They didn't have a nuclear bomb.
Special Agent Ella Waverly knew it. The twenty other FBI agents knew it. The SWAT team surrounding the house knew it. Even the dog sitting blissfully ignorant in the middle of the yard probably knew it.
But that hadn't stopped the members of the white-supremacy cult holed up inside from threatening to detonate said bomb with the trigger spark gap they'd stolen from Bourbon County Hospital two weeks ago.
The small, harmless device was used normally as the ignition on a machine that broke up kidney stones. In the wrong hands, however, it had the potential to become a piece in a weapon of mass destruction.
From the corner of her eye, Ella caught sight of a large form stalking out from the side of the house and readjusted her weapon's sights. The man stepped out of the shadows cast by the house's awnings and nodded to a couple of SWAT guys. The way he moved said, agent, but he didn't look like any agent she'd ever worked with. He wore tattered jeans with a faded AC/DC Razor's Edge tour T-shirt, and the feminine side of her couldn't help but notice the broad shoulders tapering down into a slim waist and, lord, nice ass.
"They don't have a nuke," the special agent beside her said.
She glanced at the guy, flushing like a guilty teenager caught snooping. But he wasn't paying attention to her. He stared hard at the ramshackle house as if he planned on walking right up to the front door and telling the psychos straight up they'd all won a one-way ticket to the local jail.
"Seriously? Because the whole yelling 'we've got a nuke and we'll blow this whole county to hell if you don't leave' thing really had me going." Not for the first time, she wondered how someone with the IQ of a squirrel had made Counterproliferation Agent.
"We're wasting time going along with this. The SWAT team should've taken them down hours ago. In fact, we didn't even need SWAT. Why the hell did Morgan call them in? What a waste of resources."
She rolled her eyes. More like this guy's wage was a waste of resources. Ignoring him, she forced her attention back to the house before her mouth could overpower her common sense. Saying anything wouldn't be worth it.
Once they took down this cult cell, she'd be headed home to Washington D.C., and from there on to all sun and sand in Florida—her first vacation in five years. And even better: no egotistical idiots like this guy for six weeks.
"Morgan doesn't know what he's doing; how the hell he made lead-agent on this gig . . . ." He continued his bitching.
Did he think she cared, or worse, agreed? She tuned him out and focused instead on the occasional shapes moving behind the thin, tattered curtains.
No need to rush these things; the SWAT team would move in good time. She'd worked with a lot of these guys in the past. Her job with the FBI's National Security branch often saw her in similar field situations. These SWAT guys were worth their weight in gold, and she'd learned fast to appreciate them. Nonetheless, with each new assignment and each new batch of local FBI agents, she seemed to get stuck with the one or two gung-ho agents who thought they could take down a house full of armed terrorists single-handedly.
When he started a ranting theory of why so many unnecessary FBI agents were present, her patience got the better of her. "Is your radio working?"
"Of course it is."
"Are you sure? Because Morgan's looking for you."
Okay, so Morgan wasn't looking for him, but maybe he'd get the hint and wouldn't come back to this particular spot between the brick fence and the police cruiser.
"SWAT going in, thirty seconds and counting." The radio in her ear had been chattering with standard operational talk, but at this announcement, everything went silent. Ella re-checked her weapon, more out of habit than the fear she’d need to use it, as the SWAT team got into place.
The street became quiet, the only noise the occasional dog barking and the steady drone of distant sounds from the city. The cult members might have guessed something was about to go down, but there would be no escaping now, not unless they had a fictional explosion to go with the fictional nuke.
"Thank God they're finally going to do something." The agent she'd sent away came back and elbowed his way into her spot. Most of the time she wasn't so territorial and even upheld a policy of not stepping on the toes of local agents, but this guy seemed to be dancing on every sensitive button she had today. Maybe she just really needed that vacation.
The SWAT team moved. Wood splintered and glass shattered, synchronized with yells from the team as they systematically swept through the house to disarm and subdue the cult members. Along the side of the house, a window exploded outward. Glass flew into the nearby fence as a man managed to escape the SWAT net.
Ella leapt up and into action as the "local hero" to her right yelled for the guy to surrender. Like that would work. The man had fled from the SWAT team. He wouldn't stop now just because an agent shouted at him.
Her feet pounded over dried grass and dirt as she sprinted along the side of the house. The suspect sped past a small garden shed. Ella passed the same shed a moment later, gaining ground. She poured on the steam, lengthened her stride, muscles tensing to leap as she came to within an arm's length of the man. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a huge form springing out of the shadows. She dug in her heels and threw out her arms, coming to a stop just in time to prevent a collision as a large man flattened the perp into the dust.
Ella leaned forward, hands on her knees, and tried to catch her breath. She glared her indignation as the agent who'd butted in wrestled the suspect into cuffs. The perp was effectively pinned and read his rights.
Folding her arms across her chest seemed to be the best way to keep herself from pushing into what, by all rights, had been her takedown. And her irritation increased when she glanced down and recognized the same ass she'd been staring at a few minutes earlier. She waited for him to stand and turn, intending to take the suspect off his hands and remind him how idiotic and dangerous it was to get between a perp and another agent already in pursuit. Maybe she should have shot him in the butt—as sexy as it was—just to teach him a lesson. Up close, his torn jeans had seen better days, leaving her with an easy view of his left, muscled thigh. Who the hell was he and why wasn't he dressed appropriately? As far as she knew, there hadn't been any undercover agents present. Which meant he either wasn't on duty or couldn't be bothered making himself presentable. Just what she needed to deal with today: another Rambo jerk.
Without even a glance in her direction, the guy hauled the captive to his feet and dragged him off, waving away the help offered by a couple of uniformed officers who'd come around to assist with the arrests.
What. The. Hell?
The agent must have known she'd been in pursuit, yet there'd been no acknowledgement. And she'd thought her buddy back by the fence was obnoxious. This guy made him seem like Mr. Sensitivity. What was it with these Kansas agents? Damn, she couldn't wait until all she needed to worry about would be which flip-flops to wear and what cocktail to order.
She stalked back around the house, past the forensic guys waiting for the interior to be cleared, the uniforms already re-living the moment between themselves, and the SWAT guys packing up their gear.
Morgan and her boss, Jim Dawson, stood at the nose of a silver rental car, most likely talking logistics. As she approached her own rented car and tugged the keys from her pocket, she could already imagine the cool shower waiting for her back at the motel room.
As Jim called to her, she paused and tightened her fingers around the sharp edges of the keys. She hoped the smile on her face didn't look strained as she turned around. The mystery agent had joined the group, hip indolently against the car and looking like a street-wear model. Seeing him from the front for the first time kicked her annoyance up another notch.
His light brown hair, short and spiked, topped a face gorgeous enough to send her IQ plummeting into the realms of ga-ga land. His features were all well-defined angles with rich, hazel-green eyes and full, pouty lips. The combination should've looked ridiculous, but instead managed to appear irresistible. Although his countenance was too rugged to be considered classically handsome, he'd an almost boyish charm no woman could ignore, even if she wanted to. And Ella really wanted to.
On the surface, he appeared nothing more than a gorgeous guy, but on some level, she could sense a hardness about him. Some indefinable quality, which should warn a girl away, but instead, made her want to get closer. Not only that, he had to be at least six foot-three. The whole package was enough to make a woman want to take a second look, and most definitely a third. And then maybe several more.
No doubt, he was one of those guys her mom had warned her to stay away from. Like those burnished gold heels lying in the bottom of her closet back home. She knew she shouldn't wear them because, damn, they hurt, but they just looked so good.
He turned those deep hazel eyes on her, and she almost tripped over the curb. Heat. His gaze moved over her, and she shivered with burning awareness. An instant later, he looked away, leaving her confused and trembling.
Ignoring the idiotic pounding of her heart, she stopped in the space the three men had made for her, concentrating on keeping her expression polite but distant. Mr. Intense barely spared her a second glance. That, added to his rude interruption earlier, didn't help her opinion of his extreme egotism. Why were the breath-stealing men always jerks?
"Ella Waverly, this is Special Agent Bryce Lain, the new team leader," Jim said.
She held out her hand automatically, which Agent Lain shook in a straightforward manner, giving her a charming smile that all but yelled, I'm-hot-and-I-know-it. Her civility slipped yet another notch.
Then the name clicked in her mind, and all the pieces fell into place.
Oh, no way.
She'd heard about him, right back from when she'd started at the academy in Quantico. And not because he was a stellar example of an agent. Okay, from all accounts, he was a kick-ass operator, but his reputation with women had become the stuff of legends. Most of the guys she knew thought Lain was some sort of all-around hero, while the women wondered what it'd take to get him into bed. Not much, she guessed, from the looks of it.
She'd only ever distantly crossed paths with Lain over the years, and those few times hadn't improved her opinion of him or dispelled any of the rumors she'd heard. Between his scruffy appearance and the fact that it'd been a few years since her last encounter, she hadn't recognized him.
He was the new team leader they'd been expecting? She would have to work with him on a permanent basis? Worse, she was going to have to answer to him? She'd have to look at that movie-star handsome face and put up with his attitude every day? Her head would quite possibly explode from the thought.
"He wasn't supposed to start until next week, but a situation has come up that we thought we could use him on." Jim continued as she fought to keep her expression neutral.
Lain smiled, but the expression looked more smug than friendly. "I understand, Jim, you just couldn't do without my epic talents a day longer."
Jim laughed, but she failed to see the humor. Instead, she clenched her teeth over the urge to tell Lain what a jackass he was.
"I've been meaning to talk to you all day. I understand you're taking a few weeks off. Going to Florida, the La Playa Beach Resort?" Jim opened his briefcase and started flipping through the contents.
Her shoulders tensed, since her boss's interest in her vacation could only be leading to one thing. He'd tell her she couldn't go, or he needed her to postpone. The excuse? Some dire situation pertaining to national security they just couldn't resolve without her.
"Sir—" She began, trying to come up with a really good reason—and fast—as to why they should put someone else on whatever it might be. She didn't want to hear the details, because as soon as she did, her interest would be piqued and her goddamned sense of duty would override her sense of self-preservation.
Self-preservation meant holding onto her sanity by taking time off and not working with—and especially not taking orders from—Agent Man-ho until she'd had a few weeks to chill.
Jim steamrolled right over her. "We've made a slight adjustment to your reservations. You're going on our time, undercover. Don't worry; we'll still let you have your scheduled vacation after this situation is taken care of."
"Sir, I really think—"
Jim pulled a folder from his briefcase and laid it open on the hood of the car. "You and Agent Lain here will be going to Little Palm Island Resort. There's a bachelor-type reality TV show being filmed there at the moment. We've organized for you to participate as a contestant."
Her brain stopped and snagged on the first part of Jim's announcement. You and Agent Lain. Of course, she'd guessed that much, but the idea of working with him—in close proximity—still hit her hard. She'd been teamed up with a guy she knew too little about to trust fully on an undercover assignment. Bad enough that on first impression Agent Lain seemed so arrogant his ego would probably need its own seat on the plane, but for all she knew, he could be a total maverick. Then her mind ran over the rest of the statement. She would be participating in a reality TV show. Just what in the hell sort of messed up assignment was this?
Jim ran through the remaining particulars and then handed over the folder, plane tickets, and resort reservation details.
"Get back to the hotel and pack, Waverly. You've got a flight to catch. And I've got a meeting I was supposed to attend an hour ago." Jim nodded, gave a curt good-bye, then walked off.
"Let's go, Waverly, I don't want to miss our flight."
When had this day gone from run-of-the-mill cult takedown to The Twilight Zone? Did that conversation actually just happen? Had her long-awaited vacation really been scuttled for an undercover assignment with Mr. Intense? She closed her eyes for a brief moment before turning to Lain.
Releasing a breath and hoping some of the stress would go with it, she turned and opened her eyes to see Lain standing next to an old, dark blue car where her rental car had been parked a few minutes before.
"Where did my rental go?" Why did she ask when already she knew the answer? Which if she thought about too closely would only add to the tension bunching up her shoulders and making her neck ache.
"One of the other agents took care of it. We don't have time to mess around."
"And you expect me to go anywhere with you . . . in that?"
Lain gave a half smile, a dimple appearing in his cheek, which made her fume like sooty exhaust on an old car. He would have to have dimples. And her heart had not fluttered at the sight. No, more like the palpitations came from bottled-up pressure. Why couldn't he have a funny shaped mole or a wart? Something to flaw his damned gorgeous face.
Standing next to him made her more aware of her current sweat and dust-covered condition. Not that she'd be considered anything beyond average when she wasn't sweaty and dirty.
"By that I assume you're talking about my '67 GTO. There's absolutely nothing bad you can say about my baby."
His baby? Typical.
She sighed, approaching the passenger side where he'd opened the door then walked away. "Let's go then, the quicker we get this done, the sooner I can get away from you."
She slid into the bucket seat and closed the door as he got in his side.
"You mean 'get away from work'," he said.
The car started with a roar, the revs from the engine vibrating right up from the ground and through her seat. A moment later, the audio system kicked in, and Metallica blasted out, near deafening.
"No, I meant get away from you." She flipped open the folder Jim had given her, prepared to ignore Bryce Lain for the duration of the assignment.
From the corner of her eye, she caught him smiling. Did he find her amusing? Some of her discord went up in a puff of smoke as those dimples appeared again.
Hell. If only he wasn't so damned gorgeous.