"What the hell were you thinking?"
Sitting across from his boss's desk in a room too small to cage the man's energy, Gavin Caldwell sighed. He'd had better days. Hell, he'd had better months. Ever since the government had shut down the Psychic Warfare Program--the PWP--he'd grown increasingly dismayed about his place with this team. They wanted him to push pencils and crunch numbers. He wanted to save the day.
"Our client needs that fucking book, Gavin. I assigned the case to Aidan for a reason. He had the damn thing all but in his grasp."
Aidan had been taking his time about it, then. Gavin didn't say anything, not with his boss practically breathing fire. Yet even pissed off like nobody's business, Jack Keiser exuded sex appeal. The man looked like he used trees for toothpicks. Broad shoulders, thick muscles, and a square jaw, he treated compromise like a four-letter word--an arrogance that Gavin found incredibly sexy.
Gavin had spent plenty a sleepless night fantasizing about his ideal sexual partner, an appealing lover with Aidan's looks and a bit of Jack's attitude. Total fiction, because Aidan irked the hell out of him, and Jack took domineering to an all-new level. It was Jack's way or the highway.
Gavin had a bad feeling he'd soon be seeing the highway.
"Well?" Jack's ice-gray eyes flashed with irritation.
What the heck do I have to lose? Gavin took a chance and blurted the truth. "You don't need me here."
A pause. "Explain."
Frustrated and tired of being the bitch boy, Gavin did. "Ever since you started the PowerUp! gym, I've been your go-to man for money matters. Sure, I train downstairs with the guys, but that's as close to fieldwork as I ever go. The physical stuff keeps my mind sharp so I can balance the books. I make sure we're legit. I tell you when we're overbudgeted. And I deal with our mysterious client--Owen Stallbridge--every other week."
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. "If he keeps opening his big mouth to everyone about who he is, why is he insisting I keep his name under wraps?"
Probably to outdick you. Like Jack, Owen had major control issues. Gavin cleared his throat. "Thing is, Jack, I was a part of the PWP as more than an administrator."
"Until you washed out. Yeah, I know."
Trust Jack to bring up an unpleasant truth. "Well, okay. But I was young when that happened." And they'd put him through rigorous training to get back into fighting shape while using his mad math skills to increase funding. Then they'd closed down the damn program before he could show them he wasn't a total fuckup in the field.
"Young? That was four years ago. And you're what, twenty-seven, right? Not too young to take responsibility for fucking up, in my book."
"I'd never done anything remotely interesting with my life before the PWP recruited me. College, academics." The chess team, but he didn't think that would win him any points. "That was it. Then I was thrown into a world full of spies, freaky SEALs, and psychic villains. Cut me some slack for being overwhelmed."
When Jack raised a brow but said nothing, Gavin flushed. "I shouldn't have jumped on this case. I admit it. But it seemed so easy. Find a book; bring it in. Research, and a trip to pick up the item. Simple. How was I to know someone else had plans to grab it?"
"If you'd been assigned the case, you would have known there was a problem from the beginning. That book is important to Stallbridge, our client," Jack added through gritted teeth. "He's spouting life-and-death shit over whatever's in that antique pillow book."
Gavin frowned. "I actually skimmed through it, you know. It's not a pillow book. It's a novel of erotica, a fictional account of the Stallbridge heritage, according to Owen's great-grandfather, and very well written. Johann Stallbridge is revered in the field."
"Skip it, Gavin. What can you tell me about the book that's of value? And I don't mean different sexual positions."
Gavin flushed. "It's old, authenticated, and worth a tidy nest egg due to Johann's skill with a pen and the famous Stallbridge name."
Owen Stallbridge had millions, and if the latest edition of the Money Mag held true, had recently entered the billionaire club. He dabbled in everything from oil and gold to stocks and properties and couldn't seem to lose.
Added to that, Stallbridge had a quiet connection to the paranormal. Over a year ago, a warehouse of his had been robbed, and several items had gone missing. Items with unusual properties that men like Jack and their psychic team tracked down and brought back.
Stallbridge intrigued Gavin on several levels, but it was his missing novel that had given Gavin a new lease on life. If he could show Jack and the others he had more to offer than book sense, maybe they wouldn't look down on him so much. Maybe he could fit in. It didn't help he was one of the youngest and most inexperienced on the team.
He apologized once more. "I'm sorry, Jack. I was so close to coming home with it. I looked through it, saw it was the book we were looking for. But the broker wouldn't budge until he checked with his boss. Next thing I know, it's sold to someone else. It's beautiful prose. I can see why someone else would want it."
"I don't give a shit if the book lists Stallbridge's grocery list. He wants it back, and he's paying us a fortune to get it for him."
"Strictly speaking, he hasn't paid us yet. The other money we received was for his items already retrieved."
"We're on retainer," Jack growled.
Gavin swallowed hard. If he had half of Jack's muscle, maybe he'd feel less intimidated. But of all the members of the PowerUp! staff, he only topped Ian in size. Ian's power lay in his devastatingly good looks and his skills as a forger. Gavin didn't even have that going for him. He'd been described as cute and geeky. Never buff or big, despite that since joining Jack's team, he'd put on twenty-five pounds of solid muscle.
A glance at his huge boss once again reminded him he didn't belong. Hell, maybe he'd fooled himself for too long. The PWP had ended. Jack's ragtag band of psychics living under the radar didn't need him. Now that the gym had roots and provided a solid cover for their clandestine psychic investigations, they didn't need Gavin to stick around when any CPA worth his or her salt could do the job.
"Shit." Jack ran a hand over his cropped hair. "Tell me again how this mess went down, so I can make sure it doesn't happen again."
Gavin called on his patience, knowing Jack had a right to demand a detailed explanation. "The file on the book was sitting on your desk when I brought in last month's invoice."
"Had to be Ian screwing around with my paperwork," Jack muttered. "I never keep my files out when I'm not in the office."
Gavin continued. "Something about the case intrigued me. I mean, it's a book. All the other stuff we go after for Stallbridge is exotic. Stolen paintings, million-dollar jewelry, that stolen dagger Avery and Nathan just retrieved."
Jack grimaced. Avery and Nathan had nearly died bringing back that weapon.
"So I thought, a book. I can handle a book. I did some digging on the Internet." And fished through several secure sites, but Jack didn't need to know that. Bad enough Gavin wasn't supposed to work on real cases. Only Ian supposedly had the skills to hack illegally into secured servers. "I found Chronicles after a lot of research and followed the trail to Fort Collins, Colorado. The broker was an older woman with no ties to Stallbridge or anyone with a grudge against him that I could find. She didn't know much more than we did, only that her buyer was a woman with plans to pick up the thing a few days later..." Gavin grimaced. "I still don't understand how it slipped through my fingers. I mean, I literally had the thing in my hands. I thought for sure I could buy it out from under her."
"You tipped off whoever was after it. That's why she showed up early to nab it. Chronicles went from LA to that rinky-dink bookstore in Fort Collins, where Nathan and Avery tried to find it. That bookstore owner sold it to an average-looking woman with no distinguishing characteristics and a fake name. An actual person at least, but she vanished into thin air. With nothing more to go on that that, we're back to square one."
Not necessarily. "Nathan and Noah can't help?" Nathan knew things about an object by touching it, and Noah could read the past.
"They're busy on other things. Aidan has this. Or should I say, had this." Jack fumed.
Gavin knew trying to convince Jack to let him redeem himself wouldn't fly. Not now. "Want me to pack my things and leave?" It hurt to say, but he was tired. Life hadn't turned out the way Gavin had expected. And Bend, Oregon, hadn't given him much more than a cold in the eleven months he'd been working at the PowerUp! gym. His fresh start had turned into one more dead end.
"I think that's obvious. I screwed up the case."
"We'll fix it," Jack said, his voice gruff with irritation or resignation; Gavin couldn't tell which. "I want you here, where I can keep an eye on you."
"I'm not a kid to be watched over." Gavin's anger flared out of nowhere, pushing aside his despair. "I don't need you to coddle me, for Christ's sake. If you can't treat me the way you do everybody else, I'm fucking leaving."
Jack said nothing, but Gavin had a feeling he'd surprised the big man.
After a moment of silence, Gavin stood and turned to the door, fully prepared to pack up his belongings and move out.
"Hold on, hothead."
Gavin turned to see Jack's lip curled in what passed for a grin on his face. "Go work off some steam. You're off desk duty as of now and on a strict physical regimen. See Kitty tomorrow morning for details. Don't be late."
Gavin didn't understand his boss's change in mood. One minute the guy looked like he wanted to strangle him; the next he offered what Gavin had been after for months. A chance to be a real part of the team, a chance to do field ops. With nothing better to do, he nodded and left, wondering about this change in circumstance.
On his way out of the building, he ran into Aidan Marshall, telepath and all-around pain in Gavin's ass. The guy could read minds, and he had a bad habit of finishing Gavin's sentences. The tall blond usually sneered instead of spoke, but he always got the job done. Gavin knew the others considered Aidan one of their top go-getters. Before the PWP disbanded, he'd had a sterling reputation as a fierce agent and badass who didn't take no for an answer.
Unfortunately, he was also built like a god and had killer good looks. Way out of Gavin's league, which made Gavin's hostility that much stronger.
"Well, well." Aidan smirked. "Lost anything else today, cupcake?"
Gavin glared and thought about telling the bigger man to kiss his own--
"No sense in kissing my own ass when so many others are angling to do it."
Aidan never screwed with the others. Only Gavin had that privilege. Hell. He hated that he couldn't insult the bastard without Aidan cutting him off. "You're such an asshole."
"And yet men love me."
Aidan also made no secret of the fact he was gay. Gavin had never hidden his own sexuality, but he didn't share facets of his life with the others. Not that they'd ever invited him to. He'd had all of one date in the time he'd been in Bend, and it had ended with a slap on the back and a promise of a phone call that hadn't been forthcoming. Good riddance.
"Yeah. If they say they'll call and won't, don't cry over it. Move on with your life. I mean, you're cute enough that you should be able to get a handjob at least. So what's the problem, sweetness?"
Gavin shoved Aidan out of his way, ignored Aidan's laughter, and hurried to his car, not in the mood to deal with anyone else today. Aidan was enough to spoil an already dragging mood.
AIDAN WATCHED THE cute but clueless CPA leave the hallway for the stairs. Another reason why the PWP had no doubt closed its doors. Despite talk that someone higher up had used the agency for other means than approved governmental reasons, Aidan thought the problem lay in their screening process. Years ago, the PWP had taken anyone with a hint of psychic ability and experimented on them. Hello? He could have told them what a problem that would create.
Men and women like most of those on the PowerUp! team were assets. His boss had invited a select few of them to join him when the program shut down. Now they worked at the gym as a front to the real work that kept them happy and busy. Or at least, the work that kept Aidan happy and busy.
He wondered about Gavin Caldwell, one of the PWP's many mistakes. A guy like Caldwell looked good on paper. He had a high IQ, was easy to train and get along with, and had psychic ability. The power to levitate, also known as transvection, would be great at parties, but seriously, what did Jack see in the guy besides a head for numbers?
Caldwell had a history of screwing up in the field. They'd pulled him in after he'd nearly gotten himself and a fellow agent killed two years ago. Ever since, he'd done time behind a desk, where he flourished. The paper pusher could manipulate numbers like magic. So why did he think he should work missions? Hell, why would he want to?
Aidan shook his head and continued toward Jack's office. After he knocked and heard Jack's answer to enter, he pushed through the door and took a seat across from the big man, as he liked to think of him. Unlike the other psychics who at least tried to shield themselves around him--shields he could overcome with a surge of power--Jack was unreadable. Strangely enough, Aidan got the impression his boss did little to shield himself. The guy had a natural wall around his mind that always tempted Aidan to prod, when Aidan knew better than to go in uninvited.
When an inexperienced agent like Caldwell left himself open, though, he took full advantage. And yeah, he admitted he got a kick out of aggravating the cute little geek.
Caldwell's cheeks turned a rosy red, which made his blue eyes that much brighter. Truth to tell, the guy fit Aidan's type to a T. He had a smaller, more compact frame that was slender yet toned. Caldwell didn't seem to have any fat on him, and the few times Aidan had noticed him in the shower, he'd been impressed with Caldwell's tight ass and surprisingly large cock.
An answering response tingled through Aidan's groin, and he frowned, disliking the arousal he always felt around the team's screwup.
"What did you find?" Jack asked, his voice gravelly.
Now Jack was a man Aidan could see many a top bottoming for. Unfortunately for Bend's gay community, Jack was as straight as they came. From what Aidan knew, his boss had seen a few women during their time in Oregon, but no one steady. Unlike Avery, part of the latest pair of agents to hook up, Jack didn't appear to be bisexual either.
"Still waiting, Marshall."
Aidan sighed. "Sorry, boss. I ran into Caldwell on my way in, so give me a minute."
Jack didn't comment.
"Okay. We know the book appeared in the States in Philly, then moved west through Wisconsin and Washington. From there it hit California, where I was going to pick it up before the super CPA fucked everything up."
"Get past it, Aidan. Where is it now, that's what I want to know."
Apparently Jack no longer wanted to nail Gavin to the wall. "The woman in Colorado who bought it, oddly enough, sparked something in the saleswoman, who swore she knew nothing more than a general description. I looked deep and found our buyer's real name. Michelle Nolan." Aidan had flown out to Fort Collins to investigate after Gavin's screwup.
Jack frowned, and Aidan further explained. "When the buyer opened her purse and flashed a fake ID, she happened to have her real license tucked away. Gail, the owner of the bookshop, saw it but didn't realize what she'd seen. It was buried under stacks of books and an obsession with cats, let me tell you."
Jack grunted. "Good work. The store owner's okay, though, right?"
"I left her with a little headache. It was unavoidable," he said to defend himself.
"We don't hurt civilians."
"I tried my best. It wasn't easy to get the name, but without some movement, I wouldn't have found it." Movement--what Aidan referred to as his method of searching through the brain. He mentally sifted through thoughts and memories, and sometimes his probing brought pain to the subject under scrutiny. Not his problem.
"Fine. So we have a name." Jack mulled over the idea while Aidan succumbed to temptation and tested his boss's shields, searching for a crack.
Prying was instinctive, and it passed the time while Jack pondered what to do next. Just once inside Jack's head, and Aidan would stop. It killed him that he couldn't see more than a solid, blank wall of thought. He'd read the other members of the PowerUp! team at one time or another and, after that, made it a point to stay out of their heads. They didn't like his intrusion, but Aidan subscribed to the axiom better safe than sorry. He had to be able to trust the team, to an extent. They all had secrets, but none of them meant him any harm, personally. He could live with that. He just wished he could figure out Jack.
"If you want to walk without a limp, fucking shut it down. Now."
That Jack spoke in a calm tone while he continued to look through the folder on his desk shocked Aidan out of his intrusion. He hadn't thought the man could sense the light touch of his mind. "How can you feel that?"
"Same way you work your way into the brain. It's mind magic."
"You keep poking, I'll cut you off at the knees." Jack lifted his head and pierced Aidan with a wolf-bright glare.
"Uh, okay. Sorry."
"Right. So what else can you tell me about our newest buyer?"
"Michelle Nolan. A nice girl from Kentucky, now living with some high roller with a thing for kink, specifically, domination."
"Right up your alley, eh, Aidan?"
How the hell his boss knew of his nighttime proclivities, Aidan couldn't say. Nor did he care at the moment. They were close to completing the mission, something Aidan always did. He'd never tolerated failure. He couldn't. So he ignored Jack and continued, "Her boyfriend is Doug Polski. He's a big name on the D/s scene in select circles in New York, and he's done time for grand larceny, assault, rape, you name it. But he always manages to find a Get out of Jail Free card. From what I learned, he bought the book for his boss, who happens to be having an intimate party at his beach house this Saturday in Mendocino, California. He's extended an invite to a ton of deviants with criminal connections spanning the country."
"So get yourself invited."
That was what Aidan had hoped Jack might say, yet the cost might be higher than they could afford. "See, the thing is, this party isn't for your everyday mafioso wannabe. Only bigwigs have been invited, those with a particular fetish for certain things. And they have bankrolls substantially higher than ours. Hell, just getting into the party costs fifty grand. We'd be better off reconning the place, then stealing the thing." He paused. "Oh, and Polski's boss? That would be Carl Kerr."
"Hold on." Jack scowled. "Carl Kerr, the trust-fund millionaire who owns the seedier half of Portland?"
"The same. He won't let just anyone into his party either. And he's known for some deviant shit--I did some digging. He's into bondage, games, and young men to sate his appetites. Sorry to say, I'm not his type. Too aggressive."
"So unless you have fifty thousand dollars sitting around to pay my way in and a background for me that will stand up to scrutiny and get me included on that party list, we're done before we've started."
"There's no point in trying to steal the book unless we know for sure it's the one we're looking for."
"True. My intel could be wrong, and this book isn't the one our client wants. No point in inviting trouble with these dickheads if we don't have to. But I think Kerr has it at his beach house. Polski already got paid, from what I hear. A big thank-you from the boss for a job well done."
"Hell. We'll need an in." Jack paused. "Hold on." He turned away and dialed the phone. A few curt niceties gave way to a discussion about money. Jack hung up and nodded at Aidan. "You'll have your fifty thou, as well as a cover to get you in."
Wow. That was serious pull. "Great. Now I just have to find someone I can dominate for a weekend who'll catch Carl's eye." Aidan scoffed. "Seriously. I can work with a fake identity and the money, but going into a Dom party with a new sub won't work. First of all, I won't bring a civilian into danger, and second, the only person I can think to work with in this type of situation would be Ian. Kitty's too hard. She's a spitfire, not the image we'd need. And with Carl's penchant for dudes, she's not the best person for the job anyway. The rest of the guys around here are too big and aggressive to make a suitable partner. Ian's pretty enough to distract Carl, but he's such a smart-ass." Aidan shook his head. "He's the only guy I can think of, though. I'll need time to train him. With the party in just a few days, it'll be tight--"
"No. Not Ian. I've got a partner for you." Jack held up a hand. "And before you start, this isn't up for discussion."
Terrific. Aidan just knew he wasn't going to like Jack's next words.
"You need to keep this as real as possible to convince Kerr you're on the up-and-up. I don't see you pulling this off with a woman."
Aidan didn't either, but he'd done worse to bring home a case.
"You need someone to handle, someone who's already familiar with the book and you, who won't need to be brought up to speed on more than how to obey when you tell him to."
"Makes sense," he said cautiously. So far, he and Jack were on the same page.
"This is going to be dangerous. Finding that book should have been easy, but it's been one chase after another."
"No kidding. So are you going to match me up with one of the Cannons, then?" They were the only psychics and mercenaries Aidan knew besides the team. He wouldn't mind a shot at one of the younger twins, Justin or Kyle. They didn't fit Kerr's type, but he could work around that. Both men were brawny and had stamina, but they looked young and were hot. He'd love to order one or both around. Plus, they could no doubt handle themselves in a fight. He wasn't sure what they could do psychically, but Jack had warned the team to be wary of the Cannons, so Aidan considered them a serious threat.
Jack smiled, and Aidan took an immediate mental step back. "I have someone better in mind."
A name flashed at Aidan so powerfully, he knew Jack had to have projected it. "Oh shit, no."
"Oh shit, yes. He's yours for the duration. Don't fuck it up. We need that book back to satisfy the client. Period."
"Yes or no? Because I can always give the case to Keegan and James. I'm sure they could pull this off."
And then everyone would know he'd failed, that he couldn't handle it, no matter that Gavin had messed up. It had been Aidan's case to begin with. Hell, the team already looked at him with caution because of his telepathy. He didn't want to add scorn to the mix. Look at how he viewed Gavin, that perennial screwup.
And speaking of the naive, sexy little nerd, "But he's--"
"Yours to get up to speed. He's smaller than you, and he wears innocence like a second skin. Get him all starry-eyed and mission-ready, and you might be surprised at what he can do."
"Surprise is something I don't need in the field," Aidan muttered.
"You taking the case or not? I have work to do."
"Hell yeah, I'm taking the case," he snapped. He stood, but before he could leave, Jack tossed him the file.
"Get started fast. You have five days before you need to be in California. In the meantime, we'll put together a package for you and your new boy toy. And Aidan? This is important. I have a feeling a lot of our tomorrows rest on this case."
Aidan didn't like Jack's sober warning. But he liked the thought of partnering up with Gavin Caldwell even less. Christ, Gavin's submissive to Aidan's dominant? Why not just shoot him in the head and be done with it? He swore to himself all the way home, wondering how the hell he'd make their pseudorelationship work in time for a dungeon party with a well-known crime lord.