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Authors: Mandy Baxter

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BOOK: Locked and Loaded
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“Yeah, well, not for long.” Charlie settled back into her seat and folded her arms across her chest. She was going to bring that cocky bastard down if it killed her. “When we're through with him, he's going to wish you'd never walked back into his life.”
Mason's jaw squared. “Probably.”
Another space of silence followed. Mason had seemed unaffected by the role he was playing in all of this, but after gaining more insight into his history with Eagan, she couldn't imagine that he'd be able to remain completely detached. The two had been as close as brothers at one point. Could Mason follow through and use Eagan to bring the members of Faction Five to justice? The possibility for failure seemed so much greater now. But Charlie refused to lose.
Mason glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “Tell me more about Faction Five.”
The silence had begun to weigh her down, so Charlie was more than thankful to have something to talk about. “Like I said at the briefing, we don't know very much about them aside from the fact that there are five managing members and they're all well connected.”
“Who's in charge?” Mason asked.
“We don't know.” And man, did that get under Charlie's skin. “They could teach the CIA a thing or two about being secretive. Hell, for all we know, someone from the CIA is running their entire operation. They're sending messages and recruiting members through social media. This isn't anything new, criminals use coded messages sent through social media all the time. But even the U.S. Marshals' best tech guys can't track the origin or IP addresses to a specific location. And the marshals have the best tech guys in the country working for them. We're assuming there's big money behind them, but we can't find any paper trail to track. Eagan was the only connection we could make to Faction Five. It was almost like he was leading us straight to them . . .” Charlie trailed off. “Wait. Do you think that's what he's doing?”
“It's hard to say.” Mason checked his rearview mirror and switched lanes. “Kieran isn't just street smart. He's got a damned near genius IQ. He gets bored easily and he lives to push the boundaries. I can't see him supporting any sort of crime syndicate unless he was directly benefiting. Or running the entire show.”
“Do you think . . . ?”
“No.” Mason squashed her question before she even got the chance to ask it. “He's not like that. He smuggles diamonds out of the DRC because that's what he's good at. He's not interested in conquering the world. Just fleecing it.”
“He does realize that he's supporting terrorists by dealing blood diamonds, right?” Not that she expected him to have a conscience about what he did for a living, but Charlie always wondered how anyone could turn a blind eye to the atrocities associated with the black-market diamond trade.
“That's not how Kieran sees it.” Mason gave a sad shake of his head. “Or at least, it's what he tells himself to justify what he does. It's a different game from when my dad started thirty years ago. But Kieran tried to ignore the antihumanitarian aspect of what he does. He's out to prove a point: that despite the increased rules and regulations, he can still game the system. He can still put one over on the people who want to shut him down.”
Whether Eagan wanted to ignore the harm diamond smuggling did or not, what mattered was that he was currently involved with an up-and-coming syndicate that could cause some real and serious problems. Unchecked criminal activity and corruption needed to be stopped before it ran rampant. The task force's job was to shut Faction Five down before that—or anything worse—happened.
Charlie let out a slow breath. “Well, hopefully we get the chance to see what he's up to.”
The drive passed quickly once they'd started to talk. Charlie was so wrapped up in her thoughts she hadn't paid much attention to where they were headed. Mason pulled up to an older but tasteful town house on the outskirts of the city and cut the engine.
“Let's get inside,” Mason said. “I'll text Carrera and have him meet us somewhere safe. We've got to figure out our next move, and fast. Kieran could call immediately, like he said, or leave us dangling for weeks.”
Charlie hoped it wasn't immediately. She'd gotten in way over her head thanks to her hot temper and reluctance to give Mason any control. It was a mistake she wasn't going to make again.
“Can we get some dinner?” she asked. “I haven't eaten today.”
“Me either.”
Charlie rounded the car and she felt the weight of Mason's stare on her. Not entirely unpleasant, it suffused her with a delicious warmth and caused a riot of butterflies to take flight in her stomach. This morning, she'd been prepared to kick Mason Decker off her task force. Now, she'd be working much closer with him than she'd ever planned. Maybe that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
Chapter Seven
“How about this one?”
Mason slid the diamond across the table to Charlie. She picked it up and examined it under the jeweler's loupe, pulling her bottom lip between her teeth as her brow puckered. Over the course of the past few days, Mason had learned that when Charlie Cahill threw herself into something, she did it 100 percent. Perfectionism at its best.
“The cut is okay . . .” she began. “Not very good, though. I'd give it a three on the AGS scale. Color's light. Not great. And the clarity is . . .” She pulled her lip between her teeth again. She looked up at him. “Included?”
Mason smiled and nodded. “That's right.”
“The clarity's included,” she said with more confidence this time. “I'd score it an eight. All in all, this isn't a very valuable stone. It's maybe worth five or six hundred dollars, tops.”
Mason beamed. “I agree. It's not worth much.” He'd been drilling the American Gem Society's diamond grading standards into her brain for the past couple of days. His dad had taught him everything there was to know about scoring gems when he was just a kid. Now, he got to impart that knowledge to Charlie. If she was going to convince Kieran—and anyone he sold to—that she was a professional, her con game was going to have to be tight. She'd have to know at least as much as Mason did about scoring gems.
“Okay, how about his one?” He slid another diamond over to Charlie.
She gave this diamond the same close, quiet consideration as she did the last. Mason examined Charlie with the same intensity. She fascinated him.
True, after the debacle at the prison, he'd been ready to throttle her. The last thing he'd wanted was to be saddled with someone so green. But over the course of a few short days, Mason realized something about Charlie. She took what she did very seriously. Dedication didn't even begin to describe her work ethic.
“Oooh, this is a
good
one.” He smiled at her excited tone. “Excellent cut. At least a one. No color. Probably a . . .” Her mouth drew into a pucker and Mason's gut clenched. That expression was distracting as hell. “Hmm. Probably a one.”
“I'd give it a point five, actually.”
She looked up from the loupe and her full lips quirked in a half smile. “I didn't want to be too generous.”
Mason chuckled. “What about the clarity?”
She brought the magnifying glass back up to her eye. “I'd say very slightly included. Almost flawless. VS-one?” Her tone was unsure.
“Don't ask me.” Mason's gaze met hers. “You're the expert, remember?”
Her chin bucked up a notch. Mason had never realized how attractive assertiveness could be. “It's a one.”
She waited for confirmation, but her confident expression didn't falter. Mason doubted anyone face-to-face with her in a trial could stand strong under that unwavering gaze. She didn't give anything away. It made Mason want to crawl inside her head and hear every single one of her thoughts. “It's a one.” She was spot-on with this stone. “What's it worth?”
Charlie examined the diamond one more time. “Between fifteen and twenty thousand. I probably wouldn't pay more than eighteen.”
Her intelligence and confidence might be the most attractive things about her. And that was saying a lot considering her luscious curves, full mouth, and thick, lustrous hair.
Whoa
. Mason gave himself a mental shake. This was work. He shouldn't be thinking of Charlie in any way other than two professionals collaborating. She looked at him expectantly. Damn. It was tough to think of anything when she focused her undivided attention on him like that. Remembering to take a breath was a feat.
“Eighteen and a half,” he said. “No more than that, though.”
Charlie smiled. “Highballing?”
“A little.” Charlie passed the diamond back to Mason and he put it in the case along with the others that were on loan from a local jeweler. “Here's the thing,” he said. “Buyers—no matter if they're on the right or wrong side of the law—are going to lowball you. The legitimate jewelers are actually worse.”
Charlie leaned across the table toward him, her arms folded on the surface. Her undivided attention quickened his blood. A rush of exhilaration he usually only felt when he took down the bad guys. Dangerous. Unsettling. Exciting.
Goddamn
.
“That doesn't surprise me. They want to make a good profit. But you can't lowball an expert.”
Mason's smile faded. “Or bullshit a bullshitter.”
Charlie's head tilted as she studied him. “Kieran.”
The past few days had been dedicated to educating Charlie on how to properly grade and scale a diamond. They hadn't talked about the black-market diamond trade. Mason had been avoiding the subject. Anything to separate his life now from the one he'd been brought up in. He couldn't put it off forever, though. “Exactly.”
“How do you suggest I deal with him?”
From the way he'd behaved at the prison a few days ago, Mason figured it wouldn't take more than a few flirty smiles from Charlie to distract Kieran. His jaw clenched and he forced it to unhinge. Kieran's professional interest in Charlie was bad enough. His personal interest in her had set Mason on edge. “He'll expect you to be confident. A little cocky, even. You act for even a second like you're unsure and he'll know something's up.”
“Fair enough.”
Charlie's expression became more contemplative. Mason found himself wishing she'd pull her bottom lip between her teeth again. His own hands, splayed out on his dining room table, twitched with the urge to reach out and touch her. Mason shot up out of his chair and the legs scraped against the tile as it pushed out behind him. He raked his fingers through his hair and flicked the strands forward.
“Hey.” Charlie's inscrutable stare burned through him. “Are you okay?”
No
. Not even close. “Yeah. I'm fine. Just need to stretch my legs.” Every hour spent with Charlie, every conversation they had, only managed to intrigue him more. It could be months—hell, a year—before they got anything out of Kieran. How could he possibly spend every day with Charlie and keep her at arm's length? He'd barely known her a week and already he found her damned near irresistible.
“Look. Kieran is . . .”
Charismatic, confident, good-looking, dangerous to the wrong people and a godsend to the right ones, funny, charming . . .
Hell, did he want to warn Charlie off or was he trying to set the two of them up? Mason blew out a breath. “Not what anyone ever expects. You're going to like him, Charlie. Everyone likes him. I just want you to be aware of it so it doesn't surprise you when it happens.”
Charlie watched him for a quiet moment. The attention sent a lick of heat up Mason's spine and he took a few steps deeper into the kitchen to put a little distance between them. Silence stretched between them before she let out a soft snort. “Everyone might like him, but I'm not like
everyone
.”
Wasn't that the truth? Charlie was one of a kind.
“You'll like him.” Mason forced his expression to remain passive, but what he really felt was grim as fuck. She'd like Kieran, and Mason knew it would be hard
not
to let it get under his skin. “And it's okay.” It would get to Charlie too. It would pluck at her conscience and sense of justice. He didn't want that to get under
her
skin.
Charlie's lips pursed and her voice went low. “You think I'm going to blur the lines? You don't think I can do my job?” With every sentence her tone escalated. “You think I'm going to forget who he is and how he makes his money?”
“That's not it, Charlie.” Mason needed to backpedal before they got into a fight. “This isn't about your integrity. I'm just trying to prepare you. Knowing your shit is only going to be half of it.”
Charlie pushed her chair out and stood. Mason's gut tightened. He stayed in the kitchen, rooted to the tile as she walked toward him. Closer. Closer. Too damned close. Her floral honeysuckle scent wafted over him and Mason felt the need to swallow more than usual. He kept his hands at his sides, balled into fists. His gaze met hers and he stilled.
“I can hold my own, Mason.” Her husky voice was like a caress and it brought chills to the surface of Mason's skin. “Kieran isn't going to dazzle me.”
Her confidence couldn't be denied, but Mason knew better. “You can totally hold your own. I'm not worried.”
“Okay, good.”
Her self-assured smile damned near blinded him. With every passing day spent with her, he found himself more dazzled. Maybe it wasn't Charlie that Mason needed to worry about.
* * *
Charlie's stomach churned with nervous anticipation. She'd spent the past several days with Mason and she looked forward to each new one more than the last. Her first impression of him couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, no matter what CBP and the USMS had said about his problem with authority, she found him to be intelligent, professional, well-versed, and cultured. He knew more about the black-market diamond trade than anyone Charlie had consulted with when the task force initially formed.
Hell, he was a one-man task force himself.
For the past two days she'd done nothing but think about the day they had stood toe to toe in his kitchen. More like obsessed over it. He'd warned her she'd grow to like Kieran. But instead of worrying over Mason's admonition, all she thought about was him. His tall, muscular frame. Hard expression. Entrancing light green eyes, fringed by dark lashes. The line of his mouth, grim and yet so kissable that Charlie'd had to force herself not to lean in any closer to him than they'd already been. Close enough to touch.
And oh, man, how she'd wanted to touch . . .
Jeez, Charlie. Snap out of it!
A knock came at her hotel room door and she started. A riot of butterflies took flight in her stomach and lodged in her chest on their ascent. This was
work
, and her body had turned traitor, hormones raging out of control like she was a teenage girl about to go on a hot date. Electricity sparked between them whenever Mason was near. It was the sort of chemistry that went way beyond professional camaraderie. The sudden rush of adrenaline through her bloodstream sent Charlie's heart to racing. Her limbs trembled as she hustled to the door of her suite to let him in. A few deep breaths did little to calm her.
Great
. All she needed was for him to see her nervous and unraveled.
The Marshals Service had agreed it would be best to put Charlie up in a hotel rather than have her stay at her own place. Mason said he didn't mind Kieran snooping around where he lived—he was playing the double agent after all—but there was no way Kieran would believe that Charlie had decided to play both sides against the middle as well. She'd been set up with a suite at the Fairmont, along with a fake ID to match the name Mason had given her, and a fake credit report that listed her previous employer as Tiffany's as she'd claimed. So far, so good. Of course, they'd yet to pass Kieran's little test for them.
Don't stare at him. Don't stare at him.
Don't
stare at him!
“Hi!” Charlie greeted a little too cheerfully as she swung the door wide.
“Hey.” Mason gave her a look as he strode into the room.
Charlie swallowed down a groan and closed the door behind him. “So, what's on the agenda for today?”
Mason's lips hinted at a smile and that sheepish expression nearly buckled Charlie's knees. “I thought we'd grab some lunch. Have you eaten?”
“Lunch?” For days Mason had been drilling information into Charlie's head. Lunch, dinner, not even a snack had worked into the equation until today.
Mason chuckled. “Yeah, you know, food. I'm hungry and I'm sure you're tired of being cooped up.”
That was the truth. Since the day they'd left the prison Charlie had been two places: her suite at the Fairmont, and Mason's place. She was practically climbing the walls. “Lunch sounds great.”
“Good.” His eyes sparkled in the midday light and Charlie stood, transfixed. Mason turned and headed for the door and she barely noticed until he cleared his throat. “Ready?”
Charlie snapped herself out of her stupor and grabbed her purse from the desk. “Yep. Let's go.”
* * *
“In and Out Burger, huh?” Charlie took a long sip from her straw. They sat in the parking lot and ate in Mason's car. She put her cup in the holder near the gear shifter and reached for her fries on the dash.
“You're probably used to fancy corporate lunches, right?”
Charlie laughed. “Hardly. I live on takeout. Working as a public servant doesn't exactly net me a lot of five-star cuisine.”
“I grew up on five-star cuisine,” Mason remarked.
Charlie turned to look at him. “Really?”
Mason's lips pursed. He took a monster bite of his burger and chewed in silence before washing it down with some Coke. “Jensen had champagne tastes.”
It was true that Jensen Decker fit the gentleman-thief persona to a tee. Mason came across as such an everyman. Working class. Unpretentious. Not a frivolous bone in his body. “So not a lot of Happy Meals when you were a kid?”
Mason snorted. “No.”
“Do you think Kieran will let us in?” Charlie knew that getting too personal with Mason was dangerous ground to tread. The more she learned about him, the more she grew to like him on more than a professional level. She needed to keep the conversation steered toward work. Work, work, work.
Holy crap
. Even sitting in his car, wolfing down a burger, the man exuded sex. She needed to keep it together before she started to drool.
BOOK: Locked and Loaded
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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