Men of Steele, Book 5
Scroll down for Fun Facts and an excerpt…
When Tara Fujimoto’s quest to avenge her sister’s death makes her a target, a sexy security specialist steps in to watch her back, but his quiet appeal threatens her carefully guarded heart. Can she resist their lightning-hot attraction, and stay alive long enough to expose her enemy?
Former military special operator Jeff Patarava has good reasons to keep his distance from his impossibly perfect coworker, but when her life is threatened, his resolve is shot to hell. Forced into close proximity, sparks fly as he learns she’s far more than her flawless appearance suggests. Now, he’ll put everything on the line to keep her alive.
- Special Operations Weather Team Airmen like Jeff Patarava are real. They're a blend of air commando and meteorologist, trained to covertly enter hostile or denied territory to assess the terrain and weather in support of other special operations teams. Pretty cool, right?
- Some of the songs that sustained me while writing Blind Justice include London Thunder by Foals, If I Had a Heart (“Vikings” Intro Song) by Fever Ray, The Imitation Game by Alexandre Desplat and the London Symphony Orchestra, and You're Somebody Else by flora cash.
- Jeff's motor home is similar to the one in this stock photo.
Not fun, but important facts:
- Child pornography is devastating to its victims. Want to help? The Innocence Justice Foundation, lists actions steps that one can take to stop child pornography. In addition, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers tons of information on child safety, and operates a Cyber Tipline for reporting information you may have about a child being exploited online.
- If you think someone you know is considering suicide, encourage them to get help or call a lifeline. (And if it’s you, please talk to someone in person or on the phone who can help. The world needs you.) In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. The Mayo Clinic has more suggestions for how to help in their article entitled “Suicide: What to do when someone is suicidal.”
“Unbutton your top a little more,” Mars said, flipping his dark blond hair out of his eyes as he adjusted a setting on an enormous camera.
Tara Fujimoto hesitated. Aided by her underdeveloped stature and a heavy hand with some black eyeliner, she had convinced him she was a naive teenager, but her reluctance was all too real.
“Do you really want to be a model?” the photographer asked with a sigh.
She nodded and forced an earnest smile. “More than anything.”
“Then trust me to know what will make you a star.” He stalked across the light-filled DC loft, his face intent. “If you’re not comfortable with your body, you’ll never make it in this industry.” Grabbing her shirt, he jerked open the remaining buttons one by one.
She gasped when his fingers brushed the tops of her breasts as he spread the cloth wide to reveal her black bra.
“Hey.” She shoved his hands away. “I can do it.” For Emily.
If this were a real photo shoot, she would walk out now. Nobody should have to put up with this predator’s shit for even a minute. But this wasn’t about Tara. It was about her sister. About revenge on the man who’d driven Emily to take her own life. About protecting other girls from this vile man who preyed on their hopes and dreams.
Unlike when Emily had been at his mercy, all Tara had to do if she needed help was utter “I want to leave,” and one of Steele’s security specialists would ride to the rescue.
Mars narrowed his blue eyes and shook his head. “With that attitude, you’re not going to get very far.” He reached forward and unbuttoned the top of her jeans and dropped the zipper.
Tara jumped back, her heart pounding for escape. “Stop.”
“Don’t be a child. This is how the industry works. If it’s not me, it’ll be someone else.” Instead of retreating, Mars backed her into the wall and caged her with his hands. “I can make or break you in this world, Tara,” he said, his voice low and husky. “You’re a pretty girl, but I can make you beautiful. Who do you think catapulted Karina Hempstead and Ivy Tanaka to stardom?” His steely blue gaze met hers as he gave her an oily smile. “Me.” He ran the tip of his finger down her sternum.
Tara steeled herself against the nausea climbing her throat.
He leaned in. “Do you know how I get a girl to look her best on film?” he asked, his breath hot on her neck.
“No.” She cringed at how weak she sounded, even if it fit the role.
He flicked open the clasp at the front of her bra, sliding it and her shirt off her shoulders before she realized what was happening.
She flinched and pushed at his chest. “Stop.”
He grabbed her wrists and pressed them to the wall, holding her hostage for his lecherous perusal far too easily. “Every woman is more beautiful after a good fucking. It’s my secret to success.”
Twisting against his hold, she aimed a knee toward his groin.
Mars laughed and easily dodged. “Ah, now you’re getting feisty.” His face darkened. “I like it.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I want to leave.”
“Come on, Tara. I’ll be good to you.” He pressed his thigh between her legs, pinning her to the wall. “You’re going to look amazing. Just surrender to the process and I promise you’ll be an even bigger star than Ivy.”
Her chest tightened. Too much could happen before Jeff intervened. She needed to get free of Mars now.
Forcing herself to relax, she widened her eyes. “Bigger than Ivy?” she asked in a breathy voice.
Mars gave her a triumphant smile, as if he’d hooked her. Is that how it had happened with the other girls? Had they given in, thinking sex with this man was a necessary evil for the career they craved, or had they fought the whole time like Emily?
Adrenaline pummeled her veins. Her stomach churned. No matter how it went down, none of them should’ve had to suffer this asshole’s revolting touch.
“Much bigger.” He leaned back and gave her a quick once-over. “Your breasts are small, but you’re not built like a boy.” He released his hold and slid his hands down her arms, his gaze following his progress.
Tara swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. Don’t panic. Jeff’s on his way. Not bothering to suppress a shiver, she waited until Mars smoothed rough fingers over her collarbone and squeezed her breasts.
Then she punched him square in the throat.
“I told you to stop, asshole.”
As Mars staggered back, his eyes and mouth open in shock, the door flew open with a bang.
A scowling Jeff rushed in, his hands fisted, face red. “Tara?” His eyes widened at the sight of her half naked before he averted his gaze.
She crossed her arms over her chest, her left hand throbbing from the punch. Her body started to shake and she had an overwhelming sensation of falling apart, turning to rubble.
“You okay?” Jeff asked, not looking directly at her.
“Fine.” Or, she would be once she was dressed and the bastard eyeballing Jeff with a healthy and advisable dose of fear was in police custody.
“What about your hand?”
“I’m fine.” She’d ice it later.
“Turn around and take a seat,” Jeff told Mars, straightening to his full height of six-four. He wasn’t as beefy as Dan or Kurt, but his size and obvious strength could still intimidate.
Manhandling and threats were off the table—they didn’t want to give Mars’s lawyers any ammunition—but the shorter, thinner photographer must have decided he didn’t stand a chance against Jeff, because he followed orders without protest.
Grabbing her bra and shirt from the floor, Tara quickly dressed, not bothering to tuck anything in. She snagged her pea coat from the coatrack and shrugged into the thick wool, glad for the additional barrier from the men to whom she’d already bared too much.
She rummaged through her purse with trembling hands, located her cell phone, and dialed. Keeping her gaze firmly on the floor while one arm encircled her waist, she said, “Yes, I’d like to report an assault.”
Her body wouldn’t stop shaking.
She’d gone into this scheme knowing full well she would probably get manhandled. It wasn’t like plenty of men hadn’t touched her without permission. But never so blatantly.
And this one had touched Emily. Violated her.
Oh, Emily. Not here. She would not let him see her break down.
Mars gave Tara a defiant look. She shivered and kept her gaze on the shiny wooden planks under her feet.
A scalding hot shower was in order. Then she’d curl up on the couch in her pajamas and lose herself in Netflix shows for the entire weekend.
Anger seethed inside her, for Emily, and for all of the naive young girls Mars had coerced into having sex with him. The girls whom he’d promised fame and riches if they gave him what he wanted.
How many others hadn’t been able to live with the horror? How many others had Mars ruined?
When the dispatcher answered the phone, she gave him the necessary information and then hung up. He wanted her to stay on the line, but Tara was done talking until the police arrived.
“They’re on their way.” Crossing her arms, as if she could erase what both men had already seen, she finally met Jeff’s troubled brown gaze. “Thank you.”
He gave her a crisp nod and glared at Mars. “Not a problem.”
Jeff had only been at Steele Security since early January, but the former Air Force combat weatherman—a formerly unknown-to-her special operations role—had become a well-regarded part of the team in the last two months. Any one of the guys would happily partner with him on an op, which said a lot. Everyone was close, but Jeff had slotted right in like he’d been part of the crew all along.
Except with her. Oh, he was nice enough, and she’d been the beneficiary of a few of his hard-won smiles, but he didn’t interact with her any more than necessary. The jury was out on whether he disliked something about her, was uncomfortable with all women, or was simply afraid she’d misinterpret any friendly overtures as a come-on.
Didn’t matter. It was actually perfect. She didn’t get involved with the men at work. Or, these days, any men. Her criminal ex-boyfriend Colin had cured her of that affliction.
After Colin’s betrayal, Tara had spent the past several years learning to love herself, to find self worth outside of a man’s opinion, to trust herself. To stop mentally giving her parents the finger by engaging in behavior they’d consider shameful. In May, she’d celebrate four years of self-imposed celibacy. A feat that would have seemed impossible before meeting Colin Di Ferio.
Maybe taking the job as Steele Security’s business manager had been some sort of test for herself, surrounded as she was by so much muscle-bound eye candy. Men of the highest integrity, each of whom she trusted with her life. If it was a test, somehow she’d passed.
Her need to be respected and liked for her intellect, her organizational skills, and her problem-solving abilities had won out. She’d come to think of the men at Steele like brothers. Men she could admire but would never date. Her role at Steele, the respect and sense of family she’d found there, were far too precious to put at risk for a few rounds of hot sex that would leave her feeling confused and abandoned when it ended.
So, it was fine that Jeff kept his distance. Handsome as he was with his short dark hair, pale skin, and sad brown eyes, when she finally started dating again, the man she chose wouldn’t be some thrill-seeking former commando.
Maybe when she was ready, she could find a nice computer programmer or electrician or landscape architect. Maybe even a nurse or librarian.
Someone tame and steady and looking for a commitment.
Restless, Tara walked to the large camera positioned on a tripod. The three-inch screen on the back glowed, and she stared at the image of her posing with hands on hips, hair combed back from her face. Her fingers itched to delete herself from this gross man’s camera, but it might be considered evidence tampering.
How many photos had he taken?
She scrolled back through the dozens he’d already snapped.
“What are you doing?” Mars asked, shuffling in his seat, his voice agitated.
“You have no right.”
She met his gaze, let him see her anger and disgust. “Tell it to the police when they get here.”
He flushed and looked away.
Tara scrolled through pictures of young women, many of them awkward and painfully eager, in various states of undress. Her stomach hurt just thinking about it. Further along, there were photos of some kind of banquet where several white-haired, balding men with paunches were dressed in tuxedos, arm in arm with gorgeous women in ball gowns who wouldn’t have looked at the men twice if they weren’t rich or powerful.
Didn’t the women get tired of being trophies? Valued only for their fleeting beauty, and shackling themselves to some of the dregs of DC’s political sphere for money? Tara knew how it felt to be wanted only for her looks. It sucked.
She quickly scrolled past the party, and the subject matter returned to girls. Disgust crawling on her skin like ants, Tara had nearly reached the end when a photo of a naked man appeared. He stood with his back to the camera, before an unmade bed, in what looked like a fancy hotel room with modern art on the wall above an upholstered headboard and satiny, red sheets. A smattering of dark hair covered his shoulders, back, and buttocks, and a tattoo of a standing lion—like from a royal family crest—covered his right shoulder blade.
Her hair stood on end. Hadn’t she seen that tattoo before?
Published: March 25th 2019, ISBN 978-0991607341
Previous book in the series: Running Blind ~ Next book in the series: Book 6, late 2019/early 2020