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 had 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.

One thing was 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.

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 his mirrored aviators and dark scowl upon a 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, Vinnie’s Pizzeria.

She’d planned on treating herself with a slice from her favorite pizzeria as a reward for not telling her last customer of the day, a snobbish woman who turned her nose up at the shop’s inventory where to stick her black Amex card. Her stomach protested as the spicy scent of sauce made from scratch and melted cheese reached her.

Coryn 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 oversized windows which were fashionable during the period.

Over the last few months, she’d worked hard at cultivating her cover, one of an importer of fine-home furnishings.

Who was shadowing her and why now?

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.

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.

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

Another glance in the window showed the man had shortened the distance between them. Keeping pace with her on the opposite side of the street; his features undefined as the ever-present clouds covered 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 but 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 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 turning to 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 flat against the brick wall. She guessed he had close to sixty pounds on her, but she kept in top physical condition. She’d 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, 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 connection, 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 and time to tuck away the thoughts of an infatuated young woman and replace them with her next move. One which hopefully wouldn’t tip 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 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, they’d sent in another agent. 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 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. 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 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 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 – shy on her part, lustful on his – as he taught Ethics in Cyber Surveillance. Hers had turned from shy to bold as the class came to an end and she’d hit on him the night of her graduation.

She focused on his profile and discovered 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 his presence 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.”

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, without any interference from anyone. 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 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 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, and since 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. Oh, and the last name is Thornton, same as yours.”

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

Ignoring her, 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 back up her overheated body. Shit. 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 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 there may have been a mole playing double agents. If it was Coryn and she had anything to do with his 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 flashing 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.

 Dammit. 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 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 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’m not officially on the bureau’s payroll.”

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 you really are? 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 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?”

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 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 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? The corp? How long has it been since you were and 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 tongue. Liquid fire rushed through his veins as a pang gripped his heart. This was what had been missing in his life with the opposite sex. 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 a cramped car.

Pretending to be Coryn’s husband might turn out to be more enjoyable than he could have imagined. 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.

“Try it 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 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?”

“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.”

“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 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? 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 West Coast mob boss spent most of his free time. Jack had done his homework before he took on this 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?”