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Authors: Mandy Baxter

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BOOK: Locked and Loaded
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“You mean, do I think Kieran will trust us enough to give us intel on Faction Five?”
“Yeah.”
Mason set his cup back in the holder as though trying to buy a little time before he had to respond. “I think he wants to trust me.” Charlie wondered at his tentative tone. “But we've always stood on opposite sides of the road. Trust isn't something easily given in our—
his
—world. But I'll get it.”
Our
. Charlie hadn't missed the correction. Her own doubt that Mason was too close to Kieran to successfully do the job crept up on her and she forced the worry away. If she could handle this, so could he. She needed him to get close to Kieran Eagan. He was the only connection she had to Faction Five.

We'll
get it.” They were a team after all. Mason needed to acknowledge that.
His eyes met hers. “We'll get it.”
“Teamwork.”
Mason gave her a wan smile and shifted in his seat. She knew that he preferred to work alone, but they were in this together now. He took another bite of his burger and Charlie did the same, letting lunch take precedence over conversation. She didn't mind the silence. It wasn't uncomfortable or awkward.
“You're doing really well, you know.” Mason's deep voice coaxed a bloom of warmth in the pit of Charlie's stomach. “With the diamonds.”
Charlie's competitiveness bordered on obsessive sometimes. Probably what made her such a good trial lawyer. Her need to win—to impress—drove her ambition. And lately, she'd found herself wanting to impress Mason. For some reason, his approval and his admiration mattered.
Charlie reached for her cup at the exact moment Mason reached for his. Their hands touched, fingers gliding against each other. The heat from his skin was like a brand. Charlie's breath caught in her chest and she froze. His touch lingered for a beat too long, the pads of his fingers sliding against the tops of hers as he pulled away. An exhilarating rush started low in Charlie's stomach and traveled outward through her limbs. Every inch of her tingled. Mason pulled away and still Charlie didn't move. Her lids drooped. God, she wanted him to touch her again. Craved the contact.
Mason cleared his throat. “Close quarters.” His tone grated. Gruff. “Sorry.”
Charlie's chest hollowed out. She didn't want his apology. Their fingers touched. It wasn't like he'd rubbed his bare ass against hers. Still . . . there had been something decidedly illicit about that contact. Taboo and exciting. And at the same time, intimate. She sucked in a breath and held it for a moment before letting it out.
“It's okay.” Her own voice sounded hollow. Small. Annoyance replaced the electric energy that coursed through her. Annoyance at her own reaction, that something so innocent could affect her so intensely. The fact that she wanted to touch him again. Silence stretched between them once again but it no longer comforted Charlie. Damn it. “So. . . . What's on the schedule for after lunch?” The moment was ruined. They might as well get back to business.
“More diamond grading.”
Mason kept his gaze straight ahead. Tension tightened the definition of his muscles. Charlie wondered at the sudden change. Had it really been so awkward—so awful—to touch her?
Awesome
.
“Sounds good. I mean, we need to be prepared. Kieran could get in touch with you at any time and I want to be ready.”
“Me too.” Mason stuffed the wrapper from his burger and the empty fry container into the paper bag. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life. “Ready?”
Charlie stuffed the rest of her burger and fries into the bag as well. Her appetite was officially gone. “Sure. Back to work.”
Work. This was a job and
nothing more
. The more she reminded herself of that, the better.
Chapter Eight
Ever since their awkward moment in the car a few days ago, Mason had tried to keep his interactions with Charlie as professional as possible. Mostly because since that day, she'd treated him with nothing more than polite professionalism. Total boost to the old ego. But with each passing day—hell, each passing minute—Mason found himself thinking of Charlie more and more. And wishing things had gone differently the other day during lunch. How had he wanted it to play out, though? When his fingers had brushed hers, it was all he could do to keep from taking her hand in his. That would have been stupid, though. They had a work relationship. Period. It could never be anything more than that.
He couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to have something real with Charlie though.
He put his fist to Charlie's hotel room door and called through the door, “Kieran called. We're on.” The door opened a crack. Mason stood out in the hallway waiting for Charlie to open the door the rest of the way. “Are you going to let me in or are you going to make me stand out in the hallway and talk to you through the little crack in the door?”
Charlie's full lips gathered into a pucker and Mason suppressed a groan. For a solid week he'd had to endure that adorable—and sexy—expression as he gave Charlie a crash course on how to be a proper black-market diamond broker. Most of the time he couldn't decide if he was turned on or exasperated by her feisty attitude. Probably a little bit of both.
Sick.
And not exactly behavior befitting a professional. Then again, Mason was technically only temporarily employed by the USMS for this operation. Maybe his professionalism didn't matter a whole hell of a lot.
“Sorry,” Charlie said after a moment. She opened the door wider, though still barely wide enough for Mason to fit through. “Come in.”
Aside from being bossy and opinionated, Charlie Cahill was a freaking
slob
. The hotel room looked as though someone had partied pretty damn hard over the past week. Clothes strewn everywhere, room service trays on the bed and table, decorative pillows littering the floor of the tiny living room area of the suite . . . It entertained the shit out of him to see someone who was so obsessively organized in her professional life, living so disorganized in her personal one.
The door closed behind him and Mason took a seat on the small couch. Charlie looked as though she were about to crawl out of her skin. Her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail that didn't quite hold all of the strands of her wavy strawberry-blond hair and she was dressed in workout pants and a loose tee that showcased the luscious round curves of her body. Mason forced his gaze from the ample swell of her breasts and cleared his throat. This was business, not pleasure. He just hoped Kieran would go into this with a similar attitude, or Charlie would prove to be more of a distraction than he'd first thought she would be.
Damn
.
She paced from one end of the room to the other. Back and forth, back and forth. She let out an exasperated gust of breath and Mason smiled. He sort of loved to push her buttons. It was so damned easy to do.
“Well?” Her eyes grew wide. “Are you going to tell me what's going on or what?”
“He wants us to fence something,” Mason said with a sigh. “Thirty carats of cut and polished stones.”
“That's easy enough.” Charlie's tone lacked confidence. “Right? I mean, we can pretend to fence the stones to an undercover agent. We'll use our own money and people, and as far as Kieran knows, we conducted a successful business transaction.”
In a perfect world, that's exactly how it would go down. Mason knew that Kieran would make sure it wasn't so easy. “Not quite. Kieran is choosing the fence. I'm assuming it'll be someone who's a tough sell. And he's not providing us with any authenticating certificates, which means he either wants us to forge them ourselves, or try to sell the diamonds without them.”
Charlie blew out a frustrated breath. “We can get certificates,” she said. “But if he wants to make it a challenge, I'm betting he's going to want us to unload the diamonds as-is.”
“That's my guess,” Mason said. “I'm sure we'll find out more when we meet him this afternoon.”
“This afternoon?” The barest hint of panic infused Charlie's tone. Mason needed her calm and focused if they were going to pull this off. “So soon?”
“It's not like he's going to give us time to prepare,” Mason said. “This is a test, Charlie.”
“I know that. It's just . . . shit.” She resumed her anxious pacing. “I don't know if I'm ready for this.”
“It doesn't matter if you are or aren't,” Mason replied. “You don't have a choice.”
“I don't want to do this.” Charlie's continued pacing was beginning to make Mason dizzy. “I want out. Tell him I changed my mind. That I'm worried about getting arrested. That I decided to take a job at a grocery store or something. I don't care. Just get me out of this.”
Apparently, Charlotte Cahill didn't respond well to living in captivity. What happened to the cool and collected woman he'd squared off against in the conference room a few weeks ago? “You should have thought about what might happen before you walked into that visitors' room like you were untouchable.”
“Me?” Charlie stopped midstep and rounded on Mason. “You were the one who changed plans without telling a single goddamned soul. If anyone acts like they're untouchable, it's you. I wouldn't have been there at all if I hadn't had to march down there to fire you.”
Their entire week had been spent cramming. Tension had vibrated between them the entire seven days, and not the unpleasant kind. Mason was attracted to Charlie. To her mind, her wit. And her body, which made him want to drop to his knees and say a prayer of gratitude. But apparently that heated attraction cooled with the realization that shit was about to get real. And the stress wasn't going to let up anytime soon. In fact, it was only bound to get worse. Charlie had swung back to full antagonist mode. Maybe arguing was an attorney's wheelhouse?
“I'm not going over this with you again.” Mason had more important things to worry about than winning a fight with Charlie. “What's done is done and there isn't a damn thing that's going to change it. You're
in this
, Charlie. Period. There's no backing out. No quitting. Unless you want to kiss your precious little task force and Faction Five good-bye, you've got to do this whether you want to or not.”
Charlie turned away. She took a deep breath and exhaled. The second breath came smoother and by the third, she'd calmed. Mason waited until she turned to face him once again. Her expression was easy, the crease gone from her brow. Her blue eyes locked with his, as cold as a winter stream.
“I'm not quitting.” Her tone rang with conviction. “I'm ready. What do I need to do?”
“First of all, you're not doing this alone.
We're
doing this. We're meeting Kieran at Quince in two hours. Let's get through that first. One obstacle at a time. You can't overthink any of this. It's just another day at the office, okay? Pretend like you're going to any other meeting and you're the badass bitch in charge.”
Charlie's full mouth quirked in a grin. Heat pooled low in Mason's gut as he took in the sight of her—disheveled, determined, fierce, and goddamned beautiful. She didn't even know it. Had no idea the effect she had on him—on anyone. He'd seen Kieran's gaze spark with interest at the prison. And why wouldn't he be interested? Especially if he thought there was any sort of relationship between Mason and Charlie. Kieran always had to win. Damn it. Mason was going to have his hands full with Charlie at his side.
“You think I'm a badass bitch?” Charlie's grin widened. Her sultry tone reached out to stroke down Mason's spine in a pleasant shiver.
Charlie's joy was contagious. His own smile threatened. “I think you can hold your own.”
Doubt crept into her gaze. “What if I can't?”
“Remember rule number one of the con game: Fake it till you make it. There's no room for doubt, Charlie. You've got to own everything you say. Everything you do.”
She nodded. “Got it.”
Mason settled back on the couch. “Good. Now, go get ready. We're wasting time.”
* * *
Charlie started out the week berating herself for getting into this mess. Wishing she'd kept her cool and hadn't let Mason's inability to follow the rules get under her skin. Regretting that she hadn't gone to Carrera, to anyone else on the task force, to let them know that Mason had headed to the prison. Anything that would have kept her out of the situation she currently found herself in. But each day spent with Mason, she'd begun to forget about her monumental mistake. Instead, she'd fixated on his gorgeous eyes, the deep timbre of his voice, the ripple of pleasure she felt every time he smiled at her. She found herself wanting to impress him. To show him she was a woman who didn't back down from a challenge. By the end of the week she'd felt more than prepared for anything Kieran Eagan threw her way. But Mason's announcement that they were finally moving forward knocked the air from her lungs. Time to sink or swim. There was no going back. All she could do now was focus and try not to let Mason and the rest of the task force down.
She took one last appraising look in the mirror. Mason had said that people in the diamond smuggling business lived for the thrill and easy money. Charlie didn't exactly live on a champagne budget, but she'd hung out with enough of her parents' wealthy friends to know how to fake it. Luckily, she didn't skimp when it came to her clothes and makeup budget. She might not be living in the lap of luxury, but she could sure as hell make herself look like she did.
Charlie drew a deep, cleansing breath. The past week had put her through the wringer and not only because of the very precarious position she'd put herself in. With every day that passed, Mason became more of a distraction. He infuriated her more than any man—any person—she'd ever met, and even so, she found herself wondering what it would feel like to kiss him, every time her gaze wandered to his full, delicious mouth.
Whoa, girl. Dial it down a notch
.
Even now, with her nerves raw and her stomach nothing more than an ocean of churning acid, she couldn't quit thinking about how amazing he looked in his crisp slacks and dress shirt that hugged every tight bulge of his body. The combination of his rough exterior and the elegant clothes was almost too much to handle. Did he even realize how freaking hot he was? Seriously, Charlie had to work not to pant every time he walked through the door.
And now she was stuck with him for God only knew how long. Partners. She was pretty sure she'd spontaneously combust long before they were able to identify any of the members of Faction Five.
At least she'd die with a smile on her face . . .
Charlie emerged from the bathroom ready to roll. Well, as ready as anyone could be in her situation. Walking the walk was one thing. Talking the talk . . . ? With her nerves as raw as they were, she'd be lucky not to sound like a blabbering idiot the second she opened her mouth. She didn't think she'd been this nervous when she'd tried her first case.
“Do I look like a badass bitch black-market diamond broker?”
Mason looked up and his jaw hung slack for the barest moment before he snapped it shut. A rush of warmth raced through Charlie's veins and pooled in her muscles. His eyes were hypnotic, so beautiful that they took her breath away. And when his gaze focused on her, it was all Charlie could do not to tackle him right in the middle of her hotel room.
Focus, Charlie
. There was no room for misplaced lust when trying to convince a wily diamond smuggler you were on his side. Besides, she couldn't imagine a scenario in this universe or any other where a man like Mason Decker would actually want her. Their relationship was antagonistic at best, and she didn't see it getting any smoother.
“You look like you mean business.”
Charlie wondered at Mason's tight tone. “But not like a lawyer, right?”
He snorted. “Not like any I've ever seen in court.”
Was that a compliment? Mason was too tough to read. Charlie smoothed a hand over the precise finger waves she'd made in her hair. Her gaze wandered from the deep plunge of her crisp lavender dress shirt that showed more than enough cleavage, to the short black pencil skirt and black stilettos. “I didn't think I should wear a suit, but I figured Eagan would expect me to look like someone who brokered multimillion-dollar sales.”
Mason's gaze further darkened. What in the hell had she done to upset him now? At times Charlie felt as though nothing she did would make him happy. How were they supposed to work together if all he felt for her was disdain?
“You look perfect.” With his grumbled response, he pushed himself from the couch and headed for the door. “Kieran isn't going to know what hit him. Let's go.”
Again, Charlie wasn't sure if Mason was giving her a compliment or taking a shot at her. The warmth that had settled in her belly flared into an indignant fire. She'd show Mason that she could totally hack the con game. She'd play the part so goddamned well it would make Kieran Eagan's head spin!
She was going to salvage what she'd almost ruined. Charlie refused to lose.
* * *
Seeing Eagan so blatantly confident only made Charlie more determined to play her part and use him to bring Faction Five down. He waited for them at Quince, already seated at the posh table with a glass of red wine in hand. Charlie forced her gritted teeth into a pleasant smile as they approached. Beside her, Mason let out a slow, measured breath.
BOOK: Locked and Loaded
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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