Boiling Point ONLY
a Crossing the Line novel by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Tessa Bailey
Falling for a con man is the most dangerous game of all…
Con artist Austin Shaw’s been in disguise so long he’s not sure where his fake identities end and he begins. Now that he’s been strong-armed into working for a specialized undercover unit working with the Chicago police—criminals with unique “skills”—the last thing he needs is to risk his iron control. Especially when it comes to a certain stunningly sexy hacker who tempts him with every look of disdain.
Polly Banks will never, ever trust a con man. On the trail of a ruthless crook who destroyed the only family she’s ever known, Polly is unnerved by the shadow who follows her every move. The one who makes her pulse pound and breath short with lust. Austin. He’s infuriating, enigmatic, and pure sex appeal, and she’s determined to resist him.
But an untrustworthy man of disguise can become anyone he wants…including a man that Polly must trust if she’s to escape their dangerous game alive.
Title: Boiling Point
Series: Crossing the Line, #3
Author: Tessa Bailey
Genre: Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense
Length: 301 pages
Release Date: January 2016
Imprint: Select Suspense
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
Crossing the Line novels by author Tessa Bailey:
Transition novella from Line of Duty series: His Risk to Take
Book .5: Riskier Business
Book one: Risking it All
Book two: Up in Smoke
Book three: Boiling Point
Praise for author Tessa Bailey:
“Hot alpha heroes and the heroines who bring them to their knees… Tessa Bailey’s books are pure perfection!”
– NYT TIMES bestselling author Elle Kennedy
An Excerpt from:
by Tessa Bailey
Copyright © 2016 by Tessa Bailey. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Austin Shaw hardened his jaw and slid onto one of the plush leather chairs lining the bar. With his left hand—the one sporting a Rolex he’d just nipped from a trusting pawn store owner—he reached under the opposite arm, removed the copy of Crain’s Chicago, and tossed it onto the bar, nodding at the nearest group of businessmen as he did so. As expected, they nodded back, sitting a touch straighter in their seats, thus reminding Austin he was having a brilliant fucking hair day. What else was new?
In Austin’s peripheral vision, he saw the red-vested bartender jolt from his post watching the Chicago Bulls game on an expensive flat-screen and stride toward him. Good man.
“Something to drink, sir?”
Austin cast a discriminating eye over Red Vest’s shoulder toward the top shelf, rolling his tongue in his mouth, anticipating his employment of the New England accent he’d been practicing. “Johnnie Walker Blue.” He laid his arm across the neighboring chair and watched the bartender’s eyes light on the Rolex. “And a round for those hardworking gentlemen across the bar, too. Their boss is an asshole.”
Red Vest quirked a blond eyebrow. “How’d you know?”
“You’re looking at him.” Austin tilted his head. “But let’s keep that between us, eh? My office is on the top floor for a reason.”
The bartender laughed and went to fulfill the order. Austin leaned back in his chair, his confidence solidifying now that he’d accomplished the two most important objectives when walking into an establishment. Thanks to the combination of his Rolex, the financial journal, and the easy lie he’d told, the bartender had now assigned him a worth. And that worth was high. If Austin needed information—and he did—valuable words would roll right off Red Vest’s lips now, smooth as smoke.
Secondly, he’d made friends with everyone in the room without breaking a sweat. Pleasing others meant they’d do the same for him. Do it with a smile and the arrogance he’d been born with? He’d have those stiffs jumping through flaming hoops before they finished their drinks.
Right. Now that he was in charge of the landscape, the business at hand bled in, like an uncapped ink pen against white cotton.
Polly Banks. Hacker extraordinaire. Ex-convict. And the first woman who’d made his acquaintance without noticing or commenting on the silver flecks in his eyes. A ghastly oversight, really.
With a discreet check of his watch, Austin began a mental countdown until the untouchable Ms. Banks strolled through the establishment’s doors. Tonight wasn’t the first night he’d followed her to the upscale bar in Chicago’s financial district. It was merely the first night he’d chosen to insert himself into the frame, rather than hang back and observe Polly’s amateur operation from the darkened back corner booth. At least, he’d assumed the operation was amateurish. He hadn’t quite figured out what angle she was working, which gave him a beastly case of nerves. On top of a festering volcano of irritation, wrought by her increasingly diminished attire.
Low-cut silk tops and flashes of garter belts that likely accounted for the unusually populated bar. Austin kept his expression mild even as his features ached to threaten each and every arsehole in the vicinity with a look. One that said, “Ah, gents. Put your wedding rings back on. The sleek beauty you’ve been ogling five nights straight is mine. She just hasn’t come ’round to the idea yet.”
Bit of an under-exaggeration, unfortunately. When Polly looked at him, Austin could feel her disdain like a blast from a fire hose. It was jarring, really. He’d encountered many reactions from the fairer sex. Astonishment, attraction, nervousness. What he wouldn’t give to inspire nerves from Polly. He’d know just what to do with them, and his process involved a distinct lack of clothing. Possibly a piece of leather for her to bite down on when overcome by pleasure.
Austin took a sip of Johnnie Walker to stifle the groan building in his throat. He and Ms. Banks were nowhere near nudity and leather—yet—unfortunately. Instead, he was in disguise, watching her play a game in which he could easily assist her. If she didn’t liken him to pond scum.
Really, he’d had no chance to make an alternate impression on the sassy bit of goods with a mind that rivaled even his own. Both of them had been brought to Chicago upon being issued ultimatums. Prison time…or working undercover to put criminals—such as themselves, but with significantly fewer accolades—behind bars. He and Polly, along with four other victims, had been sent to purgatory. “Atoning for their sins,” their leader, Captain Derek Tyler, had put it.
Austin disguised his snort with a cough. Sins were only sins if someone was watching. And he was usually long gone before his marks caught on.
Do unto others…then disappear. A motto that had served him quite well.
Until recently, when the law had put a target on his back, making the world that was once his endless playground a damn sight smaller.
Sometimes he even let the cops think he hadn’t orchestrated his own arrival in Chicago. That he hadn’t been drawn here by news of a loose end, left undone during his last con. A living, breathing loose end named Gemma.
Austin showed zero reaction when the door at his back opened, allowing the bite of fall to swirl into the bar, cooling his neck. When Polly clicked past in high heels, however, reacting was a necessity. Any man who didn’t show a reaction to a modern, sexualized version of Snow White…well, that man would make the chess pieces in place around him suspicious. Suspicion was the enemy to cons everywhere. And being a formidable con of great reputation, Austin let the glass pause halfway to his mouth as he considered Polly’s ass on her way to the opposite end of the bar. Even threw in a conspiratorial salute to the group of businessmen drinking the liquor he’d paid for as they did the same.
Goddammit, he’d never felt an ounce of possessiveness over another human being in his thirty-one years. But just then, he wanted more than anything to walk up behind Polly, wrap an arm around her hips, and drag her back against his lap. Look those tossers right in the eye as he licked up the side of her smooth neck. Mine, you pathetic drunks. You wouldn’t last a minute up against the brilliance of how she thinks. How she reasons and makes decisions. Piss. Right. Off.
When the tumbler shook in Austin’s hand, he quickly set it down and looked busy going through his cell phone. He put the device to his ear and turned sideways, away from Polly, but at an angle that allowed him to watch her through the bar’s back mirror. He’d taken great pains applying the phony beard and gray wig so she wouldn’t recognize him, but he wouldn’t take any chances. If she made him, there wouldn’t be a hope in hell of him discerning her game.
Anxious. The hacker who had once breached the White House’s technological firewalls was actually anxious. Which made him…jumpy. Fucking hell, he didn’t do jumpy. Rule number one, however, was knowing the lay of the land before running an operation, and he had no clue what Polly’s game was.
A gut feeling told Austin he’d find out tonight.
Here, kitty kitty.
Polly Banks ordered a dry white wine and crossed her legs in what probably looked like slow motion to the handful of douche bags behind her. The bartender had already started to pour her drink of choice prior to her placing the order, however, which was troubling. It told her she’d been here one too many nights, and tomorrow called for a venue change. Not good. She was running out of nighttime haunts to locate her mark. After this, she knew of a single nightclub where Charles Reitman was known to frequent when in Chicago. After that, it would be back to the drawing board. Or keyboard, as it were.
Her time in Chicago hadn’t been designated simply to play house with the undercover squad. No, no. Each and every move Polly made was planned down to the tiniest degree and orchestrated with precise, thoughtful keystrokes. There was a debt that needed settling, and she’d come to Chicago to do just that. If her daylight hours were dedicated to aiding the same law enforcement machine that had ruined her fun and sent her to prison? Well. She’d be free of their confines soon enough. Free to navigate cyberspace at will, locating information and selling it the highest bidder.
Just as soon as she located Charles Reitman and got close enough to take back every penny he’d stolen from her fathers.
Yes, her vendetta against the man who’d swindled her fathers out of their life savings was pretty hypocritical. After all, her bread and butter happened to be blackmail. But Polly had a code that dictated whom she stole from and why. It was simple, really. If the fuckers deserved it, they were open season. Her fathers hadn’t deserved it. They’d barely made it into the black with their clothing line before the financial security had been swept out from under them like a rug. By Charles Reitman. The man who’d posed as an investment banker and vamoosed with six hard-earned figures, sending Polly’s family spiraling into bankruptcy.
Life had been hard after that. They’d lived in motel rooms, rationed food, and been turned down for assistance from people they’d considered friends. She’d watched the parents who loved her suffer, battle to keep her fed and clothed. Keeping her warm and safe when no one else would do the same for them.
And then it had gotten much, much worse.
Polly had grown up and learned how to get even. Now if only the topper to her revenge cake would come into the bar and proposition her for sex, she could move on with her plans of world domination, secure in the knowledge that justice had been served.
Polly accepted the glass of wine from the bartender with a half smile, curling a hand around the back of her neck in a flirtatious gesture. He coughed into his fist, mumbling that the group of gentlemen had bought her a drink. Polly turned and sent them a fluttery-fingered wave. Just one drink? How generous among the eight of you.
Although dressing the part had been necessary, Polly didn’t like being ogled. She placated herself with the fact that she could hack into the bar’s point-of-sale system and have each man’s credit card information by morning.
Polly turned back to the bar and sipped her wine, feeling a kick of adrenaline when the door opened and a slim figure breezed in. His looks were entirely unremarkable, but there was a caginess to him. Slim’s gaze swept the establishment’s interior in a casual glance that felt…practiced. Without looking at the bartender, he reached out and shook the younger man’s hand, calling him by name. The bartender floundered a moment, as if surprised the newcomer knew his name, but recovered by offering to buy him his first drink.
“Beefeater, rocks. Thanks, man,” Slim said, his attention landing on her. Staying there. “And whatever the lady is having.”
That was when Polly recognized him. It wasn’t whom she’d been expecting. Not Charles Reitman, but his face…she explored the recesses of her mind trying to place it. For years, her free time had gone into researching Reitman, following his movements. Not an easy task when you’re tracking a slippery con. A snake in the grass, just like all con men. There. Her photographic memory delivered the DMV record her memory bank had been seeking. This man—Slim—was an associate of Reitman’s. Did that mean she’d been correct and Reitman was in Chicago? Yes. Polly’s heart pumped double time. Finally.
She leaned back in her chair, allowing the white silk of her blouse to gape as she smiled at Slim. His name still eluded her, but he wouldn’t. If she played the situation just right, this guy could lead her to Reitman.
When Slim correctly interpreted the invitation and sauntered forward to join Polly, she was distracted by a man in the corner of the bar. He stiffened in an almost imperceptible manner. Just a subtle tweak of his shoulders. Had he been there the last four nights? No, she didn’t think so, but his face was obscured by the fall of gray hair, the collar of his jacket. Knowing all too well how cons often worked in teams, she decided to keep an eye on him while feeling out Slim.
Funny, Slim was busy feeling her out. Typical con. “I assumed you were waiting for someone,” he said, sliding onto the chair beside her.
“Oh?” she purred, tucking her short black hair behind her ear. “Why is that?”
“You’re the only woman in the room.” He dipped his head and Polly could see he’d been good-looking once, probably before alcohol consumption had become his favorite pastime, an educated guess she made based on the tremor in his drinking hand. The raw red skin of his nose. “If you’re not waiting for someone, you must like being the exception to the rule.”
“The rule being what? Only men are allowed in this big bad boy’s bar?”
He smiled into a long swig of gin. “I don’t make the rules.”
“Good.” She gave a dainty shrug, going for a mischievous air. “I won’t have to apologize when I break them.”
He swirled the alcohol in his glass. “What are you looking for tonight?”
“Tonight?” She tugged the material of her skirt down, knowing it would only spring back up her thighs when she let it go. Which it did. Again, the figure huddled at the end of the bar demanded her attention, but she strove to focus on Slim, who’d finally let his gaze drop to her legs, an action she’d expected upon approach. This guy wasn’t bush league, and she needed to remember that. Dividing her attention between him and the gray-haired mystery man would be a misstep she couldn’t afford. “I’m just trying to stay warm,” Polly continued. “It’s a cold night out there, in case you didn’t notice.”
“I noticed,” Slim murmured, scrutinizing her. “If you don’t mind heading once more into the fray, I was planning on eating dinner down the street. Join me.”
Polly perched her grinning lips on the rim of her wineglass, even as her insides recoiled at the command. She didn’t like being told what to do. Not by anyone, but a con issuing demands took the ever-loving cake. And speaking of cake…“Do I get dessert, too?”
“I’ve never been known to skip the best part.” Slim tossed back the last of his drink, set the glass down on the bar and held out his hand. “I guess you were waiting for someone after all, huh?”
Maybe I’ll kill him, too, for good measure. “You seem to be good at reading people,” she said, allowing him to assist her off the chair.
His hand smoothed into the small of her back. “You have no idea.”
Prick. Polly picked up her purse, comforted by the weight of her recently procured nine-millimeter. “Lead the way.”
The best cons included more than just a mechanic, also known as the man performing the con. Austin himself had worked with a partner since he’d turned sixteen and watched his father get taken for five quid in a game of three-card monte during a family trip to Brighton. He’d seen it all take place, like a play unfolding on a stage. At the time, he hadn’t known what the term “shill” meant. He’d only seen the silent communication pass between the mechanic—the card dealer—and the man who’d taken a turn before his father. They’d been in on it together. I won! The shill had said it loud enough to stop passersby in their tracks. This guy must be blind…I’ve already won supper money for the week.
Austin had scoffed to himself, expecting his father to catch on. To see clear through the pair of wankers who’d pulled the wool over everyone else’s eyes. Only his father hadn’t copped on, and when it was his turn to guess which bent playing card hid the pebble, Austin’s family had walked away minus a fiver. He could still remember the stifling disappointment he’d felt in his father—how it had kept him silent the whole ride back to London. The next day, he’d skipped school and hitched a ride back to Brighton to watch the monte sharks all day, learning their tricks. Before long, he’d set up his own operation on the opposite end of the beach, swindling unsuspecting tourists out of their holiday money.
He’d done fair enough for a beginner, but he’d needed a partner. A shill. A chiller to step in when a mark didn’t take kindly to being cheated. There’d been no need to seek out a partner, however, because a partner had found him right enough. Found him, sunk his claws in, taught him the ropes…then double-crossed him by making off with his half of a million-dollar score.
Austin’s hands turned to fists inside his coat pockets as he followed Polly down the darkened street in Near North Side, just north of the Loop, Chicago’s business district. His blood pumped in both temples, creating a heavy drumbeat to match his footsteps. She couldn’t know the identity of the man she walked beside. Could she? He wouldn’t wager on anything where Polly was concerned, suspecting the undercover squad had only begun to tap her capabilities as a hacker. But this man—one of the best shills in the bloody business—was dangerous, despite his affable demeanor.
Austin still hadn’t managed to trap the alarm that had run free when Darren Burnbaum walked into the bar, the familiar swagger tipping off Austin immediately. His anxiety had only tripled when Polly got up to leave the bar with the man. By God, she’d barely made him work for the pleasure of her time, agreeing to dinner in two minutes flat. If that easy agreement had come off suspicious to Austin, it sure as hell hadn’t gone unnoticed by Darren, which was only one of his aliases.
See, the drawback to needing additional players in a good con meant Austin had crossed paths over the last fourteen years with some of the best. When word went out that a mark was prime for the taking, cons swarmed like piranha around the opportunity. Kind of a fucked-up version of supply and demand. Oftentimes, if anyone wanted to score, it meant organizing the team and working together. So Austin was quite familiar with Darren’s skill set, and he didn’t want it anywhere near Polly.
She was playing a part, so the fix was definitely in. This wasn’t just a random meeting at a bar—it had been planned. Until he knew the particulars, Darren was going down for the count.
Because as dangerous as Darren Burnbaum had proved to be, Austin Shaw was twice as lethal. And not a goddamn hair on Polly’s head would be harmed on his stolen watch.
When Darren led Polly to a diner, Austin shook his head. Still a cheap fuck. Loath to let Polly out of his sight for even a minute, Austin hung back and waited for them to enter the diner and be seated. Then he sneaked around to the kitchen entrance through the alley around back, nodding to the bored cook who shrugged and flipped over a grilled cheese sandwich. He slipped into the bathroom, grateful to see two stalls, and closed himself in the left one.
If he remembered correctly—and he always did—Darren had a coke habit that would require a trip to the bathroom at some point—
The ancient bathroom door swung open. Austin held his breath and waited for Darren to lock the right stall door and tap out a line of coke…onto the goppin’ toilet tank? Austin grimaced. The lengths a man went to for his vice. Darren’s came in the form of white powder while Austin’s stood five foot two and smelled like fresh-squeezed lemonade. At least Darren’s position would make what came next easy.
Austin left his stall, braced his hands on either side of the one occupied by Darren and kicked it open. The door slammed into Darren, sending him crashing face-first into the wall behind the toilet. Austin wasted no time wrapping an arm around Darren’s throat, tightening until drawing air was impossible.
“Forget you ever saw her,” Austin whispered into Darren’s ear, just as the other man was forced into unconsciousness.
He let Darren’s dead weight drop onto the floor before moving quickly from the bathroom and back out into the alley, palming his cell phone with a curse. Just like any good con, sometimes other players were needed to pull it off successfully.
Austin scrolled through his contacts and dialed Erin O’Dea. Arsonist, escape artist…coworker. She answered on the fourth ring in a singsong voice. “Aus-tin. Connor doesn’t like when boys call, especially on a school night.” He could hear the strike of a match in the background. “So make it snappy, before he makes your bones go snappy.”
“Right.” Austin descended the stairs to the Red Line train that would take him back to Lincoln Park. “I need you to call Polly and get her home, please. Set the smoke alarm off in her apartment or something.” As if on cue, the train pulled up and Austin entered the half-empty car. “Should be a treat for you, O’Dea. The sound of an alarm without the drawback of being arrested.”
“I don’t like easy treats. Give me a challenge.”
Austin sighed and checked his watch. Only another few minutes before Darren regained consciousness. “I’ve no time to indulge your whimsy tonight. What do you want?”
“I’m bored with my Ruger. Bring me the shiny, British.”
“Done. It stays between us.”
An alarm pealed down the line in response.
Austin hung up and fell into a hard plastic seat, staring at his reflection in the opposite window. Only it wasn’t him at all, was it?
Really, who the hell was Austin Shaw? Self-designated protector of Polly Banks? Con man? Master of disguise?
And since when did he give two shits?