A painful past
Deke Murphy and Maddie Hill should never have worked as a couple in high school. She was the class valedictorian and he the jock who took nothing seriously … except her. Together they formed an amazing team, and young love blossomed into something that strengthened them both. Until tragedy struck and Deke made a sacrifice that split them up forever.
An unexpected reunion
Seventeen years later, Maddie is living her dream working for a brilliant tech guru in the beauty of Southern California. She’s made a life for herself, and it’s first class all the way. She rarely thinks of the jock who dumped her all those years ago. But when Maddie realizes her boss might be part of an international conspiracy, she can’t deny Deke might be her best bet to solve the mystery. Her one-time sweetheart works for one of the world’s premiere security and investigative firms. She’ll hire him and prove to herself their relationship could never have worked.
A dangerous future
As Maddie and Deke begin to uncover her boss’s secrets, they can’t deny the chemistry that has reignited. But before they can explore the connection growing between them, they must survive the deadly forces hunting them down.
Release date: March 8, 2022
Publisher: DLZ Entertainment, LLC
Print pages: 350
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The Man from Sanctum
Madeline Hill stood outside the upscale apartment building and stared up.
Deke was in that building. He lived right here according to all her research. Fourteenth floor. All she had to do was walk in, find the elevator, search for 14B, and knock on his door. He would open it and she would see him.
Or she could knock and knock and he wouldn’t answer because he was on a date or out with friends or he could see her through the peephole and hide because she hadn’t seen him since she’d left for college.
Weariness battled with adrenaline, and it was making her feel like the world was about to explode. Of course, she was the one who’d pushed that button, so she had no one to blame but herself.
Her cell phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her pocket like it was a lifeline, praying it was her mom or dad or even work. Anything that would give her another fifteen or twenty minutes before she had to explain to Deke why she needed his help.
Before he probably laughed at her and told her to take a hike.
She grimaced at the name. Daniel Gray was her latest experiment in modern-day dating. She’d put herself out there on a dating app specifically made for men and women in high tech and science fields. After a couple of truly awful experiences where dumbass men tried to explain her own field of expertise to her, she’d matched with Dan. He was in biotech and a good listener. Five dates in and he hadn’t even tried to make a move on her. It was comforting. He was easy to be around.
She was totally uninterested in him. She wished she wasn’t, wished he could be the guy who made her heart race, but the chemistry wasn’t there.
She let the call go to voice mail. She wasn’t going to ghost the guy, but it wasn’t a love match.
Would it be if she gave it time? If he’d come into her life before she’d found herself here, standing on the precipice of being near Deke again?
Not that it would matter. They’d made their choices a very long time ago, and she was at peace with the fact that Deke had done her a favor. He’d been right to break it off, and she was grateful to him. Over the last couple of years she’d even gotten to the point that she didn’t think about him every day. Once or twice a year she got wistful about him, but she’d moved on.
This was a mistake. Bringing him back into her life was a huge mistake, and maybe one she couldn’t afford.
A text came over her screen, this one from her boss. Nolan Byrne. He was one of the world’s most successful inventors.
And Maddie was worried he was also a killer. He was the very reason she was standing here.
Thanks for the new reports. Good work on the interface. It looks like we’re on track for launch. Changing the world, baby!
He called everyone baby. Men. Women. His cat. She didn’t read a thing into it. He was a genius, and she’d learned oftentimes genius came with weird habits. Male geniuses were especially likely to indulge their own oddities. The women, well, they were still women, and there were expectations even on the most gifted. She stood on the steps that led to the building and quickly typed her response.
Awesome. I’m super excited about it.
One of the ways to deal with Nolan was to be as over-the-top enthusiastic as he was. She sometimes thought of him as the tech version of Willy Wonka, and the rest of them were Oompa-Loompas just trying to get by while making all the candy and singing all the songs.
I’m excited about meeting your guy and getting into that club. Enjoy your vacay, M. See you back here on Monday. I’ll take your guy to lunch. N signing off!
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. She grimaced and sent off a quick round of smiley face emojis and little suns since she was supposed to be in Sedona on a girls trip this weekend, not visiting her long-lost ex-boyfriend who might be the only person in the world who could get her out of the corner she’d placed herself in.
Why, why, why had she done something this freaking dumb?
She was going to lose her job and if she did, she might never find out what Nolan was up to.
Well, until the world exploded.
Yes, this was something she had to do. It didn’t matter how embarrassing it was going to be. Two people had lost their lives to whatever Nolan was plotting, and she wasn’t about to let more victims get sucked in.
She strode up the steps, forcing her feet to move. She pressed the button on the elevator, got in, and pushed number fourteen. When the doors opened, she strode out even as her heart started to pound.
When she got to his door she heard the sound of laughter coming from inside and hesitated for a moment.
He had people over. The clock was closing in on midnight and he had guests. Probably a girlfriend. She should…
She knocked on the door. She hadn’t come here because she was trying to reignite a flame. She wasn’t here to have fun and catch up. She was here because people’s lives were on the line and Deke was the only person in the world she trusted who had the right skills and connections to help her.
She put a hand on her backpack strap to stop the fine tremble that had come over her.
She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers. In the last eighteen hours she’d been on three different planes in case anyone was following her. She’d had little sleep and was pretty sure her hair was going everywhere.
So different from the polished woman she’d wanted to show him fourteen years before. He was getting the full-on real-world Maddie Hill, and she was a hot mess, but that was okay because she was over him now, truly and fully.
Right? He was probably a hot mess, too.
The door came open and she realized she’d been halfway right in her assessment.
He was hot.
So freaking hot.
Somehow she’d thought he would still be the man Angie had described all those years ago. Broken, tragedy etched on his face. She’d been told he’d gotten better, left the military, found a job in Dallas and was doing well.
He looked like he was fan-freaking-tastic, and she was a mess who had to tell him she was also an idiot who’d done the stupidest thing in her life and she needed him to save her.
That suddenly seemed like a terrible idea, but she didn’t have another one.
He stood in the doorway, staring at her like she was an alien being who’d dropped down from space.
There was nothing else to do but brave her way through and pray he could help her out for old time’s sake. “Hey, Deke.”
He wore a white dress shirt that had probably included a tie at one point. It was unbuttoned at the throat, but the collar was a little wrinkled as if Deke had pulled a tie through it before he’d tossed it aside. Black slacks and dress shoes completed the ensemble. “Hey.”
Well, at least he didn’t slam the door in her face.
She heard someone laugh in the background and glanced up and down the hall. Despite all her subterfuge, she was still a little worried that her boss would figure out she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. She’d made sure her cell would show her in Sedona. She’d left her personal phone in a hotel room she’d rented and then written a code that duped her phone and sent it to the burner she was using. She knew the tech and had carefully researched how to fool anyone who might casually try to figure out where she was.
But if someone was physically following her, she was fucked.
“Can I come in? I’m afraid I’ve got a problem and you’re the only one who can help me.” She prayed he would help her and that he didn’t laugh in her face and send her on her way.
She also prayed her intel was correct and she wasn’t about to embarrass the hell out of both of them.
“I am?” He shook his head as though trying to clear it. “I mean what kind of problem?”
His dark hair had the faintest hint of gray right at his temples, but otherwise she couldn’t see the years on him. Oh, he was definitely more masculine than he’d been, but it was hard not to see the youthful Deke she’d loved so much.
But she was over him, and this was nothing more than a job. “The national security kind.” He was quiet for a moment, and she felt another surge of panic at the idea of him closing that door. “I’m in over my head. Please, Deke.”
She hated begging, but she couldn’t let him shut her out. Not when there was so much on the line.
He stepped aside, opening the door wide and letting her in.
Relief flooded her system and she walked inside. The minute he closed the door behind her, she felt some modicum of safety.
“I’m sorry it’s so late. I just got into Dallas, and I came straight here.” She’d taken a cab and paid cash.
“Are you okay? Is someone following you?” Deke moved to the end of the entryway. “Hey, MaeBe, can you hop online and check the CCTV cams around the building? Go back at least fifteen minutes.”
Maddie followed him and found herself staring into his living room/dining area. It was a big space with a couple of armchairs and a comfy-looking couch. Everyone seemed to be congregated in the dining room, however. Deke had a big table that was covered in…holy shit. Deke Murphy played board games?
Deke Murphy was a jock who played football and baseball and effortlessly won at both. He was the popular guy who everyone looked up to. She was the nerd who played board games.
A pink-haired young woman popped out of her seat as though she’d just been waiting for something to go wrong. “Sure thing, Deke. Am I looking for anything specific?”
“I’d like to see if anyone might have followed my friend here,” Deke replied.
“Something going on?” A man with piercing green eyes and super-short dark hair asked. He looked military.
There were several women and men around the table. The men were all dressed in a similar fashion to Deke, dress shirts and slacks. The women were in cocktail dresses.
“I don’t know yet, but I want to be careful.” Deke gestured her way. “This is an old friend of mine from high school. Her name is Madeline Hill.”
A stunningly gorgeous blond guy whistled. “The Maddie Hill?”
“Not now, Boom,” Deke said with a shake of his head. “Maddie works for Nolan Byrne.”
A collective gasp went through the room, and she realized where she was. She was in a hall of geeks. Her people.
She hadn’t expected them to be Deke’s, yet here she was in a room full of people playing an economic game based around small woodland creatures and their railroads and who likely worshipped Nolan Byrne.
“Who’s that?” Except the gorgeous blond guy who seemed to know who she was. He was also huge. Like he was probably taller than she was right now and he was sitting down.
“Dude, even I know that and I’m usually the dummy of this group,” the man with the military cut said.
“Not if I’m here,” Blond Hunk shot back.
“That’s why I said usually,” Military Cut replied.
“Don’t be rude,” Pink-Haired Hacker said to Military Cut, and mentally Maddie put them together. There was something about the rebuke that screamed girlfriend.
That wasn’t the only conclusion Maddie could draw. There was no question in Maddie’s mind what Pink Hair did for a living. She’d basically walked off the pages of a techno thriller. Pink Hair worked in cybersecurity, and likely for the same firm as Deke. They weren’t two people who looked like they would fit together except for the forced proximity of work. It could make for unlikely friendships.
“To answer Boomer’s question, Nolan Byrne is a god of the tech world.” The man who spoke was leaner than the rest and had what looked like a Red Vine in his mouth. He talked around the candy like he’d done it a million times. “He started out in the gaming world, made his first billion by inventing the chip that powers most virtual reality headsets now. He then moved on to smart cars.”
“I want a Byrne so bad,” Pink Hair said with a sigh. “I can’t afford one, but I want it. It fully integrates with everything. Like I could plug it into my smart home and tell it to charge up and I don’t have to do anything. It’s that cool. It’s also got a hands-free drive function. I can’t believe you…” Pink Hair stopped and frowned suddenly. “He’s evil, isn’t he? Damn it. I should have known.”
“I didn’t say that,” Maddie stammered.
“Of course he’s evil,” a feminine voice said. She was a pretty woman wearing a cardigan over her dress. She had a heavy cane leaning on the table at her side. “He’s managed to make billions of dollars in three different tech fields. He’s barely forty. I assure you he’s stepped on people. He’s into satellites now, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” Maddie was on the team that was set to launch the first new model in six weeks. She had six weeks to figure out what was wrong with that satellite.
“Baby, just because a tech guru tried to kill you doesn’t mean Deke’s high school girlfriend is here because her tech guru is a bad guy,” Red Vine said, winking Cardigan’s way.
“Girlfriend?” Military Cut seemed interested again.
“Hey, can we focus?” Deke stepped in behind Pink Hair. “You got anything?”
“No one except her for the last hour. The building’s quiet. She waited on the steps for a long time, though. She’s nervous about seeing you,” Pink Hair said.
“I was…I was trying to remember if this was the right building.” Who the hell were these people and why was she slightly afraid of them?
“They all look similar in this part of the city.” Deke was obviously trying to smooth things over for her because that was a complete lie. The buildings were all arty and different. “Maddie, let me introduce you to my friends. This is MaeBe Vaughn. She and Hutch are part of McKay-Taggart’s cyber team. McKay-Taggart is…”
She knew exactly who they were. “The company you work for.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I’m on an investigative team. I often work with Brian Ward, but we all call him Boomer.”
The blond hottie waved. “Hi, Deke’s old girlfriend.”
Deke ignored that entirely. He quickly pointed to the rest of his friends. Hutch was the guy with the Red Vine. His wife was Noelle, and she was in biotech. Kyle Hawthorne was Military Cut, and he was a bodyguard.
MaeBe closed her laptop and slid it inside what looked to be a well-worn bag, slinging it over her shoulder. “If someone’s following her, they aren’t sticking close. All is quiet outside.” She turned Maddie’s way. “Do you have a cell?”
Maddie pulled out the piece of crap she was carrying. “My cell is in a secure location. I have it forwarded to this burner. I’ve got someone I trust moving it around.”
Her cousin thought she was running some tests and that was why she needed to take the cell phone to the spa and a couple of other places Maddie was paying for before bringing it back to her hotel room every night. She’d thought it was a weird request but had been thrilled at the thought of a paid vacation with her boyfriend.
“She’s good,” Deke said. “She knows what she’s doing when it comes to tech.”
“Well, some of it, anyway.” She didn’t want him to think she was some super expert who didn’t need any help. After all, she desperately needed his. “I’ve worked in high end and experimental tech for years. I’m excellent with robotics, but I had to figure out how to deal with the cell.”
A smirk hit Deke’s gorgeous face. “You were always good on your feet.”
He’d been good on his feet. She remembered a time when he’d simply picked her up and slid her onto his dick and fucked her without her feet ever hitting the floor.
The boy had been good, and now she was wondering if the man wasn’t even better.
Of course he would be. Practice made perfect, and he’d had years to master the art of pleasure.
And this was exactly why she should have hired an actor.
She felt her whole body flush and was almost certain the man knew exactly what she was thinking, but she needed to get to the heart of the matter. “I’m sorry to disrupt your...” It wasn’t a game night. They wouldn’t be dressed the way they were. This group had been at some sort of event. “Were you at a wedding? Or was it a graduation? It’s Thursday. Odd day for either.”
“See, I told you she was smart.” Deke’s lips quirked up. “It was a wedding. It was scheduled for Thursday because the groom is a sentimental man. This is the same day his parents got married. His dad died. He wants to make the day happy and special again.”
“And the bride is super cheap, and getting married on a Thursday night is hella cheaper than Friday or Saturday,” Kyle explained before holding up his hands as though to ward off attack. “Hey, Tessa’s words, not mine.”
Deke rolled his eyes and sighed. “And it’s not a problem. We were about to break up. Unlike the bride, we still have to be at work tomorrow.”
“Which means whoever has the most points right now wins,” Kyle said.
Noelle’s eyes narrowed. “It means the game didn’t conclude.”
Hutch stood. “Come along, my overly competitive love.”
“Uh, pizza. We called in pizza.” Boomer suddenly looked crestfallen.
“Hey, there’s a twenty-four-hour diner on the way home.” MaeBe stepped up beside Boomer. “We can get some late-night breakfast.”
“I could eat,” Kyle said, stretching. “What do you say we move this party?”
As the rest of the group started packing up, Hutch moved in close to Deke. “You need backup?”
Deke looked her way. “Do you think you need more of a bodyguard than me?”
She shook her head. She wasn’t sure she needed a bodyguard at all. “I just need to talk to you.”
“Call us if you need us.” Hutch patted his arm in a friendly gesture that made her think they were long-time friends.
She didn’t know who his friends were. She didn’t know what his life was like, with the exception of stories she heard from her mom when she went home. And that one little thing Angie had let slip when they’d had lunch about six months ago.
It’s the craziest thing, but I’m almost one hundred percent certain my brother joined a BDSM club. Like years ago. He wore this T-shirt with a logo for a club in Dallas called Sanctum, and when I looked it up all I could find was some stuff about this underground sex club. I asked him and he told me to mind my own business. It’s weird, right?
She’d done her own research. That was probably why she’d been dumb enough to step into the trap she had. She’d been able to find out that Sanctum was in fact a BDSM club. The membership was supersecret, but she’d determined that the building itself was owned by Ian Taggart—Deke’s employer.
She’d been curious, and then she’d been arrogant.
Deke said good-bye to his friends. She heard the door close, and her tension ratcheted up by a mile.
She was alone with the man who’d taken her virginity. Well, she’d given it to him. And he’d given her his. They’d been virgins together. It was weird to be standing here, and the stress of the day threatened to overwhelm her.
“All right, to what do I really owe this pleasure, Maddie?” Deke asked in that deep voice of his. He’d had it even in high school. “And it is a pleasure. It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time.”
So long. How had she let all these years go by and not called? She’d even stopped asking about him. Angie had been the one who brought him up when she’d been in LA and they’d had lunch. Maddie had sunk into her career and become everything she’d hoped to be. The girl she’d been, the one who’d loved the boy he’d been, had been forgotten. “Yeah. It’s been a long time.”
He shook his head. “How have you… I’m sorry. This isn’t a friendly visit. How can I help?”
Had she thought even for a second that he would turn her away? He wasn’t that man. He was a good man who took care of the people around him, and she felt so alone. She didn’t know a single man like Deke Murphy, and she’d stayed away from him. She’d let years go by because it was easier than admitting she’d made a mistake when she’d shut him out.
They’d been friends. Good friends. They wouldn’t be again. They couldn’t be more than old friends who met up every now and then when they were in their hometown at the same time. Their chance was gone and it wouldn’t come again, but he was still a bastion of everything that had once been good and safe in her life.
The world went watery, and she couldn’t hold it back another second. “I need you to be my Dom.”
His jaw actually dropped.
And that was the moment she burst into tears.
* * * *
Deke stood there for a moment, completely unsure of what the hell to do.
I need you to be my Dom.
What did she mean by that? Because she couldn’t possibly mean what he thought she meant. Maddie Hill couldn’t know what that word meant. And then there were all the tears.
She’d burst into tears, and not the pretty kind. Maddie almost never cried. At least she hadn’t when they were kids. Her tears built and built and built until they came out like a chaotic waterfall of pure emotion.
“I’m sorry,” she said, obviously trying to get herself under control. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do this. It’s been such a long day.”
“It’s okay.” He said the words even though he knew she wasn’t. This was a Maddie he knew well.
Anxiety. She’d had it as a kid, but they hadn’t known what to call it. She’d been the smartest kid in town, pushed by everyone to greater and greater heights, and it had taken a toll on her. Even he’d pushed her. She would work and work, and then she would do this. She would hold it all in until it erupted, and she wouldn’t acknowledge that she’d felt the attack coming but kept going. Sometimes he would see her rub her chest like it was far too tight for her to breathe.
And even as a dumbass kid, he’d known there was a price to be paid to be as talented and driven as Maddie was.
“Hey, come here.” He hadn’t known what to do then, had viewed those outbursts as one of Maddie’s weaknesses. He would step away when she had these episodes and joke with his friends that she was probably on her period. He’d been an asshole. He’d been wrong, but he’d learned a lot since then. “Let’s breathe together. You’re having an anxiety attack. I know them well. So let’s breathe together and get through it.”
She shook her head. “I can stop.”
Still so stubborn. She still needed to be Super Girl, or maybe he should call her Wonder Woman because she was definitely not a girl anymore. “I know you can, but I can help. I’ve had many a panic attack. Come on, Maddie. I’ve been in therapy for almost twenty years. Let me use some of it. Breathe with me.”
Her hands squeezed his. “Okay.”
“Close your eyes and concentrate on your breath.” He’d been through this with the therapists he’d seen since he’d been rescued. At first it had been a rotating door through the Army care he’d been given, and then the solid presence of Kai Ferguson in his life. Kai was the therapist who worked with McKay-Taggart, and more importantly with Sanctum. He now had a clinic here in Dallas that specialized in trauma and PTSD. “Let it fill your chest and nothing else matters. Everything else can fall away because you can handle this.”
Her breath hitched. “You don’t even know what it is.”
He lowered his forehead to hers. Physical touch had comforted Maddie back in high school. If she stepped away from him, he would back off, but he wanted to help her any way he could. “I don’t need to. I know you can handle it. I’ll help you.”
She sighed and seemed to relax slightly. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.” What had it taken for her to come to him? He’d broken her heart. He wasn’t going to make it hard for her. “I’m going to help you. That’s not even a question, so put it out of your mind. Now take a breath. Feel it inside your chest. Nothing else matters but that breath.”
She took a shaky breath, but he could feel her start to steady. She leaned against him and breathed in and out, each breath slower and more deliberate than the last, each one bringing her closer and closer to the calm she needed.
“You’re okay. You’re safe here,” he promised, trying to keep his voice soft.
Maddie was here. Maddie was here and she needed his help, and damn if his stupid heart didn’t thud at the thought.
Maddie’s shoulders came down as she continued to breathe, and for a moment he could feel them synching up, their breaths matched and in harmony, as though she could breathe in that placid piece of himself and it soothed her.
She might not be calming down if she knew there was a part of him that hoped her situation was really fucking bad, like end of the world, throw them together for weeks at a time and if the world’s going to explode, we might as well sleep together bad.
Because he wanted her. Maybe it was the fact that he’d attended a wedding this evening and that had him thinking about his shitastic love life, but he didn’t care. He’d thought about Maddie for the first time in forever and she’d shown up on his doorstep looking like the sexiest, slightly rumpled lady genius he’d ever seen.
Fate. That was what had happened tonight. Pure fate.
I need you to be my Dom.
The words had gone straight to his dick. It was a damn good thing that he hadn’t hugged her or she would have felt what that sentence had done to him.
Careful. He needed to be careful with her. From what his sisters had told him, she wasn’t married. She’d been engaged a couple of years back, but they hadn’t even sent out invitations. She might have a boyfriend.
He didn’t care. If she was here, he was going to do his level best to work his way back into her life. He’d been a decent boyfriend to her in high school—dumb assholery not withstanding—but he was so much better now. Smarter. More open. He’d learned lessons from all his dumbass friends.
Slow down, man. You cannot just throw her on the couch and fuck her. Not yet.
“Okay, I think I’m good.” She took a step back and brushed the tears off her cheeks.
“I’m glad.” He was the one who needed control now.
He had the sudden urge to grab his phone and ask the women in his life how he should handle this. Not the guys. They were mostly dumb, even the ones who were already married. Big Tag would yell at him about condoms. Michael would overthink the whole thing. But the ladies would take it all seriously.
He might have gotten too invested in the McKay-Taggart carpool text group. The fact that he was the only male on the list and he had zero children probably had gone to his head.
First he needed to figure out what the problem was.
“I’m so sorry. I’m exhausted. I’ve been up since…” She glanced down at the smart watch around her wrist. “It’s over twenty-four hours now. I couldn’t sleep last night. My flight to Sedona was at six this morning, and then I had to meet my cousin, get her and her boyfriend checked into the resort and get to my flight to Chicago by noon, and then I turned around and came here.”
“Why the extra flight?” He moved to the couch, offering her a seat.
She yawned behind her hand. “In case someone was physically following me. I thought I would be able to recognize if someone was on all three planes. I picked seats in the back of the plane and made sure I didn’t get on until right before they were closing the doors.”
“They don’t have to physically follow you. They could track your records.” He hoped she’d truly thought this through. Yes, she was a genius, but that was in science and technology. Sometimes an Ivy League education didn’t translate into street smarts.
“Which is why I bought fake identification,” she replied.
What the hell was Maddie Hill doing buying a fake ID? He had about a million questions. “Let me see it. Maddie, that’s dangerous. You can get into real trouble. If TSA figures out you’re flying with false ID, you can get put on a no-fly list for the rest of your damn life.”
She huffed and slung her backpack off her shoulder. She was still sniffling but seemed better than before. “I paid for the best. I did a ton of research and found someone good.”
She pulled out her wallet and handed him her ID.
It was a perfectly legitimate-looking California driver’s license. He checked the back. She was right. Whoever had done this had been a master at his craft. “Okay. This guy seems to be good.”
Her nose wrinkled in that way that let him know she was annoyed with him. “Girl. Woman. She’s excellent. She typically works with women running from abusive relationships. She helps them get away when everything else fails. Charged me ten times what she normally does. I paid it happily because I happen to know she also does it for free when a woman has no money.”
Ah, there was the girl he remembered. He handed back her fake ID. “Now why don’t you tell me why you need a fake ID? Who are you trying to evade?”
She sat back, weariness apparent in her every move. All she seemed to have with her was that backpack. She set it on the floor at her feet. “My boss. Something’s happening at Byrne Corp.”
“Okay.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and quickly dashed off a text to both Ian and his partner Alex McKay requesting a meeting. “I’ll get you into the morning conference. At McKay-Taggart we have a morning conference three times a week where we can present cases for consideration. Can you explain it all there? We can go over it in the morning, but they’ll need a complete rundown of what you suspect is happening so we can come up with the right team.”
Her eyes had widened. “Team?”
“Yeah, you need an investigative team, right?” He was already thinking about how he would handle the meeting. He would need to make certain Big Tag understood this was about more than just his dick because Big Tag was definitely going to accuse him of that. “That’s why you came to me. Are you in immediate danger? I can make sure you’re safe here tonight, but we’ll hire an extra guard if you need protection twenty-four seven.”
“I don’t think anyone knows what I’m doing. I don’t have friends at the office, so I haven’t talked to anyone about it. I know I seem paranoid, but I’m only being careful. The project is at a delicate stage, so I think caution is a good thing. I know something’s wrong, but I can’t get to the system I need in order to figure out what’s happening.” She yawned again. “But I didn’t come here to hire McKay-Taggart. I’ll figure this out on my own. I need you to…this sounds so stupid.”
Ah, so they were getting back to that one little word that had shaken his world. “Just say it.”
She seemed to steel herself. “Okay. But it is stupid. It’s…I needed to get closer to Nolan and I found out that he was interested in certain topics and liked to talk about them.”
Damn it. “Let me guess. BDSM? Nolan Byrne is in the lifestyle?”
She seemed to consider how to reply. “No. He’s interested in the lifestyle. He’s a weird guy. He goes through these phases, and then he tends to surround himself with people who are similarly minded. Like a couple of years ago he was completely obsessed with competitive biking. Suddenly no one was driving to work. They were all biking and wore the worst shorts. It was not a good time to be there. Chess was a good year of his life. The breakrooms were covered with dudes playing chess. Often it’s because he’s seen some movie or read a book that catches his imagination. Everyone knows that one way to move onto whatever team Nolan’s interested in is to talk about his favorite subject of the moment.”
“He openly talks about his sex life?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no. This one is kind of a secret. I was reading a book about BDSM and his assistant caught me, and she was the one who mentioned he was trying to get into a club. Not just any club. Apparently there are many around the LA area, but he wants access to the one in Malibu.”
He knew it well. He had a couple of friends who played there. “The Reef?”
Her eyes widened. “It’s true. You are a BDSM guy. BDSM person.”
“We tend to prefer to call ourselves Doms or tops.” He remembered his recent mistake. “I personally identify as a Dom. Many men are subs or bottoms. Same for women and nonbinary people.”
A brow rose over her eyes. “That’s awfully forward thinking for a guy from Calhoun, California.”
“I’ve learned a lot over the years. You’ll find I’m pretty open to whatever makes a person feel happy and complete. Especially when it doesn’t affect me in any way. I can only truly understand my own experience. If a man feels wrong in his body and feels better as a woman, who the hell am I to say he’s wrong. How does her happiness make the world a worse place?” BDSM had smoothed so many of his edges, teaching him to not merely tolerate differences, but to find joy in them. He now had friends of all kinds. “So why were you reading about BDSM?”
Her face flushed slightly. “I had a friend who talked about it. I was interested in the theories behind it.”
Liar. He still knew her tells, and the flush was proof she wasn’t telling him the truth. He had the insane urge to lower his voice and explain to her that lying wasn’t acceptable between them. He could explain that if he was going to be her Dom, there would be rules, and he would be happy to discipline her when she broke them.
Or she was simply embarrassed to be sitting here talking to him about something that was often viewed as sexual. “Okay, so you told Nolan Byrne you were reading up on the lifestyle so you could get some time with the boss? Has he hit on you?”
“What? No. Nothing like that.” She pushed her glasses up.
“Really? Because I’ve been in the lifestyle for a very long time, and I would be surprised if a single Dom didn’t hit on a cute little sub.”
She grimaced. “He might think I’m more in the lifestyle than I really am.”
His stomach dropped. “So you told a man you’re suspicious of, a man who has a mega shit ton of money and power, a lie about your lifestyle in order to get close to him so you can prove he’s doing something wrong?”
She shrugged and yawned again. “Maybe.”
He groaned in frustration. “Maddie, what did you tell him?”
“I got antsy when we talked about it. Look, I’ve been around this guy for five years. I stayed out of his direct orbit because he can be hard on his people. But I needed to get close to him. I need access to his private system. So when I got the chance to move to his inner circle, I took it. I told him I’ve been in the lifestyle for years and that I have a Dom.” She looked him in the eyes, a grimace on her face. “In particular I told him my Dom is you.”
Deke had two reactions to her words. His dick practically jumped for joy. His heart did a little flip, too, because damn she was bringing back all his emotions. He’d loved her, like soul-deep teenaged loved her.
His brain was trying hard to tap those brakes. There was something going on with Maddie and he needed to be professional. She seemed to have a real problem if the expensive fake ID was any indication.
“Okay, you need someone—me in particular—to pretend to be your Dom so you can get your boss into The Reef to build enough trust with him that you can get close to his private system?” He wanted to make sure he fully understood the situation she was bringing him into.
She sighed with seeming relief. “Yes. I’m so glad you understand. I’ve got six weeks before launch, and I probably really only need you to come out maybe once or twice. I’ll pay all your expenses, and I’ve got a guest room you’ll be perfectly comfortable in. We can talk about compensation, too. I would prefer to pay for this as a project rather than by the hour, but I can be incredibly generous. I’ll need you to broker a deal with whoever owns The Reef. He seems to not like Nolan at all, and we’ll probably need to do a small scene or something. I’ve studied up on everything, so you don’t have to educate me.”
Oh, he was going to educate her. Did she think she could treat him like some kind of prop? Did she actually believe he would sit back and look pretty and be quiet? “If you want my help, we’ll bring it to the group. I’m not for hire by the hour, Maddie.”
She seemed to have trouble keeping her eyes open. “Good. Like I said I would rather make it a project. So I need to talk to the group in order to hire you? I don’t know how your company works. Do you have a pamphlet or something with costs?”
Should he explain that he would be taking over everything? And she would be hiring way more than him. In his brain he was already putting together his team. He would need backup, and this was a tech job, so MaeBe would be getting out of the office. Of course if he took MaeBe he would have to take Kyle. “Don’t worry about the costs. We’ll work something out, but I need you to understand that I’m not going to be a prop. I know you’re incredibly smart and independent, but you came to me for a reason.”
“Because Angie told me you were a Dom, and I thought it would be easier to work with someone who knew about the lifestyle,” she admitted.
A few things went through his head. First, he was having a long talk with his youngest sister because she needed to keep her mouth shut, but the second was all about timing. “I take it this came out when she was in LA right before Christmas?”
He’d heard all about Angie’s trip to the big city when he’d gone home for the holidays. He’d also heard about how amazing Maddie was and how successful she was.
“We had lunch. Don’t be mad at her. She just thought it was weird.”
“And when did you start to suspect something was going on with Byrne?” He was about to prove he could put pieces of puzzles together too.
“A few months ago,” she replied. “That was when I realized we have two employees who’ve gone missing, and they all touched the satellite project.”
“But you didn’t know about Byrne’s obsession with BDSM at that point.”
“No. I found that out when I got caught reading that book.”
“And you were reading that book because someone you’re friends with is in the lifestyle. Who might that be?” He waited, and sure enough she flushed.
“Uhm, her name is Joanna.”
Now he did lower his tone. “That’s a lie, Maddie. We’re going to start now. If you want to play the part of my sub, then we’re going to set a few boundaries, and lying is one of them. Why were you reading that book? Shortly after you found out I was in the lifestyle.”
“I was curious.” She bit her bottom lip. “I don’t know. After Angie told me you were in the lifestyle, I was curious, and when the chance to get close to Byrne came up, I sort of told him this whole crazy story about my Dom and how we were trying to get into The Reef too. For a while we just talked, but now he wants to meet you, and I can’t put him off anymore.”
“All right. I believe that.” Actually, when he thought about it, there was no one in the world who’d needed a good top more than the Maddie he’d known in high school. She’d needed a partner who could remind her she was more than her big brain, that she was worthy of care and rest, that she didn’t owe the world everything she had.
She frowned at him. “And I know what you were doing. That was your Dom voice, and we don’t need rules because we’re not really going to be a D/s couple.”
She would find that working with him on an op would be a whole lot like being a D/s couple. Oh, not with someone like MaeBe or Charlotte or any of the other highly trained women he worked with. But this was dangerous and outside Maddie’s area of expertise. “I’ve done this job for more than a decade, and then there’s all my military training. Did my sister happen to mention I was on a CIA special ops team for a couple of years?”
At least Angie had some discretion. “I was. I assure you I’ve worked more corporate security cases than I can remember. You were worried enough about your safety that you spent thousands of dollars trying to cover up where you were going. How much more dangerous is it going to be when you get into Byrne’s private system? I’m going to be honest with you, Maddie. I’m going to take over now. I know you’re smart and I’ll follow your every order when it comes to launching a satellite, but you’re going to follow mine when it comes to this.”
“Or?” She got that stubborn look on her face. “I assume there’s an or.”
He hated the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to ease her into this, but he knew her. At least he’d known her, and Maddie required firm boundaries or she ran over everything and everyone in her way. “Or I’ll call in the authorities and probably blow it all to hell.”
“But he’ll have warning,” she argued. “He’ll be able to hide what he’s doing.”
He shrugged. “Then you should let me do my job. You need to understand that this isn’t my job right now. I don’t have skin in the game beyond making sure an old friend of mine is safe, and that will be my primary goal if I’m not in charge of the mission.”
“Your way or the highway, huh, Deke?”
“I’m not trying to be a dick.”
“And yet you’ve managed.”
“Is the situation dangerous?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
“Do you have security training?”
“No.” She slumped against the sofa. “Fine. I think I probably knew you would be a dick about it and take over, and somewhere in the back of my head I know I’m not ready for this. But you have to understand that it is important to me.”
“I’ll do anything I can to help and that includes protecting you.” He watched her for a moment. “It is good to see you.”
Her lips curled up slightly. “You, too, Murphy.”
A gentle chiming sounded through the apartment.
Damn it. He’d forgotten about the pizza. “Stay here. I ordered some pizza a while back.”
She winced. “They weren’t really going home, were they?”
“It’s okay.” He stood up and stared down at her for a moment. Damn but she was still so pretty it hurt. She hadn’t been the cheerleader type or the glamourous girl, but she’d been the one who caught every part of his soul and had once held his heart in her little hand. “I’m glad you came to me.”
She gave him a half smile. “I didn’t know who else to go to. It won’t be too much trouble. I promise. You’ll see. I’ve got it all planned out and taken care of.”
Sure she did. He had zero doubt that she would know exactly how to deal with the computer system, but she had no idea how complex an op like this could get. He hadn’t even delved into the details of why she thought her boss was doing something that could threaten national security, and he was certain it would be a delicate op.
After all, they were dealing with one of the smartest men on the planet, and likely one of the most ruthless.
“Well, we can talk about that over pizza. A whole lot of pizza,” he said. He might be eating pizza for the rest of time. Or he could invite Boomer over tomorrow and it would be gone in one night.
“Good. I’m starving,” she said with another yawn. “I didn’t eat most of the day. I was too nervous.”
“There’s plenty.” He walked toward the hallway, reluctant to take his eyes off her in case she disappeared.
He opened the door, paid the guy, and headed back in with all freaking five pizzas, one of which was covered in something called srirancha, a combo of sriracha and Ranch dressing that MaeBe craved like Hutch did candy. It was also something Deke wasn’t going to touch because he didn’t like his gut going up in flames.
He wondered if Maddie had expanded her culinary horizons past the casseroles and meat and potatoes they used to eat in their hometown.
He stepped back in, ready to offer her anything she liked.
And that was when he realized she was asleep on his couch.
He sighed and put the pizzas down.
He had a guest room, and it looked like it would get some use tonight.
The girl he’d loved was now a woman in trouble.
He wasn’t going to let her down.
But she might not like how he did it.
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