Kristin Lassiter’s heart skipped a beat. Without warning, she found herself facing a man she’d prayed never to see again. “Max?” Her voice broke because her throat had suddenly swollen closed. “What are you doing here?”
“Close the door, Agent Lassiter,” Max said.
Kristin had been ordered to report to the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Miami Field Office. She was just going back on duty in the field with a new partner, following the disastrous shooting incident she’d been involved in four months ago. So she wasn’t surprised her boss wanted to see her. But Rudy wasn’t in his office. This man was. With man being the operative word.
The last time she’d seen Max Benedict, he’d been a boy of eighteen. She’d been sixteen. They’d been best friends for three years. And lovers for one night. They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since.
The troubled boy she’d known had been lithe and fit and tanned. This tall, broad-shouldered man looked powerful. And dangerous.
Kristin felt a spurt of alarm that bordered on panic. Why was he here? Had he come to find out why she’d run from him all those years ago?
“Why are you here, Max?”
“I have a proposition for you.”
Before she could open her mouth to protest he said, “A business proposition.”
So, he wasn’t here for personal reasons. She slowly exhaled, careful not to sigh audibly with relief. He was acting like they were old friends. But they hadn’t been friends for a very long time. She’d been vulnerable to him once. Had adored him with all the luminous passion one devoted to a first love. Seeing him in the flesh, seeing the promise of the boy revealed in the virile man standing before her, stirred all those unwanted feelings to life.
Max couldn’t possibly believe she’d want anything to do with him now. Ten years had gone by since he’d used and discarded her. He must know her bitter feelings toward him hadn’t changed. Nor would they ever. So what was this boy from her past—turned dangerous man—doing here?
“Close the door, Agent Lassiter,” Max repeated.
This time, it wasn’t a request, it was a command, spoken in Max’s brisk British accent. She knew he could as easily have issued the order in French or Spanish or Italian or Russian, or even Portuguese, a result of his attendance at a series of elite British, American and European boarding schools. He’d honed his talent by conversing with the many foreign players on the junior tennis tour, where she’d first met Max all those years ago.
But the Max she’d known was long gone. The man standing before her was a stranger. His once Caribbean-warm blue eyes looked cold and remote. The playful dimple in his right cheek was gone, replaced by a nose and cheekbones and chin that looked carved from granite. There was no sign of the soft lips she’d kissed. His mouth was pressed into a flat, unrelenting line.
When she’d known Max in the past, he’d been dressed most often in tennis shorts and a sleeveless cutoff T-shirt that revealed an impressive set of biceps and six-pack abs. She felt certain the powerful, corded muscles were still there. But they were concealed by a perfectly tailored wool-and-silk suit that likely equaled the cost of a first-class ticket to London and a white Egyptian cotton shirt and Armani tie that probably matched her monthly food budget.
The fact Max had called her Agent Lassiter suggested he was here on official business. But his tailored suit was at odds with the rest of his appearance. A dark, two-day-old beard made his rugged features look disreputable. And the straight black hair he’d kept short on the tennis court had grown long enough that a shaggy lock of black hair had slipped onto his brow.
He looked like one of the bad guys.
But Kristin knew that Max Benedict, youngest son of the infamous billionaire banker Jonathan “Bull” Benedict and his estranged wife, Bella, the Duchess of Blackthorne, was nothing more than a wealthy, care-for-nothing playboy. His expensive clothing—and the fact he badly needed a haircut and a shave—convinced her of that.
Instead of closing the door as he’d ordered, she said, “Where’s Rudy?”
Max shoved papers out of the way and perched on the edge of Rudy’s cluttered mahogany desk before replying, “Your boss knows why I’m here. He let me use his office for this meeting.”
Kristin snorted. It was an inelegant, rude sound, revealing just how ridiculous she thought his statement was.
He made a disgusted sound in his throat, rose and crossed past her to shut the door. She’d expected him to slam it, but the quiet click told her even more certainly that she was now caged with a feral predator. She felt the urge to flee, but resisted it.
She turned to face him, stuck her balled fists on her hips and said, “What’s going on, Max?”
Irritation rolled off him in waves. She realized that he wasn’t any happier to be in the same room with her than she’d been to find him in her boss’s office.
He leaned back against the door, his arms crossed over his chest. It appeared her way out was blocked. But she’d been trained in self-defense. And she had a Glock 27 concealed beneath her suit jacket.
“I told them this wouldn’t work,” he muttered.
“Since I don’t know who you’re talking about, or why you’re here, I can’t respond to that,” she retorted. “Foster Benedict sent me,” he said. Kristin’s brows rose in surprise. “Isn’t Foster your uncle?”
Max nodded curtly.
“Your uncle sent you here?” she asked incredulously.
“My uncle, the advisor to the president on matters of terrorism, sent me here,” he clarified.
Kristin took three steps and dropped into one of the two brass-studded saddle-brown leather chairs in front of Rudy’s desk. “I really have fallen down the rabbit hole,” she murmured, shaking her head.
Max strode across the room to stare out the window. The FBI’s concrete-and-glass Miami Field Office was nowhere near the palm trees, white-sand beaches and marine-blue waters of Miami Beach. Instead, the view from Rudy’s fourth-floor window in North Miami Beach revealed a network of superhighways leading into, out of and around Miami.
Max turned back to her and asked, “How much tennis are you playing these days?”
The question, coming out of the blue, surprised her into replying, “I usually play on weekends with the kids who attend my dad’s tennis academy.”
“You look fit enough.” Max crossed and perched once again on the corner of the desk in front of her. He proceeded with a perusal of her body that left her feeling flushed. And indignant.
“Would you like me to undress so you can take a better look?”
He met her gaze, then slowly, seductively, looked her up and down again. “Since I’ve already seen what’s underneath that cheap blue suit, my imagination can fill in the blanks.”
She shoved herself out of the chair and stalked over to look out the window herself. Having just noted all the improvements in his physique over the years, it was humiliating to be told he still saw the underdeveloped body of a sixteen-year-old girl. It was true her bosom had never been anything to shout about. But he’d seemed more than pleased with her small breasts during the one night they’d spent together.
At sixteen, she’d been a world-class athlete. Her body had been toned and firm. It still was. The flyaway blond curls she’d worn in a ponytail on the tennis court were captured ruthlessly in a bun at her nape, although stray curls always seemed to escape. She reached up selfconsciously to tuck one behind her ear.
Max seemed to have grown an inch or two taller, to perhaps 6’3″, but she was the same 5’9″ she’d been at sixteen. She wore no more makeup now to flatter her blue eyes or conceal her freckled complexion than she had then. And her bosom had stayed as small and trim as the rest of her.
“You look even more beautiful now than you did ten years ago, Princess,” he said softly.
Kristin realized he was standing right behind her, so close she could feel the warmth of his breath on her neck.
She hated the fact that his compliment pleased her so much. At the same time, she wondered how he’d managed to cross the room without her hearing a sound.
He blew softly on a stray curl that lay against her throat.
She felt a frisson of desire run down her spine and jerked herself away from him. “Stop that!”
She saw the knowing smile on his face and felt her flush deepen. She deflected his attempt at seduction by saying, “Who is it you’re here to see, Max? Some once-upon-a-time princess? Or Agent Lassiter? Make up your mind.”
“Right,” he said. “Down to business.” He met her gaze and said, “I have a job for you.”
“I already have a job,” she snapped.
“Your boss has agreed to give you leave to perform a special mission.”
“A special mission?” she parroted back, adding a scalding dose of sarcasm.
“There’s been an assassination threat against President Taylor.”
That sounded real. That sounded ominous. Andrea Taylor wasn’t a particularly popular president because of actions she’d taken to end the ongoing war in the Middle East. “How could you possibly know something like that?”
“Interpol intercepted email traffic—source never identified—that suggested someone is planning to take advantage of the president’s seating proximity to the tennis courts to kill her during the U.S. Open tennis event over the Labor Day weekend in New York. The president is a huge fan of the game and always attends the tournament at Flushing Meadows.”
“Interpol? So how did you get this information? Don’t the Secret Service and Homeland Security have primary responsibility for protecting—”
“Interpol sent its information to the Central Intelligence Agency,” he interrupted. “Tennis is an international sport, with players and coaches from a lot of nations with grudges against the United States, and presumably someone who might want to kill the president. The CIA decided the threat deserved investigation, so they contacted me. I work for them on occasion.”
Kristin felt like laughing, but there was nothing amusing about Max’s stony expression. “On occasion? So you’re what? A private investigator or something?”
“A covert operative,” he said.
“A spy?” she asked incredulously.
He nodded curtly.
Then she did laugh. “That’s crazy, Max. I don’t believe you. Show me some credentials.”
“I work undercover. I don’t carry credentials. Or a gun,” he added, anticipating her next question.
“Why would the CIA hire you? I mean, you’re just a rich playboy.”
He raised a sardonic brow. “Who better to hobnob with wealthy drug czars playing polo in Argentina or attending the Carnival in Rio. Or munitions dealers gambling in Monte Carlo, or Arab terrorists playing tennis in Dubai?
“I have infamous parents. Outrageous siblings. I’m a peer of the realm, Lord Maxwell, youngest son of the Duchess of Blackthorne and her cruel—or is it crazy?—billionaire husband. Who would ever suspect me of spying? Which is why I’m so good at what I do.”
His explanation made surprising sense. She asked the next obvious question. “Why me?”
“Short answer? You’re a world-class tennis player who also happens to be a trained FBI agent.”
“I still don’t get it,” Kristin said.
“Foster drew the logical inference that if an attack was going to be made at a tennis locale in the States, the attacker might have some connection to tennis. He—or she—might be a coach, a player or someone working for a player or in a player’s family. He figured we might intercept the assassin if we send someone undercover to another tennis venue in advance of the U.S. Open. After some discussion, Wimbledon was selected over the French Open.”
That also made sense, Kristin conceded. The French Open was at the end of the month, which didn’t leave much time for planning.
“The CIA figured since I have a tennis background, and I live in London, I’m the logical person to infiltrate the professional tennis locker rooms at Wimbledon and listen for what I might hear about an assassination attempt on the president.”
Kristin made a face. “I haven’t played professional tennis for the past ten years.”
“Neither have I,” Max replied. “Which is why the CIA
arranged with Scotland Yard—and the cooperation of the All England Lawn Tennis Club—for an exhibition mixed doubles match to be played prior to opening day at Wimbledon. Since Foster knew you and I were friends when we played junior tennis, he suggested you as my doubles partner.”
“I didn’t know your uncle knew we were friends.”
Max didn’t reply to her non sequitur. He rubbed a hand across his nape and said, “I told him this was a bad idea.”
“Because I haven’t played tennis for ten years?”
“That. And because of what happened between us.”
There it was. The elephant in the room. Kristin said nothing, because she had no idea what to say.
He eyed her and said into the silence, “I knew it would be hard—maybe impossible—for us to work together. But I couldn’t very well explain why to my CIA boss or my uncle. Especially since I’m not quite sure myself what happened.”
He’d contacted her in every way he could after their one night of love. One night of sex, she amended. But she’d refused to communicate with him. It was all water under the bridge. There was no going back. So why speak of it now? Especially since he was right. It would be impossible for them to work together. So why put them both through the agony of trying?
“I presume you’re hoping I’ll get you off the hook by refusing your offer,” she said at last.
He nodded. “I was pretty sure you’d refuse. But I was obliged to bring you the offer.”