“Damn, this feels good.” Dylan kicked back on the dock and crossed his ankles. Sunshine warmed his bare shoulders and face, and he closed his eyes for a second, listening to the song of the bayou. Loons, bullfrogs and even the buzz of insects felt like coming home.
“You said it, bro.” The second oldest brother Sean stretched out on the dock too, abandoning his fishing rod altogether.
The rest of the special ops force known as Knight Ops reclined in various poses, enjoying the sun or fishing. All of them brothers except Rocko, who might as well be blood by now. They’d adopted him as one of their own.
“For the first time in weeks, I’m not bulked out with gear, and my heart’s not pounding because I’m about to take enemy fire,” Dylan said with a sigh.
“Incoming.” Ben scooped his hand into the water and splashed it over Dylan. He didn’t even flinch at the refreshing drops striking his skin. This was the most peace he’d had in many weeks working for the Homeland Security division known as Operation Freedom Flag Southern US, or OFFSUS, and he wasn’t going to squander a single second.
The popping sound of a beer can opening made Dylan crack an eye. “Toss me one o’ them, would ya?”
Roades reached into the foam cooler and lobbed the beer can toward Dylan, who snagged it from the air. “Just think, Roades, you can legally drink at this year’s Mardi Gras.”
His brother chuckled. “That’ll be a change, won’t it?”
“Same plan this year?” Dylan took a sip of his cold one. Damn, this day could only get better with some good old Southern barbecue. Maybe that joint down the road was open and they could send the younger peons of the team for a takeout run.
As far as command went, Dylan was smack in the middle of the brothers and the team. But he was willing to abuse his authority—or put one of his little brothers in a headlock—if it meant some good eats.
When no one answered Dylan’s question, he glanced around at his two older brothers. “Tell me you guys aren’t crapping out on our usual Mardi Gras celebrations this year because you have women in your lives.”
Ben and Sean exchanged a look.
“Seriously, guys?” Chaz added.
“Well, we can’t exactly bring Dahlia or Elise on our usual pub crawl, can we?”
“Why not?” Dylan asked.
Ben raised his brows. “Have you seen Dahlia? Every drunk asshole would be asking to see her breasts so she could earn her beads.”
Sean was shaking his head. “No way am I letting Elise do the pub crawl with us. We’ll meet y’all for the parade though.”
“The parade,” Dylan muttered and took another sip. He lowered his beer. “At least I’ve got two other brothers. Three if you count Rocko, which I am.”
Rocko thumped his chest with a fist. “Love ya, man. Truly.”
Chuckles followed but Ben and Sean’s revelations about breaking their traditional festivities had put a damper on everyone’s mood. Dylan set aside his beer and picked up his rod again.
“What if none of us can go to Mardi Gras this year?” Ben asked.
They all stared at him. “What do you know that we don’t?” Sean asked.
“I don’t know anything. I’m just pointing out that we haven’t had time off in a month, and how likely is it that we won’t be called in to track some threat across Mississippi?”
“Fuckin’ Mississippi,” Dylan, Chaz and Roades all said together. It seemed the most twisted missions took place in that state, and none of them were eager to jump when they heard those drawled syllables.
“New Orleans during Mardi Gras is the biggest security threat to the South. Colonel Jackson should just consider putting us on guard duty here.” Rocko had a point.
“Jackson won’t agree that your pub crawl is protecting the South from domestic threats, Rocko.” Ben flashed a grin.
“Look at it this way, you won’t have Ben and me, but you’ll still have Lexi to deal with.” Sean’s joke raised groans and growls from all the brothers. Their youngest hellion sister couldn’t be trusted on her own downtown, let alone with three brothers as bodyguards at Mardi Gras. After a complication at birth that had denied her of oxygen, she was a little on the naïve side to say the least, though her mouth made up for any shortcomings she dealt with.
“Lexi’s definitely not pub crawling with us. And thank God our other sister’s far away in basic training.” Their sister, Tyler, had run off and joined the Marines without a word, her only goodbye a texted selfie of her shaved head as she attempted to join up as a male.
Dylan missed a nibble on his hook and reacted. He jerked the line clear out of the water, and the hook whizzed past Chaz’s ear.
“Watch yourself, bro.” Chaz might be the most fun-loving of the brothers, but he had a temper to rival several of theirs put together if pushed.
Dylan looked around at the group on the dock. What had begun as a nice afternoon off was quickly dampened by his woman-whipped or grumpy brothers. Dylan reeled in his line and hooked the fishing hook onto the eye of the rod to keep it from getting snagged on anything in the back of his car. But the rod must have had a weak spot, because as soon as he tightened the line down, the tip snapped off.
The final damn straw.
He jumped up and broke the rod over his knee. Then he stomped to the end of the dock and tossed it in a trash barrel. He reached behind his back where he’d stuffed his T-shirt partially into his pocket and pulled it on. “I’m goin’ home,” he told the group and strode back toward the path that would lead to the parking area.
With his good mood vanished behind a cloud, he didn’t even enjoy the quiet walk to his car. When he rounded a corner and spotted the vehicles in the parking lot, all he could think about was getting out of this dreary place.
His cell buzzed. Only his family members called him, and he wasn’t in the frame of mind to talk to them right now, but he looked at the screen anyway.
It buzzed four more times. He could go against the rules of the team and ignore the call, and chances were, his brother just wanted to tell him to cool off or something.
But what if Ben wasn’t calling as a brother but as his captain?
“Shit.” He brought the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”
“Dude, we just got a call from Colonel Jackson.”
“Bullshit.” He was going to call Ben’s bluff.
“No, dead serious. We’re on our way out.”
He glanced over his shoulder to see the team headed around the bend.
Ending the call, Dylan waited for them to catch up. Knight Ops was his life, and his job was to protect his country against any threats, foreign and domestic. He pushed out a sigh.
He wasn’t against going on a mission today, as long as they got back in time for that pub crawl.
For him, it wasn’t even about the drinking—he could go without alcohol forever. But it was tradition for him and his brothers to celebrate. Besides, he hadn’t exactly met a lot of females during the past month and he was feeling a deep need to get a soft body beneath him. Mardi Gras was the perfect time—have a few drinks, find a pretty girl…
The guys reached him, and Dylan looked to Ben. “Well? Where to?”
“Jackson got word that there’s a threat downtown, a terrorist cell operating out of a clothing boutique.”
“At least we’re not going to backwoods Mississippi to nail down some asshole trying to blow the state off the map like the past two visits,” Dylan said.
“They should put it on the visitor’s guide,” Chaz responded.
They all chuckled.
Ben blew out a low whistle. “Load up, men. Looks like we’ll be in the middle of the party. Afterward, I’ll buy y’all a round at the bar.”
Five cheers went up.
* * * * *
Athena glanced at the ornate marble clock on the shelf. Her appointment was fifteen minutes late, but that wasn’t unusual for people with money. She found some of them had no sense of time and came and went when they pleased, and for what Athena made off them during Mardi Gras season, she was more than happy to keep her upscale clothing boutique open later.
She walked to the long bar of dresses, each more extravagant and exciting than the next. All with price tags that could pay her rent for a month.
She resumed straightening each hanger on the rod, putting exactly an inch between each so the whole shop looked neat for tomorrow’s opening. She fluffed the ruffles of one Hawaiian red gown with beading decorating the off-the-shoulder detail and considered her late client.
The banker’s wife was bold and loved to be seen. And her influential husband loved showing her off. This dress was something Mrs. Landrenau would flaunt during one of the high-class parties taking place all week. The woman relied on Athena’s Creations to outfit her for the entire season, and Mr. Landrenau wasn’t to be left out of this yearly shopping spree.
I must find a suit to match this gown.
Taking the dress off the hanging bar, she swooped the long, ruffled train over one arm and carried it across the room to the men’s section of her boutique. Each garment was either one-of-a-kind designer goods or a creation of her own. And when she’d hand-stitched the beading on this red gown, she’d pictured Mrs. Landrenau wearing it.
Smiling to herself, she flipped through the suits. Pinstripes, lightweight wools. Finally, she came to the more fashionable menswear. Some would call it bawdy, and not at all what a banker would be seen in, but Mr. Landrenau and his wife were the centerpieces of the bank’s Mardi Gras float as it rode through Uptown New Orleans.
The white suit with black striped pants and matching jacket would be perfect. She was just hanging the garments in adjoining dressing rooms for the couple to try when she heard the bell on the door tinkle.
Athena drew a deep breath and bundled her thick dark curls over one shoulder, smoothing the soft curlicues that could hardly be tamed in such a humid climate. The frizz around her fingers told her it was a lost cause. Around Mrs. Landrenau, she always felt like such a mess.
Sailing into the front room, she gave her biggest smile. “Hello and welcome!”
The couple turned to her, smiling, looking like they’d just stepped off the glossy pages of a society magazine. Athena greeted them warmly by gripping their hands and leaning in to air-kiss each.
“We’re sorry we’re late,” Mrs. Landrenau began.
“Oh, no matter. I was just choosing another outfit for each of you to try. Tell me, have your plans changed since we spoke last?”
She listened intently to the couple share a list of all their parties and social obligations. Athena had begun working with them months ago, and this appointment was just a wrap-up. But with luck, she’d go home tonight with a little fatter wallet. Between rental space for her boutique and expensive fabrics used for her creations, there were always bills. A little extra never went amiss.
Ten minutes later she was admiring the couple who stood arm-in-arm in front of the three-way mirror. “Mrs. Landraneau, the red suits your complexion so well, and Mr. Landrenau, nobody will be able to take their eyes off you.”
His wife turned to him. “You are dashing, Edouard. But I wonder about a top hat…”
Athena jumped to attention. “Oh yes. You’re so right. I’ll just grab one.”
She hurried out to the accessory wall and chose a white hat and a red pocket square for his jacket. When she returned, the couple was deep in conversation. They broke apart and beamed at her.
Athena’s arches ached in her high heels and she longed to kick them off and curl her toes into the thick carpet. Heck, she was ready for a nice long soak in her deep tub, but first she had to seal this deal.
“What does the stunning couple think? Is this a yes?” Standing back, she raised her phone to snap a photo of the couple.
“No photos please, though we love your enthusiasm. We see all the photos of people you take and put on social media.” Mrs. Landrenau smiled like a model but there was an edge to her voice that made Athena lower her phone. “Yes, we’ll take the outfits. I do believe this gown could use a few tucks to fit my curves just right, don’t you?”
Athena rushed forward, and another ten minutes were spent pinning the gown. She’d need to make the alterations tonight if she was to get it back to them for tomorrow’s events. So much for a long soak in that tub.
By the time she saw the Landrenaus out the door and twisted the locks, fatigue was creeping over her. But she was happy—this was her town and her time of year. Sure, Athena’s Creations made money year-round, but this was the Christmas equivalent for her business.
She moved through the shop, tidying up and switching off spotlights on certain creations hanging in alcoves. Then she went into her office and plopped into the chair behind her computer with a drawn-out sigh.
She looked at her computer screen. Too many emails—typical. One from an old friend caught her eye and she skimmed a note about meeting for dinner while she was in town. Um, tonight? She checked a small gold clock on her desk. Not tonight. She dashed off a response and apology to her friend with a promise to have a date later this week after things began to slow in her shop.
Another few minutes were spent checking on purchase orders for special fabrics and sewing notions and then she stood, stretching. Her spine popped in the middle and she yawned wide.
A thumping noise made her jerk, but the sound was silenced immediately. She froze, staring at the door of her office. The rest of her shop was outside of her view, so she popped her head out.
Maybe a shoe had just fallen off a shelf or something.
So why was her heart suddenly hammering and images of a break-in racing through her mind? That was plain silly. This part of the city was safest. She—
A dark figure with another right behind popped into sight. She dodged behind the doorframe, hand plastered to her chest to hold her heart inside. Oh God, she was being burglarized and she had the largest deposit of cash of the entire year right here in this office.
She spun to the desk and snatched up the zippered deposit pouch and stuffed it down her waist, into her pantyhose. Voices sounded, low, in short bursts of commands.
How many were there?
She wasn’t taking the time to count. She had one option and it was to dodge into the nearest hiding spot—a small closet crammed with boxes of invoices from former years.
Please don’t find me. Just steal all the jewels in the case, smash the glass if you have to. Just do not find me.
Her ears thundered with the beating of her own heart as she stuffed herself into a space next to the boxes. Her hair stood out like a mane, and until now she’d never believed that old story that people’s hair stood up in fright. She’d never been so terrified in her life.
Wait—she could call 9-1-1.
She darted a look through the crack in the closet door. Her cell phone was on her desk, where she’d set it down to do her work. Dammit.
Stupid tears stung the backs of her eyes, but she held her eyes wide, refusing to let them fall. She wasn’t only afraid—she was pissed. How dare these people break into her boutique and, and… What were they doing? They hardly made a sound and if she hadn’t seen them for herself, she would have wondered if she was imagining things.
It was only a matter of time before they ventured down the hall and discovered the office.
She twisted her fingers together and prayed. But her pleas went unanswered. A dark figure entered the office, with another behind him. They wore all black and even had their faces smeared with black paint. They were huge and lumpy, like they carried gear of some sort.
Or maybe they had bombs strapped to themselves.
Don’t be ridiculous, Athena, she scolded herself. What good would blowing up themselves and a clothing boutique do?
“Take the hard drive while I search the filing cabinet.”
She blinked rapidly. Not her hard drive. Did these people realize how impossible it was to keep a business’s affairs in order if she lost all her files? She wanted to scream but giving away her position wasn’t an option. As it was, she was shocked they couldn’t hear her heart pounding or her breathing so hard.
“Wait. Lemme check something.”
The closet door broke off the hinges, and she barely got her hands up to keep the wood splinters from coming back on her. A scream ripped from her throat as she stared up into a set of very dark, cruel eyes.
* * * * *
“Jesus.” Dylan’s muttered blasphemy didn’t begin to encompass what he was seeing. A woman, all wild curls and big eyes staring up at him, a scream breaking from her plump lips.
“Fuck, we got one.” Dylan reached into the closet.
“Get her outta there,” Ben demanded.
Outside the boutique, it had been established that Dylan was the man who could hack the security system the quickest. And that he would go after the electronics and files while the others searched the place. The op was to uncover anything that could lead to tracking down a terrorist. But he never thought Knight Ops would possibly walk into the boutique and find one waiting to be captured.
Or that she’d be staring up at him with big dark eyes.
“Out.” His voice was rough, and at first she didn’t move. “I said out.”
She scrambled forward, hands hitting the floor. She pushed to her knees and then a stand, swaying on one high heel because the other seemed to have fallen off inside the closet.
Dylan glanced around. “Sit.” He pointed to the office chair, and she limped with as much dignity as a woman on one high heel could to sit down. She looked as frightened as a rabbit—but he had a feeling if she opened her mouth, she’d have a big bite.
Ben leaned over the desk, and the woman’s eyes flew wider, if such a thing was possible. She also raised her chin a notch. Damn, the girl had spirit.
“Who are you?” Ben demanded.
“Athena Mohamed, the owner of this boutique.”
Dylan swallowed his surprise at her sultry voice. By her exotic looks, he’d expected an accent, but she spoke in a very clear Southern Louisiana drawl, not unlike his maman or sisters.
“What were you doing here after hours?” Ben asked.
A crinkle appeared between her brows before she swept her gaze over her desk as if that much was obvious. “Going over the day’s finances and purchase orders. Is that a crime now? Who are you, anyway? I’m going to call the police.”
Ben gave a short laugh. “Honey, they won’t come. This is above their pay scale. Now, tell me right now about what is really going on behind these sparkly gowns and tuxedos?”
“G-going on? I sell them, and right now is my busiest season, as you can guess!”
Damn, there it was again—that sass. Dylan found himself staring at Athena. Hell, that name fit her like a handmade gown.
He snapped himself out of it and stepped up to the desk. “Hand over the keys to anything that has a lock. Including the safe.”
Her face turned pink and then red. “If you’re going to rob me, then you’d be better off taking the jewelry case. It’s worth more than what’s inside the safe.”
Dylan arched a brow. “We’re not here to rob you, lady, but your operations have alerted Homeland Security and now you’re under investigation.”
Her jaw dropped and all the color drained from her pretty face. “Homeland Security? What for? I haven’t done anything wrong! I only sell dresses.”
“Sure, honey.” Ben’s sarcastic muttering had Dylan wondering if his brother was seeing something that Dylan was missing. What if this woman was really just a shop owner caught in the intrigue?
Now wasn’t the time to let a pretty face cloud his judgment.
“Hand over the keys.” Dylan held out a hand and she fumbled in the desk drawer, coming out with a ring of several keys. He looked at them.
“If you think I’m going to instruct you on which key fits which lock, you’re wrong.”
The corner of his lips tipped up. “I can figure it out for myself.” He ran through several keys and selected one, holding it up. Then he dropped to one knee and unlocked the bottom desk drawer. He’d been on enough missions for OFFSUS that by now he should expect anything to be in that drawer. But what she was actually keeping under lock and key stunned him.
A single pair of shoes glimmering with gems. If they were real, they’d be worth millions.
Or maybe more if they were currency for the terrorist cell.
He’d heard of things like this before. Large sums of money changing hands was easily tracked and authorities tipped off. But a person could find a private buyer for say, a pair of bejeweled shoes, and get what he—or she—wanted out of them.
Dylan hooked his fingers into the dainty straps and pulled out the shoes. He set them on the desktop with a hard clank and the woman flinched.
“What do you think you’re going to find here? That’s just a pair of heels I’ve been working on for a client.”
Dylan grunted. “These are now evidence. Now tell me the combination for the safe.”
She looked about to puke or shoot him with laser beams from her beautiful chocolate brown eyes. When she didn’t answer, he braced a hand on the desk and leaned over her.
“The combination.” His tone brooked no argument and she spouted the numbers.
His brain locked them in and he circled the desk to the safe while Ben pulled box after box out of the closet. It was so chockful that Dylan wondered how the woman had even squeezed herself around them to hide.
He spun the dial left, right, left and the door flipped open. Inside was a flat bank deposit pouch, empty or nearly empty by the looks of it. And a velvet ring box.
“Don’t take that, please.” The woman’s whisper raised the hair on the back of his neck, and he had no damn clue why that would happen. Hell, he didn’t even react after hearing a rifle being cocked behind him, but one whisper had him edgy.
He reached into the safe and withdrew the box.
Ben had stopped removing the cases of files and looked on.
Dylan cracked open the lid, expecting to find something to incriminate this woman as a terrorist on US soil, but what he was looking at were two simple wedding bands made of gold.
He plucked them from the case and held one up, using a pen light to examine it for microphones, microchips or anything else that would give a clue as to why the ring was so precious it had to be protected by a steel safe.
His light flashed over an inscription. Ou se flè mwen ki fleri nan kè mwen.
“You are the flowers that bloom in my heart.”
Her eyes widened.
“Did you believe a Louisiana boy can’t read the Creole, Ms. Mohamed?” The other ring had no inscription.
Ben grunted. “Take the ring and get the hard drive. As for the woman…” His brother turned to her, and she winced, true fear crossing her face. Dylan stared at her closer. She hadn’t shown anything but defiance when he spoke to her but she feared Ben? Dylan didn’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered.
He returned the rings to the case and pocketed it.
Ben went to the door and signaled to whoever was there to come inside. Chaz and Roades entered, and the woman pressed herself all the way back against her seat, hands tense on the arms as the room crowded with more big strangers.
Dylan moved to stand by the desk as his brothers began carrying out the boxes. When the guys had them all removed, Ben turned to the woman. He stared at her for a long minute. Judging by the way her curls jiggled around her face, she was trembling.
“Should I put her in the vehicle?” Dylan asked.
“Not yet.” Ben nodded to the computer, and Dylan set to work. Armed with a tiny electric screwdriver, he had the hard drive out of the device in seconds. Then he took Athena’s cell phone too.
“Leave her. She’s not connected, from what I see.”
Dylan gaped at his brother. His dismissal of the woman had Dylan reeling. Sure, the man was savvy and would never be deceived by a person claiming they were somebody they were not. But Dylan had other feelings on the matter.
“I disagree. She needs further questioning.” Dylan wasn’t backing down and he wasn’t leaving this woman behind. If they were wrong in suspecting her, she’d be released and no harm done. But if they failed to take her and she was a pivotal player in this plot…
Ben shook his head. “She’s baggage. We got what we need and it’s enough to follow.”
Dylan slipped the hard drive into his vest pocket.
Athena reared out of the chair. “That hard drive doesn’t go anywhere without me!”
Dylan moved fast, snapping her wrists behind her back and securing them with a zip-tie in a blink. She tugged the bonds, but she lifted her head high, the arch regal and her shoulders revealing that she was a true lady, trained for society.
Who the hell was she really?
He looked her over from head to toe. Something about a thickness around her middle had him dragging her from the chair to her feet. She wobbled on one heel as he patted her down, feeling fine bones and sleek curves.
And an odd shape at her midsection.
He arched a brow, and her eyes shot angry darts at him.
“I need to see what this is,” he told her.
She firmed her jaw. “Fine.”
He reached into the waist of her skirt, past a tighter band of pantyhose and found vinyl. He extracted a bulging deposit bag and unzipped it to find it stuffed with cash.
“My day’s earnings. I’d appreciate it if you don’t take the money.”
His fingers seemed to sting from the heat coming off her body. For a brief second, his fingers had come in contact with warm, silky flesh.
He shook himself.
“Cher, we don’t steal money, but this will be kept in a safer place than your pantyhose.”
Dylan took her by the shoulder and propelled her around the desk. “Since you’re so against being parted from your hard drive, it looks as if you’ve earned a ride to the interrogation room. Let’s go.”
Ben followed them out. When Rocko and Chaz looked up from searching the premises, warrior masks firmly in place, they showed no surprise at Athena being led out from the rear of the building. Dylan’s face was harder to read as he propelled the obstinate woman around display cases. Amusement, irritation, resolve… all flickered momentarily as the alleged shopkeeper muttered under her breath, her shoulder like granite under his touch.
When Dylan reached the back door with Athena, Rocko peeled off from the group. “I’ll go with you.”
“Give the place one last sweep, boys. Then it’s on to Colonel Jackson.”
Dylan caught Ben’s words as he passed through a back room to the door he’d so easily broken into. He didn’t agree with taking the woman directly to Colonel Jackson just yet—he was worried about Ben influencing the colonel and convincing him of Ben’s own belief she wasn’t involved. She had more to tell them, and Dylan was set on getting it out of her. No way was she innocent in this game, not when the whole boutique smacked of money changing hands.
Apparently it was money that was being used to shut down the Eastern power grid, effectively closing all banks and bringing the whole coast to a screeching halt, allowing laundered money to be siphoned out of the system with no one the wiser. At least, that seemed to be the plan.
Reaching the vehicle, Rocko opened the back door for him and Dylan placed a hand on top of Athena’s head to help her duck under the frame. The springy curls winding between his fingers shouldn’t give him such a shock of surprise or pleasure but when he removed his hand, he still felt the silky curls on his skin.
“Sit here.” He pointed to a seat and she plopped into it hard without the use of her hands and adequate balance. He realized sometime between here and the office, she’d kicked off her lone heel.
He examined her for a moment. Her looks could place her as foreign or Creole or any other New Orleans mashup. Only thing he was certain about was how her beauty hit him like a missile. She hadn’t changed her story or wavered at all since he’d found her. Maybe he was wrong that she was involved and was just an innocent caught in the shit storm.
She turned her head to pierce him with her angry gaze. “You’re making a mistake. I don’t know why you searched my boutique or what is even going on, but you’ve got the wrong person.”
“We’ll see.” If she wasn’t involved in the cell threatening the US, then whoever was using her boutique as a place to pass money into the right hands was going to know soon enough they were found out and Athena would become the target.
“You’re sure about this? We can still let her go,” Rocko said quietly from behind him.
Athena’s gaze drilled into Dylan.
He gave a hard nod. “She goes.”
“What am I being accused of? Selling a woman a gown and a matching hat and gloves? Or maybe selling her partner a tuxedo?”
“Don’t say another word.”
Ben got behind the wheel and the others piled into the SUV. Dylan climbed in next to the woman, far too aware of how small she was compared to him. He must be crazy, but in the past few minutes, he’d gone from suspecting her of being a terrorist to knowing he must protect her from them.