Since James Bowen married Elle Cooper’s sister, tall dark and handsome Jack Copeland has become a permanent fixture in Elle’s life. A silent, rather annoying fixture, with his arrogant aloofness and my-way-or-the-highway attitude rubbing her the wrong way. So she does what any self-respecting woman would: aggravate the wits out of him.
Party girl Elle Cooper is everything covert operative Jack Copeland doesn’t want in a woman. Outspoken, sassy. A smartass. Too bad when he closes his eyes, all his mind conjures up is her. To everyone else, he comes off as intimidating and unapproachable. Everyone except Elle. So he does what any self-respecting man would: stay the hell away from her. But when Elle gets herself in deep trouble, all of Jack’s protective instincts kick in, and keeping his distance is no longer an option.
Elle’s already complicated life takes a downturn, and she’s given two choices: go to jail or stick with Jack.
With Jack and Elle in such close proximity, sparks are flying all over the damn place and it’s only a matter of time before they ignite. The only question is, who will kill Elle first? The vicious drug cartel hunting her or Jack?
Thinking with his dick was going to get Jack killed.
The guys he was dealing with wouldn’t hesitate to reach down his throat, rip his balls off, and make a Colombian necktie with them at the slightest hint of weakness. Or deception. Heck, just for the sheer fun of it. No big reason needed.
Too damn bad Jack couldn’t help himself. A cocked gun shoved to his head wouldn’t change shit.
He logged in to his e-mail account, the one he was supposed to ignore, hands fucking sweaty. His heart leaped, lodging in his throat. Yeah, there it was. Unopened mail. From her.
He should have deleted this address the second she’d gotten her pretty, meddling little hands on it. Definitely before taking the new assignment. At the very least forget its existence. There was a reason for breaking all ties. Ties were dangerous, but here he was, literally unable to go a handful of days without checking that damn account. His only lifeline to the outside world. To her.
Yo, Borg, I thought I’d give you the immense honor of my company, even if you clearly don’t deserve it. It’s Christmas. No one should be alone on Christmas. Not even rude, insensitive assholes.
Such a smart-ass. He could see her in his mind’s eye. All sass, throwing attitude left and right. That glossy dark hair cascading down around her shoulders, framing her killer, hourglass body, those big, bottomless black eyes narrowed at him, challenging him. Pissing him off and giving him the biggest hard-on of his life at the same time. Elle Cooper, the bane of his existence.
Is it snowing where you are? I hope you get a white Christmas.
Jack looked around him. He was in a helicopter in the middle of a jungle in buttfuck nowhere, supervising a weapons run, and the only thing coming from the sky was a permanent horde of vicious mosquitos he’d long ago stopped caring about. Nope, no white Christmas for him. Not any other kind either.
Wherever you are, I’m sure you’ve booby-trapped the chimney, hell, the whole place, and Santa won’t be able to drop by to leave you anything without risking his life in the process, so I’ve sent you a present. A cyberpresent, as I’m positive you would have to kill me if you were to give me an address.
He clicked on the attachment and something exploded on the screen.
A Christmas card for badasses, it read, with Santa parachuting down sporting commando clothes and an Uzi.
Jack cracked a smile, the muscles of his face complaining at the rare gesture.
He hadn’t seen her since James’s wedding in August, yet her image was as fresh in his mind as if she were standing in front of him. All he had to do was close his eyes and there she was with him, in full 3-D and surround sound, exuding sex appeal and attitude and the most potent pheromones he’d ever experienced and against which he didn’t seem to have defenses.
He should have stayed away from her at the wedding, but with him being best man and her maid of honor, it had been virtually impossible, especially when the bride and groom had insisted on them dancing. Against his better judgment he’d acceded, and now the feel of her luscious curves were imprinted in his hands. In his brain really. Her sweet scent too. He’d avoided touching her for a reason and this, his pathetic, juvenile behavior while undercover, in the face of mortal danger, was exactly why.
He’d remained grim and silent during their dance, clenching his teeth, trying to block the sensory bombardment, but it had been too late. And she’d known it. She’d smiled that teasing smile of hers. So fucking beautiful. And so fucking aggravating.
He’d been under for five months, monitoring the flow of illegal weapons to the rebels and watching those motherfuckers use the assault rifles and rocket launchers on civilians and peacekeepers. Five of the shittiest, most miserable months of his entire existence—which was saying a lot, seeing as he’d had pretty crappy assignments before; the only points of light were her wiseass e-mails. He’d gotten a zillion—well, ninety-three to be exact. For a guy who only got encrypted messages—a couple a month, tops, ninety-three were a shitload. Some of them were barely a line. A “Yo, Borg, sweet dreams, wherever you are.” Others were pages long.
His brain had ordered him ad nauseam to block her address. End of issue. No more spam. No more Elle intruding into his personal space, forcing him to interact with the real world. Ha! Like there was a chance in hell his body would follow through on that executive decision. He’d reread her messages many times. Knew them by heart. The sarcastic cracks too. He couldn’t get enough of her. Even when she just talked about her day, he’d greedily read every word, soaking them in. What was said, and what wasn’t.
Checking the sender’s details, he realized she’d written to him in the wee hours. Again. What the hell was she doing up at that time, on a regular Tuesday? And that was not an exception; it was the norm. Elle was a party girl. Always shit to do. Places to go. Men to entice. Not that she had to put too much effort into it; they trailed after her like lovesick puppies, ready to lick her toes and worship at her altar for just a smile. She was the kind of woman for whom necks snapped whenever she entered a room, and when she left it, there wasn’t a single guy not following her gorgeous behind. The kind of woman one could look at but should never touch. You touch her, you get burned. Jack was too old and jaded for that kind of crap. The aftermath of such a rollercoaster would be a killer. He’d rather get shot in the stomach and be left to die, thank you very much. Less painful.
He repeated that to himself but continued reading.
As you can see from the pictures, all is good here. We had a full house for Christmas. I was supposed to work but Aunt Maggie swore she’d hunt me down if I didn’t show up. Mr. Bowen came from Florida. Christy’s mom from L.A. All the Bowens and their women were there. Lots of fun. It would have been funnier with you, of course, barrel of laughs that you are. Life and soul of the party, really.
Right. She was the life and soul of the party. Of any party. She just had to smile to be the center of attention. Hell, all she had to do was show up.
He glanced at the second attachment. Pictures probably. Elle always sent him photos, which he normally refused to look at, stashing them in a file in the cloud. It was bad enough this idiocy he had going on; no need to go the whole nine yards. But today he needed too much. In three minutes it would be his birthday. Thirty-six and shit to show for it. No wife, no kids. A half-decent day at work was one he survived unscathed while dealing with crazy fanatics. He was so wound up he couldn’t contain himself, and, gut churning, he opened the file where he’d gathered everything she’d sent.
One look and his throat clogged. Fuck, she always knew what he needed. There were shots of Alden and the Bowens, all laughing. Barbecues. Birthday parties. The newest were from Christmas Eve. Max with his hands on the pregnant belly of his new lady friend, the one Elle had talked to Jack about. The one prone to weird accidents. It seemed like the last Bowen had already bit the dust, willingly, with a big, sappy smile on his face. Jack’s chest tightened. Love and family and friends, the very things he was missing the most.
He reached into his pocket and took an antacid. His stomach had been bulletproof. Until Elle. Now he had a fucking hole the size of Texas, or so he thought. He was still in denial and refusing to go to the doc, living under the illusion that whenever his exposure to her ended, the ulcer would disappear.
He chewed the tablet, ignoring the chalky taste, and continued with his foolish task. Rosita’s was featured very prominently too. Not so much Elle, who was always the one behind the camera. She was only in a couple of shots. In one she was showing her tongue and making a face. In the other she was laughing, hugging James and her sister Tate.
At that moment an e-mail appeared in his inbox from Party Girl. He looked at the time stamp: 00:01, rather early for her.
Without thinking, he clicked on it.
Happy birthday, Borg!!
Don’t look so surprised; you know I’m very resourceful. It wasn’t easy, let me tell you, to get it out of James. It was a slip, long time ago, but I have a great memory. He never said your actual age so don’t freak on me, big boy, your secret is safe.
I would have never pegged you for a Capricorn though. I thought you’d be a Scorpio; after all, most dangerous sociopaths are born in November…
Then again, being a goat suits you too.
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope you have a fabulous day. You would have a much better time with us, but you can’t have everything in life, can you?
No, he couldn’t. Learned that long ago.
Don’t have much time now, too busy at Rosita’s. Just wanted to be the first to congratulate you on your birthday—or your assembly day—however your kind of people are made.
I’ll write to you later.
This time, the attachment was a video. Before he realized how stupid it would be, he opened it, and his heart tumbled the second he heard her laugh. Someone, Tate by the sound of it, was filming her and Elle was joking with her. Then, as she stood under the mistletoe, she threw an air-kiss to the camera and winked an eye. His chest clenched so fucking hard his lungs burned from the lack of air.
Jack stared at the image greedily, like it was air and he was a drowning man.
Which he was. Drowning in filth and lies and human misery. Dealing with the worst of the worst, risking a Colombian necktie and God only knew what else for just a peek at Elle’s words and a world he didn’t belong to. His chest in a fist. His cock fucking hard.
He slapped the laptop closed, pissed at himself. This was no place to lower his guard. He was surrounded by scum. He ought to behave accordingly and stop daydreaming about the only woman in the world he couldn’t allow himself to have.
* * * *
Two months later, Boston
Elle looked around the hospital chapel. It couldn’t be denied; Bowen men were extremely original when it came to weddings. First it had been James with that romantic midnight ceremony in the backyard, a thousand small lights illuminating the garden. Then Cole had pledged himself to Christy surrounded by aliens in Las Vegas. Elle hadn’t been there, but she had irrefutable proof of it at Rosita’s, framed, in a central position on the wall of fame.
And now Max had gathered a bunch of trigger-happy preppers on one side and some stick-up-their-ass socialites on the other and was getting hitched in a hospital chapel, before taking his woman and his newly born daughter home with him. A last-minute, simple ceremony. After what had happened, Elle couldn’t blame Max for not wanting to waste a second. Staring death straight in the eye—even worse, watching the woman you love almost be killed—would do that to you.
The brothers were talking while waiting for the bride, Mr. Bowen by their side, standing proud. Once he’d finished fussing over Tate, James joined them.
Elle walked to where Tate was sitting. “How are you doing, sis?”
“Can’t wait to be able to tie my own shoes again,” Tate grumbled, looking at her distended belly. “And to get James off my back.”
Right. Like she needed to tie her own shoes with James around. “Come on, he treats you like a queen. He worries.”
Tate smiled softly, glancing at her husband. “I know.”
Elle still couldn’t get used to the image of her prim and proper little sister married to the tattooed-up-to-his-ears, possessive James Bowen. And yet she couldn’t think of a better husband for her.
“How’s Rosita’s?” Tate asked.
“Still standing.” Man, her sister had been away from the restaurant for a couple of days and she was already fretting. If it were up to her, she’d be there this last month of pregnancy, but the doctor had ordered her to rest and James wasn’t taking any chances.
“Mom offered to come to help,” Tate insisted. “We can call her. She’d be here in a flash, and you wouldn’t be alone in that big house.”
Elle shook her head. She could manage. Her mom liked it in Florida, where there weren’t so many reminders of her deceased husband and son, and being with Ron was good for her. “Rosita’s will survive. And I like my space.”
Tate didn’t believe her, not for a second. “Why don’t you rent it and with the money pay for a place of your own. You know, somewhere not so full of…”
Memories. That was the word Tate was probably working toward.
“I’m fine there,” Elle assured her.
Before Tate could reply, Annie walked in with the baby in her arms, her mother by her side. Max darted to them right away, face beaming with love.
Elle had known from the very beginning that Annie was going to be the one for Max. He’d had that look in his eyes, the same one James and Cole had when they looked at their wives.
“Let’s get this show rolling,” Max said after the priest arrived.
As they took their places, Elle scanned the premises. No sign of Jack. He was still doing whatever commando shit he’d been doing since summer, but she’d sent him an e-mail with the info about the wedding a couple of days ago, hoping he’d read it on time.
Suddenly the doors opened and a big black shadow stepped in. The air she didn’t know she’d been holding came out in awhoosh. Jack. She didn’t need the man to remove the hood to recognize him. The massive force field around him gave him away. When he revealed his face though, she froze. His demeanor had always been severe, but now he did look like a cyborg. Deep, soulless eyes. Sharper features. Skinnier, if the massive tank he still was could be called that.
Elle approached him and stood next to him. “So you do read my e-mails,” she whispered, her gaze never leaving the priest.“You’re just too rude to answer them.”
She didn’t need a response from him, because one, she knew he was that rude and two, there was no doubt he’d read her e-mails. And thank God for that; otherwise Max and Annie wouldn’t be here getting married, and their story would have ended very differently. Just the thought of it made her sick.
“Quiet, pet,” he answered back. She couldn’t see it, but she felt his smile in his voice.
Pet. How she got that demeaning and patronizing nickname from him, she had no clue. He’d barely talked to her the entire time they’d known each other; just grunts and scowls. Then James had gotten hurt last summer and had been admitted to the hospital, scaring the living shit out of everyone, her included. When Elle had tried to leave in order to go open Rosita’s, Jack had blocked the door, snatched the car keys away from her, and not only forbade her to drive but called her pet. Worse still, when she replied that she didn’t recall giving him permission to call her pet, the asshole dared to say “I don’t recall giving you permission to talk at all, pet” with that frigging arrogant tone of his, the one that gave her those embarrassing shivers. Modern women shouldn’t get shivers at being ordered around in that tone. So politically incorrect, dammit.
And the asshole was immune to her. She got her way with everyone but him, who aggravated the living hell out of her by ignoring her. And the more he ignored her, the more she felt like pissing him off. A vicious, rather enjoyable circle.
She stood by his side, their hands brushing during the service, feeling the tension rolling off him. The darkness too. He was in a bad place. Not caring that he might rebuff her, she slid her hand into his and gave it a tight squeeze. He needed that, whether he would admit it or not. He froze for a second, and to her surprise, when she tried to end the embrace, he didn’t let her, holding her hand tighter.
They didn’t exchange a word during the ceremony. Elle didn’t move a hair, afraid it would break the spell and Jack would remember he was a badass, in no need whatsoever of comfort. He was a badass, true, but whatever he was involved in was eating at him. He was tense and grim. Worn out, although he was standing stoically and would probably rather die than admit it. He needed the comfort, the human touch, even if it was just a small gesture, and damn if she wasn’t going to give it to him.
After Max and Annie were presented as husband and wife, everyone rushed to congratulate them.
Jack released his grip on her, and Elle moved to kiss the newlyweds.
When she turned around, Jack had already disappeared.
One and a half months later, Alden
Jack adjusted his tie, feeling uncomfortable as all fuck. The service at the chapel had been bad, but the mingling and the chitchatting at the reception was much worse. That it was a very informal one, barbecue-style, at James’s, didn’t make matters better. The other way around, actually. It made them chattier. He’d rather eat glass.
He couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
“What have I ever done to you to deserve this?” Jack muttered to James.
He hadn’t been back in the States forty-eight hours and he was already in Alden, neck-deep in babies, parties, and marital bliss. Under normal circumstances, this family fest would have been hard. In his present state, it was unbearable. He was still too raw inside. All he wanted was to be alone, drink himself unconscious, and zonk out for at least a week.
“Come on, man. You know I love you,” James said, laughing.
“Thank God. I don’t want to know what you would do to me if you hated me.”
Being back among normal people doing normal stuff was fucking hard. Not life-affirming. Just uncomfortable and pointless. Making him feel disconnected and more of an outsider. The small talk, the smiles. His stomach roiled at it all, but James was a persistent son of a bitch who had refused to see reason.
“You could have declined to be my son’s godfather.”
“And I would have if you’d told me who the godmother was,” Jack grumbled.
James chuckled. “No, you wouldn’t.”
True. Refusing wouldn’t have been an option for Jack. Whatever James would ask of him, he would do, no questions asked. And the motherfucker knew it.
“And I didn’t lie to you about the godmother,” James continued with a smirk. “You never asked. You must be losing your touch.”
True again. It was all this happy-happy, love-is-in-the-air, pink-marshmallow gooeyness around Jack that was melting his brain.
Alden and the Bowens were bad for his mental health.
“I told you I wasn’t up for this.”
“And that’s exactly why you need to be here,” James stated. “You need to be reminded of the good things in life. Get a haircut. Shave and go get laid.”
“Whatever.” Like it was that easy to unplug. He’d scrubbed himself bloody, but the stench of misery still stuck to him. It was difficult to wash away.
At that moment, one of the main reasons for his piss-poor mood tapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on, T-800,” Party Girl said from behind him. “The photographer wants a picture of Jonah with his godparents. I tried to convince him that the godfather is not really photogenic and might break the camera with his growls and shitty disposition, but he wants to risk it, professional that he is.”
Without waiting for a response, she briskly walked away.
James clapped him on the back. “As I said, the good things in life.”
“T-800?” That was a new one.
“Infiltration unit. Model 101, series 800,” James whispered. Then, probably realizing that meant nothing to Jack, added, “The dumbest of all terminators?”
He’d been told many times he came across as threatening and unapproachable, that everyone was intimidated by him. He liked it that way. The less human interaction, the better. But for some surreal reason, “everyone” didn’t include her.
He hadn’t known Elle was the godmother although he should have imagined James would pull a stunt like this. Not that Jonah was unlucky to have her in his corner. On the contrary; she was fierce and protective. Damn abrasive and infuriating, also. And yet when he closed his eyes, she was the only woman his mind invariably conjured up.
“Come on,” she called, turning around and wiggling her index finger at him. “Keep up.”
He followed her, trying very hard but failing not to notice her hourglass figure and the hypnotic sway of her hips. That gorgeous ass. The way her long, glossy dark hair seemed to float down her back. And that smell. Fuck, that smell always shot straight to his cock, never mind how inappropriate the moment was.
The photographer wanted several pictures of them in different locations, but Jonah took pity on Jack and decided to start fussing, so the ordeal was cut short, ending while they were sitting on the porch swing. He would have stood up and left if he could have, but his legs weren’t obeying him. Besides, the way out of there was through a horde of giggling, happy people, all nice and friendly. Oblivious to the darkness in the world. Wanting to know why he looked so gloomy and trying to cheer him up.
With Elle cooing at him, Jonah calmed down pretty fast, and Jack found himself staring at both of them. He never felt disconnected or like an outsider while being around Elle. He was pissed at himself and bothered beyond belief, and amused and aggrieved all at the same time, but never disconnected.
She turned to him, smiled, and he got the full impact, like a eighteen-wheeler slamming against his chest. Olive skin. Delicate features; sultry, extremely kissable lips. Killer body. Too bad every inch of her radiated that belligerent disposition of hers, the one that made his cock so fucking hard he couldn’t breathe. He’d hoped her effect on him would have worn off, but no dice. She was even more beautiful, which should have been impossible, because she was stunning to begin with.
He could still remember the first time he’d seen her, at Rosita’s. She’d looked at him with her black eyes full of attitude, and the world had tilted on its axis. He’d tried to realign it, but so far he’d had no luck whatsoever. With her around, everything was a mess—which he hated—but without her nothing felt right. Go figure.
“So you finally resurfaced. You sticking around, or is this just another of your quickies?”
He all but choked. “What?”
“In and out in a flash. Now we see you, now we don’t, like Max’s wedding.”
Max’s wedding, another of his lapses in judgment a bit over a month ago. He’d flown into Boston and then driven for two hours to make sure he didn’t have a tail, arriving just in time to see the couple walk down the aisle.
Going there had been his first mistake. Allowing Elle to touch him had been his second, and even far more dangerous. Standing there, silently holding hands, had been the most peaceful he’d felt for months.
Whatever Elle had seen in his eyes must have been pretty bad, because she hadn’t said anything, but after that she’d started writing to him daily and sending him more pictures than ever.
“Done. For the most part.” Infiltrating the illegal arms trade to uncover the source of weapons flowing to scumbags all over the world had been gruesome. They managed to close down several routes without getting his cover blown, but there were always loose ends to be tied up.
“Where were you?” He didn’t answer but she didn’t seem to take it personally. “Got it. State secret.” She gave him a once-over, and without allowing him time to react, brushed his beard with her fingertips, the unexpected caress sending a jolt through his body and zapping his brain. “You look different. Scruffy. I like it.”
Jack pulled away and ran his hand through his shaggy hair, trying not to think about how good her touch had felt. “Don’t get used to it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said with a laugh.
Before he could censor himself, his dumb mouth opened. “Where is Kai?”
She studied him with big inquisitive eyes, the corner of her mouth tilted up in amusement. “Where’s the blonde?”
Blonde? Ah, that babysitting job he’d been guilt-tripped into during James’s wedding. Gorgeous woman, no two ways about it, but Jack hadn’t even noticed her. Elle was all he had seen. Her and her date, Kai, grinning like a fool, his hand on the small of Elle’s back.
He’d wanted so badly to chop off that hand. The whole arm, actually.
“Forgot her tied to your bed?” Elle continued. “That’s the problem with gagging your dates; they can’t scream and one forgets they are there.”
“You speaking from experience, pet?”
“No one would ever forget I’m in their bed.”
He looked into her eyes. No, of course not. Any man with blood in his veins would kill for that memory. Instead, he answered, “I bet. You’re that obnoxious.”
She didn’t take offense, tapping condescendingly on his chest. “Not the right word, buddy. But I’ll forgive you. Everyone knows T-800s have limited vocabulary. Besides, this must be overwhelming for you. Wifeys and babies all over the place.”
He shrugged. “I don’t have a problem with that.” Which, under normal circumstances, was true.
“Really? I thought you’d be another of those commitment-phobic guys.”
That seemed to surprise her. “You want to marry?”
“Sure. I just would never marry someone like you,” he said, his tone hard.
Now was when she would smack his face and leave in a huff. Lord knew it wouldn’t be the first.
Elle burst into laughter. “You’re so full of yourself. What makes you think I would marry you? You aren’t husband material. You are…fucking material.” She whispered the last two words, covering Jonah’s barely month-old ears, as if the baby could understand. “At best. And that remains to be seen. You might not be good at that either. Not that I have the slightest interest in finding out.”
“You are lying, pet,” he blurted out.
Her expression was deceptively sweet. “Do not call me pet.”
“Do not lie, pet.”
“I’m not. Given up on bad boys, sweetie. And you are as bad as they come.”
Then she stood up and, still chuckling, walked away from him, leaving him stunned and with the mother of all hard-ons tenting his pants.
In spite of everything, he felt a smile breaking over his face.
Yep, he needed to get the fuck out of Alden and away from her. Pronto. Before what little mind he had left melted.
Bowen Series Reading Order
More than Meets the Ink (Bowen #1)
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo
Heavy Issues (Bowen #2)
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo
Inked Ever After (Bowen, #2.5)
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo
To The Max (Bowen, #3)
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | My Review