by J.T. Geissinger
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In the Caribbean for his best friend’s wedding, ex special-ops officer and security expert Ryan McLean meets a beautiful woman in the hotel bar. Their connection is immediate and intense, and they spend a passionate night together with pleasure as their only goal.
But when Ryan wakes the following morning to discover the beautiful woman has vanished, along with millions worth of jewels from the safe of the Saudi prince staying in the suite next door, he realizes their meeting wasn’t accidental and becomes determined to find her.
A notorious thief known to authorities only as the Dragonfly, Mariana Lora has one final job to complete before she’s free from the oath that bound her to a life of crime, but the sexy-as-hell Marine she spent one explosive tropical night with is hot on her heels at every turn. She has to outwit him to stay out of jail, but fighting their magnetic attraction soon becomes a game neither one of them can resist.
When Mariana’s last job goes dangerously wrong and she needs Ryan’s help to survive, he has to decide if their game of cat and mouse is only a game, or if he can trust this beautiful thief with something no woman has ever stolen: his heart.
Other Books in the Wicked Games Series
When sizing up a potential mark, a thief of any intelligence must answer one crucial question before committing to the job.
Is the risk worth the reward?
I know it sounds simple enough. Believe me, it’s anything but.
Take my current situation as an example. After weeks of painstaking planning and an airplane flight halfway around the world, I’m tucked into a comfortable chair at a table in an outdoor bar at a luxury resort in St. Croix, sipping a strawberry daiquiri and pretending to flip through a travel magazine while actually performing covert reconnaissance through the mirrored lenses of my sunglasses. My target—or mark, in criminal parlance—is sitting on the edge of the infinity pool several meters away, laughing loudly, blond head thrown back, straight white teeth glinting in the tropical sun.
Americans. Always the boisterous laughs and good dental work. I envy everything about them.
This particular one has the muscular, golden good looks of a Hemsworth. At first glance, he could be mistaken for an actor or model, maybe one of those self-obsessed Instagram pseudo-celebrities shilling soft drinks and designer clothing to a legion of teenage fans. But on closer inspection, interesting details emerge.
The Marine Corps tattoo on his right shoulder. The hawklike awareness in his blue eyes. The trio of shiny round divots marring the taut skin of his stomach.
I’ve seen enough bullet scars to recognize them. That he survived three shots to the gut makes him intriguing. In my experience, most people die after one.
Golden Boy sits on the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the crystalline water, chatting and laughing with the most unlikely of companions. A redhead with a constellation of tattoos on her slender limbs has her arms linked around the waist of a beast of a man with linebacker shoulders, close-cropped black hair, and a megawatt smile. A two-hundred pound African-American woman in a neon yellow bikini and matching turban, both of which she somehow elegantly pulls off, canoodles with a pale man half her size in a black Speedo who has a wild thatch of hair and insane-asylum-escapee eyes.
Strangest of all is the teenage girl with the rat on her head.
She treads water in the pool a short distance away from her companions. With her mop of curly brown hair and distinctly Latin facial features and skin tone, she doesn’t look related to any of the adults. The fat black-and-white rat, contentedly perched atop her hair as if it’s a permanent fixture, seems to be enjoying the conversation as much as the warm afternoon sun.
After a few moments, the girl swims to the edge of the pool and pulls herself up with her skinny arms to sit beside Golden Boy, her back turned to me.
I wince when I see the scar.
Ragged and lurid pink, it traces a vicious path from between her narrow shoulder blades to the small of her back. It’s too irregular to be a surgical scar. An accident, perhaps? Whatever its origin, it’s recent. No more than a few months by my best guess.
Dios mio, poor baby.
I suspect out of all of her companions, the two of us have the most in common.
“Another daiquiri, ma’am?” A smiling waiter in white shorts and flip-flops bends over me.
“No, thank you.”
The waiter nods and walks away.
On paper, this job is straightforward. Gain access to the room of honeymooning Saudi Prince Khalid, relieve his new bride of her wedding present—a one-hundred-carat ruby necklace with a flawless twenty-carat stone as its centerpiece—and escape with my head intact.
In reality, there are a few substantial kinks.
One, Prince Khalid travels with a cadre of heavily armed bodyguards.
Two, the necklace won’t be sitting out on the coffee table, waiting to be swiped. Cracking a safe is inevitable. And safecracking takes time, especially if done quietly.
Three, there’s only one road to and from this exclusive resort, which will quickly be shut down if the necklace is discovered missing, thereby blocking my exit unless I can arrange to escape via scuba gear into the Caribbean Sea. Which I won’t, because I can’t swim.
And last but not least, there’s Golden Boy.
Who is staying in the room directly beneath Prince Khalid’s suite.
Who, if properly handled, could invite me up for a nightcap, thereby providing access to Prince Khalid’s suite via the balcony. It involves a climb up a drainpipe and a series of low walls, but I can’t hack the front door keycard reader as I normally would because Khalid’s door is guarded by men with semiautomatic weapons, so the only other way in is through the balcony. And the only way to get there is from the balcony of the room below.
Unfortunately, Golden Boy must have had his hotel room broken into in the past, because in addition to the keycard reader, he’s installed a portable door lock with an alarm that will sound if the door’s opened. And if he’s gone to the trouble to do that, the probability that there are other security devices inside is high. Which means my best bet to safely access his room is by “befriending” the man himself.
Luckily, he just glanced at me for the third time in five minutes.
God bless my mother. My long legs and high cheekbones are all hers. If I’d taken after my father, I’d look like a Hobbit. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but certainly not helpful in seducing handsome American men who carry themselves as if their whole life has been one extended homecoming king coronation party.
But Golden Boy isn’t your average skirt-chasing playboy with more money than brains. Though he works hard to appear casual, normal, I see past his façade. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This one has a taste for blood. Which brings me back to my original question.
Is the risk worth the reward?
Of course it is. Wolves are no match for me.
Smiling, I rise from my chair and head to the bar, walking slowly so Golden Boy can take his time eyeing my bare legs. He slides off the edge of the pool and stands waist-deep in the water so he can get a better look at me.
I make a bet with myself how long it’ll take him to make his move. Judging by the way he’s staring, another five minutes, tops.
“Do you have a lunch menu?” I ask the bartender as I slither onto a barstool and cross my legs. I’m wearing a plunging white maillot that sets off my tanned skin and showcases my cleavage, white kitten heels, and a sheer cover-up that skims the tops of my bare thighs. Even from this distance, I can feel Golden Boy’s gaze on my skin, hotter than the Caribbean sun.
“Of course,” says the bartender, a serious young man with a gap between his crooked front teeth. Not an American. He hands me a leather folio. “The conch croquettes are amazing.”
I pretend to study the menu while eavesdropping on Golden Boy and his companions. The first thing I note is that my mark has a sleepy Southern drawl to go along with his muscles and baby blues. Texas? No, Georgia.
“I’ll try them, thank you,” I tell the bartender, letting the lilt of a fake Parisian accent infiltrate my words. Then I close my eyes, tip my head back, and fan myself with the menu as I stretch my neck. My hair slides off my shoulders and down my back. A waft of humid air drifts between my breasts. Golden Boy falters in the middle of his sentence, and then abruptly continues.
“…got Tabby on a plane.”
“Connor gives incredible pep talks,” says a female voice, warm with laughter. “I think this man could convince me to do anything.”
“Oh yeah?” says a male voice, not Golden Boy’s. Judging by the deep, commanding tone, my money’s on the big beast, not the pale one with the African-American woman. Tabby must be the redhead, then.
I listen, lazily fanning air over my cleavage, swinging my leg back and forth, a black widow patiently waiting for her prey to enter the web.
“There’s a few things I’d definitely like to convince you to do, woman,” says the beast, chuckling. Then there are some exaggerated kissing noises, which prompt a chorus of groans.
“Get a room, you two!” scolds another female. Must be Yellow Bikini. The voice is too adult to be the scarred girl.
“They spend any more time in their room, Darcy, we won’t see ’em at all,” drawls Golden Boy.
“They’re newlyweds! Give them a break!” says a different male voice. He has a German accent. Zey’re newlyvedz. Black Speedo.
“Speakin’ of breaks, I need another beer. Anybody else ready?”
Golden Boy takes drink orders from his companions. I hear the splash as he jumps out of the pool. Trying not to smirk, I start a silent countdown in my head. Five, four, three, two—
“’Scuse, me, bartender? Can we get another round?”
I open my eyes to find Golden Boy standing next to me. He’s looking at the bartender at the end of the bar, who nods in acknowledgment. Then Golden Boy turns his head and looks at me.
Electricity jolts through me when our eyes meet. It’s disturbing how strong it is. It’s been years since I felt serious attraction to anyone, and muscular blonds aren’t my type in the first place. Dark and dangerous is more my thing.
Although, admittedly, Golden Boy has the dangerous part down. The look in his eyes is anything but tame.
“Hi,” he says, staring at me with blazing intensity.
Here’s the part where I need to figure out his type. Dumb and bubbly? Smoldering seductress? Girl next door? There’s a key that unlocks the door to every man’s libido. And once his libido is engaged, his brain takes a nap for the duration.
I’m so grateful I’m a woman. We can get turned on without completely losing our intellect to our genitals.
“Hello,” I say neutrally. I remove my sunglasses. Neither of us smiles.
He asks, “What part of Paris you from?”
I have to physically force myself not to blink. There’s a slight difference between a Parisian accent and other French accents, and the fact that he picked it out is alarming.
And impressive. I’m inclined to like him, but of course I don’t allow myself to.
“You know Paris?” I ask coyly, avoiding his question.
He cocks his head. “A little.”
Hmm. That could mean he’s only seen the city in movies, or he lived there for years. He’s giving away about as much as I am.
“The eighth arrondissement,” I parry, testing him. “Gare Saint-Lazare.”
His face remains impassive. “Swanky neighborhood. You from there originally?”
I get the sense he’s testing me too. Why do I like it? I decide to change the subject to see how he handles it. “What’s your name?”
One corner of his mouth turns up. A roguish little dimple appears in his cheek. “You avoided my question.”
“And you just avoided mine.”
“Yeah, but only because you started it.”
“Funny, you don’t strike me as a man who lets anyone else take the lead.”
He chuckles. “With a rear view as fine as yours, darlin’, you can take the lead any time you like.”
Now we’re smiling at each other. For the first time in a long time, I’m having what could almost be described as fun.
The bartender arrives with the drinks. “Shall I charge it to your room, Mr. McLean?”
“Yep,” Golden Boy answers without looking away from me.
The bartender leaves with a promise that my conch croquettes are almost ready.
I say, “So, Mr. McLean, where in Georgia are you from?”
If he’s surprised I pegged his accent, he doesn’t show it. He lifts a shoulder, self-confident, nonchalant. “Little town nobody’s ever heard of.”
“Oh come on. Now you have to tell me.”
The dent in his cheek grows deeper. “Perry.”
My smile widens. Unfortunately for him and his ego, I’ve spent a lot of time in the American South. I say, “Home to the annual Georgia National Fair. Cute little historic town center. There’s, what, ten thousand residents in Perry?”
Golden Boy watches me with blistering focus. “Fifteen. What did you say your name was?”
I let the silence stretch out between us before saying softly, “I didn’t.”
When his eyes flash with desire, I know how I’m going to play him. He likes a challenge. Which means Earth Mother, Girl Next Door, and Dumb and Bubbly are out the window, and Smoldering Seductress is in the house. I moisten my lips with the tip of my tongue, lower my chin, and look up at him from beneath my lashes.
He sets his empty beer bottle on the counter and slides onto the barstool next to me, all without taking his gaze from my face. His big thighs are spread open on either side of mine, effectively trapping me.
“So,” he says, “beautiful nameless mademoiselle. Are we going to be friends or not?”
I can’t help myself. I laugh at his directness. “I don’t know, handsome American Marine. Perhaps we should take a moment to discuss your definition of ‘friends.’”
He leans closer. He’s bare chested, barefoot, and soaking wet from the waist down. The bulge in his black swim shorts is clearly visible, and impressively large. Five-o’clock shadow glints copper along his square jaw. If I were any other woman, this man would be devastating.
Into my ear, he says softly, “Anything you want it to be.”
Does he think I’m a prostitute? I’m not offended, but this is awfully forward, even for an American. Most men take a lot longer than five minutes to get to the propositioning.
Obviously he’s not like most men. I need to be careful with this one.
When he leans back, I tilt my head and consider him.
Up close, he’s even more handsome than he looked in the pool. Masculine and a little gritty, in spite of his sleepy Southern drawl and baby-blue eyes. He’s got big, rough hands, a superhero’s square jaw, an appealing cleft in his chin, and a lot of tattoos on his chest and arms that I’d like to trace with my fingers. Or tongue.
But I don’t ever sleep with a mark. It’s a policy I’ve never broken. I’ve got two potent pills to slip into his drink if he takes me up to his room that will conveniently allow me to sidestep the minefield of sex with a stranger.
I might take a quick peek into his shorts while he’s passed out to check out that bulge he’s packing, but that’s as far as it will go.
“I already have a lot of friends.” I say it with just enough warmth that he knows it’s not a brush-off.
“I bet you do.” His voice is husky now. He lets his gaze drift to my lips, then to my cleavage, then down my legs, boldly and unapologetically eating me up with his eyes.
Under his admiring gaze, I feel like a cat that’s been stroked down its back. I wouldn’t be surprised if I started to purr. “And so do you.” I nod in the direction of his companions in the pool, who watch us with open interest.
“They can wait. I wanna get to know you better first.”
I stifle the urge to laugh again. He’s making this too easy. “Such an eager beaver!”
His eyes grow hotter. “A word of advice, darlin’,” he drawls, grinning. “Don’t say any words that are euphemisms for your lady parts unless you want me to think you’re flirtin’ with me.”
“I see. No mentions of muffins, cookies, secret gardens, or cockpits. Got it.”
His grin is so wide, it’s practically blinding. “You are flirtin’ with me.”
Bat, bat, bat go my eyelashes. “Would you mind if I were?”
His grin fades. He reaches out and gently strokes a lock of hair off my shoulder. He skims his fingertips slowly down my arm until he reaches my wrist. His touch leaves a trail of sparks in its wake.
He cuffs my wrist in his big hand, settles his index finger over my pulse point, and, after a moment of silence where I think he’s counting my heartbeat, says gruffly, “You know I wouldn’t. But I’ve got another warnin’ for you, beautiful mademoiselle. I don’t do small talk. When I want a woman, I go after her.”
He raises my wrist to his lips and brushes a sweet, soft kiss across the pulse pounding there. Electricity crackles through my body. All my nerve endings sit up and suck in a startled breath.
Looking into my eyes, my new friend Mr. McLean says, “So unless you tell me right now you don’t wanna play this game, I’m comin’ after you.”
Mierde santa. This man must get laid a dozen times a week.
Suddenly, I’m filled with longing so strong and bittersweet, it steals my breath. I wish I were a normal woman, a tourist on vacation with her friends who could indulge herself in a summer fling with a sexy stranger. I wish I could say yes to this beautiful man, let him make love to me, let myself go.
I wish I could forget all the sins that led me to this moment.
But I can’t. They follow me like a shadow, dogging my every step. My only path to freedom is repayment of my debts, and Prince Khalid’s new bride’s ruby necklace is next on my debtor’s list.
So I smile and toss my hair and pretend to be someone I’m not, stuffing my longing for a different life into a dark, abandoned corner of my heart where all my other useless yearnings go.
“I like to play games, Mr. McLean,” I say lightly. “But since you’ve warned me, I should warn you too. I always win.”
When he smiles, he does it with his whole body. It’s like he lights up from the inside out. “It’s Ryan,” he says. “And damn this is gonna be fun. Tell me your name.”
I use the fake name on my fake passport and say, “Angeline Lemaire.”
Ryan nods. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Angeline.”
Before I can say another word, he tugs me closer and crushes his mouth to mine.