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WHITE HEAT
by Brenda Novak

Genre: General Romantic Suspense, Romantic Suspense

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“This guy is dangerous?” Rachel Jessop studied the glossy black-and-white photograph her manager slid across the table.

The leather chair that bore Nate Ferrentino squeaked as he leaned back and locked his hands behind his head. “He doesn’t look dangerous to you?” One eyebrow arched enough to tell her he found her reaction amusing, but she couldn’t begin to guess why, and she’d worked with him long enough to know he wouldn’t explain, even if she asked. With short dark hair and green and gold flecked eyes, he had the face of a sensitive man who’d seen enough to make him cynical and the body of a soldier. Nate was a tempting physical specimen. But he wasn’t one to reveal much about his thoughts.

Rachel wished that was all she knew about her boss, but when she first started working at Department 6 eight months ago she’d been so convinced she’d found the one man she could love with all her heart she’d made a humiliating miscalculation. The embarrassment from that incident still burned so bright she could barely look at him.

Ignoring the way his T-shirt stretched over his clearly defined pecs, she kept her focus on Ethan Wycliff, the man in the picture. Wiry and with the appearance of some height, Ethan had polish to spare: high cheekbones, black hair, black eyes and a beguiling smile. He hardly looked like a criminal. “He’s too pretty to seem dangerous. He could be on billboards modeling suits for Armani. What’s he done?”

Except for possibly height, Nate was Ethan’s opposite. Although he wasn’t overweight by any stretch of the imagination, slender wasn’t an adjective that came to mind. Pretty and polished didn’t fit, either. He was handsome, but not in the classic sense of movie stars and models. His forehead was a bit too wide, his jaw too square. And he had too many scars—both from when he was a navy S.E.A.L. and after he left the military.

“Depends on who you talk to,” he said. “There’s a chance that none of it’s illegal, but the secrecy surrounding him and his group is making some important people nervous.”

Rachel shoved the picture in Nate’s direction, but he didn’t move to reclaim it. He let Ethan Wright’s image remain on the table, glassy eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling of the small conference room—one of several in the L.A. office. Unlike other security contractors, Department 6 rarely handled military operations. They specialized in undercover work, usually inside the U.S. It was rare that more than one or two people would attempt to infiltrate an organization at the same time, and the size of their conference rooms reflected that.

“What’s he suspected of doing?” she asked. “Laundering money? Smuggling drugs? Proliferating the sex slave trade?”

“He’s the leader of a religious cult about two hundred members strong.”

That was the last thing she’d expected Nate to say. Judging by Ethan’s elegant business suit, he had taste. He wasn’t sporting a scraggly beard, wasn’t beggarly or odd looking in any way. Neither did he come off smarmy like some televangelists she’d seen. Not in the photograph, anyway. “What kind of religious cult?”

“A Christian cult. Sort of. It seems to be a compilation of whatever Ethan wants it to be. He and his followers call their organization The Church of the New Covenant. One thing they believe is that the world is coming to an end very soon. Only those who are properly branded—”

“You mean tattooed?” she cut in.

“No, I mean branded--and baptized and living within the gates of their little commune--will rule with God.”

“That’s not particularly creative.” She’d heard plenty of the same rhetoric in her own house growing up. Her father and the leaders of his small sect had claimed for most of her life that the world was in its “last days.” They’d even named date after date when Armageddon would hit. Every one had come and gone. “How’d he get his start?”

“Five years ago, he was a popular frat boy at Cornell. I guess he and a few roommates went out in the woods and devised their own religion based loosely on the Old Testament’s patriarchal order. Our intelligence report indicates that it was originally meant to be a joke. Drugs were involved. They called it the “anti-religion.” But when they started gathering regularly, word spread among the college kids of Cornell and other colleges in nearby communities, somehow generating support, and it became serious.”

“Power is tough to resist, especially for an Ivy League frat boy who’s used to being on top of the world.”

“That’s my take, too.”

She glanced away from Nate so she wouldn’t squirm in her seat at the memories that assaulted her whenever their eyes met. “How many of his roommates still espouse the ‘religion’?”

“The original four are still with him. They’re called ‘spiritual guides’ now. A fifth, one that joined up a bit later, is dead.”

Dead?” she echoed. “At twenty something?”

“He was killed in a drunk-driving accident following a meeting. There’re a few unanswered questions but no real proof that it was anything other than it appeared.”

She considered what she’d just been told. “What’s so appealing about his religion that others are interested in joining up?”

“It’s mostly familiar stuff but with a modern twist--it includes extra-marital sex and drug use. And its leader has a few assets--besides his looks--that make him more dangerous than most cult leaders.”

Ignoring his reference to her appreciation of Wycliff’s appearance, she scooted closer to the table. But the instant she caught scent of Nate, that mix of clean male and leather that would forever differentiate him from every other man, the memory of slipping into his bed to “surprise” him came to her as vividly as the day she’d done it. Would the mortification never go away?

He gave her a speculative look, as if he could suddenly sense an added level of discomfort, but she was determined to pretend she’d forgotten all about her terrible faux pas. As a child, she’d been sheltered so long she hadn’t grown up with the usual interplay between the sexes and, apparently, she hadn’t read his signals correctly. She’d thought he wanted the same thing.

Keeping her gaze steady, she struggled, once again, to forget that night. “And those assets are...”

“More charisma than a man has a right to, at least a man who once idolized Charles Manson.”