AYCH Excerpt

 

Chapter One

All You Can Handle cover

“Why won’t you just come work with me at SOL?”

Alec sighed and flipped the cover over the screen of his tablet, then slid it into the open bottom drawer while he threw a stress ball at his sister, who had just walked into his office. She deflected it, using the sunbeam streaming through his window, and it bounced off his forehead. He closed his eyes and counted to forty. When he opened them again, she was slouched in the comfortable visitor’s chair, her feet up on the uncomfortable one.

“Because the Solar Oversight League is too much bureaucracy for me, and you know it.” He laced his fingers across his abdomen and leaned back, giving her the stink-eye. “You only start bitching at me to join rogue recovery when Mom gets on you about me working here.”

Avery sighed. “Well, yeah. You’ve gotta admit, you set her up for disappointment.”

“How?” he asked. Because he never tired of hearing the rundown of his crimes. Yes, that was sarcasm, but it was a necessary game he played. To protect his cover, he had to not only tolerate but even generate that layer of negativity.

“Come on, you know how. After almost eight years of drifting about with no ambition, you enroll not just in college, but in Georgetown. You get a business degree in three years, showing me up for the first time in your life, practically—”

“You’d better add that ‘practically’,” he cut in. “Don’t forget—”

She cut him off, talking louder. “But then, after raising our hopeful mother’s expectations to stratospheric heights, you buy this place.” She threw her arms up and out.

“This place” was Red Lightning, an exotic club considered to be at the classy end of the scale, as such things went. Avery knew very well what kind of place it was. It had belonged to Paul Adranian, a guy she went undercover to investigate five years ago. His six—now five—clubs catered to couples, with high-end food and drinks and dancers of all genders and identifications. Working for Paul had allowed Alec to get his degree in three years. Well, to get it at all. And when he started, owning a business had been his goal.

He couldn’t admit to anyone, never mind Avery and their parents, that Red Lightning hadn’t been his intention, or that it was secondary to his real job. His employer thought the club was a perfect cover. Buying it from Paul had been smooth and easy, operating it second nature and leaving him free whenever he needed to be. And no one would question what he did for a living if they thought he was following an expected path, even if they didn’t actually like that path.

The truth was, he’d never been as aimless or ambitionless as his family thought. He’d always worked hard and saved plenty of money. They just weren’t career-type jobs, and he hadn’t climbed any kind of ladder because he hadn’t found the ladder he wanted to climb.

His parents were do-gooders who had spent half their time on missions around the world until their recent retirement. Avery’s job at the Solar Oversight League allowed her to use her inborn abilities in ways that benefited their community, not just herself. Reed, her husband, was even worse. Or better, depending on how you looked at it. He was a teacher, helping the neediest kids. Some solars didn’t come into their powers until they neared adulthood, and plenty didn’t even know the community existed before that. Reed had been one of those kids, and now he helped others adapt and find a place to belong. It was a lot to be compared to.

The irony was that now that Alec had found his purpose, his passion, he couldn’t tell anyone about it.

He raised his eyebrows at Avery when she didn’t continue berating him. “Is that it?”

She shrugged. “I did my duty. Honestly, you know I don’t mean any of it. You supported me and Reed when everyone else tried to break us apart, and you made it possible for us to be cured and start having a normal marriage. Now we support you.”

“Don’t oversell it,” he protested. “I read schedule data to you and called nine-one-one. You guys did everything else.”

“Whatever.” Her blue eyes pinned him in place. “Are you happy?”

It was always good when he didn’t have to lie. “I am.”

“He’d better be.”

Avery sat up abruptly as the redhead came through the door, around the desk, and perched on the arm of Alec’s chair. His heart pounding, he forced himself to stay casual even as his hand rested on Delta’s back.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Delta said. “Tim said I could come in. This is your sister?” She twisted to look down at Alec. The move shifted her snug shirt upward so his hand landed on skin, distracting him even as he felt pinned again, this time by eyes he’d never been able to get a handle on. He avoided her gaze. Getting lost in trying to figure out what color they actually were had been a big problem early in their partnership.

“Uh, yeah. Delta, meet Avery Ross Kale, the bossy older sibling in our family. Avery, this is Delta Verrett.”

Delta leaned forward, her jeans riding just low enough to give him a glimpse of the edge of her thong.

Her thong. She was killing him.

“Hi, Avery. I’m Alec’s girlfriend.”

“Oh.” Avery took Delta’s hand, looking impressed at the force of her shake. “Nice to meet you. Alec hadn’t told me—any of us—that he had a girlfriend.”

And she’d no doubt noticed that he hadn’t introduced Delta as such. Hopefully, she would think he was deferring to her, letting her dictate how his family saw her. Not that he had much choice. Deferring to Delta was part of his job description.

“It’s still pretty new,” Delta offered. She swept her long hair off her shoulder, and a wave of her creamy-spicy scent slapped him in the face. His hand tightened involuntarily, his fingertips breaching the edge of her jeans and pressing her hipbone. “You know how it goes. He’s a playboy, I’ve been burned. No point bringing anyone else into it until we know how it’s going to go.”

Maintain the cover. He blinked to focus, bit back a suffering sigh, and smiled fondly up at her. She smiled back, then leaned down to kiss him, her hand caressing his cheek. It was fast and light and totally freaked him out. He’d never been this close to her, touched her this much. Instead of wanting to get away, though, he wanted to pull her closer, get more hands and stuff on her. And that was not okay.

Avery’s phone went off. She hit a button on the side, and the chime stopped. “That’s my cue. I have a meeting. Timing sucks, because I want to hear more about this.” She pushed to her feet and came around the other side of the desk, reaching for Alec. He nudged Delta off the chair—damn her for not moving and making him reposition her by the waist, that perfectly curved part of her awesome body—and stood to hug his sister.

“Thanks for coming by. We’ll talk more later. And just assure Mom that everything’s fine, will you? We’re making a good profit. I’m paying off my loans. She should be happy.”

“I’ll do my best, but you know her.” Avery waved and headed for the door.

“And Ave?” Alec called after her, waiting for her to look back. “It’s abuse of authority to look Del up in SOL’s database.” He glared when she smirked.

“It’s shirking my duty as a sister if I don’t tell Mom and Dad you’re seeing someone. I’ll give you one.” She lifted a finger. “You pick.”

He growled and glowered and she went out laughing, closing the door behind her.

As soon as the latch clicked, he spun on Delta. “What was that?” he demanded. He dropped back into his chair as his partner’s entire demeanor shifted. Her posture tightened up, her open, inviting expression flattened, and her hair was suddenly caught in a twist at the back of her neck that seemed both messy and immovable at the same time. He swore he hadn’t even seen her do it. She didn’t take the chair Avery had left but stood in the middle of the floor, feet braced, arms folded, and angled so she could see the door in her peripheral vision.

“What? You know our cover is to be a couple when it’s necessary.”

Which it had never been and in his opinion, still wasn’t. “You didn’t have to come in here until she left.” He bent to pick up the stress ball Avery had hit him with and chucked it into the open drawer. “Now I have to deal with sibling and parental scrutiny for something that doesn’t exist.”

She shrugged. “It seemed time. It’s been two years. I wanted to meet her.” She gazed at the door, her mouth forming a thoughtful moue he wanted to bite.

No, dammit, he did not want to bite her moue. He did not love the scent of her hair. The shape of her waist was not relevant, and he should lose his job for noticing what kind of underwear she wore.

“She and her husband really almost killed each other, huh?”

He blinked. “How do you know that?”

One side of her mouth stretched with a know-it-all slyness she’d earned and wore as well as she wore her jeans and sweater. “Come on, Ross, I know everything there is to know about you. Part of the job.”

She didn’t, but he didn’t argue. There were things no one knew and were therefore impossible to learn. “Yes, my sister and her husband were allergic to each other, a rare solar condition that almost killed them. But they’re cured now.”

“Right. Adranian funded that cure, and in the five years since he’s helped three other couples. Big investment, low return,” she mused, “but I guess the same could be said about anything related to solars.”

He nodded. The population of people who had abilities related to the sun wasn’t vast. It was big enough that they didn’t bother fighting to keep it a secret. There were no rules about “fraternizing” with regular people. But their community was also small enough that most cost-benefit analyses would come down on the negative side. “They’re preparing to market the cure,” he told her. “It works for other solar-related conditions. Scaled fees,” he added, because Paul was a friend and the opposite of greedy, at least when it came to this.

“So what was your sister doing here today?”

“She was saying hi.” His tone clearly indicated he wasn’t discussing Avery any further. Delta had no problem detecting nuance, so the fact that she kept going meant she was ignoring it.

“Weird time to come say hi. Middle of a Monday morning. I’d have thought her job kept her busy.”

He shouldn’t have let go of the stress ball. “I haven’t told her about my job, Delta.”

“You sure? No hints? Not even vague references meant to get your mother off your back over buying this place?”

That was it. He shot to his feet and pressed forward, his fists against the top of the desk. “No. No hints, no references. And you should damned well know better than to ask.”

Her ever-changing eye color shifted, darkening with a swirl of gray, a clear shot of approval rising in them. “I do. Sorry. I just didn’t expect to see her here. You’ve managed to keep things separate all this time, and—”

She stopped when his hand went up. “You know my sister and I have always been close. She’s had my back my entire life. And yes, it’s tough not sharing the most important thing in my life with her. But I knew it had to be this way. I made the choice willingly. And you never have to question my integrity.”

She sighed and dropped into the chair Avery had vacated. “Of course not. That’s not why I was asking. She’s just very smart and direct.”

“Very much like you?”

She smiled. “Yeah, maybe. And that would make it harder to keep things from her. That’s all. Okay?”

Disgruntlement clung, but he forced his jaw to unclench and sat down. “Fine. What’s your status?”

She grinned. “I’m in.”

His blood ran cold, but that wasn’t completely bad. He retrieved the tablet he’d hidden from his sister and opened the lid, attaching it to a small keyboard. “That was fast.”

“And thank god it was. My ‘recruiter,’ Oscar?” She used air quotes because she’d been assigned to cultivate a relationship with this guy while making him think the opposite was happening. “He told me their first move is coming in a matter of weeks. If I want any chance of being part of it—and therefore stopping it—it had to be now, or I’d never earn enough trust to get the intel.”

“What were the magic words?” She was trying to infiltrate a scary organization they had little information on that probably wouldn’t take just any wide-eyed recruit. She had to have something to offer, and they’d had a few options to try. The problem was that once she used one, if it didn’t work, she couldn’t really change it up to something else. Another agent would have had to take the next attempt, and they’d have lost their advantage.

“I told him I knew Yamini Oyoshi.”

“Wow. I’m impressed.” He watched her, wondering at the coincidence of his sister being here today and Delta using his sister’s scientist, the one who had cured her and Reed of their allergy to each other, to get in with the bad guys. “So he thinks you could get her for them?”

“He might have that impression.” She smiled. “It was enough to make him chatty. Most of what he told me is meaningless, but there could be some nuggets in there for the research team.”

“All right. Tell me what you’ve got so far.” He engaged the encryption on the tablet, then reached under the desk and pressed the button that turned on the scrambler. His office had basic soundproofing, not surprising in a club that pumped music at deafening levels during all its open hours. But the scrambler kept anyone from using powerful surveillance tools to listen in. It created the kind of interference easily blamed on the nearby manufacturing plants. Clever technology: one of the things he loved most about his job.

They spent an hour transcribing Delta’s recorded conversation with Oscar and flagging the small references that could lead them to something meatier. There weren’t many. But this was just the first step to getting her inside.

As they worked, his heart fell into a calm, steady rhythm. He’d been a member of Pax Solis for nearly two years. Recruited right before he graduated college, he’d been skeptical about the organization at first. With his sister, brother-in-law, and friends all working for the Solar Oversight League, he’d thought he knew everything there was to know about solars. And the league existed to keep order. Why would another organization be needed for their small, though scattered population?

Convincing him hadn’t taken much. It had only taken Delta.

* * *

Nearly Two Years Ago

Alec leaned against the corridor wall, watching his classmates quietly freak out and trying to remember when he was ever that…okay, young. Stupid thing to think when he was only twenty-nine, though he supposed sixteen-year-olds had similar thoughts about middle-schoolers. But still. The guy nearest him had smoothed his tie four times, retied it twice, and even tried tucking it into his waistband. Several feet away, a girl—woman, he corrected himself. Even though he was eight years older than most of the graduates, they were still adults. The woman several feet away kept jerking her head, her mouth twitching rapidly as she muttered to herself, probably repeating answers to questions she assumed they’d ask inside the conference room.

One side of the double doors opened, and eighteen spines jerked straight. A smallish head with a neat haircut and gold wire-rims poked out and looked around. “Donna Nguyen?”

The muttering girl brushed her hands down her skirt and gave a sharp nod before striding confidently through the door. When it thudded closed, a gush of air filled the hallway after all the waiting interviewees released the breath they’d held.

Alec understood the tension. This internship could set up their careers. Paid, with housing provided while you worked for a year in every department of one of the most successful non-conglomerate hotel franchises in the country. Travel, interaction with some of the best-known names in the business world. It was the Holy Grail for business management majors, and the internship was open only to Georgetown students because that was the CEO’s alma mater.

It was tension Alec didn’t share, though, and he wasn’t sure why. He wanted it. If he got this, his mother would forever be off his back about his supposed laid-back approach to life. He’d have something to talk to his father about. And he’d live up to his sister’s example. Kind of. He’d be contributing something positive to society, at least. But he wasn’t all tied up in knots like the girl who kept rubbing the back of her neck or the guy who’d run to the bathroom four times. He’d either get it or he wouldn’t, and it wasn’t likely. He had good grades and the respect of his professors but didn’t do a lot as far as extracurriculars. It made him feel too creepy. And his job was bartending for a group of strip joints. Even though Paul had given him management duties, and the clubs really were at the classy end, it was hardly the kind of thing to impress people.

A smaller door opened down the hall, past all the gathered candidates. A woman with sunset-red hair swinging from a huge ponytail stepped out and eyeballed him. “Alec Ross.” It wasn’t a question.

He pulled away from the wall and glanced around. No one else had seemed to notice that he’d been called out of order. He shrugged and headed her way. She didn’t smile or present welcoming body language that would put him at ease, just held the door open until he’d walked through, then closed it behind them both.

Alec halted two steps inside the dim storage room that was lit only by natural light through a high window. “What the hell is this?”

“Your interview.” She stepped around him and faced him squarely, folding her arms and staring directly at his eyes with a pair that were…not blue, not green, not mixed enough to be called hazel. There was a glint of gold, but then he swore they looked silvery and what the hell was he doing? He stepped toward the wall and tucked his thumb under the strap of his messenger bag, ready to fling it off if he needed to defend himself. From what, he didn’t know. But he did know this woman was not part of the hotel company, and he knew she was dangerous.

When he didn’t say anything else, satisfaction flashed in those indefinable eyes. “What’s in here?” she asked.

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Without looking around, tell me what stuff is in this room.”

She was testing his powers of observation. But why? He gave it a few seconds and decided there was no harm in playing along until he figured out what was happening. “Metal shelving holds office supplies. Reams of paper—”

“How many?”

“I don’t know. Fifty-ish white copy paper, half a dozen different colors, two reams of card stock.”

She nodded for him to continue.

“Ink for three different models of inkjet printers, two types of laser cartridges, and what’s probably a big-ass copier. Four boxes of pencils, ten of pens—blue, black, and red, with one package of colored glitter pens that were probably a mistake.” This was the business department, not the art wing. “Back wall has a table with a few abandoned computer monitors, one dusty tower, four or five corded keyboards, and two laptop cases that probably hold laptops.”

“Why probably?” Her voice was on the deeper side with a very slight roughness. She wielded it with more matter-of-factness than his sister, and Avery was a master of matter-of-fact.

“The shape indicates they’re not empty. They look solid. But it’s impossible to know that it’s laptops and not, say, books or notebooks without looking.”

“What else?”

He rattled off a list of janitorial supplies and the types of odds and ends that wound up in space like this when no one knew what to do with them. When he ran out of things he’d spotted or could see within his range of vision, she nodded again.

“The people in the hall. One woman was wearing a bright red suit. Shoes?”

Power of recall now. “Low heel, sensible-looking, same color as the suit.”

“Why is that easy to tell me?”

He was starting to get annoyed. What did this have to do with anything? “I don’t know, because it’s red and draws attention? I assume that’s the point.”

“But?”

“But what?” He controlled his volume with effort.

“But what do the shoes tell us in contrast to the suit?”

Do not roll your eyes. “She’s ambitious but also practical? How do I know? I wear the same damn shoes with everything.”

Her eyes flicked down to his brown chukkas, and he could have sworn there was amusement in them when they rose back up. “Okay. What about the guy with the striped shirt?”

“There were six striped shirts out there. Which one?”

“How about all of them?”

It went on like that for a few more minutes, with Alec guessing when he didn’t know immediately. He alternated between enjoying the challenge and verging on pissed off but kept playing along, curiosity driving him. Somewhere at the end of this would be some kind of answer.

“What do you think of the internship offer?” The woman had relaxed her stance throughout the interrogation and now rested against the table holding the computer stuff, the heels of her hands braced next to her hips.

“It’s a great offer. Whoever gets it has a fantastic opportunity to set up their career.”

“How do you feel about it for you?”

He lifted a hand, palm up. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want it.”

“But?”

He shrugged. “If I don’t get it, I’ll find something else. There are a lot of opportunities out there.”

“One last thing. Do me.”

He blinked. No way she meant that the way every hetero male on the planet would take it. Powerful. Confident. You don’t care about convention or you’d be in a suit—pants suit, not skirt—instead of jeans and a V-neck sweater in a shade of purple that in no way helps me figure out the dominant color of your eyes. Those boots are full-on functional, not stylish, probably super-light but capable of kicking in a door on the first try. Natural redhead. I think. Care to prove it? Holy freaking shit, would he be dead if he shared any of that.

“No way. You’re terrifying.”

She laughed and stood, facing the blank wall opposite him and saying, “We’re ready.”

A low hum sounded, more felt than actually heard, and a panel slid open. He would never have thought it possible in standard drywall like that. The woman disappeared into the rectangle of darkness, her voice coming back to him oddly, as if she was slowly dropping down inside the wall.

“Come on, if you want to find out what this was all about.”

He stared at the space for about five seconds. His scalp stung where, in his imagination, his sister slapped him upside the head for even considering it. But then he followed his interrogator, because fuck yeah, he wanted to find out. For the first time, his heart rate sped up as he stepped through the doorway. Whatever this was, it was going to be big.

All You Can Handle
by Natalie J. Damschroder
Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy
Published November 1, 2020

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