Vibrators were better than men in so many ways, Cynthia Cooper decided. As she wove her way down a trail in the Smokey Mountains, her thoughts about her nonexistent sex life were grim. At least vibrators actually got her off, kind of, and they couldn't betray her and get her fired. Tennessee's blazing August sun burning her fair skin, and the pack pinching her shoulders barely penetrated her mental fog as she moped over how badly she'd screwed her chances with Delta Star. She brushed a sweaty wisp of blond hair away from her heated face and kept going. Getting placed on administrative leave one week out of basic training had to be a world record. Only someone with her bad karma could have done it.
Telling herself to suck it up, she tried to refocus on her pristine surroundings. The sound of the red birds singing in the trees up ahead and the sight of the gay profusion of wildflowers dotting the hiking trail helped bring back her serenity. She'd take the week off, lick her wounds in private and get her head on straight, then she'd march back into Bran Frost's office with a renewed sense of purpose.
If he fired her, she'd try for a job with one of the other alphabet soup of intelligence agencies. Come what may, she knew it was her true calling. After all, public service was in her blood. She came from a long line of spooks. Retreating to her grandparent's farm always gave her peace, even if they weren't around to visit with her this time. Her grands were off on a world cruise, a well-deserved celebration of her grandfather's retirement from the FBI. She missed them both right now, their warmth, and their council. Even though she doubted she would have shared the news of her humiliating downfall--all at the hands of a handsome, lying man.
It just proved that a woman couldn't put her trust in the double-dealing bastards. Now she understood why Delta rigidly enforced a no fraternization rule. She'd never make the mistake of getting involved with someone in the intelligence community again. She rolled her shoulders to work out the new kinks, as she pictured Jonas Brent's smiling face. She should have realized that Jonas, with his sweet southern twang and his blond good looks, had been way too good to be true. Even his southern accent had been phony! Thank goodness, she hadn't been stupid enough to go to bed with the smooth-talking man. As she strode along, she suddenly noticed that the woods had gone silent. A shiver went up her spine at the realization.
Then a snap from the bushes, loud as a ricochet, echoed off the steep cliff walls surrounding her, magnifying the sound and making her freeze in her tracks. Her hiking boots skidded to a halt on the gravel of the dry streambed she'd been crossing. Her heart pounding wildly, she blindly reached for the knife hidden at the scabbard under the waistband of her cargo shorts. Before she could completely unsheathe the weapon, a scrawny beanpole of a man burst out of the thick scrub brush. His automatic rifle pointed straight at her heart, making her tremble. Shit, for a backwoods rustic, he was packing some serious heat. This was no casual hunter.
Her nose wrinkled as his foul stench drifted her way. Good grief he stunk--filth and drugs. She automatically stumbled back against a large boulder on the side of the dry stream she'd been traversing. The knife slipped from her trembling fingers and clattered noisily behind the rock. She winced at the telltale sound. But a look at the dirty man's leering face told her that he didn't seem to notice. He was way too busy ogling her heaving breasts, encased in her sweaty white tank top, to be on guard. His beady gray eyes were practically popping out of his gaunt face. She inched back on the boulder, repulsed by his fevered attention. Damn it all, her pink camp shirt had come open, giving him a free show of her boobs and he was getting an eyeful. She hunched her shoulders, shrugging her shirt back into place, not wanting to give him ideas. The wild look in his eyes told her she needn't bother trying to retain her modesty; he was already thinking of ways to take her down. She wouldn't go down without a fight.
Revolted as the weirdo ogled her, she weighed her chances against him. With her Delta Star training and the piece she carried in the pack, she liked her chances against him. At least she was playing with a full deck. Keeping him calm would be the key to her survival. He wore camouflage gear, reminding her of a commando on patrol, except that he was filthy, with a two-week growth of stubble on his gaunt face. The hills seemed to breed weirdos, but something told her he wasn't of the nub or goober variety. She assessed the wired look in his eyes and felt her hopes sink. He was sure as hell hopped up on something, not good. Worse, he'd gotten the drop on her. How could she have been so careless? Maybe it proved she didn't really have the chops to make it in this field. Telling herself to cut the pity party, she decided that she could disable him.
"Move," he said, gesturing toward the shadowy woods with his rifle.
Knowing she'd run out of options, she pushed away from the boulder and complied. She stepped off the trail in the direction he'd so rudely indicated. Briars scratched her bare legs, making her wince. Damn it all, why had she opted to wear shorts? Because it was hotter than Hades and she'd only planned a day trip. She slowed down a little, trying to avoid the thorns. Stinky jabbed his rifle into her spine and grunted to show his displeasure. She fought the urge to smash his face in, knowing she had to wait for the right time to attack.
"Get goin', you," he said with a slur.
Biting her lip, she picked up the pace, trying to ignore the scratches. Up ahead, a break in the gloom of the pines made her smile. The prospect of a clearing, and if she was lucky, other hikers, tantalized her. A moment later, the reassuring scents of wood smoke and burning food wafted toward her on the breeze. She wanted to laugh, she was so happy. Campers! Hurray, she was saved!
Letting out a yell that seemed to catch him off-guard, Cyn broke into a run, sprinting well ahead of him. She heard him let out a curse as he crashed through the underbrush after her. It didn't slow her down in the least. She pushed herself harder to get away, and burst through the tree line alone, with the breath sawing raggedly out of her lungs. The sight that greeted her stopped her dead in her tracks. Two scantily clad women tending a smoldering cookfire glowered at her from a large campsite about ten yards away.
She took in the picture in an instant. Behind the glaring women, six makeshift camouflaged tents were tucked deep into the shadows of the pines, effectively hidden from the air. The older woman, a sultry gypsy-looking woman in a black top and multicolored skirt, stopped chipping what appeared to be burned cornbread out of a cast iron skillet. She gripped the knife she'd been using, like a weapon. Cyn's mind boggled at the incongruous sight, it looked like the gypsy had come from central casting. The other woman, a topless redhead with a messy beehive hairdo gave her a sour look. Well hell, she wasn't very happy to see them either.
Cyn swallowed a growl of frustration knowing that they weren't going to come to her rescue. She pushed back her panic, trying to remember her training. At least the sentry hadn't caught up to her and there weren't any other men around. She started to reach behind her and into her pack for her weapon, just as the sentry caught up to her. He crashed through the undergrowth with a grunt, startling her, the damned gun slipping out of her grasp to tumble back into the pack. She bit back a curse.
All thoughts of escape fled as the foul-smelling sentry let out a shrill whistle, his breath wheezing out of his lungs. She tensed, knowing it was a signal. He had friends. Footsteps crashed through the bushes a moment later, confirming her thoughts. A group of equally scruffy men poured out of the woods and rushed past the other women to get to her. She saw the gypsy throw them a glare and noticed that several of the men seemed to give her a wide berth. What a bunch of cowards, hiding in the woods while their women were out in the open.
Cyn's eyes narrowed with scorn as the mob quickly surrounded her. Heavily armed, they all stared at her like she was a prime piece of meat, and they were starving. Cringing inside, she readied herself for a fight. All she had to do was get one of their guns and she'd kick all their scruffy behinds.
Then, a big, older, white-haired man came out of a large tent to the left. He walked through the ring like he owned the place, bringing her thoughts of battle to a jagged halt. Silas Carver! She recognized him on sight. And why shouldn't she, he was high on Delta's hit list. Her breath caught as she took in the urban terrorist's spooky, washed out pale blue eyes. His followers deferentially slunk back, showing that he was undeniably in charge. His survivalist group, Proclaim, was responsible for bombings and homegrown terrorism throughout the south. Did Delta have any idea he was hiding out in the Smokey Mountains? Probably not, he'd always been one step ahead of the authorities. It would be a career saving coup, if she survived to tell the tale, but the paranoid look Carver pinned her with made that outcome doubtful. She forced herself to relax and not give in to the panic she felt.
"Whatcha got here, Rat?" Carver asked the hopped-up sentry as he stalked up to them.
Rat, was it? She gazed at the twitchy sentry, thinking it an apt nickname for him. There was definitely something rodentlike about the way Rat's long nose twitched. Casually assessing Carver's moves, she noticed that the Proclaim leader was smart enough to stand just outside of her striking distance. He might be a zealot, but he wasn't stupid. She tried her best to look nonthreatening, recalling her hostage survival training. You had to set your captor at ease, let him think he was in full control--outsmart him.
"Trouble," Rat said, spitting tobacco juice in her direction.
Cyn automatically jerked out of range, repulsed. She glared at Rat, forgetting her training for a moment. The men around her seemed to go on point as they watched her expectantly. They were waiting for her to panic, so they could tear her apart. She wouldn't play their game. Instead, she slanted a cautious look Silas Carver's way, trying to ignore the rest of the mob as she carefully wiped the angry look off her face. She sensed that the only way out with these bozos would be to play the innocent. After all, they didn't know that she'd guessed their identity.
With her big blue eyes, golden curls, and Delta training, she was damned good at deception. Batting her eyelashes at Carver, she stepped forward, noting the flash of amusement on the Proclaim leader's harsh face. He was in his late fifties, but he looked at least a decade older. She took in his deep wrinkles and the sleepy look in his cold eyes, wondering if he was ill. His health, or the lack thereof, didn't really matter, reminding herself not to get distracted. But finding his weak points might help her. Silas Carver was a man and she could twist him, she decided, flashing him what she hoped was an innocent smile. "I got separated from my hiking club, sir. Would you please be kind enough to point me the way to town?"
The guffaws of the men surrounding her set her teeth on edge, but she was careful not to show it, or drop her friendly smile. Carver's eyes narrowed, proving that even if he was in poor health, he was no fool. She didn't drop her pose, but stood loose; her weight balanced on the balls of her feet in case she had to move fast. To really sell it, she folded her empty hands together in front of her, in what he would hopefully interpret as a pleading gesture. It might prove to him that she was defenseless and therefore no threat to them. To her dismay, the Proclaim leader's suspicious expression didn't soften one iota.
Before she could even react, a new man surged through the group snagging her attention. The dark and masterful man striding her way moved like the predator he was. Silas Carver and his stinky minions all faded into oblivion as she took in Rafe Martinez's magnetic presence. He was code named Diablo, and was a legend in Delta Star circles, not that he'd even recognize her. He was so high above her in the organization that it wasn't even funny. His hot chocolate brown eyes gleamed with sharp intelligence as he slashed her with a furious look.
She trembled in reaction, feeling exposed, pinned in place, as his compelling gaze locked with hers, not letting her look away. He was dressed in weathered camouflage gear like the others, his square jaw covered with dark stubble, making him look dangerous and highly unsavory, but he smelled like heaven. Her body quickened in a ridiculous response, as she took a deep breath and drew in his sexy scent. Pure unadulterated Diablo, topped off with a fresh pine scent. They could bottle the pheromones he gave off and sell them.
The undercover agent's air of confidence would have set him apart from the pack even if she hadn't known he was Delta Star. Stunned, she cataloged all his hunky features, his sultry mouth, his killer body, and his thick longish mane of dark hair, even as she told herself to cut it out. Relief surged through her making her giddy ... she was saved. There was no doubt in her mind that Diablo had what it took to rescue her. She felt like laughing. He had to be here working undercover.
She'd often fantasized about Diablo; half the Delta female agents had a crush on him. Would he remember her from the intro course he'd taught? The harsh gaze he flicked over her empty scabbard and the military pack she was wearing didn't contain a hint of recognition or welcome. She could practically feel him ice over, and trembled in reaction. His hostile reaction was shocking, but it shouldn't have been. She knew the score, the mission came first and careless agents were sacrificed if necessary. Her heart twisted as her mouth went dry.
A lazy sensuality lit his eyes, taking her breath away as he focused on her lips for a long beat and then slowly traveled down her body. Nerve endings she hadn't even known she possessed sizzled in response. Her body helplessly and most inappropriately heated, her nipples tightened, her sex dampened, despite the danger she was in. She shuddered, trying to bring her crazy response under control. She knew all about the fight or flight adrenalin rush causing arousal, but this was ridiculous.
Rage tightened Rafe Martinez's gut as he crossed the compound to rescue the angelic blond surrounded by Silas Carver's terrorist cell. He'd seen plenty in the years he'd been Diablo for Delta Star, but nothing got to him like the feisty woman surrounded by the scum. Her sultry curves were drawing every pervert's gaze as he moved silently toward them. And they were all out, save Silas's lieutenants Finley and Tom. Those two had taken to slinking off lately. Make that an erotic angel. With a wry twist of his lips, his body tightened, too. There was something vaguely familiar about the pretty blond, yet he couldn't place her. Hell, even her scent as he neared her, strawberries and woman, was an aphrodisiac. He caught Nina's dark gaze as he moved past her, and gave her an unyielding look. There was no way he could give into his partner's will, and leave her to Silas' tender mercies.
As Diablo, he'd seen plenty in his time, but nothing that got to him like the sight of the spunky little blond surrounded by Silas Carver's motley troops. He pushed past the edge of the mob and placed himself between Carver and the earth angel, making her take a hasty step back. His intrigued gaze locked with hers for a moment as he looked into her innocent big blue eyes, but he knew better. People were never what they seemed to be, and women lied. "What the fuck's going on here, Carver?" Diablo bit out as he pulled his gaze away from the angel. He turned to confront Carver. "Don't you remember we've got work to do, amigo?"
Behind him he heard the woman sigh, a sultry sound that went right through him like a warm knife through butter. Hell, he had no desire to melt for anyone, much less a woman who'd be an anchor around his neck. She pressed closer, no doubt feeling shielded by his bigger body, and he tried not to take it personally even though his cock thought otherwise. He willed away his hard-on knowing he had to focus on Silas, the paranoid bastard.
"Well, we got us a little problem here, Diablo," Silas commented in a low conversational tone.
"So I noticed," Rafe said, his focus remaining on Silas. "Who's the broad?" He heard her hiss behind him and smiled as he felt her glare a hole in his back. She was a feisty little thing; he had to give her that. Good, she'd need it to survive what was coming.
"Rat says she's trouble," Silas said then chuckled. "What's your assessment, Diablo? After all I hired you for your sharp eye."
"I think Rat's been smoking too much blow," Diablo said, and smiled when Rat glared back at him. He could hear the undercurrent of suspicion in Silas' voice. "And you hired me for my explosives capabilities after Frost fired me."
Behind him, he heard the angel's startled gasp at his mention of Frost. Was she somehow connected? He rejected the idea immediately. Bran wouldn't send a green girl like this in to assist him. Besides, he already had back up. So what the hell was she up to? Maybe she worked for one of the other alphabet soup of agencies after Proclaim, and she was pissed that he'd gotten here first. He didn't have the luxury of time to puzzle out her motivations right now. He had to save her delectable ass. From the unholy gleam in the men's eyes, he could see that they were itching to get at her.
Silas spat. "Your capabilities so far, amigo, have amounted to jack shit."
"Get me the proper equipment and I'll change your mind."
"There's always an excuse with you, ain't there, Diablo?" Silas grinned and looked over his shoulder toward the angel. "She claims she got separated from her hiking club. What do you say we slit her throat?"
The woman gasped behind him and Diablo turned to spear her with a hot look. He frowned when he saw that she was reaching into her pack for something. A piece probably. Shit, it would be all the excuse they'd need to go for her throat. She froze when he pinned her with a scowl and she pulled her bare hand out of the pack muttering a curse under her breath. He smiled as he took in her fierce glare. "It'd be a hell of a waste of talent."
There were low male laughs all around but they barely penetrated his thoughts. He only had eyes for the woman. His appreciative gaze traveled up the blond angel's long bare legs. He couldn't help picturing them wrapped around his waist as he drove into her creamy body. Crap, too much time spent in the field was warping his brain. His hungry look swept up the lush womanly flare of her hips, to her magnificent tits. They'd be more than a handful for him and he had big hands. She wasn't classically beautiful, but something about her got to him on a deep level. The glitter of deep feminine awareness in her tip-tilted sapphire blue eyes made his cock stiffen. Her stubborn little chin firmed, telling him that she'd be more than a challenge to tame, but he loved a challenge.
Cyn instinctively stepped back, the breath catching in her throat as she absorbed the frank masculine appraisal in Diablo's sexy eyes. Her stupid body responded, as heat bloomed inside her, even though she now knew he could be a turncoat. No! It couldn't be true ... good grief; she didn't want it to be true. This had to be all part of his cover. Because if Diablo was indeed a double agent, she was dead. They wouldn't talk so freely in front of her if they planned to let her go. He moved toward her while she stood frozen in place. Even though she knew she should run, she couldn't get her feet to work.
And then it was too late. He reached out to snag her arm, making her blood sizzle at the contact. With her skin heating under his hand, she gazed up at him helplessly. Hell, she'd wanted him since the first moment she'd walked into his class at Delta, but this was not the time to be distracted by lust. As heat rushed through her, her lips tingled, her nipples hardened, and her sex quivered. She was able to clinically catalog all her elemental female reactions, even though she couldn't stop them. But she had to fight it if she wanted to come out of this whole, not to mention be an effective agent. Deep down she couldn't let herself believe that he was a defector.
"She's mine," he said, his hand tightening on her arm.
Cyn gasped at his possessive statement, but glancing out at the resentful glares of the others, she inched closer to him. Better the devil she knew. At least Diablo was trying to save her, although she wasn't sure why. His macho smile told her he liked the way she was suddenly clinging to him and the knowledge made her crossly dig in her heels. "I don't know what you..."
"Shut it, woman," he said in a low tone, jerking her bodily against him.
Shivering as her soft curves slammed up against his hard body, Cyn found herself plastered to him and bit back a needy whimper. His heat, his essence, threatened to swamp her willpower, and her knees wobbled. Blinking back tears as her turbulent emotions boiled over, she looked helplessly into Diablo's dark masterful eyes, and the rest of the mob seemed to fade away. Her lips parted for his kiss while a tear ran down her cheek. If she let him, he'd completely own her. She couldn't allow that to happen, could she? What choice did she have?
Diablo muttered a swear word, running a thumb down her cheek to capture her teardrop. He brought it to his mouth and licked it off. "Sweet, like you will be."
The blatantly erotic gesture left her in no doubt about what he intended to do with her. Cyn damned near fainted on the spot, her gaze focused on his sultry mouth, as she burned to find out how he'd taste.
"Didn't say you could have a woman, Diablo," Silas said harshly.
Cyn shivered as reality reasserted its self. Shit, this wasn't some private dream seduction with Diablo. She gazed at the mob watching them and took a step back, only the grip Diablo had on her arm holding her fast.
"I didn't ask," Diablo said.
Cyn watched Silas' angry reaction, his face suffused with rage at having his authority challenged. She knew he ran a ruthless operation, not tolerating anyone that challenged him. Yet, Diablo was risking his neck, and maybe his mission for her. Diablo picked her up, slinging her over his shoulder, making her gasp. As he carried her away like a wild caveman of old, she had a terrific view of his butt.