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Risking it All

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NYPD detective Seraphia Newsom will avenge her brother’s death at any cost. Even if it means insinuating herself into a rough, Brooklyn street gang and going so far undercover, she’s not sure she’ll be able to get out. Every minute she spends in their midst means the clock ticking down on her life, especially when she overhears something that could get her killed.
Bowen Driscol is the heir to a crime enterprise. He never asked for the job, but with his father behind bars, he has no choice but to step in and keep the operation running. But when the NYPD blackmails him with a piece of damning information in exchange for aiding an undercover cop, he finds himself on the other side of the law for the first time in his life.
Bowen knows the danger Sera is in, and keeping her safe trumps saving his own ass. The problem? She can’t know he’s on her side. And there's the matter of the seriously inconvenient heat sparking between them that's incinerating his resistance. But Sera only sees Bowen's past, and men like him are the reason her brother is dead. If they're to get out alive, he'll have to risk exposing the man beneath, and hope to hell he doesn't blow the whole operation in the process.

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.


Copyright © 2014 by Tessa Bailey. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.


Entangled Publishing, LLC

2614 South Timberline Road

Suite 109

Fort Collins, CO 80525


Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.


Edited by Heather Howland

Cover design by Heather Howland and Amber Shah

Photography from Shutterstock


Paperback ISBN 978-1-62266-564-8

Ebook ISBN 978-1-62266-565-5


Manufactured in the United States of America


First Edition January 2015


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1





Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Epilogue

Up in Smoke

Acknowledgments

Find out where it all began with Tessa Bailey’s bestselling Line of Duty series… Protecting What’s His

Officer Off Limits



The story continues in the exciting new Crossing the Line series... His Risk to Take



Coming Soon Up In Smoke



For more Sexy, suspenseful reads, check out... Honor Reclaimed by Tonya Burrows

Rules of Protection by Alison Bliss

Convicted by Dee Tenorio

Fiancée for Hire by Tawna Fenske

Alive at Five by Linda Bond

High-Heeled Wonder by Avery Flynn





For Mackenzie.

Everything for Mackenzie.





Chapter One

Here’s your meatloaf. Choke on it.

Seraphina Newsom crossed herself discreetly as she walked away from the customer’s table, mutte; ring a quick Hail Mary for good measure. No sense in letting her immortal soul go to the devil because the man had treated her ass like it was on the specials menu. Still able to feel the sting of his pinching fingers, she vowed, then and there, to overtip her waitresses for the rest of her life. Thirty percent or bust.

Sera took a deep breath and pushed through the double doors leading to the kitchen of Dooly’s. Loud, tinny Greek music emanating from a portable radio greeted her, as did scraping silverware and dishes being submerged in hot, soapy water. Right on cue, the cook tossed two more plates of greasy meat loaf onto the dented metal shelf and dinged the bell, even though she already stood there waiting. Squaring her shoulders, she reminded herself why a girl with a nursing degree and a budding career in law enforcement would be donning an apron in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

She was there to get up close and personal with her brother’s murderer.

“Why you never try my meat loaf, waitress?” the cook asked her in heavily accented English.

“Er…gluten allergy?”

“What is this gluten everyone talks about?”

She started to answer, but stopped. “It’s probably just a myth. Like Santa Claus and comfortable thongs.” Satisfied with his frown and the fact that she’d avoided telling him his meat loaf resembled roadkill, Sera took both plates and backed through the doors.

Into the deathly silent dining room.

Discreetly as possible, she glanced toward the center of the silence. Two stools away sat Trevor Hogan. The man who’d gunned her brother down.

Hogan was a lifelong local who had started small-time. Stealing cars, robbing delis, brawling. His ambition had placed him in the right place at the right time, and with the help of a metal baseball bat, Hogan earned the trust of the boss and took over the protection racket. Loan-sharking, extorting local businesses, you name it—Hogan had both greedy hands in it.

Her brother, Colin, had been a rookie with the NYPD when Hogan began branching out, running an illegal gambling operation so large it had financed two successful nightclubs, ballooning his criminal influence even more. As inexperienced as Colin had been, he shouldn’t have been anywhere near Hogan’s case. He’d been too young, too cocky, wanting to land a major arrest his first year in the field.

But when your uncle was the police commissioner, exceptions were made, no matter how deadly.

She’d been working as an emergency room nurse at Massachusetts General in Boston when her brother died. Ironic, that. After taking a vow to save people’s lives, she’d been unable to save the life that mattered most.

Sera smoothed a thumb over the Saint Michael charm that hung around her neck. She wouldn’t go as far as to say the Newsoms were cursed, but…all right, they were pretty much cursed. The last three generations of Newsoms, including her father, had been killed in the line of duty. Her uncle was all that she had left, and he ran the city with an iron fist. As far as the people of this city were concerned, she didn’t exist. To the little family she had left, she didn’t exist, either. Seraphina Newsom was a ghost.

To her mind, that invisibility made her the perfect candidate to go undercover and find the key evidence to put away Hogan for life. Rumors of a ledger containing Hogan’s unsavory business dealings had long swirled through the precinct hallways. The rumors were fueled by the fierce opposition he’d shown when his financial records had been subpoenaed during the tossed-out murder trial. Added to the fact that Hogan was cocky as hell, and low-level informants had reported seeing the ledger, she knew it existed. His secrets were written on those pages.

Not secrets that would take him off the street. Not the conventional way, at least. Information was valuable in this neighborhood, and she could use the names in that ledger to implode his operation from the inside out, bringing Hogan’s operation down square on its head.

As soon as she’d felt confident enough that gaining possession of the ledger would be the key to outing Colin’s murderer, she’d taken a personal week off of work, citing the upcoming three-year anniversary of her brother’s death as the reason. And she’d gone undercover without a direct order from her uncle.

When this was over, she’d never again wear a badge. But she’d have bagged a murderer.

And then she would disappear.

Sera set down both plates of meat loaf in front of two burly male customers whose earlier loud conversation had devolved into subdued undertones with Hogan’s appearance, never letting Hogan out of her peripheral vision. Ever since he’d arrived, Dooly’s lively buzz had been switched off like a lightbulb, customers poking at their meals absently. Apparently unconcerned about the pall he’d cast over the crowd, Hogan sat with one arm draped over his chair, focusing on the UFC match raging on the ancient television.

Hogan’s four-man crew stomped into the bar, making the sixth sense that ran in her family ping. Hogan leaned against the bar, gesturing animatedly as he spoke to the bartender. His friends laughed on cue and some of the customers began to relax. Hogan, his youthfulness beginning to fade along with his good looks, tossed back a shot of whiskey. He turned as he plunked the glass down on the bar, catching her eye across the dining room floor. Instead of cringing under his interest, Sera smiled back and sailed toward the kitchen, conscious of his hard gaze on her.

Everything happened quickly after that. There was a loud crack as Dooly’s front door was kicked open. A man walked in, sweatshirt hood pulled low over his face, gun raised and pointed at Hogan. Every patron in the bar hit the floor as if it were a middle-school earthquake drill. Sera reached toward her hip for a weapon that wasn’t there.

Hogan threw himself behind one of the four men who’d joined him, just in time for the man to take the bullet in his stead. The wounded man fell with a shocked curse, still shielding Hogan, who followed him to the wooden floor, scrambling for his gun. Hogan’s other men wasted no time removing their own weapons, issuing threats at the already-retreating gunman, who managed to make it out the door before they could fire a single shot.

What had she just witnessed? An assassination attempt on Hogan? For a moment, she felt frozen to the spot, reeling at the fact that Hogan’s life had almost been stolen from her. Justice for Colin did not include such an easy way out. No, it would have been unacceptable. Years of heartache, months of work…all for nothing. It had been so close. Too close.

The sight of blood broke Sera out of her stupor. It was everywhere. Splattered on the mirror behind the bar, the ground, the man who lay on his back clutching his upper chest. Before her conscious mind processed her actions, Sera moved toward the man, shoving aside the group of useless bystanders. She might have quit nursing to become a cop, but the oath she’d taken wouldn’t allow her to stand by while someone died. Not when she could prevent it. “Get me the first aid kit from behind the bar.” As she knelt down beside the bleeding man, she noticed no one had moved. “Now. And call an ambulance.”

Feet shuffled around Sera, telling her someone had actually listened. Briefly, her eyes landed on the face of the wounded man. Young, dark, startlingly handsome despite the fact that his teeth were gritted from the obvious pain. She didn’t recognize him from the case file, nor had she expected his type among this crew. Hardened, yes, but he didn’t appear as if he’d slipped beyond redemption like the rest of them. With brisk efficiency, she pried his hand away from the wound, pushed open his leather jacket and ripped his white T-shirt open from collar to hem.

The first aid kit clattered down beside her on the floor. “At least buy him dinner first.”

Hogan. She’d deal with him later. Relief moved through her when she saw that the wound had missed the man’s heart by about two inches. Still, it could have hit his subclavian artery. She could keep him alive long enough for help to arrive, but it would need to be soon. As gently as possible, she eased her hand beneath his shoulder, relieved when she felt an exit wound. At least the bullet had gone clear through. She ripped off her apron, balled up the starchy material and pressed it against the wound. It had to hurt like hell, but the man barely winced.

She glanced up, meeting Hogan’s eyes. “Did you call the ambulance?”

He leaned against the bar, chewing a cocktail straw. The utter lack of concern on his face reminded Sera she was in the presence of a monster. Her brother’s murderer. Hogan shrugged, setting her teeth on edge. “You’re doing a bang-up job all on your own. No need to involve uniforms.”

Sera failed to hide her horror. “He could die without medical attention. Look at how much blood he’s already lost.” She wiped her bloody palm across her uniform shirt, unwittingly making her point.

Eyes narrow, he pointed at her with his cocktail straw. “Why don’t you ask him what he wants?”

She looked back down at the injured man. “No ambulance,” he managed through gritted teeth, face paling with the effort. “I’d rather bleed out.”

Hogan’s face lit up with amusement. “And there you go.” He signaled the bartender for another drink. “You got a name, Florence Nightingale?”

He’s colder than I could have imagined.

Sera took a deep breath and focused on his question. She’d planned her false identity down to the last detail. The name and cover story she would use if she ever got close enough to Hogan to actually employ it. She’d never expected to use it this soon, though, especially in this kind of situation.

“Sera.”

He threw back the shot of whiskey. “Can you fix him up, Sera? He’s my cousin. If he dies, it’ll piss off my mother.”

Yes. She might be able to save him. No, she would save him. Despite the wounded man’s vast difference from her brother, she wouldn’t let another person die because of Hogan’s presence in his life. Call it irrational, but in a way, saving this man might in small measure make up for her being two hundred miles away as her brother died on the cold sidewalk. None of this could be portrayed to Hogan, however. Or she risked her own neck. “Fix him?” She gave a disbelieving laugh. “He needs doctors…a hospital. I’m a waitress.”

“Yeah? You don’t talk like no waitress.”

“You want to hear the specials or something?”

Hogan’s laugh boomed through the bar, but he sobered just as quickly. He regarded her closely for a moment, then nodded to his cohorts. “Load Connor into the backseat. And for God’s sake, put a fucking towel down first.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “She’s coming with us.”





Chapter Two

Bowen Driscol kept the lit cigarette clamped between his lips as two police officers jerked his hands behind his back and shoved him forward onto the hood of their squad car. A group of neighborhood girls passing on the sidewalk stopped to gawk, giggling when he threw them a wink. The officer’s hand between his shoulder blades kept him in place, cold metal clinking when the other uniform removed the piece he’d had tucked into his waistband and cuffed him. When the hand on his back pushed a little too hard, Bowen gave in with a sigh and spat the cigarette onto the curb.

“Look, I like it rough as much as the next guy, but we hardly know each other.”

“Shut it, Driscol.”

“You going to explain why I’m being arrested?” He swallowed a growl as the cuffs bit into his skin. “Or is this just how you get all your dates?”

“Your mother didn’t seem to mind.” The officer heaved him off the hood and stuffed him into the backseat, oblivious to the sore spot he’d just poked with his casual insult. “As for why I’m taking you in?” With a shrug, he slammed the door. “Pick something,” he called through the glass.

Bowen kept his unconcerned expression firmly in place as the officers drove through the streets of Bensonhurst where he’d been raised. Where he’d likely die. He knew every corner, every alleyway, and the name of every shop owner. This was his home. He hated it as much as he loved it. Loved it for the familiarity, hated it for the prison it had become since he reluctantly accepted his legacy.

Even though it was torture being trapped in the back of a police car without the use of his hands, he couldn’t deny a sense of relief. Had they finally caught him? Finally gathered enough information to put him away? God, a big part of him hoped they had, even if he would die before admitting it to these smug assholes. He was tired of looking over his goddamn shoulder when he walked down the street, wondering if today would be the day someone tried to end his reign as boss. He’d never wanted the job, but with his father awaiting trial at Rikers Island, it had landed on his shoulders like a ton of bricks. Yeah, he’d never been a saint to begin with, but now people feared him for reasons that had nothing to do with his penchant for street fights. Now they worried about their legs being broken over unpaid debts. Turned tail and ran when they saw him as if he were Death himself.

He racked his brain trying to figure out what had gotten him pinched. Sure they were required to tell him, but the NYPD never played by the rules. Not with him. They knew he ran South Brooklyn, they just hadn’t been able to trace any crime back to him—a fact that pissed them off in a big way. It warmed his heart exactly how much. Would that all change today? Their silence was unusual, to say the least. Any other day, they wouldn’t waste a chance to rib him.

Bowen frowned when they bypassed the turn for the local precinct and proceeded toward Manhattan. “Where we headed, boys?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said the one driving.

“Never said I was worried.” He wished for a cigarette. “I’m just wondering if I need to make arrangements for someone to water my houseplants.”

The cops exchanged a glance. “You have plants.”

“What? I don’t strike you as the nurturing type?”

Bowen caught sight of himself in the rearview mirror and had to laugh. With a purple-black eye and a cut bottom lip, he looked like the opposite of nurturing. In fact, he looked like shit run over twice. Nothing new. He couldn’t remember seeing himself reflected back without some sort of injury on his face. The utter exhaustion in his eyes, though…that was new. Quickly, he looked out the window to find them traveling over the Brooklyn Bridge. What the hell did they want with him in Manhattan?

“You know, I love this new air of mystery you boys have going. It’s sexy.”

Instead of responding, they turned up the chattering dispatch radio to drown him out. It took every ounce of willpower not to question the officers further when they pulled into NYPD headquarters a few minutes later. His heart pounded in his chest as they pulled him out of the backseat, but he did his best to look bored.

This is it. I’m done.

No more instilling fear, no more resorting to violence to collect money owed to him. No more issuing orders to soulless men who didn’t know how to feel remorse. All done.

The officers led him through the entrance and every head turned; animosity and disgust targeted him from all directions. Bowen ignored the twinge of pain from his cut lip as he grinned at his rapt audience. “Afternoon, gentlemen.” He wished he were wearing a hat so he could tip it. “Weather today is beautiful. Not a goddamn cloud in the sky.”

He didn’t have the pleasure of hearing any angry responses because the officers pulled him down a hallway, shoving him into the first interrogation room. Irritation clawed at his throat over being pushed around, but he didn’t give them the satisfaction of showing it. If he weren’t wearing handcuffs, he would have already swung on them and they knew it. They also knew he could easily take them both on and win. Fighting was in his blood. He did it often and he did it well. So he couldn’t contain his surprise when they removed the handcuffs. It even managed to distract him from his anger.

“All right. I give up. What the fuck is going on?”

“Have a seat.” The officer who’d driven them there kicked out the metal chair before leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

He remained standing, turning slightly when the interrogation room door opened again and an older man walked in, looking grave. Bowen’s eyebrows shot up when he recognized the man. Police Commissioner Newsom.

He’d seen the man on television doing press conferences more times than he could count. That’s what he did. Sound bites to reassure the masses. Public relations. He sure as hell didn’t interrogate street toughs from Brooklyn. Newsom tossed a file on the metal table and nodded at him. “Why the black eye, Driscol? Don’t you have men to do the dirty work for you now that you’re in charge?”

No way would he tell him the truth about his perpetual black eyes. He wouldn’t tell him that when he went to collect debts and the money wasn’t ready, he always let the other man take a swing at him before leaving his men to deliver the rest of the message. He welcomed the pain that came with that single blow, craved it even. Lately, it was the only thing reminding him he was alive. Sometimes he even hoped the money wouldn’t be available, as it hadn’t been last night. Bitterness flooded his mouth at the memory of the man’s desperate eyes when Bowen had shown up at his door.

No money for me, huh? Go ahead, take a shot at me. Do it. You’ll be glad you did it in an hour when you wake up hating me.

“Why am I here?” Bowen fell into the chair without answering Newsom’s question. “Not that I don’t appreciate the stellar hospitality.”

“Already you’re living up to your reputation as a smart-ass.” Newsom sat, scrubbing a weary hand over his whiskered face. “Look, I’m not here to play any bullshit games with you, so I’d appreciate the same courtesy.”

“Fair enough.” Bowen lit a cigarette. “Shoot.”

Newsom’s jaw hardened. Behind him, the two officers shifted, but stilled when Newsom held up a hand. “We have a situation and I’ve been informed you’re in a position to help us.”

Bowen paused in the middle of his second drag of nicotine. “Help you?” When the commissioner just looked at him, he laughed out loud. “Any minute now I’m going to wake up, right?”

“No, I’m afraid not.” Newsom flipped open the file and scanned the contents. “And in case you’re wondering, asking for help from some punk who we’ve been trying to take down for over a year wasn’t exactly my number one choice.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.” He took a deep drag of his cigarette and blew the smoke toward one of the scowling officers. “Okay. What do you need my help with? I’d at least like to know the particulars before I turn you down.”

“You sound pretty certain.”

“Good. That’s what I was aiming for.”

Newsom muttered something under his breath, but all Bowen could make out was the word “mistake.” “How about I lay it out for you in black and white, then you decide?”

Bowen stayed silent, watching Newsom through a cloud of smoke.

The commissioner sighed wearily. “We’ve lost contact with an undercover officer. At the risk of sounding cliché, they’ve gone rogue. Went in without permission.” He considered his hands a moment. “We’d like you to make contact with the officer, first and foremost to confirm they’re alive and well. We need them extracted from the situation unharmed.”

“Undercover.” Bowen felt a tingle at the back of his neck. “Investigating who?”

“You think I’d reveal a name without your signed agreement to cooperate?”

Bowen didn’t answer, the word “cooperate” hanging in the air like rank garbage.

“The officer is looking for evidence,” the commissioner continued. “Frankly, it’s evidence I—we—need. This isn’t how I wanted to go about obtaining it, but they’re in now.”

“Evidence of what?”

“Corruption. Something you should be familiar with.” He formed a steeple with his fingers. “Which leads me to your secondary task. If the officer is indeed alive and well, allow them a small window of time to continue the mission. If it proves fruitful and they uncover what we’re looking for, you bring that evidence to me before they have a chance to lose it or get killed.” He shook his head. “A damn rookie cop. No business whatsoever this deep in the game.”

“This idea gets more appealing by the minute.” Bowen sent a pointed glance toward the two flunkies. “Cops aren’t exactly my jam on a good day. Some inexperienced rookie with a death wish? Why would I agree to that?”

“Because, Mr. Driscol, we can make life very difficult for you otherwise. We know about the circumstances surrounding your father’s incarceration.” Newsom paused, as if to let that statement sink in. Bowen kept his features carefully schooled so he wouldn’t betray the shock pounding through his blood. He hadn’t seen this coming. Couldn’t have anticipated it in a million years. “We know you were aware of your father’s impending arrest and didn’t warn him because it would have put someone very close to you in danger. I think some of your associates would find it interesting that your sister was working as an unofficial informant, don’t you?”

Grinding out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe, Bowen felt sick. With guilt, with dread. “You can’t prove that.”

Newsom smiled without humor. “We wouldn’t need to. The mere suggestion would put a target on your back. Her back.” The commissioner paused as that horrifying statement sank in. “Until now, we haven’t fully committed resources to ending your little run as king. That could very easily change. I suggest playing ball, Driscol. Unless you want to end up behind bars, just like dear old dad.”

The impact of that statement sent Bowen back in his chair, but he made it look casual at the last minute. Just like his dad. He couldn’t think about that right now. Not with these cops staring at him like a science project. He’d had Ruby’s back since childhood and vice versa. She never would have given the police leverage to use against him. It would be a cold day in hell before she told another living soul. Unless…

“Let me guess.” Bowen swiped a hand through his hair. “Troy Bennett is on the other side of that glass. He’s the one who so graciously offered my services.”

Newsom’s lips twitched. “You catch on quick. Ever think of joining the force?”

The officers behind him laughed as if the mere idea of him being anything but a criminal was hysterical. For once, he didn’t really blame them. Bowen turned toward the two-way glass and showed it his middle finger. Ruby’s boyfriend, the man who’d managed to put the pool hustler on the straight and narrow, had been a fucking thorn in his side since day one. He should have known when Ruby hooked up with a cop that this was inevitable.

Seconds later, the door opened and Troy strolled in holding a cup of coffee. “Bowen.”

He didn’t return the greeting, jerking his chin at Newsom instead. “Before, my answer was no. Now, it’s hell no.”

Troy’s mouth tightened. “Can I have a moment with him, Commissioner?”

Newsom gave a brusque nod and left the room, followed by his two flunkies. Bowen lit another cigarette and tossed his lighter onto the table. “You’re wasting your time.”

“Why haven’t you been returning your sister’s phone calls?”

The question threw him, before it circled back around and pissed him off. “What the hell is this? A family therapy session?” He pushed to his feet and paced. “There was a time when you didn’t want me within a hundred yards of her.”

“She misses you.” Troy shrugged. “When she’s unhappy, I’m unhappy.”

Bowen ignored the stabbing feeling in his chest. “Yeah? She has a funny way of missing me. Telling her cop boyfriend the one thing that could fuck me over.”

“It won’t fuck you over, because you’re going to help us.”

“Not. Happening.”

Troy walked to the metal table and flipped open the file. Bowen watched as he sifted through some papers and pulled out a picture. “I’m not supposed to show you this until you agree to help, but I’m going to anyway. You know why?”

“I couldn’t care less.”

“Because I trust you,” Troy enunciated. “Enough to convince Newsom that you’re redeemable and could make a difference in this case. This is my ass on the line, too.”

I trust you. Bowen didn’t want to hear those words. Didn’t like the way they made him feel. He shouldn’t be trusted. Not after the things he’d been compelled to do. Not after he’d let his own father get put behind bars. Let his sister nearly get murdered. “Sorry to let you down, but I’ll take my chances with a bull’s-eye on my back.”

“We don’t have any other options here, man. You’re a part of that world, and if the alternative is Newsom dropping a dime on Ruby—and finding a reason to put you in a cell—you have to do it.” Troy shook his head. “You know I’ll protect your sister. Even if it means we have to leave the city and never come back. Leave behind everything she’s worked for. But I don’t think that’s what you want.” With a curse, Troy threw the photograph down onto the table. Resolutely, Bowen kept his eyes up, refusing to look. Troy pointed down at the picture. “This is your chance to make up for the shit you’ve done. A chance to do something good. Ruby sees the good in you. Are you going to prove her wrong?”

“Fuck you,” Bowen said through his teeth, hating Troy with every cell in his body for using his weakness against him. He didn’t care about many things in this world, but he cared about his sister. Which is why he’d completely cut her out of his life. “And while we’re on the subject, keep her the hell away from me. I don’t want to see her in the neighborhood.”

“Still protecting her?” Troy asked quietly. “We both know that’s my job now.”

“Then do it. Keep her out of Brooklyn.”

Troy nodded thoughtfully, still watching him closely. Wanting to escape that observation, Bowen glanced away, his gaze accidentally landing on the photograph.

Everything inside him went still. He’d scooped up the picture to get a closer look before his brain registered the action. “Who is this?”

“That’s the officer we’ve lost contact with. Going on a week now.” Troy lowered his voice, putting his back toward the two-way glass. “She’s investigating Trevor Hogan.”

Bowen couldn’t hide his astonishment. “This girl? This girl with the freckles and the rosary beads around her neck? She’s undercover with Hogan’s crew?” When Troy simply nodded, Bowen cursed under his breath. He didn’t understand the reaction he was having to the photograph, but he couldn’t deny the unwelcome surge of protectiveness. A pretty brunette smiled up at him, squinting into the sunshine, hand closed around the cross at her chest. She didn’t belong anywhere near the ruthless Hogan, the man who had recently taken over North Brooklyn. If he suspected her for one second, she would be killed without hesitation.

Bowen knew something Troy didn’t, though. He and Hogan had an upcoming deal, set to take place on May ninth. Little over a week away. A shipment of stolen computer hardware would land in neutral territory, thanks to a Brooklyn defector who had taken his theft operation overseas. At their contact’s request, he and Hogan were going to split the hardware down the middle as a gesture of goodwill between North and South Brooklyn, since warring over the goods would up his chances of being caught. If Bowen wanted to cooperate with the police, he had a perfect opening to do it.

If he cooperated? Jesus, was he actually considering this? Absently, his finger smoothed over the picture. “What’s her name?”

“Seraphina.” Troy cleared his throat. “Hogan killed her brother and walked. Seems to me you can relate to wanting what’s best for a sibling. Only she didn’t get that chance.”

A wave of sympathy moved through him. Could he do this? Turn…informant? By going in and protecting this girl—Seraphina—he kept himself out of prison and let his sister keep her shiny new life. And dammit, someone needed to bring this impulsive rookie cop home, right? This might be an old photo, but if she’d retained an ounce of that innocence, Hogan would have her for breakfast.

Who the hell was he kidding? There was no choice.

“How long do I have to get her out?”

“The sooner the better. No more than one week.”

Perfect timing. “You have to tell me what she’s looking for. I’m not going into this blind.”

Troy lowered his voice. “Financial records. A ledger.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Men have gone undercover with Hogan before. They…didn’t last long, but were in communication long enough to confirm he keeps track of business by hand.”

Bowen decided it wouldn’t be wise to mention he’d seen the damn thing himself. He reached into his jeans again for his packet of cigarettes. “Let’s get this over with. I hate paperwork.”





Chapter Three

Sera hated the man on sight.

But since hating another person was a sin, she decided to strongly dislike him instead. He’d walked into Rush, Hogan’s nightclub, five minutes ago and hadn’t taken his eyes off her once. Nursing a glass of whiskey at the bar, he somehow fit in and stood out at the same time. He was in possession of a wicked black eye, yet he’d walked through the door with the confidence of a man who doled them out, not received them. Tall and broad-shouldered with the cut muscles of a working man, he caught the attention of women and men alike, drawing looks of appreciation as well as apprehension. The way he moved said do not fuck with me, louder than if he’d shouted the statement. His dark blond hair had been tousled in a way that looked purposeful, like a woman had just been holding on to it for dear life.

Sera shook herself, realizing she’d been openly scowling at him. These were not the type of thoughts she normally had. She shouldn’t be picturing a woman in the throes of ecstasy with her fingers clutching some stranger’s hair.

With a muttered admonishment directed at herself, she picked up her tray and turned, resolving to ignore the stranger. She’d been waitressing at Hogan’s nightclub for two weeks and she’d gotten no closer to incriminating him. He’d given her a room upstairs and ordered her to heal his cousin, whose condition began to decline, much to her alarm. She’d wondered if the man even wanted to survive. She’d begged Hogan to take him to a hospital, knowing the action would ruin her chances of bringing him down. No matter how hard she’d pleaded, Hogan had refused to pursue medical attention and against all odds, she’d managed to stabilize the patient after several days.

Once she’d made him reasonably comfortable and he appeared to be out of the woods, she’d thought Hogan would send her packing. He’d thrown her an apron instead. Whether he’d decided her healing skills might come in useful in the future or he simply didn’t know what to do with her, she couldn’t decide. Not having answers had begun to wear thin, making her jumpy. She’d even requested to be allowed to leave and return home several times so she wouldn’t appear eager to stick around, but he continued to put her off, using his injured cousin as an excuse to keep her there. Sera had caught him watching her on a few occasions, a thoughtful expression on his face, as if he were deciding her fate. That cold calculation unnerved her, and his wariness hadn’t exactly been conducive to her investigation, but she’d gotten a glimpse of the ledger book early yesterday morning. She refused to give up her chance at him.

Hopefully, all of her time-biding would come to an end tomorrow. She’d overheard Hogan on the phone yesterday as he sat at one of the tables in her section. He was going out of town for a week to check on operations at another nightclub he owned at the Jersey shore. If he let her remain behind to care for his cousin, she would finally have her chance to access the office downstairs he always kept locked.

Against her will, her gaze landed on the man at the bar again. Something about him was familiar, but she couldn’t place the reason for such a feeling. Before he’d been appraising as he watched her; now he simply looked angry. Talk about confusing.

“Sweetheart, I’m dying of thirst over here.”

Sera turned with a pasted-on smile and cleared away the three men’s empty pint glasses. “Same round again?”

Grunts served as her answer. With a nod, Sera slipped through the rows of tables to retrieve their order from the bar.

At early evening on a Friday, Rush had started to fill up, and she knew from even limited experience the regulars were demanding. Rush lacked any similarity to the nightclubs she’d been to, which was admittedly very few. No frilly, overpriced drinks or coolly sophisticated customers. Here, they were rough and suspicious of newcomers, herself included. After a few shifts, they seemed to accept her only because she was with Hogan.

Sera propped her elbows on the wooden bar hatch until the bartender scanned her through bloodshot eyes. “Two bottles of Bud, one Carlsberg.”

“You got it, honey.” As he shuffled toward the other end of the bar to drag her beers out of the ice, Sera felt the staring man move closer. It annoyed her, the way her skin prickled as he sauntered toward her, taking his sweet time. She didn’t want to talk to him and silently urged the weary bartender to hurry up with her order. No such luck, though. She’d be willing to bet he’d never hurried to do a single thing in his life.

“You know, if I were working for tips, I might smile more.”

The words were spoken so close to her neck, the small hairs at her nape shifted, sending a wicked shiver down her back. An unusual stirring took place in her belly before exploding through her veins, hot and liquid-like. Her lips parted on a small gasp. At his audacity? At her reaction to this stranger? She didn’t know.

Pull it together. Play your part. Allowing her lips to curve up at the ends, she turned to give him a playful retort, but the words died on her lips. She’d just looked up into the most strikingly handsome male face she’d ever seen. His gray eyes were noticeably tired, but intensely focused on her, mouth tilted in a smirk. From a distance, he’d been attractive, even with the painful-looking black eye. Up close…he affected her. A lot. Something she definitely couldn’t afford while needing to keep her game face intact.

Sera took a step away from him. “I have a hard time smiling when I’m being stared at.”

“Then you must not smile much, because you’re a fucking stunner.”

Whoa. Huh? The long pull of sexual attraction in her stomach came as a shock. That line had actually worked on her? She’d never had a thing for Brooklyn accents before, but the way he pronounced stunner like stunna did funny things to her insides. Or maybe the sincerity in his voice had done it. He’d said it like he meant it. Coupled with the steady manner in which he watched her now, the effect was potent. It figured that the first man she’d felt a physical pull toward would show up while she was undercover.

Can’t do anything about it here. Put him off.

She wanted to kiss the bartender when he set her beers down on the bar. “Excuse me. I’m trying to work here. I have customers who need drinks.”

“Yeah?” He took a slug of whiskey, throat muscles working. “Now I need one, too.”

“You’re not in my section.”

Too late, Sera realized she’d said the wrong thing. Setting his empty glass on the bar, he swaggered past her toward the back of the club where tables were arranged. He dropped into the first available chair, close enough to the table of men that she couldn’t deny it was her section, before looking back at her expectantly. She turned to ask the bartender for a refill on the rude man’s whiskey, but he’d already set it down on the hatch. Apparently he could move quickly when he wanted to.

Teeth gritted with the effort to appear casual, Sera placed all four drinks on her tray, ignoring her smile coach’s snort when she served the three men first.

“Took long enough,” one of them commented. “Someone should talk to Hogan. Get him to light a fire under your perky ass.”

Behind her, a chair scraped back with such force, she jumped several inches in the air. All three men at the table froze, eyes going wide when her admirer leaned over their table, supported by his clenched fists. “Apologize to her now.”

One of them stood, hand out in a conciliatory gesture. “Shit, I didn’t know she was with you. I-I didn’t…she—”

A fist hit the table, knocking over one of the fresh beers. “I asked for an apology. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s asking for something twice.”

A chorus of sorrys immediately went up, but all she could do was nod her acceptance. Who was this guy? The three men looked utterly horrified at having offended him, like their very lives were at stake. Slowly, he straightened and went back to his table, settling back in his chair. Everyone in the club had gone deathly still, but he didn’t seem to notice or give a damn. Not knowing what else to do, Sera placed the full glass of whiskey in front of him. When she tried to walk away, his hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist.

“Can I get that smile now?”

“If I don’t give it to you, what happens?” she asked, with a little more steel in her voice than intended. “Are you going to shout the smile out of me?”

His thumb massaged a circle into her palm, watching her closely. “Careful, Ladybug, you’re showing your spots.”

What is that supposed to mean? She snatched her hand back. “Maybe I keep the smile for my boyfriend only.”

He leaned back slowly and sipped his whiskey, all traces of amusement gone. “If you do have a boyfriend, he’s about to be sorely disappointed.”

“Why is that?”

“I’ve never been much good at sharing.”

Sera stared at him in shock. Instinctively she knew not to challenge him in front of the men sitting behind her, no doubt hanging on every single word. For some reason, they seemed to fear him, and until she knew the lay of the land, making a scene wouldn’t help her cause. She set her tray down and lowered her voice to a whisper. Still, she couldn’t let him get away with that comment. Share her? As if she were a can of Coke? “Who do you think you are?”

His gaze dropped to her lips. “I’m the guy who’s going to kiss you tonight.”

“Like hell you will,” she sputtered, crossing herself before she could resist the urge. “I don’t even know your name.”

A single eyebrow rose. “Did you just cross yourself?”

She shifted on the balls of her feet. “I’d tell you to try it, but it appears to be too late for religion where you’re concerned.”

“No arguments here.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. The way his head tilted to the side probably sent most girls into a squealing fit. It hadn’t escaped her notice he still hadn’t revealed his name. “I’ll make you a deal—”

“Oh no.” She shook her head. “This is how every episode of Dateline NBC starts.”

“Ah, sweetheart,” he murmured so low she could barely hear it. “How did you end up here?”

Sera didn’t know what to make of his confusing question, so she picked up her tray and started back toward the bar, but his voice brought her up short.

“If I can make you smile, I get that kiss.” He rose and gently pried the tray from her hands. “That’s the deal. Harmless enough for you?”

“Nothing about you is harmless.” The statement slipped out on a whisper. “Aren’t there other girls you could be kissing?”

“Sure there are.” Without looking, he tossed her tray on the table. “But none of them bless themselves after saying ‘hell’ or make me crazy to see them smile.”

“You appear to be crazy regardless.”

His lips twitched. “How about it, then? If I’m so crazy, there’s no harm in the deal. No smile, no kiss.”

A slight hesitation was her mistake. Before she could protest, he grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the back of the bar. “Wait. Wait. I have customers.”

“They’ll live.” His calloused fingers twined with hers as he led her down the back hallway, past the bathrooms, and into the kitchen. The short-order cook and his assistant glanced up, looking completely unconcerned to see her being dragged through the kitchen by the insane customer. She opened her mouth to ask for their assistance when her kidnapper greeted them both by name. Fabulous.

“Where are you taking me?” Sera might know how to defend herself, but it wouldn’t be wise to go somewhere alone with this man she knew nothing about. She threw a desperate look at the cook. “Stop him!”

Laughter sounded behind her as she was pulled into the alleyway behind the club, the kitchen door slamming shut behind them. Never having been back there before, she took a moment to take in her surroundings. A loud extractor fan above the door hummed, and street sounds greeted her ears in the distance. It had rained earlier, leaving damp asphalt in its wake and water dripping from the drainpipes of the apartment building across the alley. A cool breeze whipped down the passage and Sera wrapped her arms around herself to protect her exposed skin.

Her kidnapper still held her hand tightly, but had stooped down to scoop up a pebble off the ground. As she watched in stunned silence, he lobbed the pebble up at the closest window of the building on the other side of the alley.

“What are you doing?”

He held up a finger, smiling when a light illuminated the window. “Wait for it,” he drew out.

When the window flew open on a barked curse, his hand squeezed hers, pulling her closer to his side. Sera stumbled into the crook of his arm, the smell of whiskey and smoke wrapping itself around her like fog. Above them, a white-haired woman in a housecoat appeared at the window, squinting into the darkness and looking less than thrilled by the disturbance.

“Mrs. Petricelli, you’re looking extra beautiful this evening,” her kidnapper shouted. “Sing for us, would ya?”

“You, huh?” She propped a fist on her hip. “This ain’t a free show.”

He slapped his free hand to his chest. “My undying love isn’t enough payment?”

Sera blinked in surprise when the woman began to primp, patting the back of her hair. Her former irritation over the kidnapping turned to intrigue. She couldn’t stop herself from looking up at him, wondering how this playful man had put the fear of God into three men twice his age only moments ago. When she’d gotten her first look at him at the bar, she’d judged him to be older, thanks to the weariness in his eyes. Now, with a roguish grin playing around his mouth, a twinkle replacing the fatigue in his eyes, she changed her earlier assumption. He couldn’t be older than thirty.

Her assessment was interrupted when the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard floated through the alley and arrested her on the spot. Mrs. Petricelli leaned partially out the window, singing an opera song that Sera recognized as Puccini. She wasn’t shy with it, either. With wobbly arms outstretched toward the night sky, her voice rose and fell in such haunting perfection that Sera temporarily stopped breathing. One by one, windows in the building began to slide open, neighbors popping out to listen, joy written on their faces. Having lived in the area for even a short while, she knew that quiet respect was rare among the residents, making their utter silence almost as poignant as Mrs. Petricelli’s song.

She didn’t want the moment to end. Never in her life had she experienced something so spontaneous and wonderful. In all the hours she’d spent in church, listening to choirs sing, nothing she’d ever heard could compare to this. How ironic that it was taking place in a Brooklyn alley that smelled like stale garbage, with a man who had managed to infuriate and attract her within minutes of their acquaintance.

Sera glanced up at him. Instead of watching Mrs. Petricelli, he watched her, as if she were the main attraction. “You’re smiling.”

Her fingers flew up to trace her mouth. She was smiling. “Uh-oh.”

“Yeah. Uh-oh.” His thumb brushed her cheek. “I get that a lot.”

She couldn’t move as he angled his body toward hers, pulling her into the circle of his arms. In that moment, she forgot about her job. About being undercover or the fact that this man was an enigma that needed solving. With opera gilding the cool air around them, the masculine lips descending toward hers became her whole universe. She wanted him to kiss her. Badly. Even suspected it might be the kind of kiss she’d always dreamed of but no one had ever delivered.

The song ended on an abrupt note, breaking the spell. Sera jerked away from him. What is wrong with me? Letting him kiss her would be a mistake. Of that she was positive.

“Thank you,” she called up to Mrs. Petricelli, before racing back toward the kitchen as quickly as her legs could carry her. The door didn’t slam behind her as fast as it should have, telling her she’d been followed. Breath raced in and out of her lungs as she entered the hallway. Just a little farther and she’d be away from him.

A hand curled around her elbow just as she reached the dining room. “Welching on deals in this neighborhood can get you into trouble, Ladybug.” He turned her around, bringing her up hard against his muscular chest. “You’d do well to remember that.”

She couldn’t help it. Her gaze fell to his mouth. “Kissing you seems like worse trouble.”

“Yeah, but it’s the fun kind.” He glided his hand up the back of her neck, gathering her hair into his fingers. Such a proprietary gesture, it gave her pause, feeling a flood of tantalizing heat rush though her system. His eyes flared at whatever he saw taking place on her face and he didn’t waste time taking advantage. Cursing once under his breath, he yanked her up against him and fused their mouths together.

Ohhh. Oh, wow. Sera’s body melted along with her reservations, curves conforming to his hard planes in an effort to get closer. Because of their height difference, her head had fallen back to receive the aggressive kiss, but as his tongue skated across her lips, parting them, she pushed up on her toes and engaged him enthusiastically. A guttural groan met her action, the hand in her hair tightening as he backed her against the hallway wall.

She needed to breathe, but he seemed unwilling to let her do so. Worked for her. Breathing would give her time to think, and even a tiny flash of clarity could talk her out of this and it felt so good. His tongue worked deep inside her mouth, claiming her, leaving no room for protest. Then, oh then, his hips fit to hers and began mimicking the rhythm of his tongue. Slow, measured grinds that were somehow a little frantic at the same time. A thrum built between her legs, becoming unbearable. When she whimpered, he bent his knees and came up more firmly between her thighs, plastering every inch of them together.

Finally, as dizziness set in, his lips left hers. “Jesus,” he grated at her lips. “I said a kiss. You’re begging to be fucked.”

His words barely penetrated the desire still blanketing her mind. Quick rushes of breath seemed to be amplified in her ears as she drew them. “I…I am?”

He searched her eyes for a moment, his regard so intense she nearly missed the hardness pressed against her belly. But once she felt…it…nothing could prevent her face from heating, reddening.

Bowen’s gaze fell to her flushed skin and he released a tortured laugh. “Ah, sweetheart, I don’t fuck around with virgins.” His head dipped, teeth closing around her ear and tugging. “But I’ll get down on my knees and eat that untouched pussy like a motherfucker.”

“Well, shit, Driscol. Looks like you’ve met my new waitress.”

Hogan’s voice brought Sera’s surroundings back to her in a blinding flash. She shoved out from underneath the hard body pinning her to the wall, needing to escape into the dining room before her mortification swallowed her whole. But Hogan’s words halted her in her tracks.

Driscol. She’d heard that name before. Countless times.

When it hit Sera whom exactly she’d just let kiss her within an inch of her life, it took all her willpower not to buckle on the spot.

She’d just made out with Bowen Driscol, recent heir to South Brooklyn’s most ruthless criminal enterprise.





Chapter Four

Hear that? It’s the sound of your plan backfiring. Twice.

Doing his best to appear unconcerned at Hogan’s sudden arrival, Bowen watched Sera’s face as she processed her boss’s words. His last name and everything that came along with it. Why did he feel a surge of pride when she didn’t even flinch? He could pile it right on top of every other insane reaction he’d had to her since walking into Rush, because he sure as hell didn’t have a fucking clue. While he might not understand the fierce urge to protect a virtual stranger, one thing had become instantly clear. He wasn’t leaving her there to fend for herself. Not a chance.

When they’d briefed him at police headquarters, he’d told them he would do this his own way or not at all. It would be a cold day in hell before he took orders from the police, so they would have to trust him to handle it. When Newsom had balked at this condition, he’d managed to convince him that the closer the cops came to Sera, the more danger she would be in. He’d meant it, too. Everyone in this neighborhood knew one another. They craved the familiar.

It was one of the reasons he knew Sera’s time was limited.

Already, the idea of her being harmed had him by the throat. She’d had him by the damn throat since the moment he’d arrived. After seeing the photograph of her, he’d expected to walk in and find a wide-eyed Girl Scout seconds from her death. Only half of that expectation had come true. There was innocence, so much innocence, but she’d done a bang-up job hiding it underneath skintight jeans and a crop top. Rich brown hair, drizzled with a honey color, brushed where he knew her nipples would be if he lifted her shirt. Just enough makeup to fit in without looking unnatural, like most of the girls who frequented Rush. No spray tan, no glittery eye goop, just a rosy glow that made his hands itch to touch her skin. On sight, she’d affected him so much it hurt to look at her, while at the same time it hurt worse to look away. Then her lips parted and that husky voice had come out, stroking over every inch of his body.

At that moment, his game plan had changed from simply making her casual acquaintance to daring anyone to come within ten feet of her. And the quickest way to ensure her safety, in his mind, had been to put a stamp of ownership on her. Right there in the middle of Rush.

Which is about when his plan had gone to shit. Anyone who knew him was aware that Bowen’s relationships ended as quickly as they started. Usually within the same night. It only took a few whispered words and a nod toward the door to convince a girl to leave with him. He sure as hell didn’t dry-hump them in plain view of the dining room, keeping his mouth locked to theirs until his brain forced him to breathe. Like he’d done with Sera, right in front of several neighborhood lifers who were no doubt more curious about her than before his ass had ever walked through the door. So, yeah. Now instead of Bowen’s latest hookup, she’d become a possible target.

But Christ. She’d tasted so damn good. With her perfection pressed up against him, her eager tongue tangling with his, he’d lost his cool. That kiss had complicated the shit out of everything. A virgin. She hadn’t needed to say it out loud; he’d seen the answer in her eyes, the surprised noise she made when he’d shoved up between her legs.

No time to think about that now, though. He was the only thing standing between her and possible death. Time for damage control. He adopted his best shit-eating grin and faced Hogan. As he’d anticipated, the man looked suspicious. “Someone’s got to keep the waitresses in line when you’re not around, right?” Bowen put his hand out and after a slight hesitation, Hogan shook it. “I came by to talk. Guess I got a little distracted.”

Hogan still appeared dubious, but he nodded once. “Can’t say I blame you. She’s quite the little distraction.”

It took every ounce of Bowen’s control not to grab Hogan by the throat when he gave Sera a lustful once-over. “Why don’t we let her get back to work?” Hogan’s features tightened at Bowen’s not-so-subtle command, warning him to reel back his obvious interest in Sera. “I’ll buy you a drink.”

Hogan very deliberately rubbed his jaw. “All right, Driscol.” He turned his hard gaze on Sera. “Enough standing around. You’re downstairs to serve drinks.”

Fists clenched so hard he thought the bones might shatter, Bowen followed Hogan to the bar. He somehow resisted the impulse to turn around and gauge Sera’s expression. Pass on some sort of reassurance that he’d handle Hogan. But not only would she reject such reassurance from him, she didn’t know he was on her side.

And she couldn’t know. He’d agreed to keep his involvement in the investigation from her. Newsom had explained that his niece’s stubborn nature might cause her to make rash decisions if she knew the police were monitoring her, possibly getting ready to swoop in and put an end to her impulsive mission. She’s got nothing to lose, he’d said. No care for her own well-being. Bowen damn well wished he hadn’t agreed to that condition now so he could talk some sense into her.

When he reached the seat he’d left vacant what felt like hours ago, he slid onto the stool and signaled for a whiskey. God only knew how much he needed it.

Hogan took the seat beside him, looking thoughtful. “You know, I hadn’t quite decided not to have her for myself.” One by one, he popped his knuckles. “How was she?”

Stay calm. Stay calm. “I wouldn’t know. You interrupted us before we got to the good part, man.”

The other man smiled tightly. “Are you expecting an apology?” He picked up the shot of top-shelf tequila the bartender had placed in front of him. “I don’t know if I like you coming into my club, handling my waitress. We might be making peace, but that doesn’t mean I have an open-door policy.”

Since he would rather chew nails than apologize, Bowen stayed silent. Eventually, Hogan laughed and slapped him on the back, making him stiffen.

“So let’s talk.” Hogan leaned close. “Everything still in order for next week’s shipment?”

He nodded, the familiar pit opening in his stomach that always came when discussing business. “All set. I need to know what kind of manpower you’re bringing, so I can match it. With that much cargo, we’ll need a decent number, but they’ve all got to be trustworthy. No last-minute additions.”

Hogan rubbed his palms together, turned on by the promise of the upcoming score. “Not a problem. I’ve handpicked every one of them. They know what happens if they talk.” Rapping the bar with one hand, he looked back toward the dining room. “I’m not taking any chances with this one. It’s too big. Which is why I hope you got the waitress out of your system.”

Bowen’s blood ran cold. “Meaning?”

Hogan’s voice dipped low. “I kept her around because one of my guys got his ass shot a couple weeks back. She seemed to know what the fuck she was doing, and I sure as hell didn’t have time to play nurse to anyone. So I brought her here.” He shrugged. “He’s up and around now. And she’s not exactly waitress of the year. In fact, there’s something about her…”

“Besides those legs?” Bowen interjected, wanting to distract Hogan from that suspicious line of thinking.

He acknowledged Bowen’s comment with a cold smirk. “She’s been around too long. I can’t be sure what she’s heard or seen.” A touch of concern laced his tone. “Anyway, in the spirit of taking no chances leading up to this next shipment, I’m not keeping an outsider around longer than necessary.”

The clawing in Bowen’s throat was back. “Seems a little hasty, doesn’t it?”

His comment earned him a jab in the shoulder. Hogan actually had the nerve to look amused after so casually mentioning his decision to get rid of Sera. “Should I take that to mean she’s not out of your system yet?”

Hating the words he was about to say, Bowen made an indifferent gesture. “I wouldn’t mind finishing what we started first.” His stomach turned over. “After that, it’s none of my business.”

Hogan leaned back on his stool, eyes focused sharply on Bowen. “Tell you what. I’m heading to my Jersey club for a week to knock some heads together. Until I get back, she’s your responsibility.” One of his shoulders lifted. “Why not let you have your fun?”

Bowen felt like breaking something. “I got no problem with that.”

“I bet you don’t.” Hogan turned, gesturing Sera closer with a crooked finger. “But just to be safe, I’m going to have my cousin Connor keep an eye on things.”

“You mean keep an eye on me.” Bowen couldn’t soften the harshness of his statement. “I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Think of it more like insurance. Nothing is going to stand in the way of this job, Driscol, especially your cute piece of ass. You’ve got one week.”

Jesus, how many times would he have that same warning issued in his direction? One week. The world would apparently end in one damn week.

Sera arrived then, splitting a glance between him and Hogan. If she’d shown up a second later, Bowen strongly believed he would have given in to the urge to bury his fist in Hogan’s smug face and blow the whole operation.

“Yes?”

Hogan tossed back his shot of tequila. “Sera, you’ve met Bowen, haven’t you?” He laughed at his own joke. “He’s going to be your host while I’m gone. I have a feeling you’re going to be playing a different kind of nurse.”

“In his dreams, you mean?” She felt, rather than saw, Bowen stiffen. It made little difference. He was about to throw a serious wrench into her engine. “I’m not going anywhere, unless I decide to. Not with him or anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” A hard glint entered Hogan’s eye. “Right about now, he might just be the lesser of two evils.”

Several things occurred to Sera at the same time.

First and most disturbing, she’d been marked as dispensable. Connor now required minimal medical attention for his wound, apart from the occasional changing of his bandages. If she’d outlived her usefulness in that department and Hogan didn’t feel comfortable letting her remain behind in his absence without a watchdog, then he didn’t trust her. Trust was paramount in his underworld, and she hadn’t been given enough time to earn it. Lack of trust could be tolerated only if he had leverage of some sort on her, and she’d given him none.

Had Bowen somehow convinced Hogan to keep her around as his…plaything? She tried not to have a visceral reaction to that thought, difficult as it was. Just imagining what the sisters at Holy Angels Academy would have to say about her being bartered as a bed partner made her cringe. Moving on.

This new development put a major puzzle piece within her reach. In all the research she’d done, there had always been a giant question mark beside Bowen’s name when it came to the major crime player’s location the night her brother was murdered. Had Bowen been there? Did he have the answers she needed?

In a matter of days, Colin would have been twenty-nine. She owed him answers.

God, she’d just let a hardened criminal turn her into a shivering pile of lady hormones, without even finding out his name. How could she let her guard down like that? This was everything she’d been working toward for months, years if you started the clock when Hogan killed her brother in cold blood.

Her mind traveled back to the alley, when he’d only been a stranger, instead of the man who’d inherited a huge portion of the city and its illegal activities. Nestled against his warmth while the bright, brilliant strains of opera split the cool air. The way he’d looked at her. As if her smile were the most amazing part of the moment, not the woman belting Puccini from the second-floor window. It had felt like magic, but now she saw it was only an illusion. Bowen’s notorious way with women had even made it into his thick police file, and she’d just let herself become another victim.

Unless…

She could use this to her advantage. Her week of personal leave had officially expired, meaning her uncle would start to look for her soon—if he wasn’t already. She needed to take this turn of events and make it work for the investigation. Whether she wanted to accept it or not, Bowen’s interest in her might have bought her the precious time she needed to continue investigating Hogan, while playing another angle at the same time. Namely, Bowen. It would mean using her body to achieve an end. Was she ready for that? Was it worth setting aside her principles and giving away an important part of herself?

Her brother’s face flashed through her mind. Yes, it was worth it. How could she even question that when Colin had given up everything for this job?

When a sliver of excitement breached her resolve, Sera shoved it away.

She had to play this exactly right to ensure she didn’t get made. Keeping her bravado would be key.

“Where are you going?” she asked Hogan, since she wasn’t supposed to know about his trip to New Jersey. She also knew from experience that his employees didn’t usually question him. Unfortunately, thanks to her loss of composure the night they met, he knew she had a backbone. While she might tread carefully, she also couldn’t suddenly start playing meek.

His lips curled. “Aw, what’s wrong? You going to miss me?”

To Sera’s surprise, Hogan reached out as though he were going to touch her face. In the two weeks she’d been there, he hadn’t made a pass at her or even flirted. Why now? Her question was answered when Bowen’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist, just before it reached her face.

Hogan threw back his head, laughing as he jerked his hand back. “Someone has a crush on you, cutie. Better get him upstairs before someone makes the mistake of breathing the same air as you.”

Sera glanced at Bowen, who’d managed to keep his temper off his face, but his anger was broadcast through bunched-up fists. “He doesn’t look like he needs a nurse. But if he thinks I’m going home with him, maybe a shrink would be a better idea.”

That set Hogan howling again, but her focus remained on Bowen. For some reason, her insult seemed to calm him down. What sense did that make? “There isn’t a shrink in the world that could figure me out, sweetheart.”

“You won’t know until you try, sweetheart.”

Her boss pushed back his stool and stood. “Good luck, Driscol. You’re going to need it.” As he skirted past them toward the exit, he raised an eyebrow at Bowen and lowered his voice. “Told you…something about her. Use the head on your shoulders.”

Sera pretended not to hear, smoothing a hand down her apron to free it of wrinkles. “I’m going to get back to work,” she said to Bowen. “I’d rather you weren’t here when my shift ends.”

“That’s a shame. I just got comfortable.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Listen, I don’t care what arrangement you made with Hogan. I’m the only one who decides how I spend my time.”

He sipped his whiskey, rolling it around on his tongue before swallowing. “You didn’t mind my company when I had you up against the hallway wall.”

Sera knew her face flushed when he chuckled. “Momentary insanity,” she mumbled.

“You saying I drove you insane, Ladybug?” He winked. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Don’t.”

“I’ll be right here when you finish.”

The double entendre in his voice was so glaringly obvious, she almost laughed. Almost. She worked with cops, after all. She’d quickly grown used to sexual innuendo. Not that she ever participated.

Throughout the remaining three hours of her shift, she had to take several bathroom breaks to cool off, patting her face down with wet paper towels. On the occasions she gave in and looked over at Bowen, he was staring in a way that made her pulse skitter and race. She felt sweaty and hot in an unfamiliar way. The distraction wasn’t appreciated, and yet after a while she began posing under his watchful eye. Angling herself toward him, arching her back when it wasn’t necessary. Flipping her hair over her shoulder like an idiot.

Yes, her goal had changed with Bowen’s unexpected arrival. She’d decided to use this attraction between them to her advantage, but it made her nervous exactly how much the prospect of his hands on her again excited her. The only way to survive was to immerse herself in the role. Stop thinking like Seraphina the cop and simply be Sera, the waitress. Bowen wanted her and she could admit to wanting him back, much as it annoyed her. After all, she had no guarantee he hadn’t had a role in her brother’s murder. That in itself should be enough to eliminate any inconvenient attractions. Why didn’t it?

When ten o’clock rolled around, she untied her apron and tossed it into the waitress station cabinet. With a fortifying breath, she turned, intending to leave through the fire escape exit leading upstairs. She stopped short when she saw Bowen propped against the wall, waiting for her.

This is it, Sera. Too late to turn back now.

He pulled open the door. “After you.”

Choosing to ignore him until he made the first move, Sera ascended the dim staircase, so physically aware of Bowen behind her, her neck prickled with shiver-inducing heat. The exposed skin at her back singed under the gaze she felt resting there. The sound of his work boots landing on each step echoed through the enclosed space, matching her thudding heartbeat. Would he follow her into her room? Probably. Why else would he be tracing a path behind her up the stairs? In a matter of minutes, she could be naked with one of Brooklyn’s most sought-after criminals.

When they reached her door, she tugged the key out of her pocket and turned it in the lock. She pushed the door open to reveal her small, windowless room, half of which was taken up by a twin bed. The clothes that had been lent to her by one of Rush’s waitresses sat in a neat pile on a single chair propped in the corner.

Bowen looked horrified. “Not exactly the lap of luxury, is it?”

“It’s a good thing they didn’t ask me to fill out a comment card,” she muttered, walking inside. “But it’s only temporary, until Connor gets back on his feet.”

He made a thoughtful noise in his throat and reached down to test the doorknob. “You keep this locked at night?”

She frowned. “Yes.”

“Good.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked at her hard. “Lock it behind me when I go and don’t open it for anyone.”

He was leaving? Downstairs, he’d given the impression he wanted to sleep with her. Hadn’t he?

“Don’t do that, sweetheart.”

Her eyes snapped to his. “Do what?”

“Look disappointed that I’m taking off. It’s killing me.”

She scoffed at that, holding the door wide for him to pass. “Now who’s temporarily insane?”

“Nothing temporary about my insanity.” He stepped closer, too close, but she held her ground. “I’ll be back in the morning. Have your things ready to go.”

“Why would I do that?”

His laughter held only the barest hint of amusement. “You have no fear, do you?”

“Of you?” She gulped when he closed the distance between them. “Should I fear you?”

His mouth came down on hers, kissing her long and hard. Lips meshed, teeth scraped, tongues tangled. When he pulled back, his breath came in harsh pants. “Why do you think I asked you to lock the door?”

Before she could formulate a response, he’d left, disappearing at the end of the hallway.





Chapter Five

Bowen pulled himself up from the top stair, where he’d spent the night propped against the wall. Not wanting to leave Sera for a second on the chance Hogan changed his mind and decided to take care of her sooner, he’d spent the night in the stairwell, watching her door. He still hadn’t trusted himself enough to bring her home last night. Not when he’d been starving for her. It had taken every measure of willpower to walk out of her room. If he’d taken her back to his place, no doubt she would have ended up on her back. Watching her move around the dining room for hours on end last night, her firm ass swishing in those jeans, the air-conditioning causing her nipples to bead, he’d been strung so tight by the time her shift ended, his vision had started blurring. Dangerous territory. Especially when despite her protests, she’d clearly wanted him to stay.

He hadn’t exactly gotten the most restful night of sleep on the metal staircase, so he’d had a lot of time to think. Sure, he made a living out of being underhanded, but the kind of deceit it would take to sleep with Sera without her knowing his role in her investigation? Even he didn’t lack enough conscience for that.

Worse, after she’d given him so little protest over entering her room, he had the sneaking suspicion she planned on seducing information out of him. Or distracting him with sex while she continued to pursue Hogan. The physical connection he felt with her couldn’t be faked, but the idea of her using it against him made him undeniably angry.

A hot-to-trot virgin. Wasn’t that just his fucking luck?

He wouldn’t know the first thing about being with someone inexperienced. He’d never been anything but hard and fast with a woman. As soon as they’d been pleasured, he took his own, having already mentally moved on.

Scrubbing a hand over his morning beard, he made his way toward her room. Or more accurately, her prison cell. When they got back to his place, he planned on putting her in a room she could breathe in. A room with a window. Granted, it would be clear on the opposite end of the apartment with plenty of distance between them. Bowen had to laugh at himself. As if it would matter. He would know she was there, sleeping in his sheets, showering in his bathroom. Naked.

This was going to be a long week.

Bowen reached her door, testing the handle to make sure it was still locked. When it opened with little urging, panic rushed in and overwhelmed him. He shoved the door open, his heart stopping when he found her bed empty. Her clothes were still stacked in the same spot as last night; her bed looked slept in. Where the hell was she?

Oh, God. He rubbed the heel of his hand against his chest, cursing himself for not taking her out of this place last night. What had he been thinking?

“Sera!”

He pivoted on a heel and strode out of the room, only to be brought up short at the sound of a musical laugh. Even though he’d never heard the amused notes before, he immediately knew it was Sera. Relief swamped him at the sign she was okay. The rest of him wanted to know who had managed to get a laugh out of her. Following the sound toward an open door, he banished the panic. No more. It would be a cold day in hell before he let her out of his sight again.

Panic morphed to swift, consuming jealousy. It whooshed through his system like a hot wind, obliterating rational thought. Sera sat cross-legged on the bed with a shirtless man, folding a bandage in her lap. The ends of her mouth were tilted in an absent smile, the smile he’d had to work double time to get a glimpse of last night. She hadn’t noticed him yet, but the man leveled a steady gaze at him from his position against the pillows. The only thing saving the guy’s life was the fact that Sera had all her clothes on. The life-threatening injury he sported didn’t hurt his cause either.

“Sera,” shirtless man rumbled, nodding toward Bowen.

“Huh?” Her eyes met his. “Oh.”

Oh?

“Get off the bed.”

Wisdom won out and she didn’t argue with him, coming to her feet almost immediately. But irritation at following orders replaced self-preservation. “Don’t order me around.”

“You’re mine for the week. Or did you forget?”

Angry color flooded her cheekbones. It was the wrong thing to say, but he couldn’t see reason. A foreign possessiveness had taken up residence in his chest, and until she moved away from the shirtless man, nothing could breach it.

He jerked his chin toward the patient. “You got a shirt or something, man? Not that I’m not fucking dazzled.”

Shirtless ignored him. “I’d ask Sera to introduce us, but based on your temper, I think I can guess who you are.”

“Impressive.” He crossed his arms. “Shirt.”

With a heavy sigh, Sera moved toward a chest of drawers and pulled out a shirt. It didn’t help ease his irritation she knew which drawer they were in. She walked over to the bed and handed over a red shirt, nodding once when the guy thanked her.

“Bowen, this is Connor Bannon. Mr. Hogan’s cousin.” She glanced between the two of them. “Call me crazy, but I smell a budding friendship.”

Both of them snorted.

Connor finished pulling the shirt over his head. “Wasn’t expecting you so early.” One dark eyebrow lifted. “You must have slept here or something.”

Bowen made a mental note not to underestimate Connor Bannon. “Or something.” He turned his attention back to Sera. “Get your things. I’m taking you to my place.”

“Doubtful,” Connor said.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, doubtful.” With a wince, Connor swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I know Hogan spoke to you about our arrangement.”

“Hogan can talk to me if he has a problem with her leaving.” He moved closer to Sera, letting his hand drift across her lower back. A gesture of possession he shouldn’t be making, but couldn’t seem to stop. “Or doesn’t it bother you the girl taking care of you has been sleeping in a broom closet?”

A muscle jumped in Connor’s cheek. “I don’t make the decisions.”

“Yeah? That’s all I do.” He felt Sera studying him and looked down at her, reeling a little over seeing her face in the light of day for the first time. Those gorgeous big brown eyes hit him like an uppercut, the scattering of freckles making her so fresh. So beautiful. So out of place in this world. He needed to stop staring, but not absorbing every nuance of her face seemed like the worst crime. “Hey, Ladybug.”

“Don’t ‘hey Ladybug’ me.”

He couldn’t contain his grin. Shit, he was in trouble. Still not taking his gaze off her, he spoke to Connor. “She’s coming with me. You want to check in on us, that’s up to you.”

A drawn-out pause. “Oh, count on it.”

“Great.” Bowen laced his fingers with Sera’s and led her toward the door. “Try and show up wearing clothes when you do.”

Sera followed Bowen up the three flights of stairs leading to his apartment, wishing he hadn’t been so silent on the ride over. He’d waited in the hallway and she stuffed her things into two grocery bags and fifteen minutes later, they were in his working-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Soon, she would be inside the home of Bowen Driscol, known felon. If she hadn’t been in deep before, she’d just sunk to the bottom of the ocean with no oxygen tank.

He lived above an Italian restaurant called Buon Gusto. As they’d walked past to the adjacent entrance, two porters having a cigarette break greeted him as if he were a god returning to Olympus after winning a battle. They’d watched her with open curiosity until Bowen put a hand on her shoulder, his features darkening. Both cigarettes had been crushed underfoot, the restaurant door slamming as they ducked back inside in their haste. She’d wanted to question him about his behavior, but his rigid posture hadn’t exactly invited conversation.

It frustrated her she didn’t know where they stood. One minute, he was snarling at anyone who came near her, the next he seemed to be restraining himself from touching her. Last night, she’d sworn she had him pegged. A self-entitled ladies’ man who thought he had the right to “keep her” until Hogan returned. As far as she’d been concerned, Hogan and Driscol were one and the same. Then he’d left her alone last night, even warning her to lock the door behind him when he left. Perhaps his seduction style was to confuse his prey until they grew too dizzy to put up a fight?

Obviously Bowen had been tasked with keeping an eye on her until Hogan’s return, but knowing what she did about Hogan, if he was suspicious of someone, they wouldn’t live to see the next morning. Bowen had intervened on her behalf. But why? If he didn’t plan on pursuing a fling with her, what did he want her for?

The sound of Bowen’s key sliding into the lock dispelled her musings. One hand knocked against his thigh, in a gesture that seemed almost nervous. “I don’t bring girls here during the day. And at night, the lights always stay off.”

She didn’t bother hiding her confusion. “Was that meant to reassure me?”

His breath escaped in a rush. “I have no idea. Did it?”

“No.”

“Yeah, well.” He pushed open the door. “That’s probably a good thing.”

Sera hefted her plastic grocery bags higher in her arms and followed him inside. The second she crossed the threshold, she came to a dead stop.

Murals. Everywhere. On every available inch of the apartment wall, loud, swirling, chaotic colors jumped out at her. So many shades, she could never count them all, careering through the space like a kaleidoscopic dream. Slowly, she turned in a circle, trying to find a pattern in the chaos. Too many scenes, too much to look at.

Some were abstract shapes painted in dynamic shades, wedged between almost frantic depictions of city landmarks, such as the Brooklyn Bridge. Yankee Stadium. A subway train. In each vignette, half of the perfectly rendered landmark remained intact, while the other half disappeared in flames. The more scenes she took in, the more the theme became obvious. Two conflicting outcomes: the murals had split personalities. She didn’t need him to confirm he’d been the one to paint them. It was obvious.

“Is this why you keep the lights off?” She searched his face for answers.

Her breath caught in her throat at the intensity he radiated.

“Among other reasons.”

Tamping down the urge to pry more, she walked into the central living room between an open kitchen and a hallway she assumed led to the bedrooms. She dropped the plastic bags to the ground, her hand stretching out of its own accord to trace the outline of a woman’s face. With a frown, she cast a look around the room and realized the same outline appeared every few feet. No features, just the shape of a head with long brown hair. Running through the strands was a streak of hot pink.

“Who—”

“Your room is behind the kitchen.” He pinched her waist. “Come on, stop gawking.”

She rubbed the tingling spot. “I’m not gawking.”

“You’re one of those drivers that slows down to watch someone get a speeding ticket, aren’t you?” His disappeared into a door she hadn’t seen before, just off the kitchen. “A rubbernecker.”

“You’re just trying to change the subject.”

He sighed as she entered the room. “Waitresses aren’t usually so astute, Ladybug.”

“Guys like you aren’t usually mural artists.”

Before she could blink, he lunged toward her, sending her back against the wall. “Guys like me?” He rested his palms above her, leaning down until his breath feathered her lips. “And what exactly do you know about me?”

Sera realized her massive error. His playful side had allowed her to get comfortable, but she needed to remember whom she was dealing with. She’d already gotten a glimpse of his notorious temper. “I don’t know anything,” she whispered, letting real fear show. “I was just surprised.”

“Surprised,” he repeated slowly. “While you’re here, you need to be more careful what you say and who you say it to. Comments like that can get you hurt. And then I’ll have to hurt that somebody back. It’ll be very ugly, Sera. Do you understand?”

She nodded, then gasped when he ground his hips against hers. The steel of his arousal pressed against the softness of her belly. He bit his bottom lip and closed his eyes, an expression that struck her as pained. Move, she silently commanded him. Touch me. When he didn’t grant her the friction she wanted, she lifted her hands and dug them into his thick, haphazard mane of burnished gold hair. With a snarl, he grabbed her wrists and pinned them to the wall above her. The loss of control sent exhilaration snapping along her skin. She shouldn’t like it. As a cop, the ability to defend herself should be paramount, but something about being put on display made her feel exceedingly hot. Tempting.

His gaze raked down her body, lingering on the rise and fall of her breasts. The thin material of her T-shirt hid nothing, telling him without words that she was turned on. For him. By him.

“Stop begging me for it.” His voice shook. “I’m hanging on by a goddamn thread here.”

She didn’t understand his plea. He obviously wanted her, and her willingness couldn’t be clearer. Why was he holding back? “Can I ask you a question?”

“If I say no…” Appearing to give in a little, he ran his tongue along her lower lip and groaned, “Would it stop you?”

“Probably not.”

“Maybe I’ll kiss you to shut you up. You’d love that. Wouldn’t you?”

It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Going on instinct, she gave a long, slow roll of her hips. “Do it.”

He gave a sharp curse. “Ask the question,” he rasped at her ear.

“Why did you bring me here, if not for this?” She tilted her head, hoping he would take the hint and kiss her there. When he didn’t disappoint, she moaned in her throat. His damp lips were smooth where the rest of him was hard, rough. They traced the skin beneath her ear with unerring accuracy, homing in on the sensitive spot she hadn’t even been aware of. “You locked me in my room last night…and n-now I’m in a separate bedroom. It seems counterproductive.” His teeth closed around her ear and she whimpered. “Did Hogan tell you not to touch me or something? Becaus—”

“What?” His head whipped up, the hands holding hers against the wall flexing hard. “Listen to me, if I wanted to fuck you, I’d end anyone or anything who got in my way. Nothing would stop me. Not a locked door. Not some lowlife. Nothing.”

“If?” she repeated, embarrassment cooling her desire. “You don’t want to?”

His laughter was harsh. “Want to? Want to?” One of his hands loosened its grip to drop down and grasp the bulge in his pants. “I didn’t even know it was possible to ache this bad. It hurts to breathe, baby.”

The heat came rushing back in full force. “Then I don’t understand.”

“I can’t. We can’t.” He pressed his forehead to hers. “See, I’m wondering if keeping my hands off you will buy my way out of hell. God knows I’ll have experienced the worst hell has to offer already. You think he’ll make me go through it twice?”

The suffering in his voice lacerated her. There was so much more going on here than sexual frustration, although there was definitely a healthy dose of that. He seemed to think there would be consequences for getting physical with her. But that didn’t make any sense. Since when does a man who rules streets with fear care about consequences for anything? This man took what he wanted and damn the outcome. Right?

Without thinking, she took the hand he’d dropped and brushed a stray piece of hair off his forehead. His body went liquid, melting against her for long moments while she held her breath. “Aren’t there other ways to buy yourself out of hell?”

“Not for me.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than someone pounded on the door.





Chapter Six

Safe. Keep her safe.

Bowen jerked away from Sera, his body going on full alert. No one just walked up and pounded on his apartment door without advance warning. No one, except for one man. A man who absolutely could not be allowed anywhere near Sera. His jaw clenched against the urge to bury her in the closet underneath a pile of clothes. It might give him peace of mind, but it would make her suspicious. He couldn’t afford that, nor did he want it. For some reason, her being comfortable around him mattered. A lot.

Sensing how closely she watched him, he ran a casual hand through his hair. “I need to discuss some business. Make yourself comfortable.”

She nodded carefully and sat down at the edge of the bed. Oh, God, what would it be like if he nudged her onto her back, settled himself between her thighs and worked them both into a sweat? His need for her hadn’t calmed in the least. In fact, it only raged higher now that a threat was nearby. He couldn’t allow anything to touch her. Not even himself.

She looked so out of place in this bedroom, fire and destruction raging on the walls behind her. When he’d painted that particular mural, he never imagined a cop sitting in the room with him. He would have laughed out loud at the very idea. Yet there she sat, looking like a lamb on her way to slaughter. Instead of flames outlining her head, she looked more suited to wearing a halo. When she looked up at the ceiling, he followed her line of vision and nearly laughed out loud. He’d painted the scales of justice one night after a particularly bad run-in with a gang that had been dealing drugs in Bensonhurst, the one thing he would never abide. Now the undercover cop would be sleeping beneath them. If that wasn’t irony, he didn’t know what was.

To her credit, she showed no reaction except for an arched eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you get the door?”

Christ, he’d been so wrapped up in her, he’d completely forgotten about the man waiting outside. “Right,” he said gruffly. “I’ll be right back.”

“Bowen?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking back over his shoulder.

“They’re kind of great.” She pushed her hair behind her ear. “The murals.”

Something heavy inside him shifted so dramatically, it surprised him she didn’t react to it. Very few people had ever seen what he did in his spare time. Judged the tool he used to occupy his mind in order to think about anything other than what he did for a living. He’d never thought to show it to anyone, let alone have the work appreciated. Even more, she seemed to mean what she said.

If he stood here looking at her a second longer, he wasn’t sure what the odd mixture of pride and gratefulness would make him do, so he took a deep breath to compose himself and walked into the living room, looking at the murals with fresh eyes. Wondering what Sera saw when she looked at them. What they made her think about him. Pushing those thoughts to the side, he opened the door.

His father’s oldest business partner, Wayne Gibbs, stood in the hallway, the day’s racing form sticking out of his front pocket.

“Wayne.”

“You mind letting me in? I’m catching a cold out here.”

When he made a move to pass him, Bowen blocked his path. “Let’s talk downstairs.”

“You can’t invite your godfather inside?” He clucked his tongue. “I know Lenny taught you more respect than that.”

His tone was teasing, but Bowen heard the underlying steel. Jesus, these old-school guys didn’t take disrespect lightly. Neglect to invite them in for coffee and you signed your own death warrant. Furthermore, Wayne never failed to bring up his father every time they met. Bowen knew he was suspicious about the events leading to his business partner’s arrest, but since he didn’t have concrete evidence of Bowen’s role, he settled on needling him every chance he got.

He didn’t want to invite Wayne inside, but not doing so would be suspicious. The last thing he needed was added scrutiny while he had Sera under his protection. He’d just have to hope Sera knew enough to stay out of sight in the back bedroom.

With a tight smile, he stepped back. “Coffee?”

“Nah, I’m good. I only got a minute before I have to split.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets, doing his best to ignore Wayne’s usual amusement over the paint-covered walls. “What’s up?”

“That crew from Central Brooklyn we took care of a few weeks ago is back.” The older man picked up a paintbrush and let it drop. “One of our guys said they were selling again down on Kings Highway. Either they’ve got balls of steel or they can’t read a map. We told them to keep it in their territory, but they ain’t listening.”

Bowen inwardly cringed, knowing Sera could hear everything from the back room. It wouldn’t matter to her he had immunity with the police as long as he cooperated. But immunity didn’t mean he hadn’t committed crimes. It only meant he wouldn’t pay for them. As soon as she was clear of this personal crusade, he and the NYPD would be back to playing cops and robbers, just like before.

It was for the best his criminal status stayed fresh in her mind. As often as possible, she needed to be reminded to keep her distance. This is who he was. Not a painter or someone she should be letting kiss her neck.

Bowen leaned back against the kitchen counter. “We’ll pay them a visit tonight and remind them. Although after the last time, I’m not sure what’ll get through to them.” He hated the look of anticipation that entered Wayne’s eyes. “Anything else?”

“Yeah.” Wayne chuckled. “Our boy Tony still hasn’t paid for the big hit he took on the Jets’ loss last week. He’s been ducking me.”

Bowen massaged his eyes with the heel of his hand. “God, this guy doesn’t learn.”

“Let’s hope not. That’s how we make money.”

A sour taste flooded Bowen’s mouth. “If I wanted a punching bag, I’d go to the gym. He’s never good for it on time. Why do we keep taking his bets?”

Wayne spread his hands. “We get the dough eventually, don’t we?”

Exhaustion washed over Bowen. “Give him another couple days to make good before we go see him.”

“You can’t go easy,” Wayne warned. “You go easy, word spreads that you’re soft.”

“I’m not soft.” His voice quieted. “I don’t see you throwing the punches.”

Distracted, Wayne bent down and fished a lacy pair of underwear from the plastic grocery bags Sera had left in the living room. “What’s this?” Bowen tried not to react. “You wearing ladies’ underpants now?”

“Are you really asking me that question?”

Looking uncomfortable, Wayne shifted on his feet. “You got a girl here?”

Again, Bowen repressed the need to hide her in the closet, before guarding it with his life. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“Not my business?” His lowered voice vibrated. “We’re out here talking shop while your latest piece of ass can hear everything we say? That sure sounds like my business.”

Rage filtered through his body at hearing Sera referred to as a piece of ass, but he managed to keep himself in check. “She’s asleep,” he said through clenched teeth, hoping she would overhear and follow suit. “I spent the morning wearing her out. Been a while since you did that to a woman?”

“Touchy, aren’t we?”

Bowen ignored the question. “Are we done here?”

“Not until I’m satisfied she didn’t hear anything. You know what happens when people have the misfortune of hearing too much.”

He took a step closer. The older man arched an eyebrow at the action. Very rarely did he challenge Wayne, even though he technically held rank over him. He’d known the man since childhood, had once even viewed him as a father figure. With Sera’s safety in question, he didn’t hesitate to pull rank now. “Are you questioning my judgment? I wouldn’t suggest it.”

The older man’s chin went up. “That’s the first time you’ve ever reminded me of your father. It’s almost enough to bring a tear to my eye.”

Nausea roiled in Bowen’s gut. Even though the comment had been insincere, it still made him feel ill. “Then you know how Lenny would deal with someone who questioned him.”

Wayne gave an exaggerated nod. “Very well, kid. If that’s how you want to play it.”

At the use of the old nickname, Bowen’s hands bunched into fists. “Time to go, old man.”

Wayne threw back his head and laughed on the way to the door, but it held a hint of menace. “Out of everything, I never thought pussy would be your downfall, Bowen. Can I at least count on seeing you tonight, or are you taking her to a Broadway show?”

He didn’t wait for Bowen’s response, but closed the door softly behind him. After flipping all three dead bolts back into place, Bowen released a pent-up breath and went to the guest bedroom. What he saw made his heart squeeze in his chest. Nestled under the covers, Sera had obviously overheard him and pretended to be asleep, even going so far as to make the bed look mussed from sex. Now she sat up, watching him with a wariness so different from the pleasure she’d shown when talking about his murals, it increased the queasiness he was experiencing.

Bowen cleared his throat into the silence. “What time do you work tonight?”

“Five.”

He nodded. “Be ready to go at four thirty.”

“Okay, sure.”

Frustration gripped him. He wanted to shout at her, tell her she was in over her head. He wanted to beg her to go home and let him deal with the fallout. He wanted to climb into the bed with her and see if she still planned on using her body to keep him happy while she went behind his back to bring down Hogan. So many things he wanted and couldn’t ever have. In the end, all he could do was walk away and leave her there, looking like his personal version of temptation.

Sera set down a plate of hot wings in the middle of the table, smiling softly at the chorus of masculine thank-yous that went up. Since Bowen’s intervention the night before, she’d apparently been upgraded from low-level peon to respected member of staff. While it definitely made waitressing more pleasant, it galled her it had taken threats from Bowen to earn her basic human decency. Not just threats, she amended, casting a glance at him where he sat sipping whiskey at the bar, daring anyone with his eyes to mess with her. Constant observation.

People obviously thought they were an item, and it made them curious about her. She didn’t need that, nor did she want his protection. Her goal had been to keep her head down and gather information. His oversight left very little opportunity for recon. And her time was running out. Even more so than before.

He’d let her overhear everything being said in his living room. Everything. Hadn’t even made a basic attempt to keep his voice down while talking about collecting illegally earned gambling money, following through on threats to drug dealers. That could mean only one thing. He didn’t plan on keeping her around long enough to let her tell anyone what she’d heard. She had to work fast.

Lying in bed that afternoon, she’d thought it was already over. The realization had been unlike anything she’d experienced before, and she wouldn’t go there again. She’d actually been surprised at the way Bowen spoke about her, at his obvious indifference to her hearing an incriminating conversation. Stupid. She had been stupid. And naive, just as her uncle had always accused her of being. Whatever good she thought she’d glimpsed inside Bowen was a facade, and remembering that might just save her life.

Furthermore, she’d allowed the tentative friendship she’d developed with Connor to make her complacent. Make her feel safe in this world. Their brief discussions about his ailing mother, his life before coming to Brooklyn, didn’t mean he would save her if presented with a crucial choice. It was unlike her to let down her guard like that. Had she developed some weird case of Stockholm syndrome? She might have nursed Connor back to health, but in this world, the bottom line was all that counted. Making money, staying alive. Protecting your interests. She’d learned early not to depend on anyone but herself, and a lapse in judgment could mean her life.

She didn’t understand why Bowen had moved her into his apartment, but thinking about it had become a distraction. Based on the conversation he’d had with Wayne, he would have to leave at some point to go pay his visit to the outsiders who’d had the audacity to invade his territory. That would be her chance to gain entrance to Hogan’s office, and she had to take it. She could feel the walls closing in around her. Until today, she’d felt relatively safe in her assumed identity. Now it had all begun to crumble around her ears.

Her uncle had never had any faith in her, choosing to place it all in her brother. When her father died in the line of duty so long ago, she’d been a child. She’d desperately needed approval, encouragement. Her mother’s subsequent death when her grief drove her to drink and drive one horrible night had left Sera precious little resources for that. Instead of giving her a solid foundation to rebuild on, her uncle’s response had been to send her away. As an adult, she could understand why a busy man opted out of raising two children, but that rejection had also instilled a need to prove herself to him. To everyone.

Focus now. Stop dwelling on what you can’t change. Your plan is to find the evidence, expose Hogan, and become invisible again. Just like you have been forever.

Having finished serving the table, she straightened, intending to return to the bar. When she ran straight into Bowen’s solid figure, she couldn’t contain a yelp of alarm. He steadied her with both hands on her elbows, gaze narrowed suspiciously. “You all right?”

“I’m fine, I just didn’t expect you to be standing there.”

“Okay.” He drew the word out. “I have to leave for a little while, but I’ll be right back.”

She tugged away and pasted on a casual smile. “Who’s going to glare at me from the bar while you’re gone?”

“Nobody better. If anyone does, you tell me.” After what seemed to be an internal debate, he slid a hand around her waist and pulled her close again, as if offended to have her so far away. “Think you can manage to kiss me without turning into a wildcat?”

A mere breath separated their lips. “You didn’t seem to mind before.”

“Baby, you’re making me hard right when I need to walk out the door. It’s goddamn inconvenient.” He sampled her mouth with a wet tug of his lips. “Don’t stop.”

As though it were the most natural thing in the world, her hand slid up his chest and disappeared into his hair. He snaked his arm around her body so it rested against the small of her back and drew her close. So close. Their mouths came together on a groan. The sensual devastation reached to her toes, then slithered back up to settle between her legs. How could he do this to her? One minute he was the enemy; the next he drew reactions from her body, scrambling her brain. Made her question everything she knew about herself.

Bowen released her mouth on a curse. “Watching you work fucks me up. You have any idea what it does to me when you bend over a table and smile? It makes me want to pull up your skirt and turn that smile into a scream.”

His words shivered down her back. “Do you talk to every girl like this?”

“I don’t even turn on the lights for other girls.”

Why did that kick up a spark of pleasure? It was just another line. She knew it and yet, combined with the way he looked at her, she felt like the only person in the room. “That’s just bad manners.”

Gray eyes twinkled. “They’re the only kind I have.”

“You’re confusing me, Bowen.” She took a deep breath. “I need to get back to work.”

When she tried to extricate herself, he didn’t budge. “That’s the first time you’ve said my name.” He rubbed their lips together. “Whisper it again in my ear, then I’ll go.”

“You’re a lunatic.” He simply raised an eyebrow and she sighed, annoyed at the traitorous smile playing around her mouth. Holding his shoulders for support, she pressed up on her toes and laid her mouth against his ear. After taking a moment to inhale his smoky leather scent, she let his name fall from her lips. “Bowen.”

He actually shook. The arm banding her waist tightened, and the breath whooshed from her lungs. Then just as quickly, he let her go. “I’ll be right back.”

All she could do was nod.





Chapter Seven

Bowen bit the inside of his cheek to silence the screaming in his head, the churning sickness in his stomach. His knuckles ached and he needed to wash them off before he saw Sera. It helped to think about her, so he hung on to the image of her lying in the middle of his guest bed. Any minute, he would get out of this car full of jackasses bragging about the beatdowns they’d just delivered and see her again. And maybe she’d let him pretend like earlier. Maybe she’d let him kiss her and call her Ladybug and fantasize they weren’t so different. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Not one fucking certainty in his life, except for pain. The giving of it and the receiving of it. Not a day went by anymore where he didn’t condone the use of violence. As a teenager and even through his early twenties, he’d loved fighting. Lived for it. He’d loved the fact no one ever got the drop on him; he could use his fists to get out of any si