COUNTERPLAY – Exclusive Excerpt

Releasing November 24th

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EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FOR DEBRA’S NEWSLETTER SUBSCRIBERS

 

COUNTERPLAY, A Phantom, Inc. Novel

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 senses and her body’s involuntary responses to her surroundings. She knew, without a doubt, she was being watched. The first time it happened, she wrote 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, dead partner, had led a secret life would do that to a person, even a Special Agent of the FBI.

But 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, and she’d be damned if whoever it was would interfere with the progress she’d made to find answers. Answers to who was behind her partner’s death. And answers she’d been searching for years concerning her own ties to the same mob family she was attempting to infiltrate.

One thing for sure, whoever was stalking her, was no ordinary criminal. If they were, they would have attacked by now. She’d bet her favorite pair of heels they had ties to her case. And if they broke her cover, she wasn’t going to play nice.

Ty’s death had been written off as him being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A robbery had gone bad in the alley of a nightclub in Trinity Falls, an affluent and trendy Seattle suburb. But she knew better. When his listed next of kin couldn’t be located, she was given the task of going through his personal effects. And it was the USB drive on his keychain that drove her to break protocol today.

She 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 her much taller opponent. Mirrored aviators and a scowl; details she filed away.

She adjusted a lock of her hair and turned down the tree-lined sidewalk. Her intent on feeding her grumbling stomach forgotten, replaced by luring her prey. She relied on her training and kept her pace steady

Instead of treating herself with a slice from her favorite pizzeria as a reward for not telling the snobbish woman where to stick her black Amex card, she kept walking past the restaurant as her stomach protested. She sighed and held her gaze forward while she tracked the man following her in the glass storefronts along Main Street using her peripheral vision. The city had done a fantastic job of restoring the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century buildings by keeping the oversized windows that were fashionable during that period.

Over the last few months, she’d worked hard at cultivating her cover, that of an importer of fine-home furnishings. Her team was close but out of sight, located in a state-of-the-art surveillance center in a boarded-up former coffee house adjacent to the import shop.

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, and friend to the target’s daughter.

But 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 mob. And so was murder, but rumor had it Costas Marcozi, the West Coast Mob King, was attempting to go legit. She didn’t buy it, and she’d do anything to prove it.

So, who was following her? A new adversary? If she were a gambler, she’d bet it had something to do with Ty’s secret.

Another glance in the window showed a man wearing an expensive black leather coat kept pace with her on the opposite side of the street. His features hidden in shadow as the ever-presentclouds covered the late afternoon 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 but thought better of it. Too many pedestrians on the street. She didn’t feel like playing TV cop, not until she had to.

The steps slowed 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. Dammit, she was hungry, and this fool wanted to play cat and mouse.

When he finally passed, she jumped out and 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 then pushed him into the brick wall. Too easy. Her brain screamed. He wanted to be caught. 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 closer to the wall.  She guessed he had close to sixty pounds on her, but she kept in top physical condition. She had 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 set in.

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

It may have been nearly ten years, but she’d remember that 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. And it bought her time. Time to tuck away the thoughts of an infatuated young woman and replace them with her next move. One that hopefully wouldn’t tip off her recognizing 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 ignited throughout her body. She ignored her feelings and focused on the implications of his words. She sucked in a deep breath then counted to ten. When that didn’t calm her, she tried twenty.

After weeks of threats, they’d sent in another agent. Against her assurances she could handle the operation on her own, it looked like she’d be forced to play house with a man she’d drunkenly offered herself to and been 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 too much 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 with her pretend husband.

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

“I have my reasons, and I’d be happy to share them. But if you keep pressing yourself into me like that, I might suggest something a bit more…mutually agreeable. I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Braxton sent me. He’s done waiting for you to secure the invitation to Marcozi’s Labor Day charity weekend and asked me to…help out.”

Coryn rocked back on her heels and released his arm. When he turned around, she got her first full look at her undercover husband. His deep laugh lines and weathered appearance enhanced the face she remembered. The young agent she’d pegged him for was instead the FBI instructor she’d spent weeks trading shy–her, and lustful–him, glances as he taught Ethics in Cyber Surveillance.

His grin didn’t quite make it to his eyes–eyes which 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, and the realization of who he was and what that meant to her operation robbed her of all speech.

Before she could form the thought to 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.”

Dammit. He knew very well she hadn’t; otherwise, he wouldn’t be here. And damn Braxton for not giving her a heads up. She’d been running the investigation her way, without any interference from anyone. Her goals were clear: find her former partner’s killer and take down the Marcozi crime family. But now that her husband had been activated finding out why Ty had been murdered just got complicated.

He leaned in and nuzzled her neck, and her heart rate leapt instantly. What the hell? She refused to acknowledge the instant physical reaction she had from his hard body now nicely lined up with hers. And dammit, why hadn’t she worn her Gucci’s 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 head spinning, she’d hesitated too long, 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 of a 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 that you’re over-the-moon happy to be back in my arms.”

Coryn looked over his shoulder towards the opening to 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 now that we’re…married…you can call me anything you want.”

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

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

“Just, Jack. And I never said I was an agent. Oh, and the last name is Thornton, like yours.”

 “Whatever. I expect you to authenticate who you say you are, and…wait, what? Did you say you’re not an agent?” Coryn pushed hard on his chest. He didn’t budge.

Ignoring her questions, he talked right over her. “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 let go and took a couple of steps back.

“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 then back up her over-heated body. Shit. This just got real. His use of the word ‘reacquainted’ crushed any hope that 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 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.

 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 looked into the possibility that there may have been a mole playing both sides. If it was Coryn and she had anything to do with his cousin’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. Without words, a battle of wills played out. One thought repeated in his mind…formidable. If he thought this mission would be a cakewalk, her look of determination gave him pause. Perhaps he should play her opposite of his initial plan. Besides the stubborn bent of her chin, he noticed a hint of desire in her eyes.

A desire which echoed his own. Dammit. Playing husband had sounded so easy. But now. Now he needed to bury the insta-attraction before he did something stupid like kiss her.

He waved her toward his car parked down the street. Her back was 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 wore 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 was fans of the Deputy Director.

Jack swung into the high-performance car and leaned over the console. Damn, 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’m not officially on the bureau’s payroll.”

He watched as her mouth opened than closed. She stared at him a full twenty seconds before she took a deep breath. Damn, 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 ear.

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

Hell, how much to tell her? He didn’t report to the FBI. Not directly. In the early 2000s, he worked with Braxton in the cyber division; right before Braxton began his meteoric rise within the Bureau. Jack once admired the man, his skills and his dedication to protecting the country from black hat hackers.

But that was before his one-time mentor made sure Jack would never cross him. He insured Jack’s name was all over a personal vendetta Braxton carried out under a sanctioned operation guise.

And now, Braxton held the name of his Ty’s killer as bait for Jack’s cooperation in bringing the Marcozi mafia family to their knees. Because he knew what Ty was to Jack. What no one else knew. Ty had been more than the victim of a mission gone wrong. He was Jack’s cousin. And Jack would do anything to bring the killer to justice. Even working with Braxton Hewitt.

He 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.

He also wouldn’t tell her was that he answered to no one. Not Braxton, not the FBI. After he left the bureau, he opened a business specializing in cybersecurity, providing extractions from hostile locations, and on a case-by-case basis; personal protection. His work was his salvation and he was sure most saw him as a mercenary. However, in a world gone fucking mad, Jack set the rules he would follow to ensure justice was given to those held hostage by others either in name or body.

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, that I know of.” 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 here, is it Coryn?” He looked at her from the corner of his eye and watched in fascination as she took 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?”

The damn woman was trying his patience and the fit of his pants. What was it about her that had his engine running non-stop? Dealing with her sharp tongue while imagining it on his cock was not something he’d anticipated. He wasn’t used to being questioned. In his line of work, he gave the 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 god damn middle name.” His voice laced with barely controlled anger, he took a deep breath and continued on. “I’ve given you the code word. That should be enough for you to get on board with the fact that we are now working together.” He swerved the car to avoid an old 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 was ready to meet her more than halfway.

“Are you kidding me right now? How long has it been since you worked for the agency? 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 at first before taking full possession of her tongue. Liquid fire rushed through his veins as a pang gripped his heart, this was what had been missing with other women. Excitement from the get-go. Instant knowing. And it scared the holy living hell out of him.

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 sweet reaction made him wish they were anywhere but in this damn car.

Pretending to be Coryn’s husband might turn out to be more enjoyable then he could have imagined. Playing house with a smart-mouthed, sexy as hell FBI agent, who erased other women from his brain with one 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; then she bit his tongue and pulled out of his grasp.

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

“Try that again, and 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 fucking hormones.

“Don’t get so worked up. I saw someone peeking into the car and didn’t want to take the chance it was one of your customers who might worry about you being in the 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.

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 then 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. If you’re not FBI, then 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?”

“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. And the over-the-top chemistry doesn’t hurt either.” He couldn’t resist baiting her. “Admit it, were hot for each other.”

“Wow. You’ve learned all that 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?” 

“Honey, you should know better than anyone that 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 like 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 more than handle the tech side. You being here now means I need to rethink and redo 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. So 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 look, here we are.” Jack pulled up to the valet stand and exited his side of the car. He studied Coryn’s face as she looked up at the marquee on the building and did a double-take.

“You’ve got to be kidding, right? This is not a good idea. There’s a nice steakhouse two blocks down, let’s go there.”

They were parked in front of Maria’s Ristorante, one of the few legitimate businesses Marcozi owned and the one where the notorious West Coast mob boss spent most of his free time. Jack had done his homework before he took on this job. He also knew that Coryn met Teresa for lunch here at least once a week.

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

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Coryn turned Jack’s words over in her head. Just a kiss? Oh, no. 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 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 merely met, a man who was not FBI, who was an unknown force she now had to share information with. Information she hadn’t shared with anyone else.

No matter how many nerve endings he lit on fire with a simple touch or that searing kiss, she needed to continue her hyper-focus on discovering two truths. Two truths that had nothing, yet everything to do with why she wanted this case so badly. Who killed her former partner, and 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 damn body turns traitor on her; it was all happening too fast. She hadn’t been kidding earlier when she compared him to a fitness model. His dark, military shorn hair fit his rugged good 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 damn, 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 the 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 and there’d 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 other term of endearment for that matter and she wasn’t sure she liked it.

She took another look into this 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 first touched him. Coiled strength and barely concealed arrogance. He was the type that went after what he wanted–full force–using whatever was at hand to win and with her. It looked like he’d chosen seduction; she’d best remember that.

Jack leaned into the car and offered her his hand. A simple touch that warned her of a threat to her mission she hadn’t anticipated. Damn, she did not 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 that 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 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 good 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 other 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. Damn. 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 that 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 other 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 that Coryn was able to find a friend like 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. She let out an ear-piercing squeal and 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 that drink?

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Any hope of controlling the evening fell apart as Jack held Teresa’s seat.  He sent her a wink. Coryn seethed and took her place before he had a chance to help.

“Teresa, I’m so glad we ran into you. Coryn has been telling me about your charity work. We’ve been looking for a new organization to donate our time and money toward now that we’re full-time residents of Trinity Falls, we’d be interested in hearing more. Right, Honey?” Jack took his seat and captured her hand and rubbed his thumb along her skin.

Trapped, she endured his touch and cursed silently. Goosebumps appeared on her arms, and warning bells sounded for her ears only. Coryn plastered a fake smile on her face and

Teresa tilted her head at Jack, “I’m happy to hear that; I’m a firm believer that those of us who have so much need to give back in any way we can. There’s so much need, and I try to spend my free time volunteering.  As a matter of fact, Coryn had asked me the same thing not so long ago.”

Coryn sat up straighter in her chair at Teresa’s words, ready to control the conversation. Before she could ask the next question, Jack squeezed her hand and cut her off.

“I couldn’t agree more. Which is your favorite charity?”

Coryn rolled her eyes and took sips of water to cool off. Well, at least he wasn’t wasting any time getting to the point. She counted to ten, took in a deep breath and tried to act like a supporting wife. Hell, how did one do that? She had zero experience with marriage and never had a relationship that lasted beyond three months. She made a mental note to add relationship research to her to do list.

“I try not to pick favorites and to that end we have a family event during Labor Day as our main fundraiser, and Oh, yes of course! You must be there. Now that Jack is here and working for Daddy… I’ll talk to him. He’s a stickler for last minute changes to the guest list, but I just know he’ll make an exception for you.”

Coryn held back a curse. No eff’g way! She’d spent weeks grooming Teresa… this was not happening. Jack was saved from a kick beneath the table as the waiter appeared to take their order. She buried her frustration on the menu. She talked herself down from the edge. It didn’t matter how she, now they secured an invitation, as long as they did. She knew she had to swallow her pride, but oh did it burn.

“So, now that we have that settled, and I’ll let you know as soon as I get Daddy’s okay, tell me more about you two. How did you meet? Where did you propose Jack? Oh, I just love, love don’t you?”

How could Coryn burst Teresa’s excitement bubble when what she’d been working toward, to get inside the Marcozi compound was closer now than ever before? She couldn’t and wouldn’t jeopardize the operation. She’d unleash on Jack the minute she got him alone.

She turned to Jack, “It’s a funny story actually.” She arched an eyebrow and leaned into her husband. “Jack you tell it better than me, honey. Go ahead, tell Teresa how you proposed.”

Jack didn’t pause. “It was funny wasn’t it? We had, well I would call it a whirlwind relationship, wouldn’t you dear?”

“Yes, although I made him work for it.” Coryn locked gazes with Jack and saluted him with her wineglass.

“She did. But I wore her down. And when I got my nerve up I took her to the beach at sunset, we we’re visiting Los Angeles at the time for one of my conferences. I dragged her there with the lame excuse I’d never walked along a beach at sunset. Remember, Coryn.”

“I remember.” She whispered, lost in his made up story. How’d he known she’d been in L.A.?

“I made her wade out into the surf with me, and as I’m taking the ring box out of my suit pocket, a rogue wave comes up and knocks into us. The box goes flying, and I’m scrambling in my dress shoes following the surf as it went back out.” Jack lifted her hand and kissed the ring she’d bought herself online, a cubic zirconia she’d prayed no one would question if it was real.

“As you can see, he retrieved it.” She wiggled her hand and grinned. “It was a crazy moment of panic and highly entertaining at the same time.” Oh, if only it had been real. Not the proposal, but to see Jack out of sorts; that she would pay good money to witness.

Teresa laughed and launched into her proposal story with her husband, Marco. Theirs had also been a quick relationship and become engaged without Daddy’s permission, but according to Teresa, he had learned to like her husband. Coryn knew different as intel had revealed Costas had been livid his only daughter had gone outside the mob family to marry.

Their dinner arrived, and Teresa thankfully, fell silent. They began with a delicious chicken and baked mostaccioli; the exceptional pasta and the sommelier’s red wine recommended mellowed Coryn. No longer hangry she looked over at Jack and decided a little payback was in order.

Several times she sensed Jack looking over his dinner at her with what could only have been described as genuine affection. How could he do that with someone he met an hour ago? He not only deftly answered Teresa’s questions on how they met and when they became engaged, but where they spent their honeymoon. Aruba.

Great, her pretend-self enjoyed better vacations then she did. She grabbed her cell phone and keyed in Aruba-Honeymoon in her note app. Damn, where did he say they met again? Some agent she was.

“Jack, tell Teresa the story about how you go this job.” She took another sip of wine, sat back to watch the show, and sent him her best innocent smile.

“Yes, Jack, tell me? How did you find out about TriGen? And, Coryn, why didn’t you tell me that he’s working for Daddy?”

“I can answer that for you, Teresa.”

Jack once again cut her off. A habit she would break as she could.

“I asked Coryn to wait on saying anything until I’d arrived in town. You see I’ve changed my mind before on taking certain positions, and I wanted to spare Coryn the embarrassment should that happen again.”

He sent Coryn a heart-stopping smile and a wink. He needed to stop doing that, or she wouldn’t be able to remember her name by the end of the evening.

“Yes, thanks, uh, dear.” Coryn cleared her throat and turned toward Teresa. “Please don’t be mad. Jack receives a lot of offers to work exclusively for corporations, and we wanted to make sure this was a good fit for him.”

When she looked back at Jack and noticed his gaze locked on her mouth, she flashed instantly to their kiss in the car. The memory of his lips on hers sent a fresh wave of shivers up her spine. This was not happening. She needed to end this dinner and soon before she snapped at Jack to stop looking at her like he wanted to eat her up.

“No apologies needed you two.” Teresa words ended the moment.

 Thank God. Coryn didn’t know how much more she could take.

“I’m so happy for Coryn that you’re here Jack. And, oh! Now we can do couple-things together.  I can’t wait for you to meet my Marco. He would have been with me tonight, but he had to meet with one of the sub-contractors working on our new house.”

A pounding began behind her left eye at the thought of spending any more husband-wife time with Jack. It was also due to guilt at using Teresa the way she had. Or maybe the beginnings of a brain tumor. Wouldn’t that just be her luck? The sexiest man she ever met walks into her life, and she finds out she has six months to live.

Jack finished chewing, wiped his mouth on his napkin drawing her eyes to his full lips. She averted her gaze to keep her sanity. She needed to stop thinking about those lips on hers. How would she survive sharing her condo with him if every time she looked at him, she felt like a schoolgirl with her first crush?

Jack sat back and took a sip of his wine. Without missing a beat, he answered Cory n’s dare.

“I actually didn’t know who was inquiring about my services at first. I received a call from a headhunter. I’m not sure if Coryn told you, but I own a consulting firm. I have two employees, and we fix unfixable networking as well as various other issues.”

So far, so good. Straightforward and easy for her to remember.

“I have yet to meet your father and had hoped he’d be here tonight, but you were a better surprise.”

Oh my, who did he think he was fooling? Coryn glanced over at Teresa and found her caught up in Jack’s story and his flattery.

“That’s so nice of you to say, Jack.” Teresa gushed.

“Of course. Anyway, one of his associates, Charlie De Luca, someone I’ve done business with in the past, conducted the interview for him as he was the one who’d recommend my company to your father. It happened rather quickly, and I asked Coryn not to say anything until I’d made my final decision.”

“Oh, I know Charlie. He’s a sweet man. Well, now that you’re here, Jack, I hope to see much more of you.” She raised her wine glass. “To new friends.”

Coryn first looked at Teresa, then at Jack and felt all hope of convincing him to stay in the background slip away. She still planned to call Braxton once she was alone, but the more she thought it over, maybe having Jack around would speed up her plans. Eager to wrap up the operation soon, and hopefully before Jack thought another kiss was required operating procedure. Rachel Haynes, her new partner, and the tech team were good, but having someone back on the inside at TriGen would undoubtedly help.

Coryn had learned more about Jack in one evening by listening to Teresa cross-examine him than she would’ve learned had she quizzed him herself. Score one for Teresa. Unfortunately, her father, Costas Marcozi, had been called away on business; no meeting the crime boss tonight.

Teresa made up for her father’s absence and kept them entertained. She had a way of pulling people into her world and making them feel welcomed, immediately accepted. It was one of her greatest strengths, but in this case, it could mean her downfall.

Coryn for once didn’t feel guilty in the way she was using the boss’ daughter. A daughter who probably knew enough about his business to get her a couple of years in the state prison, but not enough to make her turn him in herself.

Dinner over, Teresa said her good-byes and promised Coryn she’d stop in at her shop within the next couple of days. She wanted to look at floor rugs for her soon-to-be-finished new home. Jack escorted both ladies outside, and they waited as Teresa’s car was brought around.

“You two are such a striking couple. Enjoy your reunion.” She giggled as she got in her Mercedes and sped away.

“See, Mrs. Thornton. Even your friend thinks we belong together.” He moved closer and placed an arm around her waist.

She stepped away from Jack when the valet appeared. “Not going to happen. Let’s make the best of things. And no more touching.” She opened her own door and watched as he tipped the valet and crossed the front of the car never taking his gaze from her.

It would have been so easy to relax into his body and sink into the ruse they created. Actually, she’d created and now found herself living. But the last time she allowed herself to put her needs over her job had ended in disaster and produced nothing but animosity between herself and the man she once admired and now loathed, Braxton Hewitt.

No matter the off-the-charts attraction she felt towards Jack, she wasn’t going there. Coryn resolved to keep the operation at the top of her priorities. Ty’s death would not be in vain, and Marcozi would soon be back in a jail cell.

They drove to her place in silence, sexual tension tying her in knots. She’d wanted to keep the upper hand with him, but after witnessing his performance this evening, she wasn’t so sure that she wasn’t the one who now had to prove herself worthy.

When they reached her condo, she exited the car without a word and made her way through her white-on-white living room. She stomped through her equally white kitchen, poured herself a whiskey and slammed it down. She didn’t bother to offer him any when he leaned against the counter. Her emotions were all over the place. She knew she was acting unreasonable but dammit he struck something within her she didn’t know how to handle.

She snuck a glance at him beginning with his long legs crossed at the ankles and up at his muscled thighs and ending on his forearms crossed over a broad, well-defined chest. She was going to need another bottle after tonight’s performance. She motioned Jack to the breakfast table and issued a “wait here” on her way to her bedroom to call the one man she knew would tell her the truth even though she hated his guts.

Jack grabbed her upper arm before she made it two steps out of the kitchen. “I’m not here to take orders from you unless we both happen to be naked, which I can certainly arrange. Say the word.” He leaned in and ran his hand down to Cory n’s waist and pulled her into him.

He didn’t give her time to be outraged. He kept on speaking, his tone lower, and his sin-laced voice compelling her to remain silent.

“What’s between us has nothing to do with Marcozi or the deputy director. I never mix business with pleasure, but you, Mrs. Thornton, you tempt me beyond reason. I think it would be my pleasure to break that rule.” Jack captured her lips in a short, hard kiss, then let her go.

“I’m going to bring in my things. I’ll wait while you make your call to Braxton, then we talk. And make no mistake, Coryn, I’m not going anywhere so any attempt at having me taken off this op won’t work.”

 She was sure he’d meant to make a point with yet another kiss, but all it did was fuel her desire for him instead of pushing her away.  Coryn instantly missed his heat, missed the thrill that went through her each time they touched. And they’d done a lot of touching in the last few hours.

She walked into her bedroom and made the call she should have made when they first arrived at the restaurant.

“Braxton Hewitt.” The Deputy Director answered on the first ring.

“What have you done?”

“Agent Westwood, we may have been partners and a bit more, but you need to watch your tone with me.”

“Yeah, biggest mistake of my life. Don’t worry, sir, I won’t let it happen again.”

“I take it you’ve met Jackson?”

“Yeah, you could say that. So, aren’t you going to try and calm me down with a ‘Coryn, he’s necessary to the success of the operation …blah, blah, blah.’ Sir.”

“Coryn, you’re a pro, and you wanted this, and all the contingencies that came with it. If I recall that transferring into the Cyber division, my division, would require you to adhere to policies already in place. Going over my head to secure the backing of the Director put you on my shit list.”

Bitterness laced his tone, her ex-partner, and the man who wanted more than friendship from her one night long ago. But she’d be damned if she caved into his bruised ego and made nice with him.

“What I don’t understand is why you weren’t on board with me in the first place. Ty should never have been undercover so soon out of the academy. I need to make up for what we both missed the first time we went after Marcozi.”

“Coryn you can blame me all you want. It’s not going to bring back Ty. He knew the risks involved, and unfortunately, he stepped outside his capabilities. So, let’s not make this a personal issue between us. Besides, my reasons are my own for not wanting to put you in the line of fire with Marcozi.”

Her focus had always been the organized crime division, and why Braxton was opposed to her going after Marcozi had never been made clear. Cyber-crime had increased within various Mafia families, unfortunately it had meant requesting a transfer into Braxton’s department if she wanted to find answers to her father’s involvement with the Marcozi crime family.

“That’s too simple of an answer. Why, Braxton? Because you never thought I could handle him? Or was it something else? What are you holding back from me?”

“I don’t owe you any explanations, Agent Westwood. However, I’ve now made it my top priority to see that you get everything you need to succeed. And that includes working with Jackson Knight. Are we clear, Mrs. Thornton?”

Cringing at his use of her fake name and title, which came with all sorts of connotations, Coryn gave the only answer she could. “We’re clear, sir.”

Braxton may be an asshole, but he could end her career, and she always followed procedure. Mostly.

“Now, I expect you to share what you have so far on Teresa, and her father, so Jack can use it when he goes into TriGen’s headquarters on Monday. Don’t leave anything out.”

“What is he, Braxton? Black Ops?” Coryn tried again to get him to open up to her.

“Don’t you mean who is he?”

“No, who he is isn’t relevant at this point. I want to know what kind of training he’s had, and will I need to babysit him? If he’s not active FBI, then why is he here? Is he NSA? C’ mon, you at least owe me that much.”

Coryn waited. She knew he hadn’t disconnected the call. The low rasp of a twenty-year smoker gave him away.

“Jack is a man of many talents, Coryn. He’s more than earned your cooperation. As a decorated military veteran and former FBI, he deserves some respect and your trust. After all, he was able to get himself hired as the new fixer for TriGen’s security department. Where Ty was merely a tech geek for Marcozi, Jack will have access to… everything. Good-evening, Agent.”

She put her phone on her bedside table. She thought back to the last time she and Braxton had been in the same room. Had he known all along he would insert Jack into her mission when he asked her to create a backstory that would allow for another agent to be brought in?

If Braxton wouldn’t tell her, then it was time to push harder and find out from the man himself.

***

 

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