Excerpt: Baby One Last Time – 1


There had to be a better way to make a living.

I glanced down at the deflated inflatable flamingos I clutched by their limp necks. Who the hell had ever heard of flamingos in a Christmas lawn display? There weren’t flamingos in Bethlehem or at the North Pole. No respectable Christmas story featured the ridiculous pink birds. But Mrs. Leary had insisted that the damned things—part of the year-round yard décor on her two-acre plot in the heart of Beverly Hills—be included in the Christmas decoration design.

“Miss Klauson, you wanted to see me?” Old Mrs. Leary, probably never very tall, but now well under five feet, with tight, shoulder-length curls shot through with gray, tottered toward me.

“Please, it’s Sandy.”

Sandy Klauson. Seriously. I mean, Jesus of Nazareth. Never let it be said that Ms. X didn’t have a sense of humor, but if she had to cut me loose from HEAT—Headquarters for the Elimination of Advanced Threats—a month before Christmas, she sure as hell could have come up with a better cover name for me. And a better civilian job. And a better place than LA at Christmastime under a beating hot sun with nary a snowflake in sight.

No doubt, X—no one knew her real name—had done it out of spite, but it was ridiculously unfair. Anyone could have made the mistake of tranquilizing an overly handsy ambassador from a small but important US ally. OK, so it was more of a choice than a mistake. And yes, after four years in the field at the FBI, followed by a desk job that bored me to tears, then one joyful year back in the field courtesy of the off-the-books agency HEAT, I should have made better choices. Especially when the bad ones had impacted my ability to make a living and save for a cozy cottage somewhere cold, like the place in Vermont my mom and aunt took me over winter break when I was a kid.

Mrs. Leary sucked in her breath, dragging me back to my sad life in the city of broken dreams. “Oh, this is a catastrophe!” She petted one of the limp, plastic birds. “My dearly departed husband gave me these flamingos on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I’ve had them in my yard ever since.” Her eyes filled with tears.

Well, hell. So much for suggesting she re-home the birds in the trash can.

“I don’t know what happened.” I didn’t mention the small slits I’d seen in their throats. Who would do that to a nice old lady’s lawn pets? “I found them like this. But I’ll fix them for you. We’ll make them good as new.”

Mrs. Leary wiped away a tear. “Oh, you’re a good girl. Thank you, dear.”

As the old lady returned to the house, I looped around the outskirts of the palatial building until I found TJ, the job foreman, and explained the dilemma and my plan. “I’ll take the van, find a garage or bike shop that repairs flat tires, and have these patched.” I calculated the time it would take in LA traffic and grimaced. “I should be back in a couple of hours.”

Across the lawn, the old lady emerged from a side door of the house and headed for the detached garage with her oversized chauffeur in tow. I suspected he doubled as her bodyguard because, hello, ultra-rich. Her daily 2 p.m. outing to get a newspaper, a cup of tea, and a comb-out at the beauty parlor. Yes, I’d clocked her movements and done some recon. So sue me. Old habits die hard.

I turned back to TJ, who’d been watching me watch her. He had his own interesting habits, and with his height and heft, I wouldn’t mind having him at my back in a fight, just like Derek… I wouldn’t let my mind go there. Still, TJ would have been good HEAT material, and if X hadn’t lost her mind and fired me, I might have recruited him.

TJ shook his head at me. “Get the old lady’s birds fixed. But you can’t take the van. We still have half the strings of lights in there. Take a cab and get a receipt.”

I nodded and headed for the front gates, which stood wide open to give us easy access to our van and equipment, because Mrs. Leary refused to let us park in her driveway. I’d just pulled out my phone to contact an Uber—and yes, I would turn in the receipt for reimbursement, thank you very much, since X had frozen my assets, including the nest egg I needed to escape to snowier climes—when something caught my eye. Something that didn’t belong on this neat, narrow, tree-covered street in the Hills.

The scuffed black work boots immediately gave away the game. Half a block down and on the other side of the road, he leaned against the side of a shiny, black, expensive-looking pickup truck. He had his thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his dark jeans. A tight black tee shirt showcased his broad chest and rock-hard biceps, and his long legs stretched in front of him, crossed at the shank of those boots I’d know anywhere. Other than stupid-expensive black Oxfords and overpriced workout sneakers, those fucked-up boots were the only footwear he deigned to wear.


Obviously, he still read lips, as he slid his aviators slightly down his nose and peered over the tops of them, grinning at me.

I did the only sensible thing one could do when Derek Wilder was within a five-mile radius. I ignored him. I looked back down at my phone, hell-bent on disregarding the fact that my hands were trembling so hard I was having trouble opening the Uber app.

The phone rang in my hand and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

So much for years of training and field work. This was the problem. This was why X had split us up four months ago. Before that, we’d been partners for six months, the team with the highest close rate in HEAT. We’d also been up to our naughty bits in a steamy affair, and we’d been distracting each other. Not to mention breaking a shit-ton of company policies in the process.

I’d wanted to kill her on the spot at the time, but seeing how he could still get to me had me rethinking her wisdom. And he wasn’t even close enough yet for me to smell him or taste his skin or feel his…Holy hell. The phone was still ringing.

I answered it. “What the fuck?”

“I missed you, too, Cynthia. Or whoever you are today. Come closer.”

“Not a chance. I have my orders. X finds out I’m consorting with someone from my past and I’m dead.”

“X is in a chalet in the French Alps with a leggy blonde she met in Paris. Come closer. I need you.”

I dropped the phone onto the sidewalk. This was bad. So, so bad. Why in the hell had I thought celibacy was the right choice after X had split up our happy little team of  two? It will focus me, I’d told myself. Help me get my head back in the game, I’d said.

I hadn’t counted on seeing him again. It wasn’t fair to be parked in front of a buffet of mouth-watering delicacies when you’re starving, knowing you can’t touch the goodies. And god help me, I wanted to touch all the goodies.

I thought about making a run for it, but he’d already closed half the distance between us, and while some of my body parts were on fire, there was barely any feeling in my legs. I focused on pranayama breathing. Deep, even breaths. I slowly put one foot in front of the other until I was actually walking.

But dammit, I was going toward him.

“I wasn’t kidding,” he said. “I need your help.”

We stood a mere foot apart. I clenched my fists at my sides to keep from laying my palms against his chest, which gave the unfortunate appearance of wringing Mrs. Leary’s flamingos’ necks.

“I’m supposed to do a solo, but this target requires a team.”

I shrugged. “So get a team.”

He shook his head. “No one can get here fast enough, and you know how thin we’re stretched over the holidays.”

Adrenaline shot through me and my hands shook for a different reason. What the hell was I thinking? That I was bored stiff, and death at X’s hands was starting to sound better than a life with lawn ornaments. “What’s the play?”

“The Santa Baby.”

Aka the Drunk Deb, aka the Party Favor.

He grinned at me like the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood. “One of your best.”

And one of the easiest. I could do it in my sleep. Hell, I probably had. “All right, but if X finds out, it’s on your head. And I only have a few hours.” I held up the birds still clutched in my left hand. “And we have to stop somewhere to fix the flamingos.”

He raised his eyebrows but didn’t ask. “You and the flamingos get comfortable in my truck. I’ll grab the phone you dropped and make sure no one saw us together.”

Dammit, I’d been ready to leave my phone behind. Distracted. Totally off my game. “OK, but do not shoot any of my co-workers.”

“Would I—”

I quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Yeah, don’t answer that.”