Strike Force

cover design by elaina lee at "for the muse design"

cover design by elaina lee at "for the muse design"

Chapter One

Present Day
Marie Feur stepped out of her light blue Fiat in the small parking lot of her current job, a.k.a. prison and protection…in a word, home. Ever since Hawk recruited her, she’d been living this funny balance between criminal and Honest John. Part of her was proud of her status in acquisitions; the other part worried Hawk would eventually quit needing her on the team, that he’d see what a mistake he’d made and get rid of her.
She couldn’t lose this job, though. It was her only connection to Dimitru and the stolen enchanted family heirloom. The balance between her old life and her new one, along with the need to hide, strained her goodwill.
And lately, she wanted to bite everyone’s head off, even Josie’s. Everyone loved Josie, so that would put Marie in a very precarious position with her coworkers.
“Marie.” Malcolm Daniels. God, his voice jangled her nerves, but not in a bad way. 
When she continued to stand at her car and absorb what would be one of the last of the warm summer days, he went by with a nod. Did she detect a smile? Despite the connection they’d made overseas, he’d been strong about resisting her friendship. She hadn’t given up yet, and as much as it bugged her to be so easily ignored these last few weeks, she did enjoy the view of his rear as he made his way to the front door.
Almost two years after getting shot in the chest, he had bulked back up to his previous fighting form—so she was told. She hadn’t known him them. He’d been the slightly scrawny, mean, scary-looking guy when they met…
The healthy version did funny things inside her and left her slightly…wanting. 
“You just going to stand there?” He’d opened the door and stood, waiting for her.
Her pride kept her from tripping over herself to reach him, and she took the walk toward him like the calm, cool, collected person she pretended to be almost every day. “Thanks,” she said as she walked by him, and took a deep breath to get a whiff of the scent he carried.
Most of the guys around here didn’t bother with cologne, but Malcolm was different. He always smelled vaguely of cologne in a very sexy, subtle way…like he’d put it on the day before, not overpowering. She’d been a sucker for that stuff since her ovaries woke up.
“Hawk is waiting for you in conference room one.” Josie clacked away at her computer, glancing quickly toward the open door.
“Me?” Malcolm lifted his messenger bag over his head, answering at the same time as Marie responded, “Who, me?” 
The typing stopped and Josie looked over her glasses. “Yes, you. You guys.”
Marie frowned. Had Malcolm been digging into her past again? Had he figured her out? Was he ready to throw her under the bus? But he looked as surprised as she did, so she blew out a breath. 
“Thanks.” Marie hurried to her little cubicle space, down the hall from Malcolm’s—way back in a corner that no one could see, and, more importantly, she couldn’t see from—and dropped her bag inside the door. She shook out her skirt and straightened her shirt on her shoulders. She was procrastinating, though, waiting for the fear of rejection to subside.
Hawk had hired her, knowing she’d been about to rob him. He’d known she was following him, and he hadn’t questioned her heart. It was even as if he actually liked her.
Had he finally changed his mind?

***

Malcolm set his laptop on the table, taking a seat opposite Marie, and flipped the top. Better not to linger on her face. It was already spending too much time in his dreams—fucking dreams. 
He kept his eyes on his laptop, opening a blank Word document first and then opening his security program. Inside the program, he had tabs on every system their company contracted with. Through the computer he’d built, he would get alarms, system breach alerts, and—occasionally, when a company would ask—updates on where their employees were browsing. He really hated those requests.
Typically, Hawk didn’t fiddle with bullshit. The means were there, inside the systems, but the companies were in charge of keeping track—usually. There were oddball rich people everywhere, though. So they did their best—at Hawk Elite—to keep everyone happy. 
Malcolm actually liked the fieldwork best. He liked being out there with the guys, making a rescue or even being a courier. The computer stuff was his passion, but the other stuff kept him from getting complacent. 
“Thanks for meeting me,” Hawk said as he entered the room. He followed the wall to the whiteboard at the front of the room and then turned and found his chair. 
Marie sat up straighter and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear as she bit her lip then clasped her hands together in her lap, as if she was nervous. His gaze stayed on her, and he noted that lip again. Fucking-A, she was gorgeous. He shifted in his seat, pointedly redirecting his thoughts.
Hawk dropped a manila folder to the table and sat.
The man had been mostly blind for over a year. Two years ago, the surgery performed on his brain had been successful, making sure he would live a long life. But the scar tissue around his optical nerve had been too deep, too embedded to be removed without cutting his life short. 
He was blind now, with very little light perception.
But Malcolm would swear there were occasions when the man could see.
Sixth sense, though. Hawk still worked with the teams, needing some adjustments and some help. 
Malcolm didn’t know if he would have been able to overcome the setback or accept help with as much gratitude and humility, or good humor. He knew there were soldiers who came home and survived, lived full lives. Injured didn’t mean less. 
His own fear bugged him sometimes, reminding him he might not have been physically injured, yet all the same, he’d returned a broken bastard. Because of her. He never said it, but there were times he wished he’d come home without a leg instead.
Fuck the wife.
He hated thinking about those days.
Didn’t know why she would come up right now…except for the woman sitting across from him. Marie Feur. The thief. 
Acquisitions, she insisted. 
Yeah. Heather had been in acquisitions, too.
Malcolm had no clue why Hawk would have hired Marie all those months ago when it was obvious she’d wanted to steal from him.
But she’d proved reliable overseas on the last assignment, garnering her a smidgen of respect. It really wasn’t helping that every time she was around, he thought about sex. He tried not to, but the glittering yellow of her hazel eyes drew him in and put him under some kind of spell.
Which made sense after she started talking about her gypsy heritage. Maybe she had put a spell on him. He tried to be offended by the idea of being under a spell, but the idea of getting her into bed won out, which—in turn—should probably offend her. Fuck, that was way too twisted.
“Malcolm?”
Shit. “Yes, sir?” He typed a few things into the Word document, hoping to look busy and not completely distracted.
“The Dimitru company in Portland, Oregon. Any trouble on the radar?”
Malcolm clicked over to his security software and checked in on the tab. All systems were green. “Nope.” He didn’t miss the way Marie’s pulse, the point in her neck under her ear, sped up and her breathing shallowed a little.
“What’s going on?” she asked, pretty as you please.
Malcolm wasn’t fooled. Something was up this time. And now he had a place to start. Didn’t it make sense that the first time she perked up in interest over a client it was with Dimitru? Another Eastern European name? He opened his search engine and typed in the name Dimitru along with the name Feur. 
Just to see what would happen.
A few connections, but nothing stood out enough for him to look through right now, and Hawk was talking anyway. 
“He wants someone to come out and test his system.”
“Again?” Malcolm asked. “We were in Oregon to set the system up ten months ago when we couriered for him and brought the artifact over. Nothing has happened since then, aside from the weekly personal calls.”
“Right,” Hawk said. “He’s high maintenance—”
“Paranoid.”
Hawk conceded with a nod. “And we can look at that on the next quarter’s billing statement, but for now, let’s show him we know what we’re doing.”
“You want a team put together?” Marie asked.
“No, I think you two will suffice.”
Disappointment flitted through her eyes, but was gone so quickly that Malcolm wondered if he saw it at all. More interesting shit. She didn’t want to work with him? “Do you mind if I take an extra day or two to visit my uncle?” She rarely spoke of family. Her parents had died when she was young. 
Malcolm had assumed she had no family left at all. He added it to his mental list of things to do.
“You could both use a break after Qatar. Take a few days—take a week, if you need it.”
“I can come right back. No problem,” Malcolm said. “I think Tan was talking about another protection detail.”
“You can take a break, Mal.” The way Hawk said it put Malcolm’s back up.
Would anyone around here ever forget he’d been shot in the chest? He was fine. Qatar had been a fluke, brought on by the heat, nothing more. “I’m fine, sir.”
“I never said differently.” Hawk pushed the folder Malcolm’s way. “Reading for on the plane. Get familiar with the client. Not only is he paranoid, he’s egotistical.”
Malcolm sighed. “Yes, sir.”
“Quit it,” Hawk said as he stood. He hated to be called sir. “Stroke it a little, Malcolm. For now, he’s a client. Know him before you go in.”
“Fine.”
Hawk grinned. “That’s better.”
Marie’s narrowed gaze was caught on Hawk’s face, and Malcolm almost scowled. Women liked Hawk. So what?
“Hey, babe. You ready?” Stacy waved to Malcolm and Marie from the doorway. “I’m stealing the boss. You two, Josie’s got your tickets—open-ended. It’s been a long stretch with no break.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Marie said. “We get it.”
Her tone reflected what Malcolm was feeling, and it made him smile.
Marie studied the paperwork Hawk had handed over. Nose deep in the manila envelope, she displayed great concentration and skill at ignoring him. She was up to something. 
He didn’t know how he knew.
But it hadn’t slipped his attention Dimitru was the same guy they’d been working with when Marie first showed up on the scene…
Their team mate, Tancredo, could be right. Malcolm had become a jaded, suspicious bastard.
 

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