Enemy territory is a dangerous place to fall in love.
After the deaths of three undercover cops investigating a drug ring in a seedy strip club in Seattle, Detective Mahir Hussain has been sent to finish the job. He joins the club’s security team in the hopes of finding enough evidence to bust the operation before the men in charge find a reason to put him in a shallow grave.
To protect the strippers, only gay men can work the club. Ridley, the cold and intimidating head of security, knows exactly how to test potential new hires—including Mahir. From the minute they meet, Mahir and Ridley engage in a dangerous dance of sex and mind games. Mahir needs to find his evidence before Ridley figures out he’s a cop—and before they both grow too close to betray one another.
As the game goes on, Mahir burrows deeper into the operation, where he learns there’s much more happening than meets the eye . . . and why every cop who made it this far has been silenced with a bullet.
TITLE: Hostile Ground
CO-AUTHOR: Aleksandr Voinov
Cover Artist: L.C. Chase
LENGTH: 96,000 words
GENRE(S): Contemporary, Cops, Suspense/Thriller, Interracial, Muslim Character
The bass vibrated through Mahir’s bones as a pair of bouncers led him along the staff-only corridor in the nightclub. He caught a line of the rock lyrics—tough luck, tough guy—and thought it ridiculously fitting. He was already seeking conclusions and grasping at nothing, like that meth head from last week who had received messages through the TV, convinced that God spoke to him on the shopping channel.
He walked between two goons who’d hopefully soon be his colleagues, trying not to appear too eager or too relaxed. Saeed, his cover identity, would be alert, but he also needed to radiate competence. He must’ve done a good job of it to have made it this far.
The goon on his left rapped on the last door of the corridor. The door opened, and the goon waved him in.
The room was half supply cabinet, half office. Boxes piled high against the wall. A water cooler looked out of place between the Formica table and cheap folding chairs. There was only one man in the room, and he stood off to the side.
He was taller than Mahir, though not by much. Just enough that he’d have to look up a little if they were ever standing face-to-face, which Mahir hoped didn’t happen anytime soon. That wasn’t to say the guy was unattractive. Well dressed, well groomed, dark hair arranged perfectly, and tailored shirt and slacks crisp and smooth. He was slimmer than most of the guys working in this ring but certainly not lacking. His white sleeves were rolled to the elbows, showing off strong, sinewy muscle. And if his forearms were that cut, Mahir could only imagine what the man was hiding under the rest of his clothes.
It didn’t help that Mahir knew this guy played for his team. If he was the head of Lombardi’s security, he was gay. They all were. That was how Lombardi kept his men from fucking with his girls.
Yeah, he was gay and he was attractive, but there was an air about him that made Mahir more than happy to stay on the opposite side of the room. The guy radiated a menacing intensity. A focused, predatory aura that pulled all of Mahir’s nerves taut.
The room was dim, lit only by a single weak bulb over their heads, but the still, silent man wore sunglasses. Dark ones. The slightest motion of his eyebrows said he was looking Mahir up and down. Mahir had seen guys like this before. Some were just douche bags who wanted to look like gangster badasses or action-movie leads, but then there was this kind: the guy who didn’t like people looking him in the eye. It probably unnerved the shit out of most people, and Mahir had a feeling that effect was not accidental.
Question was, how much of this was a test? Was Mahir supposed to be intimidated and unsettled or look this guy straight in the eyes—well, lenses—and not back down?
The butt of a high-caliber handgun stuck out of a shoulder holster beneath the man’s arm. He didn’t play around. Working for a notorious pimp who was likely also a high-powered drug dealer meant he didn’t have to play by the same rules Mahir did. Passing whatever test he was currently taking wasn’t optional.
Deep, even breaths. “You must be David Ridley.”
“And who the fuck are you?”
Mahir swallowed. The guy’s voice was smooth but sharp at the same time. He’d probably sound sexy as hell if every word wasn’t laced with give me a reason not to shoot you.
“I was told you were expecting me.”
“I’m expecting someone.” The guy raised his chin, drawing Mahir’s attention to the flawless lines of his jaw and throat. “You might want to introduce yourself before you start asking questions.”
“I’m Saeed.” Social protocol suggested he should extend a hand, but he didn’t. Probably best to let this guy call the shots. “I was hired by—”
Mahir gritted his teeth. That didn’t take long. “Syrian.”
“I see.” The guy paused. “You don’t have an accent.”
Mahir resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He’d played this game enough times. “My family came here before I was born.”
The guy responded with a subtle nod and a quiet grunt of acknowledgment. He pulled off his sunglasses, and when he looked Mahir in the eye, Mahir caught himself wishing the man had left the glasses on. His clear blue eyes? Piercing. And enough so to make Mahir tongue-tied and off guard.
The guy slid his sunglasses into the collar of his shirt, which had the top button open, and then extended his hand. “To answer your question, yes. I am David Ridley.”
Mahir took the hand and shook it. No point showing even a moment’s hesitation, and Ridley had one thing going for him already: no jokes about the virgins awaiting him in heaven. Maybe he wouldn’t joke about that. “Saeed Hayaz.”
The man held on to his hand longer than was polite among straight Western men and kept their eyes locked. Mahir did his best to relax under the challenge. Not give anything away. Levelheadedness usually got him out of tight spots. This would be no different.
“Tell me why you’re here.” Ridley’s grip was strong and dry. Rough skin, like that of an honest worker—or a fighter.
“I need a job. I was told this is a good place for me, considering my skill set.”
“Word on the street.” Mahir could see that wasn’t enough. “A guy I met in another club. We compared notes, and he said I should come here.”
“Who?” He still kept his hand, as if that touch were some kind of lie detector.
“Tommy. Tall, blond, tattooed.”
“Pretty much all over. Two sleeves, one on the neck. Rip tattoo along his left side, looked like the flesh was torn away and you could see the organs below. Pretty gross but a good piece of work.”
“He did have a Prince Albert,” Mahir mentioned as if in afterthought.
“Too bad Tommy can’t vouch for you. He’s dead.”
“Damn.” Mahir looked down, pretending he had to gather his thoughts. “He did drive like an idiot, but . . .”
“Bullet.” Ridley finally let go of his hand, but didn’t step back. “That kind of thing happens when guys talk to cops.”
Ice trickled down the length of Mahir’s spine. “I wouldn’t expect any less.”
Ridley gave a small nod. His eyes were still locked on Mahir’s. “So I don’t have to worry about you taking his place as their narc.”
Was that a question? A statement? A threat? This guy was impossible to read.
“I don’t care for cops,” Mahir said. “I just need a paycheck.”
Ridley laughed, which was more unnerving than anything else he’d done so far. Any guy who could make a single, quiet sound—and look—that cold was not someone Mahir wanted to spend more time with than necessary. “Well, you’ll get a paycheck.” He clapped Mahir’s shoulder. “As long as you do your job and know what’s good for you.” He stepped away, allowing Mahir to breathe. Reaching for the door, Ridley added, “Let’s go someplace more comfortable.”
He pulled open the door, and Mahir followed him into the hallway back toward the nightclub’s lounge area. At the edge of the lounge, where the painted concrete floor met plush red carpet, Ridley pulled his sunglasses from his collar and put them back over his eyes. Mahir couldn’t blame him. The flickering lights were a migraine waiting to happen.
As they crossed the lounge, Ridley seemed to make a point of taking a winding path that led them right by all three of the round stages where girls danced for sweating, liquored-up patrons. The walls were almost entirely mirrored, and when Mahir glanced at one of the many reflective surfaces, he thought he caught Ridley looking at him. Impossible to say for sure, though, thanks to those damned sunglasses. Mahir had been warned that the pimp didn’t play around with making sure all of his security guards were gay, and he had no doubt he was being tested again.
He didn’t have to fake being uninterested in the ladies, but he made sure to give a male bartender an exaggerated double take as he went by. And just before they left the red carpet and stepped into another hallway, he exchanged grins with one of the other security guards. Hopefully that would be the extent of his tests in that department.
Out in the hallway, Ridley took off his sunglasses again and hooked them in his collar. He opened another door and gestured for Mahir to go ahead of him.
This room was closer to what Mahir had expected in a place like this. Lavishly appointed with the same rich, red carpet as the lounge and furniture that probably didn’t contain a trace of particleboard.
Ridley went around behind a broad desk and lowered himself into a red leather chair. Then he gestured at one of the two smaller chairs in front of the desk. “Have a seat. Relax.”
Yeah. Relax. Right.
Mahir sat down, leaned back, but kept his legs uncrossed. With his back to the door, he was vulnerable, and he glanced over his shoulder. Showing that it made him uneasy would only show he knew his job.
“Who used to sign your paychecks?”
Mahir’s focus returned to Ridley. “Uncle Sam. I did my four years and got out in 2004. Did security ever since then. Odd jobs. Drove deliveries across the country, bounced in bars. Didn’t really get settled anywhere.”
“Ten years of drifting?”
Mahir shrugged. “They tried to get me to reenlist, so I just stayed on the move.”
Ridley steepled his fingers on his belly. Flat, trim, powerful. “Iraq?”
“Yes.” Mahir met his gaze. “Fallujah was the last big thing I was involved in.”
Why are you working for the infidels, brother?
But the question of which side he worked on was never that easy.
“Where do you live?”
Mahir balked. “I’ve house-sat recently, slept on couches. Looking at a couple crash pads once I know I can afford them.”
“I guess that means you’ll need a sign-on bonus?”
“Certainly wouldn’t hurt.”
“Nobody I still speak to.” Making him disposable and vulnerable. Nobody who’d start asking questions if he vanished for good.
“Right.” Ridley sat up straighter. “Take off your jacket.”
Mahir took off his jacket and folded it over the back of the other small chair. He was wearing a dark, tight T-shirt and jeans he could actually move in but were still well cut. Apart from the heavy steel-toed boots, this was what he wore when he drove to a club to score. It was nothing special, though people told him he wore it well. He showed off what he had, and that was usually enough.
Ridley stood, walked around the desk, and then sat down on it in front of him, the grip of the pistol almost touching Mahir’s face. “Shirt off too.”
Mahir didn’t hesitate. He wasn’t wearing a wire so there was nothing for the man to see. He laid the T-shirt over his jacket and sat back, arms on the armrests so Ridley could see his exposed chest.
Mahir obeyed, a little unnerved. Not because he thought Ridley might find something damning, but because the two of them were, in spite of the abundance of space in the room, close together. If Ridley so much as pushed out a breath with a little more force than usual, it would probably brush Mahir’s chest, and that thought made his flesh prickle with goose bumps.
Focus, Mahir. No point in getting a hard-on.
Though if he did, and Ridley felt inclined to do something about—
“Turn around.” Ridley sounded amused. As close to amused as someone like him could, anyway.
Mahir slowly turned so Ridley could see every inch of his torso. Every place he might’ve hidden a wire. And it dawned on him—he always wore these jeans to clubs because they sat just right on his hips. He wondered if Ridley noticed.
When they were facing each other again, Ridley grinned.
But faint as it was, the grin quickly disappeared. Ridley’s expression was carved in ice again, and so was his voice. “How do I know you’re not a cop?”
Mahir didn’t bat an eye. “You’ve got a guy running background checks, don’t you?”
“Is he good at what he does?”
Ridley’s eyes narrowed. “Are you suggesting I hire incompetent fucks around here?”
“No. Quite the contrary.”
“If he’s good at what he does,” Mahir said, “then he’d have found anything linking me to the cops. If he didn’t, then . . .”
Ridley pursed his lips. After a long moment, he nodded. “All right.” Then he put his hands on the edge of the desk and slowly—extra slowly, as if he was doing it deliberately to fuck with Mahir’s head—pushed himself to his feet. When he was fully upright, he stood maybe a couple of inches from Mahir. Normally, he would be thrilled to be this close to someone so attractive, but the tightness in his chest had nothing to do with arousal.
“There’ve been some cops through here,” Ridley said. “Undercovers and whatnot.”
“They made it past your—”
“Yes, they made it past,” Ridley snapped. “They’re crafty sons of bitches sometimes. And if you’re a cop, if you’ve ever even dreamed of being a cop in your wildest, most fucked-up fantasies, then I would suggest you turn around and walk out. Right now.”
Mahir didn’t move. “I’m not a cop.”
“So you say.” Ridley inclined his head, drawing them just a little closer. “The last three undercovers left this place in body bags.”
Mahir didn’t let himself gulp or show even the slightest hint of nerves. He also didn’t let himself curl his hands into fists as he wondered if the man in front of him had pulled the trigger on any one of them. The memory of their funerals—grieving widows, confused children asking where Daddy was, Mahir himself trying to keep it together in his dress uniform—was still fresh, still raw. The only things keeping him composed now were a shitload of undercover training and the desire to see this investigation through so his colleagues wouldn’t have died for nothing.
“I’ve had enough of serving Uncle Sam. I have my grudges, Ridley, and I don’t think ten years is enough to let them go.” Planting the suggestion strongly in the man’s mind. Fallujah. Massacre. Trauma. Death. Cover-up. Showing him a figment of the truth, making it sound so easy and natural.
He looked up into Ridley’s eyes again. “If you believe I’m a cop, tell me to go. I need to work with people who trust me.” A gamble. Ridley’d likely not keep him around for his nice torso. “I get enough shit in the rest of my life.”
Ridley held his position. Mahir could feel heat radiating through Ridley’s shirt. No response to the dare, though. Another test? Something for Ridley’s own amusement?
Beads of cold sweat materialized on the back of Mahir’s neck, and he gritted his teeth to appear calmer than he was. He was getting irritated, too. Of course, this was part of getting into the organization, but headfucks got old. Fast.
“You might be a good fit here,” Ridley said.
“Oh yeah?” Mahir refused to break eye contact. “What else do you need to know?”
Ridley’s eyes narrowed again, and Mahir didn’t have to look to know that the corners of the man’s mouth had lifted. He could feel that fucking smirk.