A former FBI agent—now, an operator in The Athena Project—goes undercover with an ex-SEAL who threatens her vow to never get involved with a partner while they protect a capricious starlet during a days-long house party at a luxury dude ranch.
Victoria Cross left the FBI, burned out after a months-long undercover operation to break up a sex trafficking ring ends with her partner being grievously wounded. Now, her best friend has roped her into joining the Brotherhood Protectors’ Colorado branch as part of their new startup team, The Athena Project, which pairs female operatives with ex-military partners and then sends them into situations only a smaller team can navigate.
Posing as a couple, Victoria and ex-SEAL, Logan Tackett, head to a days-long house party at a luxury dude ranch. It sounds like a cakewalk of an assignment—and yet both Victoria and Logan find their attention divided between the capricious star they’ve been sent to keep out of trouble and each other. Friction grows between the two operatives when Logan treats Victoria’s rule about not getting involved with partners as a challenge while she pushes against his natural, old-fashioned instinct to protect any woman in his sphere.
To complicate matters further, the woman they’re there to protect is a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and between riding ATVs at break-neck speeds through the mountains and zip-lining through the forest, they have their work cut out for them trying to keep her alive and healthy until the movie she’s scheduled to star in starts shooting, especially after mysterious accidents begin to happen.
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A hard shoulder butted against her belly, taking away her breath. Not that her adversary today had given her the full might of his movement. Still, he managed to fold her over that hard shoulder as he straightened and swept her off her feet. As she sailed behind him, she forced herself to go with it instead of tensing in anticipation, tucking in her chin before landing. Her surrender to the move lessened the impact when her back slapped the mat.
Dragging in a deep breath, Victoria Cross gave her sparring partner a stern glare. “You could’ve warned me we were starting again.”
He arched an eyebrow.
Yeah, that had been the point. He’d wanted to surprise her and check out her moves. He’d already made his opinion of her fitness for close-in, hand-to-hand combat measures perfectly clear. If they ever faced that sort of attack, she was to let him lead. Step behind him. Let his superior size and strength take the lead. Always.
Logically, she could see the sense of it. He was an ex-SEAL, built big and tall, not an ounce of lazy flab on his muscular frame. At thirty-seven, he was still in his prime. Battle-hardened.
And dear Lord was he hard.
Shoving that thought aside, she accepted the hand he offered her and let him pull her up in front of him. “You were holding back,” she said, frowning. Something that irritated the shit out of her because it was becoming a pattern. One she was trying to break because he needed to learn to trust in her skills and abilities.
“I used an appropriate amount of force,” he said, one corner of his mouth kicking up.
That half-smile and the deliberate deepening of his southern drawl had her seeing red—he was patronizing “the little woman.” She shot out both hands, slamming them against his chest while at the same time sweeping out a foot to catch him behind the ankles.
He didn’t budge.
She’d used the same move when sparring with her last partner and had planted his butt on the mat numerous times.
Logan Tackett sighed, gripped one of her arms, and turned her, folding her into his embrace so tightly she couldn’t use her elbows to strike his gut. Further, he quickly kicked out and hooked a leg around her ankles, preventing her from stomping on his foot. He had her completely trapped and under his control.
His head lowered, and he spoke into her ear. “You done?”
Seeing as they’d already spent an hour beating punching bags and each other, she relaxed, glad none of her friends were there to see her so overmatched. They’d have laughed themselves silly. “You can let me go now.”
“You sure?” he asked, his breath stirring the hair sticking to her cheek that had come loose from her ponytail.
“We have a meeting with Jake Cogburn in the conference room,” she reminded him while gritting her teeth.
His leg released hers. His arms fell away. When he stepped back from her, she felt a stirring of cool air against her sweaty back and strangely missed his warmth. “I’m heading to the shower,” she said. “See you at the meeting.” Then she quickly moved away, trying to leave behind some conflicting feelings—irritation with herself for not meeting the moment because she’d been working hard to earn his respect and disappointment that he’d let her go.
That last realization had her shaking her head. Logan was her partner. She’d never go there. Besides, she’d noted that he tended to have some old-fashioned views about a woman’s place in this organization. He’d be fine with her if she kept to her lane—something she’d never accept.