Underground Heat, Book 2
By Ann Gimpel
Publisher: Liquid Silver Books
Release Date: 9/2/13
Genre: Paranormal Romance
In a futuristic world where shifters keep their friends close and their enemies closer, passion flares hot and sweet.
In a futuristic California that’s almost out of resources, Max leads a double life. A Russian wolf-shifter, he heads up the State of California as its governor—and the shifter underground. He took on the governorship to help his people. Threatened with genocide, many shifters have gone into hiding. Some blame Max and the underground for their plight, rather than the governmental edict that’s meant death for so many.
Audrey works for Max. Unlike most humans with low levels of shifter blood who bless their lucky stars they avoided the purge, she wants to be a shifter. If she could find a way to finesse it, she’d quit her job in a heartbeat and go to work helping the shifter underground. The only sticking point is Max. She’s been half in love with him forever.
Against a dog-eat-dog political backdrop where no one knows who their allies are, Max and Audrey spar with one another. Max fears she’s part of the group trying to kill him. Audrey has no idea about Max’s double identity and worries she won’t be able to walk away from their fiery attraction to help the underground.
After a second attempt on his life, Max faces critical choices. Should he follow his head or his heart?
…Loren double parked the electric car outside the restaurant and shadowed them inside, along with the redheaded guard. “Looks pretty good.” Loren eyed the private, sound-shielded room. “I’ll be right outside, and John will be here, too, just as soon as he takes care of the car.”
“Once reinforcements arrive, feel free to go hunt for your men,” Max said. “You must be worried about them.”
“Thanks, boss. I am. Go sit down. I’ll scare up a waiter to at least get you a bottle of wine or something. John’s going off-shift in an hour, so there will be two new guards outside when you’re done eating.”
“Thanks for letting me know.” Max pulled the door shut and walked to the table. Audrey had already seated herself and was sorting through the stack of papers, arranging them into piles. “It’s all right if you don’t work for a few moments,” he said, taking a seat across from her.
“It’s better if I have something to, uh, take my mind off what happened. You asked if I’d gotten a chance to practice with the gun. The answer is yes. My brother sort of smuggled me into the cop shop gun range in the middle of the night a couple of times. But I’ve never been around anybody who was dead.” Her voice cracked. He saw her swallow hard. Max’s estimation of her edged up a few notches. Audrey was one tough cookie, even though she might not realize it. Most women would have dissolved into hysterics.
“You did fine. Good thinking to be in front of the elevator door with your gun.”
“Really?” She met his gaze with lovely hazel eyes that were shading toward green at the moment and rested her chin on an upraised hand. “I wasn’t certain what to do. I thought I should call the elevator back, but I didn’t want to subvert whatever you were doing. Then I wondered if I should take the stairs to a lower floor, but that wouldn’t have helped if you were still in the elevator… Ach.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t mind me. I’m babbling.”
“You did fine,” he repeated just as the door opened, and a waiter swooped in with a silver bucket holding a wine bottle and two glasses.
“Good evening, sir and madam.” The waiter bowed slightly. He was in his fifties with a bald head and merry blue eyes. “The gentleman outside thought you could do with a spot of something relaxing. How does a cabernet strike you? If you’d rather have something different, I haven’t opened it yet.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.” Max held out a hand for the bottle and inspected the label. “What’s on the menu tonight?”
The waiter rattled off a series of dishes while he opened the wine. Max glanced at Audrey. “What sounds good to you?”
She smiled warmly. “I’m used to whatever my ration coupons will buy. If it’s not too expensive, I’d love to have a steak.”
“How would madam like it cooked?” the waiter inquired, arching a brow. He poured a jot of wine into a glass and handed it to Max.
“Salad and rice or potatoes?”
“Salad and potatoes, please.”
“I’ll have the same,” Max cut in and took a sip of what was a very good wine. Rich and oaky, it had an enticing bouquet. “The wine is perfect,” he told the waiter, who immediately poured some into a glass for Audrey and added more to Max’s.
“This is really quite wonderful,” Audrey said once the waiter left. “Everything. Not just the wine. I can’t remember the last time I ate out at anything but one of those diners where I flash my wrist computer at the glass cases, and it debits credits from my account.”
“Enjoy it.” Max smiled. “You deserve to be pampered after what happened. I can still barely believe…” His voice trailed off. He needed to be careful not to say too much. “Um, what’s in those documents that’s so important?”
She leaned toward him. Her scent was even more intoxicating than the wine. He caught himself inhaling deeply and pulled away, aware of a pressure against his trousers where he was suddenly hard.
Audrey wriggled in her seat. She bit her lower lip and blew out a tense breath. Finally, she lowered her voice and murmured, “I probably shouldn’t do this, but I need to be honest with you. It’s all in my employment records anyway, but since I was here long before you were governor, well, you may not have looked at them… Cripes! I’m blathering like an idiot.”
“Whatever it is, just go ahead and tell me.” Max felt oddly protective toward her, though he didn’t understand quite why. Worse, the moment his cock had gotten hard, his wolf had begun a steady patter of lewd side remarks that made Max want to throttle him.
“There’s no easy way to do this,” she went on, her knuckles so white against the wineglass, Max hoped it wouldn’t shatter from the pressure. “If you decide I can’t work for you afterward, well…” she set down the stemware and spread her hands in front of her. “Not much I can do about it. I have shifter blood. Roughly 35 percent. Some of my relatives have been killed in this purge, so I’m not the most ardent supporter of the governmental edicts to round up shifters and imprison them.”
She sucked in a ragged breath and raised her gaze so she looked right at him. A combination of defiance and pleading etched fine lines around her eyes.
“Miss Westen. Audrey. I’m not going to fire you. It’s all right. Thank you, for trusting me.” Deep inside, Max felt the wolf push him to say more, to tell her about the serum. To offer it up, for God’s sake. He resisted. “You told me that for a reason. I assume it’s related to the documents. Could you walk me through what’s in them?”
She nodded. “Sure. It’s intel about something called the shifter underground.” Her eyes flashed. “Frankly, now that I know about them, I’m on their side, but don’t worry, I wouldn’t ever say that publicly.”
Max listened as she relayed the story he’d lived for the past couple of days. Everything was there, including the serum that pushed cops with a low percentage of shifter blood into full-blown shifters. Before the series of intravenous infusions that law enforcement had forced on their elite tracker task forces, a person needed 50 percent shifter blood to morph into their bond animal. After the infusions, 10 percent was sufficient. Max had gotten unutterably excited by the prospect of thousands of new shifters to swell their ranks and perhaps turn the tide of the war in their favor.
Another set of nationwide reports detailed those same cops betraying their oaths and going rogue. Predictions about anarchy ran wild. By the time Audrey was finished, Max was ecstatic, but he couldn’t let it show. Everything he’d assumed would happen was playing itself out like a well-oiled machine. He couldn’t wait to let the underground know.
“Well?” Audrey raised her gaze from the stack of papers and gathered them together.
“Interesting material. I understand why it was classified top secret.” Max tried for a neutral expression. Just because she’d confided in him was no reason to let his guard down.
The door to their private dining room opened. The waiter pushed a cart laden with wonderful smelling dishes. Max’s mouth watered. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it was pushing nine at night. For the moment, his sexual hunger receded, and he tucked into a succulent, barely cooked piece of meat.
“Where do they get this?” she asked, cutting into her steak and chewing slowly. “None of the shops where I exchange my ration coupons ever have anything but ground or processed meat products.”
“There’s a black market,” he replied around a mouthful of salad.
Her brows drew together. “So it’s real,” she muttered. “I never paid much attention.” Her mouth curved into a smile. She set down her fork and knife. “It’s so good, I feel like I should save what’s left and take it home. I’ve already eaten far more than I usually do.”
“I can ask the waiter to box it up for you.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you.” She glanced at him shyly through long, dusky lashes. “You’ve taken the worst day of my life and turned it into something special.”
He wanted to move to her side of the table and gather her into his arms. Not only was Audrey one of the most stunning women he’d ever seen, she was level-headed and seemingly oblivious to how gorgeous she was. Max put himself on a tight leash. He had bigger problems to attend to than his non-existent love life. At least so far, Audrey hadn’t asked about O’Hare’s accusations in the elevator. Christ! Maybe she thought he was tossing the shifter epithet at her.
Max nodded to himself. It made sense. Likely, that was why she’d fessed up about her shifter blood.
“Penny for your thoughts, boss?” She focused her alluring hazel gaze on him. In the low light, her eyes held a violet cast.
“Nothing. Are you about ready to head home?”
She nodded. “I suppose we should. Tomorrow morning will come around early.”
He laughed. “Right you are, Miss Westen. It always does. It’s all right with me if you take a few hours off—”
She waved him to silence. “Nothing happening at home. The neighborhood’s gone to hell. I can’t even go out for a walk anymore. All I do is sit barricaded behind a bunch of deadbolts.”
Part of him wanted to bring her home with him, to his uptown mansion where she’d have gated grounds to roam. He cleared his throat before something untoward slipped out. “Let me find the waiter.” He realized he was still hard and pulled his jacket around to shield the evidence as best he could.
As if the waiter had been waiting right outside and could read his mind, the door opened before Max had gotten up. “Would sir and madam like anything else? A touch of dessert perhaps?”
“You can box up the rest of the lady’s meal,” Max said. “You wouldn’t happen to have that delectable chocolate mousse?”
The waiter’s mouth formed an apologetic moue. “Not tonight, sir. We have lemon cheesecake, a cheese and fruit plate with brandy, or ice cream.”
“Does any of that sound good?” Max glanced at Audrey. Her eyes were wide with delight.
“Oooooh, it all sounds wonderful. I can’t even remember the last time I had real ice cream. That frozen crap they sell nowadays doesn’t even have any dairy products in it.”
“Could you bring us a sampler plate with a little of everything?” Max asked.
“Of course. Coming right up.” The waiter snatched their plates and left.
“Not that I wouldn’t love something sweet,” she said a bit wistfully, “but I thought we’d decided it was late and—”
Max kicked himself. They had decided that—sort of. He was enjoying himself, and he didn’t want the evening to end, but that wasn’t the sort of thing he could—or should—say to his secretary. He shrugged. “You seem to finally be relaxing. After what happened at the office, you deserve a little R and R. You really can come in an hour or two later tomorrow.”
Her gaze softened. “Thank you.”
@AnnGimpel (for Twitter)