devil-himselfHe’s her worst nightmare, a man who can make her forget her duty.

Undercover agent Tomas Mendez has never been good at following rules. So when his handlers put him in a government safe house after ‘killing off’ the criminal character Tomas had played, he does not stay inside and out of sight as directed. What would be the fun of that? He frequents the small Midwestern town’s main watering hole and thus draws the attention of Millerton’s self-appointed guardian, Desiree Harris.

            Straitlaced Desiree feels it’s her responsibility to protect the people of Millerton. A decade earlier her father had embezzled a fortune from the same bank she now heads. Her antenna for trouble sniffs out Tomas immediately. He’s exactly the sort of man she’s always avoided – the sort who reminds her of her father: fun-loving, carefree, and probably crooked.

            Desiree would like to rid the town of this pest especially since the more she discovers about him, the more dangerous he becomes, not only to her town but also to her heart.

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Tomas thought of her as the black widow. Dressed in a gray suit and with her dark hair pulled back, she sat in the back of the bar by herself. Spreadsheets were splayed over the surface of her table. Spreadsheets. As the patrons around her chugged Budweisers and guffawed at stupid jokes, she kept her attention fixed on the columns of numbers in front of her.

Or did she? That was where the resemblance to a spider occurred to him. She seemed to have her legs resting on the strands of her web, apparently preoccupied with her papers but in reality attuned to the slightest vibration. Why she felt the need to keep this sort of watch on the denizens of the Smile Tonic, the sole establishment of vice in the town’s three-block downtown, was a complete mystery to him.

Although a better question might have been why he, a man officially on the run, took an interest in the habits of an unknown woman in the small town of Millerton, but Tomas already knew the answer to that one.

She was a complete looker.

Tomas spoke to the two other men at the billiards table. “Four ball in the side pocket.”

He bent over the table to line up his cue stick but remained aware of the woman, sitting at two o’clock. Distractions were nothing new to him. His brain was wired to notice the most irrelevant details and then fly off on the tangents they presented. But women were different. During the last fifteen years of living on the edge of discovery and subsequent likely death, Tomas had trained himself to ignore sexual temptation. He was no more likely to be seduced by a woman than a guard dog was to accept a pat on the head.

But then, he wasn’t on the edge of likely death any more. He was already dead. Perhaps it made sense to find himself attracted to a venomous spider.

“Ah, jeez,” Herman complained as Tomas sank the four ball into the side pocket. He had a twenty-dollar bet riding on the outcome of the game, but he acted as though it were a hundred.

“Eleven ball, corner pocket.” Tomas pointed to the pocket in question with his cue stick and then bent over the table to line up the shot. He’d have to miss this one. While Jerry, the other man in the game of Cutthroat, hadn’t complained that Tomas was about to clear the table of his balls, he was nibbling on the end of his index finger. Apparently, twenty dollars was a significant amount of money for him, too.

Tomas didn’t have a clear idea of how much money he himself had in the bank after living undercover all these years, but he did know he had a generous monthly stipend from the federal government while he was supposed to be hiding out in Millerton, population five thousand. He could afford to lose the forty dollars he’d owe his two companions.

Tomas slid the cue stick through his curled index finger, hit the white cue ball, and watched it knock the eleven ball just south of the corner pocket.

“All right!” Herman threw up both hands in triumph.

Hoping Herman was sober enough to take advantage of the opportunity, Tomas allowed his gaze to be drawn to the back of the room again.

Black Widow kept her own eyes down. Tomas wondered what spell she’d cast on the owner of the tavern such that he supplied her nightly with her own table, larger than the others, and even a lamp to illuminate her work.

She made a mark on one of her papers with a pen. Her hands intrigued Tomas: long-fingered, accurate, potentially skillful.

Jeez, keep it in your pants, man. Tomas wasn’t even supposed to have left the house in which they’d installed him during this ‘cooling off’ period. Various agencies of the federal government had gone to a great deal of trouble to fake Tomas’s death down in Canigua, the Central American country where he had supposedly been the bloodthirsty drug lord, El Diablo. It would all be for naught if some hawk-eyed newshound recognized Tomas here in Ohio and pointed out he was still alive. If that happened, Don Diego down in Canigua might revive the contract he’d put on Tomas’s head.

But, damn, you didn’t tell a man with adult ADHD to do nothing but sit at home all day. Tomas felt he’d had a choice between going insane or taking the small chance anyone in this backwater Midwestern town was ever going to have heard of Tomas Mendez, aka El Diablo, and somehow connect him with the fellow now calling himself Felipe Bell. So far, after five nights of hanging out at the Smile Tonic, nobody seemed to have done so.

“Your turn, Flip.”

Tomas blinked and looked back at the table. Only one ball was gone since he’d taken his last turn. Inwardly, he sighed. These two fools shouldn’t have placed a twenty-cent bet on the game, let alone twenty dollars.

“He was too busy starin’ at Desiree to know what was goin’ on,” Jerry muttered in a false sotto voce to Herman.

Herman cracked a laugh. “Good luck to ‘im.”

“Desiree,” Tomas repeated as he picked up a cube of chalk to dust the tip of his cue. On the surface, no name could have been less fitting. Everything about the woman screamed ‘touch me not lest I inject you with my deadly venom.’ But beneath the surface…? He might be delusional, but even from across the room, he thought he detected passion beneath her surface ice. Hidden, for sure. Maybe even repressed.

Or, more likely, only in his bored and heated imagination.

“Desiree Harris,” Herman supplied. He was a font of information about the town, its inhabitants, and the idiosyncrasies of all of them. Tomas had only met him five days ago, but he already valued him highly. “Runs the bank, you know, Central Fidelity? But you can forget her, Flip. She don’t walk out with men. Not once since she came back to town three years ago.”

Jerry nodded in sage agreement. “No men.”

“Fourteen ball, that corner.” Tomas pointed to the corner and then bent over the table to aim.

“Not like she was back when she was a teenager,” Herman went on. “Back then, before she went off to college, she was okay. Normal, you know. She’d even smile and stuff.”

Tomas slid the cue stick back and forth over his curled thumb, aiming, thinking.

“But now she’s like a space alien or—or a robot or something,” Jerry put in. He was being unusually loquacious, apparently inspired by the current subject.

“‘Course, there was that trouble with her dad,” Herman mused.

“Shush, shush, shush!” Jerry’s eyes slid from left to right. “Shut up.”

“Nobody heard me,” Herman retorted.

Tomas took his shot. The fourteen ball fell into the corner pocket. “Thirteen, side pocket.” Trouble with her dad. Something to be hushed up. But she used to be ‘normal.’ His mind couldn’t help picking up these disparate details and trying to assemble them into a coherent whole.

“Why you pickin’ on me?” Herman whined. Tomas had now sunk two of the five balls Herman needed to keep on the table.

“Just trying to win the game here.” Tomas smiled. Just trying to get an opportunity to leave the table and walk on over to Ms. Desiree Harris, bank president and now official mystery.

“You’re tryin’ to put me in the doghouse,” Herman muttered.

Jerry chuckled in glee—until Tomas next sank one of his balls.

Was it Jerry’s yowl of pain or Herman’s raucous laughter that had the Black Widow’s head come up and her eyes turn in their direction? Tomas didn’t know, and once her eyes hit his, he didn’t care.

It was like a piercing arrow darted through his chest.

Desiree appeared to decide nothing particularly untoward had taken place, after all, and lowered her eyes to her spreadsheets.

Tomas, meanwhile, was a goner. Her eyes… He was certain now he’d seen passion there, and it wasn’t merely a figment of his imagination. And then there were the secrets swirling about her. She was too incredibly tempting a morsel to resist.

But even as Tomas cleverly arranged the rest of the game for Herman to win—so he wouldn’t be in the doghouse with his wife—Tomas knew the real reason he was fixating on the Black Widow. She gave him something to think about other than himself and the dead end his career had hit.

As soon as the game was over, with Herman  clutching his hands into fists by his chest with a quiet “Yes-s-s,” Tomas excused himself.

Don’t do it. Don’t do it, a voice in his head shouted as he started toward the back of the room. The voice sounded like Frank, Tomas’s handler at the FBI. Frank was probably the one human being in the world who had Tomas’s best interests at heart. But Frank could not understand how insanely bored Tomas had been for the past week and a half, ever since they’d left him in this one-horse town.

And Frank wasn’t agonizing over what he was going to be able to do next in his life, now that the chapter in Canigua was over.

On top of that, Frank never sanctioned undue risk-taking; he was an avowed worrywart.

The Black Widow did not appear to notice Tomas approaching her table. But when he stood directly opposite her, he knew she had to be pretending her lack of awareness.

“May I?” he asked.

She looked up slowly. In the poor lighting of the bar, Tomas could not see the color of her eyes, but he could plainly see the annoyance in them.

A lesser man would have turned tail and retreated right then and there. But Tomas had stood up to dozens of men holding submachine guns. This unarmed, average-sized woman was not going to cow him. Even if, up close, she made his heart beat rather quickly.

Tomas gestured toward the chair politely tucked in across the table from her. “May I join you?”

Something flashed in her eyes. “Who are you?” she asked crisply, “and what do you want?”

Beneath her hard edge, he sensed the alarm any woman might feel at being approached by a largish male stranger. He gave her his best charm-laden smile. “My name is Felipe Bell.” The lie rolled off his tongue easily; he’d told so many of them over the past fifteen years. “I just wanted to talk to you. That’s all.” He drew out the chair and sat down.

She looked at him the way an annoyed house cat might eye a human hand, ready to bite. Tomas knew he wasn’t gaining any points in her eyes with the super-aggressive moves, but he had a strong suspicion that any softer method would have been even less effective.

At least she was looking at him.

“Maybe I don’t feel like talking to you,” she told him.

“You could try it out for a few minutes, just so you can be sure.” Tomas smiled.

She glared at him.

“See, I’m trying to figure you out,” Tomas said. “You come in every night, eight o’clock on the dot. But I can’t see what for.” He gestured toward the glass full of clear liquid by her left hand. “I’d bet the farm that’s water in there. Am I right?”

Her brows rose. “Your point?”

“My point is it might be good for you to loosen up for a change. You know, relax? That’s why everyone else is here.”

“It’s not why I am.”

“I figured.” Tomas paused. “So, why are you?”

With a strange smile, Desiree put her elbow on the table and set her chin in her hand. “Let’s talk about you instead of me. Why are you here, Felipe Bell?”

“I’m here to have a good time, like I said.”

“No, I mean, what are you doing here, in Millerton?”

So, she was aware he was a recent arrival. He’d been correct about the spider having her legs on the strands of her web. “Oh, that’s a bigger question,” Tomas said.

“I’m sure it is.”

He leaned back and lifted one eyebrow. “You sound as though you’ve been paying attention to me.”

“I pay attention to everything that goes on around here. And I asked you a question.”

“What am I doing in Millerton? Let’s just say I’m in between jobs.”

“You got fired and bugged out on your rent somewhere else, you mean?”

“Well, that’s an interesting theory.”

“You have other creditors, too, I think,” Desiree went on. “Or should I call them dupes? And you googled the most obscure towns you could find and randomly picked Millerton in which to start over and play whatever con you do.”

Tomas grinned at her. “Wow, you’ve got me. Nailed it on the first try.”

Desiree’s smile faded, and she narrowed her eyes. “I’ll figure it out, Mr. Bell. Whatever you’re up to.”

Tomas sincerely doubted that. “So you won’t believe the truth if I tell it to you now?”

“You’re not the sort of man who tells the truth.”

Both Tomas’s brows rose now. She was sharp—he’d give her that. But he wasn’t about to let on she’d hit anywhere close to a bullseye. “And you’ve decided this based on what evidence?”

She drew back, taking her chin off her hand and gesturing around the room. “The way you walk in here like you own the place. The way you immediately befriended Herman Brass and Jerry Jones, the two most vulnerable men in town. The way you…laugh.”

Tomas couldn’t help releasing one of the laughs she so castigated. “That’s your evidence I’m some dire villain?”

She glared at him. “Then you tell me. Who are you?”

Tomas secretly bit the inside of his cheek. Neither Frank nor the other agencies for which Tomas had worked had thought to give him a cover story since he wasn’t supposed to have any dealings with the people in town. This was only supposed to be a temporary situation, ‘until they decided what to do with him.’ He’d therefore come up with his own fake background before venturing out five days ago. “Maybe I really am in between jobs. Used to be a contractor. But I was working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, never off duty. I got completely burned out. So I sold my place in Fresno, researched towns I could afford to hang out for a while, and rented a house on Elm Street here in Millerton. Thought it would be a trip to live in the Midwest for a change.”

Desiree looked at him. “A trip,” she repeated.

“Why is that so hard to believe?” Tomas was sincerely curious. She was correct enough in her guesses to have him wanting to understand what had set her off.

“I know your type,” she declared. “Everything is a joke to you.”

Tomas tilted his head. “Because you’d rather everything were a funeral?” He leaned forward, putting his forearms on the edge of her table to regard her intently. Time to turn the tables and shine the spotlight back on her. “But I don’t think that’s true. You’re not really like that, are you?”

Alarm flared in her eyes.

The brief emotion spurred Tomas to go on. “Underneath your prickly exterior is a woman who wants to let loose, just go completely wild.”

Of course, this was more what he fantasized than what he saw in her, but to his surprise—and delight—the flash of alarm in her expression returned. She beat it down quickly, but it had definitely been there.

“I believe I’ve decided,” she said, speaking very precisely as she drew herself up. “Having tried the experiment, I do not like talking to you.”

Bingo. So there was passion under there. Passion she was desperate to keep under wraps.

But Tomas knew the right time to make a strategic retreat. He pushed back his chair, smiling crookedly. I’m not done with you, Desiree Harris. Not by a long shot. However, he did his best to exhibit an expression of rueful defeat. “Okay, I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

A quiet snort told Tomas she doubted this was true.

Tomas got up from his chair and looked down at her. He couldn’t say there was anything remarkable about the details of her appearance, taken separately: the straight nose, plump lower lip, and the curves hinted by her tailored suit jacket. But they all somehow coalesced together into a whole that enthralled him.

“See you around,” Tomas said.

Her eyes narrowed as she gazed up at him. “You will, indeed. I intend to keep my eyes on you, Mr. Bell.”

He sincerely hoped so. In fact, as Tomas left her to return to the pool table, he couldn’t prevent a smile from spreading over his face, one she wouldn’t be able to see. Game on.

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