A DANGEROUS ENGAGEMENT (PAPERBACK)
A DANGEROUS ENGAGEMENT (PAPERBACK)
Book 2 in the Sisters in Arms Military Romantic Suspense Series
New to the Sisters? Start Here
What would you sacrifice for your country?
Army Delta Force Capt. Tom Wild has never played by the rules, and he’s not about to start now. Tom will do anything to thwart the terrorist who murdered his friend, even court Luis’ trusted cousin Anna Shale—into bed, if necessary. The sultry beauty is Luis’ only weakness. That Anna’s a former US Navy Lt. suspected of passing military secrets to her cousin will make arresting the two—and Tom’s revenge for his buddy’s death—all the sweeter.
Written by a former US Navy Lt.
If you like strong, female protagonists mixed with intense romance and page-turning suspense, you'll love this story by Candace Irvin.
What readers are saying:
Really enjoyable! I'm really enjoying this series. With its strong woman and their sister hood. I find it refreshing that these woman can match any man and still reaming a woman. —Julie A Sherman
Wide eyed and totally engaging! Candace Irving has the amazing talent that has you opening one of her books and then finding yourself unable to put in back down till you reach the last page! "Dangerous Engagement" is absolutely breath stealing, heart thumping magic! A definite rollercoaster ride of emotions and teeth grinding excitement! More, more, more! —Sheila Schwartz
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There is no road of flowers leading to glory.
—Jean de La Fontaine
Her past had finally come back to haunt her.
She’d always known it would. She just hadn’t thought it would happen quite like this. Anna reread the final, damning assessment in her cousin’s psychological evaluation and closed the file. The claustrophobia returned even before she dumped the folder beside the others splayed out on the conference table, but this time, the noose tightened with a vengeance. Desperate to loosen it, she shot to her feet, kicking her chair away as she strode across the room. She stopped short at the potted palm and spun around. Unfortunately, the stifling claustrophobia was still there…and so were the files. To anyone else, the drab brown folder to the far left of that mug of coffee would have seemed innocuous enough.
But it wasn’t.
For one thing, it was too fat. For another, it had her name, rank and serial number stenciled along the tab. Still uncomfortable with the intimate details she’d just read about her cousin’s childhood, a childhood painfully entwined with her own, Anna shifted her gaze to the final folder. To the red one. The one marked Top Secret. The only one she’d yet to open.
Dammit, why Luis? And why now?
But she knew why, didn’t she? Just as she knew that despite the outwardly cozy trappings of plush carpet, tropical plants and sleek high-backed leather chairs, this was no ordinary executive conference room. And that was no ordinary mirror. Anna glanced over the mahogany table, straight into the gilded frame on the opposite wall.
He was watching her.
Oh, she couldn’t see him. The only thing she saw from here was the crisp set of Navy khakis she’d donned that morning. But she’d bet her soon-to-be tarnished lieutenant bars that Special Agent Foster was less than ten inches away from the opposite side of that one-way mirror, studying her every move, her every expression. She could feel it. By now every agent stationed at the San Diego branch of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service had probably joined Foster. Each of them waiting. Trying to determine where her true loyalties lay. And what her decision was going to be.
What made Foster believe she could just show up in Panama after all these years unannounced? So she’d shared a shack with Luis until she was fourteen. Surely Foster didn’t believe that meant Luis would automatically throw open his arms and accept her as the long lost-cousin she was? Except…Luis would accept her. Anna stared at the folder containing the psychological evaluation she’d finished reading minutes before. She didn’t need some Navy shrink to tell her the Ortizes lived and died by their familial loyalties and misplaced sense of honor. The events of her own childhood had proven that. What she didn’t have was proof that Luis was the heinous villain Foster and his NCIS commander had made him out to be.
So open the damned file and find out.
Anna marshaled her nerves and forced herself to cross the room. Chills rippled down her spine as her fingers brushed the telltale block letters that were the stock and trade of every other naval intelligence officer who’d come before her—Top Secret. Dammit, she could do this. She did it all the time. Except it had never hit quite so close to home before, had it? She shoved the thought aside. But as she picked up the folder, a dozen five-by-seven color photographs spilled out. Stark, crisp color.
Anna closed her eyes instinctively, but it was too late. She’d already seen the pictures. She’d already seen the blood. In addition to the standard surveillance shots, Foster had provided a photo for each of Luis Ortiz’s victims. Those Foster claimed to know about, anyway. There was no mistaking how the poor souls had died. Each one had had their throat slit. Right down to the last man, woman…and child.
Oh God, could Luis really be to blame?
Anna shoved the memories aside and picked up the photos one by one. Swallowing the bile that threatened to swamp her, she opened the cover of the folder and carefully stacked the photos within. When she finished, she closed the folder and raised her chin. Only then did she turn and face the one-way mirror and the NCIS agent behind it, staring squarely into her Panamanian features for the first time since she’d been left in this room with nothing more than three files, a cup of rapidly cooling coffee and that single damning question. Was she willing to put her naval commission on the line—and perhaps her very life—in order to discover the truth?
She nodded firmly. “I am.”
But for all her bravado, she had to wonder. What would happen when she came face-to-face with her cousin again for the first time in fifteen years? Even if Foster was right and Luis had grown into a monster, he was still family. Other than her father, the only real family she had left. Unlike her father, Luis had once risked everything for her, including his own life. If it came right down to it, would she be strong enough to betray that…and him?
Three months later
Luis was late.
Tom Wild fought the urge to pace the hacienda’s foyer with all the patience of a Cobra aerial gunship forced into a holding pattern five miles inside enemy radar range. It had taken his Delta Force team two precious weeks to set up this cover, not to mention calling in one hell of a marker. And now, when he should have been a handshake away from the most important assignment of his career, he’d been abandoned, barely inside the front door of this mausoleum, cooling his heels for damned near half an hour. If Luis Ortiz didn’t show up in the next sixty seconds, he was out of here.
Hell, he should probably leave now. Luis was supposed to be ripe for the picking. Desperate, in fact. Half an hour late didn’t look desperate to him.
Maybe their information was wrong.
The stream of curses that had been simmering in his blood for the past thirty minutes finally vented as the sixty-second deadline came and went—with no Luis. The devil with it. Tom spun around and headed across the bloodred tiles that led to the front door. He’d wait the allotted time and then contact his local handler. It was time for them to regroup. But the moment he reached out for the wrought-iron handle, he caught the unmistakable scuff of footsteps. About time.
He lowered his hand and took a moment to lock the distant but respectful smile Luis had responded to so well in place before he turned around. It wasn’t Luis. It was the man’s housemaid. Again. Son of a—
“I’m so sorry, señor. I thought you had already been shown inside. If you please, follow me.” Before Tom could argue, the woman turned, leaving him with a choice view of her backside encased in the drab green Luis seemed to favor on his house servants. The woman’s sensible shoes scuffed along the tiles until she reached a set of double doors and what appeared to be the entrance to yet another foyer.
Tom ground down what was left of his patience and took off after her. He’d wait five minutes more for Luis, not a second over. He’d been dancing this tango with the Panamanian bastard for four bloody days. The references he’d constructed for this job were impeccable. Not to mention he’d personally forced the Feds to plead down a Class A felony on a Class B thug back in the States to ensure it. He’d had to. He needed an in with Luis’s organization. And he needed it now.
Having come too far to turn back, Tom stepped through the double doors, discreetly casing the new room as he entered. This one was larger—hell, cavernous. Twin stone staircases flanked both sides of what was essentially an inner courtyard with a glass roof. The staircases stretched up to connect the opposite ends of a balcony lined with arches. The verdigris fountain centered below the balcony dwarfed him. It also explained the steady stream of bubbling water he’d heard these past thirty minutes.
Tom scanned the stucco wall beyond the mermaid and her trio of gurgling fish and frowned. From almost the moment he met Luis, he’d known the man suffered from a terminal case of self-worship, in addition to delusions of dictatorship—or at least, political office. That god-awful marble bust confirmed it. Tom was still frowning when the maid reached the base of the staircase on his right and halted abruptly. He turned toward her, uncertain if the woman intended for him to follow or remain here. A moment later, he caught the scuff of another shoe. Like the maid’s, this one came from behind. But this time, it was further away and up high. Luis?
No, this tread was more a whisper. A woman’s step. He was certain as the whisper grew into a series of soft taps.
Heels. Luis’s latest bed warmer, he’d wager.
Tom turned again, but the stone mermaid and her trio of fish obscured his view. He stepped around the fountain only to find the side of the stone staircase equally unyielding.
Her shoes came into view first. Off-white, with a modest two-inch heel, they were the most tasteful things he’d spotted in the hacienda yet. By the time the mystery woman’s calves came into view, he’d grudgingly nudged his assessment of Luis’s taste up a couple of notches. This mermaid was not made of stone. She sported a perfectly matched set of tanned, slender legs, too, with nary a fishnet in sight. The sheen on those limbs came from one hundred percent silken flesh. The matching off-white linen sheath covering the woman’s thighs and hips came next and then the rest. Even as his body reacted to the generous nips and swells beneath that sleeveless dress, his mind pulled the threads of memory. Recent memory. The second they knotted into place, so did her face.
Christ, no. Not here. Not now.
The woman was in profile. Maybe it wasn’t—
The dread locked in as she lifted her hand from the stone banister to push a swath of gleaming dark brown hair past her shoulders as she continued down the stairs, offering him a lingering, damning view of the same slender neck and gently curving jaw he’d committed to memory from various photographs two short weeks ago. It was her, all right.
Anna Ortiz Shale. The United States Navy’s newest traitor. What the hell was Luis up to? According to the dates on the woman’s airline tickets, he should have had another full week to secure his infiltration of Luis’s network before she returned to Panama. Why hadn’t he been warned?
She reached the bottom of the staircase, rendering the burning question moot. He masked his shock along with his fury as she turned to scan the room. A split second later, he was staring into that dark, steady gaze.
He forced himself to breathe. He was Army. She was Navy. They’d never run into each other on a joint op. The likelihood of her recognizing him now was extremely remote. And yet…that stare. For a moment, he swore she could see into his soul. Then, just like that, it was over. Whatever had happened, whatever she’d thought she’d seen, she’d shaken it off. She stepped off the staircase and crossed the courtyard, her heel clicking quietly across the flagstones until she reached the fountain. Until she reached him.
She stretched out her hand and smiled. “Anna Shale. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr. Wild. I’m afraid I fell asleep after my flight this afternoon and just now woke.”
It was a lie. He wasn’t surprised. After all, she’d been living one for over half her life. He wasn’t even surprised the lie had slipped so easily off what he already knew to be an extremely glib tongue. But he was disappointed, because she obviously expected him to swallow it. Yes, her eyes were red. But her pupils were also dilated. Not to mention unfocused. And then there was her poise. While the effect was still regal this close up, it was also overdone. As if it took all her concentration just to hold herself steady.
Sleeping, his ass. The woman was on something.
Pills, booze, shooting up—he couldn’t be sure which.
It didn’t matter. He didn’t even care if Luis had sent her in here with the authority to hire him on the spot. He’d be damned if he was going to strike a deal on something this important while the woman was as high as a kite.
He’d be lucky if she remembered it—or him.
Tom stared at the woman’s hand, still extended, before meeting her too carefully schooled gaze. “It’s nice to have met you, Ms. Shale. Tell Luis I couldn’t stay. I’ll see myself out.” He didn’t bother waiting for the shock exploding in her eyes to settle before he spun around. He was halfway across the courtyard before she caught up with him, her heels clipping frantically at his right as she grabbed at the sleeve of his suit. A suit he’d wasted on a no-show.
And a stoned by-blow.
“Wait! You can’t just leave—”
He swung around, taking full advantage of his height. Even in heels, the top of her head barely reached his chin. He had to hand it to the woman though—she held her ground.
Her bravado probably came from the drugs.
“Lady, I can. And I am.”
“Screw Luis. Not only did your cousin have the gall to send a woman to do a man’s job—after I was kept waiting for half a bloody hour—but the woman he sent is flying higher than the flag hanging from that pole out front. Your cousin needs a fuse man? He can find someone else. I’ve withdrawn my offer.” Tom turned back to the double doors.
The hell he couldn’t. And she had to know it. He kept walking.
“Mr. Wild, please.”
He wasn’t sure why, but he stopped. Maybe it was the huskiness in her voice. Maybe it was the distinct thread of panic. Did she need the buzz to keep from remembering what she’d done? Was she hooked on the stuff? Or did she just need it while she was here, living under her cousin’s roof, drowning in the rancid muck of her cousin’s life? Dammit, why did he even care? The woman had betrayed her nation. She’d murdered Manuel. Perhaps not personally. That, he couldn’t be sure of. But he would find out. Eventually. It just wouldn’t be today.
He took another step.
Against his better judgment, he stopped—and turned.
She was less than ten inches away. Close enough to touch. Close enough for him to see the flecks of gold in her dark brown eyes. Close enough for him to feel the full brunt of that heady mix of sultry sex and regal cool. Close enough for him to taste the shadow of fear. He had to hand it to her. She was good. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear it was real. It certainly looked real. But it wasn’t. And neither was she.
Manny was right. Those wide eyes, thick lashes and pouting lips made a man want to dive right in. If he drowned, so what? What better way to go, than to go clinging to those silk tresses, slipping into that smooth, honeyed flesh. Only the scar to the right of her lips marred it. As stunning as she was, it would have been easy to miss. Thin and no more than an inch in length, it was a shade lighter than her complexion. But it caused the otherwise smooth skin at her mouth to pucker slightly. He was grateful. When he looked into this face in the coming weeks, that scar would remind him of why he was really in Panama. And what he’d come to do.
He crossed his arms. “Well?”
She blinked. Again, innocence incarnate.
She was either exceptionally good or exceptionally high. At the moment, it didn’t matter which. After all the details that had gone into setting up this cover, he’d have sworn on his Delta patch it was solid. But those thirty minutes he’d spent cooling his heels in the foyer proved it wasn’t. Anna’s untimely appearance confirmed it. He’d either done or said something during the past few days that had raised Luis’s suspicions, or this was another one of Loony Louie’s games. Either way, it was time to force the bastard’s hand.
Luis was supposed to be desperate? Then he could do the crawling for a change. “Lady, I don’t have all day. If you have something to say that’ll stop me from walking out of here and climbing aboard the next plane out of Panama, you’d better spill it now. But before you do, you should know that I already know who you are and what you used to do. I also know you sold out, whether or not the charges stuck. You’re no better than me, honey. In fact, I’d say you’re worse.”
Her spine stiffened. Obviously he’d struck a nerve.
Good. It was time to strike another. “I’m betting Luis flew you home early so you could give him your professional assessment of me and my skills. Why not do us both a favor and cut to the chase. Do I have the job or not?”
Her gaze narrowed at the condescension dripping from his voice. The regal tilt to her chin returned, too. “You’re not the only one who’s inquired, you know.”
He smiled. “But I am the best.”
Her gaze was focused now and sharpening by the second. Whatever she was on was wearing off. She crossed one smooth, bare arm over the other, locking both down as her chin cocked another notch. “So you say. Yes, your references check out. But they could be faked. The last man’s were. How can Luis be sure you know how to light a match, let alone rig a bomb? How can I?”
If she hadn’t mentioned Manny, he might have let it go.
But she had. And he couldn’t.
He closed in, ignoring the irony of her innocent floral scent as he plowed his hands into the dark cloud of her hair. He shoved the silk weight past her shoulders, his thumb timing the pulse throbbing in her throat as he leaned down to pour his promise directly into her ear. “You want proof of my skills? Lady, you just give the word. I’ll light your fuse like it’s never been lit before. And then I’ll set you on fire.” He felt more than heard her strangled gasp.
He allowed himself the satisfaction of a grim smile at the ripple of shock that followed. Her hair swirled into place as he straightened and stepped away.
“As for your cousin, you tell Luis he has twenty-four hours to make up his mind. If he wants a demonstration of my professional skills, fine. I’ll blow up all three locks on the goddamned Canal if he wants, but then I get paid.” With that, he spun on his heel and headed for the front door.
This time, he didn’t stop.
She was doomed.
The second the double doors snapped shut, Anna slumped against the wall of the courtyard. It was either that or fall flat on her face. Even with the back of her head braced against the whitewashed stucco, she could still feel her brain spinning around inside her skull…or was that outside it? At the moment, she couldn’t be sure. The only thing she was sure of was that she’d blown it. Royally.
Tom Wild was right about one thing. Luis had ordered her home early from her so-called vacation visiting her college sorority sister. An entire week early. She’d deliberately spent the first four days alternately grieving and then climbing the walls and shuttered windows of Samantha’s guest room just in case Luis came down with yet another case of sudden paranoia. He hadn’t. What he’d contracted was worse.
Complete trust. And she’d just broken it.
Luis was not going to be pleased. If she’d learned anything about her cousin and his activities these past three months, it was that to keep Luis happy was to stay alive. Agent Foster might have turned out to be a bastard and a half, but he’d also hit the nail on the head three months ago.
Luis was a monster.
Anna stiffened against the wall.
But maybe, just maybe, there was a way to salvage her career and her life. She vaguely recalled Luis telling her he’d be back by ten. Of course, that had been before the champagne he’d forced her to drink had kicked in, mixing with the Percocet Dr. Matthews had slipped into her hand as she’d staggered into a waiting cab ten hours earlier and twenty-five hundred miles away. God only knows what time Luis would really be home, much less what time it was now.
Anna raised her wrist and carefully focused on the tiny slivers of gold that ticked off the hours on her watch, relieved with the seventy-minute reprieve she’d been granted. Given the way her eyes were beginning to respond, she just might be able to skim the dossier her cousin had compiled on the man she’d just met. A man she’d been so woozy while meeting, she even couldn’t recall his face. All she remembered were steel-blue eyes and a voice filled with gravel and barely restrained, almost seething, anger.
Sex. Just like that, she could feel it again. Feel him.
She might not be able to pick Tom Wild out in a lineup to save her soul, but she would never forget the wave of pure erotic fury that had poured over her when she’d challenged the man’s skills. Or had that just been another hallucination? If the dull throb beneath her right breast wasn’t already beginning to increase in pace and intensity, she might have chalked up the entire day to her drug-induced imagination. As it was, the more the fog in her head dissipated, the sharper the ache in her chest became.
Maybe she could rig a cool compress while she studied the references Tom had provided her cousin?
It was worth a shot. It beat taking another one of those blasted tablets. No matter how bad the pain got, it wasn’t worth losing her life over. If she didn’t have an answer for Luis when he returned, it could very well come to that.
Unlike his prospective employee, Luis knew her far too well to ever assume she was simply high on drugs, let alone addicted. A passing comment from Tom was all it would take to rouse her cousin’s trademark paranoia. Luis would crawl into her life and examine it like he hadn’t in months. Despite Agent Foster’s assurances, she knew darn well it wouldn’t take long for Luis to discover she hadn’t been lying on a massage table earlier this morning—but on an operating one.
Even if she could concoct an explanation, Luis wouldn’t wait for it. She’d be dead before she could open her mouth.
Anna shoved the image from her mind and straightened against the wall. There was only one thing she could do. She had to talk to Tom Wild before her cousin did. Somehow, she’d have to convince the man to keep his mouth shut, even as she figured out how to get him to open it far enough for her to satisfy Luis’s lingering questions. Unfortunately, she couldn’t risk contacting Foster so soon after arriving back in Panama. There was no time to e-mail Samantha, either. Even if her sorority sister got the message immediately, it would take time for Sam to run a check on Tom with the level of detail she’d need. That left the dossier in her room.
That settled it. She’d start with a shower to clear her head. Then she’d grab the dossier and a cab. Luis had penned the name of the hotel where Tom was staying on the cover. Maybe she could find something inside the folder on the drive over. Something Luis and his investigator had overlooked. Something she could use to hold over Mr. Wild’s arrogant head.
Anna pushed off the solid strength of wall and headed across the courtyard, determined to make up for lost time. Thankfully, her grip on equilibrium had improved since the last time she’d made the trek. But it still wasn’t a hundred percent. Opting to improve her odds of making it up the stairs and into the privacy of her room, she kicked off her left heel, and then her right before leaning down to scoop them up.
Unfortunately, another hand reached the shoes first.
Her heart slammed into her throat, her reprieve and makeshift plans evaporating as she recognized its owner.
What the devil was she supposed to do now?