Sensory Ops, Book 3
Ava Malia knows three things. She was once a kickass covert operative. She will eventually adjust to her new team, the FBI Specialized Crimes Unit. And the only way to finally be free of her professional past is to solve her first case and get her hands on a game-changing technology. The only problem? Success rides on her ability to swallow her distaste for the persona she must adopt in order to earn the trust of a mysterious scientist.
Dr. H escaped childhood captivity with three things. His sister. Complete control of his gift. And an engulfing distrust of anyone in the government. Adjusting to a life of freedom hasn’t been easy, but he’s found peace in solitude. The sexy woman auditing his empathic studies, though, has a way of getting under his skin that’s both arousing and disturbing. Plus, his psychic ability warns him of secrets so deeply buried in her psyche, they’d be better left alone.
Yet their instant attraction strips away all their protective barriers, down to the foundation of a new, fragile trust. And a vulnerability that, when an old enemy opens fire, could blast away any chance of a future.
Warning: If you don’t like mysterious heroes who can see into strong heroines, sexy love scenes, empaths, or quirky characters… Oh come on, who doesn’t like those things?
Do you easily connect to a lover? Do you easily become aroused?
“Do you easily orgasm?” Ava Malia—Ava Sebastian as far as Dr. H was concerned—flipped her heavy hair over her shoulder and offered up her most seductive smile. The one she’d mastered on her last case as a call girl.
“Excuse me?” A dark and unexpectedly sexy Greek Dr. H glanced up from his piles of reports, graphs and charts on the desk before him. His glacial eyes remained as stoic as his face.
“It seems to me you didn’t take this line of questioning as far as you could have.” She spoke low, not needing to raise her voice. She sat so near the PhD she’d been tasked to get close to that their knees brushed—and sent shocks of awareness up her thighs when they did. “I wonder why.”
A dark man with a buzz cut and muscles straining his shirt sat six rows back in the classroom. He choked and shot a shocked gaze her way. She ignored him for the sake of keeping Dr. H fully engaged.
“Your task here, Ms. Sebastian, is not to question me. Your task is to silently gather your data.”
He didn’t need pretense. He didn’t rely on posturing. He didn’t try to appear powerful. He was powerful.
“I am well aware of my task here.” To find out which Whitestone operative has been assigned to kill you, who likely is in this room.
She’d wanted to take a direct approach and ask Dr. H for his help, but her boss, Breck, team leader of the FBI Specialized Crimes Unit, had demanded a more clandestine advance. They had no hard proof Dr. H had the contact lenses Whitestone sought. And given his history with the secret arm of the corrupt agency and her former ties to them… Breck didn’t see Dr. H working with them. As far as Ava was concerned, the bastards at Whitestone had ruined enough lives. She was going to witness their fall.
“Isn’t your goal with this questionnaire to get to know your study applicants? To find out what makes people tick and how deeply connected we are to our emotions?”
“Your point?” His smooth-as-butter voice whispered across her consciousness like a gentle aubade, though lingering just below the surface was an almost indiscernible, adversity-forged superiority.
“It just seems you missed an opportunity by not asking people about their orgasms. What could be more closely tied to a person’s emotions, their psyche, than how they react during sex?”
“Sex is not…” He trailed off as his gaze locked on her like a targeted missile. The pulse at the base of his jaw thumped. “This is not a sex study.”
Moist awareness bubbled in Ava’s throat, but she refused to swallow it down. Just as she’d been trained to always sit with a clear view of a room, she’d been trained not to react to certain stimuli.
Dr. H tested her training.
She’d conditioned herself to not respond to the cover name she hated and the memories it evoked for her. His slightly flustered response and the arousal pulsing through her body that was stimulated by nothing more than a hard-eyed look made response impossible.
Maybe she was the one being engaged.
“No.” From what she’d learned of Dr. H he studied emotions, their triggers and effects. He seemed to be on a quest to find genuine empaths, especially young ones, to help them master their gifts.
“Then drop this line of pursuit and focus on your job.”
He was her job and focusing on him was no hardship.
“The questions make a girl think. They trigger internal signals…” She rested an elbow on the desk and moved her shoulders slightly forward. “And I don’t mean in the clinical ways of the posters in a gynecologist’s office on communicable diseases like, oh I don’t know…herpes.”
Buzz cut dude barked out a rough laugh. The perky blonde two seats over from him giggled. Everyone else in the half-full classroom shifted in their seats and pretended to be focused on their questionnaires.
Dr. H returned his attention to his papers. “Do your job, Ms. Sebastian.”
For her plan to work, she needed him on her side. Needed him to accept her rather than reject her as a problem. She shrugged and did his bidding.
Dr. H may think he’d kept a low profile since his escape from Eston White, a company she knew by their alternate name of Whitestone. He was cautious, and gaining access to his lab on short notice hadn’t been easy, but she’d gotten in. He wasn’t as safe as he thought.
She would wait until just the right moment to point out his weak spots.
After the study applicants had finished and left, Ava flipped back to the first page of the report Dr. H had passed her and skimmed through the data again. She’d had little time to prepare for this assignment, and didn’t want to disappoint her new team. Hoping she’d interpreted the information correctly, Ava jotted a few final notes in her journal and began packing up.
“I hope you got everything you needed, Ms. Sebastian.” Dr. H shifted through the papers without looking up. “Call if you need something more.”
Dismissed as easily as he’d swat away a mosquito. She rounded the desk and smiled. “I’ll be back. Soon.”
Smooth and slow he lifted his head. “I think I have to hear this.”
His face remained impassive, but his voice was humoring. She’d piqued his curiosity.
“Hear what, precisely?”
“Begin with what makes you so certain you will be allowed back.”
She sat on the edge of his desk, allowing her skirt to fall open at the slit just high enough for him to glimpse the bottom edge of her tattoo. He scanned her quickly. Almost quickly enough for her to miss the thump of his pulse. The pulse point that had thumped earlier. The pulse point hiding beneath his sexy, five-day beard.
He was intrigued.
“I know more about you right now than you could know about me or my ‘empathic’ abilities after studying my questionnaire for days.” She used air quotes around empathic to attempt to irritate him.
Humor warmed his eyes a tenth of a degree. “What could you know about me?”
“You don’t stop thinking. Ever. Which makes sense considering your chosen profession. It also enables you to see all sides of an issue. While you can be objective, you have an experiential approach to life.”
“I’m right. Just as I know you’ve likely received little support from family or mentors or whoever should have been there for you. So you’re independent. While you can cope with people being close—in your space…”
She bent at the waist, leaning into the space she mentioned. He smelled of barely there, old-fashioned musk. His pulse thumped again. Her palms heated. “You’re most comfortable on your own—personally and professionally.”
Thump. Thump. Thump. He controlled his responses well, but his heart gave him away.
“You chose this field of study because it’s emotionally satisfying. This is the one part of your life you don’t have to question.” She drew air deep into her lungs, pulling in his scent and absorbing the answering flicker in her belly. “You’re a good listener and though you have a sense of humor, you conceal it beneath the need to accomplish your goals.”
“You’re not as good as you think, Ms. Sebastian.” He eased back in his chair and rested his hands lightly on his thighs.
“I’m better than you think I am.” Though she hadn’t pushed the envelope too far by sharing her speculations on his choice of cologne—a cologne which reminded her of visits to their shared native country even more than his coloring.
For him, a seemingly modern man, it was likely a reminder of a simpler time in his life. Maybe it revived memories of a father or grandfather. Someone he hadn’t been allowed to know long enough.
Telling him what she read from his face and body language wasn’t an intrusion. Allowing what she’d learned about him in her research to leech into the conversation was, though more than real data she’d found gaps and inconsistencies. Unless she missed her mark, his life had started tough and gone downhill. Beyond hell.
In her line of work, both the past job as an undercover operative and her new position in the FBI Specialized Crimes Unit, there were some lines she could not—would not—cross.
“But not as good as me.” His voice and stance remained as stony as the gauntlet he’d just dropped. And as sedately powerful as everything around him.
Still, she’d scored his interest, or he wouldn’t attempt debating her observations.
Whatever his ultimate goals were with his studies, he seemed to be on a quest for some unseen justice. She didn’t need to know every detail to understand the motivation. Similar desires had propelled her to this moment. What she needed to identify was what his brand of justice was and who he was working to help.
“Really?” She lifted her right brow in what her mother had always claimed was a cocky show of bravado guaranteed to slap her into trouble. That trouble had almost killed her. Today would not be a repeat. “Then tell me, Dr. H, what you think you know about me.”
“I will give you credit for bravery, Ms. Sebastian.”
She was only three hours into this cover and already the name made her want to shed her skin like the disastrous sham which had created the identity. Paper trails could be wiped out with a cleansing fire, but no amount of scrubbing or attempting to forget could wipe away memories.
Aidan, second in command on her new team, had been right. The greatest adversities sometimes provided the most organic covers. She couldn’t dodge what had been a very real part of her life, and she’d had no choice but to build on it for the sake of this assignment.
“Is that all you’ll give me?”
“You’re pushy. Or so most would think.” His gaze bored into hers, daring her to dispute him. “In reality, you’ve been conditioned with the need to stay in control of any situation you find yourself in. You’re more suited to a wait-and-see approach that gives you the full picture than one which requires you to act quickly.”
Her stomach fluttered. The man was good, and damn if his power didn’t extend into sexual attraction. She shrugged. “Few people enjoy being out of control.”
“True, but your need for control is as necessary to you as the ground beneath your feet. Interestingly though, it conflicts with your desire to respond to things emotionally. You think of yourself as independent, but somewhere in your outrageous shell is the longing for closeness. Intimacy.”
“I’ll admit it. You’re pretty close.” Spot-on precise about everything. “But I didn’t come here for this sort of analysis.”
“What did you expect? A study on empathic abilities that wouldn’t delve into the innermost workings of the psyche?”
“Honestly, I had no expectations beyond completing a job.” And thanks to Tyler, the team’s tech guru, if Dr. H checked into Ava Sebastian, he would find an impressive background in science and accounting to back up her claim as an auditor.
She hadn’t expected him to be as adept at reading people as she’d taught herself to be. Had his teachings, like hers, been based on the pursuit to survive?
“Mmm. Maybe, but I’m not buying false properties today.” He leaned forward and braced his elbows on the desk. Moving-in-for-a-kiss close, their breathing stirred the air between them. “I see an idealist with a zealous outlook hoping to find a way to help herself and possibly others.”
“Now that sounds like some promising real estate.” Ava met his aggression and tried to ignore the increasing flutters in her gut. His scent. His power. He was arousing. “Is it ocean-front property in the Kalahari?”
Dr. H tilted his head, seeming to catalog her responses as if his mind was a database. “You’re keeping secrets.”
“We all have them.” And she wouldn’t be keeping them if her partner Aidan had felt Dr. H had been forthcoming with information when he had visited days earlier while working to tie off the last strings of a previous case. Instead, Dr. H had claimed to know nothing about a company named Whitestone or their interest in a pair of prototype contact lenses.
“I have no tolerance for secrets and lies.”
Ava laughed and shook her head. “Are you telling me you have no secrets?”
An unwavering intensity vibrated the air around them and set her arm hairs to tingling. She wasn’t empathic, but right now she was acutely attuned to Dr. H. She couldn’t read his mind, but she felt his power echoing inside herself with the allure of a predatory panther. Drawing her in. Captivating her.
“This isn’t about me.” He studied her. Moved closer. His gaze intense. Unshakeable. “This is about your reasons for being here.”
“I told you. I’m here for a job.” Beneath the strength of his stare, her chest and lungs constricted.
Her life had often depended on her ability to convincingly play a role. He made her want to squirm.
Yeah. He was powerful.
“And I told you I have no tolerance for lies.” Dr. H stood and gathered his papers into one pile. “When you decide to lead with honesty, we will revisit the possibility of you being allowed back. If the audit isn’t complete, send someone else.”
She’d followed the plan she and her team had come up with. Granted she’d taken a few liberties based on her impressions she’d gotten of him, but the plan wasn’t working. They’d been counting on her training to read people, but she was being booted from her one way into his life.
That he was willing to let yet another auditor in evidenced how badly he wanted her gone.
She needed something to shift the tidal waves back in her favor. Fast and solid and big. Not too big though, like that she knew his real name. Going too big would reveal all of her cards too soon.
Sifting through the limited information she’d found on him, she grasped for the right ammunition. If he turned her away, like he had Aidan, she would fail. Yesterday’s briefing with her team and Ian Cabrera, the expert listener for the NSA, replayed in her head. Someone was going to infiltrate Dr. H’s study for the purpose of killing him. He needed protection until they could figure out who the infiltrator was and stop them.
Before she could get access to the study participants, she needed to gain the man’s trust. From what they’d learned during their investigation, the first sign of his trust would be an invitation to call him H instead of Dr. H. She wouldn’t succeed with a hard sell.
“Sorry to have wasted your time.” Ava slid her purse on her shoulder and headed for the door. “Clearly Channing was wrong.”
She made it to the door and had her hand on the handle.
“Ms. Sebastian.” He spoke quietly with a trace of remorse underlying his hesitancy.
She looked over her shoulder, but didn’t turn her body to him. “Yes?”
“This Channing you mention.”
“What is his last name?”
“Harris.” She felt bad using her new friend’s dead stepbrother as a tool in a case, but Kami would understand. Especially if it netted them more answers into why he’d been killed.
“And how do you know him?”
“He was a good friend’s stepbrother.” She turned fully and faced his challenge directly. The truth came easily, which felt odd when she considered her adeptness for lies while working. She didn’t miss his cue of present-tense words as he tried to trick her. “Unfortunately, he recently died.”
“Tell me, what could a dead man be wrong about?” Dr. H picked up his papers and closed the distance between them.
He didn’t pretend to not know Channing, though he hadn’t said he did either. An arm’s span separated them. Close enough to touch if she reached out. She didn’t, but as it had when she’d sat on his desk, awareness hummed in the air.
His eyes drew her in so completely she could sit and stare at him for hours. His allure intoxicated her as effectively as shots of Patron Silver. His power could be detrimental if she allowed it to interfere in her case. “Why are you so intent on seeing me as a liar?”
“Because you’re intent on proceeding with more evasions than answers.”
“You’re a suspicious man, Dr. H.” Ava cocked her head and boldly scanned him with her gaze. Bubbles of desire burst in her belly. “That and the way you have insulated yourself within your one-letter name must make life lonely for you.”
“On the contrary. It minimizes life’s complications.”
His inexpressive stare dared her to show her real self. To turn his belief that she was a liar into a reality.
He was doomed to disappointment. “And you see me as such a complication.”
It was little more than a minimalistic lift to one side of his mouth, but with it, his entire façade altered. His ruggedly appealing face brightened. Became approachable.
One quirk of his mouth and he morphed in to the dark-haired man of danger with a soft inner shell women wove into fantasies.
One quirk of his mouth and the temptation awakened to discover his taste and know the feel of his whiskers against her skin.
One quirk of his kissable mouth turned him into a complication.
“I see you, Ms. Sebastian, as a challenge.”
She had him. He wouldn’t allow her to leave this room until he secured the opportunity for more answers. Until he was certain he would have the chance to figure her out.
She turned fully and leaned her back against the wall. Calling on skills of seduction she’d learned from Madame V and her girls, Ava traced a fingernail down the center of his chest and continued until encountering the waistband of his shorts. “Professionally or personally?”
“We will begin in the morning at seven a.m. Wear a suit.”
Satisfaction had her smiling. What they would do in the morning didn’t matter. She’d won their first match. She’d gained access to the private Dr. H who had cut himself off from everything…including his birth name.
He shook his head and reached past her for the door handle. His hand brushed her hip. A lightning-quick bolt of consciousness shot through her and fluttered in her gut with erotic reverberations.
He canted forward, erasing the inches between them. A hand gripped her hip and pushed her against the door. His mouth descended.
Her tongue swiped across her lips and brushed his. With a groan, he drove his tongue into her mouth and devoured.
Buzzing erupted in her scalp. Hesitant desire that couldn’t be ignored and didn’t feel as if it belonged to her alone filled her. The impression overrode thought and senses until her vision blurred. Her body trembled as if her muscles had been overworked.
Tongues brushed, lips pressed, bodies begged. Her panties were damp and she was whimpering when he pulled back.
She’d gone from close to potentially too close.
He wasn’t her lover. He hadn’t given her an orgasm. But he did arouse her.