Master of Lies
Book One in The Unredeemables
Deadly. Relentless. Cold as ice.
Jed Clearwater is one of the Unredeemables, an elite group of ex-Special Forces warriors who bonded in combat and promised to have each other’s backs forever. Or so he said…until he sold my brother Shane out for money.
He’s never looked at me, but I’ve wanted him since I was a child. I tracked the bastard down, to a maximum security prison. He knows where Shane was taken, and I’ll do anything to get that intel. Even seduce him…insofar as I can seduce a man who’s locked behind bars.
I hate that I still lust after my brother’s killer. I can’t even hide it. I might as well use these emotions I can’t control to get what I want. I’ll be safe enough. That hard, muscular body and those smoldering eyes will be behind bulletproof glass. He’ll be cuffed, shackled…controlled.
What’s the worst he could do?
She’s drawing down the lightning…
What was it about me and crazy bad luck? The gorgeous bombshell’s timing could not have been shittier. The day of my prison break, a sexpot who fixates on felons struts into the visiting chamber, picks up the phone, and blows my freaking mind with her scorching sexual fantasies.
I’m so close to getting the info I need to track down my kidnapped friend and clear my name, but this luminous blonde has just made my enemies sit up and take notice. So on top of everything else, now I have to scramble to pull her gorgeous ass out of the fire, too.
Now we’re on the run together, one step ahead of total mayhem. She’s the most seductive woman I’ve ever come across, but I can’t let down my guard.
Because mayhem is gaining ground fast…
Read an Excerpt
Well, would you look at that. So Sandee was a real, live girl, after all.
I shuffled forward in my shackles, eyeing my penpal through the glass barrier with wary fascination. She hadn’t noticed me yet from her place in the line by the door, but I knew her from the photos she’d sent. At least the ones that got through the prison censors. They were grubby and dog-eared by the time they made it to my cell. Letters, too. Long, gushy letters, packed with too much information, including but not limited to her hard-luck past, her loneliness, her intense longings, her sexual fantasies.
The girl was a hot mess, and desperately in need of therapy, but I’d read all of the letters multiple times. I’d pored over them, in fact.
So I had no business judging anybody else’s twisted coping mechanisms.
I had plenty of empty hours in prison to study Sandee’s letters and pictures. Up until right now, I’d been convinced that they were a fantasy front. Just too damn pretty. Not realistic. Somebody photoshopped the living fuck out those photos. I was sure of it.
My guess had been that Sandee was some lonesome, tragically plain girl, or maybe someone housebound or disabled, looking for a virtual boyfriend. Or else maybe a guy who wanted to be a girl but was afraid to make the leap, so had chosen this way to live out his/her/their fantasy. Something along those lines.
But no. What the hell was a woman like that doing here? I couldn’t see what the payoff could possibly be, the way she looked. That body, those tits, those eyes.
The pleated red plaid skirt fell a few inches above the knee, showing off bare, shapely legs. High-heeled red ankle boots. A tattoo on her ankle that I couldn’t make out from here. She had hot pink streaks in her jagged blond bob. She was rocking a rumpled, sexy anime schoolgirl look. The sweater was red, skin-tight. She’d followed the visitation modesty rules, but still managed to look like a walking wet dream. How she’d gotten through the visitor intake process like that was anybody’s guess.
Worked for me, though. Oh, man. Worked great.
The glaring white light illuminated her white-blond mop. Her full, sexy red lips gleamed hotly, all glossed up and sticky looking. If I were inclined to criticize, which I wasn’t, I’d say she wore too much makeup. But she could be painted gold, for all I cared. I would lick her clean. Slowly.
Her look was so exaggerated, it had to be some kind of mask. Then again, I was probably overthinking this. I’d been undercover for too long, and prison shook a guy’s grip on reality. Her letters and pictures seemed so real. So intensely vulnerable, they made me uncomfortable. And aroused. And seriously fucking confused.
According to the letters, Sandee lived in a rented trailer in a nowhere town with a shuttered factory, rampant unemployment, fentanyl, meth. She bartended at a skeevy roadhouse. Slimebag boss. No family support. And a thing for bad boys.
She’d heard about me from a friend whose husband was inside for mail fraud, and hunted down my mug shot, which was posted online on a booking photos website.
That had been unwelcome news. Like I needed any more attention.
She’d fixated on me, deciding to save some worthless fuck-up from himself by the power of her love alone. She might as well dive into a shark tank. But everybody had a right to his or her own brand of self-destruction, myself included.
Still. Something about her surprised me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. That posture. Despite the sexpot outfit, she seemed elegant. Ladylike, almost. That dignified quality stuck out like a sore thumb in a maximum-security hellhole like this one. That gorgeous face, what I could see of it behind the shaggy, choppy blond bangs. Sharp eyes, looking everywhere but at me. Like she didn’t even know I was there.
The CO prodded me to enter the room. My shackles dragged and clanked as I shuffled toward the seat.
The fuck she didn’t know I was there. She had positioned herself carefully, and then struck a hot, sexy pose for me. To give me a good, long gawk. That was calculated.
Sandee could be a honeypot, sent by Boer. If Boer had fingered me in here, then I was in imminent danger. Mickey, too. My team outside. They could all be in danger. I needed to contact the Unredeemables right now and put them on their guard.
I hesitated, gripped by panic, and the CO who gripped my arm stumbled into me with a curse. Goddamn. This was a mistake. I should have kept refusing to see her.
I’d changed my mind because I wanted to do the girl a favor by ending this fantasy of hers, definitively. To scare her to death, make her run before she drew any more unhealthy attention to herself. I wanted her miles away, back in Nowheresville, mired in whatever boring routine she was trying to escape from. Run, Sandee, run.
The strategy had seemed smart at the time. But now I felt danger prickle on my skin. Whether from her, or for her, I did not know. One thing was certain. I should never have touched this live wire. Not even once.
She could fuck me up. And idiot me, I’d agreed to this partly because I was bored, and curious. I had to know if she really looked that good. If anyone could.
She did. Score: one for my dick, zero for my brain.
I was so close to my goal. I’d been in Kalaharee for months, getting close to Mickey Savalletri, ingratiating myself to him by protecting him from predators. At long last, he’d agreed to give me the info I needed to run down my ex-colleague, Wex Boer.
Once I got my hands on Boer, I could torture intel about Shane’s location out of that murdering shithead. I looked forward to that with every fiber of my being.
But Mickey would only provide the intel after I busted him out of the joint. That was his price, and it was time to pay up. A man had to stay focused while planning a prison break. There was no time or space for a frivolous crush on my sexpot penpal.
“… dee McGillis? For the last time! Sandee McGillis!”
Here she came, right at me. Too late to change my mind.
I leaped forward, ankles wobbling in those ridiculous high heels.
“I’m here, I’m here!” I sang out, tottering forward. I’d been so anxious and lost in my head, I hadn’t even recognized my own fake name.
Wake up, Sandee. Look sharp. And pray to God he doesn’t recognize you.
The last time Jed had seen me had been years ago, when he’d come home with Shane, both of them on leave from the Ranger Regiment. I’d been almost fourteen, and he’d mostly ignored me while he was there. Or else treated me like a baby bird.
He wouldn’t recognize me. Not in a million years. I looked completely different from that lovestruck, crushed out fourteen-year-old girl. Hell, I’d looked different even before I devised my Sandee disguise.
The drab visitation area reeked of sweat and frustration and despair. A final spasm of panic seized me as the tall, orange-jumper clad form shuffled forward, blurred behind the scratched panel. I was usually so cool and detached. Managing the employees in my engineering workroom required a rigorously honed alpha-female vibe. At the tender age of twenty-six, the only way to get taken seriously was to be a hardass bitch. But today, when the hardass bitchery really counted, my hands were ice cold, and my knees were like Jell-O. At least I didn’t have to shake his hand. Visitation at Cell Block B at Kalaharee precluded physical contact. I’d be talking to Jed Clearwater, aka James Craig, on a phone through layers of bullet-proof glass. Safe and shielded.
Today I was not Freya Masters, chief designer and CEO of TechMasters Toys. I was Sandee McGillis, a woman who had fallen in love with him from afar. Sandee, who lived alone, with just her rescue cats for company, in her single-wide in Gholston Flats, hungering for something to give her life meaning.
I had developed a whole persona, from the ground up. Sandee’s sad childhood, her trauma, her abandonment issues. I’d sent ‘James’ reams of letters that laid it all out, every aspect of Sandee’s messed up personality. I’d gone so deep into it, sometimes I felt as if I had become her. Kind of scary, considering how compromised Sandee was.
I’d been begging him to let me visit. So far, he’d always refused. Then, a few days ago, he’d finally agreed.
I froze. I couldn’t even blink. God, he was huge. Bigger than I remembered. Physically massive, vibrating with power. The orange jumpsuit strained over of his shoulders, his thickly muscled thighs. Shackles did not diminish him.
He was just biding his time. Waiting for his moment.
His gaze cut through the shadows that the harsh overhead lights cast on his angular face. I remembered his dark hair buzzed short. It had grown out long, thick and dark, down to his shoulders. The tribal tattoos on his neck disappeared into the jumpsuit. His blade of a nose had a bump that I didn’t remember. He had a short beard. It looked good on him. But then, everything always had.
Light caught his pale gray eyes, like a flash of moonlight in the eyes of a nocturnal predator, observing me. Comparing, measuring, calculating. Cold.
He sank into the chair, keeping narrowed eyes on me. One brow had been slashed at some point, leaving a diagonal scar. His full, sensual lips were grimly sealed.
I should not be reacting to him like this. This breathless, giddy feeling, that was such bullshit. No part of me should be admiring or desiring any part of him. Not one single fucking subatomic particle of him was deserving of my positive regard.
The evidence I’d found indicated that Jed Clearwater was the enemy. There was no other explanation. He was a liar and a traitor and a killer…and a resource to exploit. He could be useful—if I got him to tell me what had happened to my brother Shane.
And for that, I had to be crafty, subtle, patient. And wildly in love with him.
His eyebrow tilted up. He jerked his chin at the phone, urging me to pick up the receiver. I was deer-in-the-headlights immobilized, in spite of having practiced this scene repeatedly. I’d rehearsed the bubbling chatter. Arms outstretched, fingertips touching the glass, extended in longing. A stream of flattering blather—Finally! Omigod you’re, like, so much handsomer than your picture! And so on.
Gone. I didn’t remember a fucking word of it. Jed Clearwater blasted out a frequency that scrambled my wits. I felt vulnerable, as if I were sitting there stark naked. I crossed my arms across my breasts. Dropped them, drawing his eyes down.
The COs in the visitation were busy laying down the law, vocally and physically, to a bickering couple on the verge of a fight, so no one was monitoring us.
My nipples tightened as if his glancing look was a physical touch. The effect was extremely visible in my sweater, which was a couple of sizes too small.
Smile, Sandee. That was good. A shy, shaky smile. My body was staying in character, helping me out by displaying a very convincing nipple hard-on. That was all.
Yeah, girl. Go on. Keep telling yourself that.
Jed picked up the phone, jerking his chin at me again. I obeyed his silent command before I could stop myself, take a breath, and deliberately choose to pick it up. Thereby proving that the action was generated by my own free will.
It wasn’t. He’d given me an order, and I had followed it. Crap.
Bad beginning. I needed to maintain full control over a lie as deep as the one I meant to tell this man. But the lie was taking control of me.
I knew from the start that this was going to be ambiguous, messy, kind of dirty. But I hadn’t expected Jed to effortlessly put himself in charge. Very slick.
I needed him to let down his guard, and let slip something that could help us find Shane. A new avenue of inquiry, a clue, no matter how slight. It was a long shot, but why not try? The guy was stuck here. Defanged. It’s not like he could hurt me.
Of course, my brother Ethan would go ballistic if he knew. But I’d slipped my personal security detail yesterday in Portland. Ethan was probably ripping them new ones, and that was a shame, but I had never liked being shadowed by bodyguards. Or shoved around by my big brothers.
Jed gazed at me calmly, waiting for me to start. It occurred to me that he might have done this before. Gone as far as he wanted with a prison groupie. His mugshot had made the rounds, and been much noticed and remarked upon. Those piercing eyes, those amazing cheekbones, that chiseled jaw, those sensual lips. I’d seen the comments. Hell, he’d probably had refused my requests to meet before because he was already double-booked. Conjugal visits weren’t allowed at Kalaharee, but they could be arranged, with the appropriate bribes, and after selling out my brother, he damn well had the money. Even if someone else managed it for him.
Yes, he’d certainly toyed with other vulnerable women before this. Because he could. Sick opportunistic bastard. I let the irrational anger energize me, and gathered my energy to speak.
“Um. Hi, James,” I faltered.
“You made it. In spite of the weather.” His voice was so deep. Resonant.
“I couldn’t miss my chance to see you,” I said. “You’d finally said yes.”
He shrugged, a faint, amused smile at the corner of his lips. Asshole. Ironic, that I pretend to be a ditz on purpose, and then get pissed at him for buying it it. So I’m contradictory. Complicated. Sure. I’m also very smart. Smarter than him.
I hope so, anyhow. Jed Clearwater was nothing if not smart. He’d decieved my brother Shane. They served together in the Rangers Regiment, and went into business together afterward. Jed, Shane, and three others from the Unredeemables group from their Ranger Regiment had founded Ready Line Security after they left the military.
Then last year, Shane persuaded Ethan, my oldest brother, to let him use SmokeScreen, Ethan’s latest and most powerful intel gathering algorithm, one that could penetrate any kind of encryption like a hot knife through butter. Ethan had agreed, on the condition that Shane alone possess the necessary security codes to operate it. According to Ethan, SmokeScreen was too powerful a tool to share with anyone. Not national defense, not private citizens, and certainly not the criminal underworld. Ethan was convinced that the whole world would devolve into anarchy if SmokeScreen got into the wrong hands. He hadn’t wanted anyone to use it, not even his own brother.
And maybe Ethan was right, and this was a harbinger of things to come, because our lives had certainly devolved into anarchy eight months ago, when a private army had attacked the Ready Line headquarters, mowing them down and burning the place to the ground. Shane had been taken, and everyone else had been killed. Carbonized, identifiable only by dental records. Except for Jed Clearwater, who escaped unharmed.
He said he had no idea what had happened to Shane. Scant weeks later, he’d dropped off the face of the earth. Which looked pretty damn guilty to us.
Ethan’s working theory was that Jed had sold Shane to someone who wanted SmokeScreen, so that they could torture the codes out of him.
And I spent my nights thinking about that, as I stared up at my bedroom ceiling.
Hacking was more restful than trying to sleep under those conditions, so I dived deeper than I’d ever gone. I hit pay dirt after I started cyber-stalking the remaining Unredeemables, when I intercepted messages between Darius, Amos and Remy Drake about placing someone in a prison. No names were mentioned, but I used facial recog to direct my search of mug shot databases, and bingo, I found him in the Kalaharee Correctional Facility For Men, under a fake name. Accused of first degree murder, held without bail, and still awaiting trial, according to the Kalaharee database.
I had no clue why he was there, and I didn’t really care. All I wanted was to find who took Shane, and so I could grind those fuckers into fine pink paste.
Including Jed himself. And the Drakes, too, for siding with Jed. I’d never forgive them for that. Selling my brother out, for money?
I hadn’t shared my findings with Ethan, since he never shared his with me. Bitter experience had taught me that going my own way was simpler than arguing with a hyper-protective, know-it-all big brother, and I was wasting no more time.
I had patience. I could remote-work from space, or the bottom of the ocean. I had bottomless reserves of motivation. I could travel to the prison on visiting days for as long as I needed to. Build a relationship with him. Have long, winding conversations with him. Have phone sex with him. Declare my undying love. Make him dependent on me emotionally. Or on Sandee. It was important to keep Freya and Sandee very separate. Distinct.
And who knew? Something might come of it, eventually.
Of course, it was tissue-paper-thin, as plans went. The only thing that could be said for it was that it was something, not nothing. I had to do something, or I’d snap.
So far, Jed had only sent me a single brief reply to her letters, before finally agreeing to see me. A sheet of yellow legal paper, and a bold, brief penciled scrawl.
Thanks for the photos. You’re very pretty and you seem like a nice girl, but you’re wasting your time with me. Find someone who will treat you right. Don’t settle.
The hell? It was the kind of thing a good guy might have written. To an idiot. Using small words. Where the hell did he get off, acting decent and principled? It was a lie, and it pissed me off. Condescending, too. Who the hell did he think he was?
He’d had practice pretending to be a good guy. Years of it. He’d fooled Ethan and Shane. My brothers were not stupid.
So far, I hadn’t seen recognition on his face, but this guy was impossible to read. I fluttered my eyelash extensions. Good thing Jed had never paid much attention to me back in the day. He sure was paying attention now, though.
Toughen up. Play the part. I gave my bleached locks a flirtatious toss. I’d paid big bucks for this style. The platinum color, the bold cut that half-covered my face. A choppy, punky look that took a good thirty points off my IQ. Very different from my usual messy ash-blond is-it-a-ponytail-or-is-it-a-bun. I might have overdone the vampy vibe a little, but it was in keeping with the racy selfies that I’d printed out for him. And I needed to look as different as possible from the Freya Masters he might or might not remember. That shy, chubby geek teenager with the braces, the zits, and the frizz.
A sharp crack made me jump. A shrill wail followed. A tired-looking woman sitting nearby had lost her patience and smacked her little boy, who’d been snorkling tear-snot the whole time I had been sitting near him.
I looked back at Jed’s hooded, watchful eyes, struggling to breathe. A smile curved his sensual lips. My face was clammy. I was letting him psych me out. Stop it. The guy was neutralized. Shackled behind layers of fucking steel and plexi-glass.
He had no power over me. He was fucking harmless.
His eyes raked my body, and I shrank back. My intense awareness of him made my skin tingle and flush. My face must have turned cherry red in a hot instant.
Get a grip, Masters. The truth about Shane was in that man’s head, and there were only so many ways to extract it. Beating it out of him would have been my first choice, but that option was out of bounds, probably for the next twenty years or so, minimum. The prison actually protected him from me. Lucky man.
That left the option of seducing him into telling me.
It might just work. He’d be lonely. He had no family to visit him. He’d be bored, restless, starved for female attention, and I would be so undemanding and sweet and welcoming and wonderful to him. I would understand him so well.
If it took twenty years, I would still be there every visiting day I could manage, waiting for some crumbs of truth to slip out of him. I would never lose interest. My statute of limitations would never run out. I would never give up on Shane.
I lifted my chin. Put my shoulders back, sticking out my tits to showcase the nipple hard-on to best effect, and smiled.
Big deep breath…and showtime.