To my surprise, the tattooed Adonis chuckles when I suggest he’s at the wrong booth. Cash has such a gruff and rugged exterior that I’d been anticipating him to roll those green eyes or scowl rather than let out an amused laugh.
Cash leans back, arms folding over his rock-hard chest, mouth quirking.
I blink hard, trying to sear the image into my mind so I can drool over him later. Cash was swoonworthily gorgeous while straight-faced, but with a hint of a crooked smile on his handsome features, he’s downright extraordinary. I might not be interested in jumping into the dating pool—and he probably isn’t either, at least, not with me—but I don’t want to ever forget how close I was to the sexiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. I had no idea guys could be this outrageously good looking before today.
“You’re one of the G&G chicks, aren’t you?” he asks.
As he speaks, he pulls out a small pad of paper and a pen from the back pocket of his jeans and sets them on the table.
I clear my throat, which suddenly feels like a frog has taken up residence in it. “Um, yes.”
His green eyes briefly blaze back into mine. A hint of a smile continues quirking the corner of his mouth. “Then I’m at the right table. I thought there were supposed to be three of you girls, though?”
“Sutton and Kali are busy with some other stuff in LA, so they’re not going to be able to make it,” I explain, fiddling my thumbs nervously in my lap in an attempt to stop myself from squirming. My sandaled feet tap on the ground like they’re trying to run off and leave me behind.
His faint smile twists into a frown and my heart plunges right along with his expression.
Oh, no. I’ve gone and said something dumb, haven’t I?
“This is supposed to be your first business meeting with my father and two-thirds of your company couldn’t be bothered to come?” he remarks coolly. “That isn’t very professional, is it?”
An internal wail of terror quakes through my whole body. My back goes rigid, and beneath the table, my fingers clutch hard at the hem of my sunny yellow skirt. Kali would be able to expertly dodge his comment while Sutton would almost certainly have some funny quip to distract from it. I, on the other hand, am frozen in sheer terror.
To my complete shock, Cash laughs softly again. A second later, his frown relaxes back into a devastating grin.
“I’m just teasing you, Liv,” he says. “Sorry about that. I guess I’m not as funny as I thought.”
“You were joking?” I whimper.
Using his pen to gesture at the bustling restaurant around us, he shrugs his broad shoulders. “In case you haven’t noticed, Franco isn’t exactly huge on professionalism. He thinks it’s too straitlaced and boring. I mean, this restaurant doesn’t even have a real floor. It’s beach sand.”
Despite what Cash is saying, I can’t seem to relax. My mind is running a thousand miles an hour and it stubbornly refuses to slow down. This whole mess has my fight-or-flight instinct going haywire and it won’t let me chill out. If I’m not careful, I think I might just hyperventilate.
Thankfully, Cash is content to keep talking while I try to convince my heart rate to calm down.
“Anyway, I’m Franco’s son. He’s pretty busy these days, thanks to the publicity your girl group brought him, so unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to sit and talk with you.” He pauses to glance down at the pad and paper he’d brought out and flips through a few of the pages, where I assume Franco has jotted down some things for him to discuss. “Now, I guess you guys are going to do some sort of fashion line or something?” he asks, sounding skeptical. “How exactly does someone make a fashion line based on a burger place?”
Silence creeps across the table as I stare helplessly at Cash. I want to answer him, but my tongue feels so heavy behind my teeth that I’m not sure I can say a single word.
He waits patiently while I try to collect myself, but the more desperately I try to arrange my thoughts into verbal speech, the more frazzled I become. If I was a cartoon character, I would have steam pouring out of my ears, the gears in my head are grinding so hard.
“Um, well,” I sputter when he casts a look at the doors of the kitchen. I can hear talking and laughter as the cooks do their thing in there. I know Cash must be tired of dealing with me. I can feel it. He’s merely waiting to escape this tedious conversation so he can go back to Franco and tell his father that the business deal is off because I’m not capable of carrying it out correctly. “The fashion line is like, you know, a vibe.”
“A vibe?” he echoes blankly. “What vibe?”
I shift on the seat under his curious gaze. Thankfully, this time the plastic doesn’t squeak.
“As I’m sure you know, Franco’s has a vibe. And the clothes, um, also have a vibe.”
I cut myself off with a grimace, giving up on floundering for words.
Could I sound any less intelligent? Or business-like?
I’m going nowhere fast, except leading the collab deal down the drain. Instead of saying anything further, I grab the leather-bound folder sitting beside me in the booth. I’d completely forgotten about my portfolio until now, and I know I need to let it do the talking because I am seriously falling short.
I set the folder on the table and push it toward Cash.
He opens it and begins to slowly flip through designs that I’d spent hours drawing, as well as a few of the samples I’d stitched. For the actual collaboration, a local boutique has offered to produce the limited line for us so that I don’t have to sew every single piece. But for this meeting, I needed every article of clothing to be perfect. I’ve included a pair of women’s shorts that are perfectly distressed and a flattering shade of dark blue, complete with patches on the back pockets with Franco’s logo. I’ve also crafted a vintage-cut men’s tee that actually goes quite well with the jeans Cash is already wearing. He has the same kind of style that I’m going for with this clothing line. That makes me pretty proud, even though I can’t bring myself to say as much. The whole line will be laid-back and chill with garments that anyone can rock on the beach or in the burger shack.
“Hmm…” Cash murmurs thoughtfully.
He spends so much time studying my designs that I start to wonder if I messed up and included my rough drafts instead. When he finally gets to the last page, he picks up the jean shorts I made and inspects them carefully. Then he checks out the tee before setting both articles of clothing back down. Still silent, he jots a few notes on his paper pad before turning his attention back to me.
The second his gaze lands on me, I feel my mind turning to goo. The effect this man I’ve never met before has on me is both frustrating and confusing. As if speaking up isn’t hard enough on me, this guy dares to have such a gorgeously distracting face that I struggle even more than normal.
Sweat forms on the back of my neck, sliding bead by ice-cold bead down the notches of my spine. It makes a shiver roll all the way up my body from my toes.
“You’ve certainly brought some interesting samples with you,” he states with an inflection to his husky voice that I can’t figure out for the life of me.
Is he pleased or disappointed with what he sees?
And what in the world does he mean by interesting? That can be taken so many different ways. I mean, it’d been interesting when Kali and I found out that Sutton was faking her relationship with her now-real boyfriend, Boone, but not exactly in a good way. Sure, that’d worked out for Sutton, and now, she and her southern sweetie are head-over-heels in love with each other, but Boone is a rugby player, not a rough-around-the-edges motorcycle-riding bad-boy relegated to doing his daddy’s errands. They’re total opposites.
Oh, man. Is Cash about to tell me to work on my craft and try again when I get some real talent?
My eyelashes flutter and my head starts to spin all over again. I’ve got to get out of here before I make a bigger fool of myself. This meeting was done before it even began. As soon as my besties said they couldn’t make it, I should’ve run away. I know I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. Why did I even try? I need to leave this kind of stuff to the girls who can handle it.
“Um, it’s been really nice talking to you,” I sputter, stumbling over my words. I try not to look him right in those dazzling eyes, because if I do, I’m going to trip right over my own two feet and land face down in the sand. That would only be adding salt to the wound. “I should get going. Do you have everything you need from me?”
“Well, yes, I guess—” he starts, but I’m already gathering my purse and scooting out of the booth before he can say anything more.
The plastic seat once again clings stubbornly to my legs, loudly squelching every time I move. Crimson flames lick at my face as my embarrassment builds.
“Thanks again for your time,” I mutter when I’m finally free. I offer a half-hearted wave, then whirl around and dash out of the restaurant, feeling his gaze follow me the whole way.
Outside, the California sun shines brightly over my head, but my mood is gray and more than a little dour.
Now, I have to face Kali and Sutton and admit that not only did I potentially mess up a great business deal, but that I also made a fool of myself in front of the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen.
Mac looked left, then right, then darted across the street. She couldn’t believe the SWAT team didn’t have anyone covering the back door of the building, but there wasn’t a cop in sight. Maybe they weren’t the hotshots everyone made them out to be.
She was just about to grab the handle when the door burst open. Mac barely had time to gasp before a man with a baseball cap on backward and a chest full of tattoos lifted a big rifle and aimed it at her. Her heart stopped. Instinct told her to run—or at least scream for help—but before she could do either, a black-clad SWAT officer in tactical gear dropped from above and knocked the thug to the ground with some kind of martial arts chop to the back of his tattooed neck.
She stared at the man lying unconscious on the ground, then at the cop before looking up to see a rappelling rope swaying back and forth against the side of the three-story building. How the heck had he dropped down fast enough to do that?
Mac opened her mouth to identify herself, but the SWAT officer closed the space between them in the blink of an eye and slapped a gloved hand over her mouth. She automatically reached up to grab his hand, but then froze as she locked eyes with his. He was wearing his ski mask, so all she could see were those eyes and a small amount of smooth brown skin around them. It had to be Mike Taylor or Jayden Brooks, the only two African American members of
the team. Since she hadn’t seen Brooks go in, it had to be Taylor. But for the life of her, she didn’t remember his eyes being a shocking shade of gold in his personnel file photo.
Movement caught her attention and Mac darted a quick look to her right to see two uniformed officers appear out of nowhere. When had her SWAT savior called them?
“Get them out of here,” the golden-eyed man said softly. “And keep her quiet.”
And just like that, one of the uniformed cops wrapped his arm around her waist from behind and picked her up, putting his hand over her mouth when Taylor pulled his away. She watched helplessly as the other cop grabbed the unconscious gunman and heaved him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, then ran toward the front of the building. When she looked back, the SWAT officer was nowhere to be seen. Where the heck had he gone? If all the guys in the tactical unit were this fast and powerful, she could imagine why Marvin thought they were on something. Nobody should be able to move that fast.
Her captor followed his partner, running down the alley with her like she was an unruly kid in a movie theater. She was so shocked she didn’t even struggle, and by the time she thought about it, they were at the SWAT operations vehicle. The minute he planted her firmly on her feet
and took his hand away from her mouth, she whirled around to chew him out for manhandling her and was amazed to discover he was the same uniformed cop Dixon had spoken to earlier. Had the SWAT commander seen the news van and told the cop to keep an eye on her? But
that was impossible. No one had eyesight that good.
The officer reached around her and opened the door of the operations vehicle, then motioned her in.
She’d about had enough with the caveman crap for today. “I’m not going in there.”
“In here, or in the backseat of a cruiser until this is done,” a deep voice said from inside. “Your call, Ms. Stone, but make it quickly.”
The cop raised an eyebrow, gesturing with one hand toward the open door, and the other across the street where his cruiser was parked. Well, she’d wanted to get an inside look at how the SWAT team operated.
Mac ignored the hand the cop put out to help her and tried not to stamp her foot as she stepped into the vehicle.
“Please close the door, Officer Danner,” said that same deep voice.
The door slammed shut, making her jump.
Mac pushed her sunglasses up on her head and surveyed the inside of the huge vehicle. The three men she’d seen earlier were eyeing her curiously. Gage Dixon, on the other hand, wasn’t paying attention to her at all. He stood with his back to her, his focus locked on the computer monitors attached to the far wall of the vehicle. All six screens were on, but the images on four them were moving and changing so fast it made her dizzy to look at them. It took her a moment to realize she was seeing live feeds from cameras mounted on his men’s helmets. Funny, she hadn’t seen one mounted on Taylor’s.
Who the hell was she kidding? She hadn’t noticed much of anything besides his big muscles and seriously mesmerizing eyes. He might have been naked for all she knew. Nah, she would have noticed that. She never missed a naked man.
But the four moving cameras meant Zak had been right—there were more than three SWAT officers in there. There were four. Not that four seemed like enough to her, either. She’d want like fifty or so to do the job.
The other two screens were stable, showing the inside of the building from two different angles. Mac took a step closer to get a better look and saw people lying face down on the floor. At first she thought they were dead, but then she picked up movement.
She surveyed the inside of the operations vehicle and was disappointed to see it was nothing more than an RV without all the good stuff that came with it. That wasn’t to say it was empty. There were racks for equipment, racks for weapons, and racks for radios, computers, and
cameras. There were even two whiteboards and a corkboard. A rather detailed drawing of the exterior of the building had been drawn on the whiteboard. Double red lines marked what looked like entry points.
Mac glanced at Dixon and the other men. They were all staring at the monitors. Figuring this was her chance to pick up some intel, she slid her hand into her back pocket for her camera.
“Please put your camera away, Ms. Stone,” Dixon said.
Mac froze. Damn. Everyone turned to look at her—well, everyone except Dixon. He was still glued to the monitors.
She pushed the camera back into her pocket. How the hell had he known what she was doing?
Dixon reached out and thumbed a switch on a box near the monitors. “We just got audio from the room where they’re holding the hostages.”
The sound of quiet sobs and pitiful moans—punctuated with a whole lot of shouting for the hostages to “Shut the eff up!”—filled the operations vehicle.
When the hostages were only silent, black-and-white video images, it had been possible for Mac to distance herself from the fact that the people lying on the floor—most of whom were women—were real, live human beings with mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, boyfriends and husbands, maybe even kids. And that they were scared to death. But now it was impossible to remain detached. Mac edged closer, holding her breath without even meaning to. One of the gunmen weaved in and out of the hostages, kicking them in an attempt to get them to move…somewhere. Most of the women just curled up in the fetal position and cried harder, which only seemed to infuriate the guy kicking them even more.
Cursing, he grabbed one of the women by the hair and dragged her out of the camera’s view. The woman’s terrified screams echoed through the speakers, chilling Mackenzie to the core. She’d seen a lot of violence in her line of work, but that didn’t mean she was used to it. She covered her mouth with her hands to keep from shouting at Dixon to tell his damn SWAT team to do something to help. She was a journalist. She was supposed to stay neutral in every situation and just observe. But it was damn hard when she knew that thug in there was moments away from killing that poor woman—or worse.
“Shit, this is bad,” the hostage negotiator said. “Those animals are on the edge and ready to go over. If your team is going in there, they’d better be quick.”
Dixon didn’t answer, but just spoke softly into the mic he was wearing. A moment later, he turned to the man from the power company. “Are your people ready?”
Hard Hat looked nervous, but he nodded. “When you say the word.”
Dixon turned his attention to the uniformed officer. “I know you were hoping we wouldn’t have to do this, but I need to get my people in there.”
The man didn’t look happy about it, but he nodded. “Do whatever you have to do. Just be careful. There’re a lot of hostages in there.”
Mackenzie wasn’t sure in a case like this who got to make the call as to when SWAT went in. But regardless, Dixon had smoothly put the lieutenant in the decision loop, making sure he didn’t step on any toes he didn’t have to. She’d used that trick herself a few times in the past
to keep herself on people’s good side, even when she could have trampled all over them. He was pretty smart for a big, muscle-bound trigger puller.
Dixon threw a glance at Hard Hat. “On my mark. In three…two…one. Now.”
At the SWAT commander’s signal, Hard Hat said a single word into his radio. All at once, every screen on the wall went black. For a moment, Mac thought the SWAT vehicle had lost power. Then she heard screaming over the speakers and realized they’d cut the power to the building.
Half a second later, gunfire erupted.
Mac couldn’t see a damn thing on the monitors except the occasional bright orange flashes that reflected off the walls.
But while she couldn’t see much, she could hear plenty. Women screaming, men cussing, the thud of heavy stuff hitting the floor. And interspersed between all of it, the growls of what sounded like a pissed-off SWAT team. Man, these guys really got fired up when they went in.
It sounded as if they were ready to tear the place apart. Maybe that was what Marvin had meant when he said they were on something. Right now, she couldn’t care less about her story. She only prayed the hostages made it out of this in one piece, although she couldn’t imagine how that would be possible. Not with all that gunfire.
But as fast as the shooting had started, it stopped.
Mac stared at the pitch-black screen, straining her eyes for something—anything—that would tell her if the hostages were still alive.
Gage pressed his index finger to the small bud in his right ear as if listening, then he turned to Hard Hat. “Flip on the power.”
The monitors trained on the interior of the building lit up, but not the ones connected to the SWAT officers’ helmet cams.
Mac sagged with relief. The women were huddled together in the center of the room, clearly traumatized but alive. Three men were on the floor nearby. They were still moving, but it didn’t look like they’d be going anywhere. One member of the SWAT team was covering the downed bank robbers, while two others moved among the women checking for injuries. Mac didn’t see the fourth member of the SWAT team. He must be dealing with the other thugs out of the camera view.
“Copy that,” Gage said into his mic, then glanced at the lieutenant. “Scene secure. Five suspects down, four WIA, one KIA. No hostages seriously wounded, but a few got trampled in the panic.”
Four bad guys wounded, one dead.
The lieutenant looked as relieved as Mac felt. “I’ll get in there with some uniforms and EMTs, start getting everyone out.”
He brushed past her at a run, slamming the door of the operations vehicle behind him. A few moments later, Hard Hat and the hostage negotiator left as well, leaving her alone with the SWAT team leader.
Curious despite herself, Mac moved closer to the man so she could see the monitors better—or at least that was the excuse she was going with.
She watched in silence as police officers and EMTs rushed into the room to take custody of the bank robbers and give first aid to the hostages. Dixon’s team fell back, disappearing out of the camera’s view.
Only then did Dixon take off his headset and turn to face her. “So, Ms. Stone. Did you get what you were looking for?”
This was the first time Mackenzie had seen Gage Dixon this close up. Saying he was gorgeous didn’t even begin to cover it. With his dark hair, chiseled jaw, and sensuous mouth, he was downright devastating. She was especially captivated by his eyes. They were the color of
dark honey. Or maybe fine whiskey. Either way, it was too easy to get lost in their depths.
She gave herself a mental shake and forced herself to look away, if just to catch her breath. “What are you talking about?”
He smiled at her in a way that made her wonder if he knew how off balance he had her. That bothered her—she was used to being the one who put other people off balance.
“It’s obvious you’ve been snooping around for a story,” he said.
“When your man grabbed me, you mean?” She shrugged. “That was a complete accident. I got turned around and ended up back there.”
He chuckled. “Right. Just like it’s a complete accident that your unmarked news van has been parked outside my SWAT compound for the last two days?”
She tried not to let her surprise show, but failed miserably. Mouth twitching, he turned and switched off the monitors.
How the hell had Dixon made her so easily? She and Zak weren’t that sloppy, were they? Dixon turned off the monitors, then picked up a cloth and wiped down the whiteboard.
“Okay, you caught me,” she said. “But I only resorted to that because the department turned down my request for an interview and a ride-along.”
He stopped wiping and turned to her, his brow raised in a way that did interesting things to her tummy. Damn, the man had quite the smolder. “Most reporters would be able to infer from that answer that they should go after a different story.”
Mac knew it was crazy, but if she didn’t know better, she’d think Dixon was teasing her—if not outright flirting. Well, she could play that game, too. But while she wasn’t above using her feminine wiles to get a story, she needed to make sure she was right about him first.
She moved a little closer. If he backed up, she’d assume she read him wrong and would retreat accordingly. If he didn’t, she might be able to work him a little bit.
Dixon did neither. Instead, he took a step toward her so that they were standing even closer together. She hadn’t realized how big the SWAT officer was until that moment. He towered over her by almost a foot, and his shoulders were nearly twice as wide as she was. She decided she suddenly liked really big men.
Damn, it was going to be hard remembering this guy was the target of her next in-depth investigative article.
“I’ve never been very good at picking up subtle hints.” She gave him her best award-winning smile—the one she used on her editor when she wanted a really juicy story—and moved a fraction of an inch closer. He smelled nice. “I was simply waiting outside the compound so I could talk to you and straighten out the obvious misunderstanding the department had.”
“Of course.” He returned her smile with one of the sexiest grins she’d ever seen. “Because it must have been a mistake. After all, what cop wouldn’t want to talk to the ever-insightful Ms. Mackenzie Stone, right?”
Mac gave him a real smile this time. It was hard not to. He was one of those rare men who could be charming with a few carefully chosen words. And he seemed attracted to her—at least she was pretty sure he was.
She was just trying to figure out how to use that attraction to weasel an invite for an in-depth interview with the hunky SWAT commander when the door to the operations vehicle opened and two of his men climbed in. They hesitated for a moment when they saw her, as if surprised to find their superior alone with a woman in the back of the operations vehicle. She wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as if they could know she was a journalist looking for a story.
One of the men was Senior Corporal Michael Taylor—the man who’d saved her life before. The other wasn’t one of the three she’d ID’d earlier, but she recognized him from the files anyway—Senior Corporal Xander Riggs. He must have been the one who’d slipped into the building before she and Zak got there.
Dixon took a step back, putting some space between them as Taylor closed the door behind him and Riggs.
“This is Mackenzie Stone from the Dallas Daily Star. Ms. Stone, meet Mike Taylor and Xander Riggs, two of my senior team members.”
Being surrounded by three guys this big and muscular in a confined space like the operations vehicle should have made her feel claustrophobic, but that definitely wasn’t how Mac felt right then. She had to make a serious effort to keep her mind in gear as she shook their hands.
She had a hundred questions about the operation she’d just witnessed, but there was one thing she needed to get straight first. “Sergeant Dixon said that one of the bank robbers was KIA. That means he was killed in action, right?”
Riggs glanced at his boss, his dark eyes questioning. Dixon nodded, signaling it was okay to talk to her. “Yes, one of the suspects was shot and killed by a member of the team. He left us no choice. When the power went out, he grabbed a hostage. We ordered him to drop his weapon, but he pointed it at the woman’s head and was about to pull the trigger. A disabling shot wasn’t an option because he was behind the woman.”
Mac noticed Riggs didn’t say which member of the team had shot the suspect, but based on the level of detail he provided and the way the muscle in his jaw flexed, she guessed it was him.
“That must have been a pretty tough shot, considering how crazy it was in there,” she said. “And in the pitch black, too.”
Xander’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. She thought he would have taken it as a compliment, but instead he looked uncomfortable. Why did men find it necessary to downplay every heroic thing they did?
“We have excellent night vision goggles,” Taylor said. “They help.”
“Of course.” She smiled at him. “By the way, thanks for helping me out back in that alley. It’s possible I might have been in a bit of trouble.”
Taylor’s mouth curved. When he smiled, he seemed a lot less intimidating. “Something tells me you find yourself in trouble like that frequently.”
Mac shrugged. “Every now and then,” she said before turning back to Riggs. “I didn’t see you enter the building with the rest of the team. Did you go in before I got here?”
Riggs threw Dixon a sharp look. Instead of giving the corporal the okay, he answered her question this time.
“We dropped Corporal Riggs off a few blocks out from the scene. He hoofed it in over the rooftops while we were getting into position outside. He went in and set up the remote cameras and microphones while everyone inside was focused on us and the other police officers.”
Riggs and Taylor stared at their commander, clearly shocked by how open he’d been about their tactics to a member of the media. Mac was stunned, too. She’d been fishing when she’d asked the question. She hadn’t expected them to actually answer her.
Dixon chuckled. “You don’t have to look so alarmed. It’s not like I shared state secrets. Besides, Ms. Stone will be coming by the compound later today to take a look around and see how we operate.”
Mackenzie did a double take. “Seriously?”
His amber eyes met hers. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? An in-depth look at a day in the life of a SWAT officer?”
She was more interested in finding out if they were hiding something, but she didn’t tell him that.
“I figured if I didn’t make the offer, you’d only hang around outside the compound for months until I agreed to let you in. Or until you tried to sneak into the middle of the next hostage situation,” he said. “This way we can do our job without worrying about you popping up out of
nowhere, and you get to do yours without risking your life.”
She opened her mouth to thank him, but he held up a finger. “There’s one condition, though.”
“You agree not to detail any of our tactical procedures or techniques like the one I just told you about. You print those and you’ll get my team killed.” He lifted a brow. “Do we have an agreement?”
Mac nodded eagerly. “Yes.”
She’d agree to whatever he wanted if it got her in the compound—even if it meant going back on her word later. Although, after today, she wasn’t sure there was a story. She seriously doubted these guys were doing drugs, regardless of what Marvin said. But that didn’t matter. No way was she passing up an opportunity like this.
“I’ll see you at the compound this afternoon then,” Dixon said as he opened the door for her. “Say three o’clock?”
She smiled up at him. “I’ll be there.”
Mac had to resist the urge to do a little happy dance as she hurried back to the news van. She wasn’t sure how it had happened, but somehow she’d gotten herself an engraved invitation to get up close and personal with the country’s most elite tactical unit—the Dallas PD SWAT.