For Victor Dupé, perfection was a moving target.
Forget fifty shades of gray, there had to be at least one hundred shades of blue. Winter Blue? Sea Sprite? Southern Evening? What he really wanted to know was who sat around thinking up names for all these paint colors? Maybe he was in the wrong business.
Or maybe he should stick to solving crimes rather than renovating a house.
With at least a dozen different swatches of blue on the wall, he tried to decide. He’d already purchased several gallons of Southern Evening, but which shade was best for his vintage craftsman bungalow?
Did it really matter? Who’s going to see it besides me?
Buying the house and remodeling it had seemed like a good idea. He was tired of living in a condo and was ready for something more permanent. He’d always thought by the time he reached thirty-nine, he would have a wife and kids. A nice house. A dog.
The FBI had had other plans.
In reality, he didn’t blame his job for the lack of family and a home of his own. It was his own fault for loving his job more than the idea of marriage and kids. He’d assumed he would have time to settle down and start a family. Now, with his 40th approaching, an irritating itch had set up under his breastbone since meeting Olivia Fiorelli at a Christmas party the previous December.
The deputy US marshal, nicknamed the Rock Star Agent of Organized Crime, had stirred a passion inside him he hadn’t realized was dormant. Just as committed to her job as he was his, they had talked for hours over drinks. He’d laughed more that night than he had in the previous year, maybe longer. Her dark beauty had drawn him in, her take-no-prisoners attitude a total turn-on. He liked strong-willed women who knew their worth and had no qualms expressing themselves. There was a mystery about Olivia. A mystery he still hadn’t solved.
It wasn’t the only mystery he hadn’t solved. He glanced at the wooden dining room table he’d purchased at a local antique shop, dozens of papers spread over the stained and scarred top. Something about stripping wallpaper and fixing the bricks in the fireplace had made him long to pull out the one case in his life he had not solved. Yet, anyway.
It’s just a distraction. Whenever he got into something over his head, he circled back to the past, looking for answers. He knew subconsciously it was his way of processing the trauma he’d survived, the young boy in him believing if he only had answers to that one mystery, the answers for everything else would fall into place.
With Olivia, and definitely with this house project, he was in over his head. While he was no stranger to one-night stands, that night with Liv had set a chain of events into play. Hence, the reason he now had a mortgage and rundown house to fix up and was standing in his living room staring at too many fucking samples of blue paint.
Only a woman could do this to him.
Only Olivia Fiorelli.
Taz, Victor’s Lab mix, lifted his nose and whined at the front door.
Yeah, he had the dog from his “Things to Have by Forty” list, but Taz was only a loaner.
“What is it, buddy?” Victor glanced out the bay window and saw a familiar car pulling into the drive. His pulse accelerated and he grinned. Huh. What was she doing here?
After their one night of heated passion, he and Olivia had texted every day, talked for hours on the phone, and even met briefly for coffee. Every time they’d set up an official date, she’d cancelled. The reason—excuse?—was always work. Each time she had invited him to her place, work had come up for him, so he couldn’t fault her. Even their coffee date had been cut short when she’d gotten a call from her boss. It seemed like the universe was conspiring against them.
She exited the car with a white bag and a six-pack. The bright pink logo of his favorite bakery in Laguna Beach was visible on the side. Late afternoon sun glinted off subtle copper streaks in her hair, the long, brunette strands pulled back in a ponytail. Kicking the driver side door shut with her foot, she gave his house a once over, her gaze stopping on the six swatches of beige next to the front door.
Normally, he had no problems making decisions. That’s what made him the efficient director for the West Coast FBI. It was how he kept all of his hand-selected California Taskforces running smoothly. But when it came to paint…
Taz rose to his feet, a low growl issuing from his throat. Olivia had never been here, had never met the dog. Victor hoped Taz would like her as much as he did. “Down boy.” He ruffled the dog’s ears. “Best behavior, now, you hear?”
Victor threw open the door just as Olivia started up the wooden steps. He couldn’t keep a smile off his face. “Are you any good at picking paint colors?”
She smiled back and held up the contents of both hands. “That’s what sugar and beer are for. They dull the brain and give you a good excuse when anyone asks why you picked clashing colors. You can blame it on too many carbs causing poor decisions.”
Taz sniffed at her, now wagging his tail. “I thought you were working today.”
“I thought you were too,” she said. “I ran into Cooper and Celina buying diapers at the grocery store with their little girl. Cooper said you’re on a two-week vacation, and planned to work on your house, so I decided you might want some help.”
She lived in Carlsbad, not far from Cooper Harris, head of the SCVC Taskforce, and his wife, Celina, who’d once been on the taskforce and still worked for the FBI as a forensic photographer. Another reason Victor rarely saw Liv. His office was in LA, his new house Laguna Beach. From his place to hers was only forty-five miles, but with traffic on the freeway, what should take an hour or less often was double that.
He held the door open and motioned for her to come in. “I’d hoped to have a few things fixed up before I invited you over, but I’m really glad to see you.”
“From the looks of things,” she said, eyeing the living room swatches, “I got here in the nick of time.”
“You don’t like blue?”
“Blue is great for bedrooms. With your west facing window in this room, I think you could get away with something bolder. Something a little more fiery.”
She liked things hot. With her Italian heritage and olive colored skin, she gravitated to dark reds, deep oranges, and gold. Today, she had on a brilliant yellow tank top under a flannel shirt that reminded him of the sun. Her worn jeans molded to her hips and disappeared into black leather boots with three-inch heels.
Maybe she’s the right color palette for what I need.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked, even though he didn’t care as long as she’d brought it.
“Cannolis. What else?” She laughed.
Cannolis and beer, what a combination. But that was Olivia—big smile, sexy laugh, and weird taste in food.
He took the six-pack and led her to the kitchen. Although he’d moved in weeks ago, boxes were stacked on the counters and floor. He’d managed to unpack a couple of plates, some glasses, and a plastic bag with disposable silverware. Rooting around for his bottle opener, he hoped the mess didn’t offend her.
“Aha.” He found the hammer-shaped opener and popped the lids off two beers.
Olivia accepted one, eyeing the novelty opener. “Why am I not surprised you have a tool that does double duty?”
“It was a housewarming gift from Cooper’s team. Apparently, they thought I’d be doing a lot of drinking while rehabbing the house.”
Olivia clinked her bottle against his and they drank. She cleared a spot on the table, set down her beer, and opened the bakery bag. As she drew out the cannolis, Victor tore off two paper towels, making plates out of them.
They ate in silence, Victor studying her under half-lidded eyes. She was sultry and beautiful. In direct contrast to the sunny tank top, she wore a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She looked like the sexiest home-improvement contractor he’d ever seen.
She caught him staring at her ample cleavage and smirked as she licked cream from one end of the cannoli. Teasing.
That was all it took. He remembered the feel of her tongue on him, those lips scorching every bit of skin they’d touched. In that instant, his mind went back to that night and all they’d shared. He had no doubt that was her intention as she slowly bit into the pastry and grinned wider as she chewed.
Taz sat patiently at her feet, his big tongue hanging out the corner of his mouth. He’d been part of a dog fighting ring and had lost teeth before being rescued when Victor and his team had slipped in to arrest several of the participants. If there was one thing Victor hated, it was bullies and those who hurt others, human or animal. He’d made sure the dozen dogs received proper medical care and were taken to a no-kill shelter. Once Taz was on his feet again, the shelter’s manager asked him to foster the dog, who needed to work on his people skills and manners in order to be a better candidate for adoption.
Taz was obviously becoming quite adept at his people skills since he gave Olivia pleading puppy dog eyes, hoping for his own cannoli. A tiny bit of drool ran out the side of his mouth onto the floor.
Watching Olivia, Victor figured he wasn’t much different, although he hoped for something more than a bite of cannoli. Finishing his pastry, he checked the corners of his mouth to see if he’d been drooling himself. Maybe a little.
“So what color do you suggest for the kitchen?” he asked, trying to get his big brain back online.
“Hmm.” She glanced around, slipping the dog a piece of her cannoli. “Pumpkin, maybe, or squash.”
“Are we talking paint or food?”
“The woodwork is really beautiful. In here, with the lighter fir trim around the windows and on the cabinets, I think the best colors would be in the warm, fall category.”
She licked the ends of her fingers and toyed with her beer bottle.
Once again, the brain in his head had trouble focusing as the blood ran south. “Well, I don’t have either of those, nor anything fiery for the living room.”
“Guess that just leaves us one option, doesn’t it?” she asked, her dark eyes teasing.
Please, God, let her be thinking what I hope she is.
One of the things he’d loved about Liv from the start was the fact she didn’t beat around the bush. While she didn’t always come right out and say what was on her mind, he seemed to be able to read it anyway.
She had a few crumbs on her tank top. He leaned forward and teased them off the fabric, letting his fingertips brush against the bare skin above the soft cotton. “You seem to be the expert,” he said, tipping his face closer to hers. “So, unless we’re making a trip to the hardware store, it looks like we’re painting my bedroom this afternoon.”
Her breath hitched, those piercing eyes searching his face. He caught the scent of beer and chocolate on her breath. “Do you have all the tools you need?”
I have you. “Maybe you should check my toolbox and see.”
“That’s a terrible pickup line.” She laughed, low and sexy. “Totally cheesy.”
“I never was good at them.”
She kissed him then, letting her tongue outline his lips. “I don’t work for free, you know. I expect dinner in exchange.”
Holy hell, he’d give her anything she wanted. “Is that all?”
“Where’s the bedroom?” She grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the kitchen and toward the stairs. “Dinner is only the beginning, polpetto.”
“I love it when you speak Italian,” he said, following her up the steps to the bedroom loft. “What does that mean?”
Meatball? What the…? “Seriously?”
She laughed and yanked him inside where they collapsed onto the mattress lying on the floor. He hadn’t set up the headboard and rails yet. “Trust me,” she said, as she took off her flannel shirt and went to work on his belt. “It’s a term of endearment. There’s not much we Italians love more than a good meatball.”
God, this woman. He’d barely known her a few months, but there was no doubt in his mind, he was totally head over heels for her. Just gone.
Helping her remove her tank top before he pulled her down beside him, he once again realized perfection was a moving target.
And right now that target was a beautiful US deputy marshal who had her hand down his pants.
* * *
Olivia Fiorelli was not this kind of girl.
She’d only known Victor a couple of months. The first time she’d slept with him she chalked it up to a wedding, which always made her sentimental, and too much booze, which never failed to lower her inhibitions.
But today? Right now? One beer wasn’t enough to use that excuse, so maybe she should use Cooper, Celina, and their baby. They had all survived a hostage situation before Christmas the previous year, reminding Olivia how precious life was and how quickly it could be taken away. Afterwards, she’d attended Cooper and Celina’s impromptu wedding at their house, and found herself totally infatuated with the man whose bed she was currently in. Seeing the happy family earlier had triggered her ovaries to do the hula. She longed for a man. A strong one who supported her and wanted kids as much as she did. A man who wouldn’t hold her crazy, criminal family against her.
Unfortunately, those men were few and far between.
With those pesky, demanding hormones coursing through her system, and the realization she was about to turn thirty with no marriage or family in sight, she’d done what any respecting kickass woman would do—picked up a bag of comfort food and some alcohol and drove straight for hell.
Because that’s where she was headed.
Good Catholic Italian girls did not sleep with a man before marriage. An old-fashioned idea but one that had been ingrained in her head by her mother and father. That past conditioning didn’t die easy.
As Victor unsnapped her bra and cupped her heavy breasts, she considered letting herself off the hook. It wasn’t like she slept around. She wished she could be casual about sex like some of her friends, but that had never been her style. Along with the fact that the first guy she ever fell in love with, Johnny Valducie, had gotten the crap beat out of him when her father caught them making out in the basement. Totally traumatized—poor Johnny—and she had been too. Johnny never spoke to her again and for good reason.
It was after that when she realized her father wasn’t the man she thought he was. That for all his talk about being an important person at his job, and all the nice, expensive things their family enjoyed, her father was nothing more than a mid-level gangster. Not just a gangster, a hitman.
Yes, he loved her, but that love—and subsequently hers—came at a price.
All these years later, she still sensed his shadow hanging over her every time she felt the pull toward a serious relationship. Two thousand miles away and her job in law enforcement standing between them, and her father’s presence was just as intimidating as it had been growing up.
Victor’s kisses stole her breath and took her mind off the weight of family guilt and past consequences. Maybe that was why she kept throwing herself at him. He offered absolution, wiped away the pain and embarrassment of who her father was, what he had done. What she was, and could never be again.
Daddy’s little girl.
As Liv sank into the heady oblivion of Victor’s touch, the heat he was building inside her took over. Mindless. She could submerge herself totally in her body, rather than her head where thoughts never stopped and over-analyzing was her constant companion. She could forget for a few minutes about all the crap and pretend she wasn’t keeping a secret that would ruin everything she had with Victor.
“So good,” she whispered in his ear. His fingers undid her zipper, slipping in to touch her panties. “I’m so glad I came.”
He chuckled deep in his chest. “Oh, you’re going to come all right.”
He slipped a finger inside her and she gasped as a vibration tickled her skin. Another vibration pulsed a second later, but she was too far gone to immediately recognize what it was. Her body insisted it was only Victor’s skilled fingers at her hot center and—Mother Mary full of grace!—he was hitting all the right places.
But the third time, she realized she heard music. A very specific series of notes, as in the ringtone of her latest informant, and future WITSEC client.
The burner phone was in her back pocket, the one she was laying on.
As if he could read her mind, Victor mumbled, “Do not answer that.”
She didn’t want to, not one bit. What woman would trade the sexy director of the West Coast FBI for mobster–turned–informant, Alfonso Barone?
This was her job, though. No exceptions, no excuses. When her informants and protected witnesses needed her, she had to be there for them.
Victor wasn’t about to let her off the hook that easy. As she reached for the burner, he grabbed her wrist and pinned it to the bed. His other continued to minister to her sweet spot and as the ringtone faded in the high-ceilinged room, Liv’s eyes rolled up in her head, her back arching and her hips rising to meet Victor’s skillful hands.
“Sweet…Jesus!” she screamed as the orgasm ripped through her. She rode the crest, Victor’s fingers milking the release, stringing out the incredible sensation—one she’d denied herself far too much—and providing a safe place for her to fly apart.
In the aftermath, she floated down, softly, sweetly. His arms wrapped around her as he drew her onto his chest where she rested her head for long moments, pretending she was someone else. That she wasn’t betraying the man who’d just brought her a few minutes of golden peace.
A man who trusted her, who admired her. A man she could fall in love with.
Once he knew the truth, he would be just like Johnny. He would never have anything to do with her again.
For good reason.
She kissed the side of his neck before rolling over and sitting up. The Barone phone was out of her pocket now and she snatched it up to see Alfonso had left a message.
“Critical information,” was all it said.
Better than imminent danger, which was the 911 of her world. Critical information meant he’d learned something important, probably in conjunction with the mob bosses he was informing on. But with Alfie, it could also mean a new gravy recipe to try.
Italians and their sauces.
Liv stood, adjusting her pants, and walked toward the opposite wall. She dialed Alfie, even as she held up a finger to Victor. “Sorry, I have to take this.”
Half undressed, he sighed, putting one hand behind his head as he watched her from his pillow. He didn’t say anything, didn’t complain, but in the depths of his gaze she saw his disappointment.
The phone on the other end didn’t complete a full ring before Alfonso answered. “Hey, doll. Where you at? How come you didn’t answer?”
“I do have a life, Alfie,” she said. “What’s this critical information?”
“Something big is going down. Not sure what.”
She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Really? He’d interrupted her chance at sex for that? “I need something more specific.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. All I can tell you is law enforcement is being targeted.”
Liv’s stomach went south and she glanced at Victor. “Specifics, Alfie. Who is being targeted and why? How did you hear this? Who’s behind it?”
“I got my feelers out,” he said, slightly petulant, “but I need you to watch your backside, you hear me? This is big-time shit. Frankie B is involved. There’s more than one target, if my nose is accurate, and the boss is pulling out all the stops. He’s got someone on the inside helping him.”
Frankie B—the Butcher—Molina. One of Alfie’s bosses. Gino DeStefano’s right hand man.
Alfie was holding back, she was sure of it, but what mob guy ever told the truth? There were many days when Olivia believed Alfonso was like her dad. He’d once been a CI too. For all she knew, Alfie was leading her on, dropping trivial pieces here and there to make her believe he was helping, when in reality, he was pumping her for more information than she was getting out of him. That’s what her dad had done.
A cold prickle of dread scratched at the base of her spine. She couldn’t deny that Alfonzo’s critical information might actually jive with her undercover mission. She hadn’t floated into Victor Dupé’s world by accident—her contact at the Justice Department had sent her to keep an eye on him and see what ties he might have to the California mafia. Could Victor be Frankie’s inside guy?
She turned away from the director’s penetrating gaze and tried to interject a lightheartedness she didn’t feel into her reply. “You worried about me, Alfie?”
“What can I say?” His Jersey accent was heavier today. “You know I like you, even if you are a cop.”
“More like you’re worried about me being a target because I’m the one keeping you and your daughter protected, ain’t that right?”
He chuckled. “I’m still looking for those tickets to Hawaii, you know.”
If he came through for the prosecution when the time came, Alfie and his daughter would disappear, officially part of the witness protection program. Everyone in WP wanted to go to Hawaii, Florida, or some other warm location. Exactly the places they’d told friends and family they’d like to visit, which immediately crossed them off the potential list of places to hide.
“You keep looking,” she told him, “and I’ll see what I can do.”
Alfie wasn’t the only one who could tell a partial truth.
“I’m serious,” he said. “Whatever this is, it’s going down soon, and it’s going to be widespread. If nothing else, I don’t want you caught in the crossfire.”
His concern seemed genuine and it took her off guard.
In the next breath, he was back to normal. “We still on for tomorrow night?”
God save her, they had a standing dinner date. Alfonso liked to make his mother’s gravy and the smell always brought back fond memories of her own mother and food. It was an absurd thing, but occasionally she got him to talk about the DeStefano mob and Frankie B’s ongoing plans to eliminate certain cartels in an effort to control the drug trade in California. These were times Liv thought she was actually getting significant intelligence. Her boss encouraged her to keep attending the dinners in hopes Alfonso would eventually trust her enough to help her crack open the entire West Coast DeStefano operation.
“I’ll be there,” she said.
Just as she was hanging up, Victor’s phone went off downstairs. He ignored it, crooking a finger to entice her back to bed.
She wanted to tell him the truth. About everything. But until she had concrete evidence that he was indeed the elite director he appeared, there was no point blowing her cover or admitting she purposely crossed paths with him in order to keep a close eye on him, just like she kept on Alfonso.
Victor would blow a gasket if and when he discovered the Justice Department was surveilling him, but that wasn’t her biggest concern. She’d deceived him, and although the seduction had been voluntary, he wouldn’t see it that way.
Once again, she was ready to forget, to lose herself in the game she was playing, but Victor’s cell didn’t stop ringing. A second ringing started up as well. His landline.
She pulled away, the ache inside her growing as she accepted the fact that the two of them were not meant to be together no matter how much she wanted him. “You better get that. It could be an emergency.”
She didn’t need to tell him that, but she couldn’t help herself. Maybe this was God or the universe trying to save her from complete self-destruction.
A moment later, she heard him answer the phone downstairs, the change in his tone making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She threw on her shirt and hustled to join him, only to find the look on his face scaring her even more.
As he hung up, he was already racing for the front door. The dog ran in from the living room on high alert. “There’s been an emergency. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
She chased after him. “What happened?”
“It’s not good.” He stopped at the door, snagging car keys from the foyer table, his body language tight, controlled.
His jaw worked and finally glanced at her. “Cooper’s been shot.”
“What?” She couldn’t believe it. “Oh God, is he okay?”
Dumb question. Of course he wasn’t.
Victor kissed her forehead. “He’s in surgery. I’ve got to go.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Victor turned back. “You don’t have to do that.”
She grabbed the leash from its hanger and clipped it on Taz’s collar. “We’ll be right behind you.”