Once parked in front of the Dashwood Museum, Alastair got out of his car and stormed around to the passenger side. Darcy was already out of the car, and he grabbed her hand, tugging her along. He heard her heels clicking on the sidewalk.
“Burke, quit dragging me around like a dog,” she snapped.
He ignored her and headed up the wide, marble steps, past the elegant columns, and into the museum.
As soon as they were inside, the tightness in his chest eased. She was safe. He could breathe again.
On the drive back to the museum, all he’d kept seeing in his head was the image of Darcy in that shitty apartment, with a gun pointed at her head.
He spun to face her. “You need to learn to follow orders.”
“I’m neither a soldier nor a robot.” Her chin lifted. “You need to act less like a dictator and more like a person. Make the odd request, use your manners, have a feeling or two.”
“Really? Most of the time, you don’t show a flicker of emotion.”
He was feeling a whole chaotic mess of emotions right now, with fury leading them all. He sucked in a breath.
“You’re just so driven,” she muttered. “Sometimes I don’t think you care about anything except taking down Silk Road.”
For years, that had been all he’d cared about. All he should care about. “Think you can stay out of trouble for longer than a few minutes?”
She crossed her arms, and he tried not to look at the way it pushed her breasts up against the tempting red fabric of her sweater.
“No,” she said.
“Darcy—” His voice was little more than a growl.
“You wanted trackers, I got them.”
“I want you safe.” The last word was close to a yell, echoing in the lobby. Damn, the woman worked his nerves.
“I won’t be safe until Silk Road is stopped. None of us will be.”
He stared at her, knowing she was right. He knew she was willing to risk everything, even her own safety, to take the group down. She wanted to protect her family and friends.
He understood better than anyone. Although he had something else driving him—vengeance.
“Isn’t that what you want?” she asked. “To stop them?”
“Not if it costs your life.” Shock hit him as the words tumbled out.
Her eyes widened.
Thom appeared and cleared his throat. “Children, everyone in the museum can hear you arguing.”
Darcy swiveled. “Thom, I need caffeine.”
Thom shook his head and smiled. “I’ll get you a latte, Darcy.”
She tossed the man a wide smile. She always had a smile for his partner.
“Extra shot.” She pulled a face. “I wouldn’t say no to a shot of whisky.” She glanced at Alastair. “I might need it for courage.”
Alastair narrowed his gaze on her. “Why?”
“I have something else to tell you.”
He set his hand on a hip and looked at his shoes. They were scuffed from the scuffle with Spider and King, and Alastair liked them shiny. He pulled in a deep breath, wondering what in the hell she could possibly say next to drive him out of his mind.
“I promised Animal payment for the trackers.”
Alastair sighed. “How much?”
“He doesn’t want money.”
Alastair felt a prickle on his neck. He always got it before something bad happened. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
She shot him a hesitant smile. “I need you to put me in touch with Team 52.”
He sucked in a breath. “No.”
“Yes. He wants a look at their fancy drone. That’s what Animal gets off on, pulling bits of advanced tech apart.”
“These are not people you want to notice you, Darcy.”
“You said they were the good guys.”
“They’re a covert black ops team. They do anything to achieve their objectives, no matter what. They are not going to willingly hand over their experimental tech to a drug-addicted hacker.”
“Animal is harmless.” She cocked a hip. “I’m pretty sure Team 52 has as many reasons as we do to help take Silk Road down.”
Alastair heaved out a breath. “Tell your friend we’ll pay him in cash.”
“He won’t take it. Tech is what floats his boat.”
“Look, if you want trackers, you’ve got to give him something. It can just be parts. It doesn’t have to be operational.”
Alastair pressed a hand to the back of his neck. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She clapped her hands together. “Thank you.” She tilted her head. “Don’t you have a meeting at FBI Headquarters soon?”
His gaze narrowed. “How the hell do you know that?”
She blinked. “You must have mentioned it?”
“I didn’t.” He scowled at her. “Tell me you haven’t been hacking my computer again.”
He growled and looked at his partner. “I’ll be at Headquarters. I have a meeting, and now I also need to make a call.” He speared Darcy with a look. “Stay inside the museum, don’t hack the FBI, and stay out of trouble.”
She pulled a face.
Her eyes warmed and the corner of her mouth quirked. “I promise, staying out of trouble is my middle name.”
Thom made a strangled sound that was clearly a poorly hidden laugh.
“No, your middle name is Aphrodite. Darcy Aphrodite Ward.”
Her mouth formed an O. “I promised retribution if you ever spoke that aloud.”
“I think it’s pretty, and Thom won’t tell.” Alastair looked at his partner. “Look after her.”
Thom nodded. “On it.”
“After you get me a latte,” Darcy added.
With one last look at Darcy, Alastair strode out. Damn, she turned him inside out. He headed down the steps toward his car.
All his life, he’d been dedicated to taking Silk Road down. He’d helped form the Art Crime Team to focus on the crimes Silk Road committed. He’d spent his career gathering data on the syndicate and the people who ran it. He’d promised his mother’s memory that he’d do everything to make them pay, whatever the cost.
But now, one woman’s life was more important than his mission.
Alastair paused at the bottom of the steps. He thought of his mom—sweet and smiling. Then he thought of those terrifying moments, when he’d been locked up, trapped, listening to his mother’s screams. He’d been helpless.
His jaw clenched so hard it hurt. He made his way to his car and settled behind the wheel. He was taking Silk Road down, and he was personally going to ensure Darcy Ward stayed alive. But he had to quit letting her get to him, and he really needed to stop kissing her.
He was going to keep some distance between them and focus on his job.
Back at FBI Headquarters, he walked through the offices, listening to the familiar sounds of his colleagues going about their business. Staff bustled around, telephones rang. Some agents were escorting people in for questioning.
He attended his meeting and updated his boss. Then he locked himself in his office and pulled his laptop closer. He tapped the keyboard and put through a video call.
A tattooed man appeared, the dark frames of his glasses dominating his face. “Hello, Agent Burke. Please stand by.”
The image changed, and a tough, rugged face filled the screen. Stubble covered the man’s hard jaw, and he looked back at Alastair with cool, golden eyes.
Scary, assessing eyes.
“Burke,” the man said.
“Hunter.” The leader of Team 52 looked as tough as he always did. “I’ve heard some pretty wild reports coming out of Las Vegas recently.”
Team 52 was based outside of Las Vegas. Most of their work was classified, but Alastair had crossed paths with them a few times before. The covert team was tasked with containing and safeguarding certain objects and artifacts. Ancient technology that had certain abilities—dangerous ones.
Alastair had been shocked to learn that conventional history lessons didn’t quite have their facts correct, and that advanced human civilizations had once existed long, long ago. Those civilizations had been wiped out by the rising floodwaters at the end of the last ice age. Sometimes, artifacts from those cultures emerged. Artifacts with abilities they didn’t quite understand, and that bad people—like Silk Road—fought to get their hands on.
Recently, Alastair had heard of several incidents in Las Vegas. He knew it had something to do with an artifact that had been stolen, and Team 52 had been tasked with recovering it.
Hunter didn’t reply for a moment, but his lips twitched. “It was pretty wild.”
Alastair stared in surprise. Hunter wasn’t a man who smiled. Ever. Alastair studied the man more closely. He looked his usual, tough self, but there was something…more relaxed about him.
“What can I do for you, Burke?”
“You know I’m laying a trap for Silk Road?”
The man nodded. “With cursed diamonds. Good bait.”
“I need trackers to put on the diamonds.”
Hunter opened his mouth, but Alastair held up a hand. “I already have them, an…ally is making them for us. An eccentric inventor.”
Alastair thought of Animal. “Yes. In return, he wants some advanced tech to study. He’s heard about your drone.”
Hunter’s face darkened.
“Doesn’t have to be operational, Hunter. Just a few parts.”
“You can’t be serious?”
“Help us bring down Silk Road, once and for all. It’ll make all our jobs easier and the world a little safer.”
Hunter released a long breath.
“I want Silk Road finished,” Alastair added. “They’re targeting the people working with me. People I want to keep safe.”
Golden eyes flashed. “A woman?”
Alastair didn’t respond, just held Hunter’s stare.
Apparently, Hunter didn’t need a verbal answer. “Damn their pretty, smart hides. They can make you do things you never believed you’d do.”
Alastair blinked. Hell, Hunter had a woman?
“Fine,” the man said. “I’ll have Brooks courier some parts to you. Not much, and nothing sensitive. I’ll already have to go to war with our grumpy tech guru. He won’t be happy to part with a single bolt. Not to mention my boss.”
Alastair nodded. “Appreciated. I owe you.”
Hunter nodded. “You do, and one day I’ll cash in. Take care of your woman, Burke.” The screen went blank.
Suddenly, there was a hammering on Alastair’s office door. A junior agent entered, panic on his face.
Alastair leaped to his feet. “What is it?”
“Problem at the Dashwood, sir. Alarms are going off—”
In three strides, Alastair grabbed a fistful of the man’s shirt. “Tell me.”
“Some sort of chemical attack. Right in the main lobby.”
Right where he’d left Darcy working.
Alastair ran out of the room. Silk Road had gone too far this time.
Darcy. He had to get to her.
* * *
Darcy staggered through the white cloud fogging the room, coughing. Her eyes were burning, tears streaming down her face. Her chest was in agony and she wheezed, trying to work air in and out of her lungs.
Moans and cries echoed around her. Other people were trying to escape the gas. Her vision was blurry, and she wasn’t even sure if she was heading for the door. She’d been working on the display and everything had been fine. Then she’d smelled the sharp scent of bleach.
Her toe nudged something. No, someone. “You have to get up.” She could see the cloud was thicker near the floor.
She tugged on the person, hearing them coughing violently. Darcy got the woman on her feet, and they staggered forward together.
The burning in Darcy’s chest was growing worse. A coughing fit hit her, and the woman she was helping pulled away. Darcy tried to draw in air, but it hurt too much. She collapsed to the floor.
God, after this job, she was going to the beach. She wanted a nice vacation villa by the sand, a plunge pool, and no bad guys. Her hazy mind turned over, wondering what Alastair would look like shirtless, rising out of a pool.
She coughed again and she swallowed a cry of pain. She couldn’t breathe.
Then she saw figures looming in the smoke ahead. Giant shapes. Her heart clenched in her chest in a moment of panic.
Darcy’s vision cleared for a split second, and she realized that it was people in hazmat suits. They were trying to help the people collapsed on the floor.
She lifted a hand, trying to call for help. But no one spotted her and she curled up in a ball. Everything ached and she couldn’t breathe anymore.
Then, strong arms slid under her and lifted her up. She looked into Alastair’s face. He wasn’t wearing a hazmat suit, but he had a mask on.
“I’ve got you.” His voice was muffled. He pulled her close to his chest and strode through the lobby.
“Alastair—” She broke into another coughing fit.
“Don’t talk.” He headed outside, jogging down the stairs.
“I just…survived an attack…and you’re still bossy.” But she rested her head on his shoulder.
“And still talking. Quiet, Darcy.”
“Thanks…for coming to get me.”
With a shake of his head, he made a beeline for one of the ambulances waiting outside. There were people everywhere—cops, agents, paramedics, firefighters. They passed Thom who was sitting with a paramedic, an oxygen mask over his face, his hair disheveled.
Burke set her down on a gurney. “Check her over.”
A male paramedic spun into view.
“Now,” Burke ordered.
The paramedic hovered over her, pressing an oxygen mask over her mouth. He started checking her vitals.
Burke went to step away, but Darcy grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight. His fingers laced with hers and he moved closer.
“What…happened?” She winced at the ache in her raw throat.
“Chlorine gas attack. I got word on the way over here.”
“Fucking Silk Road.” She coughed again.
“Try not to talk,” the paramedic said.
“She’s not very good at that,” Burke muttered.
Over her mask, Darcy tried to glare at him, but she started coughing again, ruining the effect.
“Chlorine is a common chemical,” Burke said. “It’s easy for someone to get their hands on it, then sneak a device into the museum. We’re looking for it now.” His fingers stroked her hand.
“You’re fine.” The paramedic stepped back. “Now that you’re no longer exposed, your symptoms will fade, and you’ll start to feel better. You weren’t exposed long enough to have any long-lasting effects, but get yourself checked by your doctor.”
Darcy saw Burke let out a big breath. He nodded at the paramedic. “Thanks.” Then he touched her hair, sliding it behind her ear.
The concern she saw in his green eyes made her tremble.
“You just can’t stay out of trouble,” he said.
“This is hardly my fault.”
“What the fuck?” An angry male voice.
“Uh-oh,” she murmured behind her mask. “Incoming.”
Dec appeared, his face thunderous. He leaned down and pulled her into a hard hug. “Thank God.” He exhaled loudly. “You’re going back to Denver.”
“No.” She scowled at him.
Burke’s face hardened. “I agree with Declan.”
Darcy looked up at him, shock spilling through her. “What? No. I’m seeing this through.”
“Silk Road is stepping up their attacks,” Burke said. “They know we’re planning something, and that you’re integral to that plan.”
“All the more reason I help finish this,” she said.
“The Collector won’t be deterred.” Burke’s face was set in stark lines. “And he might kill you in the process.”
Dec spun to face Burke. “You promised to protect her.”
Burke straightened. “I won’t let her get hurt again. I’m not leaving her side.”
“Hello? Adult woman here, you macho neanderthals.”
Both men swiveled their heads, pinning her with hard stares. Luckily, Darcy had lots of practice dealing with alpha males.
“I’m finishing this,” she said.
Both their scowls deepened.
She tore the mask off. “So, both of you stand beside me and help me. Don’t get in my way, or try and take me out of the game.”
They glared at her and she lifted her chin.
“Shit,” Dec muttered. “I know that look. She’s not going to give in.”
“She will if I handcuff her and drag her onto a plane,” Burke said.
She narrowed her gaze. “Try it.”
“Don’t tempt me.” They glared at each other for a few more seconds, then Burke gave a jerky nod. “I’m with you every second of the day until this is done.”
Butterflies winged through her belly. Hmm, that was going to be interesting. “Can we get back to work now?” she said. “About the trackers…”
“I got what you need,” Burke said.
Her eyes widened. “You did? That’s great. I could kiss you.”
The vibe between them changed and she watched his gaze drop to her lips.
No. Fight it. Darcy felt tingles in places she didn’t want to feel, especially not with her brother watching. And Dec rarely missed a thing. His eyes narrowed as he studied them both.
An agent called for Burke and he held up a hand. He looked at Dec. “You’ll stay with her until I take care of this.”
Dec lifted his chin and they both watched Burke stride off. Someone handed him an earpiece and he slid it into his ear. He was mobbed by people.
“We have to finish this, Dec.” Darcy watched the chaos all around them. All caused by Silk Road. Her gaze fell on a disheveled woman coughing against a paramedic.
Dec released a breath and nodded. “I know.”
“I want everyone safe. And you have Layne to think about now too.”
“She must be missing you.”
A smile curled her brother’s lips at the mention of his wife. “I’m missing her too. But the time away means we’re both very eager to see each other.”
Darcy raised a palm. “Ew, please.” But she smiled. “I’m so happy for you, Dec. She loves you so much, and you look at her the same way Dad looks at Mom.” Darcy let out a gusty sigh.
Dec gripped her shoulder. “You’ll find the right guy, Darce. And if he treats you wrong, I’ll shoot him.”
She bumped her shoulder against his side. “I’ve never been in love. Attraction, sure—”
Dec stiffened. “Stop right there. There are things a brother doesn’t want to hear. Ever.”
She laughed and then her gaze zeroed in on Alastair. No surprise, he looked like he was issuing orders.
“About you and Burke—” Dec started.
“There is no me and Burke.”
“You’re a smart woman, Darcy.”
She waved a hand, trying to keep her tone light. “He’s married to his job, Dec. I want…I want more than to be second best and accepting scraps.” She’d dated guys where she’d fallen far down their priority list. “I want a guy who sweeps me off my feet, who puts me first. I want the damn fairy tale.”
Dec frowned. “You deserve someone who loves you. But love isn’t always a fairy tale, Darce. There are good days and bad days, arguments and laughter, give and take. Loving someone, and wanting them safe and happy, takes effort, but love makes it all worthwhile.”
She made a humming sound.
“If you think Mom and Dad don’t fight and want to kill each other sometimes, then you’re wrong.”
Darcy saw Alastair heading back. His face was focused and she knew he was running through a dozen things in his head. For now, they had a job to do. That’s what they all needed to be focused on.
She ran her hands through her hair, tidying it. “Can you guys clear the museum, so I can get back to work?”
Dec put his hands on his hips and looked at the sky.
“You’re not going back to work today,” Burke said.
She blinked. “What?”
“You were just exposed to a chemical. You’re going back to your hotel to rest.”
“Excuse me, no.” Darcy swung her legs off the gurney and stood.
Dec was still watching, but with amusement now. “For once, I agree with him.”
“You, be quiet,” she said.
“You’re resting,” Burke ordered.
“N-O. It spells a word that means I’m not following your orders.”
His face changed, darkening. Then he set his hands on Darcy’s waist. She gasped at the touch. Then he lifted her, and she found herself tossed over a broad shoulder.
Speechless, all she could do was hang there. He did not just do that.
“Put me down!”
“No.” He stalked toward his car.
“Burke!” She lifted her head and saw everyone was watching them.
“You are so annoying.”
She found herself lowered into the passenger seat of his car. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared out the window.
Arrogant, annoying asshole.