Undercover ICE agent Madi Reynolds has spent years infiltrating a human-trafficking ring, but when her life is threatened, she is forced to walk away and advised to leave the country. Undeterred, she continues her plan to attend her brother’s Christmas wedding, with her partner assigned as her bodyguard. But after seeing Brice care for her niece, she finds it's more than her life that needs protecting. Is there really any defense for the heart?
War Veteran and ICE agent Brice Johnson has been defending his country and American lives for as long as he can remember. Now, he faces the biggest assignment of his life--protect the woman he loves. He's never been one to run from a fight, but when an old flame butts in expecting a second chance with Madi, and crippling visions of war call out to him, he begins to wonder if surrender is an option after all.
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The vanity lights from the hotel room accented the highlights in Madi Reynolds’ blond curls. Fingering them, she turned her head to the side and practiced an alluring bat of her lashes.
She was an ICE agent for Homeland Security, but first, she was a woman. Today, she would use both to uncover where a local pimp named Prince was hiding the girls he’d bought through a sex-trafficking ring.
Madi had her own girls, also undercover agents, in four major cities. They knew her as Constance. According to intelligence she was a player, but tonight’s meeting would be her first reach into Atlanta.
After taking a tissue from the box, she blotted her tawny lips, admiring the lace trim on her neckline where the digital mic would capture her conversations. She inhaled a long breath and tossed the tissue into the waste basket.
From the moment she’d woken, she couldn’t shake the feeling something was off. She rehearsed how the next few hours would go—where she’d sit, what she’d say. So much hinged on the outcome of this meeting.
A text came through her cell. Hey, Madilyn, I’m coming to town and hope to see you before the wedding.
Why was Asher texting her now?
She muted her phone and ignored the message. Bowing her head, she let a prayer form. Lord, give me the words, and the--
Two knocks sounded.
“Amen,” she whispered, then put command in her voice. “Who is it?”
The door gave its typical creak as it opened. Brice Johnson stepped into the room, stowing his key card inside his dark jacket.
Madi caught a glimpse of the Glock in his side holster and wished she were wearing hers, but there was little room after she poured herself into this dress.
She met his haunting blue eyes and her heart jarred at the intensity of his gaze. To most, he was a war veteran. Undercover, he was Constance’s bodyguard. But to Madi… She wasn’t sure what they were to each other.
A look in his expression made her pause. Whatever was behind those eyes, his gaze had yet to waver, but hers fell away.
She reached for the two-carat diamond earrings and slipped them on. “Is everything set?” She lifted the box that held the matching diamond necklace and opened it gently, hoping he couldn’t see her nervousness. She was never nervous. What was wrong with her? This meeting was too important. Lives of children were at stake, and she had to play her cards to perfection.
“Everything is set, but there’s been a change.”
“Oh.” She began fastening the necklace, her fingers fumbling with the clasp.
“You’ll be with Agent Scott.”
She flinched as Brice took a step closer and slid her long curls over her shoulder.
“I know you’ve been uncomfortable around him lately, but I need to make sure there aren’t any surprises.” He took over fastening the necklace.
“How would you know I was uncomfortable?”
“You bite the inside of your lip.” He lingered for a moment, then laid her hair along her back. “Madi.”
This was the way they were together, him quiet, protective, keeping her at arm’s length. She, on the other hand, found herself breathless in his presence, keeping the hope of them alive.
“Yes?” she whispered, afraid her voice would reveal how his simple touch affected her.
He met her gaze in the mirror once again. “Please be safe.”
“I’ll try.” She swallowed.
Emotion waged within his features as his eyes slid to her neckline. “The wire in place?”
Her pulse quickened and all she could do was nod.
His gaze returned to her face, lingering for a second longer before he turned and left.
Taking in a needy breath, she stared after him.
At times she sensed his mind and heart were untouchable. But moments like these turned the hope of them into unquenchable flames.
Brice nodded his thank-you to the waitress and leaned back in the booth, his weapon pressed against his side. Steam rose from his coffee as he ran his nail across the chipped handle, his second cup this week while casing the place. This dim diner with its greasy floors and half-wilted Christmas tree left a lot to be desired, but this was the break they needed to discover the girls’ location. Atlanta was big, hotels many.
He glanced at his watch, then took a sip of his coffee, making a mental note of each person in the room. The couple he’d noticed when he first walked in were now looking toward the door like him, and they weren’t with the agency but with Prince. He set his mug on the epoxy-coated table and began his countdown.
Three. Two. One. Madi entered with Agent Scott on her heels.
Brice swallowed hard at the sight of them together. He hated that he wasn’t the one at her side tonight. He was her bodyguard. But his job also included securing the perimeter and determining who the players were. Too much rode on this meeting, and Madi was in the center of it all.
Agent Scott led her to a table in a dark corner within view, just as they planned.
The waitress who had served him sauntered over to their table and withdrew a notebook and pen from her apron pocket. “What can I get you?” Thankfully, Brice could still hear Madi despite the fifteen-foot distance between their tables.
“Two coffees. Black?” Madi looked to Scott, and with his nod, the waitress left.
Scott leaned close and whispered something meant only for Madi. Her penetrating blue eyes narrowed in disgust. He winked.
Brice gritted his teeth.
Scott’s attitude had been too relaxed and unprofessional of late, and he was on thin ice in the agency. Surely he wasn’t hitting on her again? Any minute their contact would walk right through the door. What was the man thinking?
At least Brice had insisted on Madi wearing a wire. Scott knew nothing about that last-minute change, so whatever he said, Madi wasn’t the only one who heard. Adam, his superior, was only a word away.
The door opened again, and their contact, Prince, walked in. A man flanked each of his sides. He smiled at Brice, arms extended. “Covington, why so far away? You’re not taking your normal place next to our Constance?” Prince never saw Madi without her bodyguard by her side, a job Brice would die for.
Brice held his gaze. “With you adding new players every time we meet, I have to stay on my game.”
Prince’s smile lifted one side of his mouth as he turned and ambled over to where Madi now stood. His gaze roamed every curve of her tight dress, sickening Brice’s stomach. They greeted each other with a kiss to both cheeks. “So, I hear you want to help me with my shipment coming into the airport.”
“You need a new location. My demand has grown. I thought we could barter.” A coy smile played on her lips. “We’ve worked well together in the past.”
“Yes. Yes, we have.” His greedy eyes sparkled. “You wouldn’t be a part of the deal, would you?”
Instinct brought Brice to his feet. His chest tightened.
Prince dipped his head in a slow nod toward him. “It seems Covington says no, but this one here,”—he shifted his gaze to Agent Scott, sure and steady—“he didn’t even flinch. I don’t trust him, and neither should you.”
“Some days, I don’t. Let’s speak in private then.”
“No need. Just dispose of him. Promise me, and I’ll reward you.”
Madi leaned into Prince, and it took everything in Brice’s power to hold himself where he stood. She looked into his eyes. “I like surprises. Do tell.”
Prince ran a finger down her cheek. “Constance, you are hard to disappoint. I have a group coming in that haven’t been branded yet. A sample, if you will.”
Brice fought the anger building within him as they continued with their private discussion. Drop-off location and payment were always part of the deal, but Madi was not. The need to use this scum as a punching bag lit a fire in him that he could barely contain. But if they could rescue one child, so be it. Maybe this one child could open the door to many.
After the details had been agreed upon, Prince left with his entourage and the couple in the diner followed them out. Brice held Madi and Scott back and waited for several seconds. As he led Madi to Scott’s car, his gut told him to take her with him, but he pushed the thought aside. The meeting had taken a little longer than expected, and it was almost midnight. They were supposed to be back in Winston-Salem within the hour.
Brice stopped by the passenger-side door and whispered, “Are you all right? Everything went all right with Prince?”
Madi met his gaze. “We did it,” she whispered back, her eyes filling with tears. “We’re going to save these girls.”
“We are.” He gently squeezed her arm, and she covered his hand with hers.
She smiled. “See you soon.”
His breath caught and he nodded, opening the door for her. Once she’d fastened her seatbelt, he ducked his head into the vehicle to look at Scott. “I’ll be behind you. If anything out of the ordinary happens, call.”
“Will do.” Scott started the engine and looked to Madi, but she hadn’t noticed his eyes were on her.
Brice pushed away from the car and slammed the door harder than he meant to, deciding to speak with Adam about Agent Scott’s behavior toward Madi. Hopefully she wouldn’t be angry at him.
He had no right to speak on her behalf when two weeks ago he had slammed a proverbial door on Madi after she’d asked him to accompany her to her brother’s wedding. They had been working side by side for so long that it wasn’t an unusual request, but it meant more to him. She meant more.
Brice crossed the empty parking lot and got into his black SUV. Scott had already pulled out of the lot, so Brice hurried to follow, trying to rein in his thoughts, a chore more difficult tonight than usual.
It was those days, deep undercover when he and Madi rarely spent time apart, that he got to know the real Madi. The beauty was passionate about life and loyal to those she loved, and her heart for others tugged at his soul. Like tonight, seeing the tears in her eyes for children she would never know. Sometimes he didn’t think he had a soul, but the Lord, and now Madi, reminded him he did.
Brice shook his head. With three tours under his belt, he’d seen plenty of horror during both peacetime and war. He didn’t need a relationship when all he had to offer was sleepless nights and memories he couldn’t shake.
Too bad his mind hadn’t sent his heart the memo.
Agent Scott’s car swerved off the edge of the road, then darted back. Brice’s grip tightened on the steering wheel, and his pulse increased as the car straightened out. He pressed the button on the steering wheel and called Madi.
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