“Hot. Really hot. And hard.”
“No way. Slow and sexy.”
“Girl, please. Look at his posture.”
“And that says ‘slow’ to you…how? That man likes being large and in charge.”
“Can’t we just wish he prefers both? A lot of both?”
“Maybe he’ll let one of us explore the issue further.”
“After we’re done with the dog-and-pony show tonight.”
“You mean after Tracy’s done with it?”
That was it. The banter between her two closest friends finally made Tracy Rhodes choke on her “soothing” cup of tea. She set the cup down on the dressing table, swiveled in the high makeup chair, and unloaded two rounds of exasperation at Gemini Vann, aka her Chief Counsel, and Veronica Gallo, her Media Secretary. At the moment, however, they were distracting thorns, numbers one and two. “Not helping with the ‘relax’ segment of the schedule, girls.”
Relax. If that were possible. Down the hall, an army of Las Vegas Convention Center staffers readied a hall that would soon seat thousands. In a little over an hour, all those seats would be filled—with people waiting to hear what she had to say. About a subject she knew all of three damn things about. Okay, two and a half. She needed all the help she could get.
That officially nixed relaxation.
Calm. Maybe calm was achievable—though that depended on getting five minutes of deep breathing. Time sure as hell laughed at that one. Sound check was in ten minutes, followed by half a dozen this-can’t-wait phone calls and then a meeting with local schoolchildren. And space? Fifteen people in a twelve-by-twelve dressing room might be someone’s idea of space, but she wasn’t that someone.
There were a lot of “someones” she never thought life would turn her into by now.
Vice president of the United States.
Annnnd there went the possibility of calm.
Before her nerves could start their usual run with that, Gemini came to the rescue, holding out a bottled water. With eyes half a shade lighter than hers and the same somewhere-between-blond-and-brunette hair, many mistook Gem as her sister. Neither of them refuted the claims. Why bother when it might as well have been truth?
“Better to ask forgiveness, right?” The woman’s blue-silver gaze sparkled. “So…errrmm…sorry, boss?”
Tracy took a second to think of a good zinger as comeback. It was all the opening needed for the strawberry blonde poised at the other end of the mirror. Veronica, actually looking like a Veronica instead of the shortened version of Ronnie she preferred, pointedly cleared her throat. “You mean sorry, Madam Vice President, right?”
Gem snorted. “She was my pinky-swear bestie long before she was DC’s darling. She’ll be the same long after they’ve moved on to the news cycle’s next favorite flavor. Still”—she nodded Tracy’s way—“sorry, Madam Vice President.”
Tracy stifled a chuckle. “You’re forgiven, Madam Counsel to the vice president.”
“Not if I beat you to it.” Ronnie sneaked in a long stare at the cluster of men near the door—“men” seeming the worst ration of a word for the sight. At least ten better definitions came to Tracy’s mind for the dark-suited group.
Annnnd that did it. She was now a member of the gawk-a-thon too. And that was a surprise…why? With the turn her life had taken in the last year, there’d barely been time for a little self-induced fun in the sheets, let alone activities like—gasp—a date. And if she could even find the time for that? What then? One couldn’t trade small talk about the job over dessert and coffee when most of that information was classified. One couldn’t invite a guy up for a nightcap when Secret Service was opening the car door and the street address was One Observatory Circle.
Even if that wasn’t the case, she had to consider Luke.
Like she did in every decision she made. In every breath she took.
Well. Speak of the handsome devil now.
No. Not a devil. Despite the glints in his eyes and the cant of his grin, her son would always be her perfect gift from heaven. A little extreme? Of course. A thought process she’d have to revise one day? Definitely. But not today and not now, even if staring at Luke meant she had to keep looking at the suited hunks, now engaging him in caveman-worthy fist locks and shoulder bumps. The lump in her throat swelled bigger as she watched his attempts at reciprocation, all gangly limbs and fifteen-year-old bravado, clearly worshiping the warriors who joked around with him—
Until he locked gazes with the new arrival to the gang.
The one who made the others, even with their linebacker shoulders and towering thighs, look like his wimpy kid brothers.
The one who turned her kid into a speechless slab.
Especially the next moment, when he turned and gripped Luke in a thoroughly masculine handshake. With their hands locked, the man’s fingers stretched halfway to Luke’s elbow.
“Holy shit,” Gem rasped at the sight.
“Holy something,” Ronnie seconded.
“Sssshh,” Tracy admonished. “He’s talking.”
Because his voice was the most alluring thing about him.
Dear. God. That. Voice.
Deep as his dark, watchful eyes. Formidable as the shoulders straining at every stitch of his jacket. Warm as his caramel-colored skin but cool as his control. It was the kind of voice she could imagine in the front lines of battle—but also at the pulse points in her neck. And other places on her body…
Well…holy something. Cows weren’t exactly at the mental forefront at the moment. Stallions, maybe. Or mambas. Maybe even werewolves.
No, no, and no.
Ding, ding, ding. When the metaphor fits…
She really did need to make a date with the electric boyfriend soon.
“It’s Luke, right?” the hulk was saying. “Good to meet you, man. I’m John. How’s it jammin’?” The query came with a nod at the phone into which Luke’s ear buds were plugged, drawing her attention to the extreme skull cut of the guy’s ink-black hair—another element of utter hotness. “Yeah,” he murmured, stepping closer to study Luke’s playlist. “That’s some beatin’ stuff.”
Okay, forget about playing coy. Tracy escalated her gawk to an open ogle. John the hulk had to be part wizard or druid or sorcerer—whatever the hell Luke’s video-game-of-the-month was calling them—to entrance her son into revealing the hallowed contents of his playlist.
Not a druid.
Maybe a god.
He sure as hell looked like one.
Moved like one too. She looked on, certain she added drool to her gawk, as he greeted Sol Wrightman, who’d entered and made a beeline for him. They clasped hands and then butted shoulders, making her notice John the hulk was taller than the agent in charge of her Secret Service detail, who was no small man. The bigger difference was in their demeanors. Sol was a constant dervish, full of jagged energy. John’s movements were just as powerful but fluid in their force, flowing from one action to the next, backed by the strong surety of all those muscles. No, she couldn’t see them. But she damn well knew they were there.
Sol was accompanied by another man, whom she recognized from their brief introduction from the day before. The guy’s name also began with an S, but that was all she could remember, despite how his bold bone structure, expressive lips, and endless legs seemed better fitted for an underwear ad model than a top-shelf Vegas security advisor.
“Ready to go, champ?”
She swung her attention toward the source of the challenge, wondering how he’d sneaked into the room. Had the hulk smoked over her attention so thickly, she hadn’t notice Dan Colton’s own entrance?
Not a question to which she wanted a real answer.
“Well hey there, runt.” She pushed to her feet and pulled the polished businessman into a hug that’d leave bruises. She was fully justified, especially since the man’s wife, Tess, looked on with a laugh of approval. “Gah,” she muttered, pulling back to slap his well-defined jaw. “It’s so unfair.”
Dan shook his head, freeing his penny-colored waves out of his piercing blue eyes. Since officially stepping away from the CIA to head Colton Steel, he’d let the locks grow into some trendy asymmetrical look, longer on top and shaved at the sides. “What’s unfair? You don’t like the dressing room? Is everything okay at the villa?”
“Everything’s great at the villa.”
“I’m fine with the villa.” She chuckled. “It’s gorgeous.” A fold of her arms emphasized the point. “I’m not fine with the fact that you’re hotter now than you were in high school.”
She expected her friend’s beat of discomfort. Dan was hotter than he’d been at fifteen, but the only person who didn’t get that was Dan at thirty-three, courtesy of the mottled burn tissue along the left side of his face. Because of it, his features would never be Ken doll perfection again, but he was still here after a mission that should’ve taken his life. Instead, it’d made him a hero. Regrettably, the man hadn’t seen it the same way. His self-pity party had been in full swing until Tess came along and walloped well-needed sense back into him.
“Yeah, well,” the man muttered. “Who’s now just a schmuck trying to make a buck, and who’s the fucking vice president? And fuck, there goes my mouth again. Fuck.”
“Guess what, runt? The fucking vice president has a teenage son. She’s heard the word a few times before.”
Tracy raised both hands. “Don’t look at me, mister. I’m clingin’ to the saddle and hangin’ on for the ride.”
Dan’s encore of the word felt more like a new curtain rising. His cocky growl was gone, replaced by a rasp as if he’d seen a ghost. His expression conveyed the same thing—as his stare jumped from Luke to the hulk. In less than a second, her old friend jolted forward, tackling the man in a brutal bear hug.
“Well hello, beautiful.” That caramel baritone sounded even better when infused with a laugh. “What’s a pretty spook like you doing in a joint like this?”
“Not pretty or spooky anymore,” Dan countered. “I could ask you the same question, ground pounder.”
The guy could’ve jammed Dan’s finger into a light socket and shocked him less. That didn’t concern Tracy as much as the hulk’s open discomfort. He clearly didn’t like the feeling and refused to wear it well. Nevertheless, he gave Dan a follow-up through tight teeth.
Quietly but quickly, Dan’s demeanor turned as dark as his friend’s words. “You have more than a billion, and they know it.”
“You also made the right call on that mission—and they know that.”
The man grunted. “Right.”
Dan chuffed. “Usually am.”
Dan shook his head. “Dragon, neither your name or family jewels belong in the same sentence with ‘simple.’”
Tracy smiled, though her own look was forced. She’d hang by her toenails before admitting it, but the men’s conversation was the most invigorating debate she’d witnessed in the last six months. The confession, though secret, also brought the guilt. Craig Nichols had bucked everyone on Capitol Hill when appointing her vice president after a golf course heart attack struck down Duane Sanford. Sure, she was the surprise darling on the Hill after arriving less than two years ago, refusing to leave until after everyone had listened to her case for foreign security reform, but besides her passion and persistence, she was also young and inexperienced.
Translation: a thoroughly unconventional choice to replace the elder statesman.
And yes, despite her fast friendship with the president and first lady, she’d nearly turned Craig down. In the end, she’d set up camp on the opposite end of that spectrum, determined not to let her leader down—even if that included a lot of boring meetings with a lot of boring old guys looking at a lot of boring vector charts. At this very second, it also meant she got the jollies from listening to her high school buddy and his chum, “The Dragon,” invoke their guy parts as conversation reference.
But even as the vice president, she couldn’t just order them to get back to the subject—even if the crowd for tonight’s event was some of the good stuff. Despite her already-shot nerves about it, she was damn glad she’d come. Events like tonight, where she’d meet a combination of high-tech gurus and young innovators, made the job worth it. This crowd represented the private sector’s investment in public education, especially programs blending the arts and technology. Luke himself was proof of the strategy’s success, but she’d gotten lucky in finding teachers and schools open to the concept. When corporations across the country embraced the concept more, the results would be spectacular—a hope strong enough to make her push past the stage fright one more time.
One more time.
The mantra always got her through the ordeal—partly because she was stupid enough to believe it, partly because it was better than pulling her head out of the toilet long enough to get on stage and sweat through a bunch of rehearsed lines.
“Excellent idea, my ruby.” Dan stroked a gentle hand through her lush red curls. He glanced to Sol. “You know if they have a private room around here? The vice president and I just need a few minutes to compare notes.”
Sol nodded succinctly. “We’ll find something, but first things first. Madam Vice President, we have to apprise you of a minor change in plans.”
“Of course we will.” He raised expectant brows at his friends, choosing to end with Mr. Mystery S Name. “Which is why I’ll let Mr. Bommer take it from here.”
Bommer’s lips spread, exposing a boyish grin. Even he was pleased she’d remembered. All too rapidly, the look sobered into something more diplomatic. “I’ve come to apologize to you in person, Mrs. Rhodes.”
Tracy frowned. “Apologize? What for?”
“As you know, Mr. Wrightman and I have been working in tandem, coordinating your heightened local security needs for tonight. I was slotted to take the lead on all operations but am afraid there’s another lady who must take precedence for me.”
Tracy tilted her head, already sensing what he’d say. “That’s all right, Shay. I get it.”
His face crunched. “You do?”
“Sure. Didn’t I see Arianna Grande’s back in town for a week or so down the street?”
“Don’t say.” She tossed a defined glance down to the man’s wedding ring. The band gleamed so brightly, she could imagine him polishing it every morning. That was all the invitation the guy needed. Out came his phone, and an image of a woman with large, dark eyes and a bigger, rounder belly.
“My wife, Zoe,” he clarified.
As his face drowned under more troubled waters, Tracy instinctively reached for his hand. “And everything will be just fine.”
His reciprocal grip was full of gratitude. “Yeah, I know. She’s barely dilated, but this is our second, and delivery on our first was—”
“It was…an adventure. Let’s say that much.”
The word often came with a thousand nuances of meaning, especially when one spoke to ex-military operatives. Tracy didn’t know a speck of Bommer’s back story but was willing to bet he’d worn dog tags at some point in his life. “An adventure with a happy ending, I hope?”
Bommer’s grin returned with wider emphasis. “Damn straight.” A slide of his thumb across the screen revealed a baby barely older than twelve months, with golden eyes like her father and sable curls matching her mother’s. “Her name’s Selene.”
“She’s beautiful too.” She meant it.
Shay gazed at the screen with soft eyes. “She is, isn’t she?”
“And she needs her daddy right now.” She meant that even more. Though Luke had been nearly ten times Selene’s age when Ryker died, there were more times than not that it had already felt like he was gone—none of it proper preparation for when he was. “Go, Shay Bommer,” she urged. “Kiss your daughter. Be with your wife. Those are direct orders from your vice president.”
Bommer pocketed the phone, looking tempted to follow up by full-on hugging her. He held himself back after a quick glance from Sol, though his exuberance remained palpable as he scooped up her hand again. “Thank you, Madam Vice President. Thank you.”
Tracy returned the tight squeeze of his fingers. “Thank me by sending me a picture of your healthy new baby.”
Of course he wasn’t. Which was why, as soon as the words left him, nervousness tapped a delicious dance up Tracy’s spine. This was it. Time to play the part of the land’s second-in-command, when all she wanted to do was twirl hair around her finger like the swooning teen inside—
Manna of heaven. Up close, he was even more formidable. Had she expected anything less? Perhaps she had. A slight slump. A schism of ugliness in the crinkles at his eyes’ edges. A soft spot anywhere on his body. Instead, his fierce force engulfed her harder, matching the nickname Dan had referred to him by. Dragon. She half-expected mighty wings to unfold from his back.
“I’m honored—and damn lucky—to be presenting Captain Keoni John Franzen,” Shay declared. “Captain Franzen, the vice president.”
“Mrs. Rhodes. It’s my pl—”
The baritone cut short as soon as their hands clasped—and their gazes locked. As much as Tracy reveled in his voice, she secretly celebrated his hesitance. Thank God she wasn’t alone in the feeling. No. Feelings, plural. So many, colliding all at once. Feathers of fire through her hand. Radiant heat up her arm. The awareness, now coursing through her whole body, of his form. Of even more than that. For a moment, just one blissful moment, the rest of the room disappeared. The noise of the world stopped. All was a haze of golden energy…the same shade she could now glimpse, in tiny perfect flecks, at the very edges of his dark-brown irises.
What would those rings of light look like from inches away? What would everything look like, smell like, feel like with the man pressed close instead of at arm’s length? And why was she tempted to use some of Dan’s four-letter words when realizing none of those fantasies were relevant, much less possible?
“Franz is the gold standard, Madam Vice President. You’re actually getting an upgrade, but I won’t say that too loudly in front of him.” He chuffed, pointing to Franzen’s severe haircut. “His dome gets too big, we worry about the doorframes becoming sawdust.”
Tracy giggled before she could help it. She attempted an apologetic look at Shay. “You do have a lot of hair, bucko.” It cascaded around his face in artful negligence like a young Jared Leto or an old John Lennon, usually inspiring appreciative female glances—though not hers. The etched elegance of Franzen’s look, though? Her fingers itched from the thought of those black spikes jabbing into them.
Who was she kidding? Her fingertips only carried the start of the itch.
“Bucko.” Franz snort-laughed it, exposing the hint of a smile. Holy hell, the man had dazzling teeth. “Dude. You’re a bucko.”
“Ohhh, boy.” Tracy mock-groused it. “There’s the pregnancy hormones talking now.” She cocked her head, encouraged by Franzen’s smirk. “Save the boo-hoo for the delivery room, Bommer—and just tell me what I need to know about this one. ‘Dragon,’ was it? Do I dare ask where that came from?”
Like a kid waiting at Dairy Queen, she couldn’t wait for the man’s bigger smile. Instead, he started resembling the Hulk, eyes stormy and lips tense, before muttering, “It’s just a name. Doesn’t mean anything.”
There was more to that. A lot more. Tracy read that much in the ensuing expression across Bommer’s face, debating a reaction somewhere between a fuck you and a full throat punch. He eschewed both to state, “As soon as I called with the SOS, John graciously hopped his backside onto a plane from Seattle. He’s been based there for the last eleven years—at least the few times he’s been stateside—out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Headed the Spec Ops team my brother was on, or at least that’s what it says on paper. What it doesn’t say is—”
Franzen chopped him short with a grunt. “Don’t start.”
Captain Franzen looked ready to bust out of his clothes and turn green.
A dozen earpiece radios squawked.
The intrusion made Tracy start. Rarely could she actually hear her security team’s comm links since they were hooked into tiny ear pieces for each member, but the blare quashed the silence after her dare, all but ensuring she’d never be answered.
“Roger that,” Sol said into the mic beneath his shirt cuff before circling toward Tracy. “Main hall’s been checked and secured, ma’am. They’re ready to run your sound check.”
“Of course they are.” As soon as the grumble spilled, she mentally smacked herself for it, despite feeling like she’d earned it. That just once, she could take a break and indulge some harmless interest in a hotter-than-hell man…
No. She was more than interested. She was drawn. Like some damn molecule depicted in one of Luke’s Chem lessons, she was helpless about it too.
And she had no idea why.
And there was the crux of this frustration.
Keoni John Franzen. There was something about him. Something deeper than the muscles and the confidence and the powerful grace. Something beneath all the one-liners and the smack talk with his buddies. A darkness…but not one cowering in shadows and shame. He liked his darkness. Took refuge in it. Was more than happy in it.
So why was she so hot to climb his tree?
And she was hot. More than she wanted to admit, even as the light caught the gold rings in his eyes again. As he rolled his head, cracking his neck. As he readjusted his stance, looming and large, before moving into place near the dressing room’s door.
Hot butter on a damn biscuit.
Her heartbeat doubled. Her libido flared. Everything between her thighs thumped in time to her escalated pulse rate.
She wanted him to stride back over to her.
Her body totally naked.
Her legs completely spread.
“Tigress is en route to the stage. I repeat, Tigress is en route to the stage.”
Nothing like Sol barking her code name into the comm link at his wrist, along with a mention of the damn stage, to land her pussy back on ice. Even if it was a kick-ass code name.
As he pulled away, a laugh lightened his lips but weariness darkened his gaze. Sol had said Bommer had “covert ops” experience. Not special ops. Suddenly, the difference hit her between the eyes—a difference she was all too aware of as vice president. The man had been black ops, likely some of the blackest.
Still didn’t prepare a guy for the birth of his own child. Even the second one.
She spent one last second to clasp his hand, using the contact to zing him with the energy of the prayer in her heart, before turning toward the door with fresh resolve.
She could do this. It was just a sound check.
She could do this.
As soon as she could move again.
As soon as she accepted—somehow—that John Franzen now waited, his stare missing nothing and his power filling the air, to become the back end of her security sandwich all the way to the stage.
As soon as she acknowledged—somehow—that his arrival might even be a blessing in disguise.
For the next twelve hours, she suddenly had something to be more nervous about than being onstage in front of ten thousand people.
Thank God, after it was all over, she’d be boarding a plane back to Washington.