Authors: Becky Barker
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General
t had been too easy. Too damn easy, thought Kyle Tremont as he surveyed the elegant ballroom of Gregory Haroldson's estate. The plan to get him into the employ of the wealthy banker had come together without a hitch. It had all gone like a perfectly choreographed dance.
The ease of it only made him edgy and more vigilant.
Some unseen sharpshooter had taken a wild shot at Haroldson, and Kyle had been on hand to shield the other man with his body. Instant gratitude and a generous job offer. Kyle had wondered, several times, why he hadn't shoved Haroldson into the path of the bullet. Dead was a more sure-fire way to punish a man than the prospect of a jail term.
Only five days into the operation, and he wanted out. He'd cursed himself a thousand times over for letting Donald Sullivan coerce him into helping. The daily doses of Haroldson's arrogance were more than he could stomach. The urge to strangle the man with his bare hands grew stronger every time he laid eyes on him.
Undercover work had definitely lost its appeal. The innate hunger for a challenge that had motivated him in his younger days was nonexistent now. He had retired four years ago when the taste for intrigue died along with his partner.
Despite being on Haroldson's payroll, he'd yet to be contacted by the elusive agent with the code name Phantom. His assignment was to help the undercover FBI agent escape Haroldson's heavily guarded compound. Deputy Director Sullivan had lured him out of retirement with a promise that Phantom had gathered enough concrete evidence to make Haroldson pay for his crimes.
Kyle was tired of waiting and at risk of losing his patience altogether.
"She's a first-class babe, ain't
Kyle glanced at his fellow employee. Damon was young, cocky and a little dim-witted, but basically an okay guy. The two of them were usually paired as driver and bodyguard for high-ranking members of Haroldson's little empire.
Tonight, they were enjoying the annual staff appreciation dinner. Haroldson knew how to keep his people happy and loyal by pretending they were important to him. The ballroom's many chandeliers had been dimmed to a soft, intimate glow. Food was abundant, booze flowed freely and a small orchestra played music for dancing.
Damon's admiring gaze was fastened on their hostess for the evening.
"You mean Haroldson's fiancée?"
"She's a real knockout, and damn nice, too. Always doin' something for the staff and their families."
wasn't exactly the word Kyle would use to describe Haroldson's very young, very blond girlfriend. Definitely a May-December relationship. Gossip had it that she'd moved in with him as soon as they'd announced their engagement. Apparently, he adored her and refused her nothing.
"I guess she can afford to be generous."
"Yeah, but I seen plenty of those rich bitches who turn their noses up at guys like us
they'll get dirty if we touch 'em or
'. Samantha, she's not that way."
Kyle had never been introduced to the lady in question. Nor did he want to be. He couldn't summon much interest in a woman who'd sleep with a bastard like Haroldson.
"I don't figure I'll be getting up close and personal with the boss's woman."
The younger man laughed. "That's what you think. She's
' her way toward us now. She and the boss, they have this little routine. When he hires a new employee, she's the one what gets up close and personal. The boss gets a kick out of
' the hired help drool. She'll have you
' after her in a few minutes."
Oh, hell, thought Kyle. Damon usually knew what he was talking about when it came to his boss's habits. He ground his teeth in frustration. The last thing he needed was attention drawn to him, especially for Haroldson's amusement.
Their hostess slowly made her way through the throng of partygoers, stopping to speak to several people as she crossed the room. Everyone wanted a word with the lady of the manor. He watched her graceful, unhurried progress and steeled himself to suffer her attention. It wouldn't do to make his distaste evident. Better to play the dumb but awed hired hand.
"Damn, but she looks hot in that red dress," muttered Damon. "Too bad she never strays for real. I'd be first in line to jump her delicate bones."
Haroldson's fiancée wasn't what he'd call petite—probably five foot seven or eight, with a slender but generously curved figure. As she drew closer, Kyle's gaze drifted down her elegant neck, across the bare, unblemished skin of her shoulders and chest to an enticing view of softly rounded breasts displayed by the strapless dress.
The full-length evening gown managed to look both tasteful and wickedly provocative. A man would have to be dead not to react. Her heavy mane of platinum-blond hair parted in the middle and framed an oval-shaped face in feathery layers. Although not classically beautiful, her features were striking, attractive and enhanced to perfection.
The best money could buy. She had to be an unprincipled gold digger who'd sold her soul to the highest bidder. That alone should leave him cold, but his body wasn't listening to common sense. It was just reacting.
Wide-set, exotically highlighted blue eyes captured his attention and held his gaze as she came to a stop in front of him. He felt the impact of her gaze clear to his toes. Her expensive perfume teased his senses, and set his nerves alive with reaction. The sizzle of attraction hummed through his veins at the sultry challenge in those beautiful eyes.
"T.R.O.U.B.L.E." The lyrics to a country-western song popped into his mind. Haroldson's ladylove packed a sensual wallop that could mean nothing but trouble.
"Mr. Jackson." She greeted him by his alias and offered her hand. "I don't believe we've been introduced." Her voice was low and sexy, barely audible above the noise of the party. "I wanted to personally thank you for saving Gregory's life."
Kyle briefly grasped her hand, but kept his grip limp. She responded with a warm, firm grasp. Her touch made his skin sizzle with awareness.
She smiled, transforming her features to unexpected loveliness. It gave him another jolt. Not just because of the physical difference, but because of the genuine warmth and charm she emanated. No wonder she had the staff ready to jump her bones or jump through hoops for her. Warning himself to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing, he briefly returned the smile.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
"There's no need to call me ma'am. We're all one big family here. My name is Samantha," she said, and then asked, "And your first name is Anthony?"
For this assignment, he was keeping his hair dyed inky black. Thanks to tinted contacts, his blue eyes were temporarily brown. He'd even added a mustache. His naturally dark complexion had always made it easy for him to take on a Mediterranean look.
"Well, Tony, I certainly hope you're enjoying yourself. Did you get enough to eat?"
"Yes, ma'am—I mean Samantha."
She smiled again—a smile meant to reach right into a man and make him relax. Maybe even threaten his control. Kyle felt another unexpected zing of physical awareness, but hardened himself to the response.
"Do you dance, Tony?" she asked.
He glanced toward Damon, who was giving him a cheesy grin and a sly thumbs-up behind her back. Then he looked toward the dance floor. Several couples were shuffling around to a slow tune, but he wasn't eager to join them.
"I'm not much for dancing," he insisted.
Samantha curled her fingers around his forearm, smiled and batted her lashes with the finesse of a siren.
"Please, don't be shy. I promise I won't step on your feet," she teased. "I'd feel honored if you'd share at least one dance with me."
He glanced toward Haroldson. "Sure the boss won't mind?"
Her husky laughter shivered along his nerves. "I promise the boss won't mind. He thinks it's important for a hostess to mingle with her guests."
She gently but firmly led him to a shadowed corner of the dance floor, and then fitted herself snugly against his body. Heat radiated through him at every point of contact. Her hands slid up his chest to settle lightly on his shoulders, and she tilted her head back to study his face.
Kyle returned her steady gaze while his senses feasted on her warmth, the sweetness of her scent and the full, firm breasts pressed against his chest. He slid his hands to her waist and enjoyed the feel of the taut feminine body wrapped in soft, silky fabric. His fingers tightened convulsively.
It felt good to hold her. Really good, yet disturbing. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong woman, his brain insisted while his body vibrated with pleasure. It had been too long since he'd felt such a rush of sexual response to a woman. His deprived hormones were going haywire, but there was no sense fighting the reaction. Might as well enjoy the moment, he thought with a mental shrug.
"Tell me about yourself, Tony," she coaxed, sounding as though she really cared.
He wondered if the attentive attitude was all part of a well-orchestrated game she played with Haroldson. Her lover never made a move without a carefully thought-out plan. Did she support him in his sick games? Would she tempt him with her smile and body, then chuckle about his response in bed tonight?
At the thought, a shaft of anger pierced Kyle, but he swiftly controlled it. Samantha's eyes widened a little, making him wonder if she sensed his tension. Maybe she'd attribute it to sexual frustration.
"There's not much to tell," he finally answered.
"Everybody has something to tell," she urged, subtly shifting closer to him.
He grew even
as she swayed against him, held his gaze with her beautiful, beguiling eyes and pleaded for a response.
"Everybody has likes and dislikes," she said. "Favorite books or TV shows or movies."
When he failed to respond, she continued, undaunted. "I enjoy movies myself, but I'm especially fond of the theater. Have you ever seen the classic
Phantom of the Opera?
Kyle froze. His muscles locked and his mind went blank for an instant. "
Phantom of the Opera.
" The code for recognizing Sullivan's undercover operative. He'd been waiting for someone in the organization to use that phrase. A phrase no other member of Haroldson's family or staff was likely to use.
He stared at the perfect, pouting lips, wondering if he'd misinterpreted the message. The undercover agent's nickname, Phantom, registered in his brain, but he couldn't reconcile the fact that the beautiful, possibly treacherous woman in his arms was one of the FBI's top operatives.
Haroldson's lover? Sullivan had said Phantom was deep in the organization, but this staggered the mind. He couldn't imagine any agent being dedicated enough or reckless enough to sleep with the enemy. Nor could he imagine the deputy director condoning it, however badly he wanted Haroldson brought to justice.
He had to be missing something.
She gently nudged him into motion, and Kyle automatically took the lead again. He stared into her eyes. Were they glittering with satisfaction, or warning? Was her expression taunting him for his unprofessional reaction?
Her husky voice interrupted his thoughts. "Am I boring you, Tony? You seem to have gone into a trance."
He didn't have to be a genius to realize he'd blown his cover like a raw recruit. At least where she was concerned. Allowing himself to be caught so totally off guard could get him killed. Might still get him killed if he didn't pull it together.
He continued to stare at her, studying the creamy skin of her cheeks, highlighted with a hint of natural blush, the lips that glistened with lipstick as red as her gown.
He silently cursed Sullivan for setting him up to extricate a female agent. His last partner had infiltrated Haroldson's organization, too, but she hadn't made it out alive. Margie—his partner, best friend and lover. The thought of her made his breath hitch. She'd given her life for the job, and he'd never forgiven himself for not being there to protect her.
Samantha slid her hands to his chest and flexed her fingers against his shirt, her nails scoring him through the lightweight cotton and jarring him back to the present.
"Cat got your tongue?" she whispered.
Her touch lit a fire beneath his skin, making his blood run hotter. Kyle fought the wave of heat and racked his brain for the code Sullivan had given him to verify his own identity. He recalled the answer and recovered some control.
"I don't know
' about no phantoms," he declared exactly as he'd been coached. "I don't go for that high-brow stuff."
Her smile widened. She batted her lashes flirtatiously even though her eyes sparkled with keen intelligence. A paradox, to be sure, but could he trust her? Kyle continued to scrutinize every feature of her face, his mind still coming to terms with all he'd heard about Phantom, all he'd learned about Haroldson's fiancée, and what a helluva tangle the whole assignment had just become.