Get the series! Garen and Lars.
Undercover Shifter Bad Boys = Alphas With Serious Attitude!
Tumble across the Rubicon into the death-riddled world of international espionage.
Lars: Tamara MacBride has a much bigger problem than hiding her shifter side from the world. By the skin of her teeth, and with a smattering of Irish luck, she manages to kill her sister’s murderer. Escaping from the scene of the crime is much harder than she anticipated. Just when she thinks she might be safe, her cab driver shrieks and slumps over the wheel.
An unknown assailant terminates Lars Kinsvogel’s target. Pleased by the outcome—after all dead is dead—he exchanges the glitz of Monte Carlo for a nearby airport, intent on collecting the private plane he left there. He’s no sooner arrived when a cab jumps the curb, and he races over to investigate. There’s not much he can do for the cabbie, but his passenger is still very much alive.
Trying to hustle Tamara out of the cab is tough. She’s frozen by fear, but when Lars lays out the rest of his plan to move her out of danger’s path, her temper flares. He can’t leave her alone in Monte Carlo. Can he convince her to trust him in time to save her life?
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Lars Kinsvogel sucked in an annoyed breath. Anxiety and greed thickened the air in Monte Carlo’s Place de Casino, and he stifled a choking sound. Damn his hypersensitive shifter senses. If it weren’t for them, the desperation hovering around him wouldn’t be quite so palpable. Casinos were always like this, though, a haven for the rash and reckless. What had likely begun as a harmless pastime turned into hardcore addiction for an unfortunate few, forcing them to return again and again despite diminishing returns.
Hope springs eternal. All the poor sods need is one more spin of the wheel, another hand of cards… Lars glanced up, right into the croupier’s beady gaze.
“Would monsieur like to place a bet?” The croupier grinned with all the warmth of a hammerhead shark, displaying a mouthful of bad teeth. What was it with the French and their aversion to dentistry? Lars shook his head and made shooing motions with one hand. He’d have to either join the baccarat game soon or move on, but he could get away with loitering for a few more minutes without drawing undue attention to himself.
His target, a powerfully built man with features revealing Chinese ancestry, had an arm slung around a striking brunette. Maybe she was one of the hookers who worked the casino circuit, or maybe she was a steady thing for the man.
Lars considered it and decided she could be both. Around five feet eight, she had a lush, curvy body, dark hair cut into a stylish bob that fell a few inches past her shoulders, and memorable eyes the color of a restless ocean. A short, black sheath hugged her like a second skin. Open nearly to her waist, it displayed half her full breasts. Even though Lars’ appraisal was surreptitious, he forced his gaze elsewhere. The woman was sex incarnate, and he didn’t need anything diverting him from his objective.
Jaret Chen pressed chips into his companion’s hand and urged her to pick a number. He gave one of her breasts a familiar squeeze, which earned him a smile, perfectly rouged lips stretching over impossibly straight teeth—and a slight shake of her head. Color stained her tanned skin. Lars realized he was looking at the woman again, wondering how her breasts would feel beneath his fingers. She seemed uncomfortable with Jaret’s frank exploration of her body, so she probably wasn’t a pro. For some unexplained reason, Lars felt relieved. The woman was too elegant to earn her living lying on her back.
He snorted to himself and studied the flashing display above the baccarat table. Maybe the woman wasn’t French. That might explain her perfect teeth—and her discomfort with having her body mauled in public. At least she held Jaret’s attention. So far the drug dealer hadn’t spared him so much as a sidelong glance. Lars had never met the man, but knew a great deal about him from an extensive dossier provided by Rubicon International. Deeply involved in the heroin trade from the Middle East, across the Mediterranean, and into Europe, Jaret was one of the principals in a large operation—and Lars’ current target.
He sized the man up. Maybe six feet, he had a barrel chest. Strongly muscled arms strained against the fabric of his cream-colored, silk dress shirt. His art deco tie had been loosened. Dark eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and straight dark hair cut short blended with his business attire. For all intents and purposes, he was indistinguishable from the phalanx of wealthy—and wannabe wealthy—men circulating through the casino. Lars glanced at his own cream-colored silk shirt and black linen pants. With the exception that his tie was still firmly knotted, he and Jaret were dressed as twins.
Guess neither of us wanted to stick out in anyone’s memory.
Lars glanced at his Rolex. Close to midnight and time to move on. He’d seen enough. Now it was a matter of figuring out where and when to strike. These things always went more smoothly when he was close to invisible. He melted into the crowd and made his way outside. The casino fronted the French Riviera, and Lars stood looking out at the Mediterranean for long moments. The water was quiet tonight, waves barely slapping the white sand beach. His cell phone, set on silent, vibrated against his hip, and he tugged it from a pocket to look at the display.
Private. Damn! Could be anyone.
Lars punched the answer icon, held the phone to his ear, and waited. No need to say anything until he knew who was on the other end.
“Are you somewhere you can talk?”
Lars inhaled sharply as Garen LeRochefort’s voice came through the phone’s speaker.
Another shifter, Garen had founded Rubicon International with Lars hundreds of years before. The mechanics of the spy game had changed drastically between the late seventeen hundreds and modern times, but the basics—kill or be killed—hadn’t altered much. Everyone who worked for Rubicon International was some type of shifter. Lars’ animal form was a mountain lion, Garen’s a wolf.
Lars loped farther down the beach until he cleared several couples engaged in deep, hungry kisses before responding. “What has happened?” Something must have, or Garen wouldn’t have risked contact.
“You need to leave.”
“But I have not—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Garen cut in. “I’ll explain when you’re back in the office on a fully encrypted line.”
Lars thought about his twin engine Piper Seneca waiting at the Nice airport, twenty-four kilometers from Monte Carlo. It gave him freedom to come and go, and was much cheaper to operate than the business class jets he also owned. “Maybe I could still—”
“No!” The one word thundered so loud, Lars moved the phone away from his ear. “Don’t even go back to your room.” Garen hesitated. “Old friend. Trust me on this.” The line went dead.
Lars stared at the iPhone’s display and dropped the device back into his pocket. He’d been compromised. He wasn’t certain quite how, and a part of him was curious as hell. He kept walking, swinging in a wide circle to head back toward the Hotel de Paris. Garen had said not to return to his room, but if he was careful, maybe he could learn something critical that would help their side.
“Ja, forewarned is forearmed,” he muttered.
Keycard in hand, he let himself into a side door of the rambling old structure, got his bearings, and started cautiously up a stairwell. His suite was on the second floor, at the very end of the wing facing the Mediterranean. He’d always loved the old hotel with its thick, patterned carpets and antique lighting and furnishings. Staying next to the walls, he used a bit of shifter magic to cast a don’t look here spell. It wouldn’t keep someone determined from seeing him, but it didn’t require much magic, either.
He entered the second floor a few doors from his own and scanned the empty hallway, his senses on high alert. Midnight was early in Monte Carlo, a city where people frequently stayed up through dawn and slept the day away, so he fully expected to see other guests, but the hall was mercifully empty. He padded silently toward his door and examined it, wishing he’d set a trap. He inhaled, trying to sort scents, but there were too many to make sense of. He could leave, just walk away like Garen had almost ordered him to, but Lars had never been a coward, and he was more intrigued than frightened. He’d spent years worming his way out of dicey situations. This was just one more, and he was damned if he’d walk away from his things. Not unless he had to.
He took a deep breath, tugged his guaranteed-not-to-set-off-metal-detectors .32 caliber revolver from its ankle holster, and shoved the key card into the slot in the door. A tiny electric motor hummed before the deadbolt snicked out of the way. He turned the latch, kicked the door open, and pivoted from side to side, scanning the sitting room of his suite, gun at the ready. Lars waited in the doorway, barely breathing, and then he heard a muted click, followed by an unmistakable whirr, and knew.
He cursed in German, not knowing if he was more annoyed with the turn of events or with himself for not taking Garen’s advice and getting the hell out of there.
* * * *
Tamara MacBride pushed the betting chips back into Jaret’s hand. “Sure and I’m not feeling like wagering just now,” she murmured. “Why don’t you do it for me?”
He shot her an odd look. “But you like to gamble.”
You only think I do.
“Something we had for supper didn’t quite settle. Would you mind if I sat somewhere?” She swayed a bit on her feet to make her statement more realistic and sent a weak smile his way. In truth, she was a bit nauseated. Between sweat and greed, the air in the casino stank of humanity’s darker side. Expensive colognes added a queer edge, their rich scents intensifying as their owners’ anxiety rose. If she hadn’t been a shifter, she might not have noticed, at least not as much. So far, she’d done a decent job hiding what she was from Jaret. She aimed to keep things that way.
He ran a thick index finger down the bare skin between her breasts. “We could return to our rooms.”
She crinkled her face in what she hoped looked like an apology and did her best to ooze regret. “Better wait until my tummy settles.” He was arrogant enough, he had no idea how repulsive she found him. Thank all the bloody saints, she’d managed to keep any sexual activities between them tamped down to nothing because of his heroin habit. According to a bit of Internet research, she supposed he could probably get hard, but the drug suppressed orgasms. At least so far, he’d been much more interested in his next shot of dope and drifting into an opiate-induced dreamy void than in bothering her for sex.
Jaret returned his attention to the baccarat table. “I’ll just be over there.” She pointed to a row of padded Louis Fourteenth chairs with bowed legs. Jaret nodded absently. His pupils were very small, so he was still fully under the influence of his last shot. That meant she had at least a couple of hours before he’d need to leave the casino.
Tamara tottered to a chair on ridiculously high heels. They made her feet ache, but Jaret liked it when she dressed like a fancy woman and pleasing him was high on her list. She settled onto the plush seat and slipped her shoes off. A waiter stopped and arched an inquiring brow. Nodding pleasantly at him, she ordered club soda. Rubbing the bridge of her nose between two fingers, she made a grab for her courage. So far, her plan had gone off without a hitch. The only thing left was to finish things off.
The waiter handed her drink over, along with a bowl of salted nuts, and she set both on a nearby chair. The ebb and flow of noise in the crowded room eddied around her. A quick glance at Jaret reassured her that he was still deeply engrossed in gambling—his second favorite addiction, right after heroin. He didn’t care much for women, other than as window dressing and so the other men would see him as some sort of stud.
Tamara sipped her fizzy water and pursed her lips together. It was a long way from Dublin to Monte Carlo, and she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her sister. She bit her lower lip. Poor Moira. Dead at twenty-five. The coroner’s report had listed a drug overdose as the official cause of death, but Moira hadn’t been an addict. Her only crime was falling in love with Jaret Chen. Tamara had no idea how her sister actually died, but she knew in her bones that Jaret was responsible. Maybe someone had held her down while injecting enough of the crap to kill her.
She also had no idea how her sister could’ve been taken in by the Asian drug cartel lead-man, but Moira had always been drawn to powerful men. It was the only explanation.
She drained half her water and chewed a handful of cashews. Their entire family had been devastated by Moira’s death, particularly her da. Tamara could still see his swollen, blotchy face at the funeral as he and three of her four brothers lowered the casket into the earth. The glass in her hand made an odd noise. She set it down before she broke it by accident. Moira had been a cat shifter, just like Tamara. Why the hell hadn’t she claimed her animal form and killed the son of a bitch bent over the gaming table?
I’ll never know.
She unclenched her jaw before her teeth cracked. She’d waited a few months so Jaret wouldn’t be suspicious, and then searched him out. When he’d made a comment in passing that his last girlfriend had been Irish and had the same last name, she’d shrugged and blessed every goddess in the Celtic pantheon that Moira had the good sense not to tell Jaret anything about her family.
“MacBride’s a common enough name in Scotland and Ireland,” she’d informed him with a coy look, before asking, “What happened to her?”
“Who?” He’d looked the soul of innocence, the bastard.
“Sure and you know, your last girl pal. I’d hate to think she might come back to claim you.” Tamara had held her breath then, torn between not wanting to hear whatever lie he came up with and being desperate for information.
He’d shrugged. “Hard to say quite what happened. Guess she dumped me.” He’d made a sour face and muttered something disparaging about women under his breath.
That had been two months ago. In the intervening time, she’d inveigled her way into his life. Because she was attractive, pleasant, and never made any demands—easy enough since she couldn’t bear the sight, or stench, of him—he’d allowed her into his inner circle.
She closed her teeth over her lower lip. The only thing she hadn’t done was kill him. It would be easy enough. He slept like a dead thing because of his drug habit. She could do the deed and be out of their bedroom and on her way hours before anyone discovered his body. She’d never formally registered as a hotel guest. Jaret had his reasons for wanting her invisible. Apparently, he’d never guessed she might have her own.
So why haven’t I finished this?
The answer bubbled up, and it sickened her. Nothing in her chosen profession as a freelance photojournalist had prepared her for wholesale slaughter. She was a coward, plain and simple. Killing in her mountain lion form was one thing. It felt…natural. Not that she’d ever killed anything except game to eat, even shifted. To take a life, in a cold-blooded, carefully thought out manner, repelled her. She’d dreamed of shoving her knife into Jaret’s carotid, even circled him while he slept, blade in hand, but in the end she hadn’t been able to force herself to strike.
Her hands ached because she’d balled them into fists. Once she uncrimped her fingers, blood welled where her nails had sliced into her palms.
Either I do this thing, or I need to leave.
An unpleasant thought surfaced. She was in so deep, he’d never just let her walk away. Maybe that had been Moira’s undoing. Sick to death of playing third fiddle behind Jaret’s addictions, maybe her proud sister had issued an ultimatum and ended up with enough heroin in her bloodstream to kill a moose.
The more she considered it, the more certain Tamara was she’d hit within spitting distance of the truth. She gazed at her lap and pulled the gaping front of her dress closer together. There wasn’t any choice. Not really. He’d never let her go, so she had to latch onto enough moxie to finish him off.
“Another drink, mademoiselle?” The waiter was back. He stared at her half-exposed breasts, a lascivious grin not far from the surface.
She nodded. “Scotch. Single malt. Twenty years old, or more.”
“Very good, mademoiselle. Anything to go with it?”
What could she order that wouldn’t blow her upset stomach story? “Um, crackers, with some brie.”
The waiter walked away. She stared after him. In a very distant way, he looked like the Teutonic god who’d been eyeing them from across the baccarat table earlier. The tall, blond man had been broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. His eyes were a cool, icy gray, and his facial bones damn near perfect, with a square jaw and pronounced cheekbones. He hadn’t smiled, but she imagined his teeth would be very straight.
Why can’t I have someone like that in my life?
Because I’m a shifter, goddammit. It’s a big secret to keep.
Yeah, and to keep on keeping it made her weary. She’d given up on a normal life when the first change came on her shortly after she hit puberty. There were laws to ensure shifters didn’t get out of hand that included killing them—or shipping them off to prison. It was prudent—and necessary—to hide what she was, rather than embrace it. Her parents, both shifters themselves, had hammered that point home until she was sick of hearing it.
The waiter had just stopped by with her drink and crackers with cheese when Jaret joined her. “Feeling better, I see.” He pried the glass from her hand, swallowed half its contents, and raised his eyebrows. “Expensive.”
“I can pay for it. I still have a little money.”
He rolled his eyes. “No, no. Wouldn’t dream of that. You’re my woman, aren’t you?” At her pleasant nod, he went on, “I take care of my women. Good care of them. Come on.” He tugged her to her feet.
“Wait. My shoes.” She bent and fished them from beneath her chair. Hanging onto him, she balanced first on one foot, then the other, while she slid her feet into the pumps. “Okay.” She grinned broadly. “All ready.”
“Do you want to bring the crackers along?”
“Sure. Why not?” She gripped the plate in one hand and curved the other around his arm. He finished her drink and steered them out of the casino toward the stairs that led to the Hotel de Paris.
Tonight, she told herself. Before tonight’s over, he’ll be dead. Moira can rest in peace, and I’ll be out of here.