Falling in deeper, p.2
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       Falling in Deeper, p.2
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  “The feeling is mutual.”

  “Give it a rest, you two.” Logan rolled his eyes. “If I can work with my older brother, you can tolerate each other long enough to get your shit done.”

  Before Stone could even wonder what beef they had, the newcomer raked a hand over his military-short blond hair. “I will never trust him enough to be on an operational team with him. If he wants to quit, I say good riddance.”

  Logan slammed a fist on his desk. “Cutter, I don’t give a shit if Pierce slept with your best friend.”

  “One-Mile,” the guy corrected.

  “Whatever.” Logan waved a hand through the air.

  “No! It’s not whatever,” Cutter insisted. “I can’t work with Brea’s rapist.”

  “I had her consent,” One-Mile snarled, his eyes finally coming alive with hate.

  “You manipulated her so that she had no choice but to say yes.” Cutter clenched his fists.

  “She had a choice.” One-Mile crossed his arms over his chest. “If you want her that badly, you should have claimed her sometime between junior high and this July. You had plenty of time. But it took you that long to find your dick, and that’s not my problem. She’s mine now.”

  Cutter narrowed fierce eyes at One-Mile, as if he’d lost his mind. “She’s not even speaking to you, asshat.”

  “Misunderstanding.”

  “No, reality. Something you’re obviously not familiar with. If she winds up pregnant—”

  “That’s enough,” Logan shouted. “I don’t care if you beat the hell out of one another after hours, but stop bringing your personal shit to work. If you can’t, I’ll lock you in a room together until you learn to get along or one of you kills the other. I don’t care which at this point. Be professional and do your damn jobs.”

  Silence fell in the wake of Logan’s verbal beatdown. Cutter swore and stomped away.

  One-Mile cocked his head and regarded Logan with a solemn expression. “I didn’t rape her.”

  “Since she had to choose between saving her best friend’s life and sleeping with you, I’d say you coerced her. It doesn’t get much lower than that in my book.”

  Yeah, Stone didn’t doubt that’s how Logan saw that situation. All of Jack Cole’s pals had Captain America complexes. They were heroes through and through. They refused to bend their values for a dog-eat-dog world. They figured out how to make the world bow to them. A vague shame clogged Stone’s veins. Every time he thought he liked these guys, he remembered that he didn’t belong.

  Logan rubbed at the back of his neck and glared at One-Mile. “Get the fuck out of my face.”

  “Roger that.” Pierce gave him a mock salute and marched away.

  Once the guy was out of sight, Logan let out a long, low curse. “I swear, some days I get why my father retired and dumped this shit in our laps. Hunter, Joaquin, and I inherited those two when the colonel stepped down. They’re exhausting, and with twin girls toddling around my house, peace is already at a premium.”

  Stone smiled faintly. “Those dudes look like a pain in the ass.”

  “Too bad shooting them would be illegal. I think I’d be doing the world a favor.” He glanced at the clock on his computer. “You’ve only got fifty-one minutes left to fix my problem if you want me to talk to Thorpe and Sean about arranging time for you with Sweet Pea.”

  “Bastard,” he poked, not worried. “I’m on it.”

  Stone pivoted away, back to the chilly room with the gleaming row of hardware—and, he hoped, his future.

  * * *

  “I don’t like it.” Sean Mackenzie glared across the table from Stone that evening.

  As always, Thorpe was in lockstep with his buddy. “She’s not ready.”

  “Why?” Stone demanded, sitting with them around the kitchen table at Dominion, the exclusive BDSM club Thorpe owned.

  Granted, he hadn’t seen Lily in months, but when he’d met her she hadn’t looked ready to fall apart at Axel’s imminent departure. Supposedly, she’d completely imploded once the man had gone. Stone wanted to know the reason, so he could devise a plan to help her.

  “We’ve been over this.” Thorpe scowled. “Axel was her pillar. He propped her up and gave her boundaries and—”

  “I can do that,” Stone insisted. “Logan and Jack have spent the last three fucking months preparing me to be whatever she needs. Let me do it.”

  “All theoretical knowledge.” Sean shook his head, then glanced Thorpe’s way. “But Stone is right. Bankhead called me today, too. So did a couple of my former colleagues from the Bureau. He’s getting the squeeze, so it’s now or never. Axel isn’t coming back anytime soon?”

  Thorpe shook his head. “Not for another month at least. I talked to him this morning. He and Mystery have decided to stay in the UK until her father has to fly to the States to start filming a new movie.”

  A familiar Cajun curse sounded over the speakerphone. Jack Cole couldn’t be in Dallas today so he’d called. “Maybe if you let Axel in on our plan and asked him to contact Sweet Pea—”

  “He’d object like a motherfucker.” Thorpe grimaced. “Besides, if Lily is going to start relying on Stone for guidance, then we can’t ask Axel to provide it.”

  “Exactly,” Stone insisted. “Axel left you in charge of Lily’s well-being, Thorpe. Let me see her again so I can start building trust between us. But I need every minute of these two weeks to convince her to testify.” Still, the trio said nothing, and Stone’s frustration mounted. “We agreed months ago that she won’t have a future until she faces her past, right? Axel can’t help her do that. Only I can.”

  Despite their grumbling, they all reluctantly agreed.

  “Then stop dicking around. You’re keeping her in limbo.” Stone looked Sean’s way. “Look, I get why you refused when the feds asked you to talk Lily into testifying. We all do. Canton is a psycho with a trail of dead bodies in his wake, and Callie is pregnant.”

  Sean nodded grimly. He clearly hated shirking anything that resembled his duty. “Thorpe and I can’t risk our wife.”

  Not long after the FBI approached Sean, a former agent who knew Lily Taylor well, Jack had needed a hacker with Stone’s skill set and pulled strings to have him released from prison temporarily to assist with a client’s nasty cybersecurity problem. While working in Dallas one night, Stone had taken a single look at Sweet Pea and he’d wanted that petite bunch of curls and frills fiercely. Determined to do whatever it took, he finagled a meet and greet. Based on their instant—and mutual—attraction, Sean and the feds had concocted a plot to task him with persuading Lily to testify.

  Admittedly, the idea was brilliant. By strong-arming Stone to soften Lily up for the stand, the FBI wasn’t risking the life of a former agent or his loved ones if Canton caught wind of the scheme. It only took a single threat to control Stone, whom the feds no doubt saw as a thoroughly expendable resource. Best of all, if Stone succeeded, his sentence would be commuted. A win-win for everyone.

  “And if the feds drag Lily in on a warrant as a material witness, it doesn’t matter if she saw Canton participate in the gang rape and murder of her best friend at sixteen. They can’t force her to testify,” Stone added. “Convincing her to tell a jury what she knows will be one hell of a hard sell because the last time she agreed to do the right thing and be the prosecution’s star witness, Canton had her mom and little brother slaughtered. You and the FBI didn’t send me back to prison so I could have the opportunity to convince her. Let me do it. Use me. If you want her safe in the long run as much as I do, then we’ve got to help her put this asshole away before he gains more power.”

  “Don’t pretend for one second this isn’t about you.” Thorpe glared his way. “You don’t want to go back to prison.”

  “Who does? Most people aren’t eager for incarceration. But we’ve all agreed that Lily has been living a half life since she came here, and you’ve let her.”

  All three men fell quiet, the guilt of their silence
heavy.

  “He’s right. You need to act soon.” Callie poked her head into the room. “Hi. Sorry. I know you didn’t ask for my opinion, but Stone has a good point.”

  “Pet . . .” Thorpe warned as he spun around to the pretty brunette.

  She ventured closer, absently rubbing her expanding belly as she dropped a kiss on both Thorpe’s and Sean’s cheeks. “Don’t ‘pet’ me. Earlier, I talked with Sweet Pea—I mean, Lily. I still can’t believe that’s her real name. She’s withdrawing further into herself. You two know she doesn’t want to lean on either of you and divert your attention from me.”

  Given the sweetness Lily had exhibited in that one precious hour he’d spent with her, that didn’t surprise Stone at all.

  “But she needs someone,” Callie went on. “She’s not sleeping, and she admitted that her nightmares are getting worse.”

  Stone sat up straighter. “Nightmares? About what?”

  Callie gave him an apologetic grimace. “She won’t say. I don’t think even Axel knew.”

  That gave Stone pause, then a little bit of hope. If she’d loved the big bastard, wouldn’t she have shared her nocturnal fears with him? Stone wanted to be more important to Lily. He wanted to be the man she trusted with all her secrets.

  His future depended on it, too.

  “C’mon, you guys,” he urged. “We’ve talked about a dozen reasons why we should proceed. You’ve prepared me. I’ve got this. The only reason not to is because you don’t have any faith in her ability to come out of her shell. She’s not broken beyond repair.”

  Thorpe and Sean exchanged a glance and seemed to get on the same page without a word. Then Thorpe leaned toward the speakerphone. “Jack?”

  “Yeah. As much as I hate the thought of throwing Sweet Pea to the wolf—no offense, Sutter—or putting her in danger, I don’t think we can wait any longer.”

  Sean pulled out his own phone, sent a text or two, then looked back his way. “All right. We’re a go. Contact Bankhead as soon as she says yes.”

  “What’s your plan?” Thorpe asked.

  “I’ve got some ideas,” Stone answered vaguely. “Leave everything to me.”

  No one at the table looked as if they liked the sound of that, but the feds had tapped him for this task. And Stone relished it. Yes, he could avoid going back to prison, but he also fucking wanted to get his hands on pretty little Lily, explore the sparks between them.

  “Look,” Jack began, only to be interrupted by a pounding noise. “Someone’s at my office door. For fuck’s sake . . . Hang on.” Footsteps retreated, and the sound of a door opening followed. “Logan?”

  “Are you on the phone with that fucker?” Logan barked.

  Stone tried not to smile. “Hi, Logan.”

  “You planted that virus in our network. I slaved all fucking morning to make sure that nothing was affected, and you did that shit on purpose. Last time I’m opening an e-mail from you.”

  “I knew you couldn’t resist Dilbert,” he teased.

  Around the table, everyone else laughed.

  “You suck,” Logan growled.

  “I had to do something to make you guys reevaluate the situation. Sorry. Desperate times, desperate measures and all that shit. But we’re on the same page now?” A pair of nods, a sighed yes, and an assenting grumble later, Stone stood. “Good. I want to see Lily. Now.”

  Chapter Two

  THE moment Lily Taylor had been dreading for nine months had finally arrived. Around her, the emergency room buzzed. People in white coats and scrubs scurried around the freezing, sterile space wearing grim expressions. Because they knew how much she was giving up?

  The pain wracking her body barely penetrated her head. They’d injected something in her IV finally. Now she felt as if she were floating off the table. Vaguely, she wondered if her mother would come or if she’d decided to wash her hands of her teenage daughter after all.

  Normally, it wouldn’t matter. She had her bestie. Erin had agreed to hold her hand. Her friend’s brother, Corey, had sworn he’d back her up, too.

  In one terrible afternoon, everything had changed.

  “Push!” a woman in bloodstained blue scrubs shouted at her.

  Where was the doctor?

  Still, the urge wouldn’t be denied. She bore down, one push flowing into the next until time had no meaning beyond the pain gripping and the sweat drenching her. Pressure pulled and tugged at her middle, nearly crushing her. She screamed, then clenched her teeth as she struggled up and gave a mighty push.

  At once, the agony and the stress ended. Lily wilted back but stayed awake to savor the very few moments she would get with the most precious person in her life.

  A nurse bent to her, filling her line of vision with a clinical expression, but her eyes held pity. Around Lily, machines beeped. Everyone else bustled to cluster around a table a few feet away, shouting at one another. Stress charged the room.

  Anxiety filled Lily, replacing the languid feeling of accomplishment. “What’s going on?”

  She didn’t hear the sounds of a baby crying.

  Panicked, she tried to climb off the table, but the nurse who wouldn’t answer her shoved another needle in her IV. Then nothing . . .

  With a gasp, Lily opened her eyes and sat up in the dark, empty room, tangled in the damp sheets. Her heart raced. She looked around the shadowed room and heaved a sigh of relief. Present. Dallas. Dominion. Another time, another place. After seven years, she wished the goddamn nightmares would stop.

  Tears welled in her eyes—pooling in the corners—but she couldn’t quite spill them. She trembled, fought for air. Would she ever have a normal life? Lily needed to bury her past and stop being afraid of the future. Stand on her own two feet.

  Her head acknowledged all that. That scared girl who’d lost everyone she’d ever loved had no idea how to make that happen.

  Hating herself for her weakness, she reached for her cell phone and started to dial her friend and former protector, Axel. Before she completed the call, she remembered that he was in London with his new fiancée. Eventually they would return, but he had his own life and a future he couldn’t wait to begin.

  He deserved more than to keep dealing with her broken past.

  With a sniffle, she climbed out of bed, a bit embarrassed that she’d fallen asleep on the job. But she couldn’t seem to drop into slumber in her solitary apartment these days, so she came to work exhausted.

  Lily rose and smoothed out her clothes, then patted her hair back into place. For years, she’d felt almost secure here at Dominion. Until recently, she’d stopped looking over her shoulder quite so much. Yes, she’d always known her past hovered there, breathing down her neck. But now she feared it had come back to haunt her.

  Maybe she was being paranoid, but she would swear she’d seen a guy watching her at the grocery store one day, then bumped into him at a fast food joint the next. Another girl might write it off as mere coincidence or think he was following her because he was interested. But she didn’t believe in coincidence, and he hadn’t flirted with her at all. In fact, he had watched her with a dissecting stare that made her anxious and afraid. He certainly hadn’t ogled her as if he couldn’t wait to strip her bare the way Stone Sutter had.

  Maybe it was time to pack up, move on . . . just in case. She’d been in Dallas for years now—plenty of time for Canton to have caught on.

  According to Axel, when she was feeling scared or overwhelmed like this, she was supposed to call Thorpe. But her employer had his hands full with Sean, Callie, and their coming baby. Lily refused to dump her personal problems in Thorpe’s lap. Hell, he still called her Sweet Pea or Misty—just like Axel—because she’d never told any of them her real name or her real truth. Setting him straight would be an uncomfortable conversation after all these years. Not that she’d put him or any of her friends at risk.

  The only person she might have told what she was feeling? Stone. He’d sucked her in with a single burning stare and
made her tremble. His seemingly devil-may-care attitude and the rocking tats on his bulging biceps had intrigued her. He was quick with a smile or a quip. He seemed gentle on the surface. He came across like someone who might understand. She’d been so damn giddy to spend time with him.

  Lily bit her lip against the ache that bloomed in her belly.
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