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Against the Dark (romantic suspense) (The Associates) by Carolyn Crane - Romance>ContemporarySHE’S AN EX-SAFECRACKER FORCED INTO ONE LAST HEIST
Angel Ramirez left the safecracking game five years ago, and she’s worked hard to make amends and build an honest life. But when a beloved aunt is kidnapped, she must reunite with her girl gang to acquire the unique ransom: Walter Borgola’s prized diamonds. It’s a simple job that turns into a nightmare, thanks to a surprisingly clever—and searingly sexy—security guard named Cole Hawkins.
HE’S AN UNDERCOVER AGENT WITH BIG PLANS FOR HIS GORGEOUS THIEF
Cole is one of the Association’s most brilliant agents, under deep cover investigating a ruthless killer. He’s also running out of time: hundreds will die if he doesn’t stop the plan Borgola’s set into motion. Catching Angel is the break he needed--he promises not to turn her in if she poses as his lover and uses her unique talents to unlock the sociopath’s dungeon vaults.
But as pretend passions turn real, Cole regrets drawing Angel into his deadly game…and danger is closer than either of them could ever imagine.
Reader Rating: 4.0 (3 Ratings)
Excerpt:AGAINST THE DARK
Angel Ramirez sipped her club soda and lime, a stand-in for a gin and tonic, and carried on a mindless conversation with her old friend Macy. It was the kind of babble that let them devote their attention to potential threats in their surroundings. They were posing as party girls—hookers paid by Borgola to have sex with the party guests. They’d been propositioned a few times, but they’d put the guys off by pretending to be waiting for somebody.
So far so good.
Nobody was paying much attention to them anyway. Unless you counted the guy in the corner, leaning against a fountain, looking perfectly at home at a party full of men who would never do the right thing.
He had sandy brown hair and a scruff of a beard, and his tux fit just a little tight across his muscular shoulders, but what she mostly noticed was his gaze—it burned intense and gem-like behind his thick-rimmed glasses. Brainy and brawny, like a fair-haired Clark Kent.
Something told her he wasn’t watching her for security reasons. And that’s not why she was watching him.
Don’t look, she told herself.
Of course it didn’t help to look away, either. His relentless gaze made her feel excited and melty inside. Even standing on the periphery, he was the center of the room, like the human equivalent of a bonfire. And he riveted her. Which told her everything she needed to know about him.
Do this job and get out, she told herself.
She kept her back to the action on the couches in the sunken living room. Beyond was the Grecian pool where couples outright fucked. Everything was gilded gold and velvet, and the walls were hung with disturbing pin-up style paintings of women being fondled by monsters. Borgola would’ve commissioned them. Angel thought she recognized the artist, though he’d never sign such obscene work.
But it was the massive bunches of white roses that truly offended her. Their beauty and innocence was all wrong here. If she were designing this home, she would get rid of them, or else she’d go in the other direction and do something perverse. To match the mood of the place.
But of course, she’d never take a client like Walter Borgola, the owner of this vulgar mansion and thrower of this disturbing party.
Macy lifted a glass of champagne off a tray carried by a waiter, who disappeared into the crowd around the sunken living room. “I always did love that dress on you, Angel,” she said.
Angel smiled. “Thanks.” The vintage pink empire waist dress was one of her favorites from her former life of crime—it was sexy and also good for concealing a handgun in a thigh holster along with her old safecracking tool. The tool was disguised as an mp3 player; she hadn’t been able to bring herself to throw it away for sentimental reasons. She never thought she’d use it again.
For five years now she’d walked the straight and narrow, building a nice little business as an interior designer. She’d been proud of her honest new life, and she even felt like she was starting to repair some of the damage she’d done to the people she loved. And now here she was, buzzing with adrenaline, all geared up to hit a place.
She hated how good it still felt.
Macy wore a designer gown Angel didn’t recognize—a slinky silver affair that popped against her skin. Angel used to know all of Macy’s clothes, but of course her old gang would have moved ahead without her. At least Macy’s hair was still the same, shorn close and dyed white-blonde, all in kinky little nubs the size of thimbles. Some bejeweled.
“Should we be worrying about this guy?” Nothing escaped Macy’s notice. “He looks too brainy for Borgola security, don’t you think? But if he wants a go with you, he’d come over and request it.”
Angel tried to keep her face neutral. “Yeah, I don’t know.”
“Oh my God.” Macy smiled. “You think he’s hot.”
“Don’t,” Angel said.
“Doot doot doot,” Macy made a radar sound. “We have detected a bad boyfriend.”
“Stop it,” Angel said.
“Dangerously self-destructive man at oh-four-hundred hours. Angel, start your engines.”
“It’s not funny. At all.”
They used to joke about it back in the day—if they wanted to know if a guy was troubled and self-destructive in some way, they just needed to check if Angel thought he was hot.
Bad boyfriend radar, they called it.
Because if Angel was attracted to a guy, it meant he was probably wounded or feral, a doomed thug or a tough with a hurricane for a heart. It meant she could love him, but never save him. Being past the anyone-saving-him point was a central feature of her boyfriend choices.
Which was why she didn’t date men she was attracted to anymore, a policy that made for a shitty sex life, but the new and reformed Angel was all about avoiding trouble. Anyway, she rarely met her type anymore. You had to come to parties like this to meet the really bad seeds.
So yeah, this one looked all brainy and in control, but Angel knew better; no man fooled her bad boyfriend radar. Angel wondered cynically how far this guy had gotten along on his personal yellow brick road of self-destruction.
Not that she needed to care.
“It’s a problem if he’s Borgola security,” Macy said.
“He’s not the sadistic type,” Angel said. She could tell everything about a guy like this. “His fury doesn’t turn outward, it turns inward.”
Macy smiled. “So says the Jane Goodall of the self-destructive man.”
Yelps and screams sounded from the direction of the pool. Macy shot a dark gaze that way. “Tell me you’re not just a little happy about ripping Walter Borgola off. Tell me your adrenaline isn’t pumping.”
“My adrenaline is pumping to see Aunt Aggie safe.”
“Come on. I’m talking about the job. Not just a little of the old rush? You always loved the high wire.”
“I like sleeping at night,” Angel said.
Macy glared silently at the pool. “You are such a little liar, Angel. That’s okay.”
“I’m here for Aunt Aggie, that’s all.”
“Yeah, we’re all here for Aunt Aggie. Doesn’t mean you have to lie to yourself about the thrill of the job. About grabbing the rocks.”
Macy was right, of course. Angel didn’t really care about sleeping at night. And yes, her blood was racing with the need to melt into the shadows, to steal through forbidden spaces and unlock what nobody else could. Her friends had no idea how much she missed it. And yes, yes, yes, she wanted that guy in the corner with a kind of fever.
Do this job and get out, she told herself.
Because she valued her legit life. And stealing hurt people. And she cared that her parents and abuela were on the road to forgiving her for the shame she’d brought to the family—they’d even invited her back home for a Thanksgiving dinner of pumpkin and sweet potato tamales this past year. She’d felt almost like a decent woman, and it made her want to scream to be pulled back in like this. But she’d do anything to save Macy’s Aunt Aggie, who had been like a second mother to her. The Flesh Boys had nabbed the old woman. They’d demanded Borgola’s diamonds in ransom. Only a few people in the world could crack that rare Fenton Furst model safe up in Borgola’s bedroom.
“Act natural.” Macy stared at one of the oil paintings. “What does the interior designer say about this art?”
Angel pasted on a vacant smile. “I think the décor is brilliant,” she said. “An interior should reflect the passion and personality of the homeowner. So, for the biggest pimp-scumbag and God knows what else in L.A., I think it really expresses his inner grossness, don’t you? I would make it even more horrible in here if I were his designer.”
Macy’s cheekbones broadened in a wide smile. “Oh Angel. I missed you. You always had such a dramatic imagination.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Macy snapped. “You know we would’ve used Rhonda if she had the skills. I get that you like being out.” Meaning out of the life, the gang. “Rhonda’s good. But you know, a Fenton Furst…”
“I know,” Angel said.
Macy said, “The only way I’m going out is feet first.”
Exactly what Angel used to say.
She still felt the heat of the man’s gaze. No way did he recognize her from her new life—the species of troubled badass she was attracted to weren’t typically found in upscale furniture stores or suburban L.A. dream homes. Their main habitat was exactly where they shouldn’t be, and eventually their habitat became a slab in the morgue. Anyway, she looked completely different for this job tonight, what with her fake boobs and big makeup. And she’d remember if she’d ever met him.
No, he didn’t fool her for a second.
White Jenny walked up and put her arms around Angel and Macy. “Still just two guards circling the grounds. Twelve to fifteen minute intervals going out there.” White Jenny had creamy white skin and blonde-white hair; she was a pale and voluptuous milkmaid compared to Angel and Macy. They were all trying to look like whores, but White Jenny came by it naturally. She always had, ever since middle school, when the three of them had become best friends, three smart, precocious poor girls, united by dreams of a life beyond the hardscrabble housing around the Willow Farms Poultry plant.
“The guards walk separately?” Macy asked. “They never meet?”
“Never meeting,” White Jenny said. “The north side of the house is for sure clear five minutes at a time. But only that.”
“These fuckers can’t be more consistent than that?” Macy blinked her brown eyes in total annoyance.
White Jenny and Macy discussed the external security. Angel snuck a look at him again and her heart thalumped when she locked into his gray eyes—the kind that managed to look icy and blazing at the same time, like pain mixed with fire. Her skin felt hot, and she looked away. He galvanized her. There was no other word for it.
“Have you spotted bad boyfriend material?” White Jenny asked. “Imagine that. At a party like this!”
Angel closed her eyes. “Let’s just do this.”
“Your libido always was infallible,” White Jenny said. “Have you even gone on any dates at all in the last five years?”
“Let’s focus on the job, not my personal life,” Angel said, though it kind of broke her heart to be with these girls again. The way they clicked and how well they knew her. She missed them badly, but she couldn’t be around the life.
“Just say,” White Jenny said.
“No good dates,” Angel said.
“Have you even been laid?” White Jenny asked.
“Let’s stick to the job,” Angel said.
“Noooo!” White Jenny said. “You haven’t. Poor baby!”
“Borgola’s at two o’clock,” Macy muttered. That stopped the laughing.
Walter Borgola himself, owner of the mansion, was moving in their direction. Angel snuck a glance. Borgola was a wiry, athletic man with gray-flecked brown hair, a red nose, and watery hazel eyes. His shirt was half tucked in and two of the three women with him had wet cum glistening on their dresses. A guy like Borgola would see his spunk as a precious gift. He and his women stopped at every group like royals greeting the minions.
Angel’s stomach turned as they strolled up. Borgola ran a finger down White Jenny’s cheek. This would be one of the risky parts of the night; if Borgola decided he wanted any one of them, they’d be lucky to get out of there without trouble. They never fucked for a job. That had been their rule since juvie.
“You ladies having fun?” he asked.
White Jenny smiled, red lips like a bloody slash against her pale skin. “Sure are.”
Next, Walter Borgola took Macy’s hand and kissed it—with a little tongue. “Ebony morsel,” Borgola said. Macy smiled her broad smile. Angel was struck by how much slimier Borgola was in person. She had the sense that you could never pin him down, like he had no center. It chilled her.
Still holding Macy’s hand, he glanced at Angel. “Chiquita taco.”
Angel smiled. That was one thing that hadn’t changed in her straight life—certain kinds of white guys having some bullshit thing to say about her being Latina.
“You girls be good.” With that, Walter Borgola and his women oozed off.
Under her breath, Macy said, “Tell me when it’s safe to chop off my hand.”
“Did I see him give your hand some tongue?” Angel asked.
Macy drooped her eyelid, a famous expression of hers.
“Ugh,” Angel said.
White Jenny snorted. “Ebony morsel and chiquita taco? That makes me want to trash this place.”
She turned to Angel. “Tell me you don’t want to ream him out of his rocks just on principle.”
Angel watched him greet the next group of girls. “Won’t be the saddest day of my life.”
Not ten minutes later, Jocko the chef sauntered up with a tray.
“What are you doing?” Macy asked.
Jocko pointed to a shrimp roll. “Try it,” he said.
“Grrreat. What’s it to?” Macy asked, taking shrimp roll and what Angel presumed was a key. Jocko was their inside guy. He’d provided maps of the place. He’d be getting a cut of anything they found beyond the gems.
“Locked pocket door to the security console,” Jocko said. “Nothing to freak about.” He turned to White Jenny. “Did you try the shrimp rolls?”
White Jenny looked unhappy. She always created virtual models of the buildings they planned to hit, so that they could run through every step of the job in virtual reality. Rob the house before you rob it—that was their motto. White Jenny had been proud to show Angel her new sophisticated building information modeling software when they’d run through the job this afternoon. BIM they called it.
Now there was an extra locked door? That changed things. “This might mean there are other locked doors,” White Jenny said, holding up her shrimp roll like she was asking a question about it.
“It might mean surprises, and we don’t like any goddamn surprises.”
“No more surprises.”
“Jocko,” Macy said. “There’s a guy to my right leaning against the fountain. Light brown hair. Glasses. Nerd with baditude. Is he somebody?"
“He’s on the team,” Jocko said. “The security team.”
“No way,” Angel said. They’d all heard the rumors. The level of sadism on that team. Horrible things. She always went for guys whose rage manifested in self destruction, never cruelty.
“I’m telling you,” Jocko said. “Been on the team for months. Those security guys are bad shit.”
“He’s looking at Angel.” Macy asked. “You think he’s looking to play?”
“I don’t know,” Jocko said. “The team is tight, and they’re all on the job tonight. Though they do get breaks.” With that he moved on, offering shrimp rolls to another little group of hookers and men.
The men had all paid a lot to go to this party. The women were paid to show up and be willing.
“So what the hell? He’s either looking to screw Angel on his fifteen minute break, or he’s made her,” Macy said.
“How could he suspect us of anything?” White Jenny complained. “We haven’t even done anything yet.”
Angel studied the lime at the bottom of her drink. “This doesn’t make sense. My guys were never the cruel ones. That’s a whole different species.” She looked up to find her old friends both staring at her. “Yeah, yeah,” she sighed. “I’ll figure it out.”
If they’d drawn the attention of security, they had to make sure the interest was sexual. Which required talking to the guy.
Could her radar be so rusty that she couldn’t tell one type of badass from another?
“Angel?” White Jenny said. “Give the signal if you need rescuing. We got your back, honey. We’ll rejigger if he thinks we’re up to something.”
White Jenny had always been the motherly one. These girls had once been her life.
Angel turned and smiled at the guy. He didn’t smile back, he just stared, cool and hard. She turned back to her posse with that melty feeling again. He’d just engaged her. They were in a dance now.
“Just signal,” Macy said. The signal was kicking her leg up backward—the heel-to-butt signal, they called it.
“I got it.” Angel turned and headed for the guy, empty drink in hand. He watched her steadily as she approached.
His hair was grown out just enough that he sometimes tilted his head to keep it out of his eyes—like a clean-cut haircut gone to hell. His scruffy beard hadn’t seen a razor in days.
She smiled as if her pulse wasn’t going haywire. Tipped her head. “I’m Angel.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“That’s your real name?”
“That’s right, baby,” she said, playing the pouty hooker.
“Hey—” he motioned to the waiter who was passing by. “Drink?” he asked, eyeing her empty glass.
“Gin and tonic,” she said.
Their fingers brushed as he took the glass from her, creating a frisson of electricity that shot down her center. He set it on the waiter’s tray. “Thanks,” he said to the waiter.
The waiter left them alone.
He took up extra space even beyond where he stood. It was something a guy like this did. He would take, take, take, but she’d still want to save him.
Up close you could see his faint freckles and the pain and the fire in his eyes. He felt so familiar to her—that’s what was scary. She’d never met him, but she knew those eyes, that expression. He was drowning in something. She knew things like that about her guys on a primal level.
She forced herself to stay cool. Did he suspect them? That was what she needed to figure out.
A rogue lock of hair had fallen over his glasses and he flicked his head, sending it away, as though he wanted nothing to obstruct his view of her. “Now what are we going to do with you?” he asked with a hint of humor in his voice.
Focus, she told herself. You’re a hooker who doesn’t know he’s security. She shrugged her shoulders.
He spread his legs open a little. “Come here.”
“You wanna play?” she asked, heart racing. It had been such a long since she’d been around a guy like this. He didn’t add up as a nerd. He didn’t add up as a member of Borgola’s security team. He didn’t make sense to her in a lot of ways. But she wanted him; that one fact cut through everything.
“I want you to come here,” he said.
She stepped in close. Her girls would grab her if she gave the signal, but she still couldn’t tell if his interest was professional or sexual. A real poker player, this guy.
He hooked a finger over the top of her bodice and pulled her even closer, and she allowed it. His skin felt electric near hers.
“There’re a lot of bad girls at this shindig,” he said, lips too close, filling her with need. But it was his eyes she worried about. He was seeing too much.
“I don’t need no muthafuckin’ memo to tell me there’s bad girls here,” she replied, throwing off her perfect grammar for the role she was playing.
He scrutinized her more. The intense intelligence that radiated off him scared her.
She looked away from his eyes, but that left her gazing at his straight, strong nose, and then his lips. Oh, yeah, his lips.
She knew he’d kiss her several moments before he did it, as thought the kiss came from outside of them, pre-ordained by the universe. Wild energy danced in her chest as he drew in; at the last moment, he paused, letting her feel his heat. Then he closed his lips over hers. His kiss was light and heavy at the same time, like summer fog, rich with mysterious magic. There, then gone.
“There are rules here,” he whispered.
His interest was sexual then. Panic and excitement shot through her. The rule was that the girls would have sex with whoever wanted them. Somehow, she didn’t think this guy was going to accept the ‘waiting for somebody’ brush-off.
She gave him a dopey look—this guy would dislike an airhead. It’s one of the things she could sense in him. “Rules?”
He eyed her, pressed a thumb over her lips. The pad of his thumb felt warm and thick. She tipped up her head and let the pad of his thumb dip a tiny bit into her mouth. He tasted deliciously destructive on every level. She wouldn’t go with him, but she could enjoy him a bit.
He dragged his thumb off the side of her lips and she made the mistake of looking up again at those wildcat eyes. Her body rose to attention, propelled by the force of five years of celibacy.
She should give the sign. But she had to be sure—it was all in the interest of science, right? Or getting away with burglary, anyway.
He nipped her lip, let his nose drag up against hers. Man, even the way he moved his nose was sexy.
Her eyes drifted shut as he kissed her again. He was invasive this time, moving his tongue along hers with a kind of erotic friction. Warmth bloomed between her legs as he slid his fingers down to her hips. She felt as if he was taking her over. No man had ever affected her like this. Interest of science, she thought dimly. Burglary. Saving Aunt Aggie.
And then he moved his fingers lower.
He pulled away, looking around while he discreetly pocketed her gun.
“What are you doing?”
He seemed disappointed that she’d ask such a stupid question. “Disarming you, of course. The man at the door could get into a lot of trouble for letting you in with this.”
She cast her eyes down, studying the line of her dress. There was no way he could’ve seen it. It didn’t make a shape in the fabric even when she walked—that was the beauty of the dress.
“I didn’t see it,” he said, like he knew what she was thinking.
“Then how did you know it was there? Just out of curiosity.” She smiled coyly, but she really wanted to know. “What was your clue?”
He smirked. “Clues are for amateurs. And when you’re at Walter Borgola’s party you’re not supposed to be armed. I’ll check it under your name. Get it when you leave.”
With horror, she saw he had her safecracking tool in his hand, too. He unzipped the little pouch and looked inside at the earbuds and cord wound around the body of the instrument. She prayed for him not to pull it out—it was an acoustic, sonar-based sensor with a small oscilloscope. She’d worked with a techie to make it during her Fenton Furst apprenticeship. It was larger than any mp3 player on the market, but usually people didn’t notice. This guy might. This guy had detected her gun across the room. How? By the way she walked, maybe? He re-zipped it and handed it to her, scanning the party. His interest in her was over, apparently.
“You bring music? You listen to music while you’re doing ‘em?”
“Sometimes,” she said.
He squinted like he couldn’t quite understand.
“You wanna try it?”
“So am I,” she said.
“I’ve never heard of that,” he said. “The music thing. Don’t they at least want to believe you’re focused on them?”
He had a point—it was a little weird. But she’d said it now. She had to sell it. He was smart, but she was smart, too.
She shrugged. “I let them pick the music. Don’t knock it ‘til you tried it.”
“Like what? What do they pick?”
That was the problem with the smart guys—they had to know everything. She wondered if that’s what would land him on the slab in the morgue in the end. He still didn’t add up as Borgola security, but obviously that’s what he was.
“Well?” He was waiting.
Her mind raced; what would a guy pick for music? She was coming up blank. The whole damn thing was preposterous. No! He thought she was a hooker, and he was curious. She smiled and put a finger on his chest. “Let’s just say, it’s never ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA.”
His lips quirked.
She took that opportunity to snatch back the tool. “You sure, baby?”
“Yup.” He turned away then, scanning the party. He seemed to have flipped a switch, from interest to disdain. Like she already wasn’t there. He’d taken a little taste of her, stripped her of her gun, and now he was done with her.
He really did think she was a whore. Well, it’s what she’d wanted, right?
“Get lost,” he said.
She felt her face heat. Get lost? She spun around and left, feeling like an idiot.
“Asshole took my gun,” she said when she rejoined the gang.
“Shit,” Macy said. “You shouldn’t have tried to bring it in.”
“Well, I didn’t count on eagle eye over there taking it,” Angel said. “I bet half the people here smuggled in firearms.”
White Jenny looked confused. “I was watching the whole time, and I didn’t see him take it.”
“He took it.” Angel felt like he took other things too. Like her dignity. She hated him and wanted him. That old familiar feeling.
“Well, hell, that was one hot disarm,” White Jenny said.
Reader Reviews (2)
Submitted By: fr_larsson on Jan 16, 2015Angel gave up her career as safe cracker years ago to focus on her love for decorating, now she´s forced to do one last job to save a friend. Cole is undercover trying to save a boat load of people bound for a very short career in snuff movies, when the answer to all his problems lands in his lap. He needs the information in the safe, and Angel´s got to help him. But is he willing to sacrifice her? Suspense, action and smutty fluff in a great combo.
Submitted By: hollins89 on Jan 5, 2015This had a strong, complex story line, but I had trouble getting into it. I'm not sure if maybe I found the hero or heroine or both a little unlikable. However, there was plenty of heat between them and good sex scenes. I also was not a big fan of the ending, but maybe it's the right ending for the characters and just not for me. I will continue with the series because the second book made many Must Read lists. So, we'll see how that goes.
Against the Dark (romantic suspense)By: Carolyn Crane