

Coryn took another look into his midnight eyes, practically the same color as her own, and saw a shutter slam down. Beneath the sleek exterior hid a well-trained soldier. She’d felt it when she touched him. Coiled strength and barely concealed arrogance. He was the type who went after what he wanted full force and used whatever was at hand to win. This time he’d chosen seduction; she’d best remember that.

Jack leaned into the car and offered her his hand. A simple touch warned her of a threat to her mission she hadn’t anticipated. She didn’t have time for this distraction. She’d been getting closer to Teresa. Plus, the tech team she’d assembled had broken several encrypted files Ty was able to send them before he was murdered. Files which showed IP addresses.

It would be only a matter of time before they had enough information to bring down those responsible for the Pacific Stock Exchange’s intrusion attempts and avoid a financial catastrophe, should the hackers actually get past the network’s safeguards. Chatter on the dark web had pointed to an upcoming attempt on the New York Stock Exchange as well. She’d been assured, if the attempt was successful, the damage to the US and global economies would be on a scale few would dare think of in their darkest nightmares.

She would not allow Jack Knight to be a distraction, no matter his striking looks or flirtatious attempts to work his way into her operation.

She squeezed his hand as hard as she could, digging her short nails into his palm. Coryn stepped out of the car and threw him a tight smile. She expected him to flinch at her rough touch, but he continued playing the doting husband.

“Our table is ready, and Marcozi is expecting us,” Jack announced loud enough for the benefit of the valet and the handful of patrons exiting the restaurant. He leaned towards her and whispered, “Follow my lead and later, I promise I’ll share everything I can. It’s important you trust me, Coryn.” A little louder, he added. “Then we can go home and have a second honeymoon.”

The way he said her name ignited a small flame low in her belly. She ignored it the best she could.

“Trust you?” Coryn shouted. Uh-oh. Big mistake. Another couple was entering at the same time, and her outburst startled the wife.

She covered her outburst by giggling and placed a hand over her mouth. She whispered “sorry” to the poor woman and turned back toward Jack and grabbed his arm. “Trust is earned. And I’m not playing along until you tell me exactly who you are. You may have had the correct code word, but it doesn’t mean I’ll share anything with you until I speak with Braxton.”

Jack stared her down, and before he could respond, she heard her name called. She closed her eyes and groaned. Teresa was here, and there was no way Coryn could pretend she hadn’t heard her friend/subject acknowledge her.

This situation was getting out of hand, and she needed to get it back under control or four months of planning would go sideways fast. There was no way into the Marcozi fold without Teresa, at least not for her.

She held up her hand at Teresa’s acknowledgment, then looked up at the most irritatingly handsome man she’d ever had the misfortune to meet. Or kiss.

Coryn smiled and caressed Jack’s face right before she gave a sharp pinch to his earlobe. “Now it’s you who needs to play along, Jack, or you’re going to blow everything I’ve built here. You don’t want to cross me. I’ve got a nasty right hook and I will use it.” She stepped away from him and into the offered hug from Teresa.

Show no fear and all will be well. She repeated the mantra and prayed Jack was smart enough to listen to her. Teresa fancied herself a self-taught psychologist, and she could smell a lie twenty feet away.

Before Coryn had a chance to break contact with Teresa, Jack stepped up behind her and introduced himself.

“Hello, I’m Jackson Thornton. I’ve heard so much about you, Teresa. I’m so glad we could finally meet.”

He pressed his body into Coryn’s back and placed his hands on her shoulders. He began rubbing them in a silent dare. Sending more unwanted tendrils of desire pulsating through her body.

 “You don’t know how relieved I was when Coryn was able to find a friend such as you when she opened her shop. My long absences have really made it difficult for us, and I worried about her being alone.”

Coryn watched as realization finally dawned on Teresa. She looked from Jack to Coryn and back again. A huge smile appeared on her face. Teresa let out an ear-piercing squeal before she grabbed Jack and hugged him, a little too long as far as Coryn was concerned. The twenty-foot buffer had been broken. Coryn made the sign of the cross and pasted on a lovesick smile. Where was her drink?

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