Aug 1, 2023
Master of Secrets
Book 2 in The Unredeemables
She’s temptation incarnate…
Worst idea ever. No matter how stunning she was.
I’m keeping my head down, running my cyber security empire. After my younger brother Shane was abducted last year, I’m just concentrating on keeping what’s left of my family alive. I’m also hunting down those bastards who took Shane. I will find them, and I will gut them. That challenging task occupies all of my brain power.
I don’t have extra time and energy to get blindsided at a business meeting by Kat Travis, the seductively beautiful secretary. It’s such a freaking cliché, it embarrasses me. Besides, getting anywhere near me puts her in real danger, and I won’t do that to a helpless, innocent woman.
Thing is, Kat is anything but innocent, or helpless…
That arrogant bastard…
Okay, so maybe flirting with the drop-dead handsome tycoon Ethan Masters was not the smartest move on my first day of a new temp job. It’s the height of slutty irresponsibility to let some unsuspecting guy stumble into contact with the toxic shit-show that was my life, just because he’s tall, dark, mysterious and hot.
Before I know what’s going on, I’m getting yelled at, insulted, and fired. No surprise, the way my life tends to go, but the death squad that jumps me and the tycoon in the elevator afterward? That seems a bit over the top, even for me.
But surprise, surprise…Masters fights like a demon. We click into perfect synch, kicking ass together, which is very exciting, at least until he goes all alpha on me and drags me into his helicopter. He sweeps me off to his luxury lair, against my will. Dick move.
I’ll teach that man that I can’t be bought—I’ve gone through far too much to put up with stupid shit from an overbearing man. But soon we’re facing off against brutal and relentless enemies…not the best time to deal with uncontrollable desire. And other feelings that neither one of us know how to process, or even put into words. Not while Death is stalking us. Hell, even if it wasn’t.
But the stakes are rising by the minute…and Death is gaining ground…
Read an Excerpt
The elevator doors slid open near the reception desk, where a tall, stacked blonde with a headset was bent gracefully at the waist, poking at buttons on the phone console.
Regal posture. Endless legs. Amazing ass.
I wrenched my attention back to Hugh Clemens, who was blocking the elevator door with his broad, bulky frame and shifted discreetly sideways for another glimpse of the blonde. Suddenly unable to focus on whatever Hugh was yapping about.
Hugh was easy to tune out, but I’d been more or less distracted ever since Shane’s abduction, and my little sister Freya’s recent near-death experience hadn’t helped matters. Lately, my brain had been stuck on the setting of constantly evaluating potential threats. Filtering out what was irrelevant to survival, or else obsessing over trivial things, like the fact that Hugh’s deodorant was not working, and neither was his mouthwash.
I didn’t know Hugh Clemens that well, hadn’t seen him in years, but I bitterly regretted having agreed to this meeting. I vaguely remembered that the guy had always talked too much, but today the verbal fire hose was unrelenting, and his eyes seemed to be bulging out of his head. It was only 9:28. Too early in the day for that much nervous tension. As if Hugh was scared about something. Or high, maybe. Odd.
“… opportunity to partner with such an innovative thinker! Everyone wants to be on your wavelength, you know what I mean?”
“Ah, yeah. Right,” I said. “I look forward to meeting your team.”
And to getting off the damn elevator. But Hugh was still blocking me.
“They want to grill you about the Masters Effect,” Hugh rattled on. “One of my engineers read about you in Wired and he says to me, didn’t you go to business school with that guy? Aren’t you supposed to exploit those contacts? Call him! So, I say to him, hell yeah, you are so fucking right!” Hugh planted a meaty hand over the elevator door to keep it from closing.
I let out a silent sigh. My fight-or-flight system should relax. The only danger Hugh posed to me was the very real possibility of boring me to death. Which is why I’d left my security detail outside, until after this meeting. The last thing I wanted to do was explain my complicated corporate security issues to a bloviating gasbag like Hugh Clemens.
“. . . just need to make a quick stop here, so I can tell the girl to forward my messages down to the conference room on the 11th floor,” Hugh said. “And I need to run into my office to pick up the project specs. Why don’t you just go on down to the 11th floor right now? I’ll tell Mitch and Follett to meet you when you get off the elevator and they can take you to the conference room and start showing you the plans.”
Yes. Please. A moment alone. Beautiful idea. “Sure, no problem.”
Hugh headed into the reception area, and a burbling sound hit my ears. It was a fake waterfall pattering into a mosaic tile pool, competing with the buzzy hum of the pump that cycled the water.
Then I caught the blonde’s scent, wafting over to me. It wiped my brain as if I’d been tased.
I acted on raw impulse. Stuck out my hand, blocked the elevator door an instant before it closed, and followed Hugh back out into the reception area.
Hugh looked baffled, and alarmed. “Ethan? Hey. You were going on down to the conference room, right? I was just calling Mitch to meet you down there. Uh… Ethan?”
That scent. It pulled me. Sweet, but subtle. No perfume, just shower soap and shampoo and warm, nameless female pheromones that pumped primitive awareness through my body.
Whoa. Lust, mixed with my current whacked-out hyper-vigilance, was a wild combination. I was staring at her. Blatantly. Hungrily. Like a fucking cave man.
Stop that shit. Act civilized. Come on. Seize control, bonehead.
She was long and lithe and strong looking. Crisp white blouse and snug wool skirt, cut to fit her fantastic curves. Thick, straight hair, chopped off jaggedly below the chin. Minimal makeup which left her skin smooth and glowing. Full, soft pink mouth. Her blue-green eyes had long, sooty lashes. Straight, well defined dark brows.
I shifted my briefcase to the other hand to discreetly mask the effect she was having on my body, and stood there at a loss. Belatedly remembering that I’d agreed to go somewhere, do something. With Hugh, ahead of Hugh, what had I said I would do?
Fuck it. Not now.
I’d had a strange feeling about this gig from the start. I’d pulled some really spectacular duds as an office temp in my time, but never one like this. From the moment the office manager got all sphincter-mouthed and tense when I asked about a closet for my coat and a fridge to stow my plastic tub of leftovers-for-lunch, I’d been uneasy.
No, the woman had said, all snippy-like, “keep your things under your desk.”
Hmph. Not a good sign.
As soon as I was left alone, I’d walked out of the reception area with its ridiculous, energy-sucking fountain, headed back to the office section, and found it empty. Monumentally empty. Unused desks. Empty cubicles. No computer equipment. Funereal silence. A quarter of the high-rise building’s floor was deserted. Clemens & Associates did not exist, at least not here. And yet, a waterfall gurgled cheerfully in that lobby. I was manning phones for an army of ghosts.
Was C&A a front for a shady business of some kind? Some money-laundering operation? I so did not want to come to the attention of the law. Or even worse, the media. Not with that murdering son-of-a-bitch Tony Petruzzi scheduled to walk out of prison, any time now. The idea of making the news, for any reason, made my guts cramp.
Maybe I should just walk right out of here. Right now, without a word to anyone.
The office manager hadn’t even briefed me on my duties. She’d just bustled in, looking harassed, and told me to answer the phones. Nothing else. She’d signed the authorization form for the temp agency, and scurried away. No instructions on fielding calls. No names to take messages for. No friendly chit-chat. No hints or clues.
Fine, whatever. They paid me by the hour, and the form was already signed.
But still, it bugged me to just sit by a silent phone until my ass went numb. I’d gotten up early, put on mascara and heels and dragged myself in here on time, with brains and energy and good sense to trade for my hourly wage—and for what? I’d rather type, file, photocopy, even fetch coffee for somebody rather than just sit here idle.
No sense getting worked up about it. I needed to make rent for the martial arts school, and fix the latest water damage, since the landlord wouldn’t. And get glasses for Charlotte, a fourth grader in my Stand Up For Yourself class. Charlotte was flunking out because she couldn’t see the blackboard at school, or read without getting headaches.
Eyes on the prize, Banner. If some dumb-ass wanted to pay me to sit in front of a silent phone, sit I would. That was the price I continually had to pay for not getting a “real” job. Not that the martial arts school wasn’t real. It just wasn’t real in a financial sort of way. Not yet.
Thinking about the school made me restless, so I got up to pace the room. No one was here to see or care and just sitting there made me twitch and drum my fingers.
A minute later, the elevator door pinged. Shit. I lunged for the desk.
The door opened to reveal two men talking in the elevator. I leaned over and punched buttons on the phone console in a vain attempt to look like I had something to do, then glanced up …
And kept on looking. No, not just looking. Gawking.
The object of my gawk gazed calmly back as he followed the other guy out of the elevator. I just stood there. His dark, penetrating gaze pinned me to the spot.
I couldn’t move.
Panic stabbed through me. What the hell? This wasn’t me. I never froze. That just didn’t happen, not after that fateful day years ago, with Raffi and Gabri and Tony. That experience had wired me up to react instinctually. No time for thought. I always kept my cool, had fast reflexes, made rapid-fire choices.
That was why I was still breathing.
After years of intense martial arts study, I was highly sensitive to the quality of energy moving in a person’s body, and the big guy vibrated with it. His body was broad, thickly muscled but still graceful and well-proportioned in his sleek tailored suit. The power of his sheer physical presence raised all my short hairs and made my toes tighten.
His face was rough-hewn. Long, narrow, heavy brows, long strong nose. Not pretty-boy at all. I liked that. And the sun wrinkles around those deep, dark eyes. Strong cheekbones, deep-carved seams around his mouth.
Which deepened as he smiled, as if to say, go ahead and stare. They all do.
Someone was talking, but my brain was too occupied to decode the sound into words. This was ridiculous. I had to cough. Look up. Look down. Do anything.
The good-looking guy’s gaze flicked to the shorter guy, and I belatedly realized that the short guy was addressing his words to me.
“. . . even awake?” Short Guy was glaring, his puffy face red. “Hello? Are you connected?” He waved his hand sarcastically in front of my face. “Anybody home in there, Blondie?”
Blondie? “Yes,” I said coolly.
“Well, glad to hear it. As I was just saying, we’ll be meeting in the conference room down on the 1Ith floor with the engineering team, since the conference room on this floor is booked up, so forward all my calls down there. Got it?”
Conference room, booked? That conference room didn’t even have a freaking table or chairs! Whatever weird shit was happening here today, I wanted no part of it.
The guy blathered on, his voice fake-hearty. “Okay, Ethan. We’re done here. I’ll see you downstairs.”
Ethan. Hmmm. The sex god’s name was Ethan. I liked the name Ethan.
“I’ll head on down.” The big guy’s deep voice moved over my senses like warm, silky fur. He gave me a long, hungry look, and smiled.
I gathered my wits, and addressed Short Guy. “Excuse me, sir. Could I have your name?”
Short Guy froze, then turned to me slowly. His face had deepened to faint purplish red. “My name?” His voice was menacing.
“Yes,” I said blankly. “So I know who to forward messages to.”
He leaned over the desk, and his sour breath blasted in my face. I had to rock backwards to avoid physical contact with him.
“Turn around,” he said. “See that name? Gold letters? On the wall behind you?”
I ventured a quick glance. Clemens & Associates. “Um, yeah. And so?
“Can you read?” Another blast of his hot stale breath made me gag.
Seriously? Outrage stacked the vertebrae in my spine to absolute verticality. I lifted my chin and declined to reply, just letting my eyes say it for me. Asshole.
“My name is Clemens. Not that you’ll need it. Because you’re fired.” He turned to the door. “Julia!” he bawled. “Get out here right away!”
The office manager scurried out promptly. “Mr. Clemens? Is there a problem?”
Clemens waved his hand in my direction. “Get rid of this one immediately. There’s no place in my organization for idiots.”
“Idiot?” I leaped to my feet, sending the chair rolling back to hit the wall with a thud. “Mister, I just met you! What the hell is your problem?”
“Please get your things and leave, miss.” The office manager’s voice was shrill with tension. “We don’t want any scenes. Just go, right now.”
Clemens patted the shoulder of the tall guy, who was watching me with what appeared to be intense fascination. “Go on downstairs, Ethan,” he said. “Sorry you had to see that. Just a little housecleaning.”
“My ass!” I leaned to retrieve my coat and purse. “I am not the problem! This place is messed up!”
“Watch what you say,” Clemens warned.
“Why should I?” I asked him. “What are you going to do? Fire me again?”
Clemens glared at me as I slung my shoulder-strap across my chest to secure my purse, as was my custom. Ready to run or fight at all times. Out came the athletic shoes, swathed in plastic and stowed in my big purse for the self-same reason.
The two men waited and watched in charged silence as I sat back down, tugged on my first shoe, and pulled the laces nice and tight. Not hurrying in the least, because fuck them. Let them sweat and fidget and wait for me to finish.
“You could do that outside, you know,” Clemens growled.
“Maybe I could, but I won’t,” I said evenly, double-knotting carefully. “I’ll do it…right…here.”
“Ethan, go on down,” Clemens urged. “Mitch and Follett are waiting for you.”
“And miss the floor show?” he murmured. “Hell, no.”
Floor show? He thought this was funny? I knotted my second shoe with an angry jerk, looked up, and almost lost myself in those dark, gorgeous eyes again.
“I am not here for your entertainment, buddy,” I told him.
“Of course not. Excuse me.” He lifted his hand in salute to Clemens and Julia, and strolled out to the elevator banks.
I realized, to my utter chagrin, that I had to follow him, that being the only exit from this place, aside from twenty-seven flights of stairs. Right after being insulted, fired and publicly humiliated right in front of him. Sweet. Just stellar.
I tossed my coat over my arm and marched out. The elevator door was opening right now, and no way was I waiting for the next one while those blithering jerks gave me the hairy eyeball.
Too bad I was too rattled to try flirting with him. Flirting was hard for me in the best of times. I was clumsy as hell at it. I wasn’t likely to get lucky with it today, the way things were going so far.
“Hey! That elevator is for my associate! You wait for the next one!” Clemens lunged after me and grabbed me by the arm.
I wrested my arm out of his sweaty grip and pushed him, hard.
My shove sent him reeling backwards, fighting for balance. I yanked one of my high heeled shoes out of my bag. “Touch me again, and you get this heel right through your eye,” I warned.
Clemens stumbled black, blinking frantically. “You crazy bitch! I’m calling security!”
Ethan held the elevator door open. “I’ll share, Hugh.” There was laughter in his voice. “In the interests of saving your eyesight. Or maybe your life.”
He leaned out, and effortlessly scooped me into the elevator. I stayed right there, in the circle of his arms, astonished. For one…two…three seconds.
What the fuck had just happened? That was … unprecedented.
He’d touched me without warning, and I hadn’t exploded into automatic defense mode. My few male friends had learned, to their cost, not to touch me unexpectedly. I needed fair warning so I could to clench my teeth, breathe deep, brace myself for the contact. Or else it turned into a bad scene, with bruises, torn ligaments, hurt feelings.
And this guy had just grabbed me and pulled me, out of nowhere. He had practically embraced me. And I hadn’t slugged or elbowed or kicked or torqued or chopped or finger-stabbed him at all. Nothing.
The elevator doors began to close.
“Hey!” Clemens trotted forward, hands up. “No! Ethan! Wait—”
The doors shut in his face