Bridget Jamison’s heart raced as she ran from the computer lab to Bran Frost’s office inside Delta Star headquarters. Maybe this would be the end of her quest. Increased agency chatter said that international terrorist Simon Perez was on the move. All her instincts as a new field agent told her something was going to break soon, and, for her ex-fiancé’s sake, she hungered to be in on the kill. Even though in the end he’d been a lying, cheating bastard, she owed him that much after getting him killed.
She skidded to a halt in the director’s anteroom and breathlessly waited for Thelma, his personal assistant, to buzz her in. She gave herself a once over and—
She’d been too busy demonstrating the prototype of her new 3-D system to notice how messy she was getting. Hastily, she smoothed her damp palms over her drab, shapeless but wrinkled business suit, so she wouldn’t be reprimanded for wasting time in the lab. Why couldn’t the director see that the agency would be stronger, smarter, and more effective if the departments combined talents?
She looked down at her boxy suit and sighed. She purposely chose clothing that concealed her too curvy figure, not wanting her sexuality to detract from anyone’s perception of her efficiency. Not that anyone was asking. Lately, her love life was as out of reach as Perez. Sometimes almost close enough to touch, but never actually in hand.
At any rate, cocky, immature agents who thought they were God’s gift to women pissed her off. James may have cheated on her, but at least he hadn’t acted like he was the hottest thing in pants. His modesty had all been an act of course, but she hadn’t learned that until she’d lost him in a bombing. She wouldn’t make the mistake of risking her heart, much less her career, again.
It helped that she’d become a workaholic and never met anyone outside Delta Star. Fraternization was frowned upon, if not downright banned in the secret government agency, and she liked it that way. It kept her from getting her heart broken. It also kept her sexless, but her previous lovers, even her ex, had let her know she wasn’t missing much. Her body hungered for what it had never known, but that need heightened her senses, made her sharper, and helped her play secret agent when she sometimes felt like a fraud, a nerd in an agent’s clothing.
She realized Thelma was looking at her and frowning, her gaze cautious. No friendly chitchat this morning. Did Thelma know something about what was waiting for Bridget inside that room? Had the director called her up here with bad news?
Shit...I really am screwed.
“He’s waiting,” Thelma said, then pressed one of the buttons on her desk. The director’s door swung silently open on well-oiled hinges.
Bridget swallowed the lump in her throat and walked inside, her head held high, to take her medicine.
Director Frost, seated on his throne-like leather desk chair behind his huge antique mahogany desk, motioned her toward a chair as he talked on the phone. She sank into the chair and listened to Frost’s crisp, icy tone as he berated some agent who had fouled up. The director’s chilly last name fit him to a tee. His prematurely white hair belonged to on an older man, but it somehow fit him and, coupled with his ice-blue eyes, gave him an air of authority.
She sat up straighter and tensed at the edgy vibes he was giving off. But there was something else setting off her internal early warning system. The nerd in her stayed cool, while the brand spanking new field agent part of her went on red alert. She was being watched, scrutinized by more than the standard security devices. There were eyes on her. She could feel it—
All her nerve endings tingling, she turned around…and froze when she saw who was waiting inside Frost’s inner chamber. The director had left the door to his war room open, maybe on purpose, and a certain ghost agent sat inside, tucked deep enough back that he’d been out of her sight line when she’d entered the room. Her gaze collided with a hostile dark one, and all her carefully suppressed hormones went haywire.
His code name beat like a drum in her mind as her eyes locked with the disreputable ghost agent’s compelling brown ones. Lounged in an armchair in the corner, he watched her closely, visually tracking her like the legendary predator he was.
Stories abounded about the cold as ice agent. Nothing touched him. Certainly no woman on staff, even though plenty had tried. Hell, after the disaster with James, she’d kind of tried to follow his non-fraternization example. His thick dark hair curled over the collar of his black leather motorcycle jacket, and his square jaw was covered with stubble. He looked like he’d just come off the road. And to be honest, he probably had. Ghosts didn’t put down roots. Ever.
What was it like to be with a man like that? Just for one night. Hell, for one hour. He’d take what he wanted and then he’d leave her, and she wouldn’t be hurt, because that was his nature. No commitments. No expectations. No attachments.
Her gaze swept up his long, powerful legs and stopped at the distinct bulge at his crotch—
Never gonna happen, Bridget.
Blushing, she tore her gaze off his impressive package in time to see his hunky mouth kick into a slow grin that said, Who’s your daddy? His hot chocolate-brown eyes seemed to strip bare her defenses. She felt more naked than if she were actually nude. A little sample of why he was so freaking good at his job.
Her whole body sizzled in response. Not for you, honey, the rational part of her mind screamed. Get a grip. He’s not even remotely on your menu. The few times they’d crossed paths, she’d had the same fierce primal reaction, but she hadn’t been stupid enough to get this close, within striking distance. Dino the sexy dinosaur. The girls in the computer lab had conferred that title on him because he was woefully old school and extremely doable—even if he kept himself off-limits.
And now? The way he was looking at her? She knew his type. He was used to being in charge. Getting what he wanted. If he thought he was going to subdue her with a look, he had another thing coming.
She scowled back at him, and her lips tingled when she stared at his sensual mouth. The corners of his mouth curled into a slow smile. So he liked her refusing to bend to him. But she could see it in his eyes. For him, her refusal was a challenge.
Which reminded her how strange it was for him to be here in the first place.
Something was very wrong. Frost didn’t have visitors in his office unless it was business-related. Condor swooped in when other agents failed. It all added up to one career-shattering explanation: they were kicking her back to IT for insubordination.
Damn it all, she hadn’t failed on the last case. Only used her better judgment. And despite her team leader reprimanding her for disobeying his orders, utilizing her latest app had been what made the bust successful. And without any bloodshed. Frost wouldn’t take away her case for that, would he? Not this one. Not when she was so close to catching her ex’s killer. She bit her lip. Frost did run a tight ship.
Shit, the only case still open on her desk was James’s case—the Perez case. It’d been open for three years. But if he was taking her off the case, why not tell her in private? Why bring in Condor now?
Her spine went rigid at the very idea. No damned way would she give it up! She was too close to closure to kiss it good-bye. And she so badly needed to bring down the terrorist responsible for the carnage. She’d never let go of her guilt for pushing her ex away and into the situation that had led to his death. But if she could catch his killer? Then that might start to make up for what she’d done.
Assuming she could get past Frost and Condor.
* * * *
Ross Longtree, code named Condor, leaned back in his chair. A flash of heat hit him hard as he watched the feisty, buttoned-up redhead react to his presence. Oh, yeah, her reputation as a ballbuster was true. He could read it in her defiant green eyes. He shifted in his chair, uncomfortable and annoyed with the way she made him feel. She shouldn’t be able to make him feel anything at all.
You’re ice, damn it, fucking act like it.
He was very good at keeping people at arm’s length. It was what kept him safe, and more, what made him the lone wolf able to protect people from the shadows. But his skills seemed to vanish when he looked at her—and she looked right back. The godawful suit she wore did nothing to hide the curves underneath. And that fire in her eyes. Most women crumbled beneath his touch, eager to be dominated and consumed. But Bridget? If she wanted him to subdue her, she’d make him fight for it. The thought set every nerve in his body on fire.
She’s not for you, stupid, and you sure as hell don’t deserve her.
His hand closed over the antique gold band in his pocket anyway, and he fingered the emblem of his dominance.
Frost wanted to take Bridget off this case, but what if Condor put his slave bracelet on her? Claimed her, carried her off, and took her on this mission as his submissive? Just the thought was enough to jump-start him into a too-stupid-to-survive-this-mission hard-on. The discomfort brought him back to earth fast. Sex was always simulated on missions—especially his missions—for a reason. He wasn’t about to get fooled by Mission Magic, a term he’d coined when a good friend died all because he and his partner got distracted. Hell, he lectured new agents on the subject, and there was no way he would be stupid enough to fall for it himself.
No, delightful as the thought of taming her was, keeping her was not an option. Besides, a buttoned up kitten like her would probably freak before he taught her how to let down her hair and purr. He would be going after Simon Perez all right, but with a junior agent of Frost’s choosing, playing his submissive. A sweet and obedient window dressing that would allow him to get on with the job and nail the son of a bitch.
Anyway, he had already studied the Perez file as well as Bridget’s personal one. After that, he’d hacked deep into confidential records to find out everything about her. If he was going to go along with her removal from such a personal case, he wanted to know who she was.
He knew all about her special link to the case—her secret engagement to reckless young agent James Clayton. And he’d discovered that her old man was the former director. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, that connection gave her an advantage in the agency. After the disaster that had ended with her boyfriend vaporized, strings had been pulled. She’d been suspended when she’d defended her ex at the top of her lungs, and her father had put out the story that she’d been fired to keep her off Perez’s radar. Thank god for that or the bogeys that had taken out Clayton might have made a move on her.
Six months later, she was reinstated under an alias and allowed to transfer to the field agent ranks. A fact that had been hidden from everyone but a few, and even Condor only knew because he hacked into the confidential records. Brilliant but headstrong, Agent Bridget Jamison rapidly climbed the ranks after she made the move from computer analyst to field agent. She had some bumps along the road—more thanks to how willful she was. But she earned her place in the field, and now she was about to get her pet case ripped out of her hands.
She sure as hell wouldn’t take this lying down.
He was always called in to do the dirty work. It was one reason he was a pariah at Delta Star. Agents tended to be territorial; they also didn’t like admitting that they fucked up. Ordinarily, he didn’t care how they felt about him, but something about the woman—now openly glaring at him—brought out his protective instincts.
Frost brought me here for this?
He would do his job, but he suddenly wished he was back on vacation, finishing the roof on his newest project, The Seadrift Inn. He only hoped a hurricane wouldn’t hit the Keys in the meantime.
The fierce glare in Bridget’s eyes let him know what kind of fight this would be. Good. If he had to take this from her, he wanted her to fight. Let her show him—let her show Frost—what this means to her. Let her turn that fire on Condor.
The corners of her lips turned down, and her nostrils flared. Yeah, she knew why she was here. And she knew why Condor was here. Or at least suspected it.
He was dimly aware of Frost hanging up the phone. The director’s speculative, icy gaze lingered on the two of them. The man was a born manipulator, but every man had his tell. Frost’s eyebrows raised ever so slightly as he looked at Condor and Bridget.
Holy shit, Frost was getting a kick out of them squaring off. The man had brought him here intending for this conflict to happen.
“Agent Jamison,” Director Frost said. “You came here to do a job. Now do it.”
Bridget tore her incensed gaze off Condor and spun to look at the director. His irritated tone told her he’d been trying to get her attention while she’d been glaring at Condor. Embarrassed to be caught staring, she felt her cheeks flame, but she held her head high. She took a calming breath, nodded serenely, and folded her damp hands in her lap. Condor’s presence wouldn’t distract her.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Frost eased back in his chair and played with one of his desk toys. He swung a small ball that smacked into another and started a never-ending lulling pendulum motion. “As I was saying, you’re to be commended, Agent Jamison. Your tech squad has managed to ferret out a discernable pattern for Simon Perez.”
Her stiff shoulders softened with relief while she listened to the mesmerizing click, click, click of the swaying balls. All her worrying about losing her case had been for nothing. She winced inside at how she’d glared at Condor, but she could apologize later.
“Thank you, sir. It’s wonderful news.” Lord, there was so much to do: put her team together, combine field and lab agents, work up a plan of attack. There’d be time to celebrate after she brought down Perez.
She even flashed Condor a friendly smile, which was met with his enigmatic gaze. He didn’t have friends, at least not around here. She told herself again that ghosts didn’t put down roots. That wasn’t their function, and they certainly didn’t smile back at junior agents. Well, you couldn’t win them all.
Filled with new purpose, she turned back to Frost. “Give me his location, sir, and I’ll put together my team.”
The director’s puckered brow, coupled with the stiff set of his broad shoulders, broke through her elation. He was cutting her. She read it in his unyielding gaze, and her heart sank all over again.
Frost eyed her closely and reached out to stop the swinging toy. “I’m reassigning this to Condor and Agent Harrison. You can fill him in before he goes.”
The breath left her lungs on a gasp and made her a little light-headed. Her reassignment was the reason for Condor’s infuriating presence after all.
She slanted a glare his way and watched his hard mouth kick up in a half smile.
Now he smiles. Great!
The bastard had expected her hostile reaction, and he was getting off on it. No, she cried inside, incensed, and struggling not to show it.
An outburst would only harden Frost’s resolve. She’d learned that from bitter past experience. No, if she wanted any chance of holding on to this case, she would need to treat this room as if it was a field assignment. Remain cool. Exploit her enemy’s weaknesses.
Because Condor couldn’t be allowed to steal her case, and Jennifer Harrison, a junior agent—a fluffy, Playboy Bunny wannabe—couldn’t either. Whether Frost was doing this as a reprimand or because he really thought she couldn’t handle going after Perez, Bridget didn’t know, but she was damned well going to find out.
She turned back to Frost, her mind made up. “It’s my beat. I stayed on this when everyone else thought he’d gotten away. I built the intel that put him in our sights now. Why are you doing this, sir?”
He arched an imperious brow. “Agent Jamison, I don’t have to answer your impertinent question. But I will just this once,” he said, adding gently, “given your deep personal attachment to this case.”
Deep personal attachment! Oh, shit. She tensed at the words and his sympathetic tone. This was worse than she’d realized. How did the Director know about James? They’d kept their affair, as well as its demise, a secret from everyone in the agency by pretending to be just good friends. Of course, the fact that she’d gone off the deep end after he’d been killed was no secret. Her father’s insistence that she transfer to the field agent ranks under an alias could be viewed as suspicious. It was on that basis that she’d pressed for more involvement in the case. But all anyone could have had—all anyone should have had—was at most the suspicion that there’d been more between her and James.
“Deep personal attachment?” she asked, and she was pleased at how cool her tone sounded.
Frost gave her a sad yet understanding smile. “You didn’t think you could keep your engagement secret from me?”
There was no point in pretending any longer. She doubted he was bluffing, and she’d lose everything if she called him on it and lost. “If you knew, why didn’t you say anything about…”
“Fate, in the form of a bombing, took the problem away.”
Fury made her tense at his insensitive words. James hadn’t been a problem. Except that he’d cheated on her, lied to her. But that had been her problem, not the agency’s.
She sighed, closed her eyes, and pushed back painful memories of their last meeting. Yes, he’d hurt her—hell, he’d betrayed her—but that didn’t mean he deserved to die. She’d bring his murderer to justice. “Well then, why are you taking me off the case? You know how motivated I am.”
“And biased,” Frost said.
Bridget bit her lip to keep from shouting at him. It wasn’t true, was it? Well, she had been rather single-minded.
“You don’t have the qualifications, kitten,” Condor cut in.
“What a crock,” she muttered as Condor’s teasing words cut through her musings. She shot a glare at the ghost agent. She wanted to smack him. The notorious agent was old school, a relic from the Stone Age, as narrow-minded as her last team leader. He was probably more apt to blow things up than investigate. From her point of view, he was the one lacking in credentials. Unless he had some special training she didn’t know about. “What qualifications do you have that I don’t possess?” she asked, challenging him.
“Perez likes his sex with a little kink,” Condor said dryly, his eyes twinkling. “I’m a Dom by training and inclination. Whereas you…well, it’s clear how well you wouldn’t fit in as a sub. Even a fake one.”
Heat infused her face at Condor’s plainly spoken words. The blaze spread down her body, and she cursed her red-headed tendency to blush. Condor’s seemingly fascinated gaze followed the blush down the V of her white blouse until it disappeared into no man’s land.
Mortified, she turned her back on him, refusing to be drawn into this discussion, and refocused on the director. “Sir, don’t listen to him. I’m very qualified to lead this mission. The subject of sex doesn’t bother me. I even played Dominatrix once, if you’ll recall.” She’d actually played a small part in that mission, but she wasn’t going to point that out. “How about if I play Dominatrix and paddle Condor’s snarky ass?”
She was well aware of Condor uncoiling from the chair. Six-foot-six inches of hot, do-me-twice spy. His sheer masculine presence said he was telling the truth about his preferences. He liked his sex with a little kink. Maybe a lot of kink.
How could she not stare? His fluid power was spellbinding and made her core tighten. Years of celibacy had to be responsible for her lack of decorum. The first chance she had, she’d get laid. But not by him. She needed a man she could control. The playful bad boy smile on his lips made the breath catch in her throat.
“Love, you can try to paddle my ass if you want,” he said. “But you won’t win. I’ll be bringing Jennifer as my submissive. She might not have your fire, but she knows how to behave and keep on task, sugar.”
The cutesy nickname pissed her off almost as much as his brash reference to male domination. That “keep on task” crack didn’t set very well, either. It seemed he knew all about her misbehavior. Okay, she could work with this. Simon Perez probably did get off on denigrating women. It fit in with his sociopath profile. She didn’t think that Condor was cut from the same cloth, but from the commanding vibes he gave off, he was the kind of guy that would want to be on top. A Dom by nature and inclination.
She rose as Condor stepped her way, and she stared him down. Most men backed down from her fierce, take-no-prisoners, glare. Condor didn’t even blink. Damn, it seemed she’d met her match. His dark, compelling eyes flared with interest, and he smiled, a gesture that turned him from fierce to devastating. Her pumps added two inches to her five-foot-six, but she still had to, annoyingly, look up to meet his hard yet playful gaze.
“Like you’ve got the qualifications for that,” she snapped.
“Actually I do. Care for a sample?”
His sultry voice and teasing words were so much more effective than gruff threats ever could be. Double damn! Was he just making up this Dom pose? Every rousing feminine instinct inside her said no. With or without the case, this was for real. If she couldn’t play her part in the comfort of this office, she sure as hell couldn’t do it in the field.
This was just for show, and if they were paired on this mission, it would be for show there, too. Sex on missions was always simulated, she reminded herself, another one of those non-fraternization rules. But this would take them into the belly of a secret organization where power and sex were one and the same. At some point, Condor would have to touch her. Maybe more.
She glanced back at Condor and Frost. The doubt in their eyes left no doubt in her mind that she was in trouble.
“So you get off on subjugating women, do you? How unenlightened of you, Condor.”
“Sent anyone out for a testicular retrieval, lately?” he shot back with a quick grin.
So he knew about that, too. The accident from her early days as a field agent had sent a suspect with roving hands to the hospital with an unusual injury. She thought she heard a chuckle beside her, and she turned to fix a startled stare at the director. Was the man who never seemed to crack a smile laughing at her? He was keeping a straight face, but there was a twinkle in his cool eyes that she’d never seen before. Well, hell, it was two against one. Bad odds. Still, she couldn’t afford to back down.
Frost cleared his throat. “I’ve made my decision. Agent Harrison might be new, but she can follow orders.”
She winced. Damn. She knew her insubordination would come back to haunt her, but not at this great a cost. “I can carry off Agent Harrison’s role, and I’d be of more help to Condor than a junior agent. I’m tested, sir, and I’ve learned from my mistakes. You know that with my computer skills and my photographic memory, Condor will have the edge he needs.”
She wasn’t bragging, and Frost knew it. Her computer design skills had drawn her to the agency in the first place. Condor, for his part, had probably never touched a computer in his life. Frost was wavering a bit, steepling his fingers together, which usually meant he was mulling things over.
Condor stepped closer. His body heat made her burn, and his sexy earthy scent—an intoxicating mix of leather and hot man and sandalwood—wrapped around her.
“You’d have to enter the compound nude, sugar,” Condor said. Then he added bluntly, “sex slaves at the Retreat are often kept nude.”
The prospect of prancing around in her birthday suit in front of Condor was embarrassing and, to her shame, enticing.
You’re the original ice queen, Bridge, and you do not get off on masterful men, so who cares.
One of them would come out of this battle of the sexes victorious, and it would be her.
“So? I’m not ashamed of my body, Condor.”
He smiled. “I’m not so sure. The barbed wire suit you’re wearing says you’re hiding something.”
“Bite me, you chromo.” His sexy chuckle made her melt inside, even while she wanted to drop him where he stood.
“Easy, sugar. I do outrank you.” He brushed a stray tendril of hair away from her heated face. “You’d have to convincingly play my submissive lover. Bondage, discipline, the whole bit. I’d spank you for real. A hellcat like you could never pull that off successfully. Besides, I’d barely have time to train you. I’m afraid you won’t do.”
Bridget’s breath caught as his warm, battle-scarred fingertips gently brushed her face and made heat bloom in their wake. What painful secrets did his gruff demeanor hide? You do not want to know, and you sure as hell don’t want to get close enough to try to fix him. You learned your lesson after James. She forced herself to step back. His hand fell, and she could swear she saw regret in his dark and stormy eyes. Nonsense, he was clearly trying to scare her off.
Frost cleared his throat.
Her flustered attention snapped back to him. How long had she and Condor been staring at each other with inappropriate heat in their eyes?
Frost sighed and stood up. “Condor is the one with the expertise here. If he says you can be his partner, so be it. But if he says you’re not ready, you’re off, and that’s final.”
Frozen, she watched the director leave the room. Now only Condor stood between her and her goal. There had to be a way to convince him.
She turned and saw Condor giving her conservative attire a doubtful once over. He truly thought she couldn’t play the part, and given her attire, she couldn’t blame him. She sighed and tried to let go of her self-imposed cocoon of protection. It was time to play her last card. Time to prove to both of them that she could do this.
She nimbly unbuttoned her suit jacket, slipped it off, and laid it on her chair, well aware that the fluorescent light above highlighted her breasts inside her white silk blouse, and the pink lace bra lovingly cupped her curves. She then unpinned her hair and let it fall so that it tumbled around her shoulders like a fiery curtain. Only then did she look at Condor, and she felt a surge of confidence at the faintest hint of surprise in his expression.
She smiled. “Well?”
She stepped closer to her would-be Dom, and she was startled by the banked heat of arousal in Condor’s eyes. His annoyance was just as easy to read in the hard set of his mouth, the tic in his clenched jaw. He didn’t like being manipulated.
“I didn’t say you could come so close to me,” he said.
She stopped and lowered her head, but she kept her eyes on him. “Yes.”
“Yes? Yes what?”
Damn her hesitation. Submitting to him—even for this mission—was hard. Maybe too hard.
“If this is going to work, you’ll need to learn to respond to me. To obey my every word. To do what I say.” He growled. “And to accept a punishment if you hesitate in public. And Bridget?”
She nibbled her lip, looked at him, and watched his irises contract. “Yes, sir?”
“I do hope you hesitate.”
Hell, yeah. So this Dom got off on a challenge. It seemed her resistance to being dominated might actually help after all.
She scowled at him. “No one punishes me.”
He scowled back at her. “You think so. But I’ll whip you into shape.”
She bit her lip at his words. Would he really use whips? Her ass felt like it was on fire, desperate to taste his touch, and she felt a blush surge through her again. She couldn’t hide it, and Condor studied her reaction with a pleased smile. Damn!
He picked up a thick manila file. “Just so you understand, our dynamic isn’t just for show. I’m the Agent-in-Charge. You will need to take your orders directly from me, and you’ll need to obey them. Any objections?”
It didn’t matter who pulled rank as long as she was free to do her job. “No objections. I’m sure there’s a lot I can learn from someone with your decades of field experience.”
Condor frowned. He’d gotten the unsaid message that he was behind the times.
He turned and stalked out of the office without a word.
Well, hell, if this was a sample of his leadership style, it was going to be a rocky road. She gritted her teeth, shrugged back into her blazer, and ran after him, knowing, without a doubt, she was in deep trouble.