Authors: Kate Allenton
Ridge peered into the rearview mirror, his spine stiffened as he watched Gracie’s house get smaller the further he drove. Unease rippled down his spine as shame and frustration settled into his bones. He’d regretted the moment he’d pressed his lips to hers, knowing nothing would ever be the same again. She’d been smart to kick him out, smart not to trust him, and smart to realize he had an ulterior motive. He should have been proud of the woman she’d turned out to be, but only frustration ate at his gut.
How was he going to explain this to the
general? If he’d confirmed Gracie’s suspicions she would have just pushed him even further away. He’d screwed up royally tonight and had no clue how to fix what he’d already done. Either way, she was going to hate him if she didn’t already. He’d single-handedly messed up the mission before it even got started. “Crap.”
Ridge pulled into the compound, his mind a jumbled mess.
The general had been right; Gracie Lou Lister was going to be his hardest mission yet. He stomped through the compound. No one questioned where he’d been or the fact he wasn’t talking now. He’d stayed to himself for so long his mood and behavior weren’t unnatural for him. He shoved the key into the lock and pushed through the door to his quarters. Ridge gnawed on his bottom lip. Gracie’s strawberry lip balm was still on his lips as a reminder of his latest screw-up. “Just great.”
He slammed the door behind him and abruptly came to a halt. Standing at his fridge
, with a slice of pizza hanging from his mouth and a beer in one hand, was his brother. Brody lifted his brows and shut the fridge. He pulled the pizza from his mouth. “I was out of beer. Hope you don’t mind.”
Brody held out the beer to Ridge and pulled another out of the fridge. “How did it go with Gracie?”
Ridge flicked the top into the garbage and plopped down in his recliner. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That good, huh?”
confide in many people, but his twin was another story. Within seconds Brody would be able to tell what had happened. The link they shared was even stronger than it had been when they’d been children.
Ridge leaned forward on his elbows and let his head hang low as he dangled the beer bottle from his fingers. He clenched his eyes closed as he debated filling his brother in. The damage was done; it was only a matter of time before he found out. He looked up. “I kissed her.”
Brody spewed the beer he had in his mouth
and swiped at his chin and lips with the back of his hand. “You did what!” Brody’s eyes widened in alarm. “Please tell me you didn’t.”
took a giant swig of his beer. The cold liquid slid down his throat and was a good start to forgetting how good her little kiss had felt. “She pulled a gun on me.”
Brody threw his hea
d back and laughed. His laughter filled the air and grated on Ridge’s nerves. Hell, he knew he’d screwed up, and his twin rubbing it in his face was something he could have done without. “I don’t need this, Brody.”
Brody swiped the tears from his cheeks and cleared his throat
, trying to calm himself. “Sorry, bro. But you have to admit it’s kind of funny.”
Ridge narrowed his eyes at his twin
. There was nothing funny about what had happened. “I screwed up.”
Brody nodded his agreement. “I can’t say I blame you. She’s a beautiful woman
, and if she wasn’t the general’s daughter, I would have made a play for her a long time ago.”
Ridge took another sip of his beer
, realizing he was going to need something stronger to erase the memory. “Not only the general’s kid but seven years younger than us.”
Brody gave a wave of dismissal. “Her age has nothing to do with it
, but the general would have a conniption fit if she got involved with anyone from the unit. Hell, I know I don’t always follow the rules, but damn, bro… She’s one line even I wouldn’t cross.”
Ridge leaned back in the recliner
, closed his eyes, and let out a sigh. “I know.” He opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. “I just need to tell her the truth.”
Brody stood and rounded the coffee ta
ble. “You can’t. If you tell her the truth, she’ll run to daddy or worse. She won’t let you get close enough to babysit and follow through on what you were sent to do in the first place.”
Ridge knew his brother was right. There was no easy way out of the mess he’d started. He
’d justified the kiss as part of the mission, not expecting to enjoy it as much as he’d thought. He’d not been thinking with his brain. He cut his gaze to his brother’s. “How do I fix this?”
The wider Brody grinned
, the more Ridge knew he wasn’t going to like the answer. “Simple, bro.” Brody started pacing again. “Act like I would when I’m chasing a woman. Don’t drop the charade.” He turned to Ridge. “Since she didn’t shoot you, I’m guessing the kiss didn’t suck.” Brody started pacing again. “You keep playing the game. You gain her trust. Keep her close, and when the mission is over, you let her down gently and the General will never have to know.”
Brody’s smile widened. “It’s a win/win situation. You get the job done
, and she breaks up with you. No harm no foul, but I would suggest you keep it to kissing. Don’t even think about sleeping with her.”
Ridge shook his head.
“I don’t know if I can do that.” He pushed from the chair. “I can’t hurt her.”
Brody tossed his bottle in the trash and walked to the door. He pulled it open. “You don’t have another choi
ce unless you want to tell the general what happened and get him even more pissed off.”
Ridge watched his brother walk out of his apartment
, but Brody’s words hung in the air. Would Ridge really be able to come clean about kissing Gracie? He’d made a deliberate attempt to play the man’s daughter. The general would have his ass at a desk if not worse in less than a minute. Ridge shook his head. “Nope, not gonna happen.” This would be his and Brody’s secret, assuming his brother could keep his big trap shut.
Freddie stalked down t
he hall of his new compound now situated in Floyd’s territory. The market had been ripe with old warehouses sitting on acres of property. Adding some minor revamping and added security hadn’t taken long for him to be up and running in the new town. Waiting on the lab equipment to be specially ordered and delivered had taken almost a month but he was now fully operational.
He glanced down at the vi
al in his hand. It was almost fitting he’d been there to overhear them talking about the serum after killing the poor bastard. It gave him ample time to get to it before they raided Floyd’s compound. As luck would have it, he’d gotten a head start and found it before they’d gotten their grubby little hands on it.
Freddie pushed through the double doors of the
lab and stalked over to the youngest scientist on his payroll as he peered into a microscope. “Have you figured out how to duplicate the serum?”
Lowell didn’t even lift his head as he replied. “Not yet. But I’m getting closer.”
Adam on the back. The kid was a genius; it was the whole reason Freddie had recruited him in the first place. “Time is of the essence, my friend. I’ve got big plans for using it, so keep me posted with your progress.”
turned the knob on the microscope. “You’ll be the first to know.”
Freddie spun on his heels. If
Adam didn’t give him answers soon, he’d have to kill him, and it would be a waste to kill such a bright man. Freddie’s time was dwindling before the next meeting with Mr. Black. He didn’t want to have to shoot himself up with the stuff without enough information to make a batch for his army, but he would if it meant taking Black down. Freddie rubbed his hands together and chuckled at the thought. All of the territories would be his, and there wouldn’t be a damn soul able to stop him.
It was almost time to get the rest of his plan in action. Seducing one Gracie Lister into working for him was next on his list. Havi
ng her close almost ensured the Phantoms wouldn’t attack before he was ready. He just had to worry about her snooping around and diverting her attention as to what was really going on at the compound, which wouldn’t be so hard to do.
Gracie woke without a headache, thankfully. Sleep indeed had helped refresh her mind and kill the migraine. She had guests coming today. Her best friends were arriving with the intent of persuading her to leave, and Mike was sending someone as her date.
There was still one minor unpleasant task
weighing heavily on her mind—dealing with her sister. It would have been easy for her to look the other way and let her dad handle things, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. She had a point to prove. She wasn’t a screw-up anymore, and it was high time to show the old man exactly what she was made of. By the time everything was said and done, he was going to see her as a grown woman capable of taking care of herself.
She glanced down at her watch
, and her eyes widened. The morning had escaped her, and she hadn’t even had her coffee yet. She rushed through what was left of the morning, only relaxing and sitting down with her coffee when she was ready for the day. Her home was clean, and the spare rooms were prepared, in the event she couldn’t get her friends to go back home.
rd honking coming from the front of her house and knew without looking that Tara and Cathy had finally arrived. She flung open the door and flew down the stairs. Even knowing she was going to try to convince her friends to leave, she was still excited they’d come all this way to see her. It had been almost a year since the last time they’d gotten together.
threw her arms around Tara and crushed her with a hug, excited to see them and terrified she wouldn’t get them to leave. She leaned out of the embrace, trying to figure out what Tara had changed in her appearance. “Oh my God, your hair is getting so long. It’s beautiful.”
Tara’s smile grew. “What do you expect? I haven’t seen you in forever.”
Gracie threw her arms around Tara’s and Cathy’s shoulders and pulled them toward her house. “I appreciate you worrying enough to come and rescue me, but I’m not a damsel in distress. I don’t need rescuing, and I can’t leave.” She dropped her arms and closed the door. “I just can’t.”
Tara planted her h
and on her hip and glanced at Cathy.
“She’s telling the truth. She isn’t going to leave with us.”
t have to use your gift. I wouldn’t have lied to either of you.”
Cathy threw her arm around Gracie’s shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry.” Cathy steered her toward the kitchen. “We’re just worried about you.
You can’t really blame us, can you?”
made a beeline for the coffee pot. Her friends were normally her rocks and backed her in everything she did. They were the ones who truly understood her and listened to her talk about her father and her sister. They understood her need to prove herself probably better than even she did.
Tara pulled out a chair at the kitchen table.
“So spill. What’s really going on, and how can we help?”
Gracie paced her small kitchen as she described in detail the events of the last few months, not leaving anything out
. She’d explained about how her father’s elite military group known as the Phantom Protectors were using their unique gifts against the bad guys known as territory bosses. Men stationed across the world, with their own unique talents hell bent on using them for evil with only one desire of obtaining more power to eventually rule the world. She went on to explain how she’d come clean on how she knew so much, she went undercover working for the territory boss, known as Floyd. She’d gotten close, but not close enough to finding out the name of the man running the show and pulling the strings. The one man the Phantoms would need to destroy to bring peace back into their lives and destroy the threat against the government.
She hadn’t wanted to come clean about her plans but decided she didn’t have
the choice of keeping it from her best friends, she knew they wouldn’t be leaving until she did…if even then. Tara’s eyes narrowed, and Cathy’s grew big. She didn’t have to guess at what they were thinking; it was evident by their facial expressions.
“I wish you two would have listened to me and just stayed away.” Gracie moved to the coffee pot and poured another mug. “If my dad finds out about your gifts, you’ll be as good as recruited.”
“We couldn’t let you deal with this yourself.” Tara’s eyes twinkled. “What can we do to help?”
Gracie slid in
to the chair across from Tara’s. “You really want to help?”
Gracie didn’t want to tell her friends to go. They were like her extended family, but the best thing they could do for her was to get in the car and leave her to deal with the mess she’d gotten herself into. “I don’t want either of you anywhere around me when this goes down. I don’t want to have to worry you might get caught in the crossfire.”
Cathy reached for Gracie’s hand and squeezed. “You know we can’t
Tara grabbed Gracie’s other hand. “You wouldn’t leave us if the situation
was reversed and one of us was in trouble. We aren’t leaving you, so get over it already.”
A knock sounded on the door
, and Gracie glanced over her shoulder before she pushed from the table.
You expecting company?” Tara asked.
“Yep, my date.”
Tara’s brow shot up. “You’
ve met someone.” She squealed as she clapped her hands. “I knew it.”
chuckled as she left the kitchen and hollered over her shoulder. “It’s not like that.” She pulled the door open and grinned. Standing on her porch was none other than Jacobs, one of Jake Donavan’s partners from Tactical Maneuvers and, even better, the only single one left in the bunch. Yes, he’d work out nicely.
He lifted Gracie’s hand to his mouth and p
ressed a kiss to her knuckles. “Ethan Jacobs.” He grinned as he glanced up at her and winked. “At your service.”
Gracie felt Tara and Cathy move next to her. Tara elbowed her. “A
ren’t you going to introduce us?”
raveled up Gracie’s cheeks. Ethan was a looker all right. He exuded charm and grace and was sexy as hell. Gracie shook her head. “Where are my manners?” She let her hand slip from his. “I’m Gracie, and these are my best friends, Tara and Cathy.” She stepped out of the doorway. “Won’t you please come in?”
nodded as he stepped over the threshold. Tara’s and Cathy’s eyes twinkled while watching Ethan’s backside, and she couldn’t blame either of them. Taking him to the party as eye candy wasn’t going to be a hardship…not at all. His dark brown eyes were piercing, especially when topped off with his long black lashes. Women everywhere would be swooning just at the sight of him. His Armani dress pants were tailored to perfection. His pink button-down shirt instantly told her Ethan had style. His brown hair was styled and brushed in place. This man could have graced the cover of any men’s magazine. Gracie pushed the door closed behind him. “Thank you for coming. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”
. “Not at all. When Elizabeth and Mike asked me to help her baby sister, there was no way I could refuse.”
And there went Gracie’s sails
, deflating like a balloon that had lost its air. He just had to use the words “baby sister.” He’d already placed her in a nice neat category. Gracie wondered what else her sister might have said. Maybe she was impulsive and unreliable or maybe just young and naïve. Calling for help might have been a mistake after all. The more she thought about it, the more she knew they would have filled him in on the type of person they thought her to be, no matter if it was wrong.
glanced around her living room before turning back to her. He stepped closer. “Why the sad face?” He threw his arm around her shoulder. “I’ll be an exceptional date. Just you wait and see.”
Gracie didn’t miss
Cathy’s blush. Gracie needed to do something and quick before Cathy or Tara accidently used their gifts. She turned to her friends. “Are you guys staying with me?”
y nodded, and if Gracie didn’t know better, the drooling would start soon if she didn’t act fast. Gracie turned back to Ethan. “And where are you staying?”
Ethan lifted the keys in his hand. “Elizabeth is letting me stay at her place. When’s the party?”
“Tomorrow night.” Gracie said over her shoulder as she walked away, only returning minutes later with the secret file in her hand. She grabbed Ethan by the elbow and guided him to the door. “Let me walk you out.”
He stopped at the door and turned back to her friends. “Ladies, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
Gracie rolled her eyes and pulled him out the door. She poked her head around the door before she pulled it shut. “I’ll be right back.”
Pulling Ethan across the yard to his sports car, Gracie maneuvered him out of her friends hearing range. Ethan lean
ed his broad muscular frame against his car and arched his brow. “Gracie, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were already trying to get rid of me.”
Gracie tried to hold back her grin as she glanced back at her house. “I was afraid if you stayed in there another minute
, you might get molested.”
Ethan threw his head back and laughed. “And here I was warned about you
. They didn’t tell me about your friends.”
She would have taken offense to his statement if
she hadn’t intentionally built that persona she was so famous for. She couldn’t really be mad about the Bennetts’ assessment of what type of girl she was, and she damn sure couldn’t blame him either. “I’m sure you were.”
Ethan pushed off his car and raised his brow
s. “All right, little lady, do you care to fill me in on what’s going on?”
Gracie pulled out a copy of the list in her file. “I’m sure you’ve already been somewhat filled in.” She handed him the paper. “I went undercover and got a job as a
n assistant with a notorious bad guy. He had gifts similar to the Bennett family and the people who work for my father.” Gracie clutched the file in her hand and let the it rest against her thighs. “To make a long story short, one of the bad guys is dead, but there’s another territory boss in town taking his place. My dad has been after these guys for as long as I can remember, and I’ve got a lead that might take me to the head boss. If I can get close enough again, I can take him out.”
Ethan’s jaw twitched. “Aren’t you a little out of your league? You’re not a cop. Why not just tell your father and let him and his team handle it
Gracie let her head drop before she lifted it
again and held his gaze. “I tried, but he didn’t have time for me. Besides, I’m not sure he’d listen.”
sensed her misgivings. “And why is that?”