By Amber A Bardan
Available November 5, 2014
For years Tyler has longed, lusted and burned for the girl who saved his life. He’ll do anything to have her—including hire her as his bodyguard. But when the girl of his dreams turns out to have a dark streak he never could have imagined, he’ll need more in his seductive arsenal than sweet talk- he’ll have to find out just how far he’s prepared to go to get her.
Brooke has been through the kind of hell that doesn’t make it into most people’s nightmares. She’s strong, she’s fierce and she believes the only place any man belongs in her life is wedged under the toe of her shoe. Ty is the one man to get under her skin and send her mindless with desire. He’s also a spanner in her life that could undo everything she's worked for.
She wants him—but can a man like Ty handle the kind of fantasies she has in mind?
It only happened for a few moments each day. When the sun sank to that precise point where the city of Seattle turned pink then orange then darkest blue. Tyler swirled his scotch and gulped it down. It didn’t burn, just as the view from the top floor of the Black Trident building didn’t warm him the way it should.
Nothing fucking could.
Tyler didn’t turn but the glass in his hand came close to shattering. “Just tell me, Saul.”
“We found her.”
Tyler spun around, slammed his glass down on his desk and strode to where his president flopped a file on the conference table. His calf muscle screamed with that first step but settled into its familiar ache. Tyler spread his hand over the folder but didn’t open it. Could only stare at it. His heart galloped as if he’d back-flipped his way to the table. “You’re sure, you’re absolutely sure it’s her.”
Saul stroked the neat gray hair on his chin. “It’s her.”
“I want to know everything.”
Saul’s gaze flickered for a moment but he nodded and gestured to the table. Tyler raised his hand and let Saul pick up the file. Saul spread the papers across the table. One shiny image caught Tyler’s eye and he dragged it closer. Blood thrummed in his ears, almost blocking out the sound of Saul's words. Dammit, he should have opened it when he was alone. Now he could barely stand upright. That face staring up at him from the photo was like a punch in the gut. Even grainy the photo portrayed her features exactly as he remembered them. Those eyes—those lips—that halo of buttercup blonde—the image he still saw hovering above him every time he shut his eyes. He still heard the promises flowing from her lips into his soul. For an instant he was twenty again.
“She moved back to the city three years ago. Changed her last name to Yates.” Saul tapped the photo in front of Tyler. “Tuesdays and Thursdays she co-teaches women’s self-defense classes in the mornings.” He dragged across another photo.
Tyler watched the photo slide. The woman in the image wore camouflage pants, a black tank and a black baseball cap, her ponytail cascading out the back. He frowned. Who was this woman? Hardly the soft angel he remembered. Could she have changed so much?
“Sundays she runs fitness boot-camp.”
“She works for Crowe Security.” Saul picked up another paper and handed it to Tyler.
Tyler scanned the document and nodded. “Good. This is good. I can use this…” He glanced at Saul. “How many death-threats have I received this week—hell, how many have I received today?”
Saul’s graying brows twitched. “I haven’t kept count, Ty. But since the community center, let’s assume it’s higher than usual.”
Tyler grinned, slow and smug. So sue him—he liked winning—it was in his blood. This win would be the sweetest of his life. “Give Crowe security a call. Black Trident Enterprises’ security needs have changed, my needs have changed.”
Saul sighed and scooped up the papers. He didn’t need to state his disapproval—Tyler heard it all in that one breath.
“You got something to say, Saul?”
“I’m thinking this might not be the wisest course of action. I know how you feel about this girl but do you really think that a woman who has gone to so much trouble to hide, even changing her last name, is going to like this?”
Tyler straightened and tugged his tie then shifted his gaze out the window. The ache in his chest overtook the ever-present pain in his leg. “She had no reason to hide from me. I sent her one letter, one letter in five years. That’s all.” He closed his eyes briefly. That letter. He tried not to think about what he’d written. Yet the memory filled him with equal parts shame and pain. He—Tyler Black—so desperate, so needy. He had bared himself so completely only to be met with endless haunting silence.
“She doesn’t need to like it but she won’t be hiding anymore.”
* * * * *
Brooke gazed at the man she trusted most in the world, her mentor, role-model and now boss, Connor Crowe, as if he were hell’s one true spawn.
Oh damn, damn him, damn him.
“Exactly where would you like that inserted?” She smiled her sweetest ice-cold smile. “Boss.”
Connor grinned and tossed the hot-pink Venetian mask to her. She caught it mid-air.
“You can save that grin for your fiancée—it doesn’t work on me,” she said.
If any grin had a hope of working on her it was Connor’s. The man was a freaking masterpiece. Tan skin, short dark hair and muscles that had a way of making the ladies ooze their pheromones all over themselves. If she were interested in men, she might’ve noticed. As it was, as it had always needed to be, their relationship was a friendship based on trust and things such as—not fucking coming on to each other.
“Where’s my consummate professional, Brooke? Think of it as a uniform.” Conner sprawled on the opposite side of the limo that had been sent for her and tapped the manila file in his lap. The smart-ass had the nerve to grin wider.
Brooke’s jaw tightened. “I wore this thing, didn’t I?” She tugged on the glittering—yes, freaking glittering—pink folds of the floor-length gown itching its way over her body. “Some asshole’s Barbie fantasy. What is this, Connor? Are you pimping me out now?”
Connor snapped forward but didn’t touch her. Connor never touched her except when they were training. He knew that boundary. One of the reasons he was the one ray of hope in her world that all men weren’t evil. “Hey, anyone touches you in a way you don’t like—hell, anyone looks at you in a way you don’t like—and I pull you out.” He leaned back. “You told me you could do this, Brooke. You said you could work your unique skill set but if you can’t, if it’s too much, I’ll pull the plug now.”
He would too. Biggest account of his career and he’d compromise it for the sake of his protégé.
“No.” Brooke shook her head and slipped the mask on. “I want to do this. Plus I can handle myself, you know that.”
“Shit, Brooke. Don’t be breaking some poor schmuck’s legs because he happens to notice you’re stunning.”
Her cheeks warmed. She knew he didn’t mean it as flattery. He was just stating a fact. “I won’t, don’t worry. I’ll get this account for you. So what do I need to know?”
“According to Saul Morgan, president of Black Trident, they’ve had some serious threats in the last few days, most particularly toward their CEO—” He paused and looked at her from under lowered brows. “And he’s reluctant to appear as though he can’t look after himself. Hence you.”
Brooke adjusted the mask, trying not to imagine what she looked like. “I’ll be his perfect little trophy girlfriend. Want me to giggle now?”
Connor ignored her. “His name is Ty, he’ll meet you inside and brief you after the event. I’ll have your bags delivered to his place.”
“Fantastic. How will I know this masqueraded peacock?”
Connor’s mouth twitched and he handed her an invitation from his inside jacket pocket. “He’ll be wearing a purple mask.”
“Of course he will.” Brooke matched his smirk and took the invitation then opened the door and slid out.
She ducked her head back inside. “What?”
“Just remember, close this deal and I make you partner.”
Brooke swallowed and tucked a thick gold curl behind her ear. “Consider it done.”
* * * * *
Brooke handed her invitation to the doorman and stepped into the foyer. Holy-shit-balls these people took their masquerading seriously. Bodies pressed around her and flowed toward a grand ballroom. Every face hid behind some gilded, feathered, freakish, bejeweled monstrosity. A long hooked beak mask caught her eye. She shuddered. Creepy factor of too-damn-much. Who knew people still did this crap? She assessed the room that served as an enormous foyer, gaze flicking corner to corner. One exterior exit, four security guards at the door. She scanned the ceiling—and at least two cameras.
And this guy summons a bodyguard now?
She followed the crowd into the ballroom then paused. Her breath caught on her lips. Hundreds of lights hung from a high ceiling, casting the throng of masked dancers on the floor into moving, glistening night creatures. A low hypnotic beat thundered through the floor, up her heels, along her legs. Either she’d stepped onto a movie set or someone had slipped her acid.
A gush of warmth blew her hair back off her shoulders. Her attention flew to the row of open doors along the rear wall. Now this room was a problem. The rear expanse of the ballroom opened to gardens. No security. Perfect. She stepped around the dance floor and searched the perimeter for the purple-masked-peacock so she could keep an eye on him. Not that she knew who or what she was protecting him from anyway. Normally she had a little more to go on but she figured she’d find out soon enough.
Her gaze paused mid-sweep. A prickle itched the back of her scalp. Eyes on her. Watching, staring eyes. She turned and faced the shadowy figure standing in front of the open doors. He stood so still the air, the room, moved around him. A sheer white curtain rose at his back but he didn’t move, he was still as death. She couldn’t see his eyes and something told her it was better she didn’t.
Darkness fell over him, coating him in stripes of black. Her heart took up space in the base of her neck, pulsing there as if her ribs had let it fly away. A mask concealed the top half of his face. Not beaked or feathered like most of the others, just neat and flat against strong bones.
He moved, just one step forward—toward her. There was no mistaking it, the way his attention fixated on her, not just with his gaze but with every flex of his body he moved toward her. Light flowed over him and the saliva on her tongue went dry and sticky. A black suit clung to his body. Shoulders wide but not bulky under a simple snug jacket. The lapels, a different fabric than the rest of the jacket, shined. No tie. Everyone wore a tie but him. Yet he looked as if he was the one this elaborate set had been created for, the most refined attendee of all.
She glanced back at his face, her breathing heavy. Why would he be staring at her? He he nodded, a slow dip and rise of his angular chin. Light hit the deep purple of his mask.
Ah, fucking purple.
Her heart flowed back down to its rightful place. Of course. She glanced down at her dress. The dim, shifting light brought out the reflective threads, made the fabric shimmer like something from Cinderella. He’d have known her the moment she stepped in. It was his dress, after all. At least the one he’d sent for her. Here she was thinking—whatever the hell crazy thoughts she’d been thinking—and he was simply her client waiting for her.
She straightened her shoulders and moved through the room, weaved around the bodies toward him. He’d gone into statue mode again. She stood in front of him and everything she was supposed to say left her head. He just looked at her, stared at her too hard. His eyes were dark behind the mask, his hair neat and groomed and slicked back from his face. But it was those eyes she couldn’t stop looking at.
Not a question, a promise. His lips seemed to move in slow motion when he said her name. The way they tightened at the Br—then parted at the k—almost as if he’d been saving the word up on his tongue. Intimate, too damned intimate. She drew every bit of bone and muscle in her body up to her five-foot-ten height. He still stood taller by two or three inches but she wasn’t small. He needed to know that now. She was tall and strong and professional. He had no right to intimacy. He should call her by her last name until given permission to do otherwise.
“Mr.—” She paused. She didn’t even know his last name. “Mr. Ty?”
He smiled, not a full smile, just a closed-lip one that tugged up at one side. “It’s just Ty.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t been briefed properly. Can we find somewhere to talk?”
He shook his head. Just like that he dismissed her request. “Not now. We have plenty of time for that. Right now I need to dance.” He held out his palm. Held it out as if he expected her to take his hand, as if he actually expected her to dance.
She took an unsteady step back. The music droned soft enough to hear him perfectly yet the base seemed too high. It vibrated in her calves.
“I don’t dance. I don’t do touching either for that matter.”
He closed the space, bringing himself even closer. She stepped back with her left foot but stopped herself from raising her arms. No…she didn’t need to take a fighting stance in the middle of a goddamn charity ball. She didn’t do this, didn’t let men do this—close in on her. Get closer than she’d like. She stared at the perfect little buttons on his shirt. His scent cut through the wash of perfume in the air, clean—clean and crisp and expensive.
“But Brooke, I’m expected to dance. I was guaranteed that you’d be able to blend in, that you wouldn’t stand out, that you could be natural.”
Her lips shook. Fuck it, was she nervous? When was the last time she’d allowed someone to put her off balance?
“I can look natural. I’m very good at my job.” She raised her gaze to his and forced confidence into her lies. “Which is why you don’t want to dance with me. I’m no good at it. It certainly won’t look natural.”
“I’ll take my chances.” He stepped in, grasped the fingers of her right hand and placed his other hand on her waist.
She stiffened at the touch but it was too late—he’d swept her onto the dance floor. The crowd closed around them but he moved them through the mass of whirling bodies. Her senses focused in on the hand on her waist, everything in her telling her to push it away. Her heart rose again but this time the beat was painful. She forced herself to breathe and move with him. To not look like a freak who’d lost it because a guy had his hand on her waist. She let him move her. And goddamn, this man could lead. Just his hand around hers and the one on her side and he could direct her anyway he wanted.
In and out, that’s how you breathe, Brooke.
There’d been a time once when she’d enjoyed dancing. She could pretend, pretend it was still okay. They moved round then around again. Music itched through her veins. His shoulder was firm and steady under her fingers and she held on to it. She could do this, just as she’d learned to do so many things again. She was Boot-camp-Brooke. She had grown men leaping at the blow of her whistle in her Sunday classes. She wasn’t afraid of a little dancing. He tugged and her waist pressed into his.
The contact sent shards of ice into her belly. Fear. But fear wasn’t something that controlled her anymore. She didn’t let it. His warmth seeped through his shirt, through her dress and into the cold pit inside her. There was something else here, something more instinctive than fear. Something that gripped her frantic heart because it begged her, just begged her for things she’d given up on. His neck hovered above her face, the skin at the base flickering. Fast, so fast. But why should he be nervous?
“There’s one thing I won’t tolerate in my employees, Brooke.”
Her heart skipped. What the hell did that mean? Did he sense the way her usual professionalism dissolved around him, how so much of her seemed to be dissolving? “And what’s that?” It wasn't him, not this flashy prick getting to her. It was the damn dancing, the freaking touching, the pushing of her boundaries.
“Lies. You lied to me.”
She tore her gaze from his throat. “What are you talking about?”
“You said you couldn’t dance. Now look at you.”
He spun them for effect. Once, twice, three times. Her waist hooked to his like an anchor. He stopped and the room spun a little. Then he dipped her.
She arched her back and the fairy lights flickered above her face. His belt dug into her abdomen. Ice crashed over her, spikes of fear that sank into her like teeth. Bodies moved, a beaked masked flashed in the corner of her vision, the room swirled, her chest heaved. He pulled her up. But now all she could see were flashing lights. All she could feel was that rub on her abdomen. All her body could remember was pain.
Pain she’d never escape.
Her legs had no muscles, her lungs had no air. Suddenly arms were around her. The crisp, warm scent of man. Yet it didn’t scare her, it surrounded her, gave her something to hold on to. She pressed her face into that warm skin. Were they still spinning? She couldn’t tell, she couldn’t breathe. Then there was more air. Warm summer air.
“Brooke?” A husky voice called, sounding so far away.
She tore the mask off her face and threw it to the ground. No more flashing lights, no more flashing lights. They still blinked behind her eyelids. Someone pressed something cool into her hands. She gasped, realized she was breathing like a lunatic.
“Try drinking some water.”
She raised the glass to her mouth and drank, drank without stopping, drained the whole glass and held it out. He crouched in front of her. She’d somehow gotten outside, sat—or had been seated—on a stone bench.
“Are you all right?” His voice was warm and thick with concern.
Oh shit, what have I done?
She leaped to her feet. “I’m so sorry, this is so unprofessional.”
He rose slowly, lithely, in a way that proved there was an athlete somewhere under that suit.
“I assure you I’m not usually like this.” She shook her head and pressed her palm to her hot cheek. “I’m supposed to be here to look after you and instead you had to look after me.”
“I’m capable of looking after myself—”
She cut in. “I understand if you want to request someone else.”
He stood still in front of her then bent and put her glass on the bench. When he turned back to her his eyes were as luminous as stars. “No, it’s you I want.”
Her pulse rose. There was something to his words. Something far more than a stranger should mean. His words sank in and she shivered then pulled on her Boot-camp-Brooke persona—so much better at dealing with crap than her. “If you’re capable of looking after yourself, why am I here?”
He glanced out at the gardens. “Since Black Trident acquired a local community building we’ve been getting some threats. Enough to prompt us to revise security. Enough to prompt my over-protective president to reconsider my security.”
“So that’s it. You’re forced to have a bodyguard but don’t want to look like a wimp.”
“Something like that,” he whispered.
She frowned and watched him stare out into the distance. “So how do we do this then? You want me to blend in?”
“At work you’ll be my new PA, the rest of the time we let people assume what they like.”
He finally turned back to her. His gaze swept over her from head to glittering heels. Her gown may as well have been made from sparkling cling-film the way that look made her feel.
Boot-camp-Brooke snapped straighter. “Just remember, while you allow people to assume what they like I’m a bodyguard, and I have boundaries, especially when it comes to touching..”
“What if I need to touch you?” He lowered his face toward hers. “I mean to play a part?”
She swallowed. “Then you ask. No one touches me without my permission. Period.”
“But I have your permission.” His long straight nose flared under his mask.
She frowned and shook her head. A heavy, sinking feeling mixed with inexplicable heat flowed down her center. “What are you talking about?”
His breath touched her lips, he leaned so close. She should move back, she should strain away but something held her still, the sense that something massive was about to unfold before her eyes.
“You told me once that my hands were made to touch you. That touching you was my purpose in life.” His fingers curled around her upper arms. “Or have you forgotten that, Brooke? Have you forgotten the things you said to me?”
Her lips tingled and heat blasted its way through her heals, up, up through her body and into her chest. Those brown eyes, she’d seen them before. She snatched the mask from his face and her lungs seized.
Time melted, folded and instead of a Seattle breeze she tasted burning rubber.
After spending years imagining fictional adventures, Amber finally found a way to turn daydreaming into a productive habit. She now spends her days as a graphic designer but her nights writing gritty, raw, erotic romance with heart.
She lives with her husband and children in semi-rural Australia, where if she peers outside at the right moment she might just see a kangaroo bounce by.