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Missed Opportunity Deleted Chapter

     Ryder parked out of view down the street from Nathalie’s home. He stayed there until just after midnight when Danny Mayhew, one of Nathan’s former SEAL teammates and a recent Dìleas hire, pulled behind him. With a wave in his rearview mirror, Ryder left for the nearby hotel room he’d secured. Tomorrow, he and Nathan would dig into information on Nathalie’s competition and run analyses on foreign governments that might be interested in her technology.

     One question nagged at him like a sore tooth, and it had nothing to do with Nathalie’s enemies. Why had she stopped painting?

     Computer science had been her duty—a promise made to her father and an ode to her dead brother.

Painting had been her passion—a talent picked up from her artist mother. She’d drawn lots of sketches during their visits to the Oxford Botanic Gardens—pieces she’d transform with glorious strokes of watercolor. Her favorites had covered the walls of her tiny flat like wallpaper. He smiled at the memory of her paint-splattered face and hands and how they’d inevitably end up in the shower together, him soaping every inch of her clean then dropping to his knees and using his lips and tongue to make her come.

     She’d gifted him one of her paintings—brilliant blue irises she swore matched his eyes. It hung in his flat until she left England. His fond memory soured, and his smile fell away. Afterward, he’d put it on the pavement outside his flat, where a passer-by had promptly snatched it. He’d wanted nothing to remind him of Nathalie and his foolish dreams.

     At the hotel, Ryder unpacked his bags and stripped before settling onto the bed. His decision to replace Caleb as the primary for Nathalie’s security detail had been impulsive and one he was coming to regret. Touching her earlier had been a mistake—a needless temptation that made him want to pull her into his body and kiss her until she went boneless, her breathy sighs a signal of surrender.

     He hopped off the bed with a snarl as his cock roared to life at the mental image. Maybe a cold shower would remind him of his responsibility to Dìleas. Nathalie was a job. He still might be attracted to her physically, but the girl he’d known in college no longer existed. She’d devoted herself to her career. He’d enlisted. They had become different people.

     A quick turn beneath icy spray cured his erection but not his thoughts. With ruthless discipline learned in the army, he turned off the lights, emptied his mind, and gave in to sleep.


     The following day, Ryder picked Nathalie up at seven and drove her to work. Like before, she was sequestered in her lab while he and Nathan analyzed threat data. This time, he refused to let her work past six. Shadows beneath her eyes still hinted at a lack of sleep.

     “You need more rest.” His gaze moved restlessly between the road, his rearview mirror, and her face as she drifted in and out of consciousness.

     She opened one eye and gave him a baleful stare. “I’ll get some when my presentation to the DoD is done, and I don’t have a bodyguard shadowing my every move.”

     His jaw tightened. She’d made clear his presence was unwanted. Was it having a bodyguard that bothered her or him personally? He tried to tell himself the answer didn’t matter. Either way, she was stuck with him until he was sure the threat to her had been eliminated.

     His phone vibrated a perimeter warning as he caught sight of a silver Mercedes pulling into Nathalie’s driveway.

Ryder braked. A blond man got out of the car, holding a small bouquet.


     Nathalie glanced at him, brows furrowed. “Why’d you stop?” She peered out the windshield and stiffened. “Oh.” 

     “Were you expecting company?”

     “That’s Elliot. He’s not a threat.” She licked her lips. “He’s, uh, my boyfriend.”

     Elliot Chapman. He’d seen the man’s name in Nathalie’s file. The serial entrepreneur, like Ryder, came from an old, monied family and had attended all the right schools —America’s version of the aristocracy. Ryder gritted his teeth against an unwelcome surge of jealousy.

     The arsehole had parked in the middle of the driveway, making it impossible for Ryder to enter the garage to give Nathalie cover. He pulled in behind the Mercedes and leaped from his seat, rounding the front of the Suburban before he helped Nathalie from the vehicle, shielding her with his body as he kept the other man in his line of vision.

     Frowning, the boyfriend shifted on one foot, his fingers tightening on the plastic wrapping the floral stems. “Nathalie, who’s this?”

     Ryder tensed as Nathalie moved from behind him. “Hello Elliot.” Her gaze darted to Ryder. “He’s, uh, my bodyguard.”


     Denial surged, trapped behind Ryder’s tightly pressed lips. Bollocks. He was more than Nathalie’s bodyguard. They’d been lovers. Not that he expected her to say as much, but the idea that she allowed this pantywaist to touch her, to pleasure her, made Ryder want to punch something. His fingers curled in anticipation, drawing Chapman’s gaze. Chapman’s face drained of color, and his eyes widened. Ryder unfurled them slowly, one at a time, never taking his eyes off the other man and resisted the urge to give a feral grin.

     “Ryder.” Nathalie shot him a warning look.

     Confusion on the boyfriend’s face gave way to annoyance. “Why do you need a bodyguard?”

     Ryder masked his disgust. Was the bloke miffed his girlfriend needed security? Where was the concern? The protectiveness?

     Nathalie took the flowers from Elliot and kissed his cheek. “Thank you. These are lovely. It’s just for a couple of weeks, I promise. The technology I’m presenting to the military is sensitive, and the wrong people may be interested in getting their hands on it.” She gave him a placating smile.

     Ryder waited for Nathalie to tell her boyfriend about the listening devices found in her home. She didn’t. Why? It would explain her need for protection. He gave a mental shrug. It wasn’t his job to fill the man in.

     Chapman’s annoyance shifted to petulance. “I was planning to surprise you with dinner reservations at Chez Daniel for seven-thirty.” He made a show of looking at his watch. “We need to hurry if we’re going to get there on time.”

     “Elliot, I’m not sure—” Nathalie’s gaze darted to Ryder.

     “Please.” Elliot grabbed her hand, forcing her attention back to him. “Don’t you remember what today is? Our anniversary.” His ingratiating smile grated on Ryder’s nerves. “I wanted to make it special.”

     Say no. “Nathalie won’t go unescorted,” Ryder cut in. That should put a kink in the prick’s plans.

     Elliot’s gaze narrowed on Ryder. “She’ll be perfectly safe with me.”

     Nathalie sighed, her lips thinning. “I wish you’d checked with me first.”

     Chapman jerked back, looking wounded, and Nathalie’s shoulders caved. She threw up her hand. “I’m sorry. I know you went to the trouble to make plans. Give me a minute to freshen up and change out of my work clothes.” She turned to Ryder. “Why don’t you go back to the hotel. I’ll be fine.”

     “That’s not how it works. If you go out, I go with you.”

     “Oh, for God’s sake,” Elliot sputtered. His brows arched, a hint of condescension in his eyes. Ryder knew the look well—it was one perfected by most of the people in his family’s aristocratic circle. “You can follow us there and wait outside while we dine.”

     “Let me clear the house.” Ryder entered through the garage, shut off the alarm, and quickly swept upstairs and down. A review of video feeds showed no unusual activity in or around the residence. He took a moment to center himself. Chapman’s arrogant, elitist attitude rubbed him the wrong way. Was it because Ryder wasn’t accustomed to being treated like a servant? Or because the thought of Nathalie with the guy made his gut churn with a visceral need to claim what hadn’t belonged to him in eight years? The Nathalie he’d known would never have tolerated this wanker.

     Nathalie and Elliot were waiting in the garage when he returned. “It’s clear.”

     Nathalie nodded but didn’t make eye contact.

     “I’ll wait in the car.” He wasn’t about to sit inside and make small talk with the boyfriend while Nathalie freshened up. Ryder climbed into his vehicle, shutting the door with more force than necessary, and called Nathan. “I need you to run a background check on Elliot Chapman.”

     “The boyfriend?” Nathan snorted. “Any legitimate security concerns, amigo, other than he’s sleeping with Nathalie?”

     Bloody Hell. He needed to watch himself. “I don’t know yet. Send me whatever you dig up.”

     Twenty minutes later, Nathalie and Elliot emerged from the house. Nathalie had changed into a sexy red sheath dress, the fabric clinging to her breasts and hips and caressing her bottom. Her hair was slicked back into a tight bun low at the nape of her neck, highlighting bronzed cheekbones. The exact shade of red as her dress accentuated her lips.

     Ryder’s body tightened as a wave of lust hit him with the force of a concussive blast. It was a good thing he was sitting in his vehicle, so he didn’t have to explain his sudden hard-on. Although if the boyfriend objected and wanted to have a go at him, Ryder would be more than happy to beat his posh arse into the ground.

     Nathalie met his eyes and her face flushed. She dropped her gaze and settled into the passenger seat of Chapman’s Mercedes. Ryder’s lip curled. The tosser hadn’t even bothered to open the car door for her. He backed out of the driveway, giving room for Chapman to do the same, and followed the Mercedes.


     “Where did the bodyguard come from?”

     They’d barely gotten out of her neighborhood before Elliot began his interrogation. Nathalie tamped down irritation. She was exhausted and didn’t want to go out, but guilt made her say yes. Last night she’d been too tense to drop off to sleep until a bit of self-care courtesy of her favorite vibrator had done the trick.

     Only she hadn’t been thinking of Elliot when she’d gotten off. She’d pictured Ryder in her home office when he confronted her over the photo she kept of them, his suit jacket brushing her breasts, his face so close it wouldn’t have taken more than a thought to close the gap and press her lips to his. “Dìleas Security Agency. Lucas Caldwell recommended them.”

     Elliot huffed. “What’s-his-name seems rather possessive of you.”

     She looked out the window to hide her eye roll. “His name is Ryder Montague.” Former love of my life. She kept that admission to herself. No sense in complicating an already tricky situation, and she wasn’t in the mood to deal with Elliot’s reaction. “He’s former SAS, and it’s his job to be in my business.”

     Elliot’s reply was a snort of derision, which she let pass. Ryder’s Suburban stayed directly behind them, his presence a subtle but unspoken strain on further conversation.

     Chez Daniel was a charming Michelin-rated restaurant tucked away in a quiet corner of Great Falls, Virginia. Despite the excellent preparation in a lovely Sauternes sauce, Nathalie barely tasted her scallops and shrimp, washing them down with two glasses of Chassagne-Montrachet.

     Poor Ryder. Sitting outside in his car. Should she order him an entrée and have the kitchen take it out to him? Elliot would object. His mood was strange tonight, and it was clear he’d taken an instant dislike to Ryder. Another reason for her not to divulge her history with her bodyguard. She took another swig of the delicious wine. Its price tag had made her blanch. Elliot was pulling out all the stops tonight. The butterflies that had taken up residence in her stomach when she spied him waiting at her home intensified.

     “Didn’t you enjoy your meal?” He glanced at her half-eaten food.

     She gave him a smile she wasn’t feeling. “I’m afraid I overdid the snacking at work.” A lie. She’d barely eaten lunch. If she didn’t let up on the alcohol, she’d turn into a sloppy drunk with no filter. The question was, to which man would she say something she’d regret—Elliot or Ryder?

     All she could think about was Ryder, outside in the cool autumn air while she sat inside, warm and cozy with a man who had never made her feel half as alive as he had. Shame slammed her at the traitorous thought. Elliot was good to her. She was allowing guilt and unresolved feelings to cloud her judgment.

     At Elliot’s insistence, Nathalie ordered tarte au chocolate and at least had the good sense to turn down an after-dinner drink, opting for coffee. Elliot ordered cheesecake. The waiter placed the desserts in front of them with a flourish, then hovered nearby as if waiting.

     The air around them changed. Elliot took her hand, dug into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a small, square box.

The butterflies in her stomach turned to lead. Please don’t do this.


     “Nathalie,” he began, “we’ve been dating for two years. We make a great team.” His blue gaze met hers across the intimate table for two. He rattled off more platitudes, but her hearing shut down. When he got to the question, “Will you be my wife?” she was lip-reading more than listening.

     Her heart sank. The server, she was sure, was waiting for Elliot’s signal to bring champagne to toast the newly engaged couple. She pasted on a fake smile and covered the hand holding the box. “Elliot, we’ve discussed this.” She moderated her tone when what she really wanted to do was scream. “I have so much on my plate right now, with this new technology platform.”

      Or the other reason the timing of this proposal fell flat—the man whose heart she stomped on eight years ago had reappeared in her life. She owed Ryder an explanation. It was one she didn’t want to give because he would hate her for it. Despite her best efforts, he still made her pulse race, her panties wet.

      Elliot’s smile stayed in place as his eyes cooled. “Nathalie. According to you, it’s never a good time. Is there a reason you don’t want to marry me?”

     She squeezed his hand. “It’s not you. I just need to focus on getting my software platform out. Then, I promise, we’ll talk about marriage.”

     He opened the ring box. A large, pear-shaped diamond set in a platinum band sparkled in the dim lighting. It was a beautiful ring, but not one she would have chosen.

     A hush fell over the room. She glanced around. Other diners had stopped their conversations and were watching them. Her heart sank as the pressure of the moment weighed her down. She wanted to tell him no and leave, let Ryder take her home, but that would create a scene. Elliot didn’t deserve that, no matter how upset she was.

     “Take the ring, Nathalie. Keep it while you finish your project. Then we can talk.” Elliot signaled the waiter. “Let’s celebrate two years of being together and, hopefully, many more to come.”

     She let him put the ring on her finger to applause and well wishes of the other diners, swallowing down the embarrassment and resentment nearly choking her. When the champagne arrived, she drank to Elliot’s grandiose toast about the great future ahead, the crisp bubbles of the pale, gold liquid bursting into ashes on her tongue.

     She accepted more congratulations from the wait staff and patrons as they prepared to leave. Weaving on her feet, unsteady from too much wine and champagne, she clung to Elliot’s arm for support. On the pretense of looking for something, she delved into her purse and slipped off the ring. For reasons she didn’t want to examine, it felt inappropriate, a violation somehow, to wear it in front of Ryder.

     Ryder was waiting as they exited. Elliot’s arm tightened around her. “She’s fine, just a bit tipsy,” he snapped.

     Ryder ignored him and focused on Nathalie. “Are you all right?”

     His question, voiced in that upper-class British accent, triggered a memory of when they’d visited a historic pub in London. She’d overestimated her tolerance for gin. Ryder had seen her home and held her hair back as she’d barfed into the toilet. When she finally collapsed, spent, and mortified on the bathroom floor, he helped her brush her teeth, then put her to bed, and crawled in next to her, holding her until the next morning.

     “I’m fine.” Her vision blurred. He’d been good to her, and she’d paid him back with betrayal. All she wanted was to go home and bury herself under the bedcovers, alone. Her life had gone from a carefully orchestrated existence to a slow-moving train wreck.

     When Ryder reached for her, Elliot yanked her away, causing her to stumble into him. “You can leave. I’ll see my fiancée home safely.”

      Ryder visibly jerked. Was there a flare of pain in his eyes, or did she imagine it? Whatever had appeared was gone in an instant, leaving only a blank, emotionless stare.

     Her buzz evaporated, replaced by a sensation of being out of control, a dandelion seed blowing in the wind to an unknown destination.

     The air around Ryder electrified, became dangerous. “I’ll follow you and leave when she’s safely in her home for the evening.” His stare challenged Elliot to argue.

     Elliot wisely didn’t take the bait. He lowered her into the passenger seat of his car and drove her home. Ryder cleared the house, then lingered in the doorway as Elliot helped her inside. He faced Ryder. “It’s time for you to leave.”

     Enough. “I need rest. It’d be best if you both left.” She ignored the frustration on Elliot’s face, as well as Ryder’s hint of smugness.

     Gripping the doorknob for support, she faced her tormentors with as sober a demeanor as she could manage. “Elliot, thank you for a lovely evening. In the future, please talk to me before you make plans for us.” His eyes narrowed, and she held his gaze long enough to make sure he received the message.

     She turned to Ryder. “I’ll let you know when I’m ready to leave tomorrow. Until then, I expect to be left alone.” She made a sweeping gesture at the door, their cue to get the hell out of her home.

     Elliot’s goodbye kiss was possessive, and she forced herself not to pull away. “I’ll see you soon, darling. Take care of that ring.” He threw a triumphant glance at Ryder before walking out.

     Oh, for God’s sake. She felt like a fire hydrant marked by a dog claiming his territory and resisted the urge to scrub her lips.

     “Turn on the alarm and keep it on.” Ryder didn’t look at her as he left.

     The men stalked to their vehicles and backed out of her driveway. She hit the button to close the garage door, set the alarm, and trudged upstairs to her bedroom. Her life was falling apart. What was the saying?

     Karma’s a bitch.

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