Authors: Nikki Duncan
“This isn’t about me.” He studied her. Moved closer. His gaze intense. Unshakeable. “This is about your reasons for being here.”
“I told you. I’m here for a job.” Beneath the strength of his stare, her chest and lungs constricted.
Her life had often depended on her ability to convincingly play a role. He made her want to squirm.
Yeah. He was powerful.
“And I told you I have no tolerance for lies.” Dr. H stood and gathered his papers into one pile. “When you decide to lead with honesty, we will revisit the possibility of you being allowed back. If the audit isn’t complete, send someone else.”
She’d followed the plan she and her team had come up with. Granted she’d taken a few liberties based on her impressions she’d gotten of him, but the plan wasn’t working. They’d been counting on her training to read people, but she was being booted from her one way into his life.
That he was willing to let yet another auditor in evidenced how badly he wanted her gone.
She needed something to shift the tidal waves back in her favor. Fast and solid and big. Not too big though, like that she knew his real name. Going too big would reveal all of her cards too soon.
Sifting through the limited information she’d found on him, she grasped for the right ammunition. If he turned her away, like he had Aidan, she would fail. Yesterday’s briefing with her team and Ian Cabrera, the expert listener for the NSA, replayed in her head. Someone was going to infiltrate Dr. H’s study for the purpose of killing him. He needed protection until they could figure out who the infiltrator was and stop them.
Before she could get access to the study participants, she needed to gain the man’s trust. From what they’d learned during their investigation, the first sign of his trust would be an invitation to call him H instead of Dr. H. She wouldn’t succeed with a hard sell.
“Sorry to have wasted your time.” Ava slid her purse on her shoulder and headed for the door. “Clearly Channing was wrong.”
She made it to the door and had her hand on the handle.
“Ms. Sebastian.” He spoke quietly with a trace of remorse underlying his hesitancy.
She looked over her shoulder, but didn’t turn her body to him. “Yes?”
“This Channing you mention.”
“What is his last name?”
“Harris.” She felt bad using her new friend’s dead stepbrother as a tool in a case, but Kami would understand. Especially if it netted them more answers into why he’d been killed.
“And how do you know him?”
“He was a good friend’s stepbrother.” She turned fully and faced his challenge directly. The truth came easily, which felt odd when she considered her adeptness for lies while working. She didn’t miss his cue of present-tense words as he tried to trick her. “Unfortunately, he recently died.”
“Tell me, what could a dead man be wrong about?” Dr. H picked up his papers and closed the distance between them.
He didn’t pretend to not know Channing, though he hadn’t said he did either. An arm’s span separated them. Close enough to touch if she reached out. She didn’t, but as it had when she’d sat on his desk, awareness hummed in the air.
His eyes drew her in so completely she could sit and stare at him for hours. His allure intoxicated her as effectively as shots of Patron Silver. His power could be detrimental if she allowed it to interfere in her case. “Why are you so intent on seeing me as a liar?”
“Because you’re intent on proceeding with more evasions than answers.”
“You’re a suspicious man, Dr. H.” Ava cocked her head and boldly scanned him with her gaze. Bubbles of desire burst in her belly. “That and the way you have insulated yourself within your one-letter name must make life lonely for you.”
“On the contrary. It minimizes life’s complications.”
His inexpressive stare dared her to show her real self. To turn his belief that she was a liar into a reality.
He was doomed to disappointment. “And you see me as such a complication.”
It was little more than a minimalistic lift to one side of his mouth, but with it, his entire façade altered. His ruggedly appealing face brightened. Became approachable.
One quirk of his mouth and he morphed in to the dark-haired man of danger with a soft inner shell women wove into fantasies.
One quirk of his mouth and the temptation awakened to discover his taste and know the feel of his whiskers against her skin.
One quirk of his kissable mouth turned
into a complication.
“I see you, Ms. Sebastian, as a challenge.”
She had him. He wouldn’t allow her to leave this room until he secured the opportunity for more answers. Until he was certain he would have the chance to figure her out.
She turned fully and leaned her back against the wall. Calling on skills of seduction she’d learned from Madame V and her girls, Ava traced a fingernail down the center of his chest and continued until encountering the waistband of his shorts. “Professionally or personally?”
“We will begin in the morning at seven a.m. Wear a suit.”
Satisfaction had her smiling. What they would do in the morning didn’t matter. She’d won their first match. She’d gained access to the private Dr. H who had cut himself off from everything…including his birth name.
He shook his head and reached past her for the door handle. His hand brushed her hip. A lightning-quick bolt of consciousness shot through her and fluttered in her gut with erotic reverberations.
He canted forward, erasing the inches between them. A hand gripped her hip and pushed her against the door. His mouth descended.
Her tongue swiped across her lips and brushed his. With a groan, he drove his tongue into her mouth and devoured.
Buzzing erupted in her scalp. Hesitant desire that couldn’t be ignored and didn’t feel as if it belonged to her alone filled her. The impression overrode thought and senses until her vision blurred. Her body trembled as if her muscles had been overworked.
Tongues brushed, lips pressed, bodies begged. Her panties were damp and she was whimpering when he pulled back.
She’d gone from close to potentially too close.
He wasn’t her lover. He hadn’t given her an orgasm. But he did arouse her.
He shouldn’t have kissed her, but damn if it hadn’t been amazing.
Now, like a fool, he watched from behind the dark-tinted windows in his lobby until Ms. Sebastian got into her car and drove away. She hadn’t looked back with those brilliant eyes shining with intelligence or fidgeted or pulled out her phone to make any calls. She’d remained as relaxed as she’d been in his lab.
He’d screwed up by kissing her, by inviting her back, but he had to know more about her.
“Staring after her isn’t going to make you want her less, H.”
“Who says I want her?” H turned to find his sister, Dana, leaning against the wall with a smug smirk on her pixie-like mouth.
“You. With your body and your thoughts.”
He shrugged and turned back to the window. Dana had been with him through the hell of Eston White. When they’d gained their freedom and he’d wanted to take an entirely new name to make hiding from Eston White easier, she’d asked him not to. She understood his desire to distance himself from their family name, but she wanted to hold tight to it. If he took an alias, she would have to as well in order to stay with him.
The idea of being without his sister wasn’t acceptable. To keep her with him, but to put a layer of distance between them, he instead took the name Dr. H. He wouldn’t be as hidden as he might have preferred, but it hadn’t taken long to realize a delight in taunting Eston White.
They had robbed him of his childhood. They would not rob him of the last of his family.
“You want that woman,” Dana repeated. “Like a love bug in lust.”
He laughed. “I want to know what she’s hiding. She’s the second person to mention Channing to me.”
Dana crossed to him and knelt, resting her hands on his knees. “I’m with you in the trust department. It’s hard.”
Hard was mild given what they’d been through.
“But, H, looking for deception in everyone we meet isn’t what we’re about.”
She pushed up and kissed his cheek, likely softening a coming lecture on freedom meaning nothing without someone to share it with—not that she’d found someone.
Rather than lecture, Dana moved toward the hall. “Check her out, but I think this is one of those times you’re going to have to rely on your intuition.”
Which didn’t help. He couldn’t read Ava, and it bothered him. His intuition insisted he’d already misstepped.
A movement in the trees lining the parking lot outside caught his attention. He lowered a shield he kept mentally erected to protect himself from reading too much from others. Filtering through his emotions, Dana’s, and those that lingered from study applicants, he sensed the area. An instant later a rocket of hatred blasted him with breath-robbing violence.
His shield shuttered back into place. Only one empath could project a violent enough hatred to penetrate walls.
Janus, and by extension of association, General Scott were back. The need for answers multiplied exponentially.
H headed to his office and called Channing’s company, Sirrahmax.
“This is Maxwell Truman.”
“Yeah, Maxwell.” H grabbed the receiver from the cradle to disengage the speaker.
“This is Dr. H. I consulted with Channing on an experiment.”
“I’m sorry. Channing is…” Maxwell’s voice wavered as he trailed off.
“I know. I’m sorry for your loss.” He’d known Channing well enough to know Maxwell was Max, Channing’s life and business partner. Max’s pain rang clearly enough through the line for H to be grateful he couldn’t read people over the phone. “I respected Channing and wish I could’ve made it to the memorial.”
He wasn’t afraid of meeting new people or dealing with society, but he didn’t allow people to get to know him. Attending the memorial of a murdered friend… He avoided funerals because of the emotions. Grief was the worst feeling he’d ever absorbed from another person. Multiply one person’s grief by ten or twenty or fifty and it could easily paralyze him. Or shatter his mind.
A fact he’d had pushed on him shortly before gaining freedom.
“Thank you.” Maxwell sounded a little stronger. “I don’t recall him mentioning you.”
Channing always said Max was the business-minded one who preferred the travel and wheeling-and-dealing to spending time behind the desk or in a lab. Impatience for the mundane was likely the cause, was hopefully the cause, of the darkness leaching into his voice when he spoke again. “I believe you worked off-site.”
“Primarily, yes.” Without Channing’s willingness to respect his need to work out of his lab in his own building, they wouldn’t have collaborated. Their work would have fallen into enemy hands. Eston White’s hands.
“I had a woman come to me today,” H started. “She claimed to hear about me from Channing.” Max remained silent. Waiting. “I wonder if you have heard of her.”
“What’s her name?”
“Ava. Ava Sebastian.”
More silence greeted him. One second turned into five. Five into twenty. “Yes. Ava. I don’t know her well, but she is a friend of Kami’s. Kami is, was, Channing’s stepsister.”
“Thank you.” The woman had secrets, but she’d told the truth about that much. And as far as he knew she could be the threat Agent Burgess had hinted at when he had stopped by a few days earlier. H would keep her close until he knew more about the compelling brunette.
“Dr. H?” Max’s voice stopped him from hanging up.
“Were you working with Channing on the diagnostic contacts?”
Channing had chosen to keep the details of their experiment quiet. The one time H had gone to Channing’s lab he’d recognized a lab tech as Jefferson, a man he’d been in captivity with. Only Jefferson had joined forces with their captors and turned spy.
When he had voiced his suspicions, Channing had become even more resolute that the details be protected. Max seemed to know details. He couldn’t be the only one.
Who had he been talking to? “Yes.”
“Had he successfully…?”
H's heartbeat hastened. He was going to have to choose between the truth or a lie. The lie would fester in his gut, swelling into a softball-sized pustule of self-loathing. The truth could get Max killed.
“Maxwell…” He didn’t know Max, but could picture the man behind a large mahogany desk shaking his downcast head. Asking more questions seemed cruel, but he needed to know.
“Forget I asked. Channing had his reasons for keeping details about his research private. I’m going to trust you to make the right decisions about whatever you know. Just be careful. I doubt either of us is without talking walls.”
Max hung up with neither of them saying anything more. H rubbed his right eye and pulled in a few steadying breaths. His lab was completely secure, but Max’s remark about talking walls nagged. He needed more information.