Whatever It Takes
Spellbound Book 3
Government Operative Gideon Bishop thrives on high-risk situations, but even his most volatile mission is nothing compared to coming face-to-face with his past. He’s spent the last four years trying to forget Tate Calder and their scorching affair, but the only way to get the information he needs is to keep her close—and keep his hands off her. Because the only thing riskier than protecting a woman who insists on hiding the truth is giving in to the attraction that still crackles between them.
All Tate wants is a quiet holiday with zero interruptions from her family, and even fewer from the witches’ council bent on recruiting her. Instead, she finds herself on the run from lethal mercenaries and the police with the one man she never expected to see again. To protect her family’s secrets, she’ll do whatever it takes to keep Gideon from learning the truth.
Even if it means risking her heart to seduce him—over and over again.
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“This tale had it all – super hot romance that had me breathless with desire and a thrilling suspense that kept me guessing until the very end. I was hanging on the edge of my seat from start to finish.” – Fallen Angel Reviews_
“…a tight, exciting adventure with characters you just have to love. [She] gives her readers a well rounded story that will have your toes curling, your breath coming in pants and your eyes glued to the monitor.” – Love Romances and More
“Montana is dead.”
Gideon Bishop froze, his fingers stilling over the keys of his laptop. Every muscle locked, as if a tango had slipped up behind him and jammed the muzzle of a gun barrel against the back of his skull. He started to ask Malcolm to repeat himself, but knew he’d heard correctly.
He leaned back in his chair, the tremble in his left hand his only outward reaction to the news. “When?”
“Two days ago. A professional hit. Two taps to the chest, one to the head at close range.”
Gideon clenched and relaxed his fist, eliminating the evidence that mocked his instinct to remain unmoved by unexpected developments. Anything less than cool, clear thinking and one hell of a poker face left room for mistakes, and mistakes got people killed. People like Montana.
“How did you hear?” And why hadn’t his boss gotten in touch with him in the last two days? Peter had run their team before they’d disbanded and would have been notified the second one of his agents was taken out on home turf. Unless Peter hadn’t wanted him getting involved. Seeing as Gideon still hadn’t been approved to return to the field, it wouldn’t have surprised him.
“We met up every once and a while. Grabbed a few beers. He never called back when I got into town or showed up for the first round he always insists I’m buying.”
Typical Montana. The man had a habit of letting everyone drink themselves under the table before his turn to buy the next round. Malcolm and Montana weren’t the only two operatives to stay in touch since their team had broken up—right after their last mission had turned into a fucking nightmare when they were ordered to breach a paramilitary camp in Columbia for two hostages who, as it turned out, had already been executed.
“So I went by his place,” Malcolm continued. “His neighbor found him the day before. No one saw or heard anything.”
The ache in Gideon’s chest intensified and he sucked in a sharp breath, wishing like hell he hadn’t brushed off Montana’s last offer to come out to the West Coast for some R&R. He’d been so goddamned determined to forget what their last mission had cost them he’d fallen into the habit of avoiding his team for months, except Penny.
“The number I have for Penny is out of commission,” Malcolm added. “But she’d probably want to hear this from you anyway.”
Not surprising, considering how often Malcolm and Penny had butted heads in the two-and-a-half years they’d worked together. Penny never had much patience for anyone who felt women, no matter how highly trained, were a liability in the field. The pair had only come to blows a handful of times, almost always after Malcolm shot his mouth off and Penny sought to put the ass in his place.
And she usually did.
“I’ll take care of it,” Gideon said, the pressure on his lungs increasing. It wouldn’t be the first time he had to tell her that they’d lost one of their own, or the first time he had to keep her from falling apart. “Any leads yet?”
“If Peter knows something, he’s keeping it to himself at the moment, but I’ve got a contact looking into it.”
Since Malcolm had contacts in just about every field imaginable, and in every corner of the world, Gideon would have been surprised if he didn’t have someone already on it. He might have been an operative longer, but the ex-Marine’s networking skills had always been an asset on assignment.
“I’ll be in touch if I hear anything else. Watch your back, Gid.”
“You too.” He disconnected and closed his eyes.
He’d been planning to get the hell out of dodge in two days and do nothing but drink cold beer and sail around on the twenty-five-foot rig waiting for him in Baja. The trip was as much a vacation as a way of proving to himself—and to Peter—he was dealing with what happened in Columbia.
Two damn days.
He stared at the laptop, then remembering the flashing icon on his cell phone, he checked the screen and found a text message from Penny. If she had heard about Montana she would have called, not sent a text message. He scanned the contents, and his heart started to pound for a whole new reason. The gist of the first line easily summed up in two words.
That didn’t confuse him nearly as much as the two random strings of numbers that followed. A code? He read the message over again, disbelieving the coincidence of Montana’s death and Penny’s sudden suspicion that their Columbian mission had been intentionally sabotaged.
He quickly punched in the number he’d memorized weeks ago. Penny didn’t answer. Normally he’d assume that meant she was doing a kayak tour. She’d complained more than once that dependable reception could be a real bitch. He checked the time on text message and realized she’d sent it over an hour earlier.
Whatever she’d stumbled across, she was clearly in over her head. Why else would she send him some kind of code without a way to interpret or decrypt it? Unless she worried she wouldn’t be able to pass the information on at a later date.
Damn it. He’d promised to keep an eye on her. How many times had Christian made him swear to watch out for Penny, his friend’s fervent plea fading to a ragged whisper and then to agonizing silence?
Guilt chewed at him for letting the both of them down.
Gideon shoved to his feet, his mind on how long it would take him to get to Penny as he turned away from the hellish glow of the city skyline. With every step he took, he realized the mission he thought he’d been done with months ago might not be done with him.
Tate Calder managed to bite back the words as she scowled at her front door. Paint dripped from the brush in her hand, splattering fat drops on her kitchen floor.
She cursed under her breath, stooping to wipe up the paint with a damp rag. Was it really too much to ask that she be allowed to enjoy her vacation in peace? Apparently, she thought, when another impatient knock forced her to her feet. She tossed the paintbrush in the tray on the floor, prepared to get rid of whichever family member had decided to drop by unannounced.
She might have needed a break from the pressure the Tribunal was putting on her, but that didn’t make her week off any less of a holiday. A work-free holiday. Easier said than done when her family’s private investigation firm made separating work from her personal life nearly impossible.
Maybe she really should have reconsidered indulging in some tropical sunshine.
The second the thought crossed her mind, she dismissed it. As determined as she was to avoid the Tribunal members bent on recruiting her, she wasn’t that desperate. Not when vacations down south left the door open for vacation flings, and vacation flings made people do stupid, stupid things. She’d rather hand over her amulet and have her magic bound than leave herself wide open to that kind of trouble again.
And nothing said trouble like a witch with a tendency to be too spontaneous for her own good.
Relief swept through her when she spotted Donnie through the peephole, and she opened the door. The shy teen might enjoy flirting with her a little too much, but he’d come bearing cans of paint. Home delivery of supplies was one more perk of living on a small island with its own family-owned hardware store instead of a big chain. She considered the long commute to the city, complete with a thirty-minute ferry ride, a small sacrifice to pay to live on a quiet island with a population just over a thousand and a stunning sunrise to look forward to every morning.
Between giving her laptop to Eden for some much needed fine-tuning and listening to her cousin Finn grumble about her pending vacation—her first in four years—she’d forgotten to pick up ceiling paint with her other supplies.
“Were you expecting someone else?” At Tate’s frown, Donnie added, “You almost looked happy to see me.” He wheeled his cart inside and began stacking the cans of paint on the floor, his boyish smile bordering on hopeful.
At eighteen the kid already knew how to lay on the charm, which according to her neighbor Penny meant the teen was either a womanizer in the making—or gay. Since his gaze drifted now and then to her breasts, Tate was inclined to go with the former.
“Just looking to keep a low profile for a few days.” The lower the better as far as she was concerned. Sleeping late, painting, and lounging on her balcony with a good book all fit the bill. Working on her supposed apprenticeship did not.
“Well, I’ve got some extra time on my hands this week if you could use any help with the painting.”
The offer probably stemmed from his need to earn extra money for college in the fall, but the intent expression on his face suggested otherwise. Suggested a little too much.
Definitely not gay.
“How’s the latest modeling project coming along?” A far safer topic, one she hoped reminded the teen she was eight years older than he was. Seeing as Donnie’s grandmother, who lived in the same apartment building, regularly bragged about her grandson someday changing the world of car design, the subject served to fill the awkward silence while Donnie stacked the last of the supplies next to her ladder.
A flash of movement behind Donnie caught her attention, and she glared at the man suddenly standing outside on her balcony.
Donnie shrugged, oblivious to the newcomer. “I’m almost finished.” Sounding a little annoyed at the reminder of his hobby, he gestured to the paint. “I really don’t mind giving you hand. You were my last delivery today.” The confident look in his eyes made her suspect he’d somehow planned it that way.
She steered him toward the door, shooting Alex Hastings a warning look over her shoulder. So much for the Tribunal’s promise to give her some space. But just because he chose to drop in unannounced didn’t mean she had to talk to him.
“I think I can handle it,” she said to Donnie, digging a few bills from her purse.
The second he dragged the handcart into the hall, she partly closed the door to hide Alex from view. She really wasn’t in the mood to lie about where the man had come from, a position Alex had put her in one too many times in the recent weeks. She may have spent years resisting the idea of becoming part of the council that kept the witches and warlocks of the Calder, Lancaster and Hastings families in line, but she at least possessed some common sense when it came to her own teleporting ability.
Unlike some people.
“Thanks, Donnie.” She thrust the tip into his hand.
He opened his mouth to add something, but she only waved and shut the door.
Alex stood in the same spot, his arms crossed expectantly. She waved her hand at the curtains that framed the sliding glass door. “Clausus.”
The fabric swished together, hiding Alex from view. If luck was really on her side, he’d take the hint and leave her to enjoy her holidays in peace. For the coming week, the less excitement the better as far as she was concerned.
When a few minutes passed and he didn’t appear inside, she let herself relax a little, surveying the progress she’d made so far with no small amount of satisfaction. She should have repainted her apartment months ago, like before the warmer weather hit, she thought wryly, rubbing the back of her wrist across her forehead.
The smear of wet paint across her skin made her cringe.
Leaving the painting until she was certain Alex had moved on to annoy someone else, she flipped through the mail she’d forgotten to look at last night. An envelope for her neighbor caught Tate’s eye and, after checking the clock, she decided to see if Penny was home. The mailman frequently mixed up their mail, which was how they’d first met. Since then, they’d made a habit of sitting on each other’s balconies, enjoying a cold beer after work together. And she definitely owed Penny a cold one for at least trying to get rid of the virus on her laptop.
She pulled open her front door, her eyes on the letter she carried, not expecting to walk straight into a wall between her and Penny’s place. A warm, T-shirt-covered wall with just enough give to bounce off of when she plowed into it.
Two hands gripped her upper arms to keep her upright when she stumbled backward.
The rest of the apology died on Tate’s lips as she lifted her head and stared straight into achingly familiar green eyes. Eyes she only dared to dream about when the nights felt long and just a little bit lonely.
Her mouth worked, but no sound emerged as she struggled to breathe around the tangle of emotions wedged in her throat. Her heart pounded, each vicious thump making her increasingly light-headed. She pushed against the solid frame in front of her to test its strength as much as to prove it was real.
That he was real.
The fingers wrapped around her arms tightened in response, answering without him needing to say a word. His grip faltered, a faint tremor passing from him to her, or the other way around. She couldn’t be sure of anything—anything but how hard it was to wrap her mind around his being here. Close enough to look at, to touch.
The man she’d fallen in love with when she’d been barely twenty-two. The man who’d given her the longest, hottest, most incredible nights of her life. The same man who’d married her and walked away two weeks later without a backward glance.
So much for a perfectly uneventful vacation.
Armageddon had finally arrived. Only it wasn’t when Gideon was balls deep on assignment and one confrontation shy of a clusterfuck. This time he wasn’t boxed in by a drug lord’s security detail looking for a reason to tear him apart. He wasn’t dangling from a rooftop where improvising meant jump or face a firing squad, and he wasn’t pinned down by the enemy in the middle of a sweltering jungle bleeding all over himself.
No, this was a new kind of hell—one of his own making.
And for one staggering heartbeat, it had to be the closest to heaven he’d come in four years.
Beautiful, sexy, incredible Tate Calder.
Jesus, his chest ached just looking at her. Those ice blue eyes had sucked him in fast and hard, bewitching him the moment he first laid eyes on her. Her hair was longer than he remembered, deep brown tendrils spilling over the sides of a red bandana splattered with paint. And damn, that mouth…
He couldn’t have stemmed the rush of memories that flooded his mind if he tried. The feel of her soft skin under his palms was too familiar, the warm scent of her that enveloped him too damn enticing. The urge to pull her just a little bit closer was almost as strong as the need to get out of there. Back to a place where he didn’t hunger for a stolen moment from the past, where he wouldn’t wonder, even for a second, if kissing her would be the same as he remembered.
Two minutes ago he’d discovered Penny hadn’t yet returned from her last kayak tour, though she had recently touched base with her employer. In less time than it took to turn around and decide to wait out by his car, his life did a complete one-eighty, bringing him face to face with his past.
He told himself to let go of Tate, but couldn’t make his hands give her up. He rubbed his thumb along her skin in a soft arc, her answering shiver making his gut clench. Questions burned in her eyes, but she didn’t voice any of them, as though she knew, as he did, the second they talked this moment would vanish faster than he had when he left her asleep in bed that morning.
Doing what was best for both of them.
Which was exactly what he needed to do now.
Too bad he still couldn’t let go, instead willing her to take a step closer. One more step into his arms so he’d have a reason to tighten his grip and hold on to her. Rarely had he let himself imagine how he’d feel seeing her again and none of those best-forgotten scenarios came close to nailing the tackled-to-the-ground-and-knocked-senseless sensation he felt right now.
She tipped her face up. Uncertainty and what he thought—almost hoped—was longing glittered in her eyes. For one heart-stopping moment he thought she was going to throw her arms around him, and what scared him most was how much he wanted her to.
Instead, she gave a small shake of her head and backed away.
Gideon let his arms fall back to his sides, biting down on the curse caught on the tip of his tongue. He should thank her for her being smart enough to put some distance between them, not want to growl at her for it. He wanted to blame his unexpected and intense reaction on her barely-there jean cutoffs and skimpy paint-splattered tank top, the swell of her cleavage drawing his attention right to the deep V neckline, but it had always been more than that with Tate. So much more.
“What are you doing here?”
The question killed the last of the buzz tearing through his veins. There was a reason he’d left her four years ago without saying goodbye, and answering her question now meant shoving the door wide open on a subject he hadn’t planned on talking about. Ever.
He added another foot of space between them, hoping like hell that it would calm the chafing need to slide his hand beneath her chin and angle her mouth up to meet his. “Looking for a friend,” he settled on, cringing inwardly at how lame that sounded.
Then again, judging by the handful of furious communications she’d passed between their lawyers after the way he’d left things, anything short of him whimpering while crawling across shattered glass would probably sound lame to her.
Her gaze darted over his shoulder. “You’re looking for Penny?”
“You know her?” He knew there had been a damn good reason to turn right back around the second he drove off the ferry. His concern for Penny had overridden the nervous apprehension twisting his insides, the sensation promising things could only go from bad to worse.
Tate nodded, gesturing to the door with an envelope crushed in her white-knuckled grip. “I was just headed over to see her.”
Christ, they were friends? If Karma were an island, he was definitely on it. The way his luck was running, it was probably getting ready to sink into the ocean any moment.
“We used to work together.”
She arched one dark brow, only this time there was no smile hovering on her lips the way he remembered. “Why would a government analyst be working with a sea kayak guide?”
“A retreat,” he clarified smoothly. “Get enough upper management determined to increase productivity and they’ll come up with all manner of ideas.”
“And the two of you just hit it off, I guess.”
He frowned, picking up on the edge that lingered behind the quiet observation. In another life he might have imagined it was jealousy he’d heard, might have assumed she still felt something for him. Here and now, that kind of assumption was trouble in the making, giving him one more reason to get out of there.
“Penny and I were never involved like that.” He told himself he owed it to her to be honest about something, even if it was about another woman.
She shrugged, the gesture anything but casual with four years, three incredible weeks and the all-condemning divorce between them.
“Penny was engaged to my best friend,” he added, refusing to think about why he felt compelled to make sure she didn’t draw the wrong conclusions.
Her attention drifted to Penny’s door. “Was? When did it end?”
“Three months ago.”
“She never mentioned it.” Tate smoothed out the envelope she carried. “Of course, some relationships are over before you know it, aren’t they?” Anger and hurt flickered briefly in her eyes, reawakening the guilt and frustration he had forced himself to bury long ago.
“He died, actually.” Knowing it and saying it should have been the same thing, but they weren’t. Talking about Chris’s death still felt a thousand times worse than ripping a bandage off a freshly clotted wound, and he wished like hell he knew when he’d get used to it. If not for Penny being in trouble, he might have told her about Montana over the phone to avoid seeing the pain reflected in her eyes. Eyes already dulled by the loss of Chris.
She let out a soft breath. “I’m sorry.” The sincerity on her face, especially in light of their paths crossing unexpectedly, made the dark, hollow feeling inside him shrink a little.
He rocked back on his heels. “How long have you been living out here?”
“Almost a year.”
“Do you work on the island?” God, had small talk ever been this awkward before?
She shook her head and a heavy silence fell between them.
“You look…” Fantastic. Incredible. The best thing I’ve seen in four years. “…like you’ve been painting.”
He reached out and trailed his finger across the smudge of green paint on her forehead. “Hope that’s not permanent.”
“Me too.” She raised her hand to rub at the paint, brushing his fingers in the process. A burst of warmth raced across his skin.
His gaze locked on her mouth, his thoughts turning instantly to wet sand, drenched clothes and deep, hungry kisses.
The second Tate noticed where his attention had drifted, her grin faded. “Penny’s not home, I take it?”
She nodded, glanced at the crumpled letter, then back at him. Indecision warred on her face before she finally said, “You don’t have to wait in the hall for her.”
“Are you inviting me in?”
She shrugged. “How good are you with a paint brush?”
Better than Michelangelo, he wanted to answer, but said nothing. Nothing was the safest play here, and he’d learned the hard way what happened when he took risks where Tate was concerned. Going inside with her would be riskier than navigating an Afghan minefield blindfolded. “I think I should probably just hang around outside.”
“It was nice seeing you again.”
She turned away, paused, then slowly pivoted back around. “That’s it? You sneak out on me without a word, break up with me in some lame ‘Dear Jane’ letter, begin divorce proceedings within days, never once bothering to actually call me, and your parting comment now is, ‘It was nice seeing you again’?”
So much for making a clean break before he did something stupid. “Tate…” he began, wondering if anything he said would be close enough to crawling across glass.
Her shoulders tensed. “You know what, forget I said anything. Have a nice life, Gideon.” She stormed back inside her apartment and slammed the door behind her.
He drilled his hands through his hair. Could have been worse, he decided. He could have sabotaged a perfectly fucked-up reunion by kissing her.