Forbidden is another word for having everything to lose.
A quirky rock star and her fierce Secret Service agent fight a forbidden attraction while on the run.
As the Vice President’s daughter and his current assignment, Leya Singh is completely off-limits. Special Agent Holden Kent refuses to let his desire for The Painted Daisies singer and sitar player cost him the future he’s worked his entire life to achieve. Not when his goal of working on the Presidential detail is finally within his grasp.
Leya always believed great passion wasn’t in the cards for her. But the way her body lights up around Holden has her questioning everything she thought was true, including the arranged marriage waiting for her.
When a hate group targeting Leya’s father sets its sights on her, the fear that she was the intended victim the night her bandmate was murdered blooms into reality. Determined to get answers and protect her, Holden is forced to take her into hiding, where his carefully guarded walls start to crumble. Having only one bed is still no excuse to touch her…until touching is their only choice.
But if he lets his focus slip, it’ll be Leya who pays the price, and Holden refuses to be the reason her enemies find her.
With an all-female rock band and the alpha heroes who steal their hearts, this fast-paced series might just leave you breathless. Each full-length novel has a different HEA couple and a completed suspense plot, but the series is best read from book one to keep track of the overarching murder mystery. Are you ready for it?
Release date: May 17, 2023
Publisher: That's What She Said
Print pages: 419
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Behind the book
With an all-female rock band and the alpha heroes who steal their hearts, this fast-paced, romantic suspense series might just leave you breathless.
SWEET MEMORY is a second-chance, opposite-sides-of-the-track romance. The world’s sweetest rock star falls for a troubled music producer whose past comes back to haunt them.
GREEN JEWEL is an enemies-to-lovers, single-dad romance. He did it. She’ll prove it. Her body’s reaction to him be damned.
CHERRY BRANDY is an opposites-attract, forbidden romance. Being on the run with only one bed is no excuse to touch her…until touching is the only choice.
BLUE MARGUERITE, a frenemy, second-chance, celebrity romance. She’ll never forgive him for humiliating her. Not even when he offers the answers her family desperately seeks.
ROYAL HAZE, the stunning conclusion to the series, is an antihero, secret-society romance. He was ready to torture, steal, and kill to defend the world he believed in. What he wasn’t prepared for…was her.
Each full-length novel has a different HEA couple and a completed suspense plot, but the series is best read from book one to keep track of the overarching murder mystery.
Performed by Sheryl Crow
EIGHT DAYS BEFORE
The text from US Secret Service Agent Holden Kent had Leya wishing she’d flung her phone down the toilet so he couldn’t trace it. It also had her heart rate picking up in that irritating way it did whenever she had a conversation with the man. After more than two years of him being the lead―and often only―agent on her detail, you’d think her reaction to him would have faded. But it hadn’t. Lately, she thought it was getting worse.
Even though she hadn’t responded to his text, she knew she had mere minutes until he found her swaying on the tire swing in the yard of Number One Observatory Circle. Joe Biden had installed the swing during his vice presidency, leaving a note to his beloved wife engraved on the tree. Beloved… Loved... Wife.
Her stomach flipped, and nausea flew through it.
She wasn’t ready to be any of those things.
And yet, the time had come for her to make a decision. She couldn’t put it off any longer. Krish and his family needed a formal answer. Needed to move forward with an actual wedding and not the mere idea…the mere promise…of one that had been waiting in the background for a decade. While she understood why they needed it, the idea only made her soul curl up inside her chest as if hiding from an intruder instead of blossoming as it should. Her sister-in-law, Devleena, had been so excited when she’d married Rishik that she’d strained a cheek muscle from smiling so hard. All thoughts of marriage did for Leya was make her eye twitch.
Holden appeared around the corner, and the sunlight hit his head, turning the strands a radiant gold. With his light-brown hair, blue eyes, and wide shoulders, he looked like the epitome of the stereotypical American legend. The captain of the football team. The small-town hero. Like a superhero you couldn’t believe walked in your door. He had the muscles, the bulging biceps, and narrow hips that tights would show off perfectly. But it was his beautifully chiseled jawline and the aquamarine aura that surrounded him, flickering and growing whenever they were in the same space, that called to her the most. Her fingers itched to draw every curve along a clean canvas. It had been too long since she’d allowed her other artistic side free rein, and the need welled inside her almost as large as the attraction to the man storming toward her.
He was not smiling. He rarely smiled, as if doing so would be some violation of the Secret Service code, but as he drew closer, she could see there was more than just somberness surrounding him today. His dark brows were furrowed together, and his jaw was clenched tight. It felt…grim…and her heart beat wildly for a moment, thinking of the times he’d come to her with bad news. She wasn’t sure she could take more.
He stopped a few feet away from her on the tire swing, watching as she swayed back and forth, assessing her as he did every single time he came into her presence. It was as if he took in every single molecule to make sure she was unharmed.
“You should have returned my text,” he said, and the deep timbre of his voice settled over her like a blanket, strangely soothing while, at the same time, her entire being danced furiously, as if called to a chorus only he knew how to sing. He put his index finger to the two-way mic in his ear and said, “Firefly located on grounds. Stand by.”
“I’m allowed to move around the grounds without you following me,” she replied, lifting her chin and arching one eyebrow in a challenge.
He was in a suit today, just like when he’d first shown up in Grand Orchard over two years ago after her father became the nominee for the vice presidency and the hate groups had come out in full force. It was perfectly tailored to hide his weapon. Perfectly tailored to sit across those broad shoulders like a second skin. It was a complete contrast to the black cargo pants, shirt, and military-grade boots he wore when on tour with her and the band so he blended in with the rest of their security team.
“Normally, you can,” he groused, and she waited for him to finish his thought, and when he didn’t, she prompted him.
“For Greater Tomorrows has been ramping up.”
Mention of the hate group had her dragging her bare feet into the grass and pulling the swing to a stop. Her chest tightened as it always did when they were mentioned.
“What have they done now?”
“There were pictures of the residence. They were of you and your family coming and going.”
The tight feeling grew, fear and guilt twisting deeper, grabbing hold until she could barely breathe. Every time the group was mentioned, she was overcome with soul-crushing guilt. Terrified that the FGT had mistaken Landry for her that awful day at Swan River Pond and that her family was the reason her friend had been killed.
“What do the notes say?” She had to force the words out over the lump in her throat.
His jaw ticked again, and his hand went to the lapel of the suit jacket, tugging at it. “Does it matter? It’s the normal spew of hatred. You don’t want or need to hear it.”
She didn’t. And yet, she did. It was the same perverse reaction she had when there were negative posts or articles about her or any of The Painted Daisies. It was as if knowing what they’d said could somehow thicken her skin against them and take away the pain, but it never did.
Instead of responding or asking for more details, she just pushed the swing into motion again, sending the tire backward with as much force as she could. When she came forward, she almost slammed into Holden. He had to jump to the side so he wasn’t knocked to the ground. She smirked. It was childish, but it felt good to get an unexpected reaction out of him. To prove he wasn’t a robot.
She swung harder, and the limb on the tree groaned. Wood crackling.
Holden glanced up at the branch, assessing it.
“I’m not sure it was designed for a takeoff into space. Maybe take it easy.”
As a little girl, one of her favorite things to do had been to leap from the swings, arms and legs spread wide, and then try to land perfectly on her feet. She rarely accomplished it, and she’d gotten a lot of bumps and bruises in her attempts. You’re not a little girl anymore. Those had been her mother’s exact words inside the private den of the residence with only the family present—well, the family and their lead agents. Like Holden. They’d been standing at the open door, within ear reach of the humiliating conversation.
She kicked back one more time, a big shove, and as she came forward, she let go, leaping from the swing and spreading her body wide. Unpracticed and much older, gravity took its hold fast. Her toes on her right foot barely caught the grass, and as she started to fall, she twisted, landing hard on her elbow in a way that made her wince and then burst out laughing.
Holden was there in a flash, feeling her arms, cursing under his breath. “Did you break anything?”
His face was so close to hers that if she leaned even slightly, she could kiss him. She wondered what it would feel like to have those stern-looking lines pressed against her soft ones. To have his focus on her one hundred percent but for a different reason. She was twenty-six, had been kissed multiple times, but never once had those kisses come close to making her feel like she did when not kissing him. In truth, she’d rarely felt any kind of sexual attraction to anyone, and certainly nothing like the heat coasting between them now so large and strong that if she reached out, it would burn her. Like touching the tip of a lit incense stick.
Instead of pulling back as she should, her body leaned forward, their lips nearly brushing. They were so close she could taste the wintergreen scent of his exhale. She swallowed it, longing and desire bubbling through her veins in an unfamiliar way even as her heart was screaming, Danger!
He stood up so fast it almost made her dizzy. As he stared down at her with brows drawn even more tightly together, his brilliant blue eyes flared with an emotion she wanted to think was something more than irritation before it disappeared. If she was going to be tormented by this ridiculous physical attraction to him, it only seemed fair he be tortured as well.
Holden’s face turned into an emotionless wall, and he said dryly, “Let’s not do that again, shall we?”
Don’t be so impulsive, Leya. Think before you act.
The words her mother had said so often they had almost become a mantra rushed over her, causing remorse to roll through her. Not only because of Krish, but because she liked Holden even when he irritated her, and kissing her would end his career. She wouldn’t have him in her life at all if she pulled another stupid stunt like this.
She rolled onto her back, looking up at the blue sky littered with twirls and curls of white and hints of orange as the sun began to fade. More shapes and colors tempting her to paint but also to pick up the baby sitar Nani had taught her to play and add the stringed notes to the air.
She felt his gaze on her, as always, and just like normal, she was confused by her reaction to it. When he looked at her…it was like he saw everything. Every pore, every vein, every muscle. But more importantly, every thought and wish—even the ones she thrust into the recesses of her mind, locking them away.
Wishes that went against everything that was right for her family. For her.
Desires she knew weren’t logical and would lead to disaster.
The same disaster she feared awaited her friend and bandmate who’d let lust lead the way. Fiadh had gone from hating Asher to insisting she loved him in mere days. They’d gotten married only a handful of months after they’d started seeing each other, were on their honeymoon at this moment while the band took a break from their hectic tour schedule. It was the perfect example of letting your libido rule, and she worried what would happen to Fee when it all came apart.
Leya’s friends thought she didn’t believe in love at all, but that wasn’t true. She believed in jeevansathi―life partners, soulmates―but she also believed most people confused lust for love. You didn’t just stumble onto your life partner and know instantaneously they were the one. It was more complicated than that.
Lust was the reason divorce rates were so high. People let it guide them, and then when it faded—as it always did—they had nothing holding them together. There was very little Leya and her mother agreed upon, but in this, they saw eye to eye perfectly. Finding your match was a process, one that often came with your family guiding the way.
Which brought her back to Krish. The man her family and the star charts had guided her to since she was a teenager. Where once the idea of him―of them―had brought her comfort and relief, these days, it brought tension…and an inexplicable feeling of loss.
Was it just the argument she’d had with Krish at the inaugural ball that still hovered between them causing these feelings? Or was it something different…something more?
Krish was close to reaching his dream―being appointed as an associate justice to a California appellate court―and he needed his wife at his side. Needed to appear grounded in family. A married man who was stable and reliable. Not a single man looking for a mate.
But she wasn’t ready to give up the band. She wasn’t ready for this future that had seemed to come too fast. What would she do with the endlessness of her days in California, waiting for Krish to come home? She had her art―the other half of her flighty, creative ways that Nani had encouraged while her mother had frowned―but she would miss the band if she gave them up. And they needed her. The band had lost too much already.
Her stomach twisted and turned. A decision she’d made years ago, that she’d thought would always fit, now seemed like a shackle holding her back. She shouldn’t feel that way about her life partner, should she?
“Are you staying at the residence this evening?” Holden asked.
He used the tone she hated the most. The one that made him sound like the robot she’d once accused him of being. Somewhere inside her, she knew it didn’t fit him any more than the way his aura turned steely blue instead of flashing aquamarine at moments like these. She didn’t understand how she knew these things about Holden, and yet she could barely even see Krish’s aura and never understood his tones.
Her thoughts were making her sick. She needed to escape them, not only the thoughts but her emotions and expectations weighing her down.
With her bandmates off in separate parts of the world during their break, she couldn’t go to them, but she still had a friend in Washington D.C.
LEYA: Want to go out tonight?
LINCOLN: You feel like talking or dancing?
As the “playboy” son of the President of the United States, Lincoln Matherton understood the pressures that came from being so visibly on the political stage when all you really wanted to do was get lost in the images in your head. He understood being the only one in your family who didn’t fit the mold of the rest.
LEYA: Can’t we do both?
LINCOLN: Let’s start at Pilot’s for dinner, and if you still feel like dancing, we can hit EchoBar.
LEYA: I know you’re trying to give up the bar scene.
LINCOLN: Bars, not dancing. I’ll be eighty and still doing it.
LEYA: *** old man GIF ***
LINCOLN: *** nag GIF ***
LEYA: See you at 8?
LINCOLN: *** thumbs-up emoji***
She pulled herself off the grass, ignoring the tingling that went up her spine as the action brought her into Holden’s space. Ignoring the way his eyes trailed over her, leaving a mark.
“I’m going out with Lincoln.”
His eyes narrowed, and she could almost hear his internal groan because he hated going to the clubs with them. Holden had never actually said he hated them, but it was the only time he ever trusted her to other men and women in the detail. She wondered if he’d hand her off tonight also. Wondered if, as always, she’d feel his absence. She didn’t dare analyze why she missed him when he was gone. Doing so would bring her too close to that locked door in her mind. To the impulsiveness her mother accused her of and the behavior she accused her friends of―misreading lust for love.
Performed by Garbage
As Holden followed Leya back into the vice president’s residence, only one thought was repeating through his skull―get away. He needed a break. He needed to put distance between himself and his protectee. She was driving him batty in more than one way.
She’d ignored his texts.
She’d left without him.
She’d almost kissed him.
And he wasn’t sure which of those things pissed him off more.
What was worse, what had him screaming silently to himself, was the fact he hadn’t pulled away immediately. The look in her eyes as she’d leaned forward, the way the natural honeysuckle essence of her had washed over him, making him hungry for everything she’d offered, had bent the last straw of his reserve. His control was fading.
He snapped himself back to the house as they approached, scanning the porch, the door, and the hedges. No movement at all. Emptiness. Her hips swayed as she mounted the steps, and his assessment fell apart. Never had he wanted to strip someone bare the way he craved doing with Leya Singh. It frustrated him and drove him right up to the edge every single day.
He should have walked away from her two years ago when the first hint of desire had slammed into him as soon as he’d walked into the recording studio in Grand Orchard. Instead of turning tail, he’d seen it as just another challenge. Admitting an attraction to his protectee on his second protective assignment would have derailed his career in a heartbeat. His boss would never have trusted him again.
Rather than admit defeat, he’d simply added, Don’t look at Leya’s mouth and Don’t stare at her hips to the mental task list he kept in his head. It was a mix of daily to-dos as well as short- and long-term goals he’d kept running for as long as he could remember. He’d already checked off thousands to be here―on one of the most coveted assignments in the Secret Service. Protecting the president, vice president, and their families was why people joined, and if they told you otherwise, they were lying. This was the job. The suit. The earpiece. You putting your life between the enemy and the leaders of the free world.
Leya reached for the handle of the back door, and he stepped in after her, casting a wide glance over the entrance, the stairs, and the hall. He didn’t have to do any of it, as there were cameras all over the place, watching twenty-four seven, but the continual assessment was a built-in habit after two years of being the only Secret Service agent on her detail. She had a private security team, one he respected even though there’d been plenty of reasons not to, but it was never the same as Holden checking the boxes himself.
When Leya had insisted on having only one agent with her, the Secret Service had balked, but she’d held firm. He never minded being a lone wolf, even preferred having the control all in his pocket. Preferred it so much that when Leya came back to D.C., and he had to revert into being a pack animal—the one who wasn’t in charge—his mind and body rebelled at the idea.
As soon as they’d arrived in D.C. after Fiadh’s wedding in Boston, his boss had called him in and said, “Take some time off.” Most people wouldn’t have balked when the special agent in charge of the vice-presidential protective division gave them a command, but Holden had insisted he didn’t need a vacation.
He’d told himself it was because he didn’t want to look weak, but really, the weakness was in staying. He couldn’t stomach the thought of another agent watching over her, staring at the full lower lip hovering over a delightful cleft, or watching the way her hair danced around sharp cheekbones when she talked, or being mesmerized by the way her long fingers played with the rows of leather and silver bracelets dangling up and down her wrists. He didn’t want another agent getting the text that begged for them to show up…
Jesus. He really needed to get a grip.
He watched her almost dance the way up the stairs, feet light and graceful. Her entire body would be tucked up against Lincoln Matherton’s tonight. He’d be the one surrounded by her sweet, floral scent, and even though Holden knew her well enough to know she wasn’t interested in Lincoln the way half the planet seemed to be, it would still be a challenge to stay focused. Instead of having his eyes on the room, the people, the movement of the crowd, they’d be drawn to her hips slammed against another man’s.
As her lead agent, he was usually with her when she went out, regardless of the time of day. When he was the only USSS agent on tour with her, he didn’t have a choice. But today, he did. Technically, his shift ended in thirty minutes, and he was suddenly, desperately in need of the space his boss had offered. He needed to get his priorities in check―his dick in check. His head back on straight.
“You’ll have someone else with you tonight,” he called after her.
She turned at the landing, and brown eyes ringed in deep, lush lashes looked back at him with a dash of sorrow and regret filling them. “I figured.”
He frowned. She’d known he’d leave her? Why did that stab at him? “Well, now you know for sure.” The snip erupted from him before he could stop it.
Her eyes flared with a hint of the anger he was stupid enough to like seeing. It happened so little. Normally, she was even-tempered, like the rest of her family. Calm in the face of the storms during the election as well as the attacks on her bandmates. But he’d been the one to see her break in her private moments. Not another agent. Not even her friends.
“You don’t owe me an explanation, Special Agent Kent. Any body will do, right?” It was the formal use of his name instead of Holden or Captain Annoying as much as her arched brow and the emphasis on the word body that had him wanting to take the stairs two at a time and remove the look with his mouth pressed against hers.
He turned on his heel and exited the building.
Outside, he inhaled deeply, centering himself and attempting to clear the haze of lust and anger and frustration. He scanned the surroundings, noting the buzz of the lawnmower and the crush of steps on gravel as one of the uniformed division officers came around the house.
The first time he’d shown up at the Queen-Anne home on the grounds of the National Observatory, he’d been overwhelmed with the beauty of the place. The curved tower and pointed roof along with the wraparound porch full of plush wicker seating were graceful and elegant. But these days, he barely noticed them. Instead, he only saw what was out of place. The furniture that had been moved. The gardener who wasn’t supposed to be on duty. Or the newly arrived agent, like the woman walking toward him.
Once he’d gone through the handoff checklist and stalked toward the command center, he almost changed his mind and went back. It was this reaction that pushed him finally over the edge, dialing his boss.
“I’m calling about that vacation you suggested,” Holden said, cheek clenched and hating the words. Hating that he was asking to be relieved, and wanting to blame Leya for his weakness, but knowing it wouldn’t be fair. This wasn’t on her. This was all him.
Although, she had been the one to lean into him…to almost brush their lips together. He forced his brain to stop before it traveled farther into the realm of what-ifs.
“Ardell will take over as lead while you’re out. Go visit your family. Forget the job for a few days,” Roy Camp tossed back.
Camp likely knew Holden wouldn’t be able to forget the job. He’d actually worry about it the entire time he was away, because they both lived and breathed the USSS. That was why Camp was forty and still single. When Holden’s dad had been an agent, it had almost broken his parents’ marriage. It was why his dad was watching carefully to see if Holden had reached his own tipping point. And maybe he had. But there was no item on his mental goal list beyond becoming lead agent for the president, and he was so close he could taste it. Every task he’d given himself since he was seven years old had led here. To this objective. To a life of honor and service.
As he got into the metallic-blue 1968 Pontiac Firebird he and his dad had restored when he was barely a teen, Holden debated heading home to his condo near the river. The place would smell stale after being vacant for months, and he wasn’t in the mood to clean it. He needed someone to interrupt his solitude so he wouldn’t wallow in thoughts of things that would never be.
So, as the engine rumbled to life, and he pulled away from the guard station at the entrance to the observatory, he headed over the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge to his parents’ home. He let the schedule he’d had in his brain for the next two weeks―Leya’s schedule and the duty roster―empty, and his stomach tightened. Uncomfortable with the blank spaces, he attempted to fill them. Maybe he’d paint the condo or refinish the scuffed wooden floors.
It was with a strange sense of relief that he pulled into the brick-and-white colonial in Arlington. It had been his parents’ home for the last ten years, allowing his mom to finally see her landscape designs come to fruition―a parklike masterpiece. The mix of plants in the backyard was a bird and butterfly haven, and the enormous, multileveled patio was perfect for the entertaining his dad so enjoyed.
For as long as Holden could remember, their house had been full of his father’s Army, Secret Service, and then National Guard pals—men, women, and their families who served a country that seemed to be falling to its knees these days but was still trying to raise its head proudly. Just like Leya Singh was bringing him to his knees, and he was stubbornly trying to keep himself from falling over completely.
He let himself into the house with his key, and the noise of pots and pans rang down the long hall to greet him. Despite the dark-wood floors and mahogany wainscotting, the space was still light because of the number of oversized windows the house boasted.
“Hello!” he called out.
“Holden?” His mom’s face appeared at the end of the hallway as she wiped her hands on a towel.
A smile burst over her face, echoing in her eyes. Only the faint lines around them and the slight sag to her jawline proved she was over fifty—little details most people wouldn’t notice, assuming she was much younger. Her dark hair was still thick and full without a hint of gray, and she was fit and tall with hazel eyes that typically showed humor more than any other emotion.
“Come give me a hug!” she demanded.
“Let me put my piece away,” he said.
She nodded, retreating to the kitchen.
He slipped off his dress shoes and suit jacket before going into his dad’s study where he added his Glock to the stack of weapons in the gun safe. The house was filled with the smells of his childhood, and when he found his mom in the kitchen, it was to find her adding shrimp to a pot of fideuà. The distinct saffron and fish stock aromas comforted him in a way nothing had all day.
He squeezed his mom’s shoulders, and she draped her arm around his waist and hugged him back.
“Looks like I made it home just in time,” he said. He kissed her temple and stepped away, asking, “Dad home?”
“Outside, putting together my new pizza oven.”
Holden smiled for the first time in probably days, the muscles groaning from lack of use. “How long are you going to keep this one?”
She swatted him with the towel she’d had resting over her shoulder.
“I can’t help it if the others were shit.”
“Wow, cussing and everything. You must be serious.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Go tell your dad dinner will be ready in about ten minutes.” He headed for the French doors as she added, “And then you can tell us what’s eating at you enough to bring you out to Arlington.”
He didn’t respond. He’d never understand how he could be in his mom’s presence mere minutes, and she’d know exactly what he was feeling. A maternal instinct, he supposed, or just thirty-four years of living with his father who also kept his emotions buried for his job.
As Holden stepped out onto the wooden deck, the warm, heavy air hit him. It was early enough in September that summer hadn’t let go yet, and the humidity was clinging to the sky even though the sun had fallen below the horizon.
His dad looked up from a large stone contraption where he was using an Allen wrench to tighten a bolt. The strings of fairy lights hanging on the latticework above the deck barely broke through the darkness, but it was enough to show the smile that hit his dad’s face at the sight of him.
“Holden! This is a surprise!”
Holden rolled up his sleeves as he joined him. “How many ovens has she actually gone through?”
“I think this is the fifth one, but she swears it’s the last,” he said with a chuckle.
Even in jeans and a T-shirt he rarely wore, his dad still had a military aura to him. It wasn’t just that he kept himself in shape, unlike some of his peers. It was a strength and power that emanated from him. Or maybe it was just the hair shaved so short you could barely notice the white that had crept into the light brown.
“Grab us a couple of beers,” his dad said, waving to the mini fridge set in the outdoor kitchen.
“Mom says dinner is almost ready.”
“Damn. I was almost done,” his dad replied.
Holden pulled out two local IPAs as his dad rose from his work to join him. In general, Holden didn’t drink, only a beer on the rare occasion, but he felt the need for one tonight. He needed to steady nerves that had been shaken by a dark-haired beauty and an almost kiss he couldn’t burn from his brain.
They popped the tops and snapped the lids with identical movements into the open garbage can. They took a swig, and then his dad’s eyes settled on him.
“How long will you be in D.C.?”
“Most likely till the end of the month, but I’m taking a couple of weeks off.”
His dad’s hand paused with the beer bottle a few inches from his mouth, taking him in, brows frowning.
“What the hell you going to do with time off?”
His dad wasn’t asking because he expected Holden to be the job. He was asking because, like his mom, he knew the only reason he’d take a vacation was if something had forced it. Something pushing him to walk away. It wasn’t like he had a girlfriend he was running home to or a pile of friends waiting to head to the beach with him.
He’d given all those things up for the dream he was living.
And he hadn’t ever cared. Hadn’t ever looked back.
When he didn’t respond, the frown on his dad’s face grew, and he demanded, “Want to tell me what’s really eating at you?”
He wasn’t sure he could. Wasn’t sure he even knew the whole truth of it himself—not in any way he wanted to admit. But he was saved from responding by his mom popping her head out. “Dinner, gentleman. Before it gets cold.”
They headed into the house where his mom had placed a colorful platter in the middle of a walnut table that had moved around with them for as long as Holden could remember. It had grooves and marks showing its age but was stained and polished as if it were brand new.
The three of them dished up in a comfortable silence. One that often settled down whenever his sister wasn’t with them. It was Gia who normally kept the conversation going nonstop. And if she wasn’t filling the house with her voice, there was usually a podcast or music blaring until someone finally hollered at her to turn it off.
“How’s G?” he asked, deflecting from the conversation he didn’t really want to have.
“Still floating around the globe like a waif,” his dad said, the furrow in his brow growing.
“Just because you don’t understand her job, doesn’t mean it’s not a real one,” his mother scolded before turning to him and saying, “She’s in Tennessee at the moment, but she’s been all over the Midwest, doing a study on dude ranches.”
Holden almost choked on the piece of shrimp he’d put in his mouth. “Dude ranches? Like in City Slickers?”
His father’s deep laugh joined his. “You see my confusion. Before that, she was in Colombia, talking about deforestation.”
“She’s an agricultural journalist,” his mom retorted. “She may not be saving the world with guns like you two yahoos, but she is trying to make sure we have one to save.”
That put both Holden and his dad in their place. He hated to think about his beautiful little sister traveling around the world to some pretty unsavory locations, all in the name of journalism, so he chose not to think about it at all.
“You still on Leya Singh’s detail?” his dad asked.
He nodded, shoveling food into his mouth so he didn’t have to respond right away.
“I heard that sniveling weasel of a man heading up For Greater Tomorrows is about to announce his candidacy for president,” his dad said.
For the second time in mere seconds, Holden nearly choked. He grabbed a swig of beer, and then looked at his father with narrowed eyes. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Meeting at the Pentagon. Smythe’s been schmoozing military leaders to gain their support.”
Jesus. Holden shouldn’t have taken time off. He thought back to the images Camp had sent to the detail today of the Singhs coming and going from the residence and the white-supremacist, racist comments that had come with them. The USSS couldn’t tie them to John Smythe and FGT directly, but Holden hadn’t spent two years on the FGT case in Nevada without knowing what the man was capable of. His fingers itched to pick up the phone and call Ardell to check in on Leya.
Would he ever forgive himself if he wasn’t there when something went down?
He already had a list of things he felt responsible for, including Landry Kim’s death and Paisley Kim’s attack.
“Anyone actually falling for his act?” Holden asked.
“Unfortunately, you’d be surprised.”
It turned Holden’s stomach. If that man was in charge of the country, they’d become another Nazi state. Holden was damn sure he’d never step in to take a bullet for the man. He’d lose his career. Having a man like that in charge was the only thing that would ever make him walk away from the Secret Service.
“He say anything directly against the vice president?” Holden asked.
His dad raised a brow at the ridiculousness of his question.
It had been absurd, but there was something eating at Holden about the pictures and the timing of Smythe’s latest news. Something he couldn’t put his finger on. Something that made him itch to get back to work.
As if reading his mind, his father asked, “You going to re-up for her detail next month?”
Yes was the instant response that came to him, born of years of wanting this, but then he remembered what had him calling Camp and making the journey over the river to his parents’ place. The almost kiss.
Could he get a different assignment if he walked away from this one? Would it be a better one or a worse one? He’d been on Leya’s detail for over two years. He’d joined her right before the Democratic convention, been with her in the dark months after Landry’s murder, and had trailed after her to D.C. once Matherton and her father had won the election. He’d stood by as she mourned her friend and supported her family with a grace not many had, especially not in their twenties. He’d tagged after her as she went from her art studio in Truxton Circle to the bars and clubs of D.C. It had been painful to watch her bright light as it flickered, sometimes going out when she cried, sometimes shining so radiantly it was nearly blinding when she laughed and danced and sang.
It had always been easier to stay put, watching from the sidelines, when she was blinding, because he’d been less tempted to wrap his arms around her and provide comfort. Less tempted to kiss away the tears traveling down her heart-shaped face. She hadn’t cried today. Her deep-brown eyes had been dry, but her light had still flickered. It had snagged at him as it had every time he’d seen it happen.
“Is it getting to you?” his dad asked. “The lifestyle?”
The unspoken reminder of the threats the Secret Service life had brought to his parents’ marriage hung in the air. His father had once told Holden it was the hardest job he’d ever done, and that was no little thing. Not when his dad had spent his entire life in one form of the military or the other and was now serving as vice chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“It’s not the same for me as it was for you,” Holden replied. “I’m not married with little kids at home.”
His dad raised a brow, knowing he’d evaded the real question. But his mom just sighed, “You’ll never be married with little kids at home if you continue this way. Which means no grandchildren for me to spoil.”
“Vera,” his dad said, the warning clear. His parents had always let Holden and his sister make their own decisions about their careers and love lives. If either he or Gia asked them for advice, they gave it, but they never forced any expectations on them. Mentioning grandkids was probably the closest his mom had ever gotten to saying she wanted something different for him.
He’d let Gia pick up that mantle. A wife and kids did not fit with his life goals.
Neither did an almost kiss with a certain rock star.
“I’m getting too attached,” Holden finally breathed out. His eyes met his dad’s, and he knew his father understood what he was saying. Living and breathing someone else’s life meant you knew more about them than you did anyone else on earth. You saw every emotion. You felt every emotion. And yet, your job was to be perfectly detached, stay alert, assess each possible scenario that could hurt your protectee, and stop the threat before it ever materialized.
“Damn hard not to after two years,” his dad said.
“You were with Gore for two and Bush for one. Did you get too attached?” Holden asked.
“I wasn’t the lead agent on either of those details. They knew me, and I knew them, but I rotated out with the rest of the team. I wasn’t living their lives like you’re living hers,” his dad said, pausing. “And neither of them was as beautiful as she is.”
“Howie,” his mom tsked, but then she looked at Holden curiously. “Is that it? Are you attracted to her?”
There was no judgment in his mom’s tone, just curiosity.
“No,” he said, another automatic response, but he wondered if his parents could see through the lie. If they ever happened to end up in the same room as him and Leya, he was sure they’d see how every single cell in his body seemed drawn to hers. He could find her in a crowded space in mere seconds. He’d found her today on the tire swing without even looking up her phone’s location. It felt wrong. And right. And the right was what bothered him the most.
Performed by Hailee Steinfeld
Even without the circle of dark-suited men and women, the customers in the restaurant would have recognized Leya and Lincoln as soon as they walked in. They were both on the front pages of the tabloids enough. Even if his dad’s presidency hadn’t brought him into the spotlight, Lincoln’s art and his brooding good looks would have.
His dark hair was on the long side, flopping over his brows and curling below his ears in waves that looked messy and manicured all at the same time. He had his father’s blue eyes and silvery aura, and if his dad had once been compared to a younger Mark Harmon, Lincoln could have been the man’s twin at twenty-six. Narrow nose, sharp cheekbones, and a penetrating gaze that made you feel truly seen. Lincoln attracted human beings to him like vultures to a carcass.
Their detail tucked them into a corner booth with miles of empty tables between them and the next guest in an attempt to keep the dog-and-pony show at bay. The last thing Lincoln needed was someone overhearing their conversation and spilling more truths about him. The rumors were bad enough, varying from him being a sex addict to a drug addict, both of which were pretty much the opposite of the real man. Lincoln was almost as square as you could get.
Even when they’d danced their way through a number of clubs the year after their fathers’ inauguration, he’d rarely drank. There’d only been one flukey incident that still bothered her. Instead, they’d spent hours drowning themselves in the movement of their bodies song after song. She’d been trying to forget the loss of Landry. He’d been trying to forget the loss of his girlfriend. They’d been perfect for each other in a best-friends kind of way. And yet, for some reason, it had rarely been her who’d ended up on the front pages when they were together.
Well, maybe that wasn’t surprising. As a highly attractive, White male, he was much more interesting to the average viewer than the daughter of the Indian vice president. The only people interested in her were the hate groups who labeled her family foreign insurrectionists, no matter that her ancestors had been living in the U.S. for over a hundred years.
Once they were settled in the corner of the restaurant and had ordered their meal, Lincoln finally asked, “Want to tell me what’s wrong? Has to be something pretty grim if you sought me out instead of unburdening yourself to one of the Daisies.”
Leya had wanted to talk to Nikki, who was always the calmest one in the band. But if she told Nikki, she’d have to tell the others. Adria and Fiadh would have very strong opinions they wouldn’t keep to themselves, and Paisley had enough on her plate from stepping into Landry’s shoes. Leya didn’t need to add the potential of her leaving the band when the tour was up to her burdens.
Just the thought of leaving was enough to make her queasy.
“Krish wants to get married next year,” Leya breathed out.
“I thought you were happy to be engaged to him,” Lincoln said with a frown.
“Not formally engaged. More like…promised to be. As in, everyone agreed to it,” she said, twirling the new silver bracelet that had joined the others on her wrist. She stared at it a moment, finger sliding over the dragonfly charm. It was a little thicker than her other ones, not quite her style, but it had been an early birthday present from Adria. She’d barely had time to slide it on before the car had come to bring her to dinner, let alone call her and thank her for it yet.
“You make it sound like a business deal.” He frowned, concern wafting over him, shifting his silver aura around him like a cloud. It was the same concern he’d had when she’d first told him Krish would be attending the inauguration ball with her.
Leya had liked the way she and Krish had looked together that night as much as she’d liked the pride in her parents’ eyes seeing them as a couple. Krish’s black tuxedo had been the perfect offset to her burnt-orange dress with piles of silk organza. He’d looked so handsome in it. His medium-brown skin and deep-brown eyes were almost glowing, his full lips turned up in a smile. But it was those attractive lips that had ended up causing them all sorts of problems when they’d completely covered hers later that night.
She shuddered. The kiss had not gone as Krish had planned. Or her.
“Are you being forced to marry him?” Lincoln asked when she hadn’t responded, and his response immediately irked her.
“How could you even ask that? After all my mom and I do for Marriage by Choice?” He held his hands up in defense, but she stormed on. “Arranged marriages don’t equate to forced marriages, or child brides, or any of those evil things that happen. My mom and I work really hard to put an end to those. Arranged marriages are just a beautiful way of families helping two people find the person they were supposed to be with all along. I’m grateful my family encouraged Krish and me to get to know each other. I could have wasted years of my life trying to find my soulmate and getting sidetracked by desire that I mistook for love.”
Her words settled down between them, and he wasn’t even upset by her vehemence. He just took her hand, playing with her bangles, and asked, “Then, why are we out having this discussion?”
All of her bluster disappeared.
“I’m not ready…to give it all up,” she croaked. “The band. The things that make me who I am.”
His brows raised in surprise. “They want you to give up the band?”
“It would be kind of hard to be at Krish’s side as he’s appointed to the appellate court if I’m prancing around the world onstage.”
Lincoln’s jaw clenched, and then he said softly, “They can’t expect you to stop being you, Ley. That isn’t a way to start a marriage or a life together.”
“There’s more to me than the band,” she said, heart clenching because she loved her music. Loved recording and touring together with the Daisies. Loved being part of something with people who often understood her drives and dreams better than her own family did. She’d long accepted she’d never be out there saving the world like her parents or her brother, but it didn’t mean she could just walk away without it tearing at her soul.
He nodded. “Would your art be enough to fulfill you?”
He’d been one of the first people outside her family she’d ever shared her art with. Black-and-white images she’d drawn with fluid and round strokes only to add a singular color at the last moment. Sometimes the color was just a flash, barely noticeable, sometimes loud and standing out, calling attention to itself. Lincoln had even modeled for her once, and she’d captured the curve of his jaw by running her hand over it with eyes closed, letting her fingers do the work. It was how she drew almost everything around her, using all her senses except the one the world expected an artist to use.
Her art gave her comfort. She craved it, but she also craved playing her baby sitar onstage. It was confusing, and she didn’t have an answer for him.
To her surprise, he spoke for her. “You should be able to have both. One doesn’t preclude the other. Being someone’s wife shouldn’t either. Someone who loves you wouldn’t want you to stop.”
He was right. And he was wrong. Being in a marriage meant sacrifices. Krish would make them as well. They’d make them together. It was just harder for her to see what Krish would be giving up at the moment, which wasn’t his fault. She’d barely talked with him in months. A rare text here and there because the tension had never gone away since that stupid kiss.
“It’s getting hard to convince everyone that the band is still worth my time. Especially with the attack on Paisley coming so soon after we got back together, and then Fee…” Leya trailed off, swallowing back the emotions that threatened to overtake her. No one was supposed to know about Fee. The media had swarmed around them after Paisley’s assault. Her attacker was behind bars, but it had done nothing to shake loose Landry’s killer like they’d thought it would. Just like it had done nothing to help them find Adria’s missing sister. And Fiadh… Fee had looked even worse than Paisley after what had happened to her. She had a scar along her collarbone that would be there forever. Leya shivered even thinking about it.
“What happened to Fiadh?” Lincoln’s brows drew together.
“Not supposed to talk about it. You know she’s with Asher Riggs now, right?”
Lincoln nodded. “Think I caught wind of it, but it’s not like I scan the internet every day for news about the Daisies.”
It was a tease, trying to lighten her mood in a way Lincoln was good at doing.
“Someone came for him in revenge and hurt Fee instead. We kept it on the down-low because it was the last thing we needed the media to hear…another Daisy attacked. Everyone would think we were making it up for attention. Like a soap opera or a twisted episode of Crime Patrol.”
Lincoln squeezed her hand again. “That’s a lot to have had to handle, Ley.”
“Which is exactly why I’m here. I don’t want to think about it for a few hours,” she said. “I want to dance and forget everything.”
A flash went off at the perimeter the USSS had set, and one of the agents stepped toward the man wielding a camera. A whispered conversation took place, and the man stepped away, clearly unhappy.
“Your girlfriend isn’t going to like it if that ends up on the internet,” Leya teased, knowing he hated what was being bandied about in the press lately.
“Felicity Bradshaw is beautiful but not my type. She’s the worst kind of spoiled,” Lincoln groused, blue eyes flickering with something like annoyance.
“How much time did you spend with her before you figured that out?” Leya pushed her shoulder against his, trying to lighten his mood.
He sighed. “Supposedly, she wanted to commission a piece of art.”
“She actually just wanted to commission me.”
Leya laughed, her heavy heart getting momentarily lighter.
“Still want to go dancing?” he asked.
She nodded. She did. She yearned to burn off some of this tension and anxiety. To let go and just feel the beat running through her. Lincoln raised his hand for the check.
Outside, their agents led them out the back door to a waiting SUV. Here in D.C., she never had her private security team from Reinard with her. It was always the USSS. Except, tonight, there was one missing. The one who’d been absent ever since she’d almost kissed him on the lawn at the residence.
It was her fault he wasn’t there, and she regretted it. Not only because she’d made him uncomfortable but because she always felt naked without him there. As if he was the only one who could truly see danger coming her way. She pulled her phone out of the tiny clutch she’d brought with her, almost texting him, and then shoved it back away.
She’d been impulsive earlier―just like her mother always claimed her to be―but she wouldn’t give into it again. She knew how absurd and irrational the need to have him near her was, but she also knew no one—not Krish with his dark, perfect good looks or Lincoln with his dynamic personality—made her feel the way one somber, disapproving agent did. And she didn’t know how to merge that knowledge with her beliefs about jeevansathi, arranged marriages, and the star charts her aunties pored over to ensure she and Krish were the perfect match.
And on paper, they were. Even more, their families were a perfect blend. They fit.
But still, something inside her flinched.
Maybe that, more than anything, was what had driven her out dancing tonight. To escape from feelings she knew she shouldn’t have. Lust that would never be love and yet was somehow disrupting her world and causing her to question the decision she’d made ages ago.
When they got to EchoBar, their agents circled around them as they moved through the cavernous warehouse. The crowd was thick, moving in wild flickers to the electronic dance beats as lasers shifted across the glass- and neon-filled club.
Holden had said places like this were an agent’s worst nightmare. Crowded and dark. Loud and distracting. But for her and Lincoln, they were a place they could lose themselves in anonymity. Just one of the many bodies bouncing and twisting on the slab floor while their agents looked on from the sidelines, trying to blend in.
She felt a tiny stab of guilt at putting their details through it, but once Lincoln’s face morphed into a stunning smile, the guilt faded. They needed this release. They needed to let go of some of the enormous pressure they lived under. Leya returned his smile with one of her own, lifted her arms in the air, and let the tangle of silver, leather, and beads she wore on her wrists slide around as they danced. Let the ghunghroo on the hoop earrings that had once been Nani’s jingle in her ears, aware of the vibration more than the noise as the tingling notes got lost in the music blaring from the speakers.
She was in a black halter dress that started at her clavicle and ended mid-thigh. The silk slid across her as she swayed, adding another layer of sensations to the almost overstimulating amount of them filling the room―the heady scent of bodies and sweat and alcohol combining with the pulsing sights and sounds. Lincoln’s hands on her waist were warm and comforting as he pulled her to him, joining their hips. Their movements became as smooth and fluid as her art. She wished she had a canvas. She wished she could spread dark ink over white while she moved amongst the colored lasers. She’d use bright pink to show how it stood out against the shadowy blue tones of the packed club.
As they danced, once in a while, someone would recognize them, their eyes growing wide, scanning them, and then trying to whisper to their companions even though talk was impossible. She knew what they would be saying. Knew what she and Lincoln looked like tangled together. They looked like a couple. They looked like people who would end up twisted in sweaty sheets by the end of the evening, but Lincoln’s heart still belonged to another woman. Hers…hadn’t been claimed yet. Hadn’t been won by Krish, even if the star charts said he was the one for her.
Sometimes, she was worried the lack of sexual attraction she felt for anyone of any gender meant her heart would forever be frozen. Maybe she’d never have what her parents or grandparents or even Rishik and Devleena had. But then, blue eyes a much lighter color than Lincoln’s flashed in her mind. Blue ones, not dark brown. Not Krish’s. Eyes that tossed those thoughts of not being attracted to anyone right in her face.
But she couldn’t have him. Not just because of who he was and his job, but because he would never fit in her world. Their star charts would be laughable. Their families would collide brutally instead of sliding harmoniously together.
Lust wasn’t love. It was a flickering light that disappeared in an instant. A firework versus an eternal flame.
Lincoln’s hand pulled her tighter, and she forced her thoughts aside, concentrating only on the sensations of her body aligned to his. One dance melded into the next. Faster, slower, ever-changing. Bodies colliding. She forgot everything but the rhythm shimming up her legs as the bass bounced along the cement floor. She lost herself to the voices and the beats the DJ scraped together one after the other.
She would have kept going for hours if the DJ hadn’t announced a break, and the lights hadn’t raised a notch so people could make their way to the bar, the bathroom, or one of the tables pushed around the rim of the room. Lincoln grabbed her hand, pulling her toward a vacant spot along a wall near the archway to the restrooms. Neither of them asked, but one of the agents thrust sealed water bottles in their direction. The last thing the detail needed was for one, or both of them, to pass out from dehydration.
The crush had moved from the dance floor to the perimeter as the crowd waited for the music to begin again. There was barely room for them to stand. Lincoln had his arm above her head on the wall, and they were tucked close together as they drank with their agents almost pressed into them.
Lincoln, Leya, and a half dozen USSS agents turned their heads in the direction of the female voice. The woman stutter-stepped under the intense gaze of their entourage, and even in the semi-dark, it was as if her face paled. She gave a little chagrinned smile and a wave. Leya squinted her eyes, trying to place her while also admiring the guts she had to talk to them amidst a sea of agents.
“Hey, Astrid,” Lincoln said with a chin nod.
An agent who’d placed himself between them and Astrid shifted sideways, catching Lincoln’s eye before getting some unspoken approval from Lincoln to let her into their circle. She seemed to be a little younger than Leya and was as White as you could get. Light-blonde hair, pale-blue eyes, pale skin that was like flawless porcelain. She was short, maybe five foot four at most, with curves that were just the perfect amount. Leya doubted she had to fight them like Leya did hers.
Astrid smiled as she came closer, and her aura flickered, changing from pink to a vivid red. Whereas Leya and Lincoln were covered in sweat from dancing, this woman looked as if she’d just stepped from an icebox. Her blue silk tank was completely dry, and the A-line skirt that ended just above her knees made it seem like she’d simply shed her suit jacket and entered the club as many of their agents had. She, somehow, looked simultaneously out of place at EchoBar and also as if she could fit in anywhere.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” Astrid said, eyes darting from Lincoln to Leya. “I thought you gave up the club scene.”
“Just hanging with a friend,” he said, eyes shifting to Leya. “You remember Leya Singh? Leya, Astrid works for D.C. Avenue Writers.”
It clicked as soon as he said it. She was one of the speechwriters who’d worked for the company her father and Guy Matherton had used for at least a decade. Even though the president and vice president now had speechwriters on staff, they still used the company for one-off items the families needed. Leya and Lincoln had both used the company multiple times, and they’d even helped Leya with what to say to the press after Landry’s death.
“Of course. Nice to see you again,” Leya said, sticking out her hand.
“Sorry, I’m all sweaty,” Astrid said, rubbing her hand along her skirt.
An awkwardness settled down between them.
“Last time I saw you at―was it the Landing?—you said you were giving up the club scene, too,” Lincoln teased, and the woman preened under his gaze.
“Like you, just here for a friend,” she said, and her eyes drifted out into the crowd and then back. “I guess I should head back to them…unless…you’d like to….”
She trailed off, cheeks flaring with embarrassment. It was sweet and endearing.
“Sorry, we were just heading out,” Lincoln said. “We’ve got ice cream calling our names.”
It wasn’t the truth. Leya was ready to dance for another hour or two, but she’d never say that now. Not when Lincoln had used their code word they’d been using since their first foray into the D.C. nightlife.
He pulled Leya’s hand back into his, tugging her up tighter into his chest. It looked possessive. The way a man held his girlfriend. Like she’d seen Fee’s and Paisley’s partners hold them. Astrid’s eyes went wide, but she stepped away.
“Of course. Enjoy your evening. Let me know if you need any help with your next charity speech.” She turned, stepped into the crowd with her blonde hair shimmering under the lights, and disappeared.
Their detail led them back to the SUVs parked right outside the club. Leya could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the men and women who piled in around them. She felt another twinge of regret for making their jobs even momentarily harder. She wished she didn’t need them at all. But her life would always require it—now more than ever—after everything the Daisies had been through, with Landry’s killer still out there somewhere, and with FGT coming at her family even harder.
Her stomach fell as it always did at thoughts of Landry. She closed her eyes, resting her head on the headrest.
“Sorry, Ley,” Lincoln said. “I know you needed to burn off some energy.”
“Don’t be,” she replied. “I’m sorry I dragged you out when Astrid’s right—you’ve been trying to avoid the clubs.”
“It felt good to dance again.” He bumped her shoulder. “I think we both needed a night off.”
She smiled, but the full weight of all the decisions she had to make and everything that had happened to her and her friends over the last few months had already settled back onto her shoulders. The escape had been too brief. Too little. As if a mountain was still looming over her, waiting to crush her.
STORY OF MY LIFE
Performed by Bon Jovi
After dinner with his parents, Holden drove back into D.C. and spent a few hours cleaning the dust and staleness from his condominium. The space wasn’t very big with a loft that barely fit his king-sized bed, a tiny kitchen with a counter that could only accommodate two barstools, and a living area he’d squished a couch and a seventy-five-inch television into. The couch was black leather, the stools carved wrought iron, and the wall exposed brick, which made the condo feel modern and hip in a way Holden wasn’t but still loved. Or maybe, he simply loved the fact that he’d bought the place on his own at such a young age in a city not known for its cheap real estate.
He landed on the couch at nearly midnight in sweats and a worn Wilson-Jacobs T-shirt from his college years, flipping through the channels aimlessly. What was he going to do for two weeks? He eyed the beat-up wood floors that he’d been meaning to refinish. He could head to the hardware store tomorrow and pick up what he needed, but as small as his place was, it would only take a couple of days to complete the task.
Maybe he’d actually take a damn vacation. But where to? And with whom? He literally had no one to call to take a trip with him. His stomach tightened uncomfortably at that thought before he pushed it away. He had his family and the life he’d wanted since he was a kid. The life he had no intention of giving up so his mom could have a grandchild or so he had someone to take a random vacation with.
Besides, he didn’t need someone to go with him. He pulled up a bargain vacation site on his phone, searching for an island getaway where he could run on the beach, swim in the ocean, and maybe find a body to get tangled up in for a night or two. Maybe that was what he really needed. Just to get laid. It had been too long. The cravings he felt were likely a symptom of that more than anything.
His fingers hovered over the buy button.
His dad’s voice came back to him. Smythe had decided to run for office just as the pictures of the Singhs had amplified. Holden and everyone else at the USSS knew that FGT was behind those pictures. The wording on them was too similar to the verbiage on their website. Analysts, with profiling skills better than Holden’s mere master’s degree had given him, said the images were almost a straight arrow back to Smythe. But it was all circumstantial.
If FGT ramped up even more and something happened to Leya while he was on some damn unnecessary vacation, what would he do? He’d never forgive himself. It was ridiculous because he wasn’t the only agent capable of protecting her. He may have been the only one with her for months now, but he didn’t have to be. There was an entire team ready to dive in, just like they had tonight, and he respected his peers with the same fierceness he respected his dad. Leya was in good hands.
Lincoln Matherton’s hands, some primal part of him growled.
Holden’s stomach flipped again, thinking of her and the president’s son twined together on the dance floor with her curves fitting into Lincoln’s muscled torso. Her dark eyes would be shimmering, and her long hair, with all its ranges of brown and black, would be dancing around bare shoulders in a dress short enough to expose her long legs. Legs he’d often dreamed of being wrapped around his waist.
He rubbed his hand over his face. Jesus, he really did have it bad. Having mindless sex with someone who would understand it was just a one-night thing shifted up in priority. He should get dressed, head out to a local bar, feign a drink, and take the edge off this wild need that was building instead of fading.
And yet, he didn’t move.
He just continued to flick through the channels, letting his mind fill with the things he knew about For Greater Tomorrows. He’d spent three years in Las Vegas, straight out of training, working shoulder to shoulder with other agents on a money-laundering case against the original version of FGT. They’d just hit paydirt, enough to shut them down, when John Smythe had closed up the fake charity all on his own. Then, he’d turned around and reopened shop under a new, slightly different name in Alabama, requiring the USSS’s entire case to be restarted.
Holden hadn’t been part of rebuilding it because he’d been sent on his first protective assignment. He’d gone back to college to spend a year with the former president’s daughter at Bonin University. The USSS team in Virginia had been tiny, and the hours had been long. Hours he’d spent learning every single thing he could from the older agents, filing away the details for when he had his own team.
But it had been his experience with For Greater Tomorrows that had put him on the D.C. field office’s radar for the Singhs. His firsthand knowledge of FGT and the area around Grand Orchard had his bosses sending him to protect Leya in his grandparents’ hometown.
He'd done a piss-poor job of it. While she’d been safe, her friend had been murdered, and he wasn’t the only USSS agent to think Leya had been the intended target. Maybe that, more than anything, was the reason Landry Kim’s unsolved death ate at him so much. Or maybe it was the way Leya’s eyes burned with tears and guilt every time her friend was mentioned, because she was burdened with the same notions. He wished he could ease them both of that weight.
Tomorrow, he’d go through all the information every agency had gathered on Landry’s death. See if he could shake something loose while his mind wasn’t full of Leya and her schedule. He shot off a text to Marco Hernandez with Garner Security, who’d been tasked by the band’s label owner, Asher Riggs, to conduct his own investigation of the murder. After the attack on Fee earlier this year, the team had learned that the mystery man in the orchard on the day Landry died was one Angel Carter. But just as they’d made the discovery, Carter had disappeared again.
It was with a sense of relief, that his mind filled with tasks again. He’d spend the next two weeks hunting Carter down. That was more important than some stupid beach vacation. Having made the decision, his body started to relax. His eyes drifted shut as a rerun of West Wing played in the background, and he knew he should get up and move to his bed, but instead, he let sleep drag him under right where he was at.
His work phone ringing jarred him back to consciousness, and his neck screamed from the awkward position he’d been in for too many hours. For the first time in his career, he almost let it go to voicemail and then hated himself for even considering it.
He answered in a voice raspy with sleep, “Kent.”
“FGT sent another note.” Camp’s voice was equally sleep-ridden at five in the morning.
“Is it the same old crap?” Holden asked. His stomach tightened as if he’d done a hundred sit-ups in a minute instead of the fifty that had given him his excellent rating during training.
“This one targeted Leya specifically.”
His heart squeezed, and his stomach did another series of crunches as Holden sat straight up, hand going through the short bristles of his hair. It was longer than he liked these days because he hadn’t found time to get it cut while on tour with the band.
“What did it say?”
“Leya’s asking for you,” Camp said, ignoring his question. “Go assess the situation. Tell us what we’re missing.”
“Yes, sir.” The phone went dead, and his blood slammed through his veins as he jogged toward the bathroom.
Fuck. Leya had been threatened, and he hadn’t been there. It was his worst nightmare. She’d be scared, her band members would be worried, her family would circle in closer, and she’d need the lead agent on her detail at her side. The person she relied on the most. The person she begged to come get her when things went haywire.
And he’d taken a damn vacation.
What had he been thinking?
Holden showered, put on his suit, fastened his USSS pin on the lapel, and was out the door with his Glock at his waist and his all-purpose utility knife in his pocket in less than ten minutes. His mind kept going back to Leya, imagining the shock in her eyes―the fear. He’d seen it too many times since he’d been on her detail.
While it had been her mom who’d swept Leya up into her arms when he’d delivered the news about Landry’s murder, there’d been no one but him to keep her from collapsing when he’d told her about Paisley’s attack. She’d leaned into him, holding on desperately while quiet tears dripped down her face. And then, she’d pulled herself together, demanding to see her friend with anger overriding her fear. He’d been there to see the same combination of emotions take over when they’d learned about Fiadh’s situation just months ago.
He admired Leya’s strength. All of the Daisies’. He’d promised he wouldn’t let anything happen to her or them again, and he’d meant it. But how could he do that with FGT out there? How could he do it with Landry’s murderer running free? He slammed his hand against the steering wheel, frustration and anger brewing.
The ride to the residence felt like it took twice as long as it should have, and as he inched closer, all he could see in his mind was Leya’s wide eyes, frightened and sad, looking for him. And he wasn’t there. It felt like something inside him had cracked. As if the glass wall he stood behind was splintering, brittle boundaries trying to tumble down, while he frantically tried to fill it with adhesive.
The holdup at the guard station irritated him when normally it reassured him. Once he’d parked his car, he strode purposefully into the command post, signed in, picked up a two-way mic, and caught an update from Ardell.
“Family’s in the den,” Ardell said, straightening her impeccable black suit.
“Where was the note found?” Holden asked.
“In a copy of The Exhibitor delivered in the morning packet.”
The packet was a sea of newspapers and magazines brought to the residence for the vice president each day. It seemed old school when every single one of them was available digitally, but Ved Singh said he wanted to feel it while he absorbed it. The note being placed there meant it had been done so by someone who knew his routine.
Holden barely stopped himself from asking Ardell how Leya was doing. Instead, he bit his cheek and headed toward the residence. Inside, the home was as stately as the outside. Plenty of crown molding, white wainscotting, and beautifully maintained dark wood floors. The last time it had been redone, the decorator had used classic early-American pieces, plenty of gold-and-cream wallpaper, and heavily patterned furniture. The Singhs had done very little to it, except for the addition of a small shrine for the family and their staff to use for their daily prayers.
He took the stairs two at a time. Normally, the detail was almost invisible at the residence, but today, there were agents everywhere, including one outside the door to the den.
Holden didn’t recognize the man, but he obviously knew Holden as he simply stepped aside to let him into the room. Even though the other occupants held a much more commanding presence, it was Leya who Holden took in first. Dressed in leggings and an oversized yellow tunic, she was curled into an armchair, as if trying to shrivel up. Her thick hair was piled on top of her head, and her slender neck seemed as if it would collapse under the weight.
When his gaze met hers, he saw a million emotions swimming in them. Anger. Fear. Frustration. Sadness. Her look flitted over him, shoulders sagging ever so slightly, as if in relief, and it sent a spiral of feelings through Holden he couldn’t afford. Her look lingered on his lips, and the almost kiss filled the space between them again until he forced himself to turn toward the others in the room.
The vice president was standing at a side table, a delicate china coffee cup in his hand. He was a large, broad-shouldered man with an aristocratic nose, thick black hair, heavy brows, and medium-brown skin. Leya had gotten very few of her features from him, looking like her mother instead.
Zaira Singh was on the couch with her own cup in hand. She was tall and curvy with much lighter brown skin than her husband. She had the same straight, thick brows of her daughter and the same arched curves to her eyes, but she’d long ago cut her wavy hair into an elegant, tapered bob that swung around her heart-shaped face. Nearing sixty, she didn’t look it. She had an intelligence to her gaze and a steadiness to her hands that served her well in her practice. She was a respected neurosurgeon, but she rarely performed surgery anymore, leaving the day-to-day to her son to manage now.
“Kent,” Special Agent Sommerson, lead agent on Ved Singh’s detail, greeted him with a clipped tone, drawing Holden’s eyes. Sommerson’s navy suit fit him like a glove, and his crisp white shirt stood out against skin so dark it was nearly black. The man’s entire muscled frame was quivering with restrained anger.
“What do we know?” Holden asked.
Sommerson waved a paper evidence bag in his direction. Holden crossed the room to take it from him. He used a glove Sommerson offered to pull the note out and read it. His stomach and chest churned violently.
Your inferior bloodline makes you unfit to even be seen with Lincoln Matherton. For Greater Tomorrows will not allow you to spread your impure genes by aligning yourself with the president’s son. If we see Leya Singh with Lincoln again, there will be dire consequences for the entire Singh family.
Holden’s head jerked up, but Leya wouldn’t meet his gaze. Instead, she looked down, fidgeting with the hem of her bright top. What had happened with her and Lincoln the night before? Those thoughts made him almost as nauseated as the note itself.
“It came inside a copy of The Exhibitor?” he asked Sommerson.
With a gloved hand, Sommerson drew the morning edition of the tabloid from another evidence bag, and Holden took it. While it wasn’t quite known for spouting alien babies, The Exhibitor did spread celebrity gossip like it was truth instead of supposition. Holden was surprised it was even in the vice president’s stack of magazines. But then again, it was probably the way his staff kept tabs on any rumors about Leya and The Painted Daisies.
Today, the cover of the magazine held an image of Leya and Lincoln clearly taken at EchoBar. The bluish hue of the club’s dim lights was streaked with a pink laser that cut across Leya’s skin. She was tucked up against Lincoln, dancing—if you could call it that. Their bodies were aligned at almost every curve with her arms around his neck and his hands spread wide along her back and hips. Her eyes were closed. Lincoln’s weren’t. His were focused directly on Leya’s face, an intensity there that dripped from the page.
The image was worse than anything his mind had conjured up the night before.
Holden’s stomach turned again. It had been pounded into him from an early age, and then again in the USSS training, that words mattered. They created an image of you lasting long after you’d left the room, so he’d always been determined to use ones reflecting who he wanted to be. It meant cussing was a rare part of his vocabulary, and yet, he wanted to string a host of them together, back-to-back, while shredding the damn magazine.
He handed it to Sommerson before he was arrested for destroying evidence.
“Was the article leaked to them on The Exhibitor’s end, or did someone from FGT follow Lincoln and Leya?” Holden asked.
“We don’t know yet,” Sommerson said.
“What do we know?” Holden snapped, and Sommerson’s eyes narrowed.
“We’re tracking the packet backward, every pickup and handoff. We’re also interviewing every member of The Exhibitor staff who was in the office last night.”
“No one at the magazine is going to reveal their source,” Holden grunted out.
Sommerson didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. The Secret Service battled against the freedom of the press regularly. Warrants would be served, and it still wouldn’t get them what they needed.
“You know how I feel about giving in to any terrorist organization, including FGT,” the vice president said, directing his gaze to his daughter huddled in a chair. “But this is an easy enough fix, beta. We just announce your engagement to Krish and put an end to the rumors.”
Leya flinched visibly at her father’s words. “Dad, not this way.”
The words were quiet and respectful, but Holden could also hear the steel beneath them. He wondered if her father could hear it as well. He wondered if she’d decided to not go through with the marriage, and he hated the tiny sliver deep inside him rejoicing at the thought. The piece of him that didn’t want to see her tucked up against any man―Lincoln, Krish, or anyone else. Anyone except him.
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