Mine to Protect

By: Lynn Hagen
Mercury Rising 5

Chapter One

Stephen Kurtz sat behind the reception desk at Mercury Rising, trying to figure all the paperwork out. The ex-receptionist, Stuart, had helped him tremendously yesterday, but a few forms had Stephen stumped.

He didn't want to ask for help because he was there on a trial basis. The owner, Matt Romero, had given him a week to prove he could handle this job, and the last thing Stephen wanted was to seem inept.

"How on earth do I categorize a case of lube?" Stephen scratched at his head. He was pretty sure he could find somewhere to list the two cases of bourbon, but how was he supposed to expense out lube? What did sex have to do with bounty hunting, unless it was a technique they often used to gain information?

And if it was, Stephen wasn't sure he was working for the right company. Too bad he couldn't be picky. Jobs were scarce in Mercury, and Stephen was lucky to have found this one.

His looked up from the paperwork when he heard the front door open. Stephen bit his lower lip, trying his best not to gawk as Rhys entered, but he couldn't help it. Now that was what a true specimen of a man should look like—all muscles, built like a bull, with a golden tan, and God, could he smell any better? His cologne reached Stephen before Rhys did. It was dark, musky, with a hint of sandalwood.

Rhys was…mmm. Yummy.

Rhys nodded at Stephen but kept going, heading down the hallway that led to the Pit—a room that was more like a clubhouse where the men hung out between assignments. Or at least that was what Stuart had told him yesterday. He rested his chin on his hand and sighed at the dreamy sight of Rhys's backside.

"How's the job coming along?"

Stephen turned to find Shane standing on the other side of the counter. He hadn't even heard the guy walk up. "It's fine. Everything is fine."

He used to work with Shane at the coffee shop, but Shane had gotten fired, and not too long after that, so had Stephen. Though they'd worked together for months, Stephen really didn't know Shane.

"You know, if you need more help I'm pretty sure Stuart wouldn't mind coming back in," Shane said. "In fact, I know he would love to sit behind this counter again."

That was the problem. Stephen wouldn't mind some help from Stuart, but feared Stuart would enjoy helping a little too much. What if he demanded his job back? Stephen needed the paycheck and couldn't take that chance.

"I got the gist of things." Stephen gave a tight smile, wishing Shane would go away. Stephen was still getting used to being back in the working world. A month and a half ago, a feral lion shifter had badly beaten him.

Stephen closed his eyes, trying his best to rid his mind of the images. Since the abduction and rescue, he hadn't had a good night's sleep. All he saw were Wilfred's green eyes, that long mane of blond hair, and that cruel smile as he tortured Stephen for two solid days.

"Hey, Stephen."

Opening his eyes, Stephen was horrified to find Shane still standing there. He hadn't meant to go into his own headspace, and especially not in front of anyone. "Yes?"

"You paled a little." Shane's blue eyes were filled with concern. "Are you okay?"

He was far from okay. Stephen wasn't sure he'd ever be right again. "Just a little tired."

Shane didn't look as though he believed him, but gave a slow nod before he headed toward the back. Stephen let out a breath as he rubbed his temples, wishing to God he could sleep at least one night without waking up screaming.

The lack of a good sleep was taking its toll.

Stephen got up and went to the back to use the bathroom. He needed to stretch, as well. He'd been sitting behind that desk all morning trying to play catch-up with the agency’s paperwork. Matt shouldn't have waited so long to replace Stuart.

As soon as Stephen entered the Pit, he spotted Rhys talking with Tap at the bar. The handsome bounty hunter had one arm on the counter, and a drink in the other hand. It wasn't any of Stephen's business that it was only after one and the guy was already drinking. It also wasn't any of Stephen's business that Rhys had filed the expense report for the case of lube.

As soon as Stephen stepped farther into the room, Rhys looked his way. His brows furrowed as he watched Stephen cross the room. What was that look about? Was the receptionist supposed to use another bathroom? If so, no one had told him.

Stephen entered the bathroom and finally let go of the breath he'd been holding. Rhys was an intimidating man, and Stephen's stomach twisted into knots and his heart beat faster whenever the guy was near. Rhys was just so dang dreamy. Stephen used to wish he had someone special in his life. Now he wished the nightmares would just go away.

He took care of business and was at the sink washing his hands when someone knocked. Stephen opened the door to find Tap on the other side. He was leaning against the frame, his arms crossed over his chest as he looked Stephen up and down. Not in an interested way. Just like Shane, Tap looked concerned.