“Damnit, Quinn. If I wanted my neck in a noose, I could collect the bounty on my head myself.”
Eliot Spencer was never a bundle of sunshine and bunnies, but he was being a particularly uncooperative coil of thunder and rattlesnakes on this job.
Quinn had Eliot pinned up against the bulkhead, his hands at his fellow hitter’s throat.
“You can’t go to a black tie event with your top button undone,” he explained with exaggerated patience.
“Watch me,” Eliot grumbled, trying to swat Quinn’s fingers away from his collar.
“Eliot Spencer.” Quinn rolled his eyes, firmly sweeping Eliot’s hands aside and slotting the button home. “No one better at bustin’ heads, but can’t dress worth a damn.”
Quinn knew Eliot wasn’t really fighting what he must realize was inevitable. If he were, Quinn would already have broken fingers.
“The man is not wrong,” Alec Hardison’s laughing voice sounded in Quinn’s ear, provoking an even more murderous scowl out of Eliot.
“Shut up, Hardison,” Eliot growled, extricating himself from Quinn’s grip with the ease and effortlessness that proved he could have done so at any time. “Somebody remind me why I gotta be his . . .” He waved his arms in wordless frustration, indicating the whole situation.
“Boy toy?” Parker chirped over the earbuds in unison with Hardison’s equally helpful suggestion: “Arm candy?”
Quinn felt the smirk he was trying to suppress escape onto his face.
“Date,” Eliot corrected through gritted teeth. “Why do I gotta be the one in this damn straight jacket? Hardison, you’re better at this dress-up shit.”
“Excuse you? I am much better at hacking into the mark’s onboard computers when Parker breaks me into his office. How you planning to transfer that data? Two Styrofoam cups and a string? Hell, no!”
If he squinted, Quinn could almost see the wrathful smoke rising off of Eliot. That was the problem, wasn’t it?—Parker and Hardison stowed away on a luxury yacht full of arms dealers and their clients and all their heavy-hitting security personnel with no possible means of escape until the ship returned to port. Eliot’s over-protectiveness of his two team members had turned him into a single exposed nerve-ending on which everything grated.
Which was why Quinn was there—as back-up to Eliot’s back-up—leaving Eliot free to be where he needed to be no matter what ticklish negotiations were in progress. Quinn supposed he should be flattered that Eliot thought that the two of them could take on the entire bloody ship.
Hardison had provided Quinn with an alias and cover story, and one Montgomery Scott (Seriously? Star Trek?) was now in possession of an encrypted invitation to a sophisticated little soiree and arms deal aboard the Clytemnestra off the coast of Corfu with Eliot Spencer aka Dr. Wes Abernathy as his plus one. The latter aspect was proving to be the most complicated part of the entire plot.
The two of them were ensconced in a stateroom that frankly must have had its own postal code, and Quinn was doing his best to threaten, browbeat, or bribe Eliot into formalwear for the evening. Winning a fight with the legendary hitter was a feat approaching the impossible, Quinn admitted in the privacy of his own thoughts only. But getting the man into a bowtie was worse.
“Surely you’ve had to wear one of these before.” Quinn waved the strip of black fabric in front of Eliot who curled a scornful lip.
“Yeah, but that was when we had a grifter who was an expert at neurolinguistic programming,” Parker’s voice sounded muffled, like she was avoiding being overheard.
“In the absence of someone who can brainwash him, we picked someone who can possibly, on a good day, beat him up,” Hardison explained.
“Ha!” Eliot’s laugh had no trace of anything but amusement in it. The man was blindingly confident.
The buzzing commentary in his ear was making Quinn itch. He’d forgotten how annoying that aspect of working for Team Leverage could be.
Advancing on Eliot with the unwelcome bowtie, Quinn bared his teeth. He had his own share of confidence. “How’s this gonna go, Eliot? Peaceably or with blood on your very fine, white shirt?”
For a minute the two of them just glared at each other.
Then Eliot sighed, resigning the battle. “C’mon,” he said. “Give it to me.”
Remembering that Hardison had put Eliot’s bow-tying prowess right up there with his prima ballerina skills, Quinn dodged Eliot’s outstretched hand, and reached to thread the band around his collar.
Eliot froze, aborting a reflex move that Quinn realized a moment too late might have involved a superfluous number of paramedics.
Quinn went still, tension zipping down his nerves, ready to block an attack. He lowered his hands to an unthreatening position.
But Eliot was a professional and regained control instantly.
Quinn noted for future reference that Eliot Spencer had a thing about someone running a cord around his neck. Check.
“Hey,” he said quietly. “Sorry, man. Didn’t think.”
In their line of work, those sorts of triggers were never anything to joke about.
Quinn waited cautiously as Eliot forced himself to relax, dropping his hands that had come up, prepared to strike.
Offering the bowtie again, Quinn gave Eliot a twisted smile in acknowledgement that he’d screwed up. “Now I can let you do this yourself, but as a friend—for hire at least—and the man who is gonna have to look at you all evening, I really wouldn’t recommend it.”
Eliot’s annoyed growl was subsonic, vibrating the deckplates. But he accorded Quinn a short nod of acquiescence. And there was something heart-stopping about watching him doing it, making a conscious choice to allow Quinn, who was practically a stranger, within that personal boundary. The one fight in which they’d beaten the crap out of each other and the other job as temporary allies were a rather shaky foundation for any such trust.
Eliot held perfectly still as Quinn slipped the tie around his neck, but Quinn wasn’t fooled. Eliot wasn’t even breathing.
Obviously, Eliot did not in fact trust Quinn that far, but he was handing Quinn that trust anyway—in clenched fists, like the payment of a debt, unwillingly given but owed nonetheless.
Recognizing how temporary such a gift might be, given the wrong circumstances, Quinn kept his movements deliberate and fluid and telegraphed long in advance. It was like fighting in slow motion, the same hyperawareness of another person’s every muscle twitch, the hair-trigger preparedness for sudden alterations in the situation.
“Y’know,” he informed Eliot, his hands resting on the other man’s chest, as he contemplated the ends of the tie between his fingertips, “I’ve never done this job except in a mirror. I’m pretty sure my hands are on backwards.”
That admission caused some of the tightness to ease in Eliot’s face. His eyes crinkled a bit at the corners, and one side of his mouth quirked up. Quinn was relieved to note he also took a breath.
“Let’s do it in the mirror then.”
Okay. Eliot never did anything by halves, did he?
Quinn found himself standing behind Eliot in the perfect position to break the man’s neck if he so chose, watching Eliot watching him in the mirror with those eyes, blue as ice or fire.
Now that he wasn’t having to plot everything in reverse, Quinn managed a perfectly neat bowtie in seconds.
The instant he was satisfied with the job, he backed up a prudent distance.
He did not say, “That wasn’t so bad.”
He could still feel Eliot’s rapid pulse in his fingertips though he was no longer even touching the man. His own breath whooshed out of him in relief—like he was walking away from a hit he hadn’t expected to go well at all.
Eliot tipped his head and raised his eyebrows as he contemplated the tie. “Not bad.”
Quinn had to agree--for a different reason. Damn, but the man cleaned up nicely.
The trim fit of the tuxedo, with its severe black and white, emphasized what most of Eliot’s layered and scruffy wardrobe concealed—the powerful, dangerous lines of a body honed for the use of deadly force. The long hair, just curling as it touched his shoulders should have softened that impression, but it did no such thing, adding instead a touch of wildness to an otherwise extremely civilized veneer.
Alec Hardison was not wrong about the arm candy.
Eliot, however, was not impressed with his own image. He scowled in the dressing table mirror and ran his hands through his hair, drawing it back into a sleek pony-tail.
“You got it on him?” Hardison’s voice queried. “Nobody needs first aid? Restocking of chloroform? Keys for the hand-cuffs?”
Quinn laughed. “Hey, you hired me because I am just that good.”
“Girl, I am so picking our next date!” Hardison’s pitch rose in jubilation. “Not gonna jump off nothin’!”
Parker made an almost inaudible, breathy huff of defeat. Apparently wherever she was now, she really didn’t want to be heard.
“They always take out bets on you?” Quinn asked Eliot.
“Aren’t you supposed to be doing something useful?” Eliot snarled at his disembodied teammate.
“I’ll have you know I have been carrying enough trays of hors d’oeuvres to feed an army. Why do I always have to haul food around?”
“I offered you my job,” Eliot pointed out.
“Nah,” Hardison said. “You two are gonna look adorable together.”
Once again, Quinn marvelled that Eliot put up with a team. He was pretty sure he’d have disposed of them all in some untraceable way within the first month.
Eliot simply shook his head and rolled his eyes.
Giving himself a last glance-over in the mirror, Quinn decided his tux was doing its job, no unruly curl was escaping from his cropped hair, and no errant lint was spoiling the effect.
“C’mon. Let’s get this over with.” Apparently his date was done waiting.
With one hand on the small of Quinn’s back, Eliot urged him toward the door.
At that lightest brush of Eliot’s fingers, Quinn felt a chill scurry up his spine that he didn’t quite know how to interpret. Was he nervous about having the lethal Spencer behind him? Or was he actually enjoying having him there?
Eliot interrupted Quinn’s introspection with a grip on his arm. “Wait. You packing?”
So, not a gesture of affection. Eliot had discovered the gun Quinn kept clipped to his belt at his back.
“Of course,” he told Eliot.
“No guns. Not on this job. Leave ‘em in the safe here in the room.”
Eliot was serious.
Quinn realized it was his turn to leap across a chasm of trust. To go into battle unarmed? Maybe Eliot with his bare hands was equal to a dozen gunmen, but damn. That sort of engagement required a different way of thinking than Quinn was used to.
He had wondered about Eliot ever since the job at the dam when Eliot had chosen not to execute that snivelling slimebag, Dubenich.
Everyone in the business knew that if shit went down when there was a firearm within Eliot Spencer’s reach, no one was getting out alive. But then rumors had begun circulating that the man had just stopped. Laid down his guns and walked out of the life. Quinn had heard the stories, but he hadn’t credited them until their first fight. Sterling had specified that he was not to use a gun to take down Spencer. Out-of-commission and captured, not dead, had been the order. Only Quinn had been skilled enough and hungry for the payout enough and possibly suicidal enough to be willing to take the job. He had known he must get the drop on Eliot or he was a dead man. And then, rumors had proved to be true after all. When he had woken up on the hanger floor, his second sensation after his body read him an entire inventory of pain had been astonishment that he still had breath to aggravate his broken ribs.
He’d speculated about what could have caused a man like Eliot Spencer to disarm himself.
“What’s the matter?” Eliot raised a sarcastic eyebrow at Quinn’s delay. “Too chicken to go out there naked?”
Insults were not going to move Quinn to make an irrational decision, but nothing about Eliot struck him as lacking rationality. “Just tell me why!” he demanded. “You hire me as backup security, and you want me to leave my guns behind?”
Eliot hesitated, as though running several possible responses through a filter. Finally he said, “They’re too easy.”
“I like easy,” Quinn pointed out.
“Not . . . that’s not what I mean.” Eliot’s voice took on an edge of anger. “They’re too easy to use and too hard to take back. You stop thinking about ways out too soon. Add a gun to the equation, and everything escalates. People stop negotiating. Guns make it too easy to be stupid. And they make it too easy for stupid people to kill. And even if you’re smart, even if you do everything right, once a bullet leaves a gun, you ain’t got a lick of control where it’s gonna end up.”
Quinn considered what Eliot was saying, and what that was saying about the hitter who never missed a target and who’d stopped carrying a gun.
Eliot held out his hand as if he expected Quinn to place his gun in it. “We’re out-numbered and trapped here. The only chance we have of keeping Hardison and Parker safe if things go pear-shaped is if no one starts shooting.”
The man had a point—and the experience to back up his opinion.
Slowly Quinn reached behind and unclipped the gun. “Well, I’m certainly not planning on doing anything stupid,” he said, giving Eliot a lopsided grin. “You’re calling the shots.”
He laid the weapon in Eliot’s outstretched palm.
The smile that Eliot gave him made Quinn warm to his toes. Which was a disturbing development. And Quinn was going to make him do it again. All he had to do was hand over the gun in his shoulder holster and the one at his ankle.
It worked. Grumpy-face Spencer did have an unfairly charming smile. Quinn should not be feeling like he’d come out the winner in that exchange.
While Quinn opened the safe and divested himself of his spare ammunition, Eliot ejected the magazines and unchambered the rounds, handing each emptied weapon to Quinn to add to the stash.
Quinn shook his head and favored Eliot with a glare as he locked the safe again. “Remind me again why I’m doing you a favor when you still owe me?”
“You’re in one piece, ain’t you? No broken bones? No missing teeth?” Eliot said over his shoulder as he dug something out of his luggage. “Coulda gone a different way is all I’m sayin’.”
“You have a very twisted and inadequate definition of ‘favor’,” Quinn pointed out, making sure his tux was in order after he’d rummaged through the whole getup.
“Now kids, get along,” Hardison’s voice interrupted, reminding Quinn that nothing that passed between him and Eliot was private.
“Go away, Hardison,” Eliot growled. “I’m goin’ on a date.”
He turned and Quinn did a double-take. “Whoa! Okay. That is just creepy as hell!”
The addition of a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles surely could not account for the fact that Eliot Spencer, a deadly, utilitarian blade in an elaborate sheath if ever there was one, had just transformed into a butter knife.
Getting his voice back, Quinn asked casually, “So, mild-mannered Clark Kent, what did you just do with Superman?”
“Left him in a phone booth,” Eliot said, as though he regularly walked in and out of himself like he was a suit of clothes. He held out his hand. “Doctor Wes Abernathy, your plus one for the evening. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Bemused, Quinn shook the proffered hand and then forgot to breathe as Eliot . . . as Wes . . . Seriously? What was Eliot, a chameleon? . . . tucked his hand at Quinn’s elbow and glanced up at him with laughing blue eyes through a fringe of dark lashes. And who knew glasses were that . . . hot . . . on a man?
“Let’s party!” Eliot gave Quinn’s arm a little tug.
Quinn stumbled a bit getting in step with his date. He still hadn’t quite recovered from that look.
As they exited the stateroom and turned toward the sound of voices and music, Quinn took a deep breath and reminded himself that he was here for the six figures in his contract.
But he was far too intensely aware of the bunch of muscle in Eliot’s tuxedo-clad arm as it interlinked with his.
What the hell had he gotten himself into?