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Authors: Mandy Baxter

One touch more

Books by Mandy BaxterONE TOUCH MORE ONE KISS MORE ONE NIGHT MORE  Published by Kensington Publishing CorporationONE TOUCH MOREMandy BaxterZEBRA BOOKSKENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.http://www.kensingtonbooks.comAll copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.Table of ContentsBooks by Mandy BaxterTitle PageACKNOWLEDGMENTSChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenChapter NineteenChapter TwentyChapter Twenty-OneChapter Twenty-TwoChapter Twenty-ThreeChapter Twenty-FourChapter Twenty-FiveChapter Twenty-SixChapter Twenty-SevenChapter Twenty-EightTeaser chapterCopyright PageACKNOWLEDGMENTSThanks so much to my amazing agent Natanya Wheeler and everyone at NYLA as well and my editor of awesomeness Esi Sogah and everyone at Kensington who helped to make this book great including the cover designers, copy editors, and proofreaders. Thanks to Angela Carr for your advice on how to properly sew someone up, to Lenny DePaul and Dianne Moates for your expertise, and to Niki Baxter for teaching me the ins and outs of the hotel business. To anyone I might have missed, you know who you are and how I feel about you!Chapter One“Parker? Did you hear me? I asked if you've been taking the trazodone like I prescribed. You haven't had a prescription refilled in almost six months.”Parker Evans looked up at the expectant face of Dr. Nancy Meyers, the therapist the Marshals Service forced him to sit down and talk to whenever he completed an assignment. Was there a special course in college that all psychiatry majors were required to take where they practiced their calm, understanding facial expressions on each other? “It's Damien,” he replied. “And, no, I haven't been taking the trazodone. It makes me groggy.”“Parker. We've discussed this. You need to learn to separate the fantasy of your undercover work from the reality of your life. Damien is a name that should only be affiliated with your undercover persona. Here, you're Parker.”“Damien is my middle name. Isn't that still me? I mean, I guess I could go ahead and compartmentalize my last name, too. Maybe just use it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?” He eyed the ink on his fingers, the symbols permanently etched into his skin that helped to sell the package of his criminal status. Parker Evans was a ghost, a name affixed to a Social Security number so the USMS could cut him a check once a month. No one outside of the Marshals Service had called him Parker since he'd graduated from SOG training four years ago. The name didn't mean anything to him anymore.Dr. Meyers pursed her lips and pushed her square-rimmed glasses up higher on her nose. Did those frames come standard issue with her crisp navy-blue suit and practical two-inch heels? “I understand that a deputy was shot and seriously injured during your last assignment. Would you like to talk about that?”“No.”He'd left the dude with nothing more than a single Ruger under the seat of a van, and he'd prayed to God he'd be able to get his hands on it before a trio of Mexican arms dealers managed to put a bullet in the guy's dome. He'd gambled with Landon McCabe's life, not to mention the lives of three innocent civilians. The gamble had paid off, and McCabe had proved he had the stones for the job, but the guilt still ate at Damien's gut and kept him awake at night for a week afterward. It could have just as easily gone the other way . . .“You know I can't sign off on you going back into the field unless you open up and talk to me.”She made it sound like he was some sort of wild animal, about to be tagged and released. He supposed that wasn't too far from the truth. He spent his days and most of his nights in the company of wild things. Just another mindless beast that should probably be put down before he turned rabid and hurt someone.“What do you want me to say? That I'm scarred for life because a guy got shot? Sorry to break it to you, but that shit's another day at the office for me. Or I guess I could tell you that the PTSD is getting to me.” Damien cracked his neck from side to side. Jesus, if he didn't get out of here soon, he was going to lose his shit. The walls were closing in on him, squeezing the air from his lungs. “You seem to think that if I come in here every once in a while and spill my guts that I'm good to go for the next job, when really I'm just starting the cycle all over again. So why bother talking about it? This circular logic is nothing but a waste of time.”“Does it bother you that you're not in control here, Parker?” Dr. Meyers settled into the cushions of her chair and regarded him with that infuriating and infinitely patient expression that made his teeth itch. “Perhaps opening up and talking about your experiences is a surrender of power, and that's what makes you the most uncomfortable.”What made himuncomfortablewas the fact that nearly every sentence out of her mouth was a goddamned question. “Look, I get that it's your job to peel back all of my painful layers until I'm nothing but a raw, exposed nerve. And I know that you guys think that by making me talk about this shit, it keeps me level and more capable of coping with undercover assignments. But I gotta tell ya, all it does is fuck with my head and my ability to effectively do my job.”“Parker, could it be that you use your job as a shield? An excuse to keep your emotions buried?”Their sessions were becoming more hostile by the month. In the beginning, Damien had been all on board with being psychoanalyzed. He'd had a lot of shit to unload, and the prospect of dishing it all out to an impartial stranger made him feel better about sounding like a pussy when he spilled his guts. But the more he talked, the more he opened himself up, the more vulnerable Damien began to feel. And vulnerability wasn't his friend when he was hanging out with heartless bastards who'd just as soon put a bullet in his spine than play nice. He began to realize that burying his emotional baggage was the only way to survive.He'd had six years under his belt as a marine before he joined the USMS, and two of those years working in the field as a specialist before applying to the Marshals Service's Special Operations Group. His gruff exterior and lone wolf personality were suited for undercover work, and when he was approached, Damien went all in, more than ready to take down the bad guys from the inside, no matter the cost. If he could go back and do it all over again, he would have told his supervisor with the SOG to stick his undercover assignment straight up his—“Parker, you're wandering again. What were you thinking about?”Wandering. It was what Dr. Meyers called it when he zoned the fuck out. “Wondering if I left the coffeepot on this morning,” he responded with a shrug.Dr. Meyers pursed her lips and fixed him with a stern eye. Definitely not amused. “We can keep doing this dance for as long as you want, Parker.” She scribbled something on a yellow legal pad that he assumed outlined his inability to cooperate. “But the fact of the matter is,youare the one determining whether you return to the field or sit at a desk for the next six months.”“Well, if it's all up to me, then I say I return to the field. If you wouldn't mind signing off, I'll be out of your hair and—”“I said you were the one making the determination, but I'm the one who has final say.” Dr. Meyers cut him off and pointed her pen at him to drive the point home. “And right now, you are bound and determined to man a desk for the next half of the year. Wouldn't you agree, Parker?”Damien focused his gaze at the bridge of her nose. An intimidation technique he employed regularly in the field. Eye contact was easy to break, but by staring right between her eyes, his attention was damned near unbreakable. Too bad the doc was a seasoned pro of the stare-down herself.“I have all the time in the world, Parker.”She used his name the way that a skilled interrogator might use a torture technique, water-boarding him with his true identity until he couldn't take another second of breathlessness. And he knew that the only way to find relief would be to buckle under her pressure and let her dig around inside his head for the next hour. Let Parker out to play, so to speak. And as a reward for his cooperation, he'd be allowed to walk out of this office as Damien Evans, leaving Parker behind on that goddamned couch where he belonged.Knowing what he needed to do and actually following through were two different things, though. “You get paid whether I talk or not, so what do you care if I spill my guts? Why not sign me off, collect your fee, and call it a day? I won't tell if you won't.”The indulgent smile that curved her lips was something a mother would give her errant three-year-old. “I'm not here simply to collect a paycheck, Parker.” Again with the Parker bullshit. His chest constricted as though fighting for oxygen. “And I don't think you are, either. We both do what we do because we want to make a difference in people's lives.”They could talk for hours about his supposed hero complex, but that would just drag out his session, and it wasn't what Dr. Meyers really wanted to hear. “What if I don't want to be helped?”He sensed that she was holding in a sigh. He had a tendency to wear on people's nerves. It wasn't his job to be personable or even polite, though. He interacted with criminals almost on a daily basis. Coldhearted bastards who'd just as soon kill him than give him the time of day. Ruthless sons of bitches who only respected him after he proved that he was just as ruthless as they were. And he was expected to turn his emotions on and off like they were a fucking light switch or some shit. Off in the field. On in this office. Damien on the street, Parker on this goddamned couch.“You're the only one who can decide if you want to be helped or not, Parker,” Dr. Meyers said in a calm and practiced tone. “But I'm telling you right now, if you don't talk to me, you arenotgoing back into the field. Period.”Damien let out a measured breath. No way was he going to sit on the bench for the next six months or longer. Looked like Parker would be making an appearance today whether he liked it or not. “All right, you win. It freaked me the fuck out when I heard that the deputy from Portland had been shot. Is that what you want to hear?”“This isn't a win or lose situation, Parker. This is about helping you. I think this is a good place to start. Let's talk about the Sousa case and Deputy McCabe.”Everythingwas win or lose. What Dr. Meyers didn't realize was that Damien had been losing for so long, he didn't know how to win.  “Thank you for calling the IdaHaven Inn and Suites, this is Tabitha, how can I help you today?”“I need a suite for the weekend.”Adrenaline dumped into Tabitha Martin's bloodstream at the sound of her ex, Joey's voice on the end of the line. He wasthemistake. The guy she wished she'd never met and the one she couldn't seem to get out of her life. One of too many regrets. He was also the reason she couldn't leave this job, even though she wanted to. Their relationship had ended a year ago and he still had her right where he wanted her. The urge to hang up the phone overwhelmed her, but Tabitha took a deep breath. No use worrying over what she couldn't change.“I don't know if I have any suites, Joey.” Her fingers flew over the keys as she brought up a list of available rooms. Maybe if they were booked, she could convince him to go somewhere else. “There's a district basketball tournament this weekend and all of the suites are already reserved.”His silence made her stomach twist into an anxious knot. “Move someone,” he said after a tense moment. “I need the room.”“It's not that easy.”“You're the assistant manager, Tabs. Itisthat easy. Move someone. I need the room for Friday and Saturday nights. Make it happen.”Liquid nitrogen couldn't have been colder than Joey's tone. He brooked no argument and Tabitha knew the consequences if she failed to deliver. “I'll have a suite ready to go,” she assured him.“Good girl,” Joey intoned just before he hung up.Tabitha released a shuddering breath that she felt all the way to her toes. Her relief would be short-lived since, thanks to Joey's last-minute bullshit, she'd have an angry guest to deal with come this weekend. Not to mention the fact that she'd be seeing him in person in less than two days. She'd hoped that his hotel “stays” would become less and less frequent, but if anything, they'd only picked up in the past few months. Proof that his business was booming.How could she have ever fallen for that piece of trash?“Hey, Tabitha. Anything I need to know for tonight?”She looked up from her computer screen to find Dave, the secondary front-desk clerk, strolling through the lobby. Panic surged as she quickly transferred the Sheldon family's reservation to two adjoining rooms and assigned Joey's company information to the suite. It's not like Dave would be suspicious, but whenever she did one of these “favors” for Joey, she couldn't help the guilt that plagued her.“Hey, Dave.” She exited the property management software and grabbed the logbook from under the counter. “We still have fifteen arrivals and room 321 is going to need a shuttle to the airport at six a.m. Oh, and keep an eye out for the guys in room 245, they got a little rowdy in the hot tub earlier and I had to kick them out.”“Oh yeah?” Dave's interest was piqued at the mention of hot tub antics. “A little soft-core porn on the security cams tonight?”Tabitha rolled her eyes. “Not quite. And for the record, unless you want to clean that hot tub yourself, you'd better not let anyone get frisky in there in the name of entertainment. I think they were a little south of tipsy and just being rowdy. I had a couple of complaints so I gave them the boot.”“You're a hot tub dictator, Tabitha. And it's sad.”Tabitha Martin, oppressing the propagation of staph infections in public hot tubs since 2010. “Totally proud to wear that badge of honor, Dave.” She grabbed her purse and jacket from underneath the front desk. “Okay, I'm out of here. See you tomorrow?”“Same bat time, same bat station,” Dave replied. “'Night.”“Good night,” she shot back as she headed for the door.She tried not to think of the mess Joey had gotten her into as she walked through the breezeway toward the parking lot. Her shift at the hotel might have been over, but her night was just getting started. Nothing like hours of studying anatomy and physiology to round out the perfect night.As Tabitha pulled her car out onto Ninth Street, her phone buzzed from the front seat. She reached over to retrieve it, just barely missing a red light in the process. Lucky for her traffic was light at ten o'clock at night, though that didn't excuse her reckless driving. She slid her thumb across the screen and hit the speaker function as she rested the phone on the dash. “What's up, Lila?”
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“Hey, sugar-booger. Did you miss me today?” Lila was like the Energizer Bunny. “Get your ass over here and let's go out. I heard there's a new DJ over at Liquid. Let's go get our dance on!”Her enthusiasm was admirable, but just the thought of going out exhausted Tabitha. “Can't. I've got a ton of homework and I need to study for my medical terminology final.”Lila blew raspberries into the receiver. “Lame. I can't go out without a winglady, Tabs. For once, can you just ditch responsibility and cut loose? You're twenty-three years old. Stop acting like you're an old lady.”“Dude. I'd love to ditch responsibility for a while. As for being an old lady, I'm going to remember you said that when your birthday rolls around.” Lila was coming up on twenty-five—closer to ninety than Tabitha was—and still partied like she was sixteen. Of course, when your dad owned a chain of car dealerships, you could afford to be an immature slacker.“Ta-habs. . .” Lila whined. “Puh-leazego out with me. It's two-for-one shots.”Well, at least Lila had her priorities straight. Two-for-one shots? Who could resist? “Sorry, Lila, but I don't want to be hungover for tomorrow's finals.”“You don't have to be,” she said in a pouty tone. “You can be the DD and cart my drunk ass around.”“When you put it that way, how can I resist?”“Come on, you need to let off some steam. You're going to blow if you don't.”True. But running interference while Lila drank her body weight in gin and tonics wasn't the way she wanted to release the valve. “Tomorrow is my last day of classes. I'll blow off steam and whatever else you want on Saturday. And every day for the entire semester break if you want. But tonight, I've got a date with the human body.”“Boo.”Tabitha checked her mirror and switched lanes. “Sorry, dude. Take it or leave it.” She steered the car into the turn lane for her apartment complex and put her palm over the phone to keep it from sliding across the dash. “Let me study tonight and I'm all yours on Saturday.”“Fine.” Lila would pout over not getting her way, but she'd forget all about it by the weekend. “But your ass better be good and ready to go out after your shift. I'll be picking you up at the hotel.”“Deal.” It's not like Tabitha was interested in battling downtown traffic anyway. “See ya Saturday night.”“All right, Florence Farthingale, go be responsible and study,” Lila said. “Bye.”“It's FlorenceNightingale, Lila.” She laughed. “Bye.”Tabitha pulled into her covered spot below her unit and stuffed her phone in her purse. She snatched her backpack, containing what felt like a metric ton of books, from the backseat. As she began the arduous climb up the stairs to the second story, a twinge of regret pulled at her chest. She hated that she had to always be the responsible one. What she wouldn't give to be as carefree as Lila, living off of her dad's money and partying her twenties away.Twenty-three was too young to feel so old.On the flip side, she had a nice apartment, a job that paid the bills, and she was on her way to a B.S. in nursing. True, it was taking her a little longer than it would most students, but the time frame didn't matter to her as long as she got that degree in the end. She flipped on the light above the kitchen table and spilled her books out on the surface. After she changed into a pair of sweats and brewed a pot of coffee, she settled in for a long night of cramming.Tabitha was on track to finally getting her life together. The only thing left was to get rid of Joey and his baggage. All she needed to do to make it happen was jeopardize the future of someone she loved.Chapter TwoAs usual, his give-and-take with Dr. Meyers had earned Damien a pat on the head and the privilege of being allowed to resume his undercover work. Unfortunately, if he'd known Bill Crawford—the SOG director for the Pacific Northwest—was going to ship him off to Boise, Idaho, he might have saved himself the trouble and just taken the desk job. As far as assignments went, he reminded himself that it could always be worse.For the past year the U.S. Marshals Service's Fugitive Task Force had been hunting Gerald Lightfoot, a heavy hitter who'd managed to slip federal custody before they could slap his ass in the nearest super max. A veteran of the drug trade, Lightfoot had a finger in everything from weed to heroin, and word was that he was now operating his syndicate in the States from somewhere in Russia. By using the waterways, he'd been smuggling product down into the port of Seattle and distributing throughout the Pacific Northwest and California. His most recent specialty was a synthetic that went by the street name of Stardust because of its glittery physical properties; and its ability to give the user a quick high was likened to being shot up into space. It had shown up in Idaho a few months back. Sales were quickly gaining traction and had grabbed the attention of the USMS only after several teens had died. The Boise PD had assigned a special task force to stop the flow of Stardust into the city, but they couldn't keep up with the suppliers and dealers. Bastards got craftier every fucking month.It was a revolving operation, never staying in the same place for more than a month or two. Seattle, Portland, Spokane, and now Boise. The task force figured that they only had a window of about four weeks to nail Lightfoot's contact here before he pulled his product and moved on to the next city. The distributor in Boise was the key to finding Lightfoot, and had become the Fugitive Task Force's number one priority.Damien had been brought in to work the chain from the bottom up. First, locate the dealers, then hook up with Lightfoot's distributor. With such a tight time frame, he didn't have long to lay the groundwork.“Hi! Are you checking in tonight?”Damien looked up at the sound of the chipper voice and his brain went abso-freaking-lutely blank. The woman behind the counter gave him a wide smile as she tucked a section of her short hair behind her ear. Wide blue eyes the color of a deep mountain lake stared back at him, fringed with dark lashes that made the blue that much brighter. He towered over her, yet he sensed in her a confidence that was far larger than her petite frame. And that smile . . . holy shit. It was the sort of expression that skirted flirtatious and made his chest hitch.“Yeah,” he responded with a smile of his own. “I'm early though, so if you can't check me in yet, it's not a big deal.”“Oh, I don't think it'll be a problem. Can I get your name?”“Damien Evans.”Her voice rippled over him, smooth and sweet as whipped cream. He checked her name tag—Tabitha—and noted that she was also the assistant manager. She might be helpful later down the line, especially if this place did in fact turn out to be one of the hotels that Lightfoot's man was dealing from. Managers spent more time at the hotel than anyone, plus they made it their business to know the regular guests.“Okay . . .” Tabitha scanned the computer screen and puckered her lips in concentration. Damien found the act entirely too distracting, his gaze locked on the dark pink flesh that looked as soft as flower petals. “Looks like you requested a room on the top floor. Is that still okay?”“Yep.” A bird's-eye view would help him to notice anything out of the ordinary in the parking lot or street.“And you also requested a room facing the parking lot?” She cocked a brow and gave him a wry smile. “I have to admit, that's a first.”He smiled back, couldn't help himself. Damien wasn't exactly a playful guy. Gruff described him to a tee. But he found that he wanted to try, for the first time in what felt like forever, to be a little flirtatious back. “Would you believe me if I told you I was a writer forParking Lot Monthlyand this place made my top-ten list for spacious parking spaces?”Her laughter was infectious and it tingled down Damien's spine in a warm rush. “You know, our guests comment all the time that our parking spaces are extra roomy.”“It's all in the lot design,” Damien agreed.“Totally.” Their eyes met and Damien swore the air sizzled between them. “Okay, well, here are your keys.” Tabitha tucked two plastic cards into an envelope and slid them across the counter to him. “And I need to swipe your credit card. You won't be charged until you check out.”“No problem.” Damien pulled the Visa that he used for undercover operations from his wallet and handed it to her. She swiped the card in the machine and handed it back.“I have you down for seven days, and if you need to extend or shorten your stay, just let me know.”“Sounds good.” Damien tucked the card back into his wallet and retrieved the large duffel with his clothes.“Then you're all set. By the way, I'm Tabitha.” She reached out her hand across the counter. “I'm here most evenings until ten if you need anything.”He took her hand in his and the contact was electric, sending a jolt of excitement through Damien's bloodstream. Of all the shitty timing . . . After months, he meets a woman that he's attracted to and he's on a goddamned job. “Damien,” he said in return, his voice only a little strained.“Have a good one, Damien.” Damn, that smile was enough to bring him to his knees. “If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask.”“I won't. Thanks.”Was it his imagination that she seemed interested, too? She was definitely throwing off some sort of vibe, but Damien was clueless when it came to women. Maybe this was just Tabitha's usual customer service charm. Still, he had at least a week to test the waters, didn't he? Dr. Meyers said he needed to loosen up a little and try to live some sort of life. This week was as good a time as any for a trial run.“Hey, um, I was wondering. You wouldn't happen to know what's hot downtown? Bars or clubs.” He didn't want her to think he was on the prowl or anything, but he wanted a local's take on the city's nightlife.“Scouting out locations forParking Lot Monthly?”Damien's lips tugged in a reluctant smile. He'd never been funny, but he racked his brain for something—anything—comical to say, if only to make her laugh. That sound was like the sweetest music. A song he could listen to on repeat. “Even nightclubs deserve a chance at the top-ten lists.”“Totally,” Tabitha agreed with a chuckle. “Parking lots downtown can be tricky. But if you're also including parking garages—”“Garages are just parking lots on steroids. Bigger and beefier.”“Exactly!” Damn the sound of her laughter. It had a calming effect on him that none of the drugs Dr. Meyers had prescribed could manage. “Okay, so if you use the parking garage on Eighth Street, you can hit several downtown clubs from there. Liquid on Eighth and there's Fatty's on West Idaho. I think a new place just opened up near there called Equilibrium that's supposed to be pretty hot, too.”“Thanks.” Three locations were more than a decent jumping-off point. From there he could ask around, maybe find out where the bulk of the product was being moved. “I owe you one.”“I won't forget it, either. Have a good one, Damien.”He took a faltering step away from the front desk, wishing he could talk to her for another hour or so. “You too, Tabitha.”“'Night,” she called after him with a wave.Maybe this assignment wouldn't be too bad after all.  “Check you out, getting your flirt on.”Tabitha turned to face Dave and shook her head at the conspiratorial grin affixed to his face. “It's called good customer service. You should try it sometime.”“Uh-huh.” He clucked his tongue at her as he approached the desk. “I don't blame you. If I'd gotten to work a few minutes sooner, you can bet I would've flirted my ass off. Did you see those tattoos? And oh my God, his arms.” Dave mocked a swoon. “Tall, built, and inked.Yum.”Tall—pushing six-two at least—with the body of an MMA ass-kicker and an expression that screamedcross me and suffer the consequences, Damien haddangerous bad boywritten all over him. Three-quarter sleeve tattoos covered his corded forearms and ran up his wide, sculpted biceps to disappear under the sleeves of his T-shirt. And though he looked like he frequented dive bars and back alleys often, Damien didn't have that nasty, grunge-coated look to him. In fact, when he smiled, the soft openness of the expression had stolen Tabitha's breath. Deep dimples pitted his cheeks, and they'd lent a youthful lightheartedness to him that she never would have known was there if he hadn't smiled at her.Yep, tall, built, and tattooed hit everything on Tabitha'syes, please!list, but those same qualities in a guy often came with their own sets of problems. “Oh, he's yummy,” Tabitha agreed. And he seemed like a genuinely nice guy, too. “But yummy can be trouble.”“Yes, it can.”Tabitha laughed at Dave's suggestive tone. Sure, Damien's golden-brown eyes had been hypnotic and his messy thatch of light brown hair practically begged to be touched, but he was a guest at the hotel. “Good thing for us he's off-limits, then.” She and Dave had the same taste in men, which was why they were both often in the dating doghouse. Bad boys had their allure, but they only broke your heart in the end.“I don't know,” Dave said on a sigh. “I might be willing to lose my job over a shot at that.”“I would have your head.” Tabitha swatted at him and Dave sidestepped her mock assault. “It's too hard to find decent front-desk people. You can't ever quit or get fired, which means no hitting on guests for you, mister.”“Not that it would matter,” he replied as though hurt. “Because that tattooed god was obviously hot for your lady bits.”She didn't want to admit that she'd felt a spark of connection between them. Or that in the course of their banter, her stomach had begun to gradually unfurl until it felt as though someone had let a swarm of butterflies loose to fly around. “My lady bits aside, I'm swearing off guys like that.”“You mean drop-dead gorgeous, walking pieces of art?”“I mean guys who look like trouble.” And despite the soft brilliance of his smile, Tabitha had no doubt that Damien was just as dangerous as he looked. “It's tax accountants and guidance counselors for me from here on out.”“Great,” Dave replied. “That means more bad boys for me.”“You say that now, but after your next breakup you'll be begging me to help you find a nice guy.”“True. But until then, I'm sowing my oats.”“As long as you don't reap from the company fields, I'm a-okay with that.”“Fine. But I'm telling you now, if Mr. MMA even blinks at me with so much as minimal interest, all bets are off.”Tabitha laughed. “Deal.”“Speaking of gorgeous bad boys, how's your brother?”Dave had been crushing on Tabitha's brother, Seth, for as long as they'd known each other. He also knew how much trouble Seth caused in her life. Since they were kids, Tabitha had been bailing her younger brother out of one bad situation after another. And it's not like she could have ever counted on her less-than-responsible parents to help him out. He was the king of making bad decisions for the right reasons. Somewhere under his rough, troublemaker exterior was a good guy. He just needed someone to give him a chance to show that good side off.“He's all right. He's trying to get a job working construction. If I can keep him on track for the next six months, I think he'll be set to start school in the fall. I've got him talked into a junior college to start. I really think he might follow through this time.”“I love a man with a tool belt.” Dave flashed her a grin.Another wave of guests entered the lobby, breaking up any further conversation, which was totally fine by Tabitha. She let Dave take care of checking them in and returned to her office to complete the food order for next week.Seth might be trying to get his act together, but the fact of the matter was this was his last chance to make a change. Tabitha had saved his bacon for the last time. Getting him out of his latest bout of trouble had cost her dearly, and now she found herself an unwilling partner to her ex's less-than-legal business dealings. Joey had been Seth's friend first. Tabitha had hooked up with him because wherever Seth was, Joey wasn't too far behind, and he'd been truly charming in the beginning. Well, charming in that dangerous bad-boy way that inevitably curled Tabitha's toes.If she could go back and do it all over again, she would have taken Seth and left Boise in their wake before either of them could fall prey to that bastard. Hindsight was certainly twenty-twenty, but no amount of coulda, woulda, shouldas would change the fact that she'd found herself in a situation that was becoming more inescapable by the day.Tabitha settled in at her desk and opened a browser window on her computer. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, the cursor flashing in the Google search bar. The keys clicked as she typed: FBI, Boise, Idaho. Her pinky paused before clicking Enter. Did the FBI even deal with guys like Joey? She hit the backspace and typed:Boise Police Department, narcoticsand clicked the first search result:City of Boise, Bandit Narcotics Vice Unit.
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How many times had she stared at this phone number on her screen? Tabitha's hands began to shake and she twined her fingers together to keep them still. One phone call shouldn't have been so hard to make—after all, she'd done it before in the interest of protecting her brother—but it was Joey's promise to bring Seth down with him that kept her from dialing the phone. Empty threats weren't Joey's style. No, the asshole had tremendous follow-through. Both Seth and Tabitha knew that he had enough evidence gathered against her brother to put him in jail for a good decade at least. Joey was one of those rare sleazeballs who actually had brains enough to keep himself out of trouble.By getting others to do his dirty work for him, he reaped all of the benefits of being a slimy criminal while keeping his hands marginally clean at the same time. It was Seth's bad luck that he'd trusted Joey, and Tabitha's own stupidity that she'd turned a blind eye to what he was doing until it was too late. Despite kicking him to the curb, Joey was a permanent fixture in her life. He wouldn't let her quit her job, and unless she wanted to see her brother thrown in prison, she had no choice but to let him use the hotel as a front for his dealers to sell their drugs from.Not exactly the life she'd imagined for herself.Closing the browser window, Tabitha clicked the icon for the hotel's NiteVision property management software and typed in the name Damien Evans. His reservation popped up and Tabitha scanned the information he'd provided. He'd rented a single. No additional guests, so he was presumably unattached. She hadn't noticed a ring, anyway. He gave a California address, so definitely not local, and he didn't use a company credit card, so he probably wasn't traveling on business.“Trouble,” Tabitha reminded herself as she exited NiteVision to focus on the food order. Damien might be the embodiment of her perfect man, but the trouble Joey had brought into her life was more than enough proof that she needed to lay off of bad boys for good. She let out a derisive snort. At the rate she was going, she wasn't going to belayinganyone anytime soon. The past year of celibacy hadn't been too bad. No man? No problem. One less complication in her life. She needed to focus on finishing school, anyway, and getting Seth on the straight and narrow for good. Tabitha didn't have time for a relationship right now.“Tabs?” Dave poked his head into her office. “Do you have a sec? Night audit accidentally double-booked a room, and neither of the guests is willing to take a double instead of the suite.”She'd take trauma victims and sick kids any day over angry hotel guests. Though if Joey got his way, it wouldn't matter if she was an RN or not, she'd never get the opportunity to put the degree to use. “Yeah, I'll be right there.”Angry guests might not have been her idea of a pleasurable distraction, but at least she wouldn't be worrying about Joey. Or the tattooed bad boy she couldn't seem to get out of her head.Chapter ThreeFor the past week Damien had been trolling the local bars, eavesdropping on conversations, keeping his eye out for potential targets. Tonight, he was at Liquid, one of downtown's newest “it” places. The Boise PD's Bandit task force had given him the name and background of a well-known dealer they'd busted a couple of weeks ago. And with the guy currently spending time in the Ada County jail, Damien was free to name-drop a little.“So, how you know my man Tanner?” The guy shooting pool—Damien was pretty sure his name was Joey—took a swig from his bottle of Budweiser before leaning over to aim his stick.“We did a stint together up at Sheridan. 'Bout five years ago.”“They throw guys into the federal pen for holding a couple of ounces of weed, huh?”“Nah,” Damien replied, taking the bait. He would have been surprised if Joey hadn't tried to test him. “But they do when you get pinched with fifteen pounds of Salmon River Quiver in your trunk.”Joey made a quick pocket shot and straightened, leaning against the table while his buddy lined up his stick for a bank shot. “That ain't no shit, man. Fucking Tanner. I told that stupid motherfucker he was gonna get caught hauling all that weed around in his car.” He laughed as though reliving a fond memory. “I heard he got picked up again last week. Fool doesn't know how to be discreet.”Damien took a sip from his 7 and 7. “That's the fucking truth. I'm not even gonna try to bail his ass out this time. I'm outta work because of him, and even if he does get out, I'm done with his ass. He'll have way too much heat on him after this.”“You looking to sling?”This was why Damien always hit up potential connections in bars. Get enough liquor in a guy's system and he did most of the work for you. It took half the time to earn someone's trust when he had a fifth of Jack coursing through his veins. He had a feeling that everybody was Joey's best friend and confidant when he got shitfaced. “Could be. You have product to move?”Joey flashed him a crooked smile. “Could be.”Damien had broken the ice; now it was time to back off. If he pressed for more information or acted too eager, it might make Joey suspicious. From here on out, all Damien had to do was play the part and wait for Joey to come to him with an offer. Lucky for Damien, Joey had an ego. The cocky ones were always easier to hook. Way too eager to show off and throw their weight around. It worked to his advantage though, so Damien wasn't about to complain.Damien drained his glass and ordered another, plus a couple of beers for his new friends as they racked up the balls for another game. He was still a little on edge from his last session with Dr. Meyers. It really fucked up his mind-set when he had to get too in touch with his emotions. Especially since he'd confessed to her during their last session that he wanted out of undercover work. He was ready for a real life and some fucking stability for a change. Maybe even a relationship. His mind wandered to the hotel manager and his fingers curled around his glass in a tight grip. He couldn't wait to see her again.“Hey, Joey, your ex just walked in.”Damien's curiosity got the better of him and he turned to where the gazes of the two men had zeroed in on a couple of women with their backs turned, making their way toward the bar. Beside him, Joey set the pool cue down on the felt table and took a long pull from his beer, his eyes glazing over as he stared. Seedy sons of bitches like Joey were part of the reason why Damien was itching to get out of undercover work. He almost felt sorry for any woman unfortunate enough to get his attention, but then again, considering the type of guy Joey was, Damien assumed his ex couldn't be that much classier.“Damn, dude. Tabs still has a fine ass. I can't believe you're not hittin' that anymore.”Damien cast a quick glance at Joey's friend. He was a class act.“Bitch is more trouble than she's worth,” Joey replied. “But she does have a fine ass.”The ogling was beginning to make Damien feel more than a little uncomfortable. He liked to admire a beautiful woman as much as the next guy, but Joey and his buddy were simply leering. Nasty.“So get this.” Joey leaned in conspiratorially. God, Damien hoped the dude wasn't about to tell him some kinky sex story. “Tabs works at this hotel a few blocks from here. Before we broke up, I got her to let me use a suite on the weekends to do business out of. I can move twice the product with no nosy-ass neighbors wondering why there's always so many cars parked at my place. Plus, I'm not shitting where I eat. The cops aren't going to ever find anything at my place, so I'm clean. Sweet setup, right?”Yeah, it was. Which proved that Joey wasn't quite as stupid as Damien had initially given him credit for and that he was definitely the guy he'd been looking for. “If your name is on the registry, the cops can trace you that way, though.”“I got that covered, too. I use the name of a fake roofing company and I only pay cash. Tabs is the assistant manager, so she handles the reservations and she can cover my tracks if I need her to. I'm telling you, man, it's fucking brilliant. I'm bringing in twice as much coin as I used to.”Well, Damien's opinion of Joey's ex just dropped another ten points. “All it takes is a nosy guest or a too-loud customer to bring a hell storm down on you, though.”“Truth,” Joey remarked. He turned his attention back to the pool table and picked up his cue stick to break. “I don't dick around with my clientele. You can't keep your shit straight, I don't sell to you. Period. Plus, no one is allowed to use on the property. They've got to take that shit somewhere else. Tabs is trained. If anyone complains, she comps them a free night or some shit to make them happy.”Joey's friend butted in. “Yeah, until she graduates and quits that place.”“She's not allowed to quit and she knows it. Besides, at the rate she's going, she's not gonna graduate for another year or more.”The smart-ass yukked it up from the other side of the table and Damien made it a point to get the guy's last name. He'd be running a background check on his ass the first chance he got. “You worried that her boss might catch on?”“Not really. My crew always comes in when she's on shift. When we check out in the morning, my guys are dressed like they're ready to hit a job site. My roofing company”—he waggled his brows—“is a regular customer there. And the IdaHaven treats their regulars really well.”Damien's heart stuttered mid-beat and his breath stalled out.Damn it. “Did you say the IdaHaven? Dude, I stayed there last fucking week. Crazy.”“You really ought to see the operation in action, man,” the friend—Tony something—piped in again. “It's a thing of beauty.”“I'd like that.” The words left his mouth mechanically, but Damien was already scanning the crowd for the woman Joey had identified as his ex.“I bet you would.” Joey smirked before turning to his buddy. “Hey, jackass, it's your turn. What in the hell are you waiting for?”Damien all but ignored the game as his gaze found a petite blonde with a crooked bobbed haircut. Tabs. Tabitha. Obviously a nickname for the hotel manager he'd met a week ago. Disappointment soured his stomach at the realization that not only had his first impression of her been wrong, but that she was an accessory to a crime. Granted, his only interaction with her had been that one time, but he'd felt a connection. And that didn't happen to Damien often. He tipped back his glass and drained the fresh 7 and 7 in a couple of guzzles. What had he expected? He was on assignment, for fuck's sake. It's not like he had time for dating, and even if he had, no woman in her right mind wanted damaged goods like him. He'd straddled the line between criminal and cop for far too long. And now, there was nowhere he fit in, and no one with whom he truly belonged.  “Is Joey still staring at us?” Tabitha sat with her head bowed, allowing the short strands of her hair to curtain her face. “I swear to God, Lila, if he doesn't leave pretty soon, I'm out of here.”“Relax.” Lila grabbed her gin and tonic as well as Tabitha's vodka soda and pulled her friend away from the bar and closer to the dance floor. “If he looks this way again, I will kick that sick bastard square in his nuts. That'll get him out the door.”Tabitha chanced a quick look behind her at Joey and his friend Tony, who'd gone back to playing pool. Her step faltered as her gaze landed on the hulking form of Damien Evans, the star of her dreams and her every waking fantasy for the past week. Her heart took a nosedive into her stomach and a burst of anxious energy dumped into her bloodstream. She'd recognized him in an instant, her body perking up like a flower under the sun at the sight of him. But her reaction withered the moment realization sunk in. If he was hanging out with Joey and Tony, Damien was definitely up to no good. What was wrong with her? She was a total loser magnet. If she was attracted to a man, you could bet he had a criminal record—or was at least on the road to having one. And the worst part of seeing him with Joey wasn't that it proved he was just another slimeball. It was that he didn't look even a little out of place. In fact, with his bulky frame, tattoos, and the deep, serious crease marring his brow, he gave off the vibe that he was an even higher level of criminal than Joey and his idiot friend, which was saying something.Most of Joey's friends made Tabitha's lip curl when they walked into the room. As though all of the showers in the world could do nothing to wash the layer of slime and nastiness from their bodies. Despite his rough exterior, Damien lacked that oily, clingy dark aura. Tabitha reconsidered her earlier assessment of him. It wasn't that Damien appeared to be the most seasoned criminal of the group. Rather, he was without a doubt the most dangerous-looking man she'd ever laid eyes on.And why did that make her heart beat a little faster? Heat the blood in her veins? Why in God's name would that turn her on even a little? There was clearly something seriously wrong with her. Tabitha suspected that beneath the tattoos, the shaggy light brown hair that was meant to look unkempt, and the stubble of his jaw—which was more like a ten o'clock shadow than five—was a complicated man who fought with his demons because he wanted more than the life he'd found himself in.Yeah, right. Tabitha turned her attention from the pool table and focused once again on Lila. That romantic, optimistic outlook was what had gotten her into trouble in the first place. Always giving people the benefit of the doubt, looking for that silver lining on even the darkest of clouds. She'd been convinced that Joey was a good guy beneath his rough exterior and poor choices. How wrong she'd been. And now, after they'd been broken up for almost a year, it was Tabitha who was losing sleep over the fact that he was still a fixture in her life, while Joey reaped the benefits of having her in his.She guzzled her drink in a few swallows. Boise was small as cities went, but it still pissed her off that she couldn't even go out for the evening without running into her ex. She refused to let him scare her away, though. If Lila could blow reality off in favor of a good time, so could Tabitha.“Incoming, two o'clock,” Lila said close to her ear.Tabitha's stomach clenched at the prospect of having to make small talk with a guy. She'd sworn off the bar scene as a means to meet men after the nightmare that was her relationship with Joey. “Not interested.”Lila ran her fingers through the length of her straight, auburn hair. “You've got to get back in the saddle sometime, Tabs. You haven't dated in a year. I'm sexually frustrated on your behalf.”“Coming from the woman who hasn't dated in almost as long.”Lila flashed her a lopsided grin. “But that's not to say I haven't been looking. I just have a very strict catch-and-release rule. Unfortunately, the dating pool has been full of minnows lately. I'm baiting for shark.”That was the truth. Lila wasn't shallow by any means and the woman was as shrewd as they came. Sure, she let her dad pay her rent, but Lila had plans for her life, and with a business degree under her belt, she was ready to launch a line of to-die-for handbags in the next year. Likewise, she wasn't about to waste her time on a man-child who aspired to nothing more than working minimum wage jobs and camping out on his buddies' couches. She was looking for a partner. An equal. But just because she'd baited for shark, didn't mean she wasn't doing a little sport fishing for some of those minnows in the meantime.“What's up, ladies? Can I buy you two a couple of drinks?”Mister Two O'clock stepped up to them, all charm and smiles. Tabitha had to admit, he was sort of cute: blond, blue eyes, clean-cut and wearing a nice dress shirt and slacks. Her gaze wandered to his feet, because a guy's shoes said a lot about him. Leather loafers. This one might actually be gainfully employed. Huh. Wonders never ceased.“Well, aren't you a cutie,” Lila said with a slow smile. She extended her hand and he took it in a brief shake. “I'm Lila.”“Charlie.”He didn't do anything cheesy like kiss Lila's hand, earning him a couple of points. Tabitha accepted his proffered hand and said, “Tabitha. Nice to meet you.”“Okay, girls. What are we drinking? I had a stellar day at work and I need someone to help me celebrate.”Lila's gaze warmed. It didn't take much for Tabitha to make the decision to back off and let her friend take the lead. Maybe the currents had changed and the bigger fish had finally come to the surface from the deep water. “Ooh, tell us all about it.” Lila snatched a tall, circular table that skirted the dance floor and made room for Charlie in-between her and Tabitha.
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As Charlie went on about his promotion—she was pretty sure he'd said he was an investment banker—Tabitha's gaze was inextricably drawn to Damien at the far end of the bar. She watched him from behind her hair as he nursed a drink and played a round of pool with Joey and Tony.Maybe it was a sign of her totally messed-up childhood that she went for guys who lived a life she'd spent years trying to escape. Her parents had been addicts for as long as she could remember, dealing on the side to fund their habits and paying about as much attention to their kids as other people paid to the mice living in their walls. She and Seth were forced to fend for themselves, and whereas her brother had chosen to follow in their parents' footsteps, Tabitha had shunned their lifestyle. Her life's goal was to aspire to something more than poverty and addiction, yet her choice in men didn't help to elevate her from that station.“So, what do you ladies do?”Lila nudged her and Tabitha turned her attention back to the conversation. Lila said, “I'm a designer and Tabitha is studying to be a nurse.”“A designer?” Charlie leaned in and Lila scooted her chair closer to him. “That sounds interesting. Tell me more.”Nursing wasn't exactly one of those professions that screamed,Tell me more!Nurses were the unsung heroes of the medical profession, and Tabitha was totally okay with flying under the radar. She didn't want to be a nurse for the glory or attention. Rather, she wanted to help people. Make a difference. Do something that changed someone's life for the better.Lila continued to tell Charlie all about her handbag line, and as a money man, he seemed more than eager to lend a few tips. Tabitha's gaze slid once again to the pool tables and she couldn't help but wonder, what would it take for a woman to make a difference in Damien Evans's life?Chapter Four“I made contact with a distributor Friday night. Joey Cavello. Selling out of a downtown hotel, so I'm willing to bet he's Lightfoot's man. He's cautious, but he'll call. He's got the ego and I think he's looking to work his way up in the organization. If Cavello wants to impress his supplier, he'll need trustworthy dealers to do that, and name-dropping Tanner Beckstrom gave me a leg up. With any luck, he'll be in touch by the end of the week.”The conference room at the USMS Boise office wasn't exactly packed, but most of the key players were present. Representatives from the Boise PD's Bandit narcotics task force, U.S. Deputy Marshal Ryan Gates—Damien's official contact at the Idaho district headquarters—and the chief deputy, Dennis Callihan. The only one not present was Jenna McIntyre, the federal prosecutor representing the federal Fugitive Task Force. But since she wouldn't be brought in until they located Lightfoot, Damien wasn't too concerned over her absence.“We had a feeling that they were using local hotels to deal from.” John Rader, the narcotics detective, scribbled down a couple of notes on a legal pad. “Usually, we'll get a heads-up from the hotel staff if something suspicious is going on. Vice took down a prostitution ring a few months back that way. But this guy must be keeping a pretty low profile because we haven't heard a thing.”“That's because Cavello has someone on the inside.” Damien scrubbed a hand over his head and leaned back in his chair. It was too damned early to be at work after spending the entire weekend drinking and networking. He was getting too old for this shit. “An ex-girlfriend who's setting up the rooms for him to use and covering his tracks with the staff and guests. Cavello is running a pretty tight ship. He's got a good thing going and he's not about to do anything to jeopardize his operation.”“You want us to run the girlfriend's name?” Gates asked. “See if we can find anything to bring her in for?”“No,” Damien responded. “Flipping the girlfriend is a last resort at this point. Cavello seemed interested in bringing me into the fold, so for now, we're good. Lightfoot is the prize here. We have to look at the big picture.”“Got it,” Gates agreed. “Business as usual.”“We'll make sure it's covered on our end as well,” Detective Rader added. “My guys will be sure to lay off Cavello. He'll have some smooth sailing for a while. Though I gotta tell you guys, shutting his operation down would be a big feather in my cap.”“If we get our hands on Lightfoot,” Chief Deputy Callihan chimed in, “you're welcome to him.”“So what's the plan from here?” Rader asked.“We just wait,” Damien said on a sigh. “Cavello has to come to me. If I press him, it'll look suspicious. I laid the groundwork Friday night and it's solid. He'll call.”“Hopefully sooner, rather than later.”Damien gave Gates a rueful smile. “No doubt.”“I do want to add that I'm not thrilled about you working solo on this,” Chief Deputy Callihan said. “If you don't want backup, I think you should at least wear a wire.”“No,” Damien replied. It might have been crazy, but he liked working solo. “Cavello doesn't trust me yet. I don't want to risk the chance of being made because I'm wearing a wire. I don't think he's dangerous and he might be the link to getting close to Lightfoot.”“It's some real cowboy shit,” Callihan said. “But it's your call.”Damien nodded. He could handle himself out there. He'd been doing it for a long damned time.“Okay, I think we've covered everything.” The chief deputy pushed his chair out from the conference table. He rapped his knuckles on the surface before heading for the door. “Parker, keep us posted.”Parker. Here he was the upstanding deputy U.S. marshal. One of the good guys. It was the side of his personality he found harder to identify with, the deeper undercover he went. For this particular case, he'd be toeing the line between fantasy and reality, living the criminal life on a part-time basis with lower-level criminals than the type he'd more recently hung out with.“I'll be in touch.” The rest of the men at the table packed up their notebooks and briefcases, and tossed paper cups in the trash. Damien stayed put, though. He needed a few minutes of silence and solitude. A brief meditation to get his shit straight.Damien slouched down in his chair and let his head fall back on his shoulders. A couple hours' sleep wasn't enough, and he thought about propping his feet up on the table and taking a nice, long nap. He doubted that would go over well though, so he opted for a couple of minutes of rest. Eyes closed, he let the silence sink into his skin. His brain was always too goddamned busy, too full. And this was a rare moment of stillness that he treasured.During his last session with Dr. Meyers, she'd asked why he wanted out of undercover. His response: “I miss the peace and quiet. I want a little stillness in my life.”A smirk tugged at his lips as he released a deep breath. Check him out, being all introspective and shit. The doc would be so proud.  Damien woke to the sound of his phone playing the tune of Nirvana's “Heart-Shaped Box.” He had a soft spot for emotionally damaged nineties grunge rockers. Spoke to his own raging angst. The blackout drapes in his hotel room were drawn—it could have been three in the morning or afternoon for all he knew or cared. He'd crashed hard after this morning's meeting, hitting the mattress like a felled tree. Jesus, he was exhausted.He swiped his finger across the screen and put the phone to his ear. “Yeah.” The one word barely qualified as anything more than a grunt.“This Damien?”His eyes opened and he came more fully awake at the sound of Joey's voice. “Yeah. Who's this?” No use acting like he was waiting on the dude's call. He wanted to appear interested, not anxious.“Joey Cavello. I met you at Liquid a few nights ago. You said you might be interested in slinging a little product for me.”“Yeah,” Damien said. “I remember.”“You still want in?”“Sure.” This was good. He'd expected Joey to reach out but not so soon. The guy was eager and it would help to bump up their timetable. “What do you have in mind, man?”“How 'bout you meet me at Liquid later tonight so we can discuss terms. I don't do business over the phone.”The smart criminals knew how to cover their bases. Joey came across as clueless, but he was much shrewder than Damien had initially given him credit for. “Yeah,” Damien said. “I'm down. What time?”“I've got some shit to do this evening, so around ten.”Damien's gut clenched. It was that nerve-racking moment when the gears began to grind, a plan being set into motion. “I'll be there. See you then.”“Later.”Once the call was disconnected, Damien took a few cleansing breaths. His head was pounding like a motherfucker and his mouth felt like it was coated with a layer of fuzz. Damned dry, forced air. He flexed his arms, loosening the stiff muscles before he pushed himself off the bed. A few stumbling steps got him to the window and he brushed the curtains aside, staring down at the parking lot of the Hilton he'd relocated to after discovering that he'd been camped out at the very hotel Joey was doing business from. He glanced back at the digital display of the alarm clock on the bedside table. Three in the afternoon. He exchanged the burner cell for his work phone, which was tucked away in the nightstand, and searched through his contacts, pulling up Deputy Gates's number.“Gates,” he answered after a few rings.“Hey, Ryan. It's Da—uh, Parker. Cavello made contact. He wants to meet tonight. How quickly can you get me some cash? I want to be sure I have enough to impress him. In case he needs me to prove that I'm capable of moving a shitload of product.” Cavello wanted to work his way up in the syndicate, and Damien wanted him to think that he was equally ambitious. The faster he was accepted into Cavello's inner circle, the closer he'd be to finding Lightfoot.“You must have made an impression for him to get ahold of you so quickly.”Which was why the SOG loaned Damien out regularly for interdepartmental operations. He was damned efficient. “It's good for our timetable,” he agreed. “Definitely a good sign.”“I'll get the paperwork started, and Callihan will need you to sign the request,” Gates said. “But I'm sure we can get you what you need by the end of the day.”“Great. I'll swing by the office this afternoon.”“Sounds good. I'll get the ball rolling on our end. See you in a few hours.”“Thanks.”“No problem,” he replied. “I'm here to make sure you have everything you need to do your job.”He disconnected the call and Damien tossed his phone onto the bed. He had more than enough time to shower and grab a bite to eat before he headed over to the office. After that, he'd spend the rest of the evening getting into the right mind-set for his meeting with Cavello. Undercover work wasn't the picnic that outsiders thought it was. The necessary compartmentalization of his life was what kept him level as he prepared to dive headfirst into his criminal persona.See ya later, Parker Evans. Damien was there for the duration.  Tabitha stared at the list of arrivals, her stomach curling up as tight as a fist. Joey's business was certainly picking up. Two weekends in a row was unusual for him, and it was something that Tabitha never wanted to become a common occurrence. She'd been hoping that he'd slowly fade out of her life, not stick around indefinitely. Luckily it wasn't a busy weekend; the hotel was pretty empty. She just hoped that Joey would keep a low profile, conduct his business, and get the hell out of there with as little contact as possible. She'd rather deal with his smarmy “employees” than Joey any day, and that was saying a lot.The front-desk phone rang, startling her from her thoughts. Jeez. She was a total basket case. “Thank you for calling the IdaHaven Inn and Suites, this is Tabitha, how can I help you this evening?”“Hey.”Joey. Adrenaline shot through her system in a nervous rush. She hated that he could affect her in such a negative way. “I've got your suite ready, Joey. What else could you possibly want?”“Oh, I can think of a few things.”Gross. Tabitha's stomach lurched at the thought. How could she have ever dated him? “I'm busy, Joey. Get to the point.”“I've got a new guy coming in tonight. I want you to make sure he's set up.”A little ray of sunshine poked through the dark clouds of her week. At least she wouldn't have to see Joey in person. “I'll set him up like I would any other guest, is that what you mean?” Seriously, what did he expect? That she'd give him turn-down service with a chocolate on his pillow?“I want you to treat him better than you would a regular guest. We throw a lot of business your way, Tabs.”Business that Tabitha could do without. “It's really nice how you make it sound like I'm not working with you under duress. As if I have a choice—” A woman approached the front desk and Tabitha lowered her voice. “I'll be right with you,” she said. And then to Joey, “Don't worry, your new employee will be well taken care of, Mr. Cavello. Is there anything else I can help you with this evening?”“Good girl.” It took all of her willpower not to cringe away from the phone. “We'll talk soon.”Tabitha hung up the phone and released a shuddering breath.“I was a waitress for ten years.” The woman gave her a commiserating smile. “There are some customers who are impossible to please.”If only Joey were nothing more than a difficult guest; Tabitha could have managed him, no problem. Unfortunately, he was a lot more dangerous than just some guy with a beef about his room rate. “Isn't that the truth?” Tabitha fixed her best customer-service grin on her face. “How can I help you this evening?”When Joey's new “employee” walked into the lobby rolling a large suitcase behind him, Tabitha wasn't exactly surprised to see Damien Evans. According to Dave, he'd checked out the morning after she'd seen him at Liquid with Joey. Also not a shocker. He'd more than likely heard through the grapevine that people could buy drugs out of the hotel, and had no doubt been casing Joey's operation. Tabitha's assertion that he was more dangerous—and likely smarter—than her ex was obviously correct. He'd totally played Joey. Maneuvered himself into a job. The question was, why?
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Tabitha had forgotten how commanding his presence was up close, his frame larger, more muscular and imposing than she remembered. Guys like Damien thrived on intimidation, threw their weight around on a regular basis. She studied him as he walked across the lobby, his rolling gait slow and graceful, like a grizzly bear prowling through the woods. This guy was at the top of the food chain and had been for a while. Which begged the question: How did someone like that wind up workingforsomeone like Joey?“So, I take itParking Lot Monthlydecided to cut you loose?” No use trying to be even a little bit personable. Damien wasn't a guest. He wasn't even a nice guy. He was just another asshole drug peddler.“The economy just hasn't bounced back enough to support the parking-lot aficionados.” His voice rippled over Tabitha's skin in a prickle of heat. Deep and gruff, but without the hard edge of sarcasm she'd expected. He placed his hands on the counter, fingers splayed. She tried not to look at the tattoos marking his knuckles, no doubt affiliating him with some gang or another. “Gotta pay the bills, you know?”“I hear Applebee's is hiring.” His brow furrowed and for a moment she was helpless to do anything but stare. Like she'd noticed on the first night she'd met him, Damien lived in the shell of a well-seasoned criminal, but beneath his rough exterior, there was an inner light. An unmistakable aura that made Tabitha think there was more to him than met the eye.He cocked his head to one side, returning her gaze and looking even more like a wary animal. “Do I look like I could get a job at Applebee's?”She imagined him towering over a table of elderly ladies, tattoos and all, reciting the night's specials in that deliciously rough voice. A pleasant shiver danced over her skin and Tabitha shook herself from her thoughts and directed her attention to the computer screen. “Okay, so maybe not Applebee's.” Why was she even trying to have a conversation with him? If he was associated with Joey in any way, he was trouble. Period. “I've got you all set up in a suite for the weekend. Room 504. You're in a corner room, tucked away from the bulk of the guests. I assume you know the ground rules?”A crease cut into his forehead, just above the bridge of his nose. In the depths of his golden-brown eyes, something glimmered, as though he fought some inner turmoil and had just flipped a switch of decision. Tabitha knew that feeling all too well. She flipped that same switch every time she was forced to deal with Joey and his business. Did that mean she was becoming too used to this life he'd forced her into, that she could so easily turn off her conscience when she needed to?“I'm square,” Damien said, a little too gruff. “I just need a key and I'm set.”Tabitha coded two key cards for the suite and slid them into an envelope. “I'm on shift until ten o'clock tonight, and after that Kendall, the night auditor, is on shift.” She grabbed the cordless phone from the remote unit, and a handheld radio. “Give me a second.”Damien stood stoic, not even a nod of acknowledgment as Tabitha ducked her head into the back office and asked Sam, the sales manager, to keep an eye on the front desk for a few minutes. When she emerged from the office, Damien looked as though he hadn't moved an inch in the sixty seconds or so she'd been gone. Dude was a statue.“Ready?”He cocked a brow. “Don't think I can make it down the hallway by myself?”Tabitha gave him a reluctant smile at the subtle rib. “Just doing my job.”Damien's gaze darkened. “Escorting me to my room is part of your job?”She didn't know why—hell, she didn't even really know the guy—but she felt like she could level with him. “Look, Damien. I'm just doing what I'm told. I don't know what goes on in the suites that Joey rents and I don't want to know.” Okay, so that wasn't entirely true. Maybe she should have said she didn't want to know anymorethan she already knew. “He told me to set you up, and that's what I'm doing.”Tabitha took a left past the lobby and led the way to the elevators. “What's your take in all of this?” Damien asked. “Your cut must be pretty sweet.”Hmmm. Chatty for someone who looked like he'd just as soon throw a punch as exchange small talk. Tabitha's hackles rose. The fact that Joey's people thought she had any stake in his dealings made her feel like she was covered with a layer of slime. “I don't have a take,” she remarked, maybe a little too forcefully. The last thing she needed was for word to get back to Joey that she was running off at the mouth. “Or a cut. See those doors?” She pointed to a set of glass doors leading out to the parking lot. “Your visitors need to exit from there. They shouldn't even be coming through the lobby. I leave that door unlocked for just that reason.” Tabitha stopped at the elevators and hit the button for the fifth floor. “Also, tell any guests that you might be entertaining to take the stairs. This late at night, no one wants to be cooped up with some twitchy, shady dude in an enclosed space.”Damien remained silent, his gaze sliding over her in a way that made Tabitha's skin tingle. What she wouldn't give to know what he was thinking right now. The elevator deposited them on the fifth floor and Tabitha took a right down the hallway. “Also, you break it you buy it. If that room is in anything less than pristine condition when you check out, we're going to have a serious problem that has nothing to do with Joey. Understand?”He paused midstep and Tabitha turned to face him. A grin curved his full lips, revealing deep dimples in both cheeks. “Nothing less than pristine. Got it.”Holy shit, that smile. Tabitha's jaw went slack as something in her brain short-circuited. It transformed his face, intensifying that bright aura until it was almost blinding. It made him look younger. Carefree. Her heart stuttered in her chest at the sight of him, and that was a huge problem. She'd already paid the price once for hooking up with a guy who spent his time south of the law, and she wasn't about to do it again.“Okay, then.” It took an actual effort to put her back to him and keep walking, but she held her course, stopping at the door to the suite marked 504. “Joey made it clear that you pay cash for the room when you check out on Sunday, right?” She didn't want a paper trail any more than Joey did. “I don't work on Sunday, but if you have any issues tell Jackie at the front desk to give me a call.”Damien pulled one of the key cards from the envelope and stuck it in the slot of the door. “Anything else I need to know?”“Just behave.”He turned to her and quirked a brow as though to say,Really?“You know what I mean.” She didn't have the patience to get into any moral discussions with a criminal tonight. “Keep a low profile. I don't really feel like looking for a new job anytime soon.” Or more to the point, she couldn't afford Joey's retribution if she got fired.“There won't be any issues,” he assured her as he opened the door. “I doubt Joey is interested in finding a new hotel to stay at, either.”And that was the problem. “Right. Okay, well, I'll leave you to it, Damien.” She turned and headed back the way she'd come. God, why was she being so damned polite? She should have told him to fuck off. That she thought they were all a bunch of low-life scumbags.You're such a coward, Tabitha.He called out in a soft voice behind her, “Have a good night, Tabitha.”Her eyes drifted shut for the barest moment. No one had ever said her name with such affection. It left her feeling not a little shaken. The last thing she needed was to be attracted to another bad influence.Too late, honey. She was already hooked.Chapter FiveDamien secured the lock and slouched against the closed door. It had been a long damned time since any woman had caught his eye, and he didn't want to acknowledge that the one woman who had was an accessory to a crime. His undercover work made dating pretty much impossible, and likewise, when you hung out with the scum of the earth on a daily basis, the dating pool wasn't exactly overrun with eligible women. Tabitha claimed that she didn't know any details about Joey's operation, but she knew enough. She'd dated the guy, for fuck's sake. No way did she not know what her man had been into.Still, her expression had been guileless, those big blue eyes of hers showing nothing but honesty. Her short, golden-blond hair looked as soft as corn silk, and in her wake, Damien had inhaled the sweet scent of her perfume. She reminded him of summer. Of the sun, and roses in full bloom. Though she didn't come across as the type of woman who took shit off of anyone, she'd apparently taken it from her ex. Why else would she be helping him by allowing him to set up his distribution operation inside of her hotel? It might've been a good idea to have Gates do a background check on her after all. There was more to Tabitha Martin than met the eye, and Damien wanted to know what it was.Fuck. It was tough to get into character and compartmentalize when his brain was buzzing with questions. His interest in Tabitha had nothing to do with the job. He had to stop thinking of her in those terms and see her through Damien's eyes. She was a go-between and nothing more. A means to an end. Period. It was time to focus and get his head in the game.He hoisted the heavy suitcase up onto the bed and unzipped it. Lifting the flap, he took a moment to examine the contents. Joey had gotten himself in deep, for sure. Filled to the brim with Stardust, the cache of narcotics was large enough to put Joey Cavello away for the rest of his life. Jesus. A twinge of guilt pulled at Damien's chest; the knowledge that this shit would soon be out on the streets unsettled him. But the prize was Lightfoot. He had to see the bigger picture. Boise PD would get their chance at Cavello. Just not quite yet.Damien had refused to wear a wire and he hadn't thought it wise to bug the room, either. At least not yet. That's not to say he was completely alone. Gates had men staged close to the hotel who were responsible for monitoring the comings and goings of Cavello's clientele and to act as backup if shit went sideways. A small consolation, he supposed. Then again, if shit did go sideways, he'd probably be dead before his backup arrived. Callihan was right about it being some cowboy shit. Maybe his recklessness was an indicator that he just didn't give a shit anymore.He replaced the SIM card in his burner phone and cataloged the contents of the suitcase, snapping pictures of the drugs, the room, anything and everything that could be used as evidence. He might be using Cavello's operation to get to Lightfoot, but that didn't mean he couldn't help build a case against the asshole in the meantime. After he finished, he tucked the tiny memory card into his boot. Even if Joey's crew showed up to further vet him, they weren't going to bother digging around in his shoes.The next hour was spent dividing Joey's cache into distributable portions. Fifteen different dealers would be stopping by, as well as a few preferred customers who didn't deal but bought enough product to get “platinum level” treatment. Those platinum customers got a discount on their purchases because they didn't have to go through a dealer to buy. They'd earned their status by keeping quiet, respecting Joey's rules about not using on hotel property, and by always paying up front in cash. He might seem like an idiot, but in truth, he was running a top-notch business. The smart criminals were always the hardest to catch.Which was why they'd had a hell of a time getting their hands on Lightfoot. Obviously he surrounded himself with equally crafty associates.Damien spent the next hour handing out product to Joey's dealers and clients, all the while making mental notes about each and every one of them. The dude ran a tight ship and the people who bought from him behaved like professionals. A few of them were dirty and already high enough to raise a brow, but for the most part, they handed over their money, took their backpacks full of product, and left. By ten o'clock, Damien had handed out over half of Joey's weekend supply, and he wouldn't be seeing the other half of his customers until tomorrow night.Silence permeated the air and settled over Damien's skin like shrink-wrap, squeezing all of the oxygen from his lungs. He let out a gust of breath and cracked his neck as he stretched it from side to side. It was too goddamned hot in the room. Too stifling. The walls were slowly closing in on him. If he didn't get some fresh air, he was going to snap.He snatched the key card from the table and hung a Do Not Disturb tag on the door as he closed it behind him, as an indicator to any of Joey's clients that they should wait in the hallway. Unwilling to be cooped up in another small space, he took the stairs down to the ground floor and left through the side exit that Tabitha had left unlocked. As the cool night air met his lungs, Damien inhaled deeply, holding his breath as he stretched his arms high above him. A cloud of steam billowed in front of him on the exhale. Early winter wasn't exactly balmy in Idaho, but the cold had never bothered him.“What part ofnodo you not understand?”The words echoed across the parking lot, spoken with a mixture of anger and anxiety. Damien recognized the speaker in an instant and walked toward the sound of Tabitha's voice. He found her standing next to an older model Toyota 4Runner, both hands on the door handle. Beside her, Joey's friend Tony held the door closed, one meaty arm caging her in while his free hand fiddled with the short strands of her hair.“Quit being such a frigid snatch. I know you like to party. Joey said you're the best piece of ass he ever had. I don't see a problem here. It's not like you're with him anymore.”Damien's temper surfaced in a wave of heat that seared through his veins with every beat of his heart. What sort of low-life son of a bitch talked that way about his girlfriend? Ex or not. And had Joey indicated that Tabitha was one of the perks offered to his customers? A free sample that you got when you spent over a thousand dollars? She obviously wasn't down with that, and she shoved against the asshole who'd just picked a backpack up from Damien not five minutes ago.“Not if you were the last man on the planet, Tony. Get away from me and take your hands off of my car door before I call the cops. I doubt Joey would want them taking a look inside your backpack.”Damien picked up his pace to a slow jog. Tony let out a loud bark of laughter. “As if you'd call the cops. As long as Joey has Seth by the balls, you aren't going to do shit.”He leaned in and Tabitha abandoned her struggle to open the car door, to push against Tony's unwelcome advance. Damien swooped in and grabbed the asshole by the collar of his jacket, spinning him away. He slammed him up against the 4Runner with enough force to rattle the bastard's teeth and braced his forearm against Tony's throat.“I know you aren't tryin' to start shit in this parking lot when you know the rules, right?” He forced the words through clenched teeth and increased the pressure on Tony's throat until his breath wheezed in and out of his lungs. “Because if that was the case, you wouldn't be doing business here anymore. And you know better than to fuck up a good thing. Right?”Tony's eyes bugged out of his head as he struggled to free himself from Damien's grasp. He choked up tighter and the bastard's face grew red under the fluorescent lights that illuminated the parking lot.“Answer me, or I swear to God, I won't think twice about snapping your skinny-ass neck.”He let up on the pressure and Tony squeaked out, “Right. Right. I was just playing. Giving Tabs a hard time.” His words were spoken with all the desperation of a coward. Tony was obviously only as tough as he perceived his opponent weak. Damien towered over him and had a good fifty pounds on the smaller man. Tony knew he was outgunned.“Apologize,” Damien ground out.“I-I'm sorry, Tabs. I was just giving you a hard time.”Damien leaned in close, his words for Tony's ears alone. “If you so much as look at her again, I swear to Christ I willendyou. Do you understand me?”“Yeah. Of course, man. Loud and clear.”Damien released him with a shove. “Get the fuck outta here and go move some merchandise. Or I'll make sure you don't get another ounce.”Tony nodded in response and hiked the backpack up on his shoulder as he turned to leave. He massaged his throat, muttering something under his breath. Empty threats, no doubt. Tonight wasn't the first time some low-life SOB had cursed Damien, and it sure as hell wouldn't be the last. No matter what Tabitha's role in Joey's operation was, she didn't deserve to be treated like community property.Residual anger and adrenaline still burned through Damien's veins and for a moment, he wished that Tony had put up more of a fight. The sight of his hands on Tabitha, his fingers teasing the strands of her hair, had sent Damien into a rage that he didn't understand. Further proof that his head wasn't right even after a few months' worth of therapy sessions. He had no business being back out in the field.None.  Tabitha leaned against the hood of her 4Runner, her breath stalled somewhere between her sternum and her mouth. Fear turned quickly to awe as she watched Damien throw that slimeball Tony up against her car, his forearm like a log lodged against the smaller man's throat. No one had ever stood up for her like that before. Not even Joey, who used to sit back and snicker when guys hassled her, as if he found her distress entertaining.She had no idea what Damien had whispered in Tony's ear, but Tony looked like he was about to pee his pants. And honestly, Tabitha wouldn't have blamed him. Damien's display only served to solidify her opinion that he was, in fact, far more dangerous than Joey or any of the wannabe thugs he hung out with.“Are you okay? He didn't hurt you, did he?”The natural growl of his voice vibrated through every inch of Tabitha's body and she suddenly felt too flushed despite the chill in the air. “I'm okay.” She pushed herself away from her car and hugged the two halves of her coat closer together. “Tony's bark is worse than his bite. I've fielded worse from him before.”His gaze darkened at the admission and Tabitha almost felt sorry for anyone his anger might be directed toward. “You shouldn't be keeping company with guys like that.”“What about you? Should you be keeping company with guys like that?”He hid any reaction to her words behind an impassive mask. Why? Most gangster types wore their associations like a badge of honor. Tabitha got the impression that those relationships embarrassed Damien.“Buy a can of pepper spray,” Damien said. “If you're leaving work this late all the time, you should have the canister in your hand before you even walk out the door.”Tabitha wondered at his concern. “You're probably right. Especially with Joey's asshole low-life friends hanging around.”Damien looked like he wanted to say something, but he kept his mouth shut. A car pulled into the far end of the parking lot and cut the engine. No doubt another of Joey's customers after their score. His gaze followed hers and a scowl marred his expression. “Does that asshole know where you live?”“Tony? No. No one knows where I live.” Not even Joey. After they'd broken up, she moved from her apartment so he wouldn't be able to drop by unannounced, and it made her feel a little safer.His brow arched with curiosity “Not even Joey?”What did he care? She barely knew Damien. “I think you have a customer.” She indicated the car that was sitting in the parking lot with the engine running. “Thanks for handling Tony for me. I appreciate it.”Damien took two steps toward her, the bulk of his large frame towering over her. She didn't feel crowded or intimidated in his presence, though God knows she should have. Instead, a jolt of excitement shot through her bloodstream as her heart beat wildly in her chest. He reached up, the motion abrupt, and brushed her hair away from her face as though he couldn't resist. A riot of butterflies took flight in Tabitha's stomach, swirling and soaring at the simple contact.And just as abruptly, he turned away. Stalking across the parking lot with an angry stride that prompted the pleasant butterflies in her stomach to duck for cover. Was he angry? With her? What in the hell just happened?“Who's Seth?” He turned to face her, not ten feet from her car.Suspicion crept up her spine like an early morning frost. “My brother,” she said. “Why?”“Go straight home, Tabitha. And if Tony gives you any more trouble, I want to know about it.”Without waiting for her response, he turned and took off toward the hotel, his body rolling with the cautious gait of a skilled predator. In the distance, a door slammed as whatever nasty drug dealer Joey sent over there got out of his car to follow Damien inside the hotel. Tabitha let out the breath she'd been holding in an attempt to calm her trembling limbs.Her skull tingled from the brief contact of Damien's fingers in her hair. The warmth of his body still occupied the space where he'd stood, close enough for her to touch. She reached for the door handle and pulled against the weight of the door. Tony had scared the shit out of her. She'd played it off for Damien's benefit, unwilling for him to see any weakness in her. But the truth was that he'd always scared her, and despite Joey's warnings, she knew he'd sampled some of whatever was in his backpack before making his way to her car.
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If Damien hadn't stepped in . . . God, she didn't even want to think about what might have happened. Tabitha was still shaking when she fastened her seat belt. It took two tries to get the key in the ignition and she didn't know what had her more rattled: her encounter with Tony or the effect of Damien's close proximity.By the time she pulled out of the parking lot, Tabitha was fairly sure she could drive home without getting in a wreck. If Damien could shake a woman up by touching her hair, she could only imagine what skin-on-skin contact would do. A quick ten minutes—thanks to the streetlight gods—saw her home, parked, and ready to call it a night.“Hey, I saved you some pizza.” Seth was sitting on her couch, flipping through channels with a can of soda balanced on his knee. “What took you so long? Didn't you get off work like an hour ago?”It wasn't that she minded having her younger brother as a roommate. In fact, with Seth's penchant for getting into trouble, she could keep an eye on him better if he was under her roof. But tonight was one of those nights that Tabitha would have appreciated a little solitude to decompress. Her mind was racing with too many thoughts for casual conversation.“How'd you pay for the pizza?” It sucked that it was the first thing she was prompted to ask. But she knew that Seth didn't have three dollars, let alone thirty bucks.He gave her a bright smile. “As of today, I'm officially and gainfully employed. The guy who owns Les Bois Construction, Jack, gave me a hundred-dollar draw to buy work boots.”“And you ran straight over to Flying Pie and bought a pizza?”“No.” Seth rolled his eyes and hiked up a pant leg. “I bought these first. On sale. Then I bought the pizza. Because I'm a boss at money management.”The boots were nice, but he should have used the thirty bucks he'd saved for pizza for a higher-quality shoe. She wasn't going to lecture him about it, though. Seth hadn't worn many bright smiles in the past couple of years. And if she was going to keep him on the right track, he needed Tabitha's encouragement, not her disdain.“Pretty fancy for work boots.” She grinned. “When do you start?”“Tomorrow,” he said through a mouthful of pizza. “I also went over to BSU today and talked with an admissions counselor.”“Really?” She hadn't meant to sound so shocked, but she would have simply been happy to see Seth enroll in a nine-month tech course.“Yeah. I mean, I still don't know what I want to do, but I thought I could apply for spring semester and figure it out in the meantime.”“That's awesome, Seth.” They were only two years apart in age, but most of the time Tabitha felt more like a mother than a big sister. “I can help you with the financial aid stuff if you want. I bet you'd qualify for a few grants, too.”“All under control, sister.” Seth tossed a sliver of crust into the pizza box, his gaze focused on the pepperoni, bacon, and mushroom pie. “I know I've been a major fuck-up. And you got my ass out of trouble when you probably shouldn't have. I just want you to know that I'm ready to put all of that behind me. And I don't want you to feel like you have to take care of me anymore.”Tabitha plopped down on the couch beside him and ruffled his blond hair that was just a little shorter than hers. “You're not a fuck-up, Seth. You've just made some bad choices. And I don't feel like I have to take care of you.”“Did you notice I didn't get any peppers on the pizza?”She smiled. “I did. You're so considerate.”Seth nodded solemnly. “Considerate is my middle name. And Ireallywanted peppers, too.”Tabitha selected a narrow slice from the half of the round that was still left. She leaned back on the couch and propped her feet up on the coffee table. Seth settled in beside her and resumed his channel surfing.“So, how was work? Anything interesting happen in the land of guest services today?”A flush crept over Tabitha's skin as she recalled the heat in Damien's golden eyes as he'd swept the hair from her face. The sheer maleness of him as he'd jerked Tony away from her and slammed him against her car and the roll of his muscles as he'd walked away from her. “Same old, same old,” Tabitha replied after a moment. “Just another glamorous day of reservations at the IdaHaven Inn.”Seth laughed. “One more semester and it won't matter, right? You can kiss that place good-bye and go work at a hospital and torture people with your cold stethoscope.”Tabitha let out a chuff of breath. She'd never let Seth know the truth. That if Joey had anything to say about it, she'd never leave that hotel. “That's the plan.”For once, she wished that life could be that simple.Chapter SixDamien collapsed on the bed, ready to put this miserable night behind him. For the past three hours, he'd been reliving his time in the parking lot with Tabitha. His fingertips still tingled where they touched her hair.You stupid, impulsive bastard.He hadn't intended to touch her. Fuck, he barely knew her. And she'd just barely fended off that asshole Tony's unwanted attention when he'd reached for her. His gut clenched at the thought of how her gaze had warmed. And whereas she'd cringed away from Tony, he could have sworn that she'd leaned into his touch.And goddamn it, her hair had been just as soft as he'd imagined. Like corn silk. His eyes drifted shut, and Damien didn't even bother to turn off the lights as sleep weighed down his limbs. All he felt like doing lately was sleep. Probably a sign of depression. Oh fucking well . . .A knock at the door squashed any hope of oblivion and Damien dragged his ass out of bed. He'd crossed the last guy off his list of “appointments” about a half hour ago. From the dresser, he retrieved his Beretta and held it at the ready as he checked through the peephole in the door. On the other side, Joey Cavello stared at the screen of his phone, his expression pinched and impatient. Checking up on him, huh?“'Sup?” Damien swung the door open wide and tucked his piece into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back.Joey strode through the door and took a quick look around as though trying to catch Damien doing something he shouldn't. As tonight was his first night on the job, Damien didn't blame him for being suspicious. “A buddy of mine did some checking up on you tonight, Evans. Found some pretty interesting shit.”Adrenaline shot through Damien's bloodstream and his muscles bunched in anticipation of a fight. The Marshals Service had done a pretty good job of burying his real identity, but hackers could be crafty. If Joey knew a good one, there was no telling what he might have found. “Oh yeah? And what's that?”“Said you were arrested a few months back with a bunch of Mexican arms dealers. That right?”To protect his undercover persona, Damien had been arrested along with Teyo Sousa and his crew as they were getting ready to take possession of a dirty bomb near the Port of Seattle. He had a fake criminal record a mile long, and his colleagues never seemed to tire of throwing the cuffs on him. Their entertainment was a hard-core pain in the ass for Damien. “Yeah, that's right,” he replied with a shrug of one shoulder.“You must know some heavy hitters to get out of that shit. 'Cuz I bet none of those other guys are out walking around like you are.”True. Sousa and his associates wouldn't be seeing the light of day anytime soon. “I do.” Again, said as though it was no big deal.Joey looked him over, a smirk pulling at his thin lips. “I knew taking you on would be a good move. C'mon, I need some help tonight and Tony flaked out on me.”Bastard was probably in a flophouse somewhere coming down from his high. Things were progressing quicker than he'd expected, which in some cases could be considered a bad thing. Since he didn't consider Joey stupid by any stretch of the imagination, he had to be suspicious of his motives for trusting him so easily. He'd thrown him into the deep end of his business without batting a lash, and now he was taking him out as backup for God knew what. Not that Damien wasn't pleased. But he wasn't interested in taking a bullet to the skull anytime soon, either. “Sure. What do you need?”“I'm picking up a delivery. Some assholes from a syndicate out of Nampa tried to jump us last time, and I'm not putting up with that bullshit tonight.”And no doubt Lightfoot would find someone else to work with if Joey couldn't keep his house in order. “You think there's going to be trouble? If that's the case, you might want to take more than me along.” It showed the low level of criminal Joey Cavello was that he wasn't taking an armed entourage along to pick up tonight's shipment. Which made Damien more than a little twitchy. You'd think they were going to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk or some shit, not a half million dollars in narcotics. The kid was clueless.Joey snorted. “I take a big motherfucker like you along, ain'tno onegonna fuck with me.”Jesus. Damien was big, but he wasn't Superman. It was his reputation that backed up his size, though, and Cavello knew that. Damien wondered how much Joey's competition from the neighboring city would care.“Don't be so sure.” He tucked the suitcase with the rest of the product under the bed and grabbed the Do Not Disturb sign to hang on the door. He led the way out and Joey followed him. “I'm down, though. Am I good to leave my luggage in the room? I don't want anything happening to it.”“You're good,” Joey remarked. “As long as that door hanger's up, no one will go in. Tabs runs a tight ship and everyone knows that when my crew is staying the weekend, they don't like to be disturbed. And it's in her best interest to keep me happy.”The threat inherent in Joey's tone made Damien want to beat the fucker to the ground. His statement was yet another indicator that Tabitha might be helping him under duress, and though it didn't pertain to his assignment in the least, he was bound and determined to get to the bottom of it.They hopped in Joey's tricked-out Ford F-150 pickup and headed from the downtown area to the outskirts of the city, toward Gowen Field. Several shipping companies had their headquarters on the lots that skirted the freeway, and Joey followed Federal Way out to a fenced-in lot with a large warehouse. A sign that read LTC Inc. was hung on a chain-link fence and Joey stopped to enter a code on the automated gate that slid open with several jerks and squeaks of metal.Questions raised suspicion, and Damien had learned over the course of his undercover assignments that if he kept his eyes open and his mouth shut, he'd learn all he needed to without uttering a single word. Joey flicked his cigarette out the window before rolling it up and drove through the gate toward a large lot full of semitrailers. “The shit's coming down from up north. So far, the state police don't have a clue about what these trucks are really transporting. We're talking high-tech shit. Hidden compartments that the dogs can't even sniff through. It's fucking genius, dude.”Ingenious, dude. For every undercover op Damien worked, he felt his IQ drop another notch. “Sweet.” Just to be safe, he'd have to fill Deputy Gates and the chief deputy in, make sure that the Idaho State Police gave the shipping company a wide berth, as well.“When I started distributing for this guy, I was setting up at the hotel one weekend a month. Now, I'm up to twice a month, and with this shipment, I'll probably have you there every weekend from here on out. This guy is a fucking gold mine. I'm making bank, and if you stick around, I can guarantee you that you'll be pulling in some serious cash.”What Joey didn't know was that Lightfoot would be pulling his operation out of Idaho soon. And when that happened, he'd leave him high and dry. “You thinking of setting up shop somewhere else? Gotta spread the love, you know what I mean?”“Nah. Why? I've got a sweet deal at Tabitha's hotel. I'm not gonna catch any heat as long as she's working there, and she's working there until I tell her she's not.”Damien resisted the urge to pop the asshole in the face as Joey pulled the truck to a stop just inside the yard and flashed his headlights three times. “She used to be your girl, right?” He'd violated his own rule by asking a question, but curiosity burned him from the inside out.“Yeah,” Joey said in a conspiratorial tone that caused Damien's hackles to rise. “And believe me, Idefiledher fine ass.”Damien swallowed down the growl that rose in his throat and traded it for an appreciative snort. “But you're not hittin' that anymore?”“Tabs likes bad boys, but she wants hers to have more of a conscience. Ain't nobody got time for that shit.”Joey's statement, coupled with Tony's not-so-gentle reminder to Tabitha that Joey had her brother by the balls, only helped to confirm that there was more to Tabitha's involvement than Damien had first surmised. It was becoming more obvious that she was being coerced, which made him wonder exactly what Joey had on her brother that would convince Tabitha to help him out.In the distance, a flashlight blinked in the darkness once, twice, and again. Joey opened his car door. “We're on. Let's get the cargo and get the fuck outta here.”Damien put Tabitha to the back of his mind as he got out of the car and followed Joey. His skin prickled as his senses engaged, fine-tuned to his surroundings and every minute sound that shifted in the distance. It was too damned dark out here. The opportunity for an ambush too perfect. As they approached the three men waiting for them, Damien banished that last bit of concern for Tabitha to the compartment that he stored Parker's sensibilities in.The exchange was made easily enough. Product was transferred from one of the semitrailers and loaded up into the backseat of Joey's truck. He pulled out of the yard and stopped just outside of the gate to the shipping yard, waiting for it to close behind them, when a disembodied arm reached in through his open window and pointed a gun at Joey's head.The would-be carjacker leaned in the rest of the way, his face undistinguishable in the darkness. “Both of you fuckers, get out of the truck. Now.”Obviously Joey's rival dealer wasn't done trying to get his hands on Lightfoot's product. From out of the shadows, the guy's backup approached from behind a souped-up Nissan. The car was running, but the lights were off. Damien couldn't see much past the headlights of Joey's truck, but as the dude sidled up to his partner, the light glinted off the chrome of a 9mm clutched in his grip.Joey eased open his door and climbed down from his seat and Damien tucked his forty close to his hip as he followed suit. They had darkness on their side and with what appeared to be two-against-two odds, Damien had the height and muscle—not to mention the training—that would ensure they got the upper hand.He kept his stance relaxed as he came around the high front end of Joey's Ford, using the truck's jacked-up height to hide the weapon at his side.Thug number one jerked his gun in Damien's direction. “Get your ass over here before my patience runs out, asshole.”The fence to the shipping yard rattled closed and Damien used the momentary distraction to strike. He used the butt of the gun and brought it down on the head of the guy closest to him, knocking him out cold.Before thug number two could react, he brought his gun up and aimed it at the bastard's head. “You really wanna do this?” he asked. “Just gather up your buddy, back the fuck off, and let us go.”“Yeah, right.” Thug number two let out a disbelieving bark of laughter. Dude was either incredibly brave or goddamned stupid. “I'm not going anywhere until you hand over the shit you got in the backseat. I didn't come all the way out here to go home empty-handed again.”Damien lunged in with an elbow and caught the guy under the chin. The gangbanger spun away, his 9mm dropping from his grasp as he slumped to the ground beside his buddy. Small-time gangster bullshit. Damien hated dealing with this petty crap, but at least a clueless thug was easier to take down than a seasoned dealer. Tonight could have easily gone south. Joey was damned lucky.“Fuck yeah!” Joey shouted as he hopped up into the truck. “You're a certifiable badass, Evans!” Damien hustled back to his side of the truck and hopped in. Joey threw the truck into gear and peeled out onto Federal Way, the tires squealing in his haste. “Damn, am I glad I brought you with me tonight.”Damien stowed his gun and rolled down the window to let the chill wind cool his heated face. Funny, none of what he'd just done made him feel like a badass.  Whyhad she agreed to a blind date? Or even a double date, for that matter? Lila was chatting up a storm with Charlie, the guy she'd met at Liquid a couple of weeks ago. They'd been going strong since that night, and now Tabitha was being forced to endure small talk with Charlie's friend—what in thehellwas his name again? Josh?—while Lila seductively fed her date calamari from across the table. Ugh.“So you're a nurse?”“I'm sorry, what?” Tabitha dragged her eyes from the spectacle of Lila feeding Charlie and turned her attention back to her date.He flashed her a knowing smile, as though watching her friend behave like a horny vixen was turning her on or something. Gross. “I said that Lila mentioned you were a nurse.”“I'm still in school.” She reached for her wineglass and drained it in a couple of swallows.Where in the hell is the waiter when you need him?“I just finished up the current semester and I'm about to start my clinical rotations in a month.”“Cool. So, if I passed out, could you do mouth-to-mouth on me?”It took all of the self-control she could muster not to roll her eyes. “Only if you stopped breathing,” she said, refusing to take his bait.Josh deflated a little but continued in his valiant attempt to make small talk. “Do you want to take care of babies or work in a swanky downtown clinic?”She opted to ignore his veiled misogyny. “My specialty is going to be trauma. I want to work in the ER.”“Triage.” Ooh, Josh was throwing down the twenty-five-cent words now. “Right?”“You've got it.”
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Conversation dwindled and Tabitha caught their waiter's eye. She raised her glass and he gave her a curt nod. It was going to take an entire bottle of wine to get her through tonight. Since yesterday, all she'd been able to think about was Damien. The intense and instant attraction she felt for him had thrown her for a loop. Her body came alive just at the sight of him, and last night's episode in the parking lot had only served to solidify her infatuation. Every solid inch of him was masculine perfection, and Tabitha found herself wanting to reach out and test each and every hard edge.“Hellllloooo? Earth to Tabitha. Did you hear me?”Jeez, she must've been coming across like a total flake tonight. “Sorry, I was zoned out there for a second. What did you say?”Lila cut her a look and let out a slow breath. “I asked if you wanted to order another appetizer.”Not if she had to endure watching Lila hand-feed her date like he was a baby bird. “No, I'm good, but if you guys want something, go ahead and order.”Lila rolled her eyes and Tabitha knew she was treading on thin ice. She needed to kick it into gear and at least pretend like she was having a good time. But how could she when her mind was somewhere else? With someone else. Ugh. She was so stupid. Getting involved with Damien was not a good idea. He was in business with Joey, and that was enough to tell her that he was bad news. Still . . .Her phone rang from inside her purse and she dug it out and checked the caller ID. “It's work, I need to take this,” she said to the table at large. Lila frowned and Tabitha gave a shrug before swiping a finger across the screen. “Hello?”“Hey,” Dave said. “I know you're double-dating it tonight, but I've got a minor problem. The key coder isn't working. Can you come over and reset it real quick?”Part of her assistant manager duties included acting as a troubleshooter for the night shift. She couldn't help but wonder if Sandy, the general manager, had these kinds of problems during the day, because it seemed like all of their equipment chose to malfunction at night. “I'm just a couple of blocks down the street. I'll be there in a few minutes.”“You're the best, Tabs.”“Yeah, yeah. See you in a sec.”“No.” Lila looked horrified. Probably because she wasn't interested in entertaining Josh. So sad. “You took the day off. That means youdon'tgo to work.”“It'll only take a minute. I'm the only one who knows how to reboot our key coder. We're dead in the water until I fix it.”“I can order for you,” Josh piped in.“Um, yeah, okay. Thanks.” She gathered up her purse and turned to leave. Knowing her luck, he'd order her veal or something that she absolutely refused to eat.“Don't drag your feet,” Lila called from behind her. “Get that stupid thing fixed and get back here!”Tabitha raised her hand in acknowledgment and beelined it for the exit, more relieved for the distraction than she wanted to admit.  “There. All fixed.”“You're a lifesaver,” Dave said. “I swear to God, every single one of our check-ins decided to show up at the same time tonight. I've been swamped.”“No worries.” Tabitha logged out of the system and logged Dave back in.“So . . . how's the date going?”“Don't ask,” Tabitha answered on a groan. “I'm starting to think that nice guys just aren't my thing.”“I could have told you that,” Dave said with a laugh. “If he's not tattooed, he might as well not even bother.”Heh. Probably. Another wave of guests walked through the entrance and Tabitha motioned to a stack of blankets and pillows on the front desk. “What are those for?”“Oh, I need to take them up to room 502, but I haven't had a free second to run them up.”“I can do it.” Tabitha scooped up the linens and rounded the corner. It's not like she was anxious to get back to Josh and his small talk.“I owe you a dinner,” Dave said. “Thanks.”“No worries,” she said as she headed for the elevator. “'Night, Dave!”“See ya!”It wasn't lost on her that she was delivering the linens to the room next door to the one she'd put Damien up in. Nor was she simply being nice by offering to come up here for Dave. She was sick. Sick for hoping to get even a glimpse of him. God, what waswrongwith her?She knocked on the door and as she waited for someone in room 502 to answer, the creak of hinges from the next room drew her attention. Her breath caught in her chest as her gaze locked with Damien's feral gold eyes.“Are those for us?”Their moment was interrupted by 502's occupants. Tabitha gave the woman an apologetic smile, all the while aware that Damien was still standing there watching her. “They are,” she replied with a small laugh. “Thanks for being so patient. Is there anything else I can get for you tonight?”“No, uh . . .” The woman looked pointedly at her shirt, as though searching for a name tag.“Tabitha Martin,” she said. “I'm the assistant manager.”“Ah.” She smiled as though the confirmation that Tabitha was indeed an employee reassured her. “We're good for now. Thank you.”“Have a good night,” Tabitha said as the door swung closed.For a moment she simply stood there, staring at nothing. From the corner of her eye she noticed Damien lean against the doorjamb, his large frame taking up the bulk of the open space. He crossed his arms at his chest as he studied her, and a thrill went through Tabitha's body.Well, you came up here hoping to see him. What are you going to do about it?She turned slowly to face him. He watched her with the intensity of a hawk about to snatch up a mouse in its talons. “Hi.” She hadn't meant to sound so breathy, but she couldn't manage even a shallow intake of air when he looked at her like that.“I bought something for you.”His gruffness didn't do anything to cool the flush that crept over her skin. He disappeared into the room and Tabitha followed, as though a length of string connected her to him and she had no choice but to go where he led. The door closed behind her with a finality that gave her a start. She knew she shouldn't be in this room. With him. With that horrible shit Joey had tasked him with peddling. But her curiosity about this man who had such a visceral effect on her won out over good sense.Josh was waiting for her back at the Piper Grill with Lila and Charlie. He seemed like a good guy. A smart choice. Her eyes traveled the length of Damien's muscled back, to the straight line of his hips and lower to where his jeans hugged his thighs.Holy hell.“Here.” He turned and tossed her a slender black canister. She reached out and caught it, bemused.“Pepper spray?”“Don't think twice about using it.” His brows drew sharply over his eyes, lending a severity to his expression. “Trust your first instinct, always. Sometimes it's just a tickle. Like something scratching at the back of your brain. But if you feel that way about someone—anyone—who's approached you, you're right to assume that you could be in danger. Spray the bastard in the eye and then kick him in the nuts. You understand?”Tabitha nodded.“Good.”He grabbed her by the hand and hauled her against him before putting his mouth to hers in a crushing kiss.Chapter SevenWhat in the actual fuck are you doing?The voice of reason shouting in his head was way more Parker, responsible deputy U.S. marshal, than Damien, hardened criminal who did whatever the fuck he wanted. He ignored that niggling voice of his conscience because right now, he wanted Tabitha.Holy Christ, she was so goddamned soft. So willing in his arms. The sound of the canister of pepper spray dropping to the floor was the only sound in the room save their racing breaths. His mouth slanted across hers, hungry and eager to deepen the kiss, and she responded, opening up to him. A hint of wine sweetened her lips and he thrust his tongue into her mouth, desperate for more of her taste. Tabitha wound her fists into the fabric of his T-shirt, pulling him even tighter against her. Through the thin fabric of her shirt, her nipples hardened against his chest and he swallowed down a tortured moan. He'd never in his life wanted a woman as badly as he wanted her right now.She nipped at his bottom lip and the light sting only served to rev him up. His cock grew hard in his jeans, throbbing in time with each thrust of his tongue in her mouth. Mindless with the need to have her, Damien pulled her deeper into the room, his mouth greedily devouring hers as he backed through the small sitting area and into the bedroom. He spun her around until her back was flush with his chest. He worked the button loose on her jeans with shaking hands and pushed them and her underwear down over her ass in a hurried sweep. A soft moan answered his actions, all the permission he needed, and he leaned her over the mattress until her ass rubbed against his cock in a way that damn near made him come right then and there.“Spread your legs.” He growled the command in her ear and she obeyed, thrusting her ass out and grinding it against him. She was as wound up as he was, and her scent hit Damien's nostrils, that fragrant perfume of her arousal, and his heart pounded in his chest with all the force of a jackhammer.“Touch me.”The words were a plea, roughened with passion. Any shred of reason that lingered in Damien's brain evaporated under Tabitha's plea. He let his palm cup the curve of her ass, a slow caress as he savored the softness of her skin. His fingers curved, skirting the crease of sensitive skin, which elicited a low whimper from Tabitha and sent a jolt of desire shooting through Damien's body. He continued his path, so slow that it tested his patience, until his fingertips found the silken flesh of her sex, already swollen and slick with want.A satisfied growl rumbled in Damien's chest. She wanted him. Was wet and ready for him. He savored every inch of her, delving into her slippery heat as he spread her slick arousal over the stiff bundle of nerves that jutted out from her lips as though in invitation of his attention. When he circled her clit with the pad of his finger, Tabitha let out a desperate moan. She all but melted onto the mattress, thrusting her hips up to meet his touch. Her responsiveness drove him wild and Damien leaned over her. He thrust his free hand under her shirt and jerked the cup of her bra down as he took one full breast in his palm.“Yes.” Her voice vibrated through Damien's body as a low, sensual thrum. He rolled her nipple between his fingers and it pearled from his touch, hardening to a proud little peak that tightened his balls. “That feels good,” she whimpered as he continued to work his fingers over her slippery flesh. “Don't stop.” No way was he going to stop. It would take an act of God to pry him away from her now.He continued to stroke her clit, slow circles and quick, gentle flicks of his fingers. Tabitha buried her face in the coverlet, releasing her pleasure in sweet, drawn-out sobs muffled by the bedding, which drove him crazy. Damien needed to be inside of her, to feel the tight heat of her cling to him. He teased her opening with one finger and her hips jerked toward him. With a groan, he entered her channel, all the while working the sensitive bud that continued to swell and stiffen under his touch. She gripped him tight, her pussy drawing his finger deeper, and he thrust gently in time with each flick of his finger, each pluck of her nipple.Damien put his mouth to Tabitha's ear, took her delicate lobe between his teeth before he growled in her ear, “Come for me.”Tabitha shuddered in his embrace. The orgasm came on the heels of his command, and she cried out, the sound so passionate that it tightened the head of Damien's cock to the point that he felt on the verge of coming himself. Her body held on to him, pulsing contractions that squeezed the entire length of his finger as he brought her down from the orgasm. Gentle thrusts and featherlight caresses until her body went limp and she collapsed fully on the mattress.As far as Damien was concerned, they were just getting started. He needed to see her body, naked and spread out on the bed for him. He wanted to suckle the heavy weight of her breasts, bury his face between her thighs and taste her. God, he wanted to fuck her so badly he didn't even know if he could wait long enough to do any of those other things first.He took Tabitha up in his arms and positioned her fully on the bed, turning her over on her back so he could get her good and naked. Her eyes were hooded, her face flushed with passion, and the heat in her gaze told him that she was more than ready to resume where they'd just left off. She kicked at her pants to free her legs of the restricting fabric while Damien fumbled with the button of his jeans, his hands shaking so fucking much he could barely unfasten it.His gaze wandered to her naked, glistening sex and the air stalled in Damien's lungs. Jesus fucking Christ, she was beautiful . . .A loud knock on the door broke the spell in an instant. Tabitha's blue eyes grew wide as shock and then panic overtook her delicate features. “Oh my God.” The words left her mouth in a frantic rush. She jumped up from the bed, tripping on her pant legs as she worked them up her thighs. “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.”Nothing like a horrified expression on a woman's face to bolster a man's ego. Damien let loose a string of curses under his breath as he stalked toward the door. He was going to murder the stupid bastard on the other side. Another round of obnoxious knocks came on the heels of the first, this time a pounding that sparked Damien's ire to a near unmanageable degree. He yanked open the door, prepared to lay into the son of a bitch with his fist.“Okay, well, looks like the heating unit is working okay now. Be sure to let the front desk know if you're having any more problems and I'll let maintenance know. Have a good night.” Tabitha flashed him a too-bright smile as she ducked under his arm and out the door.Every muscle in Damien's body tensed as he watched her rush down the hallway, disappearing inside of the elevator. The pent-up energy he'd been unable to release exploded as he grabbed the scrawny asshole in the hallway by his collar and dragged him inside the room. The door slammed behind them and he put the bastard up against it, knocking his head with the force.“You pound on my door like that again and I'll rip your arms out of the sockets, understand?”“Y-yeah. I understand. It won't happen again.”Tension vibrated through Damien's body and it took all of the self-control he could muster not to lay his fist into the stupid SOB's face. “You're damn right it won't.” He let go of his grip and stalked deeper into the room. “You pull that shit and I'll make sure you're off Joey's buy list for good.”“I hear you, man. My bad.”“All right, let's get this done. I want you out of my face two minutes ago.”  As the elevator doors slid shut, Tabitha let out the gust of breath she'd been holding in her lungs for at least the past minute. Free divers had nothing on her as she shut off the intake of air, too afraid that she'd give something away if she looked too winded or even too relaxed. Hell, she might as well have the wordsI just had the best orgasm of my lifetattooed on her forehead, because whether she'd kept her cool or not, Damien had just rocked her to her very foundation.Oh my God, Tabitha. What were you thinking?She'd never done anything so impulsive in her entire life. Or so blatantly wanton. It didn't matter that she barely knew Damien, she'd spread her legs at his command as though she had no choice but to obey. The memory of that moment sent a thrill through her body, rekindling the desire that had been quenched by their interruption.His rough exterior and gruff words were such a contradiction to the way he'd handled her. His touch so gentle, the way he cradled her against his body, tender. It had taken nothing more than a kiss to drive her to that point of mindless need that she hadn't even balked when he'd spun her around and yanked her pants down.The doors of the elevator slid open and Tabitha only now realized that she'd slumped against the bar inside of the car, as though unable to support her own weight. The flush resurfaced on her cheeks as she straightened, glad no one was waiting on the other side of the doors. She exited the elevator, surprised that she could walk on her own steam. No man had ever made her feel so good. Andneverhad a man attended to her pleasure while disregarding his own like Damien had.Such a paradox to the man she thought he was.Tabitha stopped dead in her tracks. Crap. She'd left the canister of pepper spray he'd bought for her in his room. And—she checked her pockets—oh no. Her cell phone. No way was she going back for them. She could get another phone, and the pepper spray was the least of her worries. After rushing out on him like that, it would be too embarrassing to knock on his door and confess that her cell must have fallen out of her back pocket when he'd stripped her pants off. Besides, the moment was over, that state of mind-addling lust, gone. The awkwardness would be too much for her to deal with.“Oh God.” The words left her mouth in a drawn-out moan of regret.“Hey!” Dave called from behind the front desk. “Everything okay?”Ugh. Nothing like being caught in a moment of self-reflective angst. “Yeah. I uh . . .” What?Just thinking about the hot porno moment I just had in room 504. Oh shit! Her blind date! “I sort of got sidetracked and I might have stood up my date.” Might? Oh, she definitely stood him up. There was a pretty good chance she was going to have to find a new best friend after tonight, too. “I'm heading back over to the restaurant. Call me if anything comes up.”She rushed through the automatic doors without giving Dave a chance to respond. Lila was going tokillher. At least forty minutes had passed and there was a pretty good chance there was a plate full of food cooling in front of her empty chair right now. And without a phone to text or call, Tabitha had to hope that they'd at least started eating without her. If not, Lila was going to be a force to be reckoned with.The late-night dinner and drinks crowd was in full swing when she walked into the restaurant. The table they'd been sitting at was still occupied by Lila, Charlie, and Josh. It looked like their meals had barely shown up. Charlie and Josh were eating with gusto while Lila picked at her salad. Tabitha reached up to smooth her hair, and fluffed out her shirt as though worried that the evidence of her sexual encounter was still flashing like a neon sign over every inch of her body. What was she even doing here? Her mind was still back in that room, with him. A wave of desire rippled through her and Tabitha clenched her legs together as though that would stem her body's reaction to her thoughts. But all it served to do was remind her of the delicious pressure of his fingertips, the way Damien had coaxed every cry from her lips. She wanted him. Right this second. And yet, she knew that she could never get up the courage to return to that room.Because if she did, Tabitha knew she'd gladly beg for another kiss. One more touch. “Sorry I took so long,” she said as she slid into her chair. “The hotel is crazy tonight.”“Where in the hell have youbeen?” Lila seethed as she leaned in close. “Did you get lost between here and the hotel? Fall into a black hole? Step into a parallel dimension?”“I'm sorry.” Was she sorry? “It took a bit more to reboot the system than I'd expected and Dave was swamped with arrivals so I helped him with a couple of—”“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Lila said, her attention to Tabitha's explanation nonexistent. “Josh hasn't been the best third wheel, and I need you to run interference.”“You mean he doesn't enjoy watching you and Charlie feed each other with your fingers?” Lila's brows drew sharply over her eyes, her lips puckered in a pout, and Tabitha cringed. “You've got to admit. You guys are sort of self-absorbed.”Lila paused and she leaned in even closer. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion and she pursed her lips. “What have you been up to? Your cheeks are flushed and you're all glassy-eyed.” She leaned in and sniffed. “Did you smoke a bowl with Dave in the back room or something?”“Nice.” Lila knew that she wasn't into that sort of thing, and no way would she do it at work even if she was. “I ran two blocks in ballet flats with no support. You'd be flushed and glassy-eyed, too.”“Uh-huh.” Lila didn't sound too convinced. “I'll get it out of you eventually. You're definitely up to something. But right now, put it on the back burner and entertain Josh.”“Sorry I took so long.” She bent her head toward Josh before her attention settled on the plate in front of her.“No worries,” he said with a grin. “We only got our food a few minutes ago. I ordered you the veal.”Tabitha bared her teeth in what she hoped was a smile. What she really wanted to do was lay into him for thinking she'd even consider eating veal. Awful. “Thanks.”
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She pushed the meat aside and picked at her steamed vegetables instead. No way was she eating a baby cow. When their server finally came around, she ordered a vodka soda. Wine wasn't going to cut it anymore. Her limbs were deliciously limp, her hands still a little shaky from her tight grip on the comforter. She glanced over at Josh and noticed that his lips were moving, but once again, her brain wasn't registering. Her mind was full of Damien; there wasn't room for anything else.“. . . and I told her that if she thought we were going to refund her money, she was crazy. I mean, we're an investment firm, for Christ's sake. Not Macy's. It wasn't my fault if she chose to invest in a stock that I suggested. It's not like I twisted her arm . . .”On and on he went, proving with every ridiculous, arrogant, self-centered word out of his mouth that Josh would never get to date number two. For the past year she'd convinced herself that she needed to follow in Lila's footsteps, look for a guy in a nice suit with a respectable day job and the paycheck to back up his reputation. But the more time she spent listening to Charlie and Josh go on, and on, andon, tooting their own horns, the more she realized that guys like that were never, ever going to do it for her.None of them compared to the man she'd left behind in that hotel room.None of them were Damien.“Let's go across the street to Fatty's after dinner,” Lila suggested. “The music is better over there and I want to dance.”“Sounds great,” Josh said as he sliced off a hunk of his steak. “I bet you're a great dancer, aren't you, Tabitha?”She couldn't even bring herself to smile this time. “Not really. But that's not to say I don't give it my best effort. You could say my style is a cross between a wacky flailing-inflatable-arm tube man and Sweet Dee fromIt's Always Sunny.”Josh's brow puckered. Her humor was lost on him. Just another indicator that he wasn't the guy for her. Their dinner conversation dwindled and Tabitha focused on finishing as much of her meal as she could stomach. Later, as they filtered out of the Piper Grill, Josh put his hand on the small of her back and she bristled at the contact. After one encounter, her body had been fine-tuned to Damien's touch.She was officially ruined.Chapter EightDamien shoved open the window and the heavy curtains billowed with the influx of cool air. The wind had picked up and the room filled with the crisp scent of early snow. Clean and sweet. Just like Tabitha.The weekend had officially come to a close. The last of Cavello's drugs were sold and that left Damien with nothing but his tortured thoughts to keep him company. Oh, and the raging hard-on that had yet to go the fuck away. A chill brought goose bumps to the surface of his skin, but aside from the mild discomfort, the drop in temperature did nothing to cool his lust. He grumbled a curse under his breath and toed off his boots. Stripped off his shirt. Shucked his jeans and underwear. He glared down at his erection and stalked toward the bathroom. Instead of swiveling the shower knob to hot, he left the water cold and stepped directly under the spray. A sharp intake of air lodged in his chest, but he refused to turn up the heat or step away from the cold stream of water.And still, the stiff bastard between his legs stuck around to taunt him.Icy rivulets of water sluiced down his body and Damien's muscles tensed. His nipples tightened and he found the sensation pleasurable rather than uncomfortable. What would it feel like to have Tabitha's teeth graze his nipples? Maybe even the head of his cock? Nothing short of a bullet through the heart was going to calm him down at this point. His senses were still awash with her: her scent, the softness of her skin, the sound of her impassioned cries in his ears.Damien reached down and took the heavy length of his erection in his hand. His thumb brushed the engorged and sensitive head and he shuddered, sending droplets of water rolling down his abs and thighs. He stroked down to the base and back up, imagining that he was pumping into her and not his own goddamned hand. A haze of want clouded his thoughts and Damien thrust again, his pace increasing as he worked his fist over his erection. He braced his arm against the shower wall, a low moan vibrating through him as he came in violent spasms that brought him to one knee.Christ. A couple of pumps and he'd come all over the fucking shower. Pathetic.Pushing himself to stand, Damien reached back and turned the knob to the left. The water began to warm and some of the tension left his body, though his legs were still weak and felt like cooked noodles. Steam billowed around him, matching the fog that clouded his thoughts. Tabitha had blindsided him. An unexpected complication that he could never have planned for. He'd never wanted any woman with the sort of desperate, primal need that had driven him to behave so rashly with her. With a groan, Damien knocked his forehead against the wall. He'd treated her with so little respect, bending her over the bed without so much as an attempt at seduction.But she'd come so easily for him. Shattered under his touch like myriad shards of glass. She'd wanted him, too. He hadn't imagined her eager response.Damien finished up his shower and dried off, wrapping the towel around his waist as he left the bathroom. The in-room phone rang, a loud digital trill that set him instantly on edge. No one should be calling the room. Cavello had his burner number and Gates knew to keep his distance when Damien was undercover. He lifted the receiver from the cradle and took a deep breath before bringing it up to his ear. “Yeah?”“Did you order a wakeup call for the morning?”Damien let out a slow breath as he recognized Bill Crawford's voice on the other end of the line. His SOG supervisor rarely called when he was undercover, but if he needed to reach out, they had ways of getting around suspicious eavesdroppers. “No, thanks, I've got an alarm set,” he replied, letting the other man know it was safe to talk.“Good to know I haven't caught you at a bad time, Evans.”Aside from being alone in the room, Damien had swept the entire space for bugs and was confident that Joey wasn't eavesdropping. Thank God. Otherwise what had happened between him and Tabitha earlier would have made for an awkward working relationship. “What's up?”“Dennis Callihan says you're making good progress up there.” Crawford had a reputation as a hard-ass, but Damien liked him. Ball-busters got the job done, and his success rate was damned near perfect. He wanted Lightfoot as badly as Damien did. An arrest would be a huge win for the Marshals Service.“I think so. Nothing on Lightfoot yet, but I'm in with his distributor.”“That's good, Evans. You're definitely moving ahead of our timetable. The DOJ has intel that Lightfoot is readying a market in Northern California. The demand for Stardust is snowballing and the deaths are piling up. With all of the interagency effort going into this case, everyone agrees that we want this crap off the streets as soon as possible.”“Agreed.” Synthetic shit could be damned dangerous. But the worst part of the synthetic trade was that it was dirt cheap and easy for kids to get their hands on. It was imperative to get Stardust off the streets before it became an epidemic. “Boise PD is working with me to give the distributor a wide berth for the time being. But as soon as I get a bead on Lightfoot, we'll be shutting his operation down.”“Good. The federal prosecutor wants the takedown on this to have a long reach. That means as many arrests as you can manage. I want anyone with a connection to the distributor arrested. This is going to be a zero-tolerance situation. The government is bringing the hammer down on this one. Not only to send a message to all of the other Lightfoots out there, but to the small-time dealers who think they'll make money on his heels in the synthetic trade.”“Understood.” Damien's heart rocketed up into this throat before taking a nosedive straight to his gut. “I'll brief Callihan and Ryan Gates Monday morning on what I've got so far. Is there anything you'd like me to include when I talk to them?”“No, I'll be talking to Callihan next week. Just keep doing what you're doing. And be careful out there, Parker.”Damien ended the call without responding. There was more to Crawford's words than a simple concern for his safety. He'd worked most of his undercover assignments under Crawford's supervision, and the SOG supervisory director knew better than anyone—except for maybe Dr. Meyers—about the blurred lines between Damien's life and Parker's.The backs of his legs met the mattress and Damien collapsed on the bed as a rush of breath vacated his lungs. He'd told Gates, Callihan, and the Boise PD about Tabitha's involvement in Cavello's operation. By providing him with a place to do business, she was more than just an accessory. The federal prosecutor could bring a list of charges against her: conspiracy, racketeering, trafficking, aiding and abetting . . .Jesus.He flung himself back on the bed and his foot knocked something across the carpeting. He pushed himself up, his brow furrowed at the sight of the cell phone he'd catapulted across the room, resting not far from the discarded canister of pepper spray.What the hell?Leaning over the edge of the bed, he scooped the cell into his grasp. He propped himself up on the pillows, and unlocked the screen.Two faces stared back at him in a wallpaper selfie. One was Tabitha, and she had her arms around a guy with the same golden hair and deep blue eyes. They could have been twins, their features were so similar. The phone must have fallen from her pocket earlier. Damien's lungs seized up as he thought back to their encounter, but he forbade himself from revisiting it. It was either that or another cold shower, and he wasn't interested in freezing his dick off to keep it from getting hard.For a moment he stared at the picture. It didn't take an investigative mastermind to know that she didn't belong in the world she'd found herself in. Damien's instincts were razor sharp. He could read people with ease, and Tabitha was an open book. But until he got to the bottom of how she'd wound up an accomplice to Joey's distribution operation, there was nothing he could do but continue to investigate her like she was any other suspect.Sitting in the palm of his hand was a virtual trove of information. Text messages, call logs, pictures, and the history of any websites she might have visited in the past week or longer; the apps she used most, the apps she'd used most recently, and any GPS information that might have been logged in the maps app.A peek into the life of Tabitha Martin. Rather than feeling like a cop doing investigative work, delving into the contents of her cell phone made Damien feel more like a voyeur. She'd reached level 349 ofCandy Crushand amassed a small fortune in coins playingBejeweled Blitz. She used Snapchat, and her In-stagram account showcased pictures of downtown Boise, various meals, and a photo of her wearing scrubs and inserting a large needle into someone's arm with the caption, “First stick was a success!”Was she training to be an EMT? Or maybe a nurse? And if so, what was she still doing working at this hotel, helping Joey Cavello to peddle his nasty shit all over the city? There was more to her than met the eye. He stood by the assertion that she had no choice but to do as Joey asked. And he was positive it had to do with her brother, Seth. Could he be the guy in the picture with her?Or was he simply making excuses for her? Grasping at straws because of this inexplicable want he felt for her? Was his career worth taking a risk on someone who might burn him in the long run? And if so, would he even care?  “Shut the front door! You didnot!” Dave's scandalized tone had nothing on the excitement that lit his green eyes. He loved gossip as much as he loved muscle-laden, tattooed bad boys. Tabitha had effectively gifted him with the gossip equivalent of Tom Hardy.“I'm weak, Dave. So,soweak. And apparently a little slutty, too.” She hadn't gone into detail about her encounter with Damien, but gave Dave just enough information to give him a well-rounded idea of what had happened. Lila would judge her. Dave on the other hand . . . he shared her weakness for guys that were no-good. She could find solidarity with him. “I couldn't help myself. It was like I was a starving woman and he was a bacon cheeseburger.”“Oh, I can think of several juicy bits on his body to bite. Tabs, you are the most unslutty woman I know. But seriously, can I just interject here and say that I'm totally disappointed that my dream man is hetero? Though I'm not surprised. He was giving you a hard-core vibe the first time he laid eyes on you, and I bet he was sporting a chub the size of a VW bus.”“Dave!”“Tell me. He's impressive, right? I'm dying to know.”“I don't know . . .” Tabitha cast her gaze down toward her desk. “We didn't exactly get to him.”“Shut. Up!” Dave all but shoved her in his excitement. “Are you telling me he's a giver?”“He wasverygenerous.”Dave made a show of collapsing on the front desk's counter. “Forget my earlier disappointment. I'm officially devastated.”“Hi, Tabitha. Come on in.”Tabitha exchanged a look with Dave as the general manager, Sandy Webber, opened the door to her office. “Good luck,” he said under his breath and knocked his knuckles against hers.Nervous energy pooled in Tabitha's stomach, sending a burst of adrenaline through her body. She felt a little light-headed and wasn't even sure if she'd be able to form a coherent thought. When she got the call that Sandy wanted to see her this morning, she could think of only one reason why: someone had ratted her out and Sandy knew about Joey's weekend escapades. In which case, she was officially screwed.“Have a seat.”Tabitha closed the door behind her and took a chair in front of Sandy's desk. They usually had a pretty casual work relationship, so her formal tone wasn't doing much to assuage Tabitha's fears.Crap. “What's up?” She tried to keep the quaver from her voice, but she couldn't help it. At this point, she was doing her damnedest not to throw up all over Sandy's desk.“First of all, thanks for coming in on a Sunday. But since I'm leaving for vacation tomorrow, I wanted to get all of my ducks in a row beforehand. You're the acting GM next week, so I want to double check that your school schedule won't be disrupted.”A trickle of tension drained from Tabitha's muscles. If this was a pre-vacation check-off, she could breathe easy. “I'm good. I finished up my finals last week, and aside from a CPR and first responder refresher that I signed up for over the break, I'm available. I've already got it worked out with Dave, and he's agreed to field any issues that might crop up while I'm doing the refreshers.”“Great.” Sandy gave her a reassuring smile and she relaxed another degree. “I'm sure Dave can handle anything that comes up, too.”There was a pregnant pause and Tabitha shifted in her seat. The nerves that had abated jacked back up and she was pretty sure she could taste bile at the back of her throat. “Did you need anything else?”“I did.” Sandy's expression was much too grave. Heat rose to Tabitha's cheeks and she tried to control the speed of her shallow breaths and racing heart. “We had a noise complaint last night from the guests in room 502. Lots of coming and going late into the night, some pounding on the walls and door. I checked the system and the room next to that is the one we put the HiTop Roofing guys in. I know that they're your account and that they do a lot of business here, but we don't have anything to worry about with them, do we?”Tabitha was willing to bet that some of that door and wall banging was going on right about the time she and Damien had been interrupted. Was it possible for someone's face to catch fire from embarrassment? Because she was pretty sure hers was beginning to smoke from the heat. “As far as I know, this is the first complaint, and they stay with us consistently.”
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“I was hoping that since they're your account, you'd talk to them before they check out this morning. I don't want to lose their business, but I also don't want a bunch of rowdy guys partying and trashing our rooms, either.”“I'll take care of it.” Relief flooded her. Speaking to Damien after what happened between them would be marginally less humiliating than giving a speech in her underwear, but it was better than having Sandy investigate for herself and contact Joey personally. If Joey thought that the sweet setup he had there was in jeopardy, there was no telling what he would do.“Thanks. I'll have my cell on while I'm on vacation and I'll be checking e-mails. If something major comes up, don't worry about giving me a call.”Tabitha took the cue to beat a hasty retreat and she shot up from her chair, earning a questioning look from Sandy. “I'll talk to HiTop's noisemakers before I leave. Have a good trip.”Sandy gave her a pleasant smile and waved as Tabitha left the office.“What happened?” Dave was as bouncy and eager as a puppy when she closed the door behind her. “Did she fire you? Find out about yourroom service? Did someone complain?”“Slow your roll, Dave.” His mile-a-minute questions weren't doing anything for her nerves. “First of all, if you call what happened last nightroom serviceagain, I'm going to slap you. Second, Sandy was just touching base with me before she leaves for her vacation tomorrow. No scandals for you to sink your teeth into.”“Then why do you look like you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar?”His arch tone made her wonder if he'd had his ear up to the door. “There was a noise complaint last night from the room next to Damien's. Sandy asked me to go talk to him about keeping it down while he stays here.”“Can I go?”“No, you can't go.” Dave needed to find a hobby. Or a boyfriend. “But you can watch the front desk since, you know, it's sort of your job.”“You're a buzzkill.”She smiled at his feigned pout. “I do what I can.”Chapter NineDamien finished packing up the last of his shit into the duffel bag. Checking out of one hotel only to return to another, the glamorous life of an undercover marshal. He tucked Tabitha's cell and the canister of pepper spray into his back pocket and slung his duffel over one shoulder while he grabbed the now-empty suitcase in his other hand. He took one last look around before opening the door—“Hey.”Tabitha stood on the other side, her fist held up as though she'd been about to knock. His body sparked with excitement at her nearness. Hell, he was worse than some teenage girl, all fluttering nerves and bullshit unease. “Hey.”Way to articulate, dipshit.“Can I talk to you for a second?”Awkward had nothing on this moment. At once, Damien was ashamed of the way things went down last night. How he'd all but climbed over her like a rutting bull, driven by some primal urge. She walked through the doorway, past him, and Damien caught the faint scent of her perfume. The sweet floral bouquet went straight to his head and made him want to seduce her into agreeing to whatever wicked sexual act he could think of. His free hand twitched at his side. She was close enough to touch, and he wanted nothing more than to reach out.“What's up?” His voice was strained; her nearness affected him right down to his vocal cords. Her lips parted slightly, ready to be kissed, and Damien could think of nothing better than to oblige her. He followed her into the room and set the suitcase down on the bed—trying not to think of the things he'd done to her there last night—and tossed his duffel bag down next to it.“My manager got a noise complaint about your room.”Goddamn it. He wondered just what had spurred the complaint. The asshole banging on the door after ten o'clock at night, Damien slamming said asshole against the door, or his own fool head banging against the shower wall after Tabitha had left. Probably all of the above. “Sorry about that. It won't happen again.” If he could, he'd hit his cranium against the wall right now. If only to jog some marginally less Cro-Magnon conversation from his lips.“Thanks. She asked me to handle it personally because I'm responsible for Joey's account with the hotel and Sandy doesn't want to lose his business. But if it happens again there's a chance she'll try to contact him directly, and I can't afford for that to happen.”There was a twinge of fear behind her words that spurred every protective instinct in Damien's body. “Why are you afraid of him?” He hadn't meant to blurt the question out, point blank. But the thought of her living in fear made him want to break something. Namely, Joey Cavello's face.“I-I'm not.” The lie was obvious, her body language conveying her deceit in little tells that Damien was trained to identify.“Then why are you helping him? Why not let him get his ass kicked out of here?”Tabitha's eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why do you care? You're selling that crap for him. What difference does it make to you who helps him or where he moves it from? You're getting paid, right? Isn't that all that matters?”Damien's façade slipped. The barest peeling back of layers that made him feel too damned exposed for his peace of mind. He tucked that veryParkerpart of him away and hiked a disinterested shoulder. “Yup. Who doesn't like money? I'm sure you don't mind the kickbacks you're getting, either.”Damien felt the anger rippling off of her like heat rising off a summer sidewalk when she said, “I told you, I don't take a dime of Joey's money. I don't wantanythingfrom him.”He quirked a sarcastic brow. “Not a single thing?”“You're an asshole.”Jealousy had prompted Damien's harsh words. The knowledge that she'd been with that slimy son of a bitch was like a coal burning hot in the pit of his gut. Tabitha's anger lent her beauty a fierceness that took Damien's breath away and he abandoned logical thought. He was tired of living this double fucking life. So tired of upholding the moral right by condoning so many wrongs. And sick of putting everyone else's needs before his own wants.Fuck that shit. He wanted Tabitha. And goddamn it, he was going after what he wanted.Her eyes widened as he stalked toward her, but there wasn't an ounce of fear in her gaze. Rather a defiance that only served to heat his blood. An unspoken challenge, as if she dared him to take another step. To touch her. Put his mouth and hands on her. Damien had never been one to walk away from a challenge.He took her face in his hands and held her still. Tabitha's breath raced, her chest rising and falling in a quick rhythm. Her lips parted, soft and inviting despite the fire in her eyes. “I'm not afraid of you either, Damien.” The words floated to his ears on a whisper.He kissed her with every ounce of frustration pent up in his body. Though he wanted to be gentle with her, caress her mouth with his, treat her as though she were some fragile thing, he couldn't. Couldn't tame the desire that burned within him, the need that overtook him. His attraction for her was too visceral, too desperate for anything other than fierce abandon.Tabitha shoved at him and he took a stumbling step back. “Damn you,” she seethed before rushing at him, her hand clasping the back of his neck as she pulled his mouth down to hers.  She'd come here to make sure that Damien knew the ground rules. That he'd play the game and lie low. And maybe return her damned cell phone. Kissing him, throwing herself at him, hadnotbeen part of Tabitha's plan. Damien's effect on her was instantaneous. A rush that went straight to her head and erased all logical thought from her brain. Common sense, decision-making skills of any kind became nonexistent the moment his lips met hers. But, oh God, was he ever worth the consequences.Damien's hand came around the back of her neck, his fist gripping the short strands of hair that brushed her nape. He tilted her head the way he wanted it, allowing him access to her throat. The control he exercised over her was something she craved. In fact, it wasn't enough. So much weighed on every single decision she'd made over the past couple of years, and for once, she wanted the burden of choice to be taken from her, giving her no option but to obey.“Damien.” His name hovered on her lips, an unfinished thought. The blunt edge of his teeth grazed the sensitive flesh of her throat, the slight sting a delicious precursor to the wet warmth of his mouth. Tabitha's eyes drifted shut. His touch was bliss.“Housekeeping!”The warning preceded the click of a key card in the lock and Tabitha shoved at Damien once again, sending him back a few paces. His eyes glinted with a wild light, a feral animal with the night's prey in its sights.“Don't. Leave.” The command was firm and a rush of liquid heat chased through Tabitha's veins, settling low in her abdomen.When the housekeeper walked through the door, Tabitha was certain that the shocked expression on Lisa's face mirrored her own. “Oh my gosh, Tabitha, I'm so sorry.” Lisa's face flushed a deep crimson and Tabitha fought the urge to roll her eyes. What in the hell did Lisa have to be embarrassed about? She wasn't the one almost caught with her pants down.“No worries. The heating unit was acting up yesterday and I was just checking to make sure it's still working all right.”“I can come back.” Lisa's eyes slid to Damien and warmed as a smile spread across her face.“No need.” Damien's eyes never left Tabitha. “I'm checking out.”Damien grabbed his suitcase and hauled his duffel over his shoulder. He cast a warning glance Tabitha's way and headed for the door. She waited for it to shut behind him and took a deep breath. His presence was so overwhelming that she found it hard to breathe when he was near.After a few pleasantries—and a couple more rushed excuses—were exchanged with Lisa, Tabitha figured she'd given Damien more than enough time to check out and pay his bill. She strolled down the hallway, counting out her steps with measured breaths in an effort to calm her still-racing heart.“Did you think you could get rid of me that easily?”His sardonic tone broke her from her reverie and she looked up to find Damien waiting for her near the elevators, one massive shoulder bracing him against the wall. A confident smirk graced his features and Tabitha's heart stuttered in her chest. If he was gorgeous when he wore that imposing, angry expression, then he was absolutely breathtaking when his face showed a spark of humor.“I wasn't trying to get rid of you.” She fixed a stern expression on her face. “I was talking to one of my housekeepers.”“Uh-huh. I know when I'm getting the brush-off.”Heat crept up Tabitha's cheeks. She tilted her head to the side and regarded him. “For some reason, I find it hard to believe that anyone has ever given you the brush-off.”He grinned, showcasing the deep grooves of his dimples, and her stomach did a backflip. The casual hike of his shoulder did nothing to diminish her attraction to him. Good Lord, she lusted after him like a cat in heat. It was all she could do not to rub herself up and down his body. “I thought you had Sundays off,” he said, disregarding her earlier observation.“I do, but I had to come in to take care of a few things.”“Like a rowdy guest or two?”She smiled. “Something like that.”“What are you doing now?”She quirked a brow. “Talking to you.”Damien rolled his eyes, but those dimples stayed put in his cheeks. “You know what I mean.”Tabitha stepped up next to him, so close that her senses were awash with his spicy, masculine scent. Her arm brushed his as she hit the button to call the elevator. She didn't miss the way his gaze drifted to where their bodies touched. A simple shift of his eyes ignited her desire. Could she be any more pathetic?“Don't you have to meet Joey? Square up for the weekend?”The look he gave her told Tabitha that Damien Evans didn't answer to a fucking soul. The world waited to do his bidding. And once again she couldn't help but wonder,whatwas he doing working for a low-level criminal like Joey?A bell chimed as the elevator doors slid open. Tabitha stepped inside and Damien followed with his luggage in tow. He reached across her, as though pushing the button for the first floor was an action devised to give him an excuse to brush his arm against hers. “Leave your car here, and let's get some lunch.” Again, Damien didn't ask Tabitha to do anything. Hetoldher. “We're downtown, there's got to be plenty of places to eat within walking distance.”The man was a mystery. In all of the months she'd dated Joey, he'd never once taken her out on anything that even resembled a date. If they weren't hanging out at a bar, they were at her apartment. Dinners and lunches consisted of takeout—that she usually paid for—and never anything fancier than a Flying Pie pizza. Joey wouldn't be caught dead in any of the fancier downtown eateries.“All right.” The words left her mouth before she could think her decision through. “I need to check in with my manager before she leaves on vacation, and you still need to check out. I'll meet you out in the parking lot?”The elevator doors slid open and they stepped out into the hallway. He flashed a quick smile that caused her insides to melt into a puddle of liquid heat. “I'll meet you outside.”Without another word, he walked out in front of her, down the hallway toward the lobby. Tabitha wasn't going to complain as she took in the view of his ass, hugged by the denim slung low on his hips and revealing the waistband of his underwear.Damn.  Tabitha scanned the parking lot. She found Damien leaning against a cherry Shelby Cobra with California plates. Stolen? Or did that gorgeous hunk of machinery belong to him?“The '65 is nice, but if you ask me, the '67 Shelby convertible is the best. The roadster body gives the 1950 Ferrari a run for its money and the V-8 is killer,” she said.His lips spread into a wry grin that caused a wobble in Tabitha's step as her knees felt like they might have disconnected from her shins. She'd never met a man who made her legs weak until now. Had she become a walking cliché, or what?“The '67 roadster is okay, but the body of the '65isthe American muscle car. Plus, the '65's got a little more torque, and the growl of the engine can't be beat.” He pushed himself away from the car and Tabitha couldn't help but notice how his muscles flexed and bunched with the simple action. Damien's body was a living, breathing work of art. “You're the local. So you choose where we're eating.”Again, his words didn't invite discussion. He'd given her a gentle command and it was clear he expected no resistance or argument on her part. It was tough for her to admit, but Tabitha didn't exactly frequent downtown Boise. She worked downtown and that was about it. Besides her epic failure of a double date with Lila the night before, she didn't eat anywhere that wasn't dirt cheap. The downtown restaurants catered to people on a champagne budget, and Tabitha was definitely living on a beer income.Well . . . he asked for it. “I've heard that Fork is pretty good. I haven't eaten there, but my friend Lila said they have the best burgers she's ever eaten.”“Sounds good to me. Lead the way.”Tabitha took a quick look around as nervous energy skittered up her spine. It's not like she expected Joey to be hanging out in the hotel's parking lot, but she had a feeling that if he saw her with Damien, it would cause all sorts of problems that she wasn't ready to deal with.
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“How long have you lived in Boise?” Damien kept his eyes facing front, but Tabitha felt his undivided attention on her nonetheless.“My entire life,” she responded with chagrin. “I know, not very exciting.”He gave her a sidelong glance and a corner of his mouth hitched in a lopsided grin. Holy crap, she wanted to kiss the dimple in his cheek, dip her tongue into it... “I move around a lot. There's nothing wrong with having deep roots. I'd kill to settle down for a change.”There was a depth of emotion to his words that caused Tabitha's chest to tighten. Regret, longing, and sadness spoken with an openness and honesty that tugged at her heartstrings and squeezed the air from her lungs. “It's not always so great to be firmly rooted in place.” They paused at the crosswalk and started across Main when the little man flashed from red to a walking white. “There are days that I really wish I could just pack up and leave. Start over where no one knows me. It would be awesome to have a clean slate for a change.”“What's keeping you here?”Tabitha had a feeling that she was being managed. Damien knew how to steer the conversation in the way he wanted, and asked leading questions so that it seemed as though Tabitha was volunteering the information he was coaxing out of her. Still, the realization did nothing to stem the flow of words. There was something refreshing about spilling her guts to him. He was the clean slate she couldn't get anywhere else.“School. My brother. Work.” She could make a list of reasons a mile long, but those were the big ones. “Seth is a . . .” What? Royal screwup? “. . . handful. He's had a rough few years and he needs me.”“Younger?”“By two years.” Though sometimes it felt like twenty. “He's finally got his life on track and I don't want to do anything to screw it up for him. Besides, it's a total pain in the ass to find a school that will transfer credits, and I'm so close to finishing that it just doesn't make any sense to pack up and leave at this point.”“What are you studying?”“I'm working toward my RN.” Tabitha paused and steered them down Eighth Street. “I want to be a trauma nurse and work in the ER.”“How much longer do you have?”She gave him a wry smile. “Are you interrogating me, Damien?”“Yes.” His tone wasn't the least bit playful and it sparked every nerve in her body with electric energy.“I finished up my labs and lectures for this semester last week, and next semester I'll be doing clinicals at St. Luke's.” Tabitha paused at the entrance to Fork and held out her arm in invitation. “We're here.”Damien pulled open the heavy glass door and waited for Tabitha to walk in ahead of him. Joey had never once held a door open for her. Hell, Joey had never taken her out to eat. She could hardly call what this was between her and Damien a relationship, but already it surpassed anything she'd ever had with her asshole of an ex. Damien was indeed a mystery. A criminal and a gentleman? Did such a thing even exist?Chapter Ten“Two for lunch today?”Damien smiled at the hostess, and at his nod she retrieved two menus from the tall podium she stood behind, handing them off to a young girl decked out in a long black skirt and crisp white dress shirt. “Right this way.” Her tone was pleasant and customer service perfect as she led them past the rustic-style bar, wine rack constructed from rebar and old barn wood, and into the restaurant proper, through a maze of tables.As their waitress rambled on—something about the weather and the possibility of a snowstorm—he couldn't be bothered to listen as he took a moment to appreciate the sway of Tabitha's hips as she walked, and the luscious curve of her ass that he itched to reach out and take in his hands. He towered over her by at least a foot, and his bulk almost tripled her petite frame. Without a doubt, she'd weigh almost nothing, and he imagined himself lifting her in his arms to settle her on his cock while he took her up against the wall.Whoa. Put on the fucking brakes, man. If he didn't curb the erotic trail of his thoughts, he'd be sporting wood before the waitress managed to seat them.She led them to a booth on the street side of the building, and placed a menu on either side of the table as she waited for them to sit down. Tabitha's attention was centered on the server as she recited Fork's specials, but Damien didn't give a single shit about the soup of the day. He lost focus of everything but Tabitha. God, she was fucking beautiful.She cast a curious glance at Damien, her full, petal-pink lips quirked in a half grin. “I think we're going to need a few minutes,” she said.“No problem,” the waitress responded. “I'll check back in a few.”“What?” From the way Tabitha was looking at him, Damien had a feeling that he'd missed something in the women's exchange.“I think I must have lost you sometime after the lunch specials. She asked if we wanted to start off with any drinks or appetizers, but it looked like you weren't tracking.”Not even close. Who needed food or water when she was sitting across from him? Sunlight filtered in through the large picture windows, setting her hair on fire with a golden light. Her eyes seemed even bluer, crystal clear like the waters of the Indian Ocean. “Nope. I was too busy looking at you.”She blushed at his comment and Damien's chest swelled. That he could affect her with just a few words stroked his ego and it made him want to test the waters, see what more heated sentiments would do to her. “Why? Do I have something on my face?”The way she deflected the compliment made him think that she was uncomfortable with any form of praise. He could press on, tell her she was beautiful, that he couldn't quit thinking about her mouth, or her gorgeous pussy, but that wasn't exactly proper lunch conversation. Which just proved that Damien was about as housebroken as a timber wolf. Jesus, he was so out of touch, he had no business sitting down to eat a civilized meal with her. “How long have you been working at the hotel?” Conversation served a triple purpose: he could investigate her on the sly while learning more about her, and maybe if he kept the topics light he'd quit thinking about how he wanted to sink his teeth into the soft flesh of her ass . . .“A little over four years.” A busboy stopped at their table and filled two sawed-off wine bottles that had been repurposed as glasses, with water. Tabitha waited for him to move on to the next table, and continued. “I started working there the summer before my freshman year of college. They worked with my schedule and I could do homework at the front desk when it got slow.”“After you graduate, you'll be quitting?”Tabitha averted her gaze, triggering Damien's protective instinct yet again. Fear flickered across her features for the briefest moment before she answered. “That's the plan. BSU has a great program, and since I'm finishing up my clinicals at St. Luke's, it's likely they'll hire me right out of school.”He noted the quaver in her voice, the lie inherent in her tone. She might want to quit the hotel, but Damien sensed that if Joey had anything to say about it, she'd be staying put. Why? “Not enough blood and guts working the front desk, huh?” If he pressed too hard, she'd shut down. Damien needed her to trust him, and that was something he couldn't force.“You've obviously never had to manage a swimming pool full of ten-year-old boys in town for a soccer tournament,” she joked. “I actually liked working at the hotel. I get along with my boss and everyone who works there. The money is decent considering how hard it is to find a good job around here. It could be worse.”“Liked?” He didn't miss the slip. She'd enjoyed her job at one time, but not anymore.“Huh?”Her perplexed expression coaxed a reluctant smile. “You said youlikedworking at the hotel. As in, you don't like it anymore.”A hint of crimson tinted her cheeks. Not embarrassment. Rather, guilt that she'd been caught in an admission she hadn't meant to make. “It's not that.” Tabitha averted her gaze and traced the lip of her water glass with the pad of her index finger. “I just—”“Have you guys had a chance to look over the menu?”Damien's lip curled at the interruption, though it's not like his annoyance was justified. “I'll take the Urban Burger and a Square Mile Cider.”“Great. You're going to be happy with the burger. It's fantastic.” The waitress turned her attention to Tabitha. “And for you?”“I'll have the same.” She gave Damien a sheepish grin as she handed her menu over to the waitress.“I'll get these burgers started for you.”When the waitress was clear of earshot, Damien turned his full attention back on Tabitha. “If you weren't ready to order, you should have said something. I could have waited.”It didn't take much to embarrass her, it seemed. The expression that crossed her features suggested that the people in her life didn't make her feel as though her opinion mattered. An offense that prompted fantasies of breaking the skulls of anyone who'd managed to belittle her.“It's fine. I've wanted to try the burgers here for a while. A lot of the guests who stay at the hotel eat here, and they rave about the food.”“Why haven't you eaten here before? It's just a couple of blocks down the road. I'd be mowing down everything on the menu if I were you.”“It's sort of out of my price range. This is more of a special occasion place, you know?”Was there nothing in Tabitha Martin's life that she'd ever felt was worth celebration? “I'm glad your first time here was with me, then.”Her answering smile squeezed his heart. “I'm glad, too.”As they waited for their lunch, Damien tried to keep the conversation light without being too heavy-handed in his questions. It violated his don't-show-your-curiosity protocol, but Tabitha was a tough nut to crack. She didn't have the ego most of the criminals he dealt with sported, which kept her from bragging or divulging too much. And she seemed reluctant to offer up anything about herself unless he specifically asked.“So, let's say you breeze through clinicals and walk away with a spiffy degree. What then? Will you bounce and take the job at the hospital?”This was the question Damien was burning to know the answer to. Was she staying at the hotel to help Cavello? Or was she working under duress like he assumed—too afraid to cut him loose and walk away.“I want to leave. But sometimes what a person wants and what they get are two completely different things.”Damien leaned forward in his seat, ready to pressure her for an in-depth answer, when their food arrived. He swore the damned waitress was plotting against him. Her interruptions couldn't be more perfectly timed to fuck up his day.She set two large, square wooden planks on the table, each decked out with a fat, juicy burger and all the fixings. Beside the planks she doled out two conical metal baskets overflowing with Parmesan fries. Damien's mouth watered as he realized that he hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours. Hell, he could easily inhale two burgers and three times the amount of fries. Maybe if he turned his attention to his lunch, it would give Tabitha a moment or two of introspection. Reluctant witnesses often opened up after they had a few minutes to process what an investigator asked them.At the very least, he could enjoy the view while he ate. Goddamn, there wasn't a more beautiful woman in existence.  Tabitha dug into her burger with gusto she didn't feel a damned bit embarrassed about. She hadn't eaten in almost twelve hours and she needed something in her stomach so it would quit churning with the nervous acid that kicked up every time she laid eyes on Damien's tattooed and muscled body. It should've been illegal for a man to look so perfectly made for sin.Her conscience tickled at the back of her brain, a germ of thought that infected what was sizing up to be a nice afternoon. Damien Evans might be gorgeous. He definitely had the body of an MMA superstar and charm in excess. But he was still a criminal, a hard, unflinching, unconscionable drug dealer who probably had a history of violence that would make Joey's petty squabbles seem like a child's temper tantrum in comparison.Was it strange that, given all of that, she felt safer with Damien than with any other man in her entire life?“Can I ask you a question?” So far, they'd talked only about her. Tabitha appreciated that Damien was curious and a good listener, but it was time to turn the tables.He washed down the gargantuan bite of his burger with a long pull from the bottle of hard cider. “Shoot.”“That first week you stayed at the hotel, were you working for Joey then? Did you come to Boise to work for him?”“That's two questions,” he said without humor.Tabitha's stomach twisted. She might feel safe with him, but that didn't mean he wasn't a dangerous man. “True. But I'd like you to answer.”He studied her for a moment, his eyes narrowed. “No,” he finally replied. “I wasn't working for him the first week and I didn't come here to work for him.”“So . . . you just stumbled into it?”Tabitha wondered if he'd noticed the note of hope that leaked into her voice. Was it too much to wish that he—like her—had ended up an unwitting accomplice to Joey's less than legal activities? Would that somehow absolve her of the guilt she felt for lusting after him?“I met him in a bar. Liquid. I needed money, he needed a guy. That's all.”Tabitha wasn't unaccustomed to the need for extra cash. She lived every day of her life needing only a little more than what she had to make ends meet. Surely selling drugs was easy money for some. Her parents had found the money easy enough to make. It was obvious by the way he carried himself that Damien could handle most any situation that came his way. Maybe for someone as fearless and strong as he was, the consequences of his illegal acts meant very little at the end of the day.“There are safer ways to make money, you know.” Her voice dropped with her gaze and she fiddled with a fry, twirling it between her fingers before she popped it into her mouth.“There are,” he agreed. Tabitha dragged her gaze up to his and her breath caught at the intensity of his golden-brown eyes. “But I'll endure the danger factor—and that idiot Joey Cavello—if it means I get to see more of you.”“You want to see more of me?” God, she sounded like a fool, all shaky voice and fluttering nerves.His gaze heated, warming Tabitha from the inside out. “I do. And wearing a hell of a lot less than you have on right now.”Tabitha was pretty sure that the entire restaurant could hear the sound of her brain sizzling as it short-circuited. Maybe the cider had gone to her head and she was drunker than she thought, imagining the words spoken in a husky rasp that made her skin tingle. One hard cider on an empty stomach was surely enough to give her a buzz. And enough of a buzz to make her feel brazen at that.“Shouldn't that be my line? You've definitely seen more of me than I have of you.”A wicked smile curved his lips and it was all Tabitha could do not to jump across the table and tackle him. “I'll show you whatever you want to see. All you have to do is ask.”Sin. Incarnate.Tabitha couldn't remember a time in her entire life that she'd shared a bit of dirty talk over a cheeseburger. She tingled with excitement from head to toe, even though the cautious part of her lust-addled brain reminded her to tread lightly. “Let's say a girl wanted to do just that. Where would she find you on any given weeknight to pose such questions?”After a week at the hotel, Damien had checked out, and aside from his weekend there working for Joey, Tabitha had no idea where he was staying. He'd asked her plenty of leading questions over the course of their lunch. It was time for him to answer a few of hers.“Does it matter where, as long as it's private? Maybe you could ask me a few questions over at your place.”“No.” Damien might be the sexiest man she'd ever laid eyes on, but Tabitha had worked hard to make sure that Joey didn't know where she lived. No matter what depraved acts she wanted to commit on Damien's body, there was no way she'd risk her or Seth's tenuous sense of safety by inviting one of Joey's associates to her apartment.Her stern response was answered by a dubious brow. “No?”Tabitha had a feeling that very few people told Damien Evans no. There was a first time for everything, she supposed. “Sorry, but—” How far should she trust him? “—at the end of the day, you still work for Joey. And there are some things, my address being one, that he doesn't need to know.”
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Damien studied her as though he wanted to climb inside her brain and rummage through her thoughts. His bright eyes clouded over and Tabitha sensed that his temper simmered close to the surface. “Did he hurt you?”Emotionally? Yeah. Mentally? You bet. He'd thrown her self-esteem to the floor, stomped on it, torn her emotional stability to shreds, and that was before he'd used her brother as a tool to blackmail her. “He never hit me.” Though she hadn't really given Damien the answer she was sure he was hunting for, that was all he was going to get. “But he's bad news and I don't need him in my life any more than he is already.”The cloud didn't lift from Damien's mood. In fact, at her words, it seemed to darken even more. “I'm just like him, aren't I? Bad news is bad news. What are you doing sitting here with me?”Her voice dropped to almost a whisper. “You're not like him.”Damien braced one massive forearm on the table as he stood and leaned toward her. He reached out and cupped her face in his palm, his grip firm as he forced her gaze to meet his. Tabitha suppressed a shudder that had nothing to do with fear or anxiety. When he took control this way, he didn't realize that he was giving her exactly what she wanted. “You sure about that?”He'd meant to intimidate her. To put a little healthy fear into her.Sorry, buddy. It's not gonna happen. “I'm not afraid of you, you know.” She met him look for look, her tone no longer meek but full of fire.“Oh no?” His grip tightened. Not enough to hurt her, but just enough to let her know that he could if he wanted to. As if.“No.”His large frame loomed above her as he leaned down for a kiss. Tabitha felt multiple sets of eyes watching them, but Damien seemed not to care. His mouth moved over hers, not roughly as it had earlier in the hotel room, but with a slow, possessive precision that made Tabitha's toes curl in her shoes.When he pulled away, she was breathless and eager for more. His brow furrowed as he sat back down. “I'm afraid of me. You should be, too.”For the first time since they'd met, Tabitha experienced a tiny trickle of what Damien wanted her to feel. “Maybe we're both a little scary.” Or more to the point, scared. Scared of who they were, what they'd done, and how perfect they were together despite the fact that they barely knew each other. “Life is a little scary, don't you think?”His dark gaze swept over her and every nerve ending in Tabitha's body seemed to respond. He could get to her with a look, enslave her with those golden eyes until she was little more than a mindless minion. “Scary.” The word hung in the air, flat. “You shouldn't have to be scared, Tabitha. Of anything or anyone. Ever.”The fierceness of his tone made her think that he'd do anything to reassure her, keep her safe. She believed his earnest expression, the concern etched into every line that marred his forehead. But did protecting her mean that he would also protect her from him? She didn't think she wanted that. Not anymore. “No one should have to be scared, Damien.” And that included him, whether he believed it or not.Silence settled over them like an early winter snow. Peaceful and calm. Each of them lost in their own thoughts. Tabitha picked at her lunch, dipping one of the Parmesan-coated fries into a little silver bowl of fry sauce. Damien wasn't the sort of guy you pushed into anything, but Tabitha was going to do her best to urge him to leave the path that Joey had set out for him. He was a good guy. Too good to live his life peddling drugs and whatever else Joey wanted him to do.“Here.” Tabitha looked up as Damien slid her cell and the canister of pepper spray across the table to her. “You left these in the room last night.”“Thanks.” She tucked both of them into her purse and gave him a sheepish grin. “I wasn't too worried about the cell, but replacing a lost canister of pepper spray issucha hassle.”He flashed her a grin, the sight of his dimples enough to make her heart race. A breeze of fresh air seemed to blow the clouds of melancholy away and just like that, they were back on track.“How's it going over here?” their waitress asked as she approached the table. “Is anyone interested in dessert today?”Their eyes met and Tabitha's stomach flipped at the brilliance of his smile. God, he was amazing. He didn't break eye contact with her as he said to the waitress, “We're definitely interested in dessert.”Damien Evans scared the crap out of her, but not for the reason he thought. The way she felt with him, as though she might actually be falling for him, was scarier than anything he could throw at her.Chapter Eleven“Seth Martin. Twenty-one years old, has a record that goes back to juvie.”Damien sat back in the swivel chair, his arms planted on the armrests, fingers steepled at his lips. “Can we get our hands on the sealed records?”“Already done.”Gates had spent most of the morning digging up everything he could on Tabitha and her brother. Damien's stomach soured as the deputy marshal listed Seth's laundry list of offenses, ranging from petty theft to possession with intent to deliver, and a B and E, all before he'd turned fourteen. “Boise PD picked him up at seventeen for delivery of a controlled substance. Let's face it, the kid isn't exactly a criminal mastermind. I'd be willing to bet he gets caught doing more than he's ever gotten away with.”“What about the sister?” Damien was willing to bet that Tabitha spent most of her time bailing her brother out of jam after jam. It fit her protective personality to a tee.“A couple of speeding tickets several years back and one parking ticket last June, but nothing major. If she's a player, she's smarter than her brother.”“What was the brother's most recent arrest?” There was more to Tabitha's story than her brother's arrest records and her involvement with Joey.“Possession with intent to deliver, about eighteen months ago. He did six months and got thirty-six months of probation. I read the transcript and the judge told him if he stepped a toe out of line again, he'd be going away for the duration.”“Six months isn't a long sentence for that type of charge.”“No,” Ryan agreed. “But when Boise PD picked him up, he only had a few baggies on him, not more than an ounce of weed apiece. They'd been following him for a while, I guess, but according to the arrest record, the narc guys figured he'd unloaded most of the product by the time they got their hands on him.”If Seth was on probation with a stern warning from the Ada County magistrate hanging over his head, there was a good chance that Tabitha could easily be coerced into giving Joey a hand if he had something on her brother that could get the kid arrested. “I take it Boise PD and Seth Martin are well acquainted?” Then again, Damien could be grasping at straws. Anything to excuse Tabitha's involvement.“Oh yeah.” Gates sat back in his chair and nibbled on the cap of his pen. “I talked to John Rader this morning and he said that they'd been investigating Martin for a couple of years. As clueless as the kid is, they were sure someone was using him as an expendable mule.”“But they never made an arrest?”Ryan shook his head. “Whoever was supplying Martin with product kept a low profile, and Seth wouldn't give him up even when they offered him a plea bargain.”Maybe Seth didn't give up the supplier because the asshole was dating his sister at the time? “My money's on Cavello for the supplier.”“Yeah, mine too.” Damien swore, the way Gates was going to town on that pen cap, he was going to be picking bits of plastic from his teeth for weeks. “He was more than likely dating Martin's sister at the time, and her continued involvement with Cavello indicates that they've had a working relationship with him for a while now. But the last time Martin was picked up, he was still just peddling weed. The Bandit task force said that the synthetic only showed up on the streets a few months ago.”“About the time Lightfoot's organization pulled out of Oregon.”Gates examined his pen and threw it in the trash. Thank God. That Bic ballpoint was no doubt loaded with germs. “Yep. But here's where I'm lost. How did Cavello get hooked up with Lightfoot in the first place? We know now that he's distributing Stardust, and we know how he's getting it—good work, by the way—but there has to be something or someone to connect the two. Cavello was small-time before this. I don't think he would've had the sort of rep to garner Lightfoot's attention.”“True.” Damien had been racking his brain for a couple of weeks, searching for that very connection. “But maybe that's the point. Lightfoot knows we're looking for him. High rollers and well-known dealers would bring too much heat. Someone like Cavello—small-time, expendable, who asks very few questions and does what he's told—would be the perfect distributor. What does Cavello care where Lightfoot is and what he does, as long as he's getting a fat paycheck?”Ryan dragged a hand through his hair. “If that's the case, our chances of getting our hands on Lightfoot through Cavello are slim.”Damien swiveled in his chair. “I disagree.”“Evans, come take a look at this.” Chief Deputy Callihan stepped up to the cubicle Damien was working from, his expression pinched.He exchanged a look with Gates, who was equally nonplussed. “Sure,” he remarked as he pushed himself up from the chair. “What's up?”Ryan joined them and they followed Callihan to the hallway lined with windows that looked out over the parking lot of the federal courthouse building. Sitting in the parking lot was an older model gold Toyota 4Runner. “She's been sitting down there in her car for the past half hour. Security called up because it seemed suspicious. How would you like to handle this?”Damien swallowed down the groan that rose in his throat. Confronting Tabitha here could potentially blow his cover, and likewise, how would she react to finding out that the guy she'd been fooling around with wasn't what he seemed? He had a feeling that she wouldn't appreciate being lied to.Fuck.“What's she been doing down there?” Not that he thought she was dangerous or even erratic. But why in thehellwas she here?“According to security, just sitting in her car. She told the guard at the security gate that she had an appointment, but I asked around and she hasn't contacted anyone here.”Damien continued to stare down at the parking lot, his brain working a mile a minute as one scenario after another played out in his mind. The door of the Toyota opened and Damien watched from the fourth-story window as Tabitha got out of the car and paced from the hood to the back bumper, back and forth, back and forth.“Is she talking to herself?”Damien glanced over at Gates before turning his attention back to Tabitha. It did appear as though she was coaching herself, her palms open, forearms stretched in front of her and gesturing as she paced.“Looks like it,” Callihan chimed in. “Is she unstable, Evans? Should we have someone go down there and get her?”Whatever internal debate she had going on, Damien knew that instability wasn't an issue. “Send Gates to talk to her.” No way was he about to blow his cover now. “But don't shake her down.”“So you're saying you want me to pour on the charm?”Damien's eyes narrowed as he took in the shit-eating grin on Ryan's face. The last thing he wanted was to watch from the fourth-floor window as the suave deputy flirted with Tabitha. “I'm saying that you should go down there and feel her out.”Dude, wrong choice of words. “See if you can get her to tell you what she's doing here. We'll decide what to do from there.”Ryan looked to his superior and Callihan replied, “It's his show, Gates. Go ahead.”Damien waited with his face plastered to the window, glad that the mirrored exterior surface wouldn't rat him out to Tabitha. The only thing that would make him look more pathetic at this point was if his palms were splayed on the glass, the surface fogging from his breath. A façade of calm indifference was tough to maintain when all he could think about was Tabitha's reaction if she knew he'd lied to her about who he really was. Their lunch on Sunday was the best date Damien had been on in years, and for the past few days he'd been counting down the hours until he returned to the IdaHaven, just so he'd have an excuse to see her again. When had selling drugs become an acceptable excuse to see a woman? Jesus.“You don't think your cover is compromised? If it is, we might have to take her into custody,” Callihan remarked. “Are you ready for that?”Of course the chief deputy was speaking in regards to Damien's investigation, but all he could think of was the hurt that she'd suffer if they arrested her. “An arrest might be a little overboard. But if I'm compromised—which I don't think is possible—it might be a good idea to take her into custody.”“You want to try and flip her?”Honestly, Damien doubted it would be too hard, considering her opinion of Joey and what he did. “Maybe. We'll wait to see what Ryan finds out first.”From the corner of his eye, Damien caught sight of the deputy as he emerged from the building and crossed the parking lot. Tabitha continued to pace until Gates got within earshot. She froze midstep and turned to face him.Damien's breath stalled in his chest as Ryan approached Tabitha. Goddamn it, he wished he knew what was going on down there.This is a mistake. A huge, enormous, gigantic mistake.Tabitha still didn't know what she was doing standing in the middle of the parking lot of the courthouse building. Why she thought the U.S. Marshals would be less intimidating than the FBI was a mystery. She was already terrified, and she hadn't even made it through the front door yet. It's not like she'd never been in this position before. But her past decisions had been made in an effort to protect Seth. And Joey's threats had made it clear that any attempt to protect her brother now would only land Seth in jail. These guys were feds. If this didn't go the way she hoped it would, her brother wouldn't end up in a county jail or state pen. He'd be looking at federal prison time. It was a risk she didn't think she could take.“Hi. I'm Deputy U.S. Marshal Ryan Gates. Can I help you with something?”She practically jumped out of her skin when the marshal approached her. She wasn't ready to talk. Had no idea what to say. There was still too much to consider and it wasn't just her own hide she was eager to protect; she had to think about Seth as well.Cute, clean-cut, with short dark hair, moss-green eyes, and a friendly, open smile, Deputy Ryan Gates was the sort of guy that Lila would sell her soul to climb into bed with. Too bad all Tabitha could think about was a bulky, muscled body, tousled hair, tattoos, and the most intriguing golden eyes she could imagine. What would happen to Damien if she came clean to the marshals? She couldn't ruin his life just to protect Seth. Could she?“Miss . . . ?”“Oh, um . . . Lila. Lila Simmons.”Oops.Way to panic, you idiot!She'd already given her license to the guy at the security checkpoint. If Deputy Gates decided to follow up, she'd be caught in the lie and she might be down a best friend by tomorrow. Too late to worry about it now, she supposed. If she fessed up she'd only come across as crazy. Or guilty. Neither prospect was all that appealing.Deputy Gates quirked a brow as though he knew she wasn't telling the truth.Crap!Maybe he'd already checked with the guy manning the check-in. In which case, she was screwed. “With as much security as we have around here, it can make everyone a little nervous when anyone hangs out in the parking lot for a half hour. Would you like to come up to my office, maybe talk about what brought you here today?”Tabitha looked down at her feet and wished that the parking lot would split open and swallow her. She thought she could do this when she'd pulled up to the building. Thought she was brave enough to risk the consequences. But now that she'd had time to mull over her decision, she just couldn't do it. “Oh no, that's not necessary,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I, um—I wanted to . . .” What? What could she say that would be a passable excuse for being there? “I've been thinking about a career in law enforcement.” If there was a desk nearby, this would definitely be a moment to introduce her forehead to it. “Maybe something federal. But just thinking about the training made me break out into a sweat.” Another nervous laugh. “I'm obviously not ready.”Deputy Gates's green eyes darkened with disappointment. Had he been expecting a different response? Maybe people showed up in their parking lot to confess to criminal activity on a daily basis. “Why don't you come up anyway?” His soft, charming smile must have made the girls—and probably some of the boys—in the office giddy. “I can give you the tour, show you our offices, and maybe give you a little background on what we do. We might not be so scary if you see for yourself that the U.S. Marshals Service is staffed with some pretty damned good people.”She sensed that he was speaking past the cover story she'd given him, to Tabitha Martin, woman on the edge. It unnerved her to think that he could see through the pretense to the fear and trepidation she was working so hard to disguise. If she didn't get the hell out of there soon, she'd crack for sure. “I can't today. I spent too much time trying to work up the courage to go inside.” At least that little bit wasn't a lie. “I'll be late for work if I stick around now. But maybe I could schedule an appointment to come back some other time?”
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“Sure.” Deputy Gates gave her a sad smile as he fished a business card from his pocket. He held it out to her and she took it between shaking fingers. “Here's my card. The number for my personal extension is listed at the bottom. Call me anytime. I'd love to talk to you—aboutanything.”Panic surged as adrenaline pooled in Tabitha's limbs. Either Gates was a mind reader or he knew she was nothing more than a cowardly liar. She swore he had her number and was just waiting for her to give it up. “Thanks. I'll think about it.”Without another word, she climbed into her car and forced the key into the ignition. It took a couple of tries, but the engine finally turned over and she fought the urge to put the pedal to the metal and tear out of there, squealing tires and all. Instead, she gave him a bright smile and waved as she backed out of the parking space and pulled out of the parking lot. It was only after she was past the security gate that she allowed a tear to trickle down her cheek.God, Tabitha. You are such a coward.  “Hey, Tabs. How was your day?”When she woke up this morning, Tabitha never thought that her day would take a downward spiral that crashed and burned and left no survivors. But damn, had it ever. “What are you drinking?”Seth held up the bottle of Blue Moon IPA and she took it from his grasp. “Hey! I just opened that.”Today had definitely been a three-beer day, but she'd settle for this one. Tabitha brought the bottle to her lips despite her brother's protest and drained half of it in a couple of swallows. “I swear, if I have to fish one more turd out of the swimming pool, I'm going to go postal. Toddlers and swimming poolsdon'tmix.”Seth laughed with all of the amusement of a twelve-year-old. “That's gross.”“It's beyond gross.” Tabitha plopped down on the couch beside her brother and propped her feet up on the coffee table. “I'm so sick of bitchy, demanding guests, of smiling and nodding when I want to throttle someone. I'm tired of fishing disgusting things out of the pool and dealing with trashed rooms that I don't blame the housekeeping staff for not wanting to clean.”Seth let out a deep sigh and averted his gaze. “You should quit. I'm working full-time. I'll cover rent, groceries, and utilities. You can focus on school and take a break.”She cut him a look that said,Yeah. Right. “That's not possible, Seth, and you know it.”“How do we even know that Joey will do anything? I mean, at this point, it's just as risky for him as it is for me. If he turns me in to Boise PD, they could arrest him, too. I don't think he'll talk. He's bluffing and holding it over your head to keep his cushy gig at the hotel going.”“What?” She'd never told Seth about the threats Joey had made. “Seth, I—”“Come on, Tabs. I'm not an idiot. Give me a little credit here. I know that he's making you set him up with rooms at the hotel. No way would you help him if he wasn't holding me over your head.”She hadn't wanted him to find out. Didn't want to put that guilt on him. But one thing her brother wasn't was stupid, and Seth did have a point. Tabitha didn't want to push her luck or take unnecessary chances at this point. “I know you're not an idiot, Seth. I was just trying to protect you. But Joey isn't stupid, either. I'm sure he's covered his bases. And if Boise PD ever does arrest him, he'll turn State's evidence like he said and put it all on you. I'm not quitting my job on a hunch that he's bluffing. I can suck it up. This can't go on forever.”“But I didn't do anything,” Seth remarked. “Not really.”“No. You only hooked him up with the guy who's supplying that shit he's selling.” Tabitha couldn't help the accusing tone of her voice. She'd done everything in her power—things that weighed her down with guilt—to make sure that she and Seth could make a clean break from their past. Instead, Seth had kept in contact with the one man Tabitha couldn't seem to get him away from. The man who'd enabled her parents' bad habits and effectively ruined her and Seth's lives. While Tabitha thought she'd made the right decisions, done what she had to do to get Seth out of the life, he'd been going behind her back, working for the most dangerous man they'd ever known. While she and Joey were dating, Seth had introduced him to their parents' longtime friend. Joey promised Seth big-time rewards for the connection, but the only reward he'd given was a warning to Tabitha that if she didn't play ball, he'd give the cops something incriminating on Seth. He was on his second strike and still on probation. Any mark against him at this point would be bad. Worse than bad.“Maybe you should let me take my chances.” Seth had done a lot of growing up over the past six months. A year ago, he wouldn't have cared what Tabitha had to do to get him out of a bind.“And let you go to prison? Seth, if they find anything to charge you with, you won't be spending a few months in the Ada County Jail. There will be federal charges.”“Hey, at least I'd get three squares a day.” She glared at his joking tone. “Seriously, this is something you should think about. I don't want you to have to deal with Joey and his bullshit. You need a clean break, Tabs.”She'd been thinking about it. For weeks. How many times had she looked at the FBI's phone number, her fingers hovering over the keypad of her phone? Searched the Boise PD's Bandit anti-narcotics web page? Sat in the freaking parking lot of the U.S. Marshals Service's home base? She'd thought about it and thought about it until her freaking brain throbbed from all of the thinking. And now, she didn't just have Seth to worry about, but Damien as well.For shit's sake, Tabitha. What more can you do to screw up your life?Chapter TwelveAfter talking to Gates and getting the lowdown on Tabitha's visit to the courthouse, Damien decided it would be best to give her a little space. But now that Friday night had rolled around once again, he found himself bouncing back and forth between excitement and worry. A combination he rarely felt and didn't like at all.He'd never been so anxious to see someone, and at the same time worried over what would happen when he did. As he unloaded the heavy suitcase full of Stardust and his duffel from the trunk of his Shelby, he thought about putting a phone call in to Dr. Meyers. Because if ever he needed his head shrunk, it was right fucking now.As he hauled his stuff through the lobby, a scowl curled his lips as he recognized the guy who worked nights—and not Tabitha—at the front desk.“She's off tonight.”Damien checked the guy's name tag—Dave—as he typed something on the keyboard. “Who?”Dave gave him a wry smile. “Tabitha. I got the feeling that I wasn't who you were expecting to see behind the desk.”Jesus, was it that obvious? Damien spent his life fooling hardened criminals into believing that he was one of them and he couldn't even hide his infatuation from an innocent desk clerk? He might as well turn in his badge now.“But don't worry. She told me you'd be in tonight and I've got your room all ready to go. Is your crew working on the roof over at the new Village complex in Meridian?”Damien wasn't at all familiar with the local landmarks or neighboring cities, though he'd heard some talk in passing about this place or that. It didn't matter where he said he worked as long as he kept up the pretense that he worked for a roofing company and left it at that. “Uh, yeah. We'll be on and off the project for at least another month or so.”Dave continued to make small talk, but Damien couldn't manage more than a grunt or two in response. His brain was buzzing, too full of Tabitha. Where was she? What was she doing? Had she discovered what he was really doing by working for Joey?“Here's your key,” Dave said, sliding the little paper envelope closer to Damien's hand. How long had he been zoned out?Real smooth. “Can I help you with anything else this evening?”Dave's flirty smile didn't go unnoticed. Maybe he could coax some information about Tabitha out of the über-friendly front-desk clerk.Good God. He might as well be some middle school kid passing notes in class.Did Tabitha talk about me at lunch today? What did she say? Also if she likes me, check this box. Can you say loser? “No, thanks. I'm good.”“Okay, well, don't hesitate to call if you need anything!”He held up a hand in acknowledgment as he walked away from the front desk. What he needed was a fucking lobotomy to get Tabitha out of his head. Maybe Dave could grab a butter knife from the breakfast room and give him a hand with that.The night dragged by on broken legs, painfully slow and debilitating. Damien played the part of amateur drug peddler, doling out the packages to customers based on weight, cost, and the individual dealer's ability to move product. He made small talk when he could, manipulated each and every person through the door into offering up some piece of information, no matter how small. It didn't get him any closer to Lightfoot, unfortunately, but Boise PD and the Idaho State Police would have a heyday when he wrapped up his investigation.At the back of his mind, though, he fixated on a singular thought: Tabitha and what he could do to get her to the hotel ASAP. A week apart had been torture. True, their current circumstances were less than conventional, and didn't he just feel like a king-size dick for it, too. Their lunch date hardly made up for the fact that he'd thrown himself at her not once, but twice. And truth be told, he could think of nothing more than doing it again. He'd order her to get naked before he laid her out on the bed and enjoyed her in the way he'd been dying to, coaxing those sweet sounds from her once again.Christ. If he'd thought his head was fucked up before this gig, it was nothing compared to the tangled state it was in now.Damien's last customer had left fifteen minutes ago and he wasn't expecting anyone else until tomorrow night. A muffled curse escaped his lips as he snatched up his cell and dialed the number he'd retrieved from Tabitha's phone the previous week.“'Lo?” Tabitha's sleepy voice answered, and the husky timbre raced across Damien's skin in a shiver.“I want to see you.” No use exchanging pleasantries—or giving his name, apparently—at this point. He wanted her here. Now. Ten minutes ago. “Get in your car and get over here.”Silence answered him and Damien's heart pounded in his chest. Why couldn't he just quit being a demanding dickhead for long enough to ask her nicely?Way to fuck up the only thing in your life youdon'twant to ruin. Idiot.Tabitha's voice was like a caress when she answered, “Give me ten minutes.”“Hurry.”He disconnected the call and tossed his phone onto the bed.The next ten minutes might as well have been ten years as he waited for Tabitha to show up. He'd considered running down to the lobby and buying a package of condoms from the hotel store. He needed to fuck like he needed food to live. But the front-desk guy already seemed to know that something was going on between him and Tabitha. It wouldn't be a good idea to flaunt his need of a booty call in front of her coworker. He wasn't interested in disrespecting her in any way. And really, it was a little presumptuous on his part to assume that's where the night would lead. Sure, they'd fooled around, but that didn't guarantee a repeat, no matter how badly Damien wanted that to happen. He needed to calm the fuck down and let things unfold. Naturally. It was just a sign of how badly he wanted her that he felt like he needed to rush out and buy a case of Trojans. Overeager much?The minutes continued to tick by at a slog. What if she'd fallen back to sleep after his call? For all he knew, she'd been talking in her sleep, agreeing to his ridiculous command. Wound tight as a fucking spring, it wouldn't take much to send Damien rocketing into the stratosphere. His skin clung to his frame, too goddamned tight, and his breath sawed in and out of his chest as though he'd been running circles around the hotel parking lot.A derisive snort sliced through the quiet. He was keeping his cool like a boss.When a soft knock came at the door moments later, his heart seized up in his rib cage before beating out a furious rhythm that sent the blood zinging through his veins. He stalked across the room with all of the collected calm of a disaster movie victim fleeing from a comet hurtling toward Earth, and threw open the door.Jesus Christ, every time he laid eyes on her, she seemed more beautiful.Her blue eyes glistened, still a little sleepy, and her short, blond hair was tousled in a way that made her look as though she'd just been fucked. Which, strangely enough, turned him on while simultaneously causing a pang of jealousy to flare in his chest. On the right side of her nose, a tiny jewel twinkled. He'd never noticed the piercing before; she obviously didn't wear it to work. Tight, black leggings hugged her legs, leaving nothing to the imagination, and a worn, too-small Soundgarden-concert tee barely skimmed her waist along with a short, black leather jacket. A pair of fawn-colored sheepskin boots rounded out her outfit, and she'd never looked hotter. Just the sight of her made him hard.“Hi.”His eyes dipped to where the cropped top of her shirt revealed her belly button, and Damien couldn't form a coherent response to save his life. He'd never wanted a woman the way he wanted Tabitha, and that mindless need was slowly ripping his composure to shreds.With a mechanical step to the right he opened a path for her to come in. She placed a hand on her hip, cocking it to one side and said, “Should I be expecting anyone else to stop by tonight?”“No.” The word worked its way up his throat, grating on his vocal cords like gravel. “Worried I might misbehave?”A sweet smile curved her lips. “Maybe a little.”He couldn't help his own answering grin. “Get in this room. Now.”  When Damien gave her a command, Tabitha found herself helpless to deny him. A man she'd once sworn she'd keep her distance from, now her body responded to the gruff timbre of his voice, drawn to his side like lapping ocean waves are drawn to the shore. She'd been a wreck all week. Thinking about Damien. Worrying. Wondering where he was. What he was doing. Who he was with . . . A week of sleepless nights had her collapsing into her bed, exhausted, only to be woken by his call. The gruffness of his voice sparked her to life with the first word he'd spoken, and the decision to throw on a pair of boots and get in her car was one of the easiest of her entire life.His gaze devoured her as she stepped into the room, the heat in those golden-brown eyes enough to make her sweat. Any words she might have wanted to say lodged themselves in her throat, but really, was it necessary to say anything? She knew why he'd called her and why she agreed to come.As she walked to within touching distance of him, Damien reached out and wrapped his large hand around her waist. A low thrum of desire settled in her abdomen and Tabitha knew that if he were to slide his fingers between her thighs, he'd find her wet and more than ready for him. She was completely shameless in wanting him like she did. The tension of his arm stopped Tabitha dead in her tracks, and a low groan rumbled in Damien's chest. His palm curved a path over her hip and settled on her ass. “What are you wearing under these pants?” he asked low in her ear.She looked up at him from beneath lowered lashes and murmured, “Nothing.”His free hand settled on her opposite hip and he took a step to his right so that he stood fully in front of her. Lord have mercy, he towered over her, his heavily muscled frame overwhelming and magnificent. Tabitha shivered as he traced a path up her torso, his fingers skimming the curve of her breast. “And under this shirt?”Shameless. “Nothing.”“Were you naked under the covers when I called?”Tabitha shuddered at his words, loving the game he played. No man had ever talked to her this way before, and it gave her permission to be as brazen as she dared. “Yes.” Up and down, up and down, his fingers brushed her torso beneath her jacket, teasing the swell of her breast until her nipples hardened and she ached for him to touch her there.Damien's body went rigid with each question asked, a slight tremor transferring through his touch into her skin. His barely veiled restraint caused Tabitha's breath to race in her chest, and with every intake of breath, her breasts rubbed torturously against the rippled muscle of his torso. If he didn't do something—anything—soon, she'd go out of her mind!As if he sensed the maddening desire building up inside of her like carbonation under pressure, Damien took a step back and regarded her, his gaze raking over her with a hunger that sent her heart beating madly. With an arm's length between them now, Tabitha's body chilled in the absence of his touch. She moved to close the distance and he said, firm, “Stay where you are.”Under his spell, she had no choice but to do as he told her.For a moment he just looked at her. Her skin tingled with his appraisal, flushed with heat as though his hands were still on her. With a slow breath, Damien reached out, took the strands of her hair between his fingers. “Your hair is like silk.”The wonder in his tone caused Tabitha's chest to swell with emotion. Such a contrast to his hard, commanding presence. He let the strands fall through his fingers and cupped her face in his palm before tracing the shell of her ear. A featherlight caress brought chills to the surface of Tabitha's skin as he trailed his fingers past her earlobe and down the column of her throat, skirting the neckline of her T-shirt.Anticipation coiled in her stomach as every nerve ending in her body grew hypersensitive. The quiet in the room was deafening, the only sound that of their quickened breaths. “Look at me.”She brought her eyes to his and fought the urge to drop her gaze. Was this how prey felt in the clutches of a powerful predator? Or perhaps a lowly wolf in the presence of its alpha? He reached beneath her jacket and with the pad of his thumb circled one nipple. Tabitha's lips parted on a sharp intake of breath, the sensation so intense despite the thin layer of cotton fabric that separated her skin from his.With his left hand, he cupped the back of her neck, as if concerned she might suddenly look away. Or bolt. He held her fast, slowly circling her nipple as he studied her reaction with an intensity that caused Tabitha's breath to come in desperate little pants that ended on a quiet whimper. She could come like this. With nothing more than his eyes on her and his thumb teasing her nipple to a diamond-hard peak.“Does that feel good?”He had to have known that he was driving her crazy. But it was part of his game, wasn't it? The control he needed to exercise and the commands that Tabitha needed desperately to obey. “Yes.” The word burst from her lips in a low moan and Damien's nostrils flared as his grip on her neck tightened and his thumb brushed along her jawline.“Tell me.”“It feels so good,” she said between pants of breath.An unexpected sting of pleasure coursed through her body as he pinched the pearled peak through her shirt. “And that?”“Yes,” she moaned. “Do it again.”Damien crushed her to him in a searing kiss. Tabitha's body melted against his as he cupped her ass in his hands and lifted her up to meet his height. She kicked the boots from her feet as she shucked her jacket and wrapped her legs around his waist. He thrust up as he pushed down on her hips, forcing the thick length of his erection against her barely clothed and aching sex.
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Holy shit, the man was sex personified.He backed up until the bed stopped him and sat down on the mattress with Tabitha settled firmly in his lap. His kisses left her breathless, his tongue thrusting into her mouth in a slow, desperate rhythm that cranked her desire into overdrive. No one had ever kissed her this way before. Each deliberate movement carried with it a sense of possession: the way his mouth slanted across hers, each flick or swirl of his tongue, the slight scrape of his teeth on her bottom lip. In no uncertain terms, Damien laid claim to her and Tabitha was more than happy to give herself over to him.At once demanding and careful, Damien cupped her face in his hands gently, as though she were something fragile. The kisses that had been frenzied and desperate only a moment ago were now soft and slow. A savoring of her mouth that made Tabitha's head spin. She was lost to him. Lost to his commanding, quiet presence, his body, the ink that decorated his skin. A slave to his scent, his callused fingers and smooth flesh, hulking form, the tousled locks of his light brown hair and the intensity of his golden gaze. This was an infatuation Tabitha would never find her way back from. And the realization of how far gone she was sent a trickle of icy fear through her bloodstream.Chapter ThirteenThe sweetness of Tabitha's mouth, the soft texture of her skin and silken hair, her floral perfume and unabashed desire, latched on to every particle of Damien's body. The beginnings of an addiction he knew he would never have the strength to kick.He couldn't hold her tight enough, kiss her deeply enough. His cock throbbed in his jeans, hot and hard and so damned ready to take her. It had been such a long damned time since he'd been with a woman that he wouldn't last a minute once he sunk himself into her slick heat. Entanglements of any kind while he was undercover were a huge no-go. But in the course of a week he realized that the longer he stayed away from Tabitha, the more he wanted her. And like the drugs he'd doled out so easily to eager addicts, he couldn't stay away from her, no matter how hard he tried.He grasped Tabitha around the waist and lifted her. Her petite frame weighed almost nothing and he set her on her feet, between his legs. Sitting up straight, he was damned near as tall as she was standing. Her expression was curious yet heated as he wound his fists in the hem of her T-shirt and dragged it up and off of her, slowly, revealing her body to his hungry gaze inch by tantalizing inch.The fabric met the resistance of her full breasts, and when he freed them from the restricting fabric, they gave a slight bounce that forced a groan from Damien's throat. Perfect and full, the dusky nipples stood proud and erect. He freed Tabitha's head from the neck of the shirt but left the garment at her wrists. Winding the fabric, he bound her hands together and stood, repositioning them so that she lay on the bed and he stood over her.“Don't try to free yourself. Do you understand me?”She answered with a nod and a low moan that caused his balls to tighten against his cock. As though in prayer, Damien went to his knees before her. The thin cotton fabric of the leggings hugging her legs like a second skin cooled his heated cheeks as he ran his nose up the inside of her thigh, inhaling her scent as he went. When he met the juncture at her thighs he said, “Spread your legs.” And Tabitha trembled beneath him as she did as he asked. It was fucking torture not to simply strip the damned things from her body, but as he'd done earlier, touching her through her T-shirt, he grazed his teeth along her inner thigh.Tabitha bucked at the contact, her back arching off the bed as she let out a quiet whimper. He repeated the action on the opposite side and she cried out, squirming as though fighting the urge to free her hands—which truly weren't bound in any sense of the word. But that was the point. It wasn't the binding that kept her arms high above her head, tangled in the T-shirt. Rather, his words and her trust in him garnered her compliance. That blind trust was as seductive as her body. No one had ever completely trusted him, and warm emotion swelled in his chest.“Put your mouth on me.”The words were soft and pleading and Damien sealed his mouth over her sex, marveling at how damp the fabric was with her desire and how he could taste her arousal. Through the thin barrier, he knew her pussy was swollen, wet, and ready to receive him.Goddamn. This moment was heaven. The sweet torture of withholding himself from her almost more than he could bear.“I want to touch you, Damien.”He grazed his teeth along the sensitive ridges of her sex, and she shuddered. “Not yet.”Like he'd taken off her shirt, Damien peeled the second skin of her leggings from her body slowly. He watched her reaction carefully, noting the quiver of her breasts with each pant of breath, the way her stomach muscles tightened when his fingers curled around the waistband of her pants. He eased them over her hips, kissing the juncture where her hip met her thigh, his attention divided between the newly exposed flesh and her arms, held high above her head and still tangled in her T-shirt. Holy Christ, she was a sight to behold.He raked the pants down over her thighs and paused as he drank in the beauty of her glistening pussy. As he teased the short, damp curls, Tabitha let out a slow sigh. A release of breath that Damien felt over every inch of his body. With a quick tug, he freed the leggings from her ankles and dropped them somewhere behind him. He placed his palms on her thighs and urged them to part, sucking in a breath as he committed to memory how she looked, spread out naked on the bed, just as he'd imagined. Damn it, he should have gone down to the lobby and bought the condoms, gossip and reputations be damned.“You are so fucking beautiful.”Tabitha's head came off the bed and their gazes locked. The emotion he saw in those crystal-blue depths shook Damien to his foundation. His fingers dug into her thighs and her lids became hooded as her head lolled back on the bed. Having her here, now, no matter the circumstances, was worth any risk both personal and professional. The world could fall down around him tomorrow, but tonight she belonged to him.Most of the time, it was Damien who rattled others' nerves. Sort of came part and parcel with being a big, tattooed, scary-looking son of a bitch. But this petite woman spread out on the bed scared him more than any drug lord, arms dealer, or dangerous fugitive he'd ever kept company with. Because for the first time in his life, Damien finally needed someone. He neededher.He backed away, standing for only as long as it took to strip his shirt from his chest. He wanted nothing between his skin and hers. Her lips quirked into a grin as she watched him, her hands still bound and immovable above her head. A reluctant smile tugged at his lips as he fumbled with the button of his jeans, unable to tear his eyes from her, focus on anythingbuther. He was starved to bury his face between those sweet thighs again. One taste wasn't even close to enough.He finally managed to work his zipper down and when his cock sprang free of his underwear, Tabitha's eyes widened in appreciation as she rolled her bottom lip between her teeth. That one look was worth a thousand compliments, and it stroked his ego no small amount to know that his body pleased her.As he moved to go back on his knees, Tabitha's voice stabbed through the quiet. “No.” He stilled, brow furrowed with worry and she added, “If I can't touch you with my hands, at least let me appreciate you with my mouth.”“Holy shit, woman, are you trying to kill me?” The thought of her mouth on him while he lapped at her pussy was just too much.“Not kill you.” Her voice was a husky purr that slid down his spine in a pleasant shiver. “But I do want to enjoy you.”Damien scrubbed a hand through the tangles of his hair. “Not yet. Put your head on the pillows, keep your hands above your head, and open your legs for me.” It wasn't a rejection of her attention. Good God, he wanted her mouth on his cock so badly he was trembling with need. But when he gauged her reaction to his gentle command—her quickened breath, liquid eyes, and the slight flush of her cheeks—Damien knew that he'd made the right decision. Whether she realized it or not, she craved the domination. And he was going to give her what she needed.Tabitha did as he told her to, repositioning herself on the bed so that her head was on the pillows, arms resting near the headboard. Her back arched slightly off the mattress as she let her legs fall open and Damien admired her for a long moment before he came around to the foot of the bed and positioned his head between her thighs.The woman was a fucking goddess, and he was about to worship her.The first pass of his tongue on her soft flesh was bliss, and it sent him teetering over the edge of his control. As though he'd lived his life in a state of perpetual starvation, Tabitha became his sustenance and he finally knew what it was to be full. He took his time, learning the intricacies of her body, what made her moan, and what quickened her breath. A long drag with the flat of his tongue from her tight opening to her clit made her arch off the bed, and quick flicks of his tongue caused her to writhe in his grasp, her hips rolling and thrusting to meet his mouth.When he sucked on the silky lips of her labia, she cried out, and when he took the swollen knot of nerves at her core between his teeth, she sobbed her pleasure. “Damien! Oh God, Damien.”He dug his fingers into the soft flesh of her ass, a pang of regret stabbing through his chest as she called out a name that was as much a part of his façade as the tattoos that graced his arms and chest. For the first time in as long as he'd been a member of the Marshals Service, he didn't want to be Damien anymore. He wanted to be Parker Evans, and that was the name he wanted on Tabitha's lips.You should squash those fucking thoughts and thank God a woman like this is willing to give you the time of day, let alone the pleasure of her body.Amen.  Tabitha laced her fingers and clasped her palms tightly together. She'd do whatever Damien asked as long as he kept making her feel this way, and that included resisting the urge to touch him. It was like he knew her body better than she did, every pass of his tongue a deliberate motion executed to achieve a specific reaction.A gentle flick was followed up by a long, languid pass with the flat of his tongue and Tabitha cried out, not giving a damn who might hear her. He sucked, nibbled and licked, loving every inch of her throbbing sex with his talented mouth. Tabitha released her hands and gripped the pillow behind her, clutching the fabric like a lifeline. She floated on a cloud of bliss, pleasure like nothing she'd ever experienced, and if she didn't hold on to something—anything—to anchor her, there was a pretty good possibility she'd fly right into the stratosphere.Damien slowed his pace and soon the pressure of his mouth was gone. Tabitha thrust her hips toward his mouth, eager for him to continue, but he pulled away and blew lightly over her heated, wet flesh, causing a delicious chill that made her bones go soft.Oh . . . God . . .“Do you like that?” His voice was a sensual growl that vibrated up Tabitha's spine. He nipped at her inner thigh and a low moan escaped her lips.“Yes.” The word came as a desperate whisper, thick and rough.“Should I do it again?”“God, yes.” She thrust her hips toward his mouth in frustration.The pad of his finger teased her opening, the contact with her oversensitized flesh almost more than she could bear. He spread her wet arousal over her sex and blew again, the lightest breath that brought more of the intense chill that rippled over her skin like cool rain from a summer storm.“Again?”Words failed her. Mindless with need, all Tabitha could manage was a pleading whimper. The way he teased her was maddening. The most delicious torture she'd ever experienced. He caressed her, explored every inch of her with tender attention. Played with her. Tantalized her. A shock of heat as his mouth fastened over her sex. Blinding pleasure as he feathered the blunt tip of his thumb over her clit, just before his fingers rocked inside of her. Tabitha's body coiled, winding and turning over and around itself until she was nothing more than a constricted, quivering bundle of sensitized flesh, want, and need. Damien was going to break her apart and she welcomed the moment when he would shatter her completely.His fingers bit into her flesh as he took her hip in his palm, his grip pulsing in time with every pass of his tongue. Tabitha cried out, her back arching off the bed and he reached up with his other hand to cup her breast, teasing her nipple with a slow roll and then a tight pinch that sent her toppling over the edge.“Damien!” His name burst from her lips as she came, as reverent and solemn as a prayer. Wave after wave of the most intense pleasure she'd ever felt crested over her. Damien hadn't simply broken her apart. He'd obliterated her. She was nothing more than stardust, particles floating in a vast universe. This moment was unparalleled and it caused such intense emotion to roil in her chest that her heart felt as though it would burst. Even the men who'd claimed to love her had neverlovedher in the way that Damien just had. Dear God, she was ruined.Tabitha lay still, panting through the aftershocks of what was hands down the most amazing orgasm of her entire life. Damien kissed the insides of her thighs, upward and over one hip. His mouth was a brand as it traveled across her lower abdomen, his tongue dipping briefly into her belly button. Up her torso, a light kiss to each one of her ribs and then over the swell of her breast before his mouth sealed over her nipple, sucking gently. She arched into his touch, desperate to comb her fingers through his hair and yet still unable to ignore his command that she keep her hands bound above her. Any other man would have been content to know that she'd gotten off, and would have been pounding away by now, or requesting that she return the favor with her own mouth. But she already knew that Damien was unlike any other man.He attended her other breast with the same loving attention before kissing across her collarbone, up the column of her throat, beneath her ear—where he paused to take the lobe between his teeth before drawing it into his mouth. The deep inhale of Damien's breath caused chills to dance over Tabitha's skin as he buried his face in her hair and breathed her in. Her heart raced in her chest, on the verge of tears or laughter, she didn't know which. He was too good to be true.“I could do that all night,” he murmured, his breath hot in her ear. “Just lick and suck and taste you. Feel you come against my mouth. Again and again until the sun rose and we collapsed from exhaustion.”The words were so tender, a sharp contrast to the natural gruffness of his voice. Spread out beside her on the bed, his body felt even larger and more imposing. He braced himself up on an elbow and studied her with a quiet wonderment that made Tabitha's breath hitch.
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“What?”He smiled, showcasing the deep dimples in his cheeks that turned her bones to mush. “You're beautiful.”Heat rose to Tabitha's cheeks, though she doubted he'd notice with the flush of passion that was still no doubt on her skin. No man had ever called her beautiful before. And for the second time tonight, the compliment constricted her heart almost to the point of pain. Most of her life had been so hard and ugly, and at times it had made her feel ugly, too. Unworthy of praise. Her eyes searched his for any duplicity, but they were clear and honest. For the first time in her life, she truly felt beautiful. As though she was more than the low-class daughter of drug addicts. “Thank you,” she said. It might have sounded silly, but it meant so much to her, she couldn't help herself.“I want you. I need to be inside of you. I—” Deep grooves marred his brow as though he struggled with what he wanted to say. “I want you more than I've wanted anything. Ever.”“What's wrong with that?” He sounded so conflicted. Why?“Because it scares the hell out of me.”Her stomach twirled into myriad tiny knots at his words. He'd been so honest with her and deserved an equally honest response. “I want you, too. And yeah, it's scary. But it's alsoamazing.”Damien positioned himself fully on top of her. Tabitha let her legs fall open, ready to accept him, but he held himself back, careful that only his torso made contact with her body. His arms trembled with the effort he exerted to keep himself suspended above her. “I'm a miserable son of a bitch, Tabitha. But I'm not a complete bastard. No matter how badly I need your body, it can't go any further than we already have tonight.”What? Why?Panic shot through her bloodstream. The night had barely begun as far as she was concerned. “What if I'm not okay with that?”He brushed her hair from her face, lost for a moment as he rubbed the strands between his thumb and forefinger. He kept his gaze averted as he said, “You just want me to fuck you without any consideration of the fact that we have no protection? You don't really know me, Tabitha, yet you think I'm that trustworthy?”Shit. She hadn't considered the fact that they had no condoms, or contraception of any kind. It had sort of become a non-issue in the heat of the moment. Did she find him trustworthy? She'd heard her share of excuses over the course of her adolescence, and even a few from Joey when they'd dated.I'm sterile. If you loved me you would . . . I was just tested, babe. I'm totally clean. And her all-time favorite,I'm a virgin. You're my first. Little did Eric Jones know that his last girlfriend flapped her lips about their sexual exploits to anyone who'd listen. She'd heard more than her fair share of excuses of why it was okay to have unprotected sex, but never had a man given her an argument for why they shouldn't.It was true that she didn't know Damien well. But she did trust him.“I'll take my chances. I want you. Please, just . . .” Her rational brain had taken a vacation the second he put his hands and mouth on her. She knew this wasn't a good idea, but somehow she didn't care. “Trustme. I'm not willing to let tonight end. Not yet.”He kissed her once. Softly. Just the slightest contact of his lips on hers.“Baby, you're driving me crazy.” He rolled his hips and the silky flesh of his erection brushed her thigh. “I can't get enough of you.” Another thrust of his hips and he groaned, his teeth welded together as a look of near pain marred his strong features. “Sex is off the table. Tonight, at least. But you can do whatever else you want to me. Touch me, taste me. Fuck, I want your mouth on me. You're in control now, this is your show. I trust you, too.”Tabitha didn't know it was possible to experience this sort of intimacy without actual intercourse. At twenty-three, she wasn't exactly a seasoned pro, but in her past relationships, sex had always been the endgame. A frenzied mess of excitement and urgency that came and went like a passing storm. Tonight was more akin to an ocean tide. Ebbing and flowing, building to high breakers that lulled into gentle waves. Give and take. Urgent and easy. She'd never felt more comfortable in her own skin and yet so unaware of her own body. Damien had showed her all of this.And now, he was giving her the reins. No sex, but other than that, he was hers. How could tonight get any more perfect? “Roll over,” she said. “I want you on your back.”Chapter FourteenDamien propped himself up higher on his elbow and used his free hand to release the T-shirt that was now hanging limply from Tabitha's wrists. She'd trusted him completely, resisting the urge to use her hands despite the fact that they'd basically been free the entire time.This was uncharted territory for him.The majority of his past sexual relationships had been short-lived and sometimes anonymous encounters that scratched an itch for both parties and nothing more. Damien was usually very careful about choosing bedmates who weren't looking for more than a couple hours' worth of fun. His life was always in turmoil, traveling from one undercover assignment to the next. He didn't have the sort of stability in his life to support an honest-to-God relationship with a woman. And now that he'd finally met someone who made him want to stick around, he wasn't sure if a relationship with Tabitha would survive the laundry list of obstacles they'd have to overcome.When her hands made contact with his bare skin, however, any obstacle seemed surmountable.Warm and soft as satin, her fingers glided over him. She studied him with an intensity that made his heart race as she traced the outlines of the tattoos marking his pecs, ink that he'd recently become ashamed of because he'd begun to associate them with a lifestyle that he didn't subscribe to, yet had to pretend to live.“I love this one,” she said as she lovingly traced the artwork that crawled from his left pec up his shoulder. “The artwork is so intricate. What's the symbolism?”Truth be told, he liked that one too. To the casual eye, the whorls and angles that made up the spines and scales of the dragon's head looked innocent enough. But to the discerning eye—the gangbangers and dealers who'd notice—the tattoo artist had hidden symbols that denoted his affiliation with the Russian mob. “The artwork is meant to represent Norse folk art. Dragons are considered evil in some of their mythology, but also creatures of immeasurable power.”“And this? Is it Norse too?”She traced his opposite pec. This image depicted a snarling bear, and again, the artist had carefully hidden symbols meant to buy Damien street cred: stars that indicated stints in federal prison. Tabitha's fingertips traced each of Damien's knuckles and moved over the dots on the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, a false representation of the number of men he'd killed. These were the images—not the tattoos themselves—that Damien despised. Lies constructed to maintain his cover, permanently etched on his skin.“The bear is associated with the berserker. Warriors possessed with supernatural strength and fierceness in battle that made them more animals than men.”Her mouth spread in an enigmatic smile. “They're beautiful. I love them.”On and on she went, her palms roving the landscape of his body as though mapping every inch. She asked questions and he answered, more interested in observing her expressions than his own responses. He could watch her for hours.“When I first noticed these, I thought they were gang symbols,” she said with a laugh as she traced the ink tattooed between his knuckles. “But they're definitely not.”“Runes,” he said.“More Norse stuff?”“Yeah,” he said, trying to hide his embarrassment. He must seem like one of those idiots who'd succumbed to the tribal tattoo craze, inking his entire body in a theme. He dropped the façade of Damien's cover. She'd put her trust in him tonight. He could return the favor by sharing a little bit of Parker with her. “My mom's family are Norwegian. Most of them still live in Norway. I used to hear all of the myths and stories when I was little.”Tabitha brought his hand to her mouth and kissed each and every knuckle. Damien's stomach twisted into a knot so tight, he doubted it would ever unfurl. She kissed the inside of one wrist, and then the other, before venturing up his arm, across his shoulder, and down over the tattoos she'd traced just moments before. Her tongue flicked out at one nipple and he inhaled a sharp breath.His stomach went rigid as she kissed a path down his abs, and he swallowed a groan as she went lower still, dragging the flat of her tongue across the juncture where his hip met his thigh. Hard as stone, his cock throbbed between his legs, and when she nipped at the flesh on his inner thigh, the sting of her teeth caused the bastard to twitch as though in anticipation of similar attention.Tabitha took her time, acquainting herself with his body in the way he'd done with hers. Her will had to be stronger than his, because only seconds of her attention drove him crazy with desire. He wanted her so badly, every inch of him ached. She rose above him, settled her body between his thighs and bent, hovering over the one place he was dying to have her mouth.“Tell me what you want,” she said in a husky tone that tingled down his spine and settled in his balls. “And I'll do it. Anything.”Even after handing her total control, she gave it back to him. She trusted him. Wanted this give-and-take between them. He'd never known a woman like Tabitha. As though she sensed his need for control in the way he sensed her need to be controlled, they fit together like puzzle pieces. Perfect.“I want you to suck the head of my cock.”Her gaze heated at his words and she dipped her full lips to his erection. A low moan vibrated in her throat as she wrapped her mouth around him and the sound tingled down his shaft. She curled her tongue around the engorged head, soft and slippery, before she sucked gently.“Harder.”He didn't want anything tentative or light from her, and she increased the suction and pressure. Damien's hips rolled involuntarily, it felt so damned good. “Yeah, like that. Don't stop.”When the sensation was too intense for him to take another second, he thrust, guiding his cock slightly farther into her mouth. He let out a moan that was as much in relief as it was pleasure. She pulled back to the tip, a clear sign that if he wanted her to take him deeper, he'd have to tell her so.He reached down and threaded his fingers through the silken strands of her hair. “Deeper, baby. I need it deeper.”Tabitha's eyelids fluttered as she took him fully into her mouth, working her lips and tongue over his shaft in a steady rhythm that coaxed Damien's breath to come in deep, desperate pants. He pressed his head back into the pillow, one hand still wound in her hair, the other clenched in a fist at his side. The wet warmth of her mouth was heaven, but it only made him want to fuck her that much more. He'd sworn he wouldn't disrespect her. Wouldn't allow himself to be so irresponsible. But, goddamn, he wanted that joining of their bodies, he wanted to make that claim on her.Like a fire tearing through dry grass, Damien's passion raged. He held nothing back, his voice an impassioned growl when he backed her off to where she'd started at the head of his cock. “Use your teeth.” He was so far gone with want, the words barely made sense to him anymore. Her teeth scraped against the sensitive, engorged skin and he hissed in a breath.“Ungh, God yeah,” he said from between clenched teeth. “Again, harder.”Fuck, that feltgood. Better than good. She nipped at him, alternating the intense sting with the silken heat of her tongue. Another sharp nip, a swirl of her tongue, followed up with the deep suction that hollowed her cheeks. He marveled at her soft beauty and fierce will.On his first undercover assignment, Damien had had to sit by and watch a twentysomething kid shoot up with heroin for the first time. He'd hated how overcome the kid became, the look of utter bliss that stole over his features. Lost to the drug, he was instantly and irrevocably in its grip. He now knew what it felt like to lose himself in that way. Because he was hopelessly lost—addicted—to Tabitha Martin.Tension built up in his body like water backed up by a dam. His thighs shook and muscles ached with the need for release. His balls drew up tighter with every deep pull of Tabitha's mouth and sweat beaded his skin. “Tabitha. Tabitha.” Even the cadence of her name on his lips was euphoric. A shudder passed the length of his body. “Take it all.”She moaned around him as she worked her mouth over him in earnest, taking him as far into her mouth as she could before pulling back to the glossy head and back down. The deep suction constricted his shaft, squeezing it tightly in the heat of her mouth. Damien gripped the sheet in his fists, giving shallow rolls of his hips, denying his body's impulse to thrust hard and fast. “Don't stop.” His breath sawed in and out of his chest, every muscle in his body going rigid. “You're going to make me come.”Chapter FifteenThere was power in pleasure, and even though Tabitha had wanted him to dominate her, she'd still controlled the situation in her own way. She'd felt powerless for so long, had tried to control her out-of-control life until it felt like a wasted effort. Tonight, Damien gave her something back that she'd lost and she doubted he'd ever realize what that meant to her.He showed so much restraint, his shallow thrusts not at all what she wanted. She needed more from him, she wanted him mindless. Frenzied. Taking her mouth until he shattered in the way that he'd shattered her. She wanted him to come with her lips wrapped around him. Wanted to taste him.She worked her mouth over him, loving the satin glide of his erection, hard and smooth as polished steel against her tongue. Sucking, licking, using her teeth in the way that drove him crazy. His thighs held her tight as every muscle in his body went rigid. She took him as deeply as she could, sucked hard, and he shouted as the orgasm rocked him. Tabitha reveled in his salty sweet taste as jet after jet coated her tongue. With each jerk of his hips, his body relaxed and soon there was nothing but stillness and the sound of his labored breath.They had both had their pleasure, explored one another's bodies. Tasted and indulged. But Tabitha wasn't even close to feeling sated, and she knew that Damien wasn't either.His hands went to her arms and he urged her up, pulling her body along his as he guided her head to the crook of his shoulder. Fingers played idly with her hair, as though the act calmed him somehow. In the low light of the single lamp they'd left on, Tabitha looked up and studied the angle of his jaw, straight nose, the shadow of his cheekbones, committing each to memory. Quiet minutes passed and she drank him in.“Why do you want to be a nurse?”The question lacked the gruffness she'd grown accustomed to. Soft, curious, and a little sleepy. Tabitha smiled as she tucked her body closer to his. “People are at their weakest when they've experienced a trauma. Emotionally. Physically. Mentally. I want to do whatever I can to fix that. To help them.”“What about the excitement? The adrenaline that comes with an emergency situation?”She found his curiosity endearing, and so honest. “Well, yeah. There's that, too. I'd be lying if I said I didn't like it. I chose trauma partially for that reason. But at the end of the day, I want to know that I made someone's life better. Or at least, know that I tried to.”Damien hugged her tight to him and kissed her forehead. “Is that why you're here now? Because you think that you can fix me?”The question bit into her heart with sharp barbs. “Of course not.” There was a duality to Damien that she didn't understand. She'd known dealers and petty criminals most of her life. Assholes who had about as much respect for a woman as they did the dirt on their boots. Damien wasn't one of those men. She couldn't reconcile the man he claimed to be with the man she knew he was. Did he fight the same battle of reconciliation? “I don't think you need fixing.”“You don't want to know why I'm living out of hotels, dealing on the weekends? You're not even a little curious as to what brought me here or how long I'm planning to stay?”He could be a professional interrogator. Like those dudes who work for the CIA, getting you to spill your secrets before you even realized you'd done it. “If you want me to admit that I'm curious, I am. But your reasons are your own, and what I think or feel about it isn't going to change your mind about working for Joey.”He reached down to her chin and gently tilted her head up. His expression was gentle as his gaze delved straight into her soul. Tabitha's breath hitched as a silent moment passed while his fingers traced her jaw, over her cheekbone, the shell of her ear and her temple. “Can I changeyourmind?” The warm timbre of his voice cut through the silence. “Could I convince you not to work for him?”“I don't work for him.” Tabitha averted her gaze, ashamed.“Then don't help him. Don't do a damned thing for him.”Tears stung at Tabitha's eyes, the need to trust Damien and confide in him overwhelming her. She'd been bearing the weight of this burden for so long there were days that she didn't think she could take another step. “I don't have a choice.” Tabitha forced the words past the lump in her throat. “I have to help him.”“Look at me.”God, she didn't want to. Too afraid of what she'd see in the depth of his golden eyes. His arms came around her and he held her tight, the warmth of his body a soothing balm to Tabitha's now frayed nerves.“I can protect you.” Damien's words brooked no argument or doubt. “Whatever the reason you're mixed up in this, I'll help you out of it.”That was the problem, though, wasn't it? Tabitha didn't need protection. She'd spent most of her life getting Seth out of one scrape or another. It wouldn't be fair to transfer all of that onto Damien. “And who's going to protect you when Joey finds out you threw a monkey wrench into his operation?”“You let me worry about that.” So confident. It probably never occurred to Damien that he could ever lose.Joey was scrawny, weak in comparison to Damien's sheer size and strength, but looks could be deceiving. What he lacked in physical power, he made up for in intelligence. “I practically raised my brother, even though we're only a couple of years apart.” She couldn't bring herself to tell him outright that she'd made a deal with Joey to save Seth from prison time, but maybe she could steer the conversation in a direction that would keep him from pressing her on the issue.“My dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict. My mom popped pills like they were going out of style. They were absentee parents for most of our lives. Partying, hustling, working the system, doing whatever they could for a couple of bucks and then spending it on booze or drugs rather than feeding their kids. Seth and I fell through the cracks. Someone needed to be an adult, and so I stepped up. Every decision I make affects him because I've chosen to take care of him. Even my worst choices aren't made recklessly. Can you understand?”Damien rolled them so that Tabitha was on her back; he was propped up on his side next to her. He stared down into her face, deep creases digging into his brow just above the bridge of his nose. Light as a gentle breeze, he stroked her bare skin, the rough pads of his fingers tracing a path down her throat, over her shoulder and down her arm. A shudder rippled over her skin as he skimmed her hip, worked his way up her ribs and around the outer swell of her breast.“I understand that you're loyal.” His fingers curled around the back of her neck, his grip possessive as his thumb brushed her jaw. “Fearless.” His head dipped to her collarbone, where he kissed her. “Obviously stubborn.” Tabitha's back came off the bed as his hand abandoned her throat and the flat of his palm passed down between her breasts, past her belly button. His fingers slid lower and she opened her legs to him, gasping as he teased her sex with featherlight strokes. “And that you love fiercely.” One finger, and then another breached her opening and she moaned at the deep, delicious invasion. “But you're not alone. I need you to know that.”Her breath came in sharp pants as he pleasured her, as though he could buy her trust and loyalty with the ministrations of his skillful digits. For the record, it was sort of working. When he touched her this way, made her feel so good that it rivaled her best dreams, she wanted to tell him anything—everything—as long as he never stopped touching her.“But Idon'tknow that.” Emotion choked the air from her lungs, the pain she felt a harsh contrast to the pleasure he gave her. “I don't know anything about you.”“Close your eyes.” Tabitha's brow furrowed at his request. Damien didn't relent as his thumb circled her clit, slowly, gently, drawing a whimpering sigh from her chest. “Close them.”Under his spell and unable to deny him, she did as he asked. In the dark recesses of her mind, there was only this moment. The sensation of his fingers sliding across her slick flesh, the low rumble of his voice, and his breath hot in her ear.Damien had become her entire universe.  He could lie here all night, and just watch her. With his mouth close to her ear, he held her close to him, one arm cradling her body, while the other slid through the soft, pink flesh of her gorgeous pussy. He'd never broken his cover before. Ever. He'd witnessed deplorable things, engaged in acts that tore at his conscience. Hell, he'd all but pistol-whipped those idiots who'd tried to hijack Joey's shipment the other night, an offense that would land any cop on administrative leave for a good, long while. And yet, Damien was given carte blanche. That sort of power and hubris would go to anyone's head.And Damien wasn't above enjoying it.No, he'd never broken character, never let that façade slip. But he wanted to break through the wall. Throw all of his hard work away. Now. For her.“I enlisted right out of high school. Marines. Two tours in Afghanistan and two years in special forces.” He continued to pet her, slowly. He didn't want her to climax, only to feel enough physical pleasure to distract her mind from thinking too much about what he was saying to her. She let out a sigh that met his ears in a caress, and he continued, low. “I don't have any brothers. No sisters to look after. I never knew my dad, and my mom died when I was twenty-one. Stomach cancer. I didn't even get to say good-bye to her. She died while I was in that godforsaken desert, and that's something I'll never be able to forgive myself for—not being there when she needed me.”Tabitha's eyes fluttered as though she fought to keep them closed. “Don't look at me. Keep your eyes shut.”He let a space of silence settle between them as he thrust his finger inside her tight channel, rocking his palm against her sex and coaxing tight, tiny whimpers from her throat. “I don't have a real home, I never stay anywhere for very long. I do what I have to do to get by and I won't apologize or make excuses for it.” He was being as honest as he dared, giving her as much of a complete picture of who he was as he possibly could. She arched into his touch, her full lips parted, and he couldn't help but lean down to kiss her.“Damien . . .”His name left her lips on an exhale and he kissed her once again, reveling in the sweetness of her mouth. “I don't know if I'm a good man, but I do know that I'm not the sum of my mistakes and bad decisions.” He caressed the outer edge of her labia, circled her clit with the pad of his finger before plunging back into her tight heat. “Let me be a better man for you. Let me in, Tabitha.”She cried out as her inner walls clenched around his fingers, gripping and releasing with each powerful wave of her orgasm. Her nails bit into his bicep as she rode it out, and Damien stared down at her, enraptured by the expression of bliss that crested over her features.He put his mouth against her ear and murmured, “You're so beautiful.” He couldn't say it enough to convey how truly lovely he found her. He'd done what he could to build some sort of trust between them, but now his words were nothing more than the flowery sentiments that guys whispered when they were hopelessly in love or some shit. “So soft and wet. I don't want you anywhere but in my bed. All day. Every day. Believe me when I say that I'll fuckingkillany man who tries to hurt you or anyone you care about. I'm going to protect you whether you want me to or not.”He pulled away to gauge her reaction, and Tabitha's lids fluttered open to reveal the glistening blue of her eyes. A single tear trickled down her temple and Damien swiped it away with his thumb. Her hand found the back of his neck and she pulled him down for a kiss. Damien pulled her tight against him, crushing her soft, supple breasts into his chest as he slanted his mouth across hers. She returned his ardor with a fierceness that stalled his heart in his goddamned chest, stole his breath, and set him adrift in the haze of pleasure and need that he'd likened to the rush of heroin in his veins.She kissed him until her body became limp in his arms. A precious, pliable thing that he cradled with care. Her breath left her and entered him on a sigh, as though his own lungs refused to function if she wasn't there to give him air.“I don't want to go home tonight.” Her voice was small, unsure, and it tore his composure to shreds.“You don't have to,” he said against her lips. “Stay. I told you, I don't want you anywhere but in my bed.”Tabitha nestled against him, and for the first time since he'd met her, Damien considered how fragile she truly was. And before this was all over, he vowed that Joey Cavello and anyone else who'd hurt her was going to pay for whatever it was they'd done to make her this way.  As light filtered in through a gap in the heavy blackout drapes, Damien woke to find his body cold and his arms empty. He shot up out of bed like the damned thing was on fire and checked the bathroom, and then the sitting area off the bedroom.Tabitha was gone.Panic gathered in Damien's chest, building in force like a tornado. He hadn't felt this sort of blind, senseless anxiety in a long damned time. Not since he'd trudged through the rocky desert mountains, his boots so heavy he didn't think he could walk another step. Shallow breaths were all he could manage as he reached for the door handle, only barely aware that he was naked and about to chase down the hall in pursuit of something that had already slipped through his grasp.
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