Eliza Cummings fought free of a monster who terrorized her when she was an innocent teenager and helped put him away for good. She took a job with Devereaux Security Services and devoted every hour to taking down the very thing she’d nearly become. No one, not even those closest to her, know her darkest, shameful secrets. But now the killer has been set free on a legal loophole and it’s only a matter of time before he comes for her. Eliza’s only choice is to run and lead the monster away from the people she loves.
Wade Sterling has always lived by his own rules, a law unto himself who answers to no one. He’s never professed to be a good man, and he’s definitely not hero material. Wade never allows anyone close enough to see the man behind the impenetrable mask—but one woman threatens his carefully leashed control. He took a bullet for her and the result was more than a piece of metal entrenched in his skin. She was under his skin and nothing he did rid himself of the woman with the courage of a warrior and who thinks nothing of putting her life before others.
But when Wade sees a panicked and haunted Eliza he knows something is very wrong, because the fool woman has never been afraid of anything. And when she tries to run, the primal beast barely lurking beneath his deceptively polished façade erupts in a rage. She may not know it, but she belongs to him. This time, Eliza isn’t going to play the protector. She was damn well going to be the protected. And as long as Wade breathes, no one will ever hurt what is his.
Eliza aimlessly drove in the direction of her apartment, stopping at a drive-thru to get lunch though her heart wasn’t into eating, but she had to keep her strength up. She couldn’t be weak when she faced off against Thomas. Weak physically or emotionally. Her lunch laying unopened in the bag in the passenger seat, she pulled into her parking spot and when she saw the vehicle next to her and the man standing arrogantly in front of the expensive car, leaning against the hood, her mood went from bad to worse.
What the hell was Wade Sterling doing here?
Her lunch forgotten, she climbed out of her car and slammed the door with unnecessary force, a scowl already forming on her face. To her further annoyance, Wade only smirked, his eyes gleaming with amusement as he took in her reaction to his presence. Deciding that acknowledging him would be far worse than asking him what he was doing here, she clutched her keys and stalked around to the front of her vehicle and started to walk by him without a word. Her “welcoming” expression could do the talking for her. To her utter shock, as she was nearly past him, a hand suddenly gripped her elbow, stopping her in her tracks. She narrowed her eyes, pasting her most ferocious snarl on her lips, and rounded furiously on him.
“What the fuck is your problem, Sterling? Take your hand off me. Now.”
“Is that any way to express gratitude to the man who saved your life?” he drawled.
She wanted to scream. No one and she meant no one knew how to push her buttons like this man did. But then his mere presence was a huge button. Anytime he opened his mouth, instant push of her many buttons. And the arrogant pull of his lips, all that alpha superiority and smugness? Every single button she had was pushed simultaneously. She actually growled at him. Or rather it was a combination of a vicious sounding snarl and a throaty growl of frustration. She was tempted to do something incredibly childish and decidedly un-Eliza like, such as stomp her foot, pull her hair out by the roots or throw the mother of all hissy fits. God, she didn’t have time for this bullshit today! They had successfully—and mutually—avoided each other ever since the incident he’d just referred to, one that Eliza would prefer to just forget all together. Saved her life, her ass! If he hadn’t been there, and if she hadn’t been so goddamn busy trying to make sure his dumb civilian ass didn’t get shot then she would have never nearly taken a fatal bullet. One that he’d taken for her instead, and it chapped her ass that apparently he thought she should be on her knees in gratitude for taking a bullet that was his own goddamn fault!
Mutual avoidance had been working just fine, so what the hell was he doing at her apartment. And why? Sure there had been a few times when being in the same room had been unavoidable. Zack and Gracie’s wedding for one. And on those few occasions, Sterling had goaded her mercilessly. First he’d called her a coward and accused her of hiding from him. Then he had pissed her off to no end by “claiming” a dance with her at the reception, and since she had just so happened to have been giving Zack and Gracie her well wishes in preparation of fleeing the way too happy, gushy, mushy lovefest involving more than the “just married” couple it was in honor of, she couldn’t gracefully—or ungracefully—get out of it.
Gracie had seemed delighted and had told Eliza that of course she just had to dance with Wade, after all they were two of her most favorite people in the world. Eliza had groaned, knowing she’d been royally set up by the bastard. He’d planned it meticulously and had approached her when he damn well knew she couldn’t tell him what to do with his invitation to dance along with a few other choice words that would have singed the hair of most people and embarrassed the radiant bride.
It hadn’t, however, stopped her from purposely baiting him the entire time they danced. But he hadn’t responded to her sarcasm, insults or her attempts to get a rise out of him. Instead he’d simply stared at her with smug amusement, those dark eyes peeling back every layer of skin on her. To add insult to injury, he’d held her far closer than necessary, making it appear like they were glued to each other and practically fucking on the dance floor. The only way she’d managed to get through it was by imagining at least a dozen different scenarios in which she separated his balls from his anatomy. In the end, she’d fled as if the hounds of hell were after her, and damn it, but his laughter had followed her the entire way out. As had his last words: “Little coward.” Something he’d become increasingly in the habit of calling her and the second time he’d hurled it at her that night. And now as they stood in an apparent standoff, her glaring holes through him and him looking as though he found her hilarious, those images of bodily dismemberment she’d entertained during their dance were even more appealing. Sterling didn’t even attempt to hide his smile at her growl. His eyes twinkled and then his lips broadened into an honest-to-goodness real smile.
She stared at him, momentarily forgetting just how furious she was with him. She was completely flabbergasted by the change to his features. He never smiled. Not really. He’d always done this half smile thing that came out more as a smirk and sometimes as a grimace, depending on his mood. But he’d never, at least not in her sight, actually smiled a broad, teeth-flashing smile that extended all the way up to his eyes. Sweet Jesus but it made him look . . . delicious.
She nearly groaned at that betraying thought. Delicious? She needed her head examined. But she couldn’t stop her perusal to save her life. She continued to stare in equal parts bewilderment and feminine fascination, riveted by how freaking gorgeous he was with that million megawatt smile. Holy hell, now she could understand why he never lacked for female company. Gracie had told her, after it was established that a romantic relationship between her and Sterling was never going to happen and the two settled on being just friends, that she lost count of the women who sailed in and out of his life. At first Eliza had misunderstood, thinking that he was such an ogre that he couldn’t keep a woman. That idea had appealed immensely to her and she’d warmed to it immediately. Until Gracie burst that bubble by telling her that he never kept a woman more than a few dates before moving on to the next one. Figures. Apparently he was a complete player out for only one thing. But, a man with his looks and money could be as picky and selective as he wanted.
Women flocked to that badass, bad boy, darker edge persona and the danger that seemed to swirl in his eyes and fit him like a second skin. Eliza scoffed at that. The man was nebulous at best. She’d done some checking into him when he’d contacted DSS about a potential job and nothing in her research led her to believe he was completely on the up and up. Dirty, she’d suspected and had told Zack as much. The problem was, she had no solid proof. Only discrepancies and her own suspicions. And her gut, which she never ignored. But that likely appealed to the section of the female population who were shorter on brains and superficial enough not to care about anything beyond good looks, lots of money—that was likely the biggest attraction—and the aura of dark and dangerous that cloaked him at all times. Who cared if he killed puppies, kittens or people as long as he was rich, handsome and good in the sack?
She nearly bared her teeth in irritation but instead returned to getting the handsome, rich asshole out of her space. “Do tell, what do you find so amusing?” Eliza asked snidely. She’d never in a million years admit or confide to anyone how flustered she’d been over that smile. Or that for a moment she’d entertained a few naked fantasies about him. Though disappointment was keen when the smile was replaced by the more common mocking twist of his lips, which told her he was about to start firing back the same insults and resort to the same ribbing and cut downs she routinely gave him. Oh well, it would hardly be fun if he didn’t fire back. She would have been disappointed if he acted like she’d hurt his little feelings or his masculine pride. Goading him was the only fun she had these days. Besides, when he was being a dick, it was too easy to despise him and then at least she wouldn’t become a damn girl and start thinking about licking those delectable lips.
And then she remembered that she didn’t have time for fun or for juvenile fantasies. Hadn’t that been what had got her in the mess she’d become so firmly entrenched in years ago? How could she have even thought about anything else when all her focus, her concentration and her training should be on preparation for the single most important mission of her life? Suddenly Sterling’s eyes narrowed, and his hand was curled around her chin before she even registered it was there. He turned her to face him, his sharp gaze boring into hers, studying her, probing deeply until she felt stripped bare and utterly vulnerable before him.
“What the hell were you just thinking about?” he demanded. “And don’t make this about me, Eliza. I’ll call bullshit and you know it. You enjoy taunting me, hurling insults and doing your damnedest to make me believe you want no part of me, which we both know is untrue. Whatever it was that just crossed your mind was not a source of enjoyment. You went pale and your eyes went from fiery and spitting sparks at me to dull and shadowed and your shoulders sagged and you are nothing if not confident. Your back is always up, shoulders straight and you don’t lower your head to fucking anyone and yet you just did all of those things. What the fuck is going on with you?”
She stared at him in astonishment, not knowing which of his absurd statements to refute first. In his own way, he’d just complimented her. As much of a compliment as Sterling ever gave anyone. At least she thought he was complimenting her. He hadn’t listed her attributes with a distasteful look nor did he seem disapproving. He was just . . . matter-of-fact.
She went backward through all the other crap he’d said, and it was crap. Then her cheeks blazed with a mixture of fury and abject embarrassment when she got to the most important, most errant assumption the arrogant little prick had made.
She got into his face and jabbed her finger into his chest, causing him to take one step backward before steadying himself. He simply brushed her finger away and then folded his very muscled arms over his very muscled chest and stared down at her, his lips pressed together as if . . .
“Don’t you dare laugh!” she shouted. “And as for me not wanting any part of you? Get a clue, Sterling. A woman who wants a part of you doesn’t tell you to fuck off every time she sees you. She doesn’t constantly insult you. Nor does she avoid you because you annoy the ever-loving fuck out of her. Get it into your head. I want nothing to do with you. In fact, I don’t want you here right now. Which begs the question, why are you? Our avoiding each other is mutual. I avoid you. You avoid me. I think it’s established that neither of us can stand the sight of the other. Neither of us wants to be in the same room together. It’s an arrangement that suits me just fine. So don’t tell me that we both know it isn’t true that I want nothing to do with you!” She jabbed her finger just above his overlapped arms so that it met the solid wall of his chest, accentuating every word with another jab. “I.” Poke. “Don’t.” Poke. “Ever.” Jab. “Want.” Jab. “To.” Poke. “See.” Poke. “You ever, ever, ever again!” She balled her fist and punched him as she said the last. He threw back his head and laughed. It took every bit of her discipline not to let her mouth drop open and stare shamelessly at the sight. Because Sterling actually smiling, as in a real honest-to-God smile, was a sight enough in itself, but him laughing? Holy hell but him smiling and laughing was a very beautiful thing indeed. He was beautiful.
“Keep telling yourself that, Eliza,” he said, his eyes still sparking with laughter. “If you tell yourself often enough you might even start believing your lies.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she muttered, turning on her heel to stalk past him so she could be rid of him. But once again he caught her arm, though his grasp was gentle. Gentle, but no less confining. His thumb stroked gently over her upper arm, softly caressing the bare skin under the short sleeve of her T-shirt, and it did funny, ridiculous things to her pulse. She tried to yank away, but his grip only tightened, again, not a bruising manhandling-type grip, but one that prevented her from freeing herself, nonetheless. She glared at him in silence and then looked pointedly down at her arm. He either didn’t get that particular message or refused to acknowledge it.
“Gracie’s opening is tonight. I trust you’ll be there.”
It wasn’t a question. In no way was it a question or even a polite request. It was an order and Eliza did not take orders very well at all. Even Dane didn’t order her around and he was her partner and boss of sorts.
“As a matter of fact, I have other plans,” she said sweetly. “Important plans that I can’t cancel. Job related. I’m sure Gracie will understand.”
Sterling’s presence would be enough to make her cry off the exhibit but throw in the fact that Gracie could read her mind? No way in hell she’d be caught dead in attendance. Sterling’s face suddenly became rock hard, his eyes turning glacial, all hint of amusement and laughter gone, as was his smile.
“Let there be no mistake, Eliza. You will be there tonight even if I have to throw you over my shoulder and carry you cursing and making threats against humanity the entire way. This means everything to Gracie and all she wants is the support of the people she cares about and thinks care about her. Whatever your issue with Gracie is I suggest you do your best to ensure she knows nothing about it. It will hurt her if you refuse to come and I won’t allow Gracie to ever be hurt by anyone again. Are we understood?”
Eliza looked at him in shock. “I don’t have anything against Gracie! I love her dearly. Where on earth would you get the idea that I have a problem with her? Just because I can’t make it to her opening doesn’t mean I don’t like her. I’m not going because I can’t. I have something important to do tonight. Something I can’t postpone.”
Sterling shrugged. “I suggest you find a way to do just that. You can’t hide from me, Eliza. And if you think I was making an idle threat, one I have no intention of following through on, you should know me better than that by now. I will find you and I will bring you to the exhibit no matter how you’re dressed. My advice? Dress appropriately and be there promptly when it begins and paste a smile on that pretty face of yours and at least act like you’re enjoying yourself and that you’re supporting the woman who calls you her friend.”
“What gives you the right to rearrange my life to suit your wants?” she snapped. “I’m not one of your little bimbos who flutters her eyelashes and gives in to your every whim and allows you all the control.”
He barked out a laugh. “As if. A man would be a fool to ever think you’d be a simpering, timid, submissive woman without a mind and will of her own. But, Eliza, do not test me on this,” he said, his voice growing somber and gravely serious. His eyes bore intently into hers and the unsettled feeling in her stomach grew until all her insides were knotted with panic.
“Good God, you mean it,” she whispered, horrified.
“Bet your pretty little ass I do,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Have I ever bluffed, Eliza? Have I ever stood down from any promise I’ve made? Veered from the course I’ve sworn to follow? Not followed through on any action I’ve decided on?”
“No,” she said faintly, a sinking feeling of doom clenching her stomach. She just wanted to run and hide in her apartment, and she was not someone who ever hid from anything. She confronted her problems, her fears, and she never backed down. But Wade Sterling was a problem unlike any she’d ever encountered and if she knew one thing at all about this infuriating, pain-in-the-ass man, was that he wouldn’t simply go away.
No wasn’t an answer he was accustomed to nor was it a word in his vocabulary unless he was the one using it. Which meant that if she didn’t want a very ugly, very embarrassing, humiliating scene tonight, she was going to have to find a dress and appropriate shoes, neither of which she owned. Fast.
Further proof that the man was a mind reader in his own right, either that or extremely intuitive, he suddenly did that half smirk, half grin thing she was far more accustomed to than the full on, teeth-baring smile she’d witnessed earlier.
“I took the liberty of having an appropriate dress, shoes and all of the accessories delivered to your apartment. Expect them within the hour. And may I say, Eliza, you are going to look stunning in what I picked out.”
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