Olivia Lynn stepped out of her car and stared up at the picture of gothic horror come to life. Okay, granted, the mansion didn't look that old. Gothic certainly didn't describe the house. With its tiled circular drive, fieldstone facade, and bright white columns, the place could have been featured in a home and garden magazine. The lit chandelier, visible through the grand window over the door, hinted at a spacious, welcoming interior. The surrounding darkness, however, called to mind monsters and things left best uncovered.
Shifting winds rustled the leaves of the water oaks, hickories, and pines that bordered the house and seemed to stretch for miles. The scent of a storm lingered, wild, wet, and cold. Cones dropped, and wildlife scattered in the shadowy woods around her. Stifling a shiver, Olivia shut her car door and walked across the flagstone path to the brightly lit doorway.
She knocked, not sure what to expect. The journey for this particular assignment had made sense, right before she'd veered away from the Marine Corps base. Her foray through the dark roads surrounded by dense forest had unnerved her. The secure gate at the end of her ride had given her some confidence, but the winding drive up to the house had filled her with trepidation. She swore she'd seen yellow eyes glinting at her from between the trees.
Taking a firm grip on her imagination and her satchel, Olivia did a last-minute inspection of her appearance. Her tailored wool suit showed off her femininity while maintaining the professional demeanor needed for a woman working in a man's world. The pale pink silk blouse complemented her olive skin tone, and the neat twist she'd put her hair into lent her a scholarly appearance.
Pleased she at least looked the part, Olivia mentally reviewed her strengths and weaknesses. To her surprise, the door suddenly opened. She hadn't heard or felt anyone approach.
"Perfect." A short African American woman with hazel eyes and lips to die for stood inside the doorway. Dressed in jeans and a ragged sweatshirt, she appeared a few years younger than Olivia. The woman's beauty stunned Olivia for a moment, as did her effortless smile, which seemed to lift the gloom around them. She radiated positive energy. "Another woman in the house. It's about damned time."
Olivia stood still, bemused by this greeting. Though the environment wasn't exactly military, the mission fell under navy control. This beauty queen didn't fit with Olivia's preconceived notion of those on the job. A sailor, someone in a uniform or suit, maybe? But not Ms. Sexy USA.
"You coming?" The younger woman stood aside and waited, her hand on her hip.
"Ah yes." Olivia stepped inside onto a marble tiled floor. The foyer had been filled with plants and a coat tree. The bright lights overhead only emphasized the cleanliness and grandeur of the place.
"Nice digs, eh? I'm Ava, Mrs. Sharpe's assistant."
"Olivia," Olivia said by way of introduction. She followed Ava through the house, aware of the silence all around. "This isn't quite what I was expecting."
Ava laughed. "I can imagine. A job with the navy is never this 'wow.' But then, this isn't your average government job." Ava winked at her and led her to a set of closed double doors. "Mrs. S.'s office. She's a pain in the ass, but she means well."
The doors opened. A petite woman with skin a shade darker than Ava's scowled her displeasure. "Ava, don't you have work to do?"
Ava rolled her eyes. "Working me to the friggin' bone," she muttered and left in a flounce, back the way they'd come.
Mrs. S. sighed. "That girl. A terrific assistant, but she needs an attitude adjustment every now and then. Well, Ms. Lynn, come on in."
Olivia followed Mrs. S., presumably Mrs. Sharpe, the woman who'd contacted her about the assignment, into the office. Like Olivia, she wore a feminine suit that defined competence and professionalism. Pleased they had that much in common, Olivia waited until Mrs. S. sat before taking the seat opposite her.
"I'm sorry I'm late," Olivia began, but Mrs. S. waved her protest aside.
"No matter. I figured the weather or the directions would complicate matters. Finding your way around these parts in the dark isn't easy, and I live here. I'm Alicia Sharpe," she said, holding out her hand.
"Olivia Lynn." They shook hands, and Olivia felt a flare of power in that brief contact. She couldn't be sure, but she thought she sensed satisfaction in Mrs. Sharpe's touch. For an empath who often had trouble shielding herself from the world, the fact that she couldn't read Mrs. Sharpe came as a real surprise.
"Would you like anything to drink or eat before we begin? You must be hungry after your trip."
Olivia had left Dam Neck, Virginia, after putting in half a day's work. The four-hour trip had turned into a six-hour trip, thanks to a flat tire, an interstate pileup, and the weird back roads she'd had to use to find this place.
"I'm fine, but thank you for asking." She propped her satchel beside her chair and crossed her legs, as prepared for the interview as she could be.
"What exactly do you know about this job?"
"It requires someone who speaks Portuguese, who has clearance, and who can be gone for months at a time without a problem."
"Correct. We're in need of a translator for an upcoming trip abroad."
Olivia nodded, still not sure why she'd been selected to apply, considering she wasn't a linguist by trade. She'd leaped at an opportunity to escape a job that had begun to bore her, not wanting to deal with the headache of applying for a new job and moving again.
"But I'd like you to tell me why you think you'd be best for this task."
Olivia had this down pat. "As you know, I currently work at the naval base in Dam Neck, at the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group. I teach software instruction, so I'm familiar with both the IT field and training."
Mrs. Sharpe nodded but said nothing. Her dark brown eyes didn't blink as she studied Olivia.
"I have a BS from Virginia Tech. I've been awarded several commendations from my supervisors for my hard work and innovative teaching techniques. I'm loyal and dedicated to any task set before me. I hold the necessary clearances for this mission, and I speak Portuguese like a native. My mother was born in Brazil. She moved here with my father, who was in the navy."
"They died when you were young." Of course Mrs. Sharpe had run a background check on her.
Olivia nodded. "My aunt and uncle raised me. A happy childhood with an emphasis on education. My uncle made sure I continued to learn the language, as my DLPT shows."
"Yes, on your language proficiency test, you scored a four, which equates to a native speaker. Are you capable of taking orders?"
"Can you adapt to change quickly?"
"Can you think outside the box? Accept the possibility of that which is normally considered impossible?"
Hell, I can read emotions. That's pretty outside the box. "Yes."
"Do you have a problem with men?"
"In what capacity, exactly?" Lady, you can't shake me. I'm like a tick hanging on to your every word. I want this job.
"You'll be working with four men on this mission."
"I work with men all the time."
"Yes, but you're outside the classroom here, Olivia."
What did the woman want to know? Olivia couldn't imagine she'd be tasked with anything dangerous. She wasn't trained for it and wouldn't have been selected for anything needing real-world experience. But she'd handled tougher interview questions, so she'd answer this one.
"I can handle myself. In addition to staying fit, I take self-defense classes. A single woman living alone can't be too careful."
"True." Mrs. Sharpe smiled, the first indication she liked Olivia. "Just one more thing. I'd like you to meet the men you'll be working with before I make my final decision. And if you get this job, you do know you'll train here before going out? That means you'll be required to eat and sleep here--in your own room, of course--alongside the team. A cohesive unit means less possibility for mishap out in the field."
So she wouldn't be translating here. The possibility of leaving the States thrilled her. "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Sharpe nodded. She turned and pressed an intercom. "Jack, could you please find the gentlemen?"
"I'm on it." A deep voice boomed back.
"That's Jack. He's our resident handyman who used to work for the government. A Mr. Fix-It who can handle a gun as well as a wrench. His wife, Melissa, is our cook. A pretty little blonde with a mind as quick as a computer. We also have two girls who come in to clean twice a week, Jack's nieces."
"Not such a large staff for a place this big."
Mrs. Sharpe didn't say anything, but Olivia caught the shimmer of her anticipation. At the thought, the woman smiled, as if reading Olivia's mind. That smile probed at something in Olivia's past, something that reminded her of...
"You called?" A giant of a man lumbered inside. He wore jeans, a button-down shirt, and no shoes. Odd.
Olivia considered herself tall, but this man had to be a foot and a half taller. Blond and blue eyed, he looked like a first-class brawler. As he caught sight of her, his frown turned into a smile. She wanted to call him handsome, but the word didn't capture the raw power and wildness vibrating inside him. She sensed a strong frustration and sizzling desire bursting to be set free.
"Well, hello there. And who are you?"
Mrs. Sharpe took charge. "Olivia, this is Gunnar Tersch, our resident weapons expert."
"Weapons expert, yeah." He snorted. "So who's this? Another experiment, Alicia?"
She glared at him, and he glared back before shifting his gaze away.
"Sorry, Mrs. Sharpe. I haven't been the same since I've been off my meds." The smile he flashed did little to inspire confidence. "Nice to meet you, Olivia." He turned and left with what sounded like a growl.
"You'll have to forgive Gunnar. He's off his usual regimen, and it's made him more aggressive than usual."
More aggressive? Meds? Though she hadn't sensed an imminent threat from the man, she had no doubt he could break her in half, should he choose to.
"Mrs. Sharpe?" A tall, dark-haired man entered the room. He stopped at a respectful distance from them and waited. He had Asian features tempered by an Anglican ancestor. Handsome and somber, he seemed a direct opposite to the giant who'd stormed out just a minute ago.
"Olivia Lynn, I'd like you to meet Kisho Hayashi. Kisho is a demolitions expert who can do all manner of things. He's the calm in our storm."
Olivia stood and was still dwarfed by the man. Unlike Tersch, though, he didn't leer. His dark eyes held respect and a polite distance. But when she shook his hand, she nearly trembled at the need pushing at his internal barriers.
She forced herself to show no expression, but the narrowing of Kisho's eyes told her she hadn't been totally successful. She subtly withdrew her hand from his larger one and stepped back. "Nice to meet you."
"You too." He turned to Mrs. Sharpe. "What else can I do for you?"
They watched Kisho leave, and another man took his place. This one stood almost as tall as the blond but seemed even more commanding. He had to be their leader. Dark haired, but with light gray eyes that seemed to miss nothing, he looked every inch a warrior.
"Ah, Jules. Olivia, this is Julian Hawkins, the team leader. Jules, this is the translator I was telling you about."
Jules didn't speak. He looked at her with an intensity she found unnerving. Like the others, he had muscles galore, height, and hands that could crush her in seconds. The knowledge was there in his eyes. He knew he was dangerous, and he wanted her to know it as well.
"Interesting." The way he said it made her aware that he looked at her with more than his eyes. He didn't ogle, not exactly. His energy, like the others', expressed hunger. But he had that need tightly bound under a well of curiosity.
"Jules?" Mrs. Sharpe raised a brow and fingered her pearl necklace.
"She'll do. Nice to meet you, Olivia." He turned and left, then returned with another man he forcibly pushed into the room. "Suck it up. We all hurt," he murmured before leaving them alone with this last man.
Olivia had remained standing after being introduced to Kisho. Now she wished she'd been sitting. Her breath left her in a rush when she looked into eyes as brown as warm amber. Short, dark hair framed a masculine face that would make men envious and have women falling all over themselves for a closer look.
A straight nose, square jaw, arched brows, and thick lashes arranged themselves into a face she couldn't look away from. He had bronzed skin, laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, and firm lips. She had to look up to see him, putting him several inches taller than her own five-eleven. Broad shoulders, thick arms, and a trim waist sat above long, powerful legs encased in jeans. Like the others, he didn't wear shoes.
He appeared clean shaven, but when she continued to stare at him, she thought she saw a trace of darker skin along his cheeks and neck.
"This is Jesse Fallon," Mrs. Sharpe said with unmistakable satisfaction. "Jesse, meet Olivia Lynn, our new translator."
He opened his mouth, and she swore she saw a hint of...fangs? She took a step nearer, needing to see, needing to feel the fan of his breath on her face, to taste the intriguing scent of mint filling the space between them. Her nipples hardened, and her womb quickened. She licked her lips and leaned closer.
"Gotta go." He jerked backward and stumbled over his feet in his haste to leave the office.
Olivia had to blink to free herself from his spell. Embarrassed that she'd sent him running from the room, she turned to Mrs. Sharpe, expecting the woman's dismissal. Nearly jumping her coworker couldn't have put Olivia in a favorable light.
Instead she found Mrs. Sharpe wearing a wide smile. "Welcome to the team, my dear. I'll call Ava and get you settled in for the night. Any questions?"
Olivia closed her mouth around a hint of mint. She took a deep breath and realized she hadn't caught anything Jesse had been feeling. Interesting, to say the least. "Ah no, no questions." Except for where my mind has gone. Because I really want a look at that Jesse again. Whoa. Wait. Remember, Olivia, you're here to work as a translator, not a mattress.
"Good. I'll have Ava show you to your room, and we'll get the ball rolling."
As Mrs. Sharpe put events into motion, Olivia wondered just what she'd gotten herself into. The four men she'd met could have posed on any Special Forces poster. Yet they lived in a mansion away from the military base and worked for a civilian woman, a tiny lady who wore a designer suit and pearls. Talk about stepping into wonderland.