Elliot Smith has trained hard to live alone and work alone, even when it comes to her job as a security specialist for JCL Security. No relationships, no ties, except the one to the man who kidnapped and murdered her mother. She’ll do anything to kill Martin Diako, the untouchable South African pirate king. When Deacon Walsh walks into her office, she finally sees a chance to do just that.
Deacon went from soldier to mercenary warrior to stay-at-home dad, and now his past is back to haunt him. Martin Diako, the father of the terrorist Deacon killed two years ago, is coming for revenge, and he has his sight set on Deacon’s daughter. An heir for an heir. Deacon will do anything to protect her, even if it means asking for help. But the security team he’s hired comes with an added complication: the only woman to interest him since his wife died.
Deacon always leads his team, and Elliot protects hers. They might have one chance at their enemy—if they can work together. Will their hunger for each other pull them together, or push them apart?
“I’m not a fucking nanny, Dain.”
“Not with a mouth like that.”
Elliot shot a deadly look Saint’s way, but her team member shrugged it off. She seriously considered strangling the man with the crucifix he wore around his neck, but it wouldn’t matter. Their boss would simply replace him with someone even more annoying just to get back at Elliot for the inconvenience. Instead she turned her back to the room and sought calm outside the floor-to-ceiling windows providing a perfect view of downtown Atlanta.
Okay, the calm came from avoiding the three amused sets of eyes behind her, but whatever.
The members of her team remained silent, though she could feel their stares burning into her back. Good men. She couldn’t have asked for better. Dain Brannan, or Daddy as they sometimes called him, was the head of their particular team here at JCL Security, the one who took care of the rest of them. Saint, or Iggy—the six-two, massive warrior took personal exception to the use of his full name, Saint Ignatius Solorio—was the joker of the bunch, always saying what everyone was thinking but would never politely admit. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of weapons that made him invaluable despite the constant temptation to kick his ass. And then there was King—Kingsley Moncrief. No one would guess from looking into the man’s assessing eyes that he’d been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. Acting as their client and media liaison was a natural role for him, but Elliot had never doubted how lethal King could be in the field.
All three men stayed quiet, waiting for her cool head to take over. Waiting for the pressure of their silence to push her into complying. They knew her as well as she knew them.
“I don’t want to be shoved into a role because I have the requisite vagina,” Elliot bit out.
When Dain chuckled, she whipped around to glare at him. He raised a hand to stop her in her tracks, a smile still on his lips. “Think about it, Otter. A four-year-old girl. Look at us.” He gestured at the two men flanking him, both over six feet and muscular. Tough. Scary, if you weren’t Elliot. “Do you really think a child is going to be particularly comfortable with us? Or that she’ll trust us as fast as she needs to? This isn’t some forty-year-old visiting dignitary’s wife we can simply talk into complying; it’s a kid.”
Elliot refused to let Dain’s use of her call sign influence her. “She would trust you. Everyone trusts you.” And they did. Dain wasn’t called Daddy only because he watched out for his team.
“Maybe. But with you, it’s guaranteed.”
Because she was tiny. The truth of the knowledge burned in her gut. She didn’t like appearing weak, though she wasn’t above using it to her advantage. She’d taken down many a fighter in the ring because they thought she was an easy target. They learned otherwise quickly, much to their detriment.
So yeah, she got it. That didn’t mean she wanted to admit it.
Elliot sighed like a teenager being forced to wash dishes instead of a kick-ass security specialist being assigned a new client. “Do I really have a choice?”
No, of course not.
The side of Dain’s mouth quirked up in a smirk she knew meant he thought he’d gotten his way. Again. Bastard. “Not really.”
Another sigh. “Fine.”
That earned an all-out laugh. “Fine. Can we meet the client now?”
Elliot grumbled under her breath as she followed Dain to the door of his office. King chuckled as he fell in line behind her. Saint, of course, simply had to add an, “And don’t forget to watch your mouth, little Otter.”
Elliot growled back at him before she stepped into the hall.
JCL Security was headed by Conlan James and Jack Quinn. Their reputation in the United States security community was unparalleled. Even Elliot had heard of them before Dain found her and convinced her to join his team two years ago. She respected her bosses, and Dain’s influence on her life had been such that she’d do pretty much anything he asked, but he’d also never asked her to babysit children. She knew nothing about children. Even when she’d been a child, she hadn’t been “normal,” so how the hell—heck—was she supposed to understand how to handle a child? The mere thought had her wishing for a paper bag to hyperventilate into as their group came to the door of Jack Quinn’s office.
Dain glanced over his shoulder, one last assessment of his “troops” before presenting them to his commanding officer. His gaze settled on Elliot, and the warmth she recognized there eased the panic in the pit of her stomach. When he nodded, she found herself squaring her shoulders and putting on her game face.
Dain gave a peremptory knock and opened the door.
Here we go.
Her gaze shot immediately to the head honcho’s desk, but the sight of Jack was blocked by a set of wide shoulders wrapped in a tight black T-shirt. Wide, muscular shoulders. Elliot saw the same sight nearly every day—all of her team members were “built,” so to speak; they all dressed in what she called military casual, fatigues and tight tees. None of them had ever made the breath catch in her throat like this man did.
Brown hair left shaggy at the top, cut close in a semimilitary style as it tapered to a cropped V at the base of his skull. Tanned skin along his neck and heavy arms. The man’s back narrowed to a tight ass and legs that told her he was just as strong as Saint or King or Dain, so what did he need with them?
Oh, right. Kid.
Forcing herself to stop eating up his manly form with her eyes, Elliot fell into line next to Dain to one side of Jack’s desk.
Their boss made the introductions, alpha to alpha. “Dain Brannan, this is Deacon Walsh.”
Deacon? Actual name or military call sign? Their team all had call signs they went by while on mission, but clients typically didn’t. There hadn’t been time to brief them on more than the very basics of the assignment—number of clients, degree of threat. A call sign gave her a small hint as to why the guy looked like he’d be the last person asking for their help, though.
“Please, call me Dain.” The two men shook hands, and that was where Elliot focused. On their clasped hands, not on the sudden uneasy squirm in her belly. She didn’t understand what was wrong with her. She didn’t question clients, and she sure as hell didn’t have a…reaction…to them. But there was no doubt that everything feminine in her, all the parts she’d thought were good and dead, thank God, were doing weird dances in this man’s presence. And she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it one fucking bit.
“Deacon, meet my team: Elliot Smith, Saint Solorio, King Moncrief. Elliot will be assigned to your daughter’s personal protection, of course.”
“No, she won’t.”
That jerked her head up. Her gaze clashed with grim brown eyes in a grim, hard face. Deacon Walsh stared down at her like she was a puppy who’d just pissed on his boot. “Excuse me?”
“I said, no you won’t.”
Dain shifted next to her. “Elliot is the best member of our team to—”
“You’re not assigning your weakest guard to my daughter simply because she’s a woman.”
It had been Elliot’s argument too, sort of, but instead of cheering, she gritted her teeth. Was this bastard saying she was too little to kick ass if she needed to?
She didn’t even realize she’d tried to step forward until Dain’s hand came out, blocking her advance. Elliot settled back on her heels and waited. Of course, she glared daggers into the man’s stern eyes while she did it, but what were they gonna do, fire her?
The thought almost made her snort. She held back just in time.
Dain’s words were cut off with an abrupt slash of Walsh’s hand. “My daughter is top priority on this assignment. Nothing else matters but her. She needs more than one scrawny wom—”
“Did you just call me scrawny?”
Elliot felt more than saw her team members take a step back, Dain included. A warm rush of pride filled her at their acknowledgment that she could fight her own battles, but she didn’t allow it to get in the way of her focus on Walsh. His gaze swept over her, and though she thought she detected a hint—a very vague hint—of embarrassment in their depths, mostly his eyes held frustration and anger. So did his response.
“I sure as hell did.”
The final word was barely past his lips when Elliot struck. A fake palm heel to the big man’s chin had him jerking back instinctively, giving her a mere second to connect a kick with his inner thigh. She did avoid the groin, though—no need to thoroughly piss off the client, after all. Her grin was probably a tad too exultant as the strike brought Walsh’s head forward, right into her elbow.
“What the fuck!”
Chuckles from her teammates mixed with Dain’s and Jack’s shouts as she grabbed Walsh’s closest arm and turned, putting her back to his chest. When she dropped to one knee, Walsh flipped over her head. Ah, the joys of leverage. He hit the floor back first. A quick arch and push brought him to his feet—just in time for Elliot’s swift kick in the ass. Walsh stumbled forward.
Dain caught him, fighting hard to keep the grin on his face under control.
No more than fifteen seconds had passed, but Elliot was already briskly brushing her hands together like she’d finished taking out the trash. Or proving a point. Said point might get her fired, but what the hell. They were used to her lack of communication skills around here.
Jack sputtered behind his desk, his face a shade of red she’d never seen on him before. Not very flattering.
A loud laugh pulled Elliot’s focus to the client. Walsh bent, his back to her, the long furrow of his spine drawing her attention right down to the best ass she’d ever laid eyes on—and in her line of business, she’d laid eyes on a few. A warm hum that had nothing to do with a good fight sparked deep inside her.
Dain shook his head, one hand coming up to rub tiredly at his eyes. Elliot shot him a sheepish look.
Jack cleared his throat. “Mr. Walsh, I apologize—”
Walsh’s raised hand precluded any apology. “No need, Jack.” He turned, and Elliot read the amusement in his expression with relief. So maybe she wouldn’t be fired today. “I believe I’m the one who should be saying those words. Nice job, Smith.”
Not Miss Smith, which was what most clients labeled her with. Just Smith. As if she was one of the guys. The final bit of resentment fizzled out. Okay, I can work with that.
That was when she noticed the heat in her cheeks. Looking anywhere but at their client, her gaze met Saint’s. When she moved to stand next to him, he leaned in to whisper, “Don’t bother being embarrassed now, Otter. Too late.”
She punched him in the ribs. His groan was covered by Dain clearing his throat.
“Let me assure you, Mr. Walsh”—Dain threw her a “we’ll definitely talk about this later” look—“that Elliot will be much more circumspect with your daughter than she has proven to be here, won’t you, Otter?”
If she said no, she might get out of the whole nanny duty thing, but one glance at Dain said she’d pushed as far as he would allow her to. She cleared her throat of rebellion. “Of course.”
Walsh’s gaze skimmed her before returning to Dain. “I have no doubt.” He turned to Jack. “Now that we have that clear, perhaps we should get to the point.”
“Right.” Jack gestured them over to a conference area, where he, Walsh, and Dain took seats. Elliot stood next to Saint and King, lined up like good little soldiers behind Dain’s seat, looking on as Jack opened a thick file on the coffee table before him and pushed it toward their team lead.
Dain planted his elbows on his knees and leaned forward over the intel. “Objective?”
“Protection,” Walsh said before Jack could speak. “My daughter is the primary objective. Despite my performance here today”—Walsh didn’t look her way, though his tone was filled with chagrin—“I don’t need protection from this bastard. But I can’t be with Sydney 24-7. I need someone who can.”
“What bastard?” Dain asked.
Jack answered this time. “Martin Diako.”
Elliot froze, even her breath stilling at the name. Martin Diako. She stared at the back of Dain’s head, pinning her composure on her lifeline to the man who’d taken her under his wing.
Martin Diako. Fuck.
Deacon and Sydney Walsh needed protection from Martin Diako. The man known as Mansa in most circles. Ruler. The monster in charge of the biggest modern-day African pirating organization operating today. The monster responsible for ruining an untold amount of lives in the last forty years, including Elliot’s own.
The monster who was her father.