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Falling in deeper, p.1
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       Falling in Deeper, p.1

         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black  



  Chapter One

  STONE Sutter squinted against the glare of the rising sun as he watched the increasingly familiar sights of Lafayette, Louisiana, zip past the windows of his black pickup. The early hours were almost bearable, but he knew the morning would become a hot, wet blanket by nine a.m. Every August day in the South felt like a special level of hell.

  When his phone chimed, he glanced at the display: UNKNOWN NUMBER.

  His fucking persistent fed. Just fabulous. “What?”

  “Good morning, Sutter.”

  As far as he was concerned, anything good about the day had just swirled down the toilet. “What do you want, Bankhead? I’m still working on it.”

  “Too slowly.”

  “I don’t move any faster with you breathing down my neck.”

  “Election deadlines are coming up. If we’re going to stop Timothy Canton before he throws his hat into the ring for governor of California, we need to sew up our case now. Otherwise, he’s got enough money and financial backing to plow over the competition. We need everything ready to indict him as he’s declaring his candidacy so we can cuff him while we start spilling juicy details.”

  “You’ve explained this,” Stone snapped. “I’ve got it. Give it a rest.”

  FBI Special Agent Bob Bankhead—or Blockhead, as Stone preferred—huffed into the phone. “Lily Taylor bought a gun this morning under her Misty Smith alias and registered for a comprehensive gun-safety class this afternoon. Her Internet searches suggest she intends to run.”

  Given Lily’s sudden and fervent interest in the Florida Keys, Stone had thought the same thing. Why, after all these years? Because her previous boyfriend, Axel Dillon, had fallen in love with someone else? Was the shy beauty stuck on a nearly married man?

  “Not so cocky now, are you?” Blockhead barked. “You know how many years it took us to track down Ms. Taylor, and the political capital it cost isn’t something my boss would like to expend again. Don’t let her slip away or . . .”

  The fed didn’t bother finishing his sentence. Stone knew the “or” well. He’d already spent enough time behind bars, watching his back, proving his toughness, and sidestepping inmate politics. That shit still made him break out in a cold sweat.

  “I’m on it,” he swore.

  “You’ve had three months. You haven’t produced a single result.”

  Stone really wished he could tell the FBI to fuck off because he wasn’t a snitch and Lily wasn’t a pawn. But he didn’t have that option if he wanted to avoid another extended stay at the lovely Federal Correctional Institute in Beaumont.

  “My first contact left the country before I could even approach him with the deal.” Axel certainly hadn’t stayed around long enough to see him meet his target, Lily Taylor, aka Sweet Pea. “And subsequent contacts have been . . .” Pains in my ass. “Reluctant to let me see her.”

  “None of that is my problem. Do whatever you have to. Just get me a fucking witness, or you’ll be heading back to prison. You have two weeks.”

  Blockhead hung up. Stone resisted the urge to pound his phone against the dashboard. It wouldn’t help his situation. Instead, he mentally reviewed his options.

  Just yesterday he’d tried to move forward—and he’d been shut down again by Lily’s two staunchest guardians: Mitchell Thorpe and Sean Mackenzie. If they didn’t each already have a beautiful wife between them expecting their first baby, Stone would suspect ulterior motives. But they simply wanted Sweet Pea happy and safe.

  They weren’t his only obstacles. Stone had keepers of his own. Jack Cole and Logan Edgington were supposed to ensure that he could close the deal with Lily Taylor when the time was right.

  As far as Stone was concerned, the time had to be right now.

  He pulled over into a nearby parking lot, empty just before eight a.m., and opened his laptop. After connecting it to his hot spot, he opened a file with a string of code he’d written and embedded it in a jpeg of a funny comic strip before he e-mailed it. Then he waited. It wouldn’t take long.

  Fifteen minutes later, Jack Cole, his “boss” at Oracle, a firm that specialized in personal security and military consulting, called. Stone wasn’t a trained operative, just the technical help. And since Jack wasn’t a social creature, he knew the guy hadn’t dialed him to shoot the shit.

  Here we go . . . Stone pressed the button and accepted the call. “What’s up, man? I’m on my way into the office.”

  “I need a favor first.”

  Jack had a superhot wife, a cute little boy, another kid on the way, and plenty of buddies, so Stone surmised this favor required his particular skill set. If most anyone else he knew had called for help, it probably wouldn’t have been legal. But Jack didn’t have a criminal bone in his body.

  “Sure.” Stone sat back, feeling pretty damn optimistic. “What do you need?”

  “Deke just got off the phone,” Jack said of his business partner. “His brothers-in-law could use a hand with a problem they’re having.”

  “Computer-related?”

  “Yep. Do you mind?”

  Mind? Stone smiled. If he had minded, he wouldn’t have infected their servers in the first place.

  Deke’s wife, Kimber, had two brothers, Hunter and Logan. The Edgington men were tough guys. Former Navy SEALs. Fucking heroes all the way. But more important, they weren’t tech experts, and Stone now had a way to grease the wheels and get this train moving so he could reach Lily sooner.

  “Sure. Should I head to their office?”

  “Yeah. Joaquin is waiting for you.” Jack referenced the Edgingtons’ stepbrother. “He’ll walk you through the issue.”

  That wasn’t what Stone wanted to hear. “Will Logan be around?”

  Because Stone really needed to make one of these overprotective hens understand, and Logan seemed the most likely one to see reason.

  “Probably. Why? You got a man crush?” Jack teased.

  Stone hadn’t expected to like the guys he now worked with, but they were damn good at what they did and had wicked senses of humor.

  “No more than you’re jonesing over that dude who makes those custom knives.”

  “Keith?” Jack scoffed. “He’s a freak.” After a pause, he went on. “And Logan might be, too. Good point.” After they both had a laugh, Jack instructed, “Keep me posted about the scope of their problem.”

  “You got it.”

  He arrived at their office less than five minutes later. Joaquin Muñoz met him at the door. He was a somber sort who only seemed to smile when he looked at or talked about his fiancée, Bailey. The guy was head over heels for his ballerina, who appeared equally into her big bruiser of a security specialist. In fact, the Latino lover probably could have made a big splash in Hollywood if he’d been less surly.

  As usual, the man was all business. Probably because he owned a third of what had become EM Security Management, the personal security company he, Hunter, and Logan had taken over when Caleb Edgington retired.

  “What’s up?” Stone called as he climbed from his pickup.

  “This fucking virus. It hit suddenly this morning. God, I hate computers sometimes.”

  Stone had no doubt that work for everyone in the office would be at a standstill until he purged the particularly nasty code he’d planted on their server. “I can fix that, no sweat.”

  “Thanks. I appreciate you coming on such short notice.”

  The pleasure was all his. “No problem.”

  “You’re saving our ass.” Joaquin thrust out his hand.

  No, Logan was going to save his—and Lily’s. Stone liked it when a plan came together.

  After he shook Joaquin’s hand, they headed for the door. Stone turned to the big guy. “So what are the symptoms? What have you tried?”

  Joaquin scowled and launched into an explanation that Stone zoned through. “All the usual tricks aren’t working on this virus. I can’t seem to get rid of it.”

  Because Stone had written it for just this occasion, and he’d known exactly what they would do to eradicate it. He couldn’t lie; pride beamed. Good to know he hadn’t lost all his skills while languishing behind bars. “I’ll fix it.”

  “Quickly, I hope.” The other man went on, frustration visible on his face. “We’ve disconnected everything we can from the servers in the hopes it won’t spread, but it’s brought our operation to a grinding halt.”

  “Got it. Lead the way.”

  As Stone wound through the building that had once been a factory, its stark concrete walls didn’t provide an ounce of visual interest. Down a flight of stairs they reached a room so chilly it could have passed for cold storage. Inside sat a bank of servers all twinkling like Christmas trees in straight, symmetrical lines. Ah, he felt at home here. People often pissed him off. Computers were far more straightforward. They didn’t lie and weren’t hard to figure out. They didn’t betray him, and he never had to guess where he stood with a machine. Every encounter with one was simply a matter of determining who was more clever, and Stone made it his business to win.

  Joaquin set him behind a desk with a computer. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

  “Can I grab a cup of coffee first?” he asked, mainly because he knew Logan kept his desk as close to the coffee machine as humanly possible.

  “Yeah, you know where it is. I have to get back to another situation. If you have any other questions, Logan is back there.”

  “Hunter?” Just in case his younger brother needed further convincing.

  Joaquin shook his head. “Baby Phoenix had a rough night. He has a cold, so Hunter and Kata stayed up with him. I can call him for emergencies.”

  He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “Thanks. I’ll do my best to take care of the problem without involving him.”

  With a nod, Joaquin wandered off. Stone followed slowly until the other man disappeared into his cubicle area and started barking into the phone. Then he crept toward the coffeemaker and brewed a cup. With a steaming mug in hand, Stone poked his head around the corner and found Logan swearing over a map spread across his desk.

  “Hey,” he called.

  The younger Edgington seemed like the friendly sort, at least until someone pissed him off.

  Logan lifted his head, piercing him with blue eyes. “Thank fuck you’re here to fix this virus. We’re so careful. I have no idea how this happened.”

  “The writers of malicious code delight in being more underhanded than you.” He smiled at the irony.

  “Yeah? They can go fuck themselves. They could be putting lives at risk.”

  Stone had thought of that and felt vaguely guilty. The good news was that he would disinfect all their machines quickly. He’d even install a few extra goodies to keep them secure from potential outside threats in the future . . . as soon as he’d secured Logan’s assistance.

  “Asshats,” he muttered in vague agreement. “But as long as I’m here, I want to talk to you about Sweet Pea.”

  Even speaking her nickname made Stone unbearably hard.

  Shortly after he’d walked out of the pen, he’d tested his pick-up skills and realized that he still had game. Hell, if anything, getting ass had become easier since women apparently liked a bad boy. Every woman except Sweet Pea aka Misty Smith—both bullshit aliases for Lily Taylor.

  Stone didn’t want anyone but her, and that was inconvenient as hell. But after spending his first thirty seconds with her, the chemical zing between them had left him beyond intrigued. He wasn’t even sure why he’d so totally fixated on her shy sexiness, but he burned to know what sort of woman spoke that softly yet wore siren-red lipstick. What was she trying to hide with all that vampy black lining such vulnerable chocolate eyes? If he could pry open her defenses and her thighs, not only would they be combustible together, Stone knew he could help save her.

  Too bad that, after their promising first meet, she’d begun avoiding him as if she’d rather have the plague.

  Logan’s stare turned somewhere between grim and inhospitable. “Dude, you asked yesterday. The answer is no.”

  “Bankhead called this morning. I have two weeks. We’ve run out of time.”

  The former frogman hissed a curse. “Son of a bitch. I don’t like this.”

  “Not my first choice, either.”

  “The plan would work better if you two had been seeing each other all summer.”

  True that. But she wouldn’t take his calls. Stone suspected she was dodging the heat between them, but that wasn’t all. Something else had spooked her.

  For the hundredth time, he wondered what she was thinking. Why was she afraid of him? How could he persuade her to testify against Canton before the guy decided to snuff out all the skeletons in his closet prior to the election?

  What would Lily feel like under him, whimpering and calling his name, when he thrust deep inside her?

  “But I’m still not sure you roll hard enough to give Sweet Pea what she needs.” Logan scowled.

  Maybe, maybe not. Logan and Jack had spent the better part of three months trying to teach him. He hadn’t trekked down the Dominant path in the past. But he’d be whatever Lily needed in order to make her happy and secure her help.

  Then he would be a free man.

  The luscious pinup beauty was his get-out-of-jail-free card—literally. If she agreed to play nicely with the feds about the rape and murder of Erin Gutierrez, he could put the past behind him and try to forget how badly he’d fucked up his life. While he’d been away, he’d inherited enough money from his late uncle Vince to live somewhere between frugally and comfortably until he found a new city to call home and a corresponding job.

  But right now, it was damn inconvenient that he couldn’t seem to focus on Lily Taylor as a witness, rather than a woman.

  “I’d like to find out,” he told Logan. Hell, he’d welcome any chance to be near her. “Get me face time with her and I’ll do my best.”

  “Tell you what. You fix this problem in less than an hour, and I’ll call the others on your behalf. If not . . .” The mock regret in Logan’s expression was all “too bad, so sad.”

  It was Stone’s turn to smile because the joke was on Logan. “You’ve got a deal.”

  Sipping his cup of joe, Stone turned to make his way to the bank of servers and bumped into an unfamiliar guy. Dark hair, midnight eyes, all the levity of an undertaker. Stone met his gaze straight on and realized that even at point-blank distance, the guy hid everything behind a steely stare.

  “Stone, this is Pierce.” Logan introduced them.

  First name or last?

  “One-Mile,” the dude corrected, still taking Stone’s measure with dead eyes.

  Logan sighed. “One-Mile. He’s our resident sniper. Rather than his given name, he’d prefer to be known by his longest kill shot. God save me from big egos.”

  Holy shit. Stone tried not to look impressed. He doubted this dude wanted any admiration. He’d bet One-Mile had come from the army and probably done a few tours in Afghanistan. Despite his insistence that everyone use his moniker, he was the type who never wanted anyone fawning over him for performing his duty to his country.

  Stone stuck out his hand. “Hey.”

  One-Mile shook it with an absent nod, focused instead on Logan. “I’d like to speak to you.”

  “What’s up?”

  “I quit.” After he’d delivered his news, the lean whip of a man turned away as if he’d fulfilled his duty and began to walk off.

  “Nope,” Logan called after him. “You can’t. I’ve got a contract. You signed. We paid the bonus, and you cashed the check. End of conversation.”

  One-Mile stopped in his tracks.

  Another man appeared in the hall and sidled past him, glaring daggers. “Fucking douche.”

 
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