Thursday, August 25, 2022

Undercover Holiday: Brotherhood Protectors World (The Guardian Agency) by Regn Black

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She insists she is not the target...

When Hannah Lynch learns one of her sisters isn't coming home for Christmas, she knows something is seriously wrong. A Guardian Agency tech assistant, Hannah starts digging and discovers her sister is caught in the middle of a crisis that threatens the whole family. Determined to prevent disaster and save her family's Christmas, she takes the case to her bosses--who insist on sending a protector with her.

Her undercover fiancé strongly disagrees...

Former Navy SEAL Seth Mathison is new to the Brotherhood Protectors team and more than a little curious that his first solo assignment is going undercover as Hannah's fiancé for the holidays. The case turns into the balancing act of his life, watching for danger while pretending to be madly in love, amid a flurry of family traditions.

As Seth and Hannah play up their fake engagement, they must scramble to expose the threat closing in or they'll lose out on an unexpected love that has become as real as it gets.

If you like your holiday romance packed with sweet family traditions, spicy passion, and a dash of breath-taking danger, you'll love Undercover Holiday!

Chapter 1

H: When do you arrive?

S: Xmas eve. Late

No way. Hannah Lynch stared at the text message from her sister-of-choice, utterly baffled. She and Sonya Inman were always together for the holidays. Had been that way since freshman year of college when their suitemate, Harper Ellington, invited them to join her family over the break when the dorm was closed.

Over the past decade, Hannah had discovered the holidays could be filled with fun traditions, joy, and loads of laughter with loved ones. So much better than the sullen mood swings and drunken brawls she’d grown up with as an only child. Sonya had gladly escaped different issues and no-less serious troubles. It was unthinkable that the three of them wouldn’t be together at the Ellington resort in South Carolina in just a few days. Though they talked often and tried to get together frequently, Christmas was their singular, non-negotiable event. What could possibly keep Sonya away until the last minute?

Concerned, Hannah checked her call logs. Why hadn’t she noticed that the last time Sonya had spoken to her was back in September? There had been plenty of text messages, but they’d gone way too long without a real-time, in person call. She fired off a text to Harper, asking if she’d heard from Sonya, and then she started digging.

As a Guardian Agency researcher, she knew how to delve into a background or personal history. Recruited out of college, years of training and experience had molded her into one of the best when it came to finding people and the secrets they wanted to keep.

She should probably feel guilty about prying into her sister’s life. She didn’t. Neither Sonya nor Harper knew the full truth about who employed her or the nature of her work. It wasn’t a great feeling keeping that particular detail from the two people who were closest to her, but it was a necessity.

The Guardian Agency, managed by the law firm of Gamble and Swann, made a habit of keeping their protection and investigation services under the radar. Clients came by word-of-mouth referrals only. Zero advertising. They’d experienced a surge of growth, reach, and collaboration in recent years to accommodate their clients, but prior to that, anonymity even between employees had been standard procedure.

Hannah came up for air a couple hours later, only to see Harper’s text reply. She hadn’t spoken to Sonya lately either.

Not cool.

Hannah shoved her glasses to her forehead and rubbed her weary eyes. She should’ve noticed the trouble sooner. Then again, Sonya was a pro at keeping people at arm’s length. The woman hated feeling like a burden. Ten years and she still struggled to accept how much she was loved and valued by Hannah, Harper, and all of the Ellingtons.

“Whatever is going on, you’re not going through it by yourself,” Hannah vowed into the quiet surroundings of her office.

Pulling her glasses back down to her nose, she sent a bogus reassurance to Harper. The white lie made her a little queasy, so she shifted her focus. Sonya needed her. If her sister had known Hannah’s real role with Gamble and Swann, she might’ve reached out. Instead, she was on the run. Alone. Not for much longer. Cracking her knuckles, Hannah began compiling the report for what might be the most important case of her career.


After nearly forty-eight hours of pacing, nail-biting, and monitoring, Hannah finally got the summons to Swann’s office. She had to believe her bosses understood what she’d found and the imminent risks that Sonya and Harper were facing. Both of her bosses were good people and they definitely wouldn’t leave her sisters hanging. If, for some reason, they didn’t like her initial conclusions and suggestions, they’d have better ideas.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped to the door. “Hi,” she said.

Swann waved her in. “Sit down, please.” When she’d taken a seat in front of his desk, he studied her for a long moment. “You’re really concerned for your sisters.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” She was supposed to fly out first thing in the morning. Hopefully, she’d go with a Guardian Agency plan backing her up.

“You usually spend a couple of weeks over the holidays with the Ellingtons.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “We’re at the Ellington resort on Isle of Palms, South Carolina this year.” Sometimes they stayed at the family-owned hotel in downtown Charleston, and every few years they traveled to one of their other properties.

“You’ve given me a thorough report,” Swann began. His gaze dropped to the open file on his desk. She could see he’d made notes in the margins. Did he agree with her or was this meeting some way of telling her she’d gone down a rabbit hole?

In addition to outlining the crisis Sonya was in, Hannah had made some action suggestions based on a couple of small leaps of logic. The threats hanging over her sisters were real. Surely the intel she’d gathered showed that much.

Looking up, he asked, “What would you like us to do?”

She’d prepared for this question, debating and rehearsing the best answers from the moment she’d emailed the file to her bosses. “From what I’ve pieced together about Sonya’s situation, I don’t expect her to be at the resort. My primary concern is that her absence increases the threat to Harper. Ideally, one of our agency protectors in the area could vacation at the resort with me. Well, not with me,” she added in a hurry. She knew of three protectors living in the Carolina area. Brett, Carson, and Ethan were all married now. “Maybe they could be on hand as backup, in case there’s trouble.”

Swann tapped his pen against the file. “You think Sonya’s boss knows her habits as well as we know yours?”

“I’m sure of it. She’s worked in the same brokerage office in Atlanta for over five years. Which means they know the people who matter to her.” Hannah inched to the edge of her seat. “Sonya has damaging evidence against her boss, Mr. Tenney, and he intends to silence her before she can give it to the authorities.”

Swann’s eyebrows arched. “She told you this?”

“Not directly. I’ve been digging. Creating a map of her actions, communications, and movements over the past few months. I pinpointed the week she stopped making voice and video calls to Harper and me and started from there.” Not that she had to justify her research here. Swann understood the nature of her work.

“I’ve looked into Tenney and other employees as well. Sonya stopped going into the office a few days after her last phone call to me. Her cell phone history shows several calls to police, FBI, and a finance reporter prior to her going radio silent with us. Everything indicates she’s gone into hiding. Hasn’t been at her apartment for over a month. She is still listed on the company website and she is still drawing a paycheck.”

More facts Hannah hadn’t known in time to intervene. She curled her hands into fists, frustrated by the secrets her sister had kept. She reminded herself she was taking the right steps now, giving all these details to her boss. “I’m just scraping the tip of the iceberg with Tenney.” She nodded toward the report. “I’ve logged some questionable meetings and calls he took before Sonya stopped going in and several more in recent weeks. No ugly rumors of bad press or ironclad criminal activity have popped up yet, but all of it is highly irregular and out of routine.”

Swann turned to another page in the report. “You discovered a team watching your sister’s apartment?”

“Yes.” Thankfully Sonya seemed to have anticipated the tactic and gotten out before they’d set up camp. “Twenty-four-seven surveillance isn’t a typical benefit for brokerage employees.” Hopefully, they could soon identify one or more of the men who had been on rotation in the utility van across the street. “I can’t ignore the way she’s dodging Christmas. She wouldn’t do that unless the risks were unbearable to her. That tells me she’s certain about what she knows and the impact it could have. Now that Tenney has lost her, he must be feeling the pressure. It’s a fair bet he’ll try to draw her out by threatening someone she loves.”

“Someone like you.”

Hannah jerked back. Sure, Sonya loved her, but Harper was the obvious target. “No. Like Harper. If I go missing, it will hardly make the news.” Harper was an heiress. Her parents would pull out all the stops to get her back.

Swann rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I agree Harper is at risk. And I admire that you want to take on an observation detail over your holiday vacation.”

“I’ll be on location anyway.” Wouldn’t be much of a vacation if something bad happened. They were talking about the fate of her sisters. She definitely wanted some talented backup nearby if things did go wrong, because she didn’t have any real field skills. She couldn’t take any chances with the people she loved most, the people who’d taught her that a family could be beautiful, fun, and supportive.

He flipped the report closed. “Let’s assume you’re right about Tenney and Sonya caught him doing something illegal. If she is holding incriminating evidence, he doesn’t need to make the news. Low profile and quiet is actually better. He only needs to get his hands on Sonya and whatever she has on him to make his troubles go away.”

Well, true enough. Still, no one other than the Ellingtons and her coworkers really knew Hannah. She lived alone and she wasn’t currently dating anyone. If Tenney had wanted to use her against Sonya, he’d have done so already.

Hannah could be effectively summed up as the slightly nerdy pal Harper had dragged home that first winter break. Until college, she was content to study life and people from a safe distance. The Ellingtons didn’t let her stay an outsider for long. They’d welcomed her from day one, surprising her with their acceptance and insistence that she dive in and become part of the family. Through the last decade, she’d grown close to all of them. Harper’s brother Rhett felt like her own brother now, and she’d been calling Mr. and Mrs. Ellington Dad and Mom for years. These days Harper’s aunts gave Hannah and Sonya as much affectionate grief over everything from manners to marriage as they did the niece they’d known since birth.

“Are you certain the texts you’ve received are coming from Sonya?”

The question pulled her back to the immediate concern. “Yes, absolutely. Her syntax, her pacing, her emojis.”

“Nothing that suggests she or her accounts are being manipulated?”

“No.” More comfortable with the conversation back on track, Hannah leaned forward again. “With time, I’m sure I can locate her.” Being on site was bound to help, just in case Sonya reached out or dared to visit for the holiday.

“I agree.” Swann checked his watch. “While you’re there, I’m adding another researcher to the case.”

“Who?” That wasn’t a typical approach, but she was distracted and pleased that Swann referred to the situation as a case. “Why?”

Swann’s mouth kicked up at one corner. Her reputation for curiosity was unmatched at the agency. “Connor Brady,” he replied. “I’m pulling him in because we have so many unknowns. The more eyes, the better. He’ll bring a fresh perspective to tracking her as well.”

“Right. Of course. I get it.” And she did. Hannah reeled in her reaction to the news. There was no reason to feel pushed or unsettled. Sonya needed help from any and all sources.

Brady hadn’t been with the agency for too long, but he was efficient and thorough and had proven himself an asset. During her years here, she’d tracked down plenty of people she didn’t know beyond a name in a file. Although tracking Sonya should be easier for her, that didn’t make her immune to overlooking a pertinent detail. The Guardian Agency valued individual strengths and approaches among their researchers as well as the protectors who went into the field.

“I understand the additional pressure, the challenges, when it’s personal,” Swann said. His gaze moved to a point over her shoulder and he lifted his chin.

She turned as the office door swung open and her mouth went dry. She froze, half twisted in her chair, staring at the man who entered. He was tall, golden, and utterly gorgeous. Radiating confidence, he reached out to shake Swann’s hand. The trim dark slacks and dove gray cable knit sweater he wore didn’t mute his solid build. Broad shoulders, trim hips, strong thighs. Strong hands. Why was she such a sucker for hands? His wavy blond hair was cropped short and a neatly trimmed, deep golden beard highlighted his square jawline. Sharp green eyes scanned the room, locked on her. He smiled.

She swallowed.

Though she’d never laid eyes on him before, he might as well have stepped out of her most vivid fantasies.

“…Hannah, Seth Mathison.” Swann wrapped up the introductions, but all of her attention was on that strong, fascinating hand the newcomer held out. Belatedly, she shook his hand, her insides melting as her palm met his. Warm, lightly callused, the hand of a man who engaged in physical pursuits. 

She tried to repair her tattered composure as he released her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she managed.

“Likewise.” Good grief, his voice was as thrilling and sexy as the rest of him.

“Have a seat,” Swann directed.

Mr. Gorgeous gracefully folded himself into the chair beside hers. She barely kept her silence as questions bounded through her brain one after another. Why was he here? Why now? Did he know Sonya? Was he with the police or FBI? He had such a presence it seemed to fill the office, winding around her and his masculine scent teased her nose. Her response to him was ridiculous, but she couldn’t seem to shut it down. It took every ounce of willpower to keep her gaze focused on her boss.

“Seth will be your protector,” Swann stated. “Hank Patterson, founder of the Brotherhood Protectors, loaned him to us for the duration.”

“Duration?” she echoed.

Swann arched one eyebrow. “Of the case. While you’re on vacation in South Carolina, Seth will be with you, protecting you and Harper.”

“What about Sonya?”

“Her too, if she shows up. After some brainstorming and discussion Seth and I agreed it’s best if he poses as your fiancé. That gives him a solid reason to stick close to you and Harper.”

“Fiancé?” Her stomach twisted. Would her family even believe a man like Seth proposed to her? “I don’t get any say in this?” She was supposed to leave in the morning. How would they go from total strangers to a believable couple in less than twenty-four hours?

Her boss scowled. “Do you have a better idea?”

She thought her proposal had been clear enough. With a shrug, she said, “I don’t need a shadow, just backup.” This would be an uphill argument, but she had to try. “No way will my sisters buy this.” She snorted, waving a hand in Seth’s direction.

“They’ll get over the shock,” Swann assured her.

Hannah shook her head. “A fiancé only introduces more questions. More trouble,” she insisted. A fiancé would likely share the suite with her at the resort. Something akin to panic rippled across the back of her neck. “The idea that I fell in love and accepted a marriage proposal without so much as a mention of his name along the way is ludicrous. Let me call Uncle Bruce, he’ll make sure there’s a room and–”

“I’m not taking chances with your safety,” Swann said, cutting her off. “Whatever you need to do, make it work. Make them believe it.” He flattened his palms on the file. “I know you, Hannah. You’ll keep digging on Tenney, keep searching for Sonya. And that’s fine. But it could easily bring trouble down on you fast. This report indicates a significant threat. Do you want to just tell them the truth?”

“Not particularly,” she admitted. But a fiancé? Selling that familiarity and intimacy would take storytelling skills she did not have.

“Fine. Great. We all agree.” Swann bit out each word. “Undercover fiancé plan still works for you?” he asked Seth.

“Yes, sir.” He gave a firm nod. “I’m here to get the job done, whatever it takes.”

Hannah couldn’t tell if the butterflies in her belly were swarming in dread or anticipation. Shifting in her seat, she faced her new golden, larger-than-life shadow. “Seriously? You don’t have any reservations about this?”

“Well, I don’t know your family,” he began. “But my sister just got engaged. Sudden is a tame word for the situation. My whole family’s thrilled, even though none of us had a clue they were involved until it was a done deal.”

That didn’t give her much comfort at all. Glancing back at her boss, she realized there would be no changing his mind. “Then I guess we’d better get to work on our story.”

“Hannah, you need to get to Tipperman’s first,” Swann said. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a business card. “They can loan you an engagement ring to use over the holiday. I need to go over a few things with Seth.”

Her hand trembled as she took the card. Shopping for her own engagement ring? The craziness just kept churning. With a nod for her boss and a last glance for her soon to be fiancé, she left the office.

Dread, she decided. The butterflies were in an uproar because they could see this entire effort was going to fall apart in a spectacular fashion.


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