Thursday, December 1, 2022

Melody's Six: Brotherhood Protectors World by Regan Black

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As a Special Forces soldier, Dean Turner gave everything he had to the missions and his teams. When Hank Patterson recruits him into the Athena Project, Dean throws himself into the private protection service with that same focus. After all, there’s no one waiting for him at home since his ex-wife betrayed him on every level.

Dean knows marriage is not for him. He’s better off alone. Functions best that way.

Except when it comes to his Athena Project partner, Melody Boyd. This former CIA agent is professional, talented, and as dedicated to helping others as Dean. He’s tamped down his burning attraction to her from day one—always putting their missions first.

But when a former enemy targets Mel, Dean makes her the priority. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe. Even becoming her undercover husband.

If you crave sexy, adrenaline-fueled romantic suspense, you’ll love Mel’s Six by USA Today bestseller Regan Black!

Chapter 1

“Slowly open your eyes. Pause here for one more deep breath…”

Melody Boyd tuned out the soothing voice and soft mellow music as the yoga instructor wrapped up the video class. Relaxation pose was a good thing, but she was feeling refreshed and raring to go, mentally and physically. Reaching over, she exited the app and closed her laptop. “Hey, Mel—”

At the sound of her partner’s voice, Mel rolled to her feet, blotting the sweat from her face and neck as she gave him a smile.

Dean Turner leaned a muscled shoulder against the door frame, a grin on his striking face. “Am I interrupting?”

“You know you’re not.” She swung her arms wide and up, then stretched side to side. “Just finished and feeling great.”

His electric blue gaze skimmed over her in that quick-assessing way he had. Standing tall, he made the most of each and every one of his six-foot, two inches. “And you’re recharged to a hundred percent.” He stepped forward and offered her a bottle of water.

“You know me so well.” Right down to knowing she’d be here at the apartment complex fitness center for yoga today. She looped the towel over her neck and indulged in a long drink. “What brings you by?”

Her partner had a military service record full of awards and accolades and yet somehow, he always managed to give off a carefree, easygoing vibe. Still, she recognized that undercurrent of energy, that eagerness to take on another challenge, because she was wired the same way.

She and Dean had met at a training retreat when her career had been at a crossroads. After giving the CIA her heart and mind and very best effort, she needed a change. The retreat had been the right call at the right time and she would always be grateful. Not only had she gone into business with her four like-minded girlfriends, she’d been partnered with Dean. Together, as a team of two, they worked cases for the new Athena Project.

A uniquely equipped group under the umbrella of Hank Patterson’s Brotherhood Protectors, they were led by Beck Morrissey who partnered with Roman McClain. The other teams were comprised of her the partnerships of Victoria and Logan, Cygny and Leo, and Fay and Walker.

Each assignment was an exciting challenge, whether it was up close recon, protection details, or the occasional undercover gig. With their combined expertise and enthusiasm, the Athena Project teams had an excellent success rate. Mel and Dean had worked a wide variety of assignments in recent months and while she trusted him with her life, it troubled her that she didn’t have a better understanding of the man under the stunning exterior.

Though he chatted and shared with her—nothing better to do on stakeouts—it always seemed to be surface-level stuff. She knew he’d grown up in Illinois, was a star athlete in high school—no surprise—and that he hated peaches for reasons he couldn’t explain. Since leaving the CIA, she discovered how much she loved being an open book, speaking her mind, and sharing her opinions without fear of fallout.

Throughout her career, she’d worked with military men and women from different backgrounds. No one served as long as Dean had in Special Operations without gathering a few scars, inside and out. But she’d seen him in nothing but gym shorts. His body was flawless. Nothing they’d gone up against in the field made him flinch. Once in a while, she caught a shadow of sadness or wariness in his gaze, but she didn’t press. She’d spent enough time with operators down range to respect his boundaries.

Still, being curious by nature, she frequently wondered if she should try harder to draw him out. Probably better not to rush it. Besides, there was no need. They communicated just fine on and off the job and the way things were going with the Athena Project, they would be together for a long time.

Scooping a hand through his dark brown hair, he tipped his head to the door. “Beck has something new for us. I’ll drive.”

“Give me ten minutes to freshen up.”

“You’re a girl.” He backed up a step. “Take fifteen.” On a low laugh, he dodged the towel she threw at him, and darted down the hallway.

“Woman!” She retrieved the towel and headed for the dressing room. He knew she didn’t need any extra time. Her ever-present backpack was always stocked with clean clothes and essential toiletries. Being prepared was one habit that hadn’t changed since her departure from the CIA for a civilian career.

Her neighbors at the apartment complex saw Mel as a thirty-something remote-work professional with flexible hours who’d come to Fool’s Gold for the small community and outdoor life. Plenty of truth in there and leaning into that role kept everyone safe.

Dressed in dark jeans, her favorite short boots and a lavender turtleneck sweater under a shearling vest, she slid into the passenger seat of Dean’s black pickup truck with a full five minutes to spare.

While he drove, she brushed her hair and gathered it up into a high ponytail, fluffing the curls a bit.

Dean chuckled as she carefully applied mascara while he was stopped at a traffic light.

She finished and closed the tube, dropping it into her bag. “What?”

“I don’t know. It’s a little strange to see you doing girly-girl things.”

“Woman.” Mel gave him a long stare. “Last chance to pull your foot out of your mouth,” she warned. Sure, they’d done remote surveillance requiring tactical field gear. But he’d also seen her in a slinky cocktail dress, a bikini on one particularly memorable recon mission, and a very feminine business suit right down to the pencil skirt and sky-high heels.

“Come on. You’re primping,” he said, defending his observation. “For a trip to the office? That seems overboard.”

Deliberately, she pulled out her lip gloss and made a production of applying it. “My use of cosmetics cannot possibly be a shock to you.”

“I just rarely see the process. That’s all. The end result is always impressive. And lovely,” he added quickly.

“Seven out of ten for the save,” she allowed, making him laugh.

He turned up the road toward Lost Valley Ranch, where the Athena Project was headquartered along with the Colorado division of Hank Patterson’s Brotherhood Protectors.

It was a gorgeous September day and she soaked it in. Up here, sunny skies and a balmy breeze could shift into a snowstorm in an instant if the mountains were in the mood. She loved the unpredictability. Kept her sharp.

Dean passed the Watering Hole bar on his way to the lodge. A retired Marine, Dan “Gunny” Tate, owned both the lodge and the bar. He kept both operations running smoothly with the help of his daughter, RJ, her husband Jake Cogburn, and the rest of the growing team. At any given time, if they weren’t on assignment, Brotherhood Protectors and Athena Project personnel could be found helping with anything from cleaning horse stalls to tending bar or prepping lodge rooms for guests.

For Mel, those frequent change-ups were perfect and though Dean hadn’t said the words, she was sure he felt the same way. She’d learned he wasn’t the kind of man who indulged in much idle time.

“Any hints about the assignment?” She zipped her backpack and pulled it onto her lap as he pulled into the parking area near the lodge.

This was their pattern. They’d each take a guess about what they’d be asked to do. The one who came closest to the actual assignment bought the other a coffee for the planning session.

He put the truck in Park and cut the engine. His fingertips tapped a beat on the steering wheel. “You first.”

“I think it’ll be something straightforward this time.” She snapped her fingers. “Recovering weapons from a survivalist camp.” There were plenty of those in the area.

“Not a chance.” His lips twitched. “That wouldn’t require lip gloss.”

“Ha, ha.” She pursed her lips in an exaggerated kissy face, complete with smooching sounds. The man could tease like a champ, but he never seriously implied her sole purpose was to be the eye candy in their partnership.

If anyone earned that designation, it would be him. She’d lost track of the times he’d been hit on when they were out, either on an operation or while hanging out with their new friends and teammates.

He reached for the door and she stalled him, resting a hand on his arm. “You have to guess. It’s tradition.”

His eyebrows gathered over his straight nose. “I say we’re headed to the Springs to protect a visiting politician.”

Mel slumped back into the seat. “You’re probably right.”

“Why the long face? We’re good at that.”

True. “I know, I know.”

“You just want to shoot someone.”

She sighed. He knew her too well. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had any cause.”

“Poor, Mel.” He winked at her. “Only one way to find out who pays for coffee.” He bolted from the truck, his long stride carrying him toward the lodge.

She scrambled out of the truck, rushing to catch up. They reached the office side by side, and he held the door for her as they went down the stairs to the basement headquarters.

“Perfect timing.” Beck was all smiles as they walked in. She closed the laptop on the desk and turned her chair to face them.

Hank had struck an agreement with Gunny to rent the space and outfit it according to the Brotherhood Protectors needs. He’d spared no expense making sure Jake, head of the Colorado division, was fully equipped for success. Previously only used as storage, now the basement was a state-of-the-art office, complete with an array of computers for communication and research, space for potential clients to visit comfortably, all the gear a team might need, and a fully-stocked armory discreetly hidden behind a locked door.

Personally, Mel loved the setup. It was the best intel bunker she’d ever worked in and she no longer worried about any co-worker agendas or motives. Though she’d come for the business opportunity and challenge, the peace and serenity of the lodge and the surrounding area offered a lovely counterpoint.

As the business teams grew, RJ and her best friend JoJo started making girl-power nights a regular event. They all gathered at the lodge when there was room, or at one of the other homes in the area. Location didn’t matter, whoever was available showed up for some no-men-allowed time to relax, chat, and yes, wear lip gloss if they so desired.

Last month they’d gotten together at Clint and Avery Manning’s place and Avery had taught them how to play Euchre. The card game was fast and fun, though the rules sounded more like nonsense until she’d gotten the hang of it. She and RJ had been paired up and ended up winning the impromptu tournament, though Mel still wasn’t sure how.

“Glad to see you both,” Beck said. “I’ve got something unique lined up for you.”

“Hope it’s more than long-distance recon.” Dean tipped his head toward Mel. “She wants to shoot someone,” he joked.

Beck’s eyebrows arched and she pressed her lips together, suppressing her amusement. “Sorry to disappoint you, Mel. I don’t think guns will be part of the equation this time. We’ve received a referral from the Guardian Agency.”

“Never heard of them,” Dean said.

Mel shrugged. “Neither have I.”

Beck stilled. “They’re an exclusive private protection group based in Chicago with cooperative connections to the Brotherhood Protectors,” she explained. “It was their analyst, Claudia Mitchell, who sent this case our way.”

Oh. Mel knew Claudia. The woman’s reputation for analysis and finding people lingered in the CIA even all these years after her departure. Mel hadn’t known where she’d landed but she wasn’t too surprised Claudia had a connection to Hank Patterson.

“What does she need?”

“A movie studio has requested extra security for an advance party scouting locations for a new project. The Guardian Agency has worked with the studio before, but knowing about our new setup here, Claudia thought we should take this one.”

“Have a seat.” Beck turned back to her computer and a moment later the assignment details filled a large monitor. “Names, roles, you know the drill. You’re going in as drone operators this time.”

“Neil Spalding?” Mel was impressed. He was currently one of Hollywood’s most-requested directors, having been at the helm for several blockbusters as well as acclaimed documentaries in recent years.

“Heard he didn’t like taking advice during that military introspective he did in Afghanistan,” Dean muttered.

“I’m confident the two of you can manage him.”

“Of course, we can.” As Mel committed to memory the names and faces of the rest of Spalding’s party, she sensed Dean’s increasing tension. That was far more unsettling than learning Claudia had sent a case to Beck. As soon as they were out of here, she wanted an explanation. Dean was always so even-keel, his feelings or opinions on a target were irrelevant. She couldn’t see anything new in this assignment overview. They went undercover, just the two of them, all the time. Small, mobile, two-person teams were the central advantage of the Athena Project.

Beck highlighted another section of the overview. “The scouting itinerary is packed tight, starting as soon as they land this afternoon.”

“Garden of the Gods at sunset,” she noted. “That’ll be fun.”

“If he’s scared enough to hire extra security, he should’ve stayed in California,” Dean grumbled.

Grim wasn’t his norm. Oh, the man could be serious, disgruntled on occasion, but something was way off. To her, everything indicated a typical operation. “Maybe there’s concern about a mole or movie studio espionage.” The joke fell flat and Dean’s blue eyes turned down-right stormy.

She thought extra security was a smart idea in this area. Not just because it kept her employed. The mountains around Fool’s Gold were gorgeous. And treacherous, with multiple factors beyond the obvious risks of the rugged terrain and quickly changing weather. Abandoned mines, working mines, wary ranchers, and groups who wanted to stay off the radar for one reason or another made it all too easy for strangers to stumble into trouble.

Sneaking another look at Dean, there was no ignoring the hard set of his shoulders or his rigid stance, legs braced wide. Beck would pick up on those same indicators and Mel was not prepared to have their partnership questioned.

Her tone light, as if she couldn’t see his distress, she returned to the cover story. “Look, we aren’t strangers on this one.” She could successfully pretend not to know him, but it was easier for her when they worked an assignment as a couple.

Dean’s nostrils flared. “Nope. We’re husband and wife.” He tilted his head until his neck cracked. “Drone operators who are married,” he added through clenched teeth. “We join up and travel with the director and his team. Five to seven days expected.”

“With a possible extension,” Beck said.

Dean huffed.

A week hiking and traveling through the area sounded like fun to Mel. Or it would be as soon as her partner dropped the foul attitude. “Well, I’m game. Anything in particular we need to know about the movie business?”

“Not particularly,” Beck replied. “Take your cues on that from Spalding, but remember to keep your eyes on more than the terrain, since no specific threat has been identified.”

“Got it.” Mel bounded her knees, ready to get moving.

“As drone operators we should have a good view of any potential trouble,” Dean said, sounding more like himself. “Should be easy enough to keep the scouting group safe if we can take turns piloting.” He pointed to the screen. “Says everyone will carry cameras.”

“Even better,” Mel said, her normal enthusiasm rising once more. “As locals, I assume we could be called upon to liaison with landowners as needed.”

Dean shrugged. “You and I can schmooze with the best of them.”

“I’ve emailed all of these details to you both as well.” Beck slid a thick envelope closer to Mel. “Your cover IDs, matching credit cards, and some cash.”

Dean’s head bent over his phone. “Mel, look at the schedule,” he snapped.

“Give me a second.” She’d been separating the contents of the envelope for him. “If this is how you behave now that we’re married—” His head whipped up. The look he sent her was so dark, so tortured, she forgot what she’d been saying.

Oh, crap. She’d inadvertently stomped on an exposed nerve. Never her intention. She respected Dean, cared about his welfare in the field and as a friend. He was her partner and she trusted him with her life. She was well aware the man had feelings, even if he didn’t share them often. Or ever.

The questions racing through her head would wait. This wasn’t the time or place to dig herself out of her misstep. “When do we start?” she asked Beck.

“You’ll meet up with the advance party at the Colorado Springs airport this afternoon,” Beck explained. “They’ll be arriving on a private jet. No one knows anything about the two of you beyond the cover resum├ęs the studio passed onto the director.”

“Spalding has no idea?” Dean whistled.

Mel knew exactly what he was thinking, because she was thinking it too. The studio wasn’t one hundred percent confident in the group.

“He believes you’re local experts, hired for this particular job,” Beck confirmed. “The studio is technically our client.”

They’d succeeded in assignments that weren’t clear-cut before. “Got it.” Mel pushed to her feet.

Dean followed suit. “We’ll be back in a week or so,” Dean said, his voice rough as gravel. He stalked toward the stairs and out of the office.

Mel scooped up the cash and cards he’d left behind, stuffing it back in the envelope.

Beck arched an eyebrow. “You two okay?”

For the first time in their partnership, Mel wasn’t so sure. “We’re fine.” Whatever had set him off, she was confident in their mutual professionalism. “I’ll send daily updates.”

“Hang on,” Beck walked to the supply closet and opened a slim drawer under one of the counters. “You probably want silicone wedding bands for this.”

“Good point.” They hadn’t needed wedding bands before, but it was a typical expectation and would underscore the cover story. Proving Athena Project covered all their bases, Beck pulled up a file on her phone with ring sizes. Mel chose matching wedding bands in a dark gray color, tucking both into her pocket.

“I’d rather stick with our personal weapons for this,” Mel said. “In a small, mobile group anything more powerful is likely to get noticed at the wrong time.”

“Agreed.” Beck folded her arms. “If anything changes, we’re close enough to offer backup.”

“Thanks.” She gave Beck a quick hug goodbye and headed out.

Hurrying up the steps, Mel considered Dean’s mood and how best to pull him out of it. They had to be “on” in just a few hours. Her crack about marriage had clearly upset him and she had to make sure that wouldn’t be a problem while they were working.

Almost all of their missions involved them playing a couple at some point. Walking hand in hand through a park, appearing completely lost in each other while actually conducting surveillance.

But this would be their first time pretending to be a married couple. Maintaining appearances twenty-four-seven amid a small group of strangers. For five to seven days. Lots of room for error in that kind of scenario.

If she dwelled on it, she’d start freaking out herself. Not gonna happen.

She’d found that one of the best parts of this partnership was the balance. The things that bugged her—spiders for example—he handled. And the things that bugged him… well this was the first obvious one. She was ready to step up.

Rushing out onto the front porch, she discovered her partner wasn’t waiting at the truck. She looked around, tamping down the unfamiliar worry. Dean had never been anything but solid. Where had he gone?

Shouting would only draw more attention and Beck was already concerned. Following her intuition, Mel turned away from the barns and circled to the back of the lodge.

And there he was, stomping up the slope.


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