Being raised in the foster system has made Kinley Taylor feel like a lifelong outcast, but it’s witnessing a young girl’s last few minutes on Earth that proves just how alone she truly is. Kinley has no one to turn to, no family, no friends…except perhaps the gorgeous Delta Force soldier she met months ago. The one she ignored when he’d tried to keep in touch, convinced he couldn’t really be interested in a relationship.
When Kinley ghosts him not once, but twice, Gage “Lefty” Haskins takes the hint. Clearly the pretty personal assistant didn’t feel the same connection he did. Or so he assumes…until she shows up in Texas, on the run for her life after already surviving an assassination attempt. Lefty couldn’t turn her away even if he wanted to—and he doesn’t. The longer he knows her, the greater the connection he feels. He just has to keep Kinley alive long enough to convince her she’s The One.
Easier said than done, when the man who wants her dead has friends in high places…and a very patient hitman on retainer.
“You seen her yet?” Trigger asked Lefty as they leaned against the wall and watched the politicians entering the large room being used that morning as a meeting place.
“No,” Lefty said without elaborating. He knew who his friend was talking about. Kinley Taylor. She was the assistant to Walter Brown, the Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs.
As part of their job, the Delta Force team was sometimes sent overseas to protect important political and military figures. They’d even been sent to the last Olympic Games to help make sure the American athletes were safe. Babysitting political figures wasn’t their favorite assignment, but Lefty was more than happy to be in Paris, France, today.
There was a large gathering of officials from around the world. Lefty wasn’t exactly sure what they were discussing, and honestly, he didn’t really care. He wasn’t a political man, which some people might think was odd, considering the President of the United States could ultimately decide his fate, but he simply didn’t care. Whatever job he was assigned, he did the best he could. Period.
But this mission felt different. He was antsy and fidgety and for the second morning in a row, he was hyper alert—and it wasn’t because of any danger the man they were tasked to protect, Johnathan Winkler, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, might be in.
“Maybe she didn’t come with Brown this time.”
“She came,” Lefty replied. He knew Brown wouldn’t go anywhere without Kinley. Even though Lefty had only been around her for a few days all those months ago when they’d met in Africa, he knew she was vitally important to the politician. She was smart and organized. She did what Brown asked her to without complaint and without hesitation. Even if that meant putting herself in danger…as it had back in Africa.
Brown had insisted he didn’t like the coffee at the government building where he was attending meetings, and had sent Kinley back to the café at their hotel to get him another. At the time, however, there’d been a protest forming, and Kinley had found herself right in the middle of it. Luckily, Lefty had seen her slip out of the building. He’d followed her and prevented her from being harassed and abused at the hands of the revved-up natives.
Lefty knew from talking to Kinley that she frequently went above and beyond for her boss. She never questioned Brown when he asked her to do things that might be outside the realm of her job duties. Because of that, Lefty was fairly sure Brown would take Kinley with him everywhere he went.
Also…at the moment, the hair on the back of his neck was standing straight up, a reaction he’d had around her back in Africa too. It was as if his body knew she was close and acted accordingly.
“You took guard duty last night,” Trigger said. “I’ve already talked to Grover and Doc…they’re ready to take over for us while the meetings are in session so you can concentrate on finding and talking to her rather than worrying about protecting Winkler.”
Lefty looked over at his friend in surprise. He’d thought he’d done a pretty good job in hiding how much he wanted to talk to Kinley. How much he wanted—no, needed—to find out why she hadn’t kept in contact with him after Africa. He’d thought they’d connected, and when she hadn’t answered any of his emails or texts, he’d been disappointed.
He had the best friends anyone could ask for. He’d known some Deltas who didn’t really get along with their teammates. Luckily, Lefty knew he could count on Trigger, Brain, Oz, Lucky, Doc, and Grover for anything, no matter what time of day, no matter what it was. They’d worked together so long they could almost read each other’s minds as well. Which was both a blessing and a pain in the ass.
“Come on,” Trigger said with a chuckle. “You think it’s not obvious that you’re chomping at the bit to pull her aside and talk to her?”
Lefty’s lips quirked upward. He should’ve known his friends would see through his bullshit. “I am, you’re right. But I won’t put the mission in jeopardy to do so.”
Trigger shook his head. “You know that none of us would, either. We might not like bodyguard duty but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to give it one hundred percent.”
Lefty nodded. He did know that. “I’d appreciate it. I think she’s avoiding me, honestly.”
“She knows how protection duty works. Brown has his own team on him, right?” Trigger asked.
“Yeah. Merlin’s team is on him.”
Trigger nodded. Merlin and his four teammates were stationed out of Washington, DC, so they were frequently used for these kinds of missions. “They know about what happened in Africa?” he asked.
“Yeah. And they weren’t happy,” Lefty said. Assistants weren’t officially included in protection details, but most of the teams sent on these jobs did their best to protect everyone traveling with the person they were sent to guard. In Africa, the Delta teams had been spread pretty thin because of the unrest outside the building where the meetings were taking place, and Kinley had been able to sneak out almost undetected.
Not for the first time, Lefty was very glad he’d seen her at the last second and had followed.
“Right. Anyway, I’m just letting you know that when you do catch up with her, we’re willing to give you some time and space to talk,” Trigger said.
Lefty knew his friend truly meant that, and there would be no hard feelings about it picking up his slack. Now that Trigger was living blissfully with Gillian, a woman he’d met while on a mission, Trigger wanted everyone to be as happy as he was.
“Thanks,” Lefty told him. He was pretty sure he and Kinley weren’t meant to be, not with the way she’d ghosted him, but he did want to find out why. Find out what he’d done to turn her off so completely.
Ten minutes later, the woman he’d been thinking about nonstop ever since he’d heard Walter Brown would be at the conference walked around a corner in the hall. She came to a halt when she saw Lefty and Trigger standing against the wall.
She quickly regained her composure and continued walking toward them. She had a handful of folders in her arms and looked delightfully disheveled.
Her shoulder-length black hair was a bit mussed, as if she’d been running her hand through it in vexation. She never wore much makeup, and this morning was no exception. Lefty thought she had on lip gloss and a bit of mascara, but that was it. She was petite, only standing at around five and a half feet tall. He felt as if he towered over her, and he’d never been so glad for her slight stature as he’d been that day in Africa. He’d easily been able to wrench her away from the asshole who was trying to stick his hand down her pants and carry her out of the worst of the protests to safety.
Today, she had on a pair of small heels that gave her a bit of height. She also wore black slacks and a short-sleeve heather-red blouse. A pair of gold hoops adorned her ears, the only other jewelry a watch on her left wrist. Lefty silently approved; it was never a good idea to wear a lot of flashy jewelry when overseas, even in Paris…a city that had a higher-than-average percentage of expensive stores for its citizens to shop in.
Kinley refused to meet his gaze, which frustrated Lefty. He had a million questions for her, but here in the hall, when she was obviously in a rush, wasn’t the place or time. He really didn’t like that she couldn’t even bring herself to say hello to him. He wracked his brain trying to figure out what it was he’d done or said that had made her want nothing to do with him, but couldn’t come up with one damn thing.
She slipped inside the meeting room without even once looking up at him.
Sighing, Lefty’s jaw tightened. Ignoring him wouldn’t make him go away. She was going to have to talk to him sooner or later.
“Wow,” Trigger said under his breath. “That was the coldest cold shoulder I’ve seen in a very long time.”
“I’m going to take you up on your earlier offer,” Lefty told his friend. “I swear to God, I didn’t say or do anything to warrant her acting so skittish around me.”
“I know you didn’t,” Trigger said, putting his hand on Lefty’s shoulder in a gesture of support and understanding. “Out of all of us, you’re the most congenial.”
Lefty nodded, his determination rising. If Kinley thought she could ignore him and pretend they hadn’t shared a connection in Africa, she was sorely mistaken.
He hadn’t been able to forget her. She was pretty, soft-spoken, hadn’t treated him deferentially just because he was a Delta Force operative. He’d had more than his fair share of women throw themselves at him after they’d learned what he did in the Army. He liked that she treated him as a “normal person,” that she wasn’t impressed by his job. He felt protective of her because of her size, and because she literally didn’t hesitate to do whatever was asked of her.
Her vulnerability also struck a chord in him. Made him want to hold her in his arms and protect her from the big bad world.
* * *
Kinley Taylor breathed a sigh of relief when she’d managed to slip inside the meeting room without having to talk to Gage Haskins.
She knew he’d received the nickname in basic training when one of the drill sergeants found out he was left-handed. It seemed rather discriminatory to her, but he’d reassured her that he’d been relieved to get such an innocuous nickname.
But she couldn’t imagine calling him Lefty. As far as she was concerned, it didn’t fit. He’d always be Gage to her.
She remembered everything about him, from the second she’d first seen the man. They’d been in Africa, and he was standing against a wall, his eyes constantly roaming the room, looking for danger. He hadn’t noticed her, as he was too focused on any possible threats, but Kinley had sure seen him.
He hadn’t shaved in a while, and the stubble on his face was a bit too long to be considered appropriate for a regular soldier, but from everything she’d read and seen on TV, she assumed special forces guys were allowed a little more leeway in their grooming standards. His dark brown hair was kept short on the sides and a little longer on top in a typical military haircut. He had thick eyebrows, and the intense look of concentration he usually wore made her shiver…with excitement. He’d looked completely badass in his black cargo pants and shirt, and for some reason, Kinley had felt safer just because he was in the room.
The second time she’d seen him had been just after she’d been grabbed on the street by one of the men who’d shown up to protest the summit her boss had been participating in. Walter Brown had been pissed—which wasn’t exactly a rare thing—when she’d brought him coffee that wasn’t up to his exacting standards. He’d sent her back to their hotel to bring him a cup of coffee from the little café inside, as he’d fallen in love with it after their first morning.
Their hotel was about four blocks away. She’d gone out a side door, but the protesters seemed to be everywhere. She’d done her best to ignore them, to try to stay on the peripheral of the crowd, but that hadn’t worked very well. The moment a small group of men saw her, they’d followed, verbally harassing her and scaring her to death.
Then they’d escalated from cat-calling. One of them suddenly grabbed her, attempting to drag her into an alley. She’d fought the man and his friends as hard as she could, but she was no match for their size, strength, and numbers.
But then Gage had shown up out of nowhere. He’d taken out the two men who were doing their best to undo the button on her pants, and when the two others backed off, he put an arm around her waist and physically carried her out of danger.
They’d spent the next four days talking whenever their schedules allowed—and the crush she’d felt the first time she’d seen him had only grown.
But when she got back to Washington, DC, she began to doubt herself. Why would Gage be interested in her? She wasn’t the kind of person anyone really wanted to get close to. She’d had lesson after lesson in that fact, starting with her birth mom, who’d abandoned her when she was two. Not one of the foster parents she’d had over the years had expressed any interest in adopting her. She’d had a best friend in junior high, but even that girl had moved on after a while, deciding Kinley was too peculiar to hang around with.
Kinley was used to being alone. She’d worked her ass off in high school and got good grades and went to college on scholarships. She hadn’t made any close friendships in college, either; she’d been too preoccupied with studying and working. She’d interned in DC, and simply stayed after accepting her first job there.
Somehow, she’d gotten to the ripe old age of twenty-nine without falling in love and without having even one person she could call a true friend.
Most of the time, neither bothered her, but when she’d gotten back to her lonely apartment after returning from Africa, she’d let her insecurities get the better of her.
There was no way Gage wanted to be her friend. Why would he want to befriend her when it was obvious he had a close-knit group of teammates already? Besides, they lived halfway across the country from each other.
She’d talked herself into believing that he was just being polite when he’d said he wanted to keep in touch.
But even when she didn’t return his initial texts or calls, he kept on reaching out to her. She wanted to believe his interest was genuine, but she was too wary to take a chance. She’d had other people who’d shown an interest in getting to know her, and she’d jumped at the chance, only to be disappointed when they’d eventually drifted away.
But it was hard to keep telling herself that he wasn’t really interested in getting to know her when he kept texting.
Kinley had finally convinced herself to pull her head out of her ass and reply—and he’d stopped writing. She’d missed her chance.
She knew she could reach out to him, tell him her phone had been broken or that she’d been busy, or make up some other excuse as to why she hadn’t responded, but then she felt stupid.
Her problem was that she overthought everything. If she could be more spontaneous and go with the flow, she’d probably have more friends, be less lonely.
After Gage had stopped contacting her, even though it had broken her heart, Kinley had tried to tell herself that it would’ve happened eventually, even if she’d written him back. How would things work out between them? They didn’t even live in the same state.
Kinley was…odd. She knew it, and usually she didn’t care. She was an introvert who liked being by herself. Liked spending most of her time in her apartment, reading. She’d lived in DC for years, and had also been to all the museums. She loved history, and she’d spent hour upon hour soaking up the remnants of the past the varied museums had to offer. She’d done some of the popular attractions too, taking some of the history tours and visiting all the monuments.
She also enjoyed visiting Arlington National Cemetery. She cried every time she walked around the graves, cried for all the men and women who’d died serving their country. It hurt her heart, but she did it anyway, just because she wanted them to know they hadn’t been forgotten.
DC was full of things to do, and Kinley had done her best to experience her share…but she’d always done them alone.
For the most part, she’d been all right with that, but lately, she’d begun to feel the weight of her loneliness. She wanted close friends she could call up to go out to dinner. She wanted someone she could talk to about the latest movies and books. She wanted to feel not so alone in the world.
She knew she’d blown it with Gage. That she should’ve seen where things between them could go. They’d really clicked in Africa. He was funny and attentive and smart. But she’d let her insecurities get the better of her when she’d gotten home. Hadn’t thought she was pretty enough, worldly enough, or even exciting enough to be able to keep the interest of a man like Gage.
So she’d done the cowardly thing and ignored him. And she hated herself for that.
In the back of her mind, Kinley had known there would be a chance she’d see him again. She knew Delta Force teams from across the country were occasionally tasked with protecting political figures when they went overseas. Hell, he might even be assigned to protect her boss again…but she’d put the thought to the back of her mind and decided she’d deal with seeing Gage again if and when it happened.
And now it was happening. He was here. And Kinley had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to say to him.
When she’d come around the corner of the hall and seen Gage and one of his friends stationed outside the room, she’d had an extreme case of déjà vu. He was once again wearing all black, and while he had less stubble than the first time she’d seen him, he was no less beautiful.
And yes, he was beautiful. She’d been physically attracted to him from the first time she’d seen him, and that attraction hadn’t lessened any with the passing of time.
She felt his gaze on her as she headed for the doorway into the large assembly room. Walter had forgotten some folders he’d needed for a meeting this morning and had asked her to go back and get them.
Feeling awkward, and praying she didn’t fall on her face in front of Gage, Kinley slipped into the room without acknowledging him in any way. The second she was behind the closed door, she realized she probably should’ve at least nodded at him. Or said hello or something.
God, she was the worst. No wonder she didn’t have any friends. She was completely socially inept.
Feeling depressed, and knowing the rest of the conference would be awkward if she kept running into Gage, Kinley wordlessly placed the files Walter had forgotten next to him on the table. He didn’t acknowledge her presence, which was fine with her.
Kinley walked to the back of the room and took a seat and got out a pad of paper and a pen. It was her job to take notes and type them up for Walter later. She knew he wasn’t interested in most of the speeches and discussions going on around him, but he needed to at least know the basics later in case he was asked about them.
Walter Brown was difficult to work for. He was bossy and not very astute when it came to things like knowing when he was overworking his assistant, but she stayed because, while tough, he was fair—mostly. He might make her work overtime, but then allow her to leave early another day to make up for it. He’d make her be his gopher when they were on trips like this one, but then he’d bring in doughnuts or treat her to lunch when they got home.
Besides, Kinley liked her job. Seeing how the government worked firsthand could be frustrating and irritating, but it was also extremely interesting to see all the ins and outs of how deals were made and how relationships with people and interest groups really made all the difference.
In her opinion, Walter Brown wasn’t a great representative, but he had friends in high places who could do some pretty amazing things to help those less fortunate in the country. She’d been doing her best to subtly steer Walter toward doing more good, but many times her opinion was discounted. She was simply an assistant, after all.
To be honest, her thoughts about staying where she was and continuing to work for Brown frequently vacillated between wanting to quit immediately, and being determined to stay and try to make a difference.
For a second, Kinley thought about Gage. How he also worked for his country, but in such a different way. He was fighting for what was good and right, and putting his life on the line. He was honorable, brave, and didn’t hesitate to wade into a dangerous situation to save a nobody like her.
Kinley wasn’t sure Walter would lift his little finger to help someone else if it meant he might get so much as a splinter in the process.
Though, she supposed she wasn’t being fair. Politicians weren’t trained for the things special forces soldiers were. But still.
Kinley half listened to a representative from Spain talk about global warming as she analyzed her own bravery. If she’d been walking near that mob in Africa and seen someone being assaulted, would she have stopped and tried to help?
She wanted to say yes, of course she would…but she honestly didn’t know.
Kinley didn’t think of herself as very brave at all. She wasn’t adventurous, and much preferred to hang out in the safety of her apartment or the familiarity of DC than go exploring the world. But she’d like to think if push came to shove, she’d act and put someone else’s safety above her own.
Shaking her head and forcing herself to pay attention, Kinley couldn’t help but wonder what Gage was thinking after their encounter in the hall. Was he glad to see her? Pissed that she hadn’t answered his texts and emails? Was he thanking his lucky stars she hadn’t written him back? She hated not knowing—and wasn’t looking forward to the awkward moment when they’d come face-to-face and she’d have to speak to him.
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