First Exposure

Aegis Series, Prequel Novella 2

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Fame always came with a price. Avery Scott knew that better than anyone.

Climbing out of the rental car, she drew in a deep breath that did little to settle her churning stomach and glanced around the quiet parking lot. A gardener trimmed shrubbery off to her left. The sound of a mower echoed from somewhere beyond the palatial main house. There were no other businesses out here in the middle of Kentucky horse country. Just miles of rolling green hills, old knotted trees, and pristine white fences. No other people that Avery could see besides the man and woman standing in the shade of a giant oak at least two hundred yards out, gazing at a possible Triple Crown winner.

No one noticed her. No one seemed the least bit interested in what America’s sweetheart was up to. Relaxing just a bit, she closed the car door and crossed the circular drive toward her destination. If Jake Ryder couldn’t help her…

She pushed the thought aside and pressed the intercom button near the massive double doors. When a voice echoed asking her business, she gave her name and waited.

Please let this work…

One side of the door pulled open, and an attractive brunette with large brown eyes and a warm smile greeted her. “Welcome, Ms. Stone. I’m Brandi. Mr. Ryder is running a tad behind. Can I get you anything while you wait? Tea? Coffee?”

Avery forced a smile and stepped into the cool entry, relieved the receptionist showed no spark of recognition. “No, thank you. I’m fine.”

The woman closed the door at her back. “Then please, have a seat. It’ll be just a moment.”

Soaring pillars opened to a living room that had been transformed into a reception area. Leather furnishings, burgundy walls, and rich slate floors gave the room a cozy yet trendy feeling. Expensive artwork by well-known artists screamed both attention to detail and professionalism, but it was the large, chrome letters mounted on the wall above the receptionist’s immaculate marble counter that gave her hope. The ones that spelled out the words Aegis Security.

Nerves strung tight, Avery crossed to the leather couches. She hated waiting. A perk to having your face splashed across every tabloid was that she rarely had to wait for anything anymore, but for anonymity today, she was willing to wait as long as it took.

A collection of magazines littered the coffee table. Seeing a picture of herself on the cover of one, she quickly pushed it under the rest. She didn’t need the distraction of Hollywood today. And after what had happened to Melody, she didn’t care what the gossip magazines were saying about her. Couldn’t believe she ever had.

Voices echoed from a hallway to her left. To keep from jumping to her feet, she smoothed the pencil skirt against her legs. Deep laughter met her ears, followed by heavy footsteps.

Two men rounded the corner. The first was light—sandy-blond hair cut short, soft blue eyes, wearing a white dress shirt and khaki pants. The other was tall, with piercing dark eyes, sun-kissed skin tanned from hours outdoors, and short black hair. His shoulders were broad and muscular beneath the black button-down he wore rolled up to his forearms, and the faded denim hanging low at his hips…wow…fit him to perfection. But it was the scar on the right side of his face that caused her to suck in a breath. A jagged, diagonal line across his cheekbone that ended in the scruff along his jaw. A scar a lot like the one she’d traced with her fingertips, her lips…a scar she knew as well as the marks on her own skin.

Her pulse picked up as the two spoke in quiet voices on their way toward the receptionist’s counter. The sandy-haired one didn’t bother to look Avery’s way. Instead, he leaned his forearms against the marble and smiled down at the brunette in clear flirtation mode. But the other—the dark one—scanned the room, and the moment his searching gaze landed on Avery, every cell in her body jerked to life.

No. No, no, no. It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. Not here of all places. That would just be one wicked twist of fate she did not need right now.

His gaze narrowed on her, and she froze. Something hot flashed in the depths of his way-too-familiar eyes. Not recognition like she expected, but something primal. Something possessive. Something so intense it sent a wicked shot of heat straight to her center and ignited a buzzing in her ears.

Then he looked away like he hadn’t even noticed her. Muscles flexed beneath his thin black shirt as he rounded the counter, moved behind the receptionist’s desk, pushed open a door Avery hadn’t noticed before, and disappeared.

The door whisked closed with a clap.

Avery’s skin blazed, and her mind tumbled. Placing a hand against her belly, she tried to settle her quaking stomach and focused on breathing. It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him. She hadn’t even thought about him in years.

Liar.

“Ms. Stone?”

Avery jerked and looked up. An attractive blonde in gray slacks and a red blouse stood feet away, holding a folder against her chest as she stared down at Avery expectantly through wire-rimmed glasses.

Pull it together, Avery. “Yes.”

“Mr. Ryder’s ready for you.”

Avery nodded, but the fine hairs along her neck stood at attention. Mr. Dark and Dangerous was long gone, yet the prickly fingers of heat rushing up and down her spine made her feel like he was still watching. She glanced up and around as she followed the blonde out of the reception area and into a hall, searching for cameras. This was a security company. They had to monitor visitors, right?

Her imagination was getting away from her. It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him. Aegis recruited from the best of the best. He’d been special to her, but to everyone else he was…a rebel. The kid from the wrong side of the tracks who always managed to find trouble. And boy, had he found it with her.

“Ms. Stone?”

Startled from the memories suddenly rushing in, Avery looked to her right. The blonde was once again watching her with curiosity. Somehow they’d gotten into the elevator. “Um, yes?”

“Your flight? It was good?”

Her head felt as if it were in a fog, but Avery quickly realized the blonde had been chattering the entire time she’d been stressing over the guy in the lobby. Giving herself a mental slap, she straightened her spine. “Oh, yes. Fine. Thank you for asking.”

“Good.” The blonde looked toward the opening elevator doors. “Mr. Ryder will be happy to hear that. We have clients from all over the world. Most have never been to Kentucky before.”

Avery stepped off the elevator into another well-decorated waiting room. A large desk sat to the right. To the left, floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over the rolling green hills, white fences, and horse farms in the distance. “Wow. It’s…beautiful.”

“It is.” The blonde dropped the folder on her desk, then stepped toward double doors on the far side of the room. “Mr. Ryder’s family has been breeding and racing horses for generations. I don’t think many were thrilled when he decided to set up Aegis on the family estate, but he’s a man who does what he wants, when he wants. And he’s been very successful at everything he’s put his mind to.”

She pushed the door open. A huge office filled Avery’s line of sight. A bar sat to her left. Ahead, a rock fireplace anchored the room with a gigantic flat-screen TV mounted above the mantel. On both sides, six, eight…nine more TVs took up the rest of the wall space, each channel tuned to a different news station, the sound muted. Several leather couches were positioned in front of the TVs in conversational seating, and to her right, a large mahogany desk sat in front of a wall of windows that looked out over the rolling fields.

“Ms. Stone is here to see you,” the blonde said.

The leather chair swiveled, and a dark-haired man wearing a crisp dress shirt and slacks pushed to his feet and rounded the desk. He offered his hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Ms. Stone. I take it your trip in was good?”

“Yes. Thank you.” His fingers were warm, his grip solid. He was everything the guy in the lobby was not—polished, professional, not familiar in the least. Feeling marginally better, Avery sat when he gestured toward the chair opposite his desk.

“Thanks, Marley,” he said to the blonde. “That’ll be all for now.”

Marley smiled. “If you need anything else, I’ll be right outside.”

The door closed behind her. Jake Ryder leaned back against his massive desk and folded his arms over his chest. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his forearms, revealing tanned, muscular arms that obviously did more than just sit behind a desk all day. Arms that were tattooless beneath the sleeves, unlike the guy in the lobby.

Stop thinking about him… It’s not him.

“So,” Mr. Ryder said, “we spoke over the phone, and I know what you’re looking for, but I’d like to get a few more details from you, if that’s all right.”

Avery’s nerves kicked in again. “Sure. I expected as much.”

“You said you were an author? And that this…excursion…for which you’re hiring security is…research?”

She could play this one of two ways. Either she could keep up the ruse or she could be honest. She figured being honest about what she was getting his men into was the safer bet.

“Actually, I’m not an author, I’m an actress. I apologize for misleading you, Mr. Ryder, but I didn’t want to set off the paparazzi. You have no idea how hard it is to do anything private when the whole world is watching.”

“I have no doubt, Ms. Scott.”

Ms. Scott. He knew. The wig and glasses obviously hadn’t done much to conceal her identity.

Surprise must have registered on her face, because he quickly added, “We research all potential clients thoroughly. We knew who you were when we got your first email inquiring about our services. I don’t want you to worry, though. No paparazzi followed you here. That I can guarantee.”

Avery wished that would help her breathe easier, but it didn’t. The only time she’d breathe easier was when she found Melody. “Thank you, Mr. Ryder.”

“You’re welcome. And call me Jake. Now.” He settled back against the desk. “Tell me a little more about your friend. She’s been missing for three weeks?”

A first-name basis didn’t ease her anxiety any, but she liked this guy so far, and she’d only heard good things about his company. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve been researching an upcoming role. Have you heard of the best-selling book, The Sacrifice? It’s being made into a film, and I’m one of the actresses up for the lead. The book deals with some dark subject matter, specifically underground sex clubs and the seedy, dark underworld of the kinky rich and famous. I’d done about as much research as I could on my own without visiting one of these…establishments, but I was considering it. The problem is the media. I’ve got paparazzi following me most days. I mean, just getting here without anyone knowing was a major feat.”

“I can only imagine.”

Avery drew in a breath. “Yes, well…about three weeks ago, my assistant, Melody Carmichael, offered to visit one for me. It’s an estate on an island in the Caribbean. Indulgence is marketed as a couples resort, but really it’s more like a swingers club. I tried to talk Melody out of going, but she was insistent that this was what I needed to nail the role. She occasionally does research for me, but this was more than the usual. She talked her ex-boyfriend, Dominic Ellis, into going with her. They split months ago but have stayed on friendly terms, and she felt safe going with him because Ellis is ex-military. I wasn’t supportive of it, but once Melody gets something in her head, it’s hard to change her mind. Whether I’d agreed or not, she would have gone.”

Avery paused and looked toward Ryder, but the man showed no reaction, so she went on. “She was only supposed to be gone three days. I was at my house in Florida at the time. She called the first day to tell me about the resort, and she was supposed to call again the next day to let me know how it was going, but I never heard from her. That was three weeks ago. I flew to Jamaica and filed a missing persons report. The police there told me they’d investigate, but when they got back to me, they claimed they’d found no evidence indicating foul play. No evidence even that Melody had ever been at Indulgence. That struck me as odd. I mean, she called me from that location, so I know she was there. But they found no evidence Dominic had been there either, and their answer was that she and Dominic just ran off together. Now, granted, Dominic Ellis is the kind of guy who comes and goes. He does contract work for some overseas security firm, so he has long breaks between assignments, and he and Melody have had an on-again, off-again relationship. But that explanation just doesn’t add up for me. Melody wouldn’t run off like this. And she wouldn’t do it knowing I was waiting for her. Indulgence refused to let me on the property since I wasn’t a registered guest, so I hired a private investigator, but he came up empty-handed as well. And when Indulgence found out someone was asking questions about their resort, they refused to answer anything else.”

Jake Ryder’s expression didn’t change at her revelations, and he didn’t immediately answer. He rubbed a hand over his chin. “So I take it you want Aegis to see what we can uncover.”

“No.” Avery sat straighter in her chair, and those nerves came back full force. She’d been an actress for years, but this was a whole other level of acting. “I want one of your men to accompany me to Indulgence for a weekend. I need to go in there and look for Melody myself.”

“Ms. Scott, I think it would be safer if—”

“No, Mr. Ryder.” She knew what he was going to say. “I need to be the one to go. Look, I’ve done enough research to know what kind of environment I’m walking into, and I’m smart enough not to go alone, which is why I’m here. But I know Melody and how she thinks. I came to Aegis because you’re supposed to be the best of the best. Lauren Kauffman is a personal friend, and she speaks very highly of your organization.”

One side of Jake Ryder’s lips curled. He obviously remembered Lauren Kauffman, the supermodel who’d hired Aegis for security while on a shoot in Mexico. “You spoke with Mrs. Tierney about this?”

Tierney was Lauren’s new legal last name. She’d wound up marrying the Aegis operative who’d been assigned to protect her, though publicly she still went by her maiden name. Avery liked and respected Lauren’s husband, Finn, a great deal, which was a big reason she’d come to Aegis for help now. “Only to her and Finn Tierney. Finn is the one who suggested I speak with you now so as not to jeopardize the investigation further.”

Jake pursed his lips and looked down at the floor, as if considering. And realizing she had to work her last advantage Avery added, “I can convincingly play the part of half a couple looking for a good time. What I need is one of your best men to help me find Melody and get us both out of there safely.”

“I understand your personal attachment here, Ms. Scott, but what makes you so sure your friend is still in Jamaica?” His eyes met hers. “You have to admit, it’s highly possible she did leave with her boyfriend, like the authorities assume.”

Avery reached into her bag and drew out a postcard. “This makes me sure.”

His fingers closed over the card stock she handed him. He turned it over and read the one line written in cursive letters: Find me.

He flipped it back and looked at the beach image on the front. Across the bottom, Indulgence’s resort info was clearly printed.

“Where did you get this?”

“It showed up in my mailbox about a week after Melody disappeared.”

“Did you show it to the police?”

“Yes. They didn’t think it matched Melody’s handwriting and claimed it was nothing more than marketing material from the resort, but I know that’s from her.”

“Hm.” He turned the postcard over again and looked closer.

One side of the double doors to the office pushed open before she could ask what he was thinking. Avery’s head snapped that direction. The words dried on her lips when Mr. Dark and Dangerous stepped into the room.

“Sorry I’m late.” The man crossed the floor, long legs eating up the space, muscles bunching under the fitted black shirt, and handed Jake a folder. Pulling a red lollipop from his mouth, he said, “Miller was distracting Brandi downstairs, so it took me longer to get these than I thought.”

“Thanks.” Jake set the postcard on the desk, then opened the folder and paged through the information. “I’d feel better if we had more time to do a thorough rundown of the resort, but this will have to do. You catch the discussion?”

“Yeah,” Mr. Dark and Dangerous answered. “I was listening in. Caught the big stuff.”

Avery’s pulse picked up speed. She’d been right about the surveillance. But she was too focused on the man who’d just entered the room to be irritated he’d been listening without her knowledge. He didn’t fully turn her way, so she couldn’t see anything more than his profile. But that scar…

Jake looked up. “Ms. Scott, this is Cade Blackwell, one of Aegis’s best operatives. If you’re hell-bent on going to Indulgence yourself, he’ll be the one accompanying you.”

Cade Blackwell. Holy shit. Avery’s heart dropped like a stone straight into her stomach. It was him. She hadn’t been imagining after all.

Cade turned his piercing stare her way. Dark eyes she now saw were the same as they’d been at eighteen. Except then there’d been a hint of innocence. Now there was nothing but suspicion.

“That disguise is terrible.” He looked toward Jake again. “That’s never gonna work. Her face is way too damn recognizable. She’s gonna need a total makeover.”

Jake closed the folder. “What do you have in mind?”

Cade looked back at her, cocked his head, popped the sucker back in his mouth, and took a long perusal of her, from the top of her head all the way to her toes. Every cell in her body jerked to life as it had in the lobby, except this time she felt it everywhere. He pulled the sucker out again. “Hair, clothes, a helluva lot more makeup. She looks too damn innocent for Indulgence. People who go to resorts like that go for one very specific reason.”

Her thoughts were a jumbled mess of impressions and memories and emotions she didn’t want to revisit, but one thing got through. They were talking about her like she wasn’t in the room. Irritation replaced the heat his thorough inspection had caused and clawed its way up Avery’s throat. “Hold on a second, I—”

Cade turned his dark gaze back her way. “How many swingers resorts have you been to, Ms. Scott?”

The way he said “Scott” made the fine hairs along her neck leap to life again. There was animosity there. And distrust. And a whole lot more than she expected or deserved. Her mouth closed.

“None, I bet.” He pointed the sucker at her. “They’ll know it too. Dressed like that, in your conservative little pencil skirt, fitted blouse, and sensible heels, they’ll eat you alive. Your wig isn’t fooling anyone. One look and every person in that place will know America’s sweetheart is taking a walk on the wild side. I know these places. I know the people who work there and the lowlifes who play there, and if you want to get in and out unnoticed, then you’ll listen to me, because when it comes to this, I’m the only one here who knows what the hell I’m talking about.”

He was talking to her like he didn’t know her. Like he didn’t want to know her. And the things he did know…she wasn’t sure she wanted to know how or why he knew them.

This wasn’t the same misunderstood rebel she’d fallen for at the age of seventeen. He was harder, darker, and way more cynical. And at the moment, he was all that stood between her and finding her friend.

“I’d listen to him, Ms. Scott,” Jake cut in. “Blackwell used to work undercover for the FBI. He’ll see things you won’t, and he’ll be able to head off any trouble before it hits you. He’s the only one from my team I’d send into this situation.” He reached back and pushed a button. “Marley? Get Kristin Pearson on the line. We’re going to need the works.”

“On it,” Marley said through a speaker somewhere in the room.

The only one from his team… Which meant she couldn’t even ask for someone else. It was Cade Blackwell or no one.

Jake looked toward Avery again. “Kristin Pearson does alteration work for us. She’ll take care of anything you need.”

Cade huffed. “It’s gonna take a lot more than a little alteration to tramp this one up.”

“I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work. Besides, she’s an actress. She should be able to pull this off, probably more convincingly than you, Blackwell.” To Avery, Jake said, “Do you have any questions, Ms. Scott?”

Avery had a million, like how the hell Cade had ended up working undercover for the FBI. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been leaving her and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in the dust to join the military, but the hard look in his eyes said not to get into that one in front of his boss.

She glanced between the two men, from Cade’s rigid jaw to Ryder’s waiting expression, and in the silence realized…either Ryder didn’t know that she and Cade knew each other, or he just didn’t care.

Neither of those options sat well with her. But a bigger, more important question swirled louder in her brain. Namely, why wasn’t she protesting this?

Because if you do, you’ll never see him again…

Heat spread all along her skin and ignited a rush of awareness that exploded through her belly and hips. A weekend alone with Cade Blackwell. A weekend with the only man she’d ever truly loved and the one who’d broken her in more ways than she could count. She should say no. She should run from this room. But one thought kept her rooted firmly in place.

More than one counselor had told her the reason she couldn’t seem to find happiness with her success was because she’d never had closure. No end to the relationship that had changed every one of her hopes and dreams. And here, unexpectedly, was her chance. Not just to find her friend, but to finally put the past behind her.

Melody hadn’t planned this, but if she knew Avery was standing face-to-face with Cade Blackwell, she’d tell Avery to suck it up and go with it. God knew they’d talked about this moment far too many times late at night over a bottle of wine.

Her stomach flipped at what she was about to do, but she squared her shoulders, pulled up every bit of confidence she had as an actress, and said, “When do we get started?”

“Eager,” Blackwell muttered under his breath, looking back toward Jake. “That’ll change as soon as she gets there. Guaranteed.”

Jake shot him a look.

The door pushed open, and the blonde—Marley—stuck her head into the room. “Kristin Pearson can see her now. I’ve got a car waiting downstairs as soon as you’re through here.”

“Well,” Jake said, moving away from the desk. “Looks like you’re all set.” He reached for her hand. “Good luck, Ms. Scott. Don’t worry, you’re in the best of hands.”

Avery glanced toward Cade, but he wasn’t looking at her anymore. He was already heading for the door, leaving Avery with the view of him walking away. A familiar view. One she knew was at the root of every one of her personal hang-ups. But that was going to change. Whatever happened, when this weekend was over, she’d be the one walking away. Hopefully with her best friend.

“We’ll see.”

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