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Killer Thoughts: A Power Up! Story

Marie Harte

Owen Stallbridge is a multi-millionaire who occasionally does secret work for the government. But these days Owen is busy with his businesses. He's even silent partner in the PowerUp! Gym, which caters to ex-psychics, member s of ...
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Owen Stallbridge is a multi-millionaire who occasionally does secret work for the government. But these days Owen is busy with his businesses. He's even silent partner in the PowerUp! Gym, which caters to ex-psychics, member s of Uncle Sam's now-defunct Psychic Warfare Program (PWP). Being boss has its perks, especially when he it comes to keeping an eye on one particular psychic--Ian Ryder. The rebellious conman is an incredible forger, and he's the most beautiful man Owen has ever seen. He also proves valuable when an enemy from Owen's past comes calling.

Working for Owen, Ian starts to unravel the truth about the secretive millionaire. Owen is more than a rich businessman. He's also the notorious Fixer, a legend from Ian's PWP days, a supposed psychic assassin who cleans up messes for Uncle Sam.

Ian understands greed, money, and the need to have more of it. He's always running a con somewhere, somehow. He never expected to fall in lust and love with the man whose pockets he plans to empty. Not stealing from Owen is hard, but learning the truth about his new lover is harder. It's shocking, not to mention dangerous.

Because the Fixer never leaves behind any clues to his identity. And now Ian has become one major vulnerability for Owen to deal with. He's trouble for Owen's future as the Fixer, and for Owen's heart that seems to have fallen at Ian's feet. Trusting the wrong man will mean certain death for Owen and everyone he loves, but living without Ian may prove just as fatal, especially when Owen's biggest enemy arrives for a fight to the finish. Winner take all.

Ian Ryder swore and glared at the familiar face across the gym, coming closer. Cropped ash-blond hair, mysterious green eyes that saw everything, and a firm, uncompromising mouth graced a face worth millions. He watched as Owen Stallbridge, the recent bane of Ian’s existence, walked past the open spinning class, where women and men raced like mad and still went nowhere.

Bikes. Ian snorted. Why pedal when you could drive? Owen turned in his direction, and he crouched low behind the desk, squatting with his back against the wall, hoping Owen would see no one sitting there and continue on.

“Ian? What are you doing?”

Jack Keiser, Ian’s boss and a man who never let him get away with anything, asked in a flat voice from the doorway. It had been too much to hope that Jack’s new fiancée would turn the cold bastard into a man with feelings. The guy still acted like he had a rock where his heart should be. And with his massive size, he stood out like a sore thumb. Damn it, Jack. Go away.

“Uh, I dropped a pencil.” Ian felt around him on the floor to maintain the pretense, then slowly eased into the chair behind the desk in the glass-walled office, making sure to keep himself small. Though the Nautilus machines in front of the office didn’t obscure his view out, maybe from Owen’s angle they’d block visibility to the consulting room. Normally the trainers used the space to talk to their clients and recommend training plans. Ian’s only proposal at this point was for Jack to move his big ass, or better yet, intercept Owen so Ian could dart out the back. But then Jack would know Ian hadn’t been doing his job lately, and he’d—

“Who are you hiding from?”

Jack didn’t pull punches. Big, mean, and smart. A triple threat. Too bad Keegan wasn’t boss. Ian usually ran rings around the giant Texan before the man even suspected he’d been hoodwinked.

“Ian,” Jack growled.

“Fine. You want to know? Your soon-to-be brother-in-law is stalking me.” A glance up showed Owen bearing down on them, his expression grim. With any luck, Owen would ignore Jack and walk on by to yell at someone else. Then Ian could gear up for his weekend excursion to Portland. He had his eye on a painting being sold at a particular underground auction, a stolen Helzman, circa 1842, worth a quarter million. He’d see it, memorize it, then repaint it from memory and sell it as the original for half that much. If he could keep Owen Stallbridge off his tail.

“I thought you were on night shift this week?”

“Kitty lost a bet with Chloe, so they put me on days.” Kitty, the day manager, did a better job handling him than Chloe. But she wasn’t as much fun as Chloe, whom Ian had learned to finesse into forgiving him for his many ongoing transgressions…when her cute boyfriends weren’t hanging around. Trust Chloe to snag two hotties when Ian still couldn’t find one decent, wealthy sugar daddy in this town.

“Poor Kitty.”

Jack didn’t smile, but Ian saw the humor in the slight crease at the corner of his eyes.

“Still doesn’t explain why you’re hiding from your boss.”

Technically, Owen and Jack ran the gym. Except Owen remained a silent partner and investor while Jack managed the day-to-day. Jack Keiser, lead psychic and all-around ball breaker. Not a guy anyone would want as an enemy, not when he could bench-press two of Ian and not break a sweat. Ian still hadn’t quite figured out what Jack’s superpower was, unless brute intimidation could be considered a psychic skill.

He glanced around at the upscale gym, noting the many people working out. Since opening the place over a year ago, Jack and his band of supposed trainers—ex-government psychics—had steadily grown in popularity. It didn’t hurt that they all had looks, brawn, and that pervasive energy one could feel. What the community didn’t know was that downstairs, in the secret, private gym, the psychics had to train to remain sane and safe.

Though Ian himself had never been physically altered or drugged by the scientific geniuses in Washington DC—whose facilities didn’t officially exist—he’d seen the results. And he had to admit, they worked. The Psychic Warfare Program—PWP—had turned weak psychics into monstrously strong ones. Gene therapy aided those needing control and precision, so that the rough, explosive powers of the pyro- and telekinetics no longer threatened to destroy everyone around them.

The side effects sucked, though. Without the constant barrage of drugs, the psychics went wrong. Out of control, some even turned psychotic. So although Ian despised Jack’s “work the body, work the mind” mantra, he understood it.

Nature had gifted him with a naturally lean frame, however. So he did his best not to work up a sweat here. Not that he minded the muscular hotties who roamed the halls of the PowerUp! Gym. Even the few normal employees Jack kept on hand were pretty. And speaking of pretty… Ian glanced again at Owen, who’d stopped to smile and talk with some skinny guy on a treadmill. Owen looked like a model on a bad day, but next to Skinny Guy, he fairly oozed sex appeal in those shorts and plain T-shirt.

Oh yeah. Give me a nice upper body, rock-hard abs, and muscular thighs any day. Turn around, just a little… Owen turned, and Ian sighed. He raised his head to see that tight ass and broad back. Sure, Owen was a pain, but God, what a body. The eye candy alone almost made the annoyance worth it.

Almost.

“Ian?” Jack drawled. “I’m still waiting for an explanation.”

Ian swore. “Shit, Jack. He’s like a rabid dog. I can’t work under these conditions.” Ian meant it. For the past month, he’d been assisting the authoritative playboy too smart for his own good. A lot of work for little results. “He’s looking for something I can’t find. And if I can’t find it, it doesn’t exist.”

Jack frowned. “Something or someone? I was under the impression he’s hunting a man.”

“Does it matter? Either way, my sources haven’t seen it or him.” Ian sighed. “I haven’t had a day off in weeks.”

“Yeah, four of them. Suck it up, princess. You’re finally going to earn your keep around here.”

Ian tried to look affronted, but Jack didn’t blink. “Oh come on. I do my job.”

“You cause more problems than you’re worth.”

“Hey. I hooked you up with a place to stay on your trip to Germany. I helped you find the love of your life.”

“And you nearly started World War III while I was gone. You fucked up our filing system. Aidan still wants to rip your head off. Chloe can’t find the extra set of keys I left for her—and don’t deny it; I know you have them somewhere.”

“But—”

“And let’s talk about the law. Do you know how many times I’ve had to talk down the locals? And how about the Feds still keeping an eye on us? One wrong step and they’ll come down on us like a ton of bricks.”

The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees as Jack’s wolflike stare turned even more predatory.

Ian tugged at the collar of his T-shirt. “Now, hold on. Those Feds are permanent. They rotate them. No matter what I do—or allegedly have done—those two are going to stay until we all die of old age or move.”

“Oh? So stealing Senator Clancy’s crap and selling it back to him for twice what it’s worth was fair game?”

“Please. He’s a thief. And he’s retired,” Ian reminded him. “He stole them in the first place. I was only giving him a taste of his own medicine.” He frowned. “How did you hear about that anyway? I know he didn’t call the cops. And he can’t trace me as the seller.”

“My point is, you can’t keep your nose clean, and it’s a liability I don’t like.” Jack leaned closer to Ian, his eyes like pinpoints of ice.

It took balls, but Ian dared him. “Prove it. Go ahead. See if you—or the law—can make anything stick.”

Jack straightened and sighed. He crossed his massive arms over his broad chest and snorted. “I would if I could catch you at anything. I know for a fact you’re still selling counterfeit artwork, though you’ve been warned repeatedly to stop.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Jack frowned. “How do you have time for this shit? I thought Owen was keeping you busy with that project of his.”

“I’m plenty busy.” Trying to come up with some excuses to keep you and the studly millionaire off my back.

It wasn’t that Ian couldn’t leave if he wanted to, but he liked working with psychics—people like him. He saw patterns in things others couldn’t, and he could repeat those patterns down to the last detail, which made his skills as a forger remarkable. Life in the big, bad world was freer, but it came with risks. Here, Ian knew a sense of protection with the team. And being surrounded by people who could blow you up with a thought or set fire to your whole world made Ian feel safe, safer than he’d been in a very long time.

“Right.” Jack sighed. “Owen needs your help. You do what he asks.”

“More like orders,” Ian mumbled. “Man has never used the word ‘please’ once.”

Please get yourself back to my office and finish what I gave you to do yesterday,” Owen said from the doorway, standing behind Jack. “How’s that?”

Jack stepped to the side so Owen could enter. “Owen.” He nodded. “Ian was just telling me you’re a slave driver. That you’re working him way too hard.”

“Oh?”

Owen raised his left brow in that way that drove Ian crazy. So sexy, yet so irritating at the same time.

Ian hated this twitchy feeling he had when in Owen’s presence. From the first, he’d sensed the power in Owen and been curiously drawn to it. But Owen didn’t seem manageable. At all. And Ian controlled his relationships. He called the shots. He had others fawning all over him, doing whatever he wanted to keep him happy. With Owen, he’d never have that control, not with a man that wealthy and fine.

Owen continued in a husky voice that put Ian in mind of satin sheets and sweaty, carnal teasing. “Is that right, Ian? Am I working you too hard?”

Shit. He was growing aroused, as usual. He fumed and glared at Owen. “I’m busy here, boss.”

Owen ignored him and said to Jack, “I don’t think I’m working him hard enough. He’s supposed to be at my place through the weekend. I’ve narrowed down my search. I’m very, very close.”

Jack nodded. “You need help? The team’s available if you want.”

A group of psychically enhanced ex-government agents could be an ace in anyone’s hand. Ian mentally cataloged the talent on-site. A telepath, pyrokinetic, telekinetic, empath, levitator, prognosticator, and a few others with a mishmash of talent comprised the small squad of leftovers from the now disbanded PWP.

Ian recalled his brief stint when the PWP had been a baby. He’d been so young, and one of the first to be drafted into the top-secret project. Fortunately he’d joined before they’d started enhancing their agents. Ian had been full of ideals then. He’d helped bring down dictators, had stolen from drug lords, and put away some very bad people.

And then they’d turned on him. Uncle Sam had used his abilities, praised him for being a thief, a con artist, and a master forger when the need arose. Then Ian had inadvertently stepped on the wrong toes during the course of an investigation and become public enemy number one. It all seemed like a lifetime ago.

He glanced at Jack, aware that this boss would never throw him to the wolves. Jack might kick his ass out, but Ian would know exactly when and where and why. One thing Ian could say for his tough-as-nails boss—Jack stuck by his people. He’d never left a man or woman behind, and he never would.

Owen, on the other hand… Ian couldn’t get a bead on the guy. He’d infiltrated Owen’s house, had seen the man nearly get himself killed, yet he’d never noticed Owen sweat or worry. Not once.

Ian compared the men standing so near. Jack had brute strength and overpowering energy, and those eyes—gray one minute, ice blue the next—that made a body tremble with the need to please. Owen, however, seduced. He had a pleasant smile and beautiful, deep green eyes that made a person want to please. Of the two of them, Ian considered Owen the more dangerous. Here was a man who could slit your throat and have you smiling and hurrying to die to make him happy.

“…not a problem. You can have him indefinitely.” Jack, the man who never smiled, actually grinned at Ian.

“Great. I’ll be gone for a while. Time to flush this out and finish it for good.” Owen cleared his throat. “Keep an eye on Heather for me, would you? She keeps bothering me to share my troubles, and this needs to stay far away from her. If he knows I’m on to him, he’ll take her out sooner than later. I’m trying to make sure he’s gone before he becomes an even bigger threat to her.”

Jack nodded, his grin gone, replaced by a ferocious mask of determination. “No worries there. To get to her, he’ll have to go through me. I’ll circle the wagons closer, just in case.”

Ian couldn’t think past “you can have him indefinitely.” “Wait. What?”

They ignored him. “Good,” Owen said.

“You sure you don’t want more help?” Jack dismissed Ian with a wave. “He’s smart but a lot of trouble. Could be more than you need right now.”

“Hey.” Ian stood, annoyed to be disregarded.

“No, he’s perfect,” Owen practically purred.

Ian blinked at him, feeling a bit hunted. He ran a hand through his hair, missing the length he used to have. Some dumb idea to look more sophisticated had urged him to get it cut short, with longer bangs in a style he likened to surfer meets runway model. Chloe had said it made him look even more handsome. He’d gotten his share of compliments about it. But none from Owen. The prick.

“His power is substantial, yet subtle,” Owen said thoughtfully. “I get the feeling none of you know what he’s really capable of. Maybe not even Ian.”

Jack and Owen studied him.

“Nah, still not seeing it.” Jack shrugged.

Owen chuckled. Then he crooked his finger. “Come on, Ian. Time to get back to work.”

“I’m not a damn dog,” Ian snapped.

Owen opened his mouth, then closed it and shook his head. “Too easy.”

Jack snorted. “I have shit to do in my office. You want him, he’s yours. But that means you have to keep an eye on him.”

“Not a problem.” Owen shook Jack’s hand.

“I am not a child needing a babysitter,” Ian enunciated. He was about to add so fuck off when Owen gave him the look.

It never failed to fascinate and mystify him, that need to obey and back down at the same time, when Owen stared at him like that. “I hate that,” he groused, not surprised when Owen nodded in understanding.

“I know.”

“Huh?” Jack stared from Owen to Ian. “Never mind. I have other fires to put out. Good luck. And like I said, you need help, just call. I can get the Cannons on board too if you need.”

The Cannons, the other psychic family in Bend. What were the odds that ex-PWP agents would find a home right next to a group of independent contractors like the Cannons? A family of psychics as strong as the PowerUp! team, to hear Chloe tell it. And she knew, since she’d hooked up with the Cannon twins. And the younger pair, so yummy. Chloe’s men’s younger brothers. In their midtwenties. And so buff.

“Thanks. I’ll call you if I need anything.” Owen crossed his arms over his chest. “Ian? Shall we go?”

“Fine. Whatever.” Ian crossed to the door. Before he could move through, Owen put a hand on his lower back. The connection seared him. Damn it. He had to stop reacting to Owen, or he’d never be able to manage him. Though Ian preferred to remain distant, now that he had to work closely with the man once more, he was determined to one-up His Millionaire Hotness. “Your orders, boss?”

“Oh, I like that.” Owen chuckled and removed his hand. “My car’s out front. I’ll even let you drive.”

Ian perked up. A chance to sit behind the wheel of Owen’s new Porsche Boxter? Hell, yeah. He practically skipped out of the gym and waited impatiently next to the car, excited to feel the wind in his hair, and ignored the fact that it was Owen, more than the vehicle, who aroused his passion.

 

OWEN STARED AFTER Ian, amused and satisfied more than he should have been. Ian Ryder had looks, a brain, and the ability to screw with Owen’s concentration—which in itself was a cause for alarm. But Owen hadn’t been kidding when he’d said he needed Ian’s talent.

A forger without compare, Ian could copy anything and reproduce it with such authenticity that even the original artist couldn’t tell the difference. His unique talent had never been duplicated, not even by the many scientists in Washington who’d tried so hard to make another Ian.

Owen remembered seeing Ian a decade ago, back when Ian had been a kid barely into his twenties. So handsome, a heartbreaker with brass balls. He’d been a scammer then, like he was now. But in the years that passed, Ian had grown in strength and beauty. His looks made him stand out no matter where he went. And that new haircut had nearly brought Owen to his knees.

With long black hair and bright blue eyes, a square jaw, high cheekbones, and long lashes, Ian had appeared like an Adonis. But cutting that hair short gave him a rakish appearance, showcasing the naughty side of the charmer who could get anyone to do anything he asked. Just about.

Jack, fortunately, saw through Ian’s bullshit and had often saved the slighter man from himself. The shortest male member of the PowerUp! team, as well as the leanest, Ian didn’t have the same athletic build as his teammates. Instead, he had a quick mind, nimble fingers, and the muscle tone of a man used to running for his life.

Owen watched critically as Ian waited impatiently by the driver’s side door. “You need to eat more.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “So feed me. Now can I have the keys or what?”

Owen hit a button on the key remote to unlock the doors. He opened the passenger door and tossed the keys to Ian. After seating himself next to the man who stirred his blood and challenged him in ways no one had in a long time, Owen settled back and watched Ian’s competent hands control the vehicle. The top hummed as it went down, and Ian maneuvered the car like a professional race-car driver.

“We’re not going to my office this time. I’m working straight from home now.” Not that he had to give Ian directions. The arrogant thief had already broken into the place at least three times that Owen knew of.

Soon enough they sped down the road toward Owen’s private retreat, which overlooked the Cascade Mountains and had plenty of solitude. It was a short drive but long enough to give Owen time to control his impulses and figure out a few very important things.

Like how to finally get Ian in his bed, in his home, and in his life. Permanently.

And how to catch a killer before he murdered not only Owen but Heather as well, extinguishing the Stallbridges from the earth, forever.

Copyright © Marie Harte

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