Secrets can get you killed in this riveting story in the SCVC Taskforce romantic suspense series by USA TODAY Bestselling Author, Misty Evans.
He killed her best friend when they were only girls…but she got away.
Now he’s hunting her again.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “Roman is hot, sexy and a genuine hero…” ~ Elisa, Goodreads reviewer
Raindrops plunked loudly on the bar’s metal roof as if a giant were dropping pebbles on it.
Nursing an iced tea, Brooke Heaton wished fervently she’d declined the invitation from the San Diego State University religious studies academics and headed back to her hotel room. After three days of lecturing at the university, she was ready to get back to the real world.
She discreetly checked her phone under the bar overhang for the umpteenth time, hoping for a text or call of any kind to give her an excuse to bug out. But there were no missed calls, no messages. Maybe she could pretend differently and tell her hosts that she needed to go back to her room.
But what kind of anthropological emergency would require her to beg off the company she was with?
Bars just weren’t her thing—especially since at this particular one, it seemed to be prime time for Stephen Colbert-wannabes who thought their standup comedy routines were a stepping stone from San Diego to L.A. Her companions laughed at the latest joke from the young man on stage, who just happened to be a grad student from their department. Brooke smiled obligingly. For a religious studies major, the guy sure knew a variety of interesting ways to work the word “fuck” into his routine.
She’d been hungry for companionship and had erroneously thought her academic colleagues meant for their night out to include a decent meal and in-depth discussion about religious symbols of the Mayan culture. Boy, had she been wrong.
Maybe I’m just getting old. She’d much rather be in the king size bed at the hotel, eating horrible room service food and reading her latest Journal of Forensic Anthropology, than here listening to jokes about bathroom habits and the current administration in the White House.
Although, the two subjects did have some things in common these days.
Oh, who was she kidding? She wanted to get back to reread her favorite romance novel.
She checked her watch and blew out a sigh. Making sure no one noticed, she pulled out her cell from under the bar overhang to text a cab service.
Now all she had to do was come up with a polite excuse to bail.
There was always the universal go-to—I have a headache. At the rate she was going, she would indeed have one soon.
If only she didn’t have yet another morning of lectures at the university the next day, she could pretend she had an early flight back to L.A.
But no, three departments had banded together to pay her speaker fee. Plus, the university had generously comped her hotel room and loaded her down with Fighting Aztec everything. No way could she carry all of it on the plane; she’d have to ship most of it home or find someone to donate it to. There was at least five pounds of shirts, scarves, coffee cups, and paperweights with the school’s mascot on them to haul back.
Did anyone actually use paperweights anymore?
It was nice to be wanted, but she’d left the world of academia for a reason—she wanted to marry the past with the present. To show modern-day men and women how instrumental learning about their ancestors could be. The university bubble was comfortable and safe, and for years, it had been the perfect hideaway for her. She’d thought she could do exactly what she wanted—turn young minds onto her love of anthropology. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been quite what she’d expected, and most of her students had simply taken her classes as an elective, thinking they could use religious studies and anthro class to nab an easy A.
Eventually, she’d had to break free and do something. Writing a book about famous fossils, and a high-profile media tour several years ago, had made her an anthropological star for about three months. A well-known Hollywood producer had taken a chapter from her book and made a web series based on the famous Lucy find of fossils from a 3.2 billion year old hominin species Australopithecus afarensis.
Anthropology meet pop culture.
Social media had given her another popularity boost for a few months. She’d loved seeing fossils and past cultures getting some notoriety, but it had been a strain on her personally. She’d determined she wasn’t cut out for the spotlight.
An unexpected bonus had come from her brief dance with fame. She’d never dreamed she’d end up consulting for law enforcement, but with her forensic anthropology experience, research into various religions stretching back to the Sumerians, and her criminal justice degree, she’d ended up helping out Cooper Harris and his SCVC Taskforce.
There’d only been a couple of cases so far, but they’d fit into her schedule nicely and provided extra funds for her travels.
Speaking of travel… Tomorrow, after her last lecture, she’d be off to Utah and an area so remote it could only be reached by donkey. Ten miles on an ass to the dig site would be no picnic, but at the moment, it sounded like absolute heaven. Plus, it was a highly prized dig, headed by Dr. Borgman of the Smithsonian Institute. The whole situation was very exclusive and required kid gloves due to the fact the bones and artifacts were ancestors of a Native American tribe, maybe two.
From behind her, she heard loud male laughter that was out of sync with the comedian on stage. Glancing over her shoulder, she skimmed the three men making all the noise. Her gaze came back to one boldly staring at her and her stomach dropped.
Oh, no. Not him. What is he doing here?
The licorice black hair and searing blue eyes weren’t to be denied. Neither was the cocky smirk on his face as he looked her up and down.
The trimmed beard was new. So was the longish hair pulled up into a man-bun. The tight T-shirt, showing off his tattoos, revealed his muscled arms and chest. He looked downright criminal.
Or the ideal model for the cover of Muscle & Fitness.
Roman Walsh. Dr. Roman Walsh. The criminal justice PhD and Homeland agent was either slumming or undercover.
Or he’s stalking me.
She might have a use for that paperweight after all.
For six months, he’d been calling and emailing her, wanting to “talk shop.” Last month, on a panel about domestic religious terrorism, she’d switched their seating arrangements so she was at the opposite end of the long table the panel sat at. It hadn’t stopped him from openly seeking her out during the social event later that night and flirting with her. He’d told her he wanted her to consult for his taskforce.
He certainly couldn’t be interested in her as a woman—a man like Roman Walsh dated models and actresses, not frumpy workaholic analysts who loved dank old libraries, dig sites, and hundred-year-old churches. But there was something beneath his invitation—both the verbal and nonverbal. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.
Why do you keep turning him down? the devil on her shoulder complained. Why don’t you give him a chance?
From across the way, his attention returned to his friends and she saw him flip one of his thumbs over his shoulder in her direction. The other men in the group looked over at her, two sets of hard eyes sizing her up.
Brooke quickly refocused on the comedian on stage, heat lacing up her neck.
I’ve got to get out of here.
This was why she’d refused to answer his emails or sit next to him on a panel. Working with his West Coast Domestic Terrorism Taskforce might be right up her alley; the experts on his team were top of the line. They analyzed bad guys and figured out ways to put criminals in jail and save US citizens, just like the SCVC Taskforce.
Unfortunately, there was no way in Hades she could be on his team. He made her a nervous wreck. His voice alone made her panties wet, not to mention that killer smile of his.
No man should be that mouthwateringly gorgeous. No man should be that…perfect.
Perfect men like Roman Walsh didn’t flirt with women like her. She was a good girl, a professional academic who buried her head in ancient civilizations and religious rituals. Outside of her brief brush with fame over her book, she was a nobody.
Roman Walsh was a hero. High IQ, a body ancient Greeks would envy, and an arrest rate of criminals that wowed her. If he knew how to handle a trowel, I might actually ask for his autograph.
Behind that sexy smile and Superman complex, however, there had to be a volcano full of secrets. One that would erupt all over her and leave her heart fossilized.
And that was what scared her right down to her toes.
There weren’t many men in her fields of study that actually made her drool. Most were older, balding, or at the very least, too pompous for her to tolerate. There were plenty of young, attractive co-eds who hit on her every time she visited a campus, but at thirty, she wasn’t interested in stroking their egos by playing the cougar. With three failed relationships under her belt, she might just be done with men altogether.
Plus, she liked a man to be more than his looks, and while a few of the grad students who’d hit on her recently certainly had the brains, they were still a bit too young and idealistic for her taste. They believed they could save the world through studying about it.
Roman, on the other hand, was actually doing just that. He seemed determined to protect his country and her citizens with every breath he took.
A real, honest-to-God hero.
Just not my hero.
Because every time she even thought of saying something to him—her throat completely locked up. His intense blue eyes would lock on her and bam…it was like she’d been hit with a stun gun.
Her, a highly-educated, award-winning anthropologist and published author, who regularly spoke to auditoriums filled with students across the US, as well as to fellow anthropologists and religious leaders, struck dumb by a man?
It just made no sense that she couldn’t handle a simple conversation with Dr. Walsh.
But there it was. She was too wise, and had been through too much in her life, not to at least be honest with herself.
Drool-worthy or not, men with secrets were a no-go. Her life had already been turned upside down by them and she wasn’t about to offer her heart up to another person who would betray her.
A fresh roar of laughter went up from Roman and his pals. She told herself not to look, but the devil on her shoulder made her turn anyway.
He was eyeing her again with a fiendish look on his face. Was he drunk?
Her phone lit up, a text letting her know that a cab was on the way. Estimated pickup time: five minutes.
Good. She needed out of this place and fast. It had become entirely too hot in here.
She slipped off the bar stool and began making her excuses to the professors with her. They balked good-naturedly, and she feigned exhaustion and explained she needed to go over her notes before tomorrow’s lecture.
Mission complete, she turned to go when a hard body smelling of whiskey stopped her.
“Hello, gorgeous.” Roman invaded her personal space, pushing her up against the bar. “Damn, but you clean up nice.”
He topped six foot easily and, even in her heels, she had to look up to meet his gaze. She opened her mouth to say, “What the hell are you doing?” but as per normal, her lips moved and nothing came out.
The gazes of her companions were on her and her cheeks flamed as if on fire. Say something! “No.”
“I believe the appropriate response to hello,” Roman said, placing his hands on either side of the bar, blocking her in, “is a return greeting.”
He was so close. All that masculine energy. Those sharp, intense eyes. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Wha…?” Oh, lord. Get it together! “What…what are you doing?”
The words came out soft and breathy, but Roman apparently had no trouble hearing them. “My buddies over there bet me I couldn’t get you to kiss me.”
Holy cow! He was definitely drunk. “Ki…kiss you?”
His gaze dropped to her lips and he grinned like she was a medium-rare steak and he was one hungry man. “Yeah, kiss me, gorgeous. What do you say? Help a guy out so he doesn’t lose a hundred bucks?”
He’d bet a hundred dollars that he could get her to kiss him? The nerve!
Laughter over something the comedian said erupted around them. Roman leaned in, putting his lips next to her ear, “Play along, Brooke.”
Goosebumps skittered down the back of her spine. She grabbed one of his arms and pushed. It was warm and very firm. “No.”
He didn’t budge.
One of his hands slid behind her neck, gently grasping her by the nape as he looked deep into her eyes. The laughter and clapping in the bar receded and she saw a flicker of concern. “Things are about to get dangerous,” he murmured, his lips so close to hers, she could smell his breath. It smelled like ginger and mint—not whiskey. “You need to get the hell out of here.”
And then, without warning, he brought his lips crashing down on hers.
It was brutal and heavenly at the same time. Her brain raged for half a second before shutting down completely.
Her eyes closed, the devil on her shoulder hooting as her bones went molten. Roman’s demanding tongue had no trouble parting her lips and slipping inside.
His muscled body pressed against hers, holding her to the bar. Against the wishes of the few brain cells still firing in her cerebellum, Brooke grasped his shoulders and pulled him closer.
And then he broke away, but his lips barely moved from hers.
“I’m serious,” he said so low she almost missed it in her lust-induced haze. “Get out of here, now.”
He released her as fast as he’d pinned her there, and she had to grab the edge of the bar to keep her weak knees from giving out.
As Roman returned to his friends and raised his hands in a Rocky gesture of conquest, they cheered. Still staggered from the kiss, Brooke could only watch as both men at the table slapped money into Roman’s hand as he returned to his seat.
He wasn’t kidding. They’d bet he couldn’t get her to kiss him.
Technically, he kissed me.
The devil on her shoulder snickered.
From his chair, Roman sent her a hard look.
Get out of here, now.
Right. Something was about to go down. The kiss had meant nothing to him, just a way to warn her and not blow his cover.
Wow, some warning. Her knees shook again with something akin to disappointment.
What is wrong with me?
Brooke scanned the patrons, most watching the comedian or talking with their companions. The scandalized professors on either side of her made concerned noises and offered her another drink. She ignored them.
One guy wasn’t watching the comedian or talking to his companions. The burly, bald-headed man wore a leather jacket with a local motorcycle club emblem on it. His focus was solely on Roman.
Brooke turned to her companions from SDSU. “Why don’t you guys share my cab? If you want, we can hit another club on the way…”
Before she could finish the sentence, the MC member stood and pulled out a nasty-looking weapon.
He fired into the crowd.
Bam, bam, bam, bullets poured out of an Uzi, peppering the place.
Roman was no stranger to the report of gunfire, the way it reverberated inside his chest as if someone were ringing a bell between his ribs. The way his mind cleared of all thoughts except duck and cover.
After discovering this bar was in Merton Cornell’s territory, Roman had been expecting the gang leader to raise some hell. Only a couple of months ago, the bar had been neutral territory, but things had definitely changed since his last undercover op in San Diego. The thing that hadn’t was the fact Cornell didn’t like trespassers like the two MS-13 gang members Roman was sitting with.
Had been sitting with. At the moment, under the blaze of gunfire, he was crawling his ass as fast as possible across the floor to the bar.
Because even though he’d told her to get the hell out, Dr. Brooke Heaton was still here.
Standing at the bar, no less, with a look of sheer terror on her face. A deer caught in headlights.
Glass broke, wood splintered, people screamed. Instead of ducking, Heaton threw herself in front of one of her companions as bullets cut through the air around her.
Beautiful, brainy, accomplished woman, but obviously not one with enough common sense when it came to her own safety.
Her sexy ankles were in sight as he shimmied under the cover of a table toward her, other people’s feet making haste in the opposite direction. Even under fire, the slender feet in the heels just high enough to emphasis her calves made him salivate. The conservative skirt that hit below her knees did nothing to dampen his very vivid imagination of what the rest of her legs looked like.
In his fantasies, they were just as shapely and toned as her calves. She spent long days in the field, digging up bones and other old shit, and the job kept her body in great shape.
A window broke. More screaming ensued. It was almost a shame he was going to have to grab those sexy ankles and drag her down.
He reached for the leg closest to him, stretching to grasp it. His fingers skimmed her calf and, the next thing he knew, she kicked him, the heel of her shoe digging into his palm.
“Ow!” He jerked his hand out from under the dagger, reached another inch, and wrapped his hand around her narrow ankle. “Get the fuck down!”
She bent slightly to look at who was grabbing her, covering her ears and shutting her eyes as more shots rang out. The long, narrow skirt helped his cause as he yanked her foot out from under her. Like a tight rubber band, it kept her legs together and jerked the other out from under her as well.
“Ack!” she yelled over the commotion as she fell into his waiting arms. “Help!”
He cushioned her fall, her ass barely hitting the floor before he slid her toward him, moving them both back under the table. Her companion—the one she’d been shielding—ran for the exit at the back of the bar.
She gasped for air, kicking at him without realizing who he was, feet flailing and her hands smacking him. “Let me go!”
He was on the receiving end of several of those kicks, one coming dangerously close to his balls under the cover of the wooden table.
“Brooke.” He shook her a bit as he locked eyes with her. “It’s me.”
Her rigid body went soft as they lay facing each other, her chest heaving as those beautiful turquoise eyes of hers grew rounder. “What are you doing?”
God, her lips were perfect, so pink and ripe for kissing. Her honey-colored skin invited the touch, a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks. “Saving your incredible backside, sweetheart. Now stay down.”
Most of the people had evacuated and the gunfire had died down, but Cornell had one of the MS-13 gang members pinned against a wall. Augie already had a bullet in him, as indicated by the blood running down his right arm, and Cornell had relieved him of his weapon. Augie’s compatriot was bleeding out on the floor near the kid’s feet.
Cornell pointed the Uzi at Augie’s chest and started in with his customary rhetoric about whose territory it was, and what were a couple of “no-good wetbacks from MS-13” doing here, etc., etc.
Roman slipped the handgun from his ankle holster and placed a finger to his lips when Brooke gasped.
Tugging her closer with his other hand, he aimed at Cornell’s broad back.
Understanding what was about to go down, Brooke wrapped her arms around Roman’s chest, clinging for dear life. Her breasts smashed against his ribcage, one shoeless foot wrapping around his leg. The act was so intimate, his vision went fuzzy for a second. How many times had he fantasized about the two of them being in this exact position?
Minus the gang members and the flying bullets, of course, but what was life without a little excitement?
Her lips brushed the lobe of his ear, making his cock dance. “Don’t miss,” she whispered. Her hair smelled like coconuts and fresh lemons. “Take him down.”
Adrenaline buzzed in Roman’s system, a thousand happy bees. He touched her hair, bringing his mouth close to her ear and breathing in her clean scent. Just like she had when he’d kissed her minutes ago, her body melted into his. “My pleasure, Dr. Heaton.”
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