Colonel Colton James Ragnarson III should have known better.
He wanted nothing more than to enjoy his retirement after his intensely active combat years in the US Army, take care of his family, and find the mystery woman who had made him personalized weapons. Those weapons made the Pentagon desperate to find her as well, as they had saved Colt’s life and the lives of his men on countless occasions. Never had he intended to engage in a secret liaison that required he go against his usual “give no Fs” demeanor. After making early mistakes in his teenage years, he was a model soldier and guardian to his ward. However, maintaining his strict discipline was proving to be impossible after meeting his ward’s roommate and best friend. Nothing had prepared him for Imani St. John. She evoked emotions in him that he’d never experienced or thought he was even capable of. He knew others would think what he felt for her was inappropriate. However, he would stop at nothing to have her, and the objection of his family, or Imani herself, would not sway him. Keeping the obsession he felt for her a secret was becoming harder every day.
Imani St. John had structured her life around protecting her identity. Remaining hidden from the man intent on hunting her down should have been her priority. Instead, to appease the secret crush she felt for her best friend’s guardian, she may have exposed critical clues about who and what she was. Horrified by the thoughts of the dangers he faced while in combat zones, she ignored the risk of being discovered and made him weapons of innovative technology that would protect him, but they’d also garnered attention she couldn’t afford if she hoped to keep her identity hidden. Now she was being hunted by men who wanted that technology and other secrets she’d long buried. How could she ever hope to have an honest relationship with any man? Could she give up her father’s secret for the love of one man?
Ithaca, New York
“Colt, did you enjoy the ceremony? Did you see me?” Sarah squealed as she ran toward him.
Colton James Ragnarson III only slightly relented his usual stoic demeanor to embrace his ward. He felt ancient, despite being only forty-two years old. It was as though he’d lived several lifetimes after becoming a guardian to his girlfriend’s baby. His high school girlfriend of two years had committed suicide after giving birth to a baby girl, who he’d initially thought was his daughter. However, his girlfriend’s suicide note had told a different story. She’d cheated on him with different members of his football team and had no idea who the father of her baby was. A DNA test had proven her statement correct; the little girl wasn’t his.
Colt hadn’t abandoned the child, however. With his girlfriend’s family refusing to even acknowledge the child, he’d taken responsibility and become the baby’s guardian when he turned eighteen years old. In addition to becoming a guardian of a two-year-old at eighteen, he’d also enlisted into the Army after four years at West Point Military Academy, as was the tradition for every Ragnarson man before him. His career in the military saw him in combat through six wars, although he’d taken a three-year sabbatical to finish law school before re-entering active combat; he’d been present at every major conflict in the intervening years. As a colonel in the United States Army, Colt wasn’t known for a sunny personality. His parents often told people that it was because he’d witnessed too many horrors over his twenty-three years in the military.
The sight of his ward always melted his heart. However, he’d never show that kind of weakness to anyone. If his men or his enemies knew that he had such a soft spot, Sarah’s life wouldn’t be worth living, nor his for the ribbing he’d take because of it. Over the years, he’d acquired many enemies and hoped they remained in his combat past.
Having been partially raised by his mother and retired father, Sarah was well adjusted, levelheaded, and had a heart of gold. He was very proud of her. Raising her after his teenage girlfriend’s suicide hadn’t been easy, but with a close-knit family such as his—his parents and two brothers—the family support had been tremendous.
Colt held his ward and closed his eyes briefly in thanks that he hadn’t fucked this up. He dropped his arm from around her, but typical Sarah refused to let go. She kept her arms around his waist while yelling greetings to the other graduates from her class passing by. He’d already agreed to let her take a sabbatical for one year before continuing to law school. The only reason he wasn’t panicking was because she would come home to Austin and work in the family law firm for that year.
Looking up with perfect stillness, which his men would recognize as preparing to face an enemy, his gaze fell on a young female graduate who had just pulled off her cap. A cascade of curly lush hair spilled about her shoulders. However, the female graduate was not an enemy. She’d been his obsession since he’d met her four years ago. And he’d been hating himself for the inappropriate interest since.
From this distance, it seemed that Mother Nature had been very generous with Sarah’s roommate. Having seen her or pictures of her numerous times, he knew that she was indeed a beautiful young woman. He’d seen her only once before in person and other times from pictures his ward had sent him. Sarah had had no idea that she was providing him with countless opportunities to worship his wettest dream and feed his lust.
Just then, the young woman who held him captivated unzipped her gown to reveal one of the best pair of legs he’d ever seen on a woman. Encased in strappy nude-colored stilettos, her legs went on for miles. He was transfixed and couldn’t stem his erotic thoughts about a girl he knew to be the same age as his ward.
She looked at Sarah and waved.
Sarah enthusiastically returned the wave and beckoned the beauty forward. And then the girl who’d been his secret desire for the past four years started toward them.
Colt swallowed hard. She walked with a seductive graceful glide that gave the impression she was on her own private runway. He remembered that about her most of all. Her hair moved about her shoulders in a sexy tussle with the wind. On closer inspection, she was even more vivid, more stunning than he’d remembered. She wore a green form-fitting dress that made her golden-brown skin appear vibrant and soft. He couldn’t stop his gaze from roaming longingly over her amazing body. The provocative sway of her hips as she moved made him throb in places he had no business throbbing. Daymmnnn!
It seemed that other men found her just as fascinating since it was as though every male head swerved in her direction as she strode through the crowd of graduates and families. Even his younger brothers had stopped their conversation to watch her approach.
Colt almost smiled when her gaze suddenly swung in his direction and she stumbled before coming to a complete stop a few feet away from them. Yeah, he knew that she was afraid of him, but then there were grown-ass men afraid of him. Why would she be any different? He knew what she saw when she looked at him. He was a fighter, born and bred, and he had the physique that was a testament to it.
He held her gaze and couldn’t really explain why he refused to release her. It was obvious that she was having some difficulty breathing, as her chest rose and fell rapidly in terror. He should have felt bad about what he was doing, but he wanted her to feel something and didn’t care if it was fear. A few seconds later, her eyes narrowed with determination, and she looked away from him and looked at his brothers behind him. Okay, so she has some sass.
Damn if I don’t like that even more. What the hell am I thinking? I need to stop this interest in her right now. Yeah, like I’ve had any success in that. She’s my ward’s best friend, and any ass would tell me that I’m too damn old for her. But try telling my heart or my dick that. For four damn years I’ve been having a recurring wet dream about this brown beauty. And she barely looks in my direction.
Sarah must have sensed something, because she abruptly released him to go meet her friend, grabbed her hand, and pulled her toward their group.
“Everyone, this is my best friend, Imani St. John!” Sarah beamed with pride, as she knew damn well that her friend’s unusual beauty had caused a stir.
Her carefree smile and soft voice washed over him and stoked his lust even further.
Sarah pulled Imani closer to Colt. “You remember my guardian, Colonel Colton James Ragnarson III?”
She gave him a slight nod. She seemed breathless and a bit shy.
Colt had no idea what made him do it, but the next thing he knew, he’d grabbed her hand and pulled her into his embrace. She was so damn sweet he couldn’t resist touching her. That move didn’t just shock the hell out of his family; it shocked him too. Colt wasn’t the impulsive or touchy-feely type. He wasn’t regretting it in the least though. He placed his palm at the small of her back and clutched her closer to him without thinking. Holding her against his much harder frame made him want to close his eyes and savor every delectable inch of her. Bending his head until his nose settled in her soft hair, he scented her. Her perfume was delicate and feminine like her.
Damn! I’ve never been attracted to African American women, and apparently that message has been ignored by my brain for the past four years. Nothing has changed now.
When she curled her arms around his waist, Colt wanted to howl with satisfaction. And when her warm honey-colored gaze ensnared his, he started to lower his head to kiss her, but then sanity prevailed, and he checked that impulse. He dropped his arm from around her waist and hoped like hell his family hadn’t noticed his love-struck response to his ward’s roommate. He was ashamed to note that they would not approve of his interest. Even Sarah looked at him with a frown.
“Colonel.” Imani breathed nervously and stepped away from him. “I trust your return from combat hasn’t been too boring for you.”
Feeling their separation acutely and wanting like hell to pull her back against him, Colt could only grunt in response.
She looked away as though stung by his surliness.
“Don’t mind him, Imani.” Colt’s youngest brother, Justin, grinned as he grabbed Imani’s hand in his. “He’s not very talkative because he’s not used to being around civilians.”
Colt scowled. “Stop talking shit, pup.”
Imani smiled and carefully removed her hand from his brother’s grasp. “You must be Justin.” She smiled to take the sting out of her rebuff of his obvious attempt to flirt.
“Guilty!” Justin laughed, taking her rejection in stride.
Smart girl.Colt wanted to smile his approval, as he’d noted that Justin had been squeezing her hand and pulling her toward him as if he were going to hug her too.
“I think it’s my turn.” Matthew, his middle brother, grabbed her hand with a playful grin. Matthew pulled her against him as Colt had done before she could object.
Colt growled deep in his throat.
Matthew and Justin roared with laughter. “Damn, Colt, I almost believe you’re trying to gain a new ward.”
Colt wished that were his line of thinking, and he knew his brothers would think that. Even in these modern times, his family wouldn’t be very accepting of such a liaison, so he knew Matthew was only trying to stoke his parental outrage. If only they knew how far from paternal his interest was. As Matthew’s pregnant wife stepped forward and greeted Imani as well, Colt exhaled in relief. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath as his brothers hugged Imani. Now that both his sisters-in-law had made themselves known, he felt slightly less volatile. This territorial feeling toward Imani hadn’t just started for him, so it didn’t surprise him. It had started almost from their first meeting four years before.
Colt had taken leave to bring Sarah to college for the first time. Imani had already been in the dorm room and had answered the door on their knock. For a man who’d faced down terrorists, insurgents, rocket grenades, and a firestorm of bullets, nothing had prepared him for the ethereal beauty of the woman who’d opened the door for them. He’d left there that day wanting to strangle any college boy who looked at her.
He watched her now conversing with his family and could only thank God no one was expecting conversation from him, because she’d rendered him damn speechless again.
He had to give himself a stern silent lecture to remember there was another woman in his life that should have his unwavering interest. He’d latched onto her because she might be a safer bet than lusting after someone so young.
When he’d retired from the Army six months ago, he’d been determined to find the woman who had been his pen pal of almost two years. She had saved him in more ways than one. First, she’d made him a specialized gun and bulletproof vest when he’d been shot in an ambush in Afghanistan. And then they’d started exchanging letters, and she’d saved him again by keeping him sane in the face of some of the worst atrocities he’d witnessed in all his years in combat.
The acts of man during war were never pretty, and these wars weren’t. The rape and torture of children barely above the age of a toddler had brought him to the brink time and time again. Man found a way to humiliate, to wreck a soul, or completely annihilate each other. It was never the same, but yet the dying, the pain, and the brokenness were all the same.
Colt had told his pen pal things that he’d never shared with anyone. When he’d insisted on meeting her, she’d stopped all correspondence. All his letters to her afterwards had gone unanswered and had been returned. Yes, letters. The old-fashioned handwritten kind that took weeks, if not months, to reach their intended recipient, and yet he’d loved every one of those damn letters, every word of them. And then he found that the name she’d given him had been false. He’d hired detectives and had even called in favors from the CIA and FBI in an effort to find her. It was as though she had been a figment of his imagination. If not for the letters and her gifts to him, he might have started to doubt his own conviction about her existence. And then the question came. Why? Why had she done any of this? Why him?
He didn’t have time to be distracted by a young girl who he had no business having an interest in. Yeah, but he hadn’t been tempted by a live, in-person encounter with her when he’d been fighting the attraction before. Today he was learning that he’d been fooling himself in believing that he could control this, control how he felt about her. He was in deep trouble.
“I don’t want to intrude.”
Colt came out of his musing in time to hear Imani’s soft protest.
“Your parents aren’t here to celebrate with you, Imani.” Colt heard his mother’s soft plea. “Let us do this for you. No one should achieve what you have and not have anyone to celebrate it with.”
He almost lost his mind when he realized that she was alone today. How had I not known this?He had to find out more about her. Sure, he’d admired her independence when Sarah told him that Imani paid her own way through college and was going to live alone afterward. He’d told Sarah how much he admired that. But this lack of support from anyone in her family was unacceptable. Obviously, he couldn’t allow her to suffer in any way, and he wasn’t going to take the time to examine why he felt that way either.
“Imani, you will join us for dinner.” He ignored her protest and looked to his ward. “Sarah, let’s go,” he demanded and turned toward the path that led to the parking lot. As a colonel, he was used to men following his orders without question, and he expected the same here.
“I’m sorry, Colonel, but I’m starting my drive to Chicago tonight,” Imani told him softly. “I need to go now in order to arrive before my meeting tomorrow.”
Colt heard Imani’s words and stopped in his tracks. He turned and narrowed his eyes as he stared down at her. “You will join us for dinner.” He deliberately kept his voice soft but clipped.
She straightened her spine and braced her legs apart as though she were trying to gather her courage. “Perhaps, Colonel, you don’t understand that I am not one of your men.” They were brave words, but he noted that she sounded a bit breathless when saying them.
“Ah hell.” Justin chuckled.
“Shut up, pup,” he snarled at Justin. Colt stared at her, not moving a muscle, not even to blink.
She took a step back.
Colt tried to contain his shock at her refusal. He’d been leading men since he was twenty-four years old, and no one challenged his authority. It was as though she’d waved a red flag in his face, and he couldn’t describe the profound exhilaration he felt at her challenge. She’s going with me, he thought. It’s just a matter of how.For the first time in his life, he understood the impulse of the cavemen when it came to their women. And then he started toward her.
He heard the nervousness in Sarah’s voice, and he was glad that at least his family realized he wasn’t fucking around. He would use any excuse to be near her. “Go to the car, Sarah.” He turned his gaze to his father and brothers. “Head out to the restaurant. We have reservations at Taverna Banfi. We will join you shortly.”
“Damn, you’ve spoken more words there than you have in the entire year!” Justin teased.
Colt ignored him this time, knowing that Justin was trying to remind him to calm the fuck down. But there was no putting this beast back in its cage. She made him feel feral.
Confident that his family would follow his orders, he turned to Imani, who continued staring at him with a mixture of confusion and confidence. She was trying to appear as though she wasn’t intimated by him. And she probably wasn’t intimated, but she sure as hell was aware of him. He found the intense way she was staring at him, seeming to block out all the chaos of graduation around them, a complete turn-on. And her unconscious biting of her lower lip was sexy as hell.
His family left them standing in their own personal arena in a confrontation he was determined to win.
“Are you testing your boundaries, little girl?”
The deep gravel in his voice initially made her take another step back, and then she stiffened as though trying to gather courage. Imani raised an eyebrow and then curved her lips in a confident smirk. “I’m a grown-ass woman, Colonel. I stopped being a little girl when I was eight years old.”
He let his gaze roam over her lush body in a deliberate lazy regard before he ensnared her gaze again.
“I agree that you’re a grown beautiful woman, Imani. However, I guarantee you will want me to continue thinking of you as a little girl.” There, he’d warned her as he was supposed to. Take the rope and run, little girl, he silently warned. He had to check the exhilaration in his emotion at that moment. Damn if he wasn’t getting harder with every second of her defiance.
“Is that right, Colonel?” Her voice was silky sweet. “You think I can’t handle what you can dish out? You think I’m not woman enough to handle a man like you? Is that what you’re thinking, Colonel?”
“You’re my ward’s little school friend.” At least that was what he kept telling himself to maintain some control.
Imani smiled, her honey gaze glistening. “Are you telling me or yourself that?”
“Be careful, young lady.” I’m so fucked, he thought. He breathed in deeply, not anticipating that she would throw down the gauntlet so boldly. “You need to continue being afraid of me.” He tried to keep his voice neutral and without the lust that had been buzzing around the periphery of his senses but was now blazing in full flame.
She snorted and took a few steps toward him, brazenly maintaining eye contact with him. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m not afraid of you. Why would I be afraid of any man? You put your pants on one leg at a time like any other man, right?”
Good God, I feel like we’re having two separate conversations. One where we’re definitely eye fuckin’ each other, and the other where we’re sparring like we’re in a fencing match.Colt took a step back, trying to put some distance between them with the realization that his willpower wasn’t at its best right then.
“Did you just back down, Colonel?” She smirked as he took another step back from her.
“Come have dinner with us and celebrate your and Sarah’s achievement,” he told her stiffly. He wasn’t about to tell her that she was seconds from being kissed. And he was fighting like hell to stop himself from acting on it.
“I don’t think so, Colonel.” She tilted her head to the side, still clearly amused by his return to rigid soldier. “I’ve already told you that I have somewhere I need to be.”
Colt couldn’t understand why he was so reluctant to let her leave. He just knew that he wasn’t ready to let her go yet. Nor would he let her be alone right now. Something told him that, despite her protest, she needed to celebrate her achievement with someone. He preferred that it be with him. “I wasn’t asking, Imani.”
“Like I said, I’m not one of your men. I have a ten-hour drive ahead of me. It would be better if I get started now instead of after dinner.”
He smoothly closed the distance between them, wrapped an arm around her waist, picked her up, and threw her over his shoulder. He was done talking.
She squeaked in surprise.
God, it felt good to touch her, to feel her softness against him. He started toward the parking lot. People turned and looked at them in amazement as Imani continued to squeak and mutter in a loud whisper.
“Put me down!”
He didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. She was his, and he’d do what the fuck he wanted.
Colt decided to ignore her, too, and continued until he arrived at the passenger side of his car. He was expecting Sarah to be there waiting on him, but her absence indicated that perhaps she was riding to the restaurant with his father. He lowered his still pissed-off burden to place her feet on the ground by the passenger side of his car and opened the car door.
“I can’t believe you just did that!”
“Get in the car, Imani,” he gritted out.
“You’re insane if you think I—”
Before he could think better of it, he kissed her to shut her up. It was only a brief meeting of the lips, but it was still a jolt to his senses.
“What…” She stared up at him in stunned silence.
He brushed her lips with his again because he couldn’t fathom that that brief taste was so sweet.
She whimpered and slumped weakly against his car.
He was gratified by the sight of his effect on her because she looked like how he felt. She was clearly as wrecked by him as he was by her. Given the battle scar on his face, he would have expected her to be repulsed by him; any sane person would have at least run in the opposite direction. However, she couldn’t hide the fact that she wanted him. The knowledge of that fueled his lust.
He leaned in and covered her lips with his in a searing kiss. It hadn’t been his plan, but once he kissed her, he couldn’t stop. Stunned by the incredible intensity of desire her kiss invoked, he curled his tongue around hers and palmed her ass to pull her closer against him. The feel of her against his hard length had him reeling with increasing need. He reluctantly wrenched himself away from her. “This can’t happen,” he muttered absently to himself as he continued to put distance between them.
Imani frowned up at him. It was clear that she wasn’t happy about his kiss either. “You kissed me!” The shock of it was evident in her voice, but there was desire too.
“I know, and that shouldn’t have happened. You’re the same age as my ward, for Christ sakes!”
“What has that got to do with anything? And I’m a few months younger than Sarah!” She looked as though she couldn’t decide if he was sane or not.
“Fuck,” he muttered and ran his fingers through his hair in agitation.
“That’s not the point! What makes you think you could just grab someone and kiss them? And why the hell did you kiss me if you can’t handle it, Colonel?”
On hearing the anger in her voice, he narrowed his eyes. Is she challenging me?“That wasn’t supposed to happen. You’re so damn stubborn it was either spank your ass or kiss you.”
“You do realize that you have no authority over me, right? There was another option, and spanking me wasn’t that option,” Imani muttered. “You could’ve accepted my declining your invitation and left me the hell alone like any normal person would’ve.”
“Sarah wants you there,” he insisted.
Imani rolled her eyes. “I doubt very seriously Sarah wants me at a family gathering where she knows I would be uncomfortable. Besides, since Sarah will continue being my roommate in Chicago, she will be seeing me again soon enough.”
“What the hell did you say?” Colt straightened to his full six-foot-four height. “Sarah will be joining the family’s practice in Austin.”
“Sounds like you need to join your family at that restaurant much more than I need to,” Imani said dryly. She pushed off the car and tried to move around him.
“What’s the rush? Are you afraid now, little girl?” He smirked at her eagerness to get away from him.
“Didn’t I just answer that question, old man?”
Colt narrowed his eyes and gave her his most stern expression. “Are you sure you want to play this game with me, Imani?”
“And what game would that be?”
“So, it’ll be like that, will it?”
“Stop calling me that! My name is Colt! Use it,” he bit out.
She stared up at him for a long time before she reluctantly murmured, “Colt.” She stumbled over his name as though it were a foreign name.
He loved that she couldn’t hide his effect on her.
She looked away and cleared her throat softly. “I have to be in Chicago for a meeting tomorrow afternoon. It’s a long drive, and I need to be rested for that meeting.”
“Dinner won’t take long, and I’ll drive you to Chicago. You can sleep along the way.”
“Not everything and everyone has to be about your will or your desire.”
He straightened to his full height and gave her his most fierce expression to intimidate her. “When are you going to realize that the sooner you get your ass in the car, the sooner you’re on your way to Chicago?”
“Why do you want me there so badly?”
“It will make Sarah happy,” he said simply. He held her gaze and reluctantly murmured, “And it would make me happy.”
She breathed out in shock.
It still surprised him when, seconds later, she lowered herself into the passenger seat. He wasted no time in closing the door behind her. Does this mean she cares about my happiness or Sarah’s? It was a provocative thought that he refused to dwell on.
When he slid behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz, he stilled at the impact of being with her in the close confines of the sports car. His finger tingled with the need to have her under his direction and control as he had the car. He reminded himself again of her age and the fact that she was Sarah’s best friend. However, he knew that that excuse would soon not be enough. Every male instinct in him fought against his resolve to treat her like his ward’s school friend. He wanted her, but it was yet another pleasure he’d have to deny himself.