Better With You

Outback Skies, Book 5

Lexxie Couper

Chapter 1

Charlie Baynard put down the phone and reached for his gun.

His gut, never really an organ for reacting to the situations he found himself in, knotted. Of course it would now, given the call he’d just taken.

A call he had never expected to receive, from a life long in his past.

He was retired, damn it.

He now existed as a simple cop in a simple Outback town. That was it.

He was on no one’s radar. He was, as far as people went, a non-event. A cop in a small town way out whoop whoop, with a population of just over five hundred people, one pub and not a single set of traffic lights.

He’d picked this life, this existence, after realizing he’d lost all taste for the job he’d been trained for. He’d been good at the job—very, very good—but after an order that had made his gut roil, and a betrayal that had torn what was left of his soul to shreds, he’d called it quits.

Seventeen years had been long enough.

Seventeen years and enough red on his hands to dye the ocean.

He’d walked away. Handed in his non-existent badge. Told the director to never call him again.

Changed his name. Erased who he’d once been.

Pulled a few strings with a secret contact to land the job as Wallaby Ridge’s senior constable.

Moved.

And that had been it.

He’d kept his finger on the pulse of the industry, as it were, without drawing any attention to himself. Seventeen years of habits were hard to break. But apart from knowing things no Outback cop should, things about politicians, world leaders, movers and shakers, media moguls, oil tycoons, tyrants and dictators, he was a simple bloke who lived by two simple rules—keep his small town peaceful and free of ruckus, and be there for his mates whenever they needed him.

His mates.

Tightening his grip around the Glock’s butt, Charlie thought of his mates.

What would the doc, Evan and Ryan think of the call he’d just taken?

Ryan suspected something about him, but even the heli-musterer would be shocked if he knew the truth.

The truth.

Not for four years.

Fuck a bloody duck, when was the last time Charlie Baynard had dealt in truth?

Not since he’d become Charlie Baynard, that was for certain.

Dropping his stare to the standard-issue weapon in his hand, he drew a slow breath. Lowered his heart rate. The fact his heart rate was elevated told him he’d been out of the game for too long. There was a time when the only way Dani De Vries had caused his heart rate to increase was when she was buck naked, moaning his name as they played the life-or-death game that was their job. Getting a call to say she was heading his way now…

His heart beat faster at the thought, despite the deep breaths he was pulling.

Fuck.

Fuck.

His wife was in Australia.

An image of Dani filled Charlie’s head. The last time he’d been in her company, the last time they’d been face-to-face. She’d been in a black lace bra, matching G-string, stilettoes and nothing else. Her hair had been a mess of pitch-black tousled waves, her lipstick smudged by his lips. An unsettling combination of pleasure and contempt had smoldered in her light blue eyes. The Benchmade Mini Griptilian—her blade of choice for close-quarter combat—dripped beads of blood redder than her lipstick.

His blood.

She’d tried to kill him that day.

Tried. Failed.

Knowing Dani the way he did, he was pretty certain she was still holding a grudge about that.

And now she was in the country and, according to his contact at ASIO, heading his way.

His contact didn’t know why.

Turning the Glock over in his hand, Charlie let out a slow breath.

There were two reasons he could think of for Dani De Vries looking for him.

One—someone had put a hit out on him and she’d gladly taken the job.

Two—she was bored and had decided it was time to pay him a visit. And Dani didn’t do visits in the traditional sense.

“Fuck it,” he muttered, rising to his feet and sliding his gun into its holster.

If Dani was coming after him, he had two options to stay breathing. One of them involved leaving Wallaby Ridge. The other option would likely result in someone experiencing a lot of pain and exposure. Regardless of that, he liked Wallaby Ridge too much to leave.

It was his home now.

His mates were here. Matt, Ryan and Evan.

He wasn’t going to walk away from them. Especially because Dani was the kind of person who could very well use them to find out where he was if he did.

Better to face his ex and deal with her without anyone knowing what was going on.

It was the only way his secret could stay just that—a secret.

With a grunt, he scooped up his hat, slapped it on his head and exited his office. Those oblivious mates of his were no doubt already at the pub waiting for him.

It was Friday arvo. Their traditional decompress/beer/catch up awaited.

He’d go have a beer, play a round of darts—it was his turn to kick Matt’s arse at the game, after all—grab some dinner and then head home, dig up his Desert Eagle and fixed-blade tactical knife from his backyard and get ready.

As ready as he could be, given what was coming his way. And when it came down to it, he excelled at being ready for that kind of what.

Very well.

At least, it used to be.

It had been a while.

“Hitting the pub, Senior Constable?”

Charlie swung a look at Timothy Wattle, his deputy and the Ridge’s newest resident. The city boy had only been in the town for a month, not yet long enough to get the smell of concrete and oil out of his pores. He was, in Charlie’s opinion, not cut out for life in the Outback. Charlie gave him another three months, tops, before he scurried back to Sydney.

“Yeah,” he answered, wrapping his fingers around the doorknob of the station house’s main door. He could already feel the late summer afternoon sun baking the world on the other side of the door. Even by Outback standards, it was a scorcher. Brutal. “Make sure the Dutch tourist in Number 2 gets dinner, okay?”

Timothy nodded, looking for all the world like a puppy who’d just been asked if he wanted to go for a walk. “Will do, Senior Constable. Have a good night.”

“Will do. And, Timothy?”

His deputy almost snapped into a right angle behind the front desk. “Senior Constable?”

“For fuck’s sake, call me Charlie.”

Before Timothy could say, “Sure, Senior Constable, I mean, Charlie” like he did every time Charlie instructed him to be less formal, Charlie twisted the doorknob and pulled the door wide.

A blast of heat from the furnace that was Outback Australia slammed into him.

He paused for a second, waiting for his body to adjust. For the sweat popping out on his forehead to evaporate.

And in that barest of seconds, he scanned his heat-shimmering, red-dirt-dusted surroundings and his heart thumped fast in his throat.

Of course, if Dani were out there, she wouldn’t just walk up to him in public. That wasn’t her style. Not if she were here to kill him.

If she were here to kill him, he wouldn’t see her until she sank her blade into the space between his second and third ribs.

If that happened, he’d be having words with her.

Pulling the door shut in an effort to keep Timothy and the Dutch tourist in lock-up 2 in some semblance of air-conditioned comfort, he pulled a breath of hot air. Felt it blister his windpipe on its way to doing the same to his lungs.

The flesh between his ribs stayed intact. Unpierced.

With a grunt, and another quick survey of the empty strip of dirt that passed for the main road in the Ridge, he stepped from the porch of the stationhouse and made his way to the Outback Skies pub.

It took him fifteen minutes to get there by foot, a ridiculous length of time given the pub was only a few metres from the cop shop. However, the people of Wallaby Ridge were friendly country folk, which meant Charlie was stopped constantly on the way.

Once by the town’s resident baker, Ross, the owner of the bakery the Dutch tourist had trashed the afternoon before in a drunken search for some kind of Dutch pastry Charlie had never heard of.

When Ross shoved the box of oliebollen at Charlie and asked him if it was okay for Charlie to deliver it to the confused, homesick tourist in lock-up, Charlie couldn’t help but laugh.

Yeah, threat to his life or not, he wasn’t leaving this place.

The second time he was stopped, he had to tell the town’s gossip, Esmee, that, no, the doc wasn’t going to be moving to the big smoke just because his wife was expecting triplets, regardless of what Esmee had heard.

Finally arriving at the pub, he crossed to the bar and handed the owner, a wiry bugger only known as Lacky, the box of Dutch pastries. “Keep those in the fridge for me, mate? And don’t let me forget ’em. They’re for the tourist I locked up last night.”

Lacky nodded, poured Charlie his normal beer and pushed it across the bar. “Can do, Charlie.”

With a grin at the proprietor—a man Charlie knew had notched up more kills in Vietnam as one of Australia’s snipers than any other in the country’s Defense Force—Charlie turned from the bar to look at where the rest of the Outback Skies Fly-Boys’ Club members sat.

And froze.

Dani De Vries was sitting at the table with Evan, Matt and Ryan, a beer in her hand, smiling at him.

Fuck.

Charlie stopped himself pulling his Glock a heartbeat before his fingers could wrap its grip.

Dani’s smile stretched to a grin.

He noticed it didn’t make it to her eyes.

As always, Dani’s eyes were unreadable.

Whatever was going through her mind as she sat at his usual table with his mates, Charlie had no clue.

Which put him at a disadvantage, because there was no way she would have missed the shock on his face when their eyes first met.

Fuck. Again.

He didn’t like being at a disadvantage. Especially not against Dani.

“Hey, Baynard!”

At Ryan’s shout, Charlie sucked in a deep breath.

His brain told him he could smell Dani’s scent, an intoxicating mix of Chanel No. 5, gun oil and jasmine, from where he stood.

His brain needed a reality check. Hard to do though, when the only woman to ever make him lose control was but a few feet away. Looking sexy as hell. And just as dangerous.

Damn it, she’d always been his weak spot.

Ever since the night of their first mission.

And then, when he’d learned of her history…what had driven her to become—

“Baynard!” Ryan shouted again. “Get your arse over here. You’ve got some explaining to do.”

Dani’s grin curled into what could only be described as a smirk.

She held his stare.

Stroked a strand of her hair—no longer black but a dark russet he noticed for the first time—across her forehead with the trigger finger of her left hand.

Charlie’s balls rose. His gut clenched.

Without uttering a word, Dani had told him the situation was seriously fucked up.

For who, he didn’t know.

Not yet.

Forcing a relaxed calm into his body, he let his own lips curl into a grin and ambled over to the table. Placed his beer on it. He hooked an empty chair from the table next to theirs and dropped into it. Directly opposite Dani. Making sure he could reach his Glock without impediment or delay if needed.

She watched him.

Eyes unreadable.

Fuck. This was going to be interesting.

“So?” Ryan—sitting next to Dani—leant his elbows on the table and fixed Charlie with a pointed look. “Wife?”

Charlie slid his stare back to Dani.

She raised one dark eyebrow at him. A pulse ticked at the base of her throat.

The only sign she was as on edge as he was.

“Wife,” he said.

Beside him, Matt burst out laughing. “Oh, man, and I thought I had some skeletons in my closet. Care to provide us with more details, Senior Constable?”

On the other side of the table, Dani lifted the beer she was drinking to her lips. “Anyone would think you’re ashamed of me, baby cakes.”

“Baby cakes?” Ryan snorted, shaking his head. “This is just too good.”

Charlie didn’t look away from Dani.

She may be holding a beer in one hand, but the other was under the table. Out of his line of sight.

Which meant he could be dead in five seconds, depending on what she was holding in that unseen hand. Dani could, in theory and practice, end his life without Ryan, Matt or Evan knowing it had even happened.

There was an art to taking someone out in a crowded room without anyone becoming aware what was going on. An art Dani practiced with the talent of a master.

The only person better at it that Charlie knew of was himself.

But it had been four years. Four long years…

Are you seriously thinking of taking Dani out? Before she—

“What brings you to Wallaby Ridge, sweet cheeks?” he asked, killing the disquieting contemplation.

At the words sweet cheeks, Dani’s eyes glinted.

Finally. An emotion.

Trouble was, Charlie recognized it as an emotion that usually preceded someone’s clavicle being broken.

“Work,” Dani answered, the word a husky promise.

Charlie drew a steadying breath. His heart turned to a thumping canon. He didn’t blink. Instead, he raised his own beer to his lips, watching her over its rim as he took a slow pull.

The glint in her eyes danced. Somehow different.

He’d been playing with fire, calling her sweet cheeks. It was a name she’d always hated when they were on the job. Of course, back then the odds of her topping him were not as high as what they were now.

“Okay, okay.” Matt laughed, positioned between them both. “We need details. Serious details. For starters, wife?”

Lowering his beer, pulse pounding as he leant back in his chair and pressed his foot to the single leg of the table, Charlie grinned at Dani. “It’s a complicated relationship,” he answered. “Dani works overseas a lot.”

Opposite him, Dani laughed. As always, every part of him that was governed by purely male instinct responded to the sound. Her laugh had always gotten him hard. Didn’t matter how much he’d tried to train his body not to respond, when Dani laughed like she did now, a real laugh, full of real humour, hot blood pumped into his dick and his balls throbbed.

“It’s a simple relationship,” she counted and took another sip of her beer. The slight accent she’d had the last time they were together—a sinfully exotic mix of Asian, European and Australian—was nowhere to be heard. “I do what I have to do and Charlie here waits for me to come find him when it’s time.”

Charlie didn’t miss the emphasis on his name. She’d never known him as Charlie. Charlie hadn’t existed when they’d been together. What else did she know about his new life?

Did she know she was the reason he’d walked away from his old one?

And if so, would that have an impact on what she was here to do?

Which is what, exactly?

Too many questions. Not enough answers. He was going to have to do something about that soon.

Very soon.

“Time for what?” Ryan asked.

Charlie couldn’t help but notice all three men were enrapt by the situation. Mirth played on all their faces. Even Evan, who was normally as stoic as a stone, was hanging on every word.

They swung their collective stares back and forth between Charlie and Dani. Ryan was close to wriggling on the seat. As it was, the bloke had pushed that damn cowboy hat he rarely took off his head so far back it was a wonder it didn’t fall off completely.

Dani lifted a single eyebrow, her gaze battling Charlie’s. “For fucking.”

Charlie jolted to his feet. “And on that note,” he said, flicking his mates a quick grin, “my wife and I are outta here. Things to do.”

Evan snorted. Matt and Ryan burst out laughing. “Those kind of details we don’t need to know,” Matt said, holding up a hand.

“Speak for yourself, Doc,” Ryan chuckled. “It’s been a while since I’ve had any action. Jeremy’s been stuck in Canberra for a month.”

Adjusting his belt—and surreptitiously loosening the locking strap on his Glock’s holster—Charlie gave Ryan a mocking look. “As if I’m going to tell you about my sex life. You think I want you picturing my naked arse?”

Ryan smirked. “You don’t think I already have?”

“I like your friends, Charlie,” Dani murmured from the other side of the table. She was still seated. Damn it. He needed to get her away from them ASAP. “They’re entertaining. It’s enlightening to see you with them.”

Charlie ground his teeth, meeting her unreadable gaze.

Hurt them, Dani, he tried to tell her with his own stare, and I will kill you.

“I’ve got other forms of entertainment in mind now, sweet cheeks,” he said aloud, deliberately raking a slow, lustful inspection over her. “We’ve got some catching up to do.”

Ryan hooted with laughter again. “Oh, man, this is too good.” He turned to Dani. “Can I convince you to put off the catching up for a bit? I mean, I know the senior constable here is a sexy bastard, but this is just too—”

“Let the happy couple be, Taylor,” Evan cut him off. “Otherwise, when the deputy prime minister is next in town, we’ll keep interrupting the pair of you while you’re catching up.”

Charlie forced out a relaxed chuckle at Evan’s promise, watching Dani where she studied him from the other side of the table.

Body thrumming with an energy he didn’t want to analyse, he raised an eyebrow at her. “My cuffs are waiting, wife.”

Dani’s lips parted. Her chest rose with a sharp intake of breath.

Charlie wondered if she was remembering the last time he’d put cuffs on her. What they’d been doing…

Without a word, she slowly rose to her feet.

He ground his teeth again. Christ, she looked good.

The skin-tight faded-blue jeans she wore did nothing to hide the toned perfection of her long legs. The loose white shirt that draped from her shoulders highlighted the natural brownness of her skin. Its floaty fabric hinted at small breasts that required no bra and were perfect to cup in his hands, and it hid anything else that may be under there with those perfect breasts. Like a gun. Or two. Or a knife. Or three.

He swallowed, not from trepidation, but anticipation.

What he was anticipating, he didn’t want to consider. Not until he had Dani out of the pub, away from his mates and in the privacy of his home.

If they made it that far.

A heavy throb filled his groin. The thrumming in his body intensified.

He remembered this sensation all too well. The pre-rush that came with action.

Once upon a time, he’d only ever experienced it in the moments before the irreversible conclusion of a job. In the brief minutes between when he’d fixed on his target’s heart and his target’s heart stopped beating. Then Dani had entered his life, and that rush had preceded something else.

Something that had once been just a part of their cover but had become so much more.

So what was the reason for the rush now?

The kill? Or the—

Dani stepped around the table, destroyed the small distance between them in two fluid steps, and slid her arms around his waist.

He felt her hand skim his gun. Bit back a groan at the slight contact.

What had she done to it?

And then she was pressing her body to his, her groin, her hips aligned with his, her nipples brushing his chest.

“I’ve missed you, baby cakes,” she murmured, rolling her hips as she squeezed his arse cheeks. “You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to be with you since we said our goodbyes.”

He stared into her eyes. Registered the rapid beat of her heart pounding against his chest. “I think I’ve got an idea,” he answered, snaking his own palms over her waist, up her back, down to her butt.

Not a weapon to be found.

What the hell was going on?

A dark emotion shimmered in her eyes, one he’d never seen there before, and she let out a soft sigh. “No,” she whispered. “You don’t.”

And before he could respond, she brushed her lips over his in the softest kiss he’d ever experienced.

A kiss unlike any Dani had ever given him.

A hesitant, shy kiss.

God help him, he was truly fucked.

Chapter 2

There was no way he was going to believe her. Or trust her. She didn’t trust herself. Too many years of being duplicitous for a living meant she had no idea how to be anyone else. The messed-up part of all that, the irony of it, was who she was had never been concrete.

Not since ASIO recruited her that was. At barely sixteen, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation had plucked her off the streets of Indonesia where she’d been living since before she could remember.

They’d been watching her for some time, had noted the skill with which she went about luring in and then dispatching vile foreign tourists who thought it was perfectly acceptable to come to her country of birth to fuck girls scarcely old enough to be pre-pubescent.

They’d recruited her, trained her, honed that skill until she’d become one of their best agents.

And in doing so, she’d become fluid in her identity.

When the job required her to be a clueless backpacker, she was. When it required her to be a plain, nervous mouse of a secretary, she was. When it required her to be a vixen seductress, she was.

When it required her to be a timid housewife married to a sales rep sent around the world for his work…she was.

The thing was, when it came to Charlie Baynard—or as she’d known him in those days, John Tennant—timid had never been an option.

She’d spent the entire length of the housewife/sales-rep job fighting the urge to fuck him senseless.

When the job was done—successfully, thereby ending a planned infiltration of Australia’s Sudanese embassy by a factious arm of the military—they’d been reassigned a new job.

Still working together.

For that job, she’d been the charity-obsessed, sex-kitten wife to Charlie’s mining magnate, a woman who bumbled her way through life, finding herself in the wrong rooms at official functions often.

Every job, every assignment, they’d grown deeper and deeper into their roles as a loving husband and wife.

Deeper into the ruse.

A ruse that had sometimes inadvertently laid their souls bare. Conversations and interactions with normal people had allowed Dani to see the man her partner really was beyond the cold-blooded spy. A man with a moral high ground and a sense of mercy no assassin should ever possess.

So deep into the ruse, Dani—who had been named Aanjay by a mother she never knew and become Dani De Vries the day she’d signed the ASIO contract—often found herself wondering what a normal life with her husband would be like. So deep she actually longed for that life. Ached for it.

They’d spent hours talking about what a life away from ASIO would be like as they cased out targets and locations. Too many hours talking, perhaps? Too many hours fantasizing about a life beyond her. In those conversations, she’d found herself not only sexually attracted to her partner, but emotionally as well, a situation she’d never expected to experience but couldn’t deny.

It had weakened her. Instead of concentrating on the task at hand, she’d found herself concentrating on the way the corners of his eyes crinkled when he laughed, on the way he’d slow to avoid birds on the road.

No matter how hard she’d tried not to, she’d fallen in love with him a little during those talks. Not just because she’d learned more about him, but because he’d made her feel something beyond the calculated rush of a job.

Without even knowing it, he’d shown her she was more than a hollow killing machine. Even if she could never act on that knowledge.

One night during their last job, as they were preparing for their appearance as husband and wife in the company of their target, John—Charlie—had wondered what a life together away from ASIO would be like. Had joked about living the simple life with her, one of normal, every-day activities—grocery shopping, pet ownership, trips to the vet, renovating a home together, children…

Dani had wanted to drop everything and start living that life with him straight away.

Had almost said let’s do it.

And then they’d gotten the call it was time to move and the topic had ended and their last job had begun in earnest.

That fucking last job.

Russia.

Damn it.

They’d been so deep in their cover of husband and wife that during that last job, the public kisses, the handholding, the public displays of affection that had been a part of their ruse had come close to spilling over into the privacy of the apartment base they called home.

She’d almost surrendered to the desire she’d seen in John’s eyes every time he looked at her. Almost surrendered to the craving want for him that consumed her.

Four weeks out of job completion and they’d come so close. So close. Close enough they’d tempted fate and gone to bed naked one night.

In case their target was suspicious about them, they’d told each other. In case someone was monitoring their apartment, their married-couple cover would hold up.

It was a bullshit excuse. Their apartment had been clean. Dani had swept it herself.

But they’d climbed into bed naked all the same.

The second, the very second their naked bodies had brushed between the sheets, the ruse had been shot.

They hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other.

Had spent long languid hours exploring each other’s mouths with their own. Longer hours exploring each other’s bodies the same way.

And in amongst the exploration and kissing, they’d murmured of leaving the life they led behind together. Of escaping it all…

If it hadn’t been for a call from the director with new intel, those long hours would have—she knew without a doubt—ended with John inside her.

For the next four weeks, they’d skirted each other. Avoided touching even in public, even as their eyes spoke of pleasure beyond comprehension. Pleasure and dreams and a fantasy two trained killers without hearts were never meant to long for.

And then John had received a call from the director.

And she’d gotten her call from the director.

They’d ended their ruse of a happily married couple and their working relationship with Dani sinking her blade into John’s side, between the second and third ribs, while she’d straddled his naked hips.

Marriage over.

She’d failed to kill him.

He’d failed to retaliate in kind as he’d fought back.

But he’d left her half dead with a promise he’d finish her off if she came at him again.

To this day, she questioned why he’d let her live.

He could have killed her.

But he hadn’t.

Shattered, beyond numb, she’d finished their assignment in Russia without him.

By the time she checked in with the director, John Tennant was no more.

He’d left Russia. Left ASIO.

Disappeared.

For reasons that petrified her, his disappearance had torn at what was left of her soul more than all the lives she’d ended.

The fact he hadn’t put a bullet between her eyes the second he saw her here, in the town he’d made his home for four years, worried her.

But that worry hadn’t been powerful enough to stop her doing what she wanted to do to him the moment she watched him stride into the pub.

Kiss him. Feel his breath fan over her teeth, her tongue. Feel his hard, agile body against hers.

Feel his heart beating next to hers.

Oh God, if this was the very last thing she ever experienced in her life, if he pulled his Glock and shot her dead now, right now, she would still die knowing she was exactly where she wanted to be.

With her husband.

A man once Australia’s most dangerous spy.

Closing her eyes, she relaxed into John—no, Charlie’s body. Smoothed her hands up his back, tangled her fingers in his hair and deepened the kiss.

Sought out his tongue.

Held her breath when he kept it from her, his body stiff, his hands gripping her hips with punishing force.

Oh, no. No, he was going to—

He slid his tongue against hers.

She moaned before she could stop herself.

At the sound, Charlie groaned and took completely possession of her mouth.

He hauled her harder to his hips, his groin. His tongue battled hers, the hunger behind the assault making her head swim.

It was never good to be this vulnerable, this open. It could only end in grief and pain. But she had no defense against the effect John Tennant—Charlie Baynard—had on her.

Never had.

From the second she’d laid eyes on him in the director’s office in Canberra all those years ago.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!”

At the laughing encouragement, uttered by the gay heli-musterer Ryan Taylor—a man currently dating the recently outed and newly appointed deputy prime minister—Charlie pulled away from the kiss.

For a split second, Dani wanted to turn to the heli-musterer and break his jaw.

Instead, she sought out Charlie’s eyes. Searched their hazel depths.

He returned her scrutiny, his expression revealing nothing.

If it wasn’t for the fierce way he gripped her hips and the rigid length of his erection grinding against the curve of her sex, she would have no clue what he was feeling.

To be honest, she still didn’t. Not on an emotional level.

On a physical one, however…

Did he need to fuck her as much as she needed to fuck him?

Or were there other physical activities on his mind?

Her heart tripped faster at the question and its missing answer.

“John,” she whispered, staring at him.

Without a word, he released her. Let her go and stepped back. An abrupt distancing.

Ryan protested. “Boo.”

The doctor, Matt Corvin—once targeted in Somalia by militants while working as a Doctor Without Borders doc, and whose ex-fighter pilot wife was eight weeks away from giving birth—smacked the heli-musterer up the back of the head, knocking Ryan’s cowboy hat off in the process. “Shut up, Taylor.”

Dani registered all this without taking her gaze from Charlie.

Charlie, for his part, only looked at her as well.

“Charlie.” She emphasized his new name. Her intel told her he’d had it for four years. “Take me home.”

His nostrils flared. A fraction. Enough to tell her he was fighting with himself. A minute tell she used to tease him about during their mission in Russia.

The mission that had started it all.

Man, how different would her life be, his life be, if the Australian PM hadn’t insulted the Russian president during a G8 Summit?

“Please?”

He frowned at the word. Please wasn’t a word she’d used often in their interaction. Not unless it was part of their ruse.

That she did so now could end their reunion.

Reunion. Huh. Not exactly the correct word for what this is.

Hitching the strap of her bag—in which was her favourite knife, her favourite sub-compact Berretta, her second favourite pair of sunglasses and her favourite lip gloss—farther up her shoulder, she shifted on her feet. The tiny scalpel nestled in its harness in the waistband of her jeans, just below the base of her spine, pressed into her flesh. Reminding her why she was here.

It wasn’t to kiss her one-time partner.

“Take her home, Baynard,” Evan Alexander—a man once slotted to receive the Order of Australia before a helicopter crash almost killed him—ordered. The fact he spoke at all impressed Dani. Every bit of intel she had on him stated he was introverted, reclusive and quiet.

Take me home, John, she repeated in her head, watching her ex-partner.

She didn’t want his friends, the men he’d allowed to get to know him—even if it was only a small part of what was essentially a lie—to be exposed to their interaction any longer than was necessary.

Coming here, surprising him at the pub… Well, she’d always used her flair for the dramatic as a way to unsettle her target.

And now she’d found him, now she had him again…

“C’mon, baby cakes,” she murmured, letting her lips curl. “Aren’t you just dying to know what’s going to happen when we get there?”

His nostrils flared again. The tiniest reaction to her goad.

And then he snared her right hand—the closest one she had to a dominant hand—and flung a grin at his friends. “Consider me out of action for the rest of the weekend. Don’t come knocking. In fact, forget I even exist.”

Ryan threw back his head and laughed. Matt echoed him. Evan rolled his eyes and smiled.

“Ready.” Charlie tugged her hard and fast to his body, overtly smutty delight on his face, ice in his eyes. “Wife?”

Dani couldn’t stop herself swallowing. Nor could she stop the wholly primitive constricting of her sex.

Damn it. John Tennant, Charlie Baynard, whatever the hell he called himself now, still pushed all her buttons.

Coming here, letting him know she was here, actually interacting with him, might be far more dangerous than she’d thought.

Slicking her tongue along her bottom lip, she oozed as much sinfully evocative presence as she could. “Ready.”

“Lacky,” he shouted over his shoulder without tearing his stare from hers, “make sure those pastries get to the cop shop, okay?”

“Sure thing, Senior Constable,” the man behind the bar called back.

With a slow grin, Charlie touched his trigger finger to her bottom lip, winked and then pivoted on his heel and strode through the pub, pulling her along behind him.

She drew level with him by the time they made it to the door, flicked her wrist out of his grip with practiced ease and slid her hand down his back. Slipped her fingers between his body and the waistband of his trousers.

Inched them lower.

Hot, smooth flesh. Nothing but hot, smooth flesh.

No boxers. No briefs.

No blade either. Or 9mm semi-auto.

Nothing but Charlie’s skin under her fingers.

Wow.

Had he really changed that much in the last four years?

Was the man beside her now not the man she’d come all this way for?

And why was that idea far more disquieting than it should be? Why did the idea of an unarmed John Tennant make her heart race in a way it never had before?

“Have a good one, Senior Constable,” a voice yelled behind them as they reached the door. “Give ’er everything ya got.”

Charlie flung a grin over his shoulder, his unreadable eyes catching hers as he did so. “I plan to, Lacky.”

Dani’s breath caught.

Whoever this man was, whatever he called himself, he was still the ruthless, dangerous man she’d known.

Thank fucking God for that.

Brutal heat slammed into her the second they stepped from the pub. Not even the shade of the building’s awning offered any real alleviation from the extreme temperature.

The glare from the sinking sun, a ball of blood-orange fire unlike any she’d seen in any part of the world, stunned her eyes and, without thinking, she reached into her bag for her sunglasses.

The world turned to a hot blur of red and brown and blue. Excruciating pain detonated in her wrist, followed instantly by her back and the back of her head as she was slammed against the outside wall of the pub.

Smashed against it by Charlie.

He pinned her there, one crushing hand ramming hers—the one she’d reached into her bag with—to the wall beside her head, the other wrapped around the base of her throat.

Cold hazel eyes drilled into hers. His body pressed hard to hers, one corded thigh driven between her thighs, imprisoning her against the brick wall.

A muscle in his stubble-covered jaw ticked. “Uh-uh, sweet cheeks.”

Lust hotter than the day rushed through Dani. Lust and fear and relief. He was still the man she was after.

Staring into his eyes, she cocked an eyebrow. “Sunglasses, baby cakes. I was reaching for my sunglasses.”

He didn’t move.

Held her that way.

His grips on her wrist and throat didn’t relax. The steely length of his thigh muscle ground harder against her spread sex.

Her clit responded to the ungentle pressure. Her body responded to her imprisonment. Adrenaline rushed through her. Her heart quickened and then slowed. Her breath did the same. Her stomach clenched. Her nipples pebbled.

Charlie’s fingers around her throat closed tighter. “If you’re here to kill me, Dani, you’re going to need more than sunglasses.”

She twitched her lips, rolling her hips to rub her clit harder to his thigh before she could stop herself. “You must be happy to see me, John, because I know you don’t have a gun in your pocket. Or at your back. And the Glock on your hip isn’t big enough to be rubbing against my—”

Baynard?”

The harried shout right beside them, along with the thumping thuds of booted feet on the wooden floor, made Dani jump.

Charlie released her with fluid speed and turned to the man—the doctor—now hurrying from the pub.

“What’s up, Doc?” Charlie called at the man’s back just as Matt ran down the steps leading to the road.

Matt skidded to a halt and spun to face Charlie. “We’ve got an emergency. Out on Cobar Road. A road train hit a 4WD. Family of four trapped inside. The road train has flipped. The driver is also trapped.”

“Shit.”

Dani blinked. The open concern in Charlie’s voice surprised her. When had she ever heard him speak with such a tone?

Without looking back at her, he ran.

Dani blinked again.

What the hell?

“Sorry, Mrs. Baynard,” another voice uttered beside her as Evan suddenly burst from the pub and ran after Charlie. “You can have him back later.”

Dani stood motionless. Watching the three men all run in the same direction across the red-dust covered road. Heading…where?

More pounding footfalls vibrated through the wooden floor and she turned to her right to find Ryan sprinting from the pub.

“You too?” The question left her before she realized she’d uttered it.

He half-turned, jogging in a nimble backwards gait. “The road train was carrying over 200 head of Farpoint Creek cattle. While your hubby, Evan and the doc deal with the accident, I’ll make sure the livestock still alive are okay.”

“Oi, De Vries?”

At Charlie’s shout, distant but still commanding, Dani jerked her stare away from the heli-musterer.

Her ex-partner pointed at her, still running for his unknown destination, but now in a backward jog like Ryan. “Think about why you’re here,” he called, his expression unreadable. “And then think about if you still want to be here by the time I get back.”

He spun around and took off, his threat—for that’s what it was—hanging in the dusty air.

Dani stood motionless, watching the four men go.

Ryan threw himself into a beat-up ute. Matt and Evan climbed into a 4WD. Red dirt and dust spewed up from their spinning wheels and both vehicles sped away.

By the time it settled, Charlie was no longer visible.

For some reason, Dani felt…cheated.

Unsettled.

Discombobulated.

Which concerned her immensely.

She didn’t like feeling any of those things. But what she disliked most of all was the new John.

Charlie Baynard.

She didn’t like that he seemed the kind of person everyone liked. A nice guy.

The kind of man she’d thought she’d glimpsed under the ruthless spy exterior years ago.

At least when she’d believed her ex-partner was still a ruthless assassin, the reason for being here was easier to come to terms with.

But now…

Now the thought of Charlie dead tore at something she didn’t think she still had—a heart.

Shit.

~

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